Category Archives: Baltic

21 MARCH, 1916: Sealed In Mud

Today’s centenary marks the high water mark, or maybe I mean the high mud mark, of a Russian offensive that Allied propaganda, always committed to accentuating the positive, named the Battle of Lake Naroch.  The first offensive action of the year on the Eastern Front, it differed from the half-baked attack on Bessarabia with which the Russian Army had ended 1915 (1 January, 1916: Pantomime Time) in that it was forced on the Russian high command rather than a product of its chronic strategic hiccups.  This is why.

By the old-style calendar of warfare, the world was entering the War’s fourth fighting season in the early spring of 1916.  For the geographically linked Central Powers, close military cooperation had been a necessity since 1914 and the only real change had been in the degree to which their most organised member, Germany, dictated strategy.  For the Allies, this season was supposed to be a first attempt at strategic coordination, as agreed at their Chantilly summit meeting in December, and sure enough they were cooperating – but not as planned, because their strategy was also being dictated by Germany.

German concentration on the Eastern Front in 1915 had inflicted major, if ultimately indecisive, defeats on the Russians during the summer, but hadn’t persuaded Allied commanders on the Western Front to bring forward their plans for autumn offensives. Understandably of the view that they’d been left high and dry, Russian delegates at Chantilly had pushed through an agreement for all the Allies to launch offensives if one of them was attacked. The German offensive at Verdun in late February triggered the agreement, and French c-in-c Joffre wasted no time calling in the IOUs.

Nothing anyone could say or do was going to make the British rush into their planned Western Front offensive around the Somme, but Joffre had more success with the standard Allied practice of bullying the Italians.  Though Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s army was in no fit state to attack anything after the unproductive attrition of 1915,  he launched yet another offensive on the Isonzo front (the fifth since the summer) on 12 March.

Aimed at the usual target – Gorizia, on the plateau north of Trieste – the fifth Battle of the Isonzo had barely begun before bad weather intervened, and it ground to a halt on 17 March without achieving any territorial gains or in any way diluting German strength in France.  Conditions would prevent major operations on the Italian Front for the next two months, by which time the Austro-Hungarians would be ready to launch their own attack in the Trentino region.

That left the Russians, hoist on their own petard and obliged to answer the French call for help with an offensive of their own – but in superficially good shape to make a strategic difference.  Russia’s military supply system, reorganised since the summer by the War Industries Committee, was at last providing the army with the guns and ammunition to match its surfeit of manpower.  Meanwhile German withdrawals to other fronts had left the Central Powers defending the theatre with just over a million troops, against the Russian Army’s 1.5 million.

Russian chief of staff General Alexeyev chose to attack where the manpower disparity was greatest – at the northern end of the front, in Lithuania, from positions east of Vilnius.  Along with a secondary advance on Vilnius from the northeast by General Kuropatkin’s Northern Army Group, the main thrust of the offensive was planned from east of the city, where General Smirnov’s Second Army was built up to 350,000 men and 1,000 big guns, against the 75,000 men and 400 guns of General Eichhorn’s German Tenth Army.  So far, so promising, and the offensive eventually opened with a preliminary bombardment on 18 March… at which point Russia’s reformed armaments programme fell foul of all the other things wrong with the Empire’s war effort.

Russian transport and communications systems remained primitive, slow and unreliable, not merely delaying offensive preparations but rendering tactical flexibility during large-scale operations almost impossible.  The high command running such operations, Stavka, was still under the personal control of the Tsar and barely fit for purpose, and though Alexeyev was able to exert some restraining influence on courtly factionalism it was never enough to enable a coherent strategy.   Alexeyev, appointed when the Tsar had taken personal command of Stavka in September 1915, was also part of the problem, obsessed with detail, unwilling to delegate even the smallest task and hampered in his work by a serious heart condition.

But though infrastructural weakness and strategic inefficiency delayed the offensive towards Vilnius, its fate was sealed by tactical incompetence.

The arrival of a lot more guns and ammunition hadn’t made the Russian Army much better at using them.  The rank and file was still very poorly trained – as demonstrated by the spectacular inaccuracy of the battle’s opening bombardment – while commanders were still trying and failing to master the German ‘breakthrough’ tactics of 1915.  When the infantry attack east of Vilnius began later on 18 March, 100,000 Russian troops under General Pleshkov massed along a 2km front for a concerted hammer blow against German positions – but were sent in without reconnaissance, adequate supply systems or reserves ready to exploit any breakthrough achieved.  The result was horrible.

