Category Archives: Eastern Front

1 JULY, 1917: The Last Straw

The second half of June 1917 was, in some ways, a bustling interlude for Europe at war.  The great Allied offensive in France had failed, the German attempt to end the war with submarines was failing and the overthrow of the Russian tsar hadn’t brought the end of civilisation as great power strategists knew it – but there was plenty of tidying up and polishing of tarnished images to do before the next wave of fighting, scheduled for early July.

The first division of US Army troops landed at the French port of St. Nazaire on 25 June, a moment that brought a proud tear to the eye of their watching c-in-c, General John J. Pershing, but had no immediate military significance.  The First Division – some 14,500 men, many of them raw recruits – was in for a long spell of training by French officers and a longer wait for any action, but the enormous Allied fanfare that greeted its arrival was all about boosting popular morale after another disappointing spring.

The French were meanwhile taking the opportunity to tidy up the mess they’d helped make in Greece, as discussed the other day, and the British firmed up for a renewed invasion of Palestine by appointing General Allenby, a seasoned, senior general, to command the theatre (24 March, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip).  The German High Command, having learned more from the Battle of Messines than the victorious British, was busy toughening up its defences on the Western Front, and preparing for the offensive Haig was quite obviously planning in Flanders by transferring troops there from the dormant Eastern Front (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn).

The German Army could afford to do this because Russian armed forces were still far too busy with revolution to perform any coherent military function.  This was old news by late June, recognised on all sides as a fact of life and emphasised when the Russian Black Sea fleet mutinied at the Crimean base of Sevastopol on 21 June.  It’s a measure of the Russian Provisional Government’s desperation to establish some sort of control over the revolution’s cascading chaos that, when the brief European interlude came to a crashing end on 1 July , it was shattered by the launch of a major Russian Army offensive.

Known as the Kerensky Offensive or the July Offensive, the attack was planned by the Provisional Government’s effective leader, war minister Kerensky, and the Russian Army’s new c-in-c, General Brusilov.  Both recognised that it represented an enormous gamble on the Army’s willingness to fight, and both knew the odds were heavily against success.

The collapse of the Provisional Government’s fantasy that an outburst of international pacifism would end the War left Kerensky with little option but to hope that a ‘liberty offensive’ against the ‘imperialist’ Central Powers, and ideally a victory, would unite popular opinion in defence of the revolution while encouraging Russia’s allies to maintain vital economic support (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).  Brusilov, the architect of Russia’s only notable military success on the Eastern Front, had been on the point of dismissal before the new government promoted him, and regarded the Army as doomed unless it could be revived by the patriotic unity that only a fighting victory over a hated enemy could inspire.  Between them they set up a repeat of the 1916 offensive in Galicia, at the southern end of the Eastern Front, that had made Brusilov’s name (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…).

Whereas the first Galician offensive had attacked along the whole Galician sector, lack of reliable manpower restricted the second to two main thrusts.  Brusilov took command of the northern attack, by the combined remains of the 7th and 11th Armies (31 divisions, now renamed the ‘Red Army’) along a 65km front around the town of Brody.  Launched on 1 July, it went very well at first, taking 10,000 prisoners on the first day and driving German General Bothmer’s largely Austro-Hungarian Südarmee back towards Lvov – but it soon lost momentum as low morale, chaotic supply lines and the arrival of German reinforcements (sent from the Western Front once Brusilov’s preparations had made his intentions clear) reduced its advance to a crawl.  Aware that his forces were falling apart, Brusilov called off offensive operations around Brody on 16 July.

There’s your map. You’ll be needing it.

Meanwhile, in the Bukovina region to the southwest, General Kornilov’s Russian Eighth Army had opened its attack along a 100km front south of the River Dneister on 6 July.  Facing Austro-Hungarian forces that were barely fit to fight, it too enjoyed early success, breaking through the lines west of Stanislau on 8 July and advancing some 30km by the time the attack ran out of steam on 12 July.  With troops refusing to fight and supplies running short, Russian forces were static or withdrawing all along the Galician front when Bothmer’s reinforced Südarmee launched a major counterattack on 19 July.

Preceded by a 7-hour preliminary bombardment and led by German Army units, the counterattack’s main thrust was aimed at Brody, and it blew away the right wing of Brusilov’s force, gaining 15km in the first day – at which point the Red Army disintegrated, with most troops simply giving up and going home.  Austro-German forces then advanced into empty space, retaking Stanislau on 24 July, reaching Czernowitz on 3 August and crossing the Galician frontier either side of the Dneister by the time new c-in-c Kornilov – who replaced Brusilov on 1 August – had stabilised the front.

The Russian Army was just about capable of an attack in July 1917… but ran away when it was attacked.

A supporting offensive by Russian and Romanian forces based in Moldovia was eventually launched on 22 July, and met a similar fate. After making initial gains, it was halted when German General Mackensen’s multinational army in Romania counterattacked on 6 August.  By 9 August Mackensen’s troops had won a battle around the town of Foscani to threaten the Allied rear, but although one Russian division disintegrated of its own accord the Romanian Army, drastically reorganised since the debacle of its 1916 campaign, regained some of its former reputation by refusing to buckle.  The Allied line was still holding at the end of August, when the German High Command switched its attention to other fronts.

The Kerensky Offensive is not part of our First World War heritage showreel, and on one level that’s fair enough.  Like so many other wartime offensives it was a miserable failure that achieved none of its aims and wasted thousands of lives.  On the other hand, and unlike any of its better-remembered predecessors, it was decisive.

After the offensive’s failure, the Russian Army effectively ceased to exist and, apart from an experimental German attack around Riga in September, serious fighting on the Eastern Front came to an end. The Provisional Government in Petrograd never recovered from the stigma of sending Russians back into battle, and had no more big cards to play as the revolution passed irrevocably into the angry control of the streets and the soviets.  The German High Command, recognising that it could leave Russia to fall apart on its own, was able to redistribute its forces for fighting on other fronts and the exploitation of occupied eastern European territories.  Given the momentous consequences of these changes – in the short term for other battlefronts and for the German war effort; in the long term for the history of Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the superpower world – the Kerensky Offensive stands as one of modern history’s great military turning points.

So while you’re applauding 150 years of Canada’s benign consumerism, and just before the heritage industry swamps you with remembrance of Passchendaele’s hapless horrors, raise a glass of something very cold to Kerensky’s doomed last throw of the dice. The July Offensive may have been the worst kind of First World War battle, a grotesque waste of lives in a cause its perpetrators knew to be all but hopeless, but at least this batch of dead soldiers changed the world.

21 APRIL, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine

You couldn’t say it was exactly world-shattering news at the time.  It couldn’t really compete for headlines with the monstrous Allied offensives in full cry on the Western Front, accompanied by the crowd-pleasing dogfights of Bloody April and the Red Baron’s surge to fame.  From anywhere West of the Rhine, it hardly seemed important compared with the rising crescendo of submarine warfare, the exotic dramas of British advances through the Middle East, the diplomatic fallout from Washington’s momentous move to war, or reports of mayhem in St. Petersburg as Lenin joined the crowded ranks of revolutionaries returned from exile.  What with all that and more kicking off at around the same time, it’s hardly surprising nobody in the West made too much fuss about the successful conclusion, on 21 April 1917, of the first Ukrainian National Congress.  A century on, nothing’s changed.

What little attention Western academics have paid to the Eastern Front over the decades has tended to view it from the perspective of the major empires involved, understandably enough given that most available source material comes from imperial bureaucracies, especially the German bureaucracy.  So our standard Western view of the First World War skates over its enormous importance to those countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic states – that stood on the western frontiers of the Russian Empire and would one day form an inner ring of Soviet satellites.  In the Ukraine, for instance, the Great War was on one hand a social and environmental catastrophe, as the country became a battlefield under military occupation and conscripted Ukrainians fought for both sides, but was on the other hand a golden opportunity that transformed the idea of national independence into fleeting reality.