Forewarned, and with closely bunched infantry marching into their sights, German artillery inflicted some 15,000 casualties in the first few hours of the advance, and though sheer weight of numbers took Pleshkov’s attackers beyond the first line of German trenches, they were never given support and soon driven back by counterattacks from either flank. The breakthrough attempt was repeated next day, and again on 21 March, but with the spring thaw in full swing both efforts quickly collapsed in a murderous mudbath.

Kuropatkin’s advance from the northeast, around Riga, also began on 21 March, but was halted a day later with 10,000 losses, while a planned attack by the northern wing of Smirnov’s army failed to happen at all.  The only small Russian success came to the south of Smirnov’s front on the same day, when a force under General Baluyev advanced a few kilometres along the shores of Lake Naroch in thick fog.

Attempts to extend the gains failed over the next few days, as did a couple more stabs at breakthrough by Pleshkov’s cannon fodder, after which both sides settled into a pattern of artillery duels until late April, when German counterattacks retook all the lost ground. By that time the offensive had cost the Russian Army 110,000 men against 20,000 German casualties.  No territory was gained, and no German forces were diverted to the front from elsewhere.

Apart from providing a comment on the fruits of hasty summit diplomacy, and forcing Russian generals to belatedly rethink their approach to breakthrough tactics, there was nothing very special about the Battle of Lake Naroch – but I wanted to talk about it anyway.  With the UK commemorative industry gearing up to dwell long and hard on the horrors of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front  (and presumably on the high-tech non-event of Jutland) it seems worth remembering that millions died in conditions every bit as gruesome, in battles every bit as pointless, on a massively important battlefront that is barely acknowledged by the confectioners of popular history.

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Russian PoWs at Lake Naroch: the same stunned looks you see on survivors of France or Gallipoli, but cooler hats.

19 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Viva Vilnius!

Having rambled on at length about the Balkans and the First World War, it would be a shame to ignore the effects of the conflict on the Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania form another of Europe’s traditional trade conduits and, like the Balkans, have suffered the predations of bigger, more powerful nations as a consequence. All three states were provinces of the Russian Empire in 1914, but a hundred years ago today the German advance in the northern sector of the Eastern Front took Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The whole of modern Lithuania remained under German control for the rest of the War – and I’ll keep the focus there for now.

Part of the country had been under German occupation for some time. A strip near the frontier with East Prussia had been occupied in March 1915, and in April a German advance designed as a distraction from the main Eastern Front offensive further south had taken the whole of western Lithuania. The offensive that took Vilnius was also a secondary operation, a minor element of that summer’s German Triple Offensive.

Essentially a pursuit of the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ begun in late July, the northern wing of the German advance ran out of steam a few days later in the face of minor Russian counterattacks. When Germany officially halted offensive operations on 26 September, it controlled all of Lithuania and about half of Latvia, with the front line running south from the outskirts of Riga.  Despite occasional Russian attempts to push the line back beyond Vilnius, that’s pretty much where it remained until 1918.

Meanwhile, in Vilnius, German occupation breathed life into the long-suppressed cause of Lithuanian nationalism. While claims to independence by Lithuanian exiles eventually found focus with appeals to US President Wilson, nationalist politicians inside the country were encouraged by the German decision to create a Polish Republic (under a puppet government) in 1916.  Primarily concerned with milking Lithuania’s resources for the war effort, German authorities played it canny, making encouraging noises but postponing any decision about the nation’s future until after the War.  But the Germans changed their minds after the collapse of Russia in late 1917 and tried to set up a puppet state, triggering a decade of dangerous instability in the region.

A national assembly, the Taryba, was established under German auspices, and proclaimed a new Kingdom of Lithuania.  The crown was offered to a German princeling, Wilhelm of Urach, who became King Mindove II in July 1918.  Dependent on German support, the monarchy was overthrown in November, after which nationalist and Soviet regimes competed for control of the country during the upheavals of the Russian Civil War.

Lithuanian independence was formally achieved in 1920, but it took another three years to clear German elements from the west, and Polish forces (originally invited into the country to fight Red Army incursions) occupied parts of Vilnius until 1927. Thirteen turbulent years later, Lithuania would be annexed by the Soviet Union and, apart from three years under German control during the Second World War, it would remain a satellite of Moscow until the re-establishment of independence in 1990.

The point of this skim over the Baltic is two-pronged.  First, although the northern sector of the Eastern Front was always something of an afterthought for military planners, it is worth noticing that Lithuania and its neighbours were damaged and changed by the conflict.  Secondly, as modern Russia flexes its expansionist muscles and EU unity wobbles around multiple socioeconomic crises, I see no harm in a reminder of the vulnerability and volatility that always afflicts small states caught between competing empires.  So be nice to Lithuanians.  They’ve suffered.

16 AUGUST, 1915: Sea Change

Today in 1915, the German Navy launched the main thrust of a major operation against the Russian (now Latvian) port of Riga, one of the Russian Navy’s most important bases in the Baltic Sea.

The attack involved about half the German High Seas Fleet, which had so far been dedicated to giving the British something to worry about in the North Sea. It was intended to neutralise the much smaller Russian force stationed in the port, and so provide support for advances taking place on the Eastern Front. In practical terms, the German plan was to clear the minefields that had protected Riga since the autumn, bombard the city and destroy its principle warships, chief among them the pre-dreadnought battleship Slava, and then block the port with German mines. It didn’t work, and for the usual reasons.

While two old battleships kept the Slava busy and the rest of the German fleet waited offshore to discourage Russian naval reinforcement, minesweepers went to work on 8 August, but were unable to clear a passage before darkness fell and the attempt was suspended. Various German fleet units were then dispatched to bombard Russian positions on small islands in the vicinity, inflicting only minor damage, before a second, more ambitious attempt to clear a passage through the Gulf of Riga opened on 16 August.

Two dreadnoughts, three cruisers and 31 minesweepers had fought their way past Russian defences by the next day, damaging the Slava in the process. By 19 August Russian minefields had been cleared, and the German force entered the Gulf. So far, so good for the High Seas Fleet, but just as the big warships were poised to complete the kind of victory that might restore their damaged fighting reputation, they fell victim to caution.

Failure to make full use of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers was bad, but losing one or more of the hugely expensive things was much, much worse, so unconfirmed reports of British and Russian submarines in the area were enough to prompt a rapid withdrawal of the entire German force on the following day. Minor damage aside, the operation had cost the German Navy two destroyers and the Russians a single gunboat.  Riga would remain an operational Russian base until September 1917.

Apart from highlighting the switch in German emphasis to the Eastern Front in 1915, and once again demonstrating the Catch-22 that hobbled the great warships of the First World War, this ultimately insignificant naval battle also gives me a chance to mention another of the conflict’s forgotten fronts, the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic was the main theatre of operations for the Russian Navy, which fought a continuous battle against German units in the southern and eastern Baltic from August 1914. Russia’s main aim was to prevent German penetration of the Gulf of Finland, which led to Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was now known), but the navy was also charged with disrupting German trade to and from Scandinavia. Although redeployments from the North Sea occasionally gave German forces an advantage, they were generally outnumbered in the theatre, never had any intention of approaching Petrograd, and were primarily concerned with protecting their trade routes.

At the start of the War neither side felt confident of dominating the Baltic. The Russian fleet simply holed up in the Gulf of Finland behind a field of 4,000 mines and dared the Germans to come after them, while the Germans opted for a defensive approach and laid their own minefields. In September, having taken the measure of German naval weakness in the theatre, the Russians moved west, re-establishing bases in the Gulf of Riga and protecting them with more minefields.

This set a pattern. Major operations like that of August 1915 were the exceptions in a campaign that revolved around minelaying for the next three years. By the end of 1915, the Russians had laid about 4,000 more mines in the Baltic, including fields off the German coast, while a smaller number of German minelayers never stopped working, and both sides soon built up substantial minesweeping fleets. The main targets for mines were cargo vessels, with Russian fields in particular taking a steady toll of merchant shipping throughout the conflict.

Submarine warfare was another, albeit marginal feature of the Baltic campaign. German and Russian boats enjoyed almost no success in the theatre, but were used to some effect as minelayers. British submarines (five of them were in the Baltic by October 1915) fared better, inflicting sufficient damage on German merchantmen to prompt the transfer of several big ships from the North Sea to protect trade routes.

The unceasing battle between minelayers and minesweepers in the Baltic, with major warships watching from safe harbours, was as marginal to the War’s outcome as it was intense. It was eventually ended in late 1917 by the collapse of the Russian war effort, at which point the Russian Navy was ahead on points. Having sunk three times as much shipping as it had lost, it had escaped the eventual capture of Riga by German land forces and arrived without serious damage in the Gulf of Finland, where it lay idle when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended hostilities between Russia and Germany.

Like the ‘mosquito’ war fought in the northern Adriatic, the Baltic campaign evolved into an example of modern naval war, and as such was another slap in face for pre-War naval planners wedded to the nineteenth-century doctrine of fleet warfare… and now you know it happened.