Ignoring the current battle for its eastern territories, modern Ukraine comprises the western majority of what was, in 1914, the Russian imperial province of Kiev, along with parts of what was then southern Poland, some of it under Austro-Hungarian control. Nationalist ideas and organisations had taken hold among academics, businessmen and politicians in pre-War Kiev, aiming at greater regional autonomy and promotion of the Ukrainian language, but they were efficiently suppressed in one of the most militarily controlled sectors of the Russian Empire and had little impact on the rest of the country. Controls were tightened further under wartime conditions, but everything changed when the February Revolution of March 1917 toppled the Russian Tsar (8 March, 1917: False Start).

Ukraine as envisaged by the Rada in 1917. Big, huh…

News travelled fast by telegraph in March 1917, and views moved like lightning through the conduit of a Russian Army consumed by revolutionary turmoil at every level. On 17 March, only five days after proclamation of the new Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, Ukrainian politicians, workers, military agitators, businessmen, students, bureaucrats and churchmen came together in Kiev to found the Central Council of Ukraine. More commonly known as the Central Rada, it was led as chairman by historian and nationalist activist Mikhailo Hrushevsky, and wasted no time testing the St. Petersburg government’s avowed liberal principles.

Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, among the finest beards of the War so far.

After issuing a declaration of support for the Provisional Government on 22 March, the Rada began establishing itself as St. Petersburg’s rival for authority over the Russian Ukraine. Hrushevsky, essentially a social democrat, guided the Rada in pursuit of autonomy as a prelude to full independence, and spent his first weeks in office building a wider mandate for its authority, organising delegates from the many elements represented by the Rada, and anyone else willing to participate, into a national congress.

Seven hundred voting delegates – along with 200 non-voting observers and some 600 guests – attended the National Congress that convened in Kiev on 19 April.  The Congress elected 150 delegates to form a new Rada that was in effect a governing parliament, and confirmed Hrushevsky as its chairman, with leaders of the two main Ukrainian political parties as his deputies.  Most significantly, the new Rada included representatives from provincial authorities, and from the socialist workers’ organisations and soviets that were surging into life in every urban area of any size, extending its writ beyond the Kiev region for the first time.  By the time the Congress dissolved on 21 April, it had transformed the Central Council into a provisional government that would lead the Ukraine towards tentative and short-lived independence.

During the next few weeks, the Rada worked to establish its bona fides as a legitimate national government.  It elected a ‘small council’ of thirty members, including representatives of most political groupings, to serve as a cabinet, and on 10 June it declared national autonomy for the Ukraine.  Later that month, in an attempt to widen its influence beyond Kiev, the Rada was expanded to include 130 representatives from soldiers’ councils and 133 from the peasantry.

Peasants made up the vast majority of the Ukraine’s 30 million people.  Principally concerned with peaceful subsistence, they gave the Rada important if somewhat uncommitted support, and presented no serious threat to its authority.  Soldiers’ councils, or soviets, were much more dangerous to the Rada.  In control of most Russian Army units in the Ukraine, they were inclined to preach socialist revolution and generally looked to St. Petersburg for authority, as did many socialist groups in urban areas.  The Rada’s attempt to incorporate the soviets, which was only partly successful and had little impact outside the north of the country, reflected its greatest challenge in the months after the Tsar’s demise – how to achieve peaceful co-existence with a Russian Provisional Government that still claimed political control over the Ukraine.

A compromise was reached in July, when the Russian government agreed to recognise the Rada and defer any binding decisions concerning the Ukraine’s autonomy or sovereignty.  The deal prevented any immediate, mutually unproductive conflict but otherwise solved nothing.  With Kerensky’s Russian regime being forced further and further to the left in order to survive, Ukrainian soviets becoming more radical with every passing day and the Central Powers waiting in the wings if the Russian Army collapsed, the Rada government could do little more than survive through a summer of rising instability, maintaining an appearance of cohesion in its Kiev power base amid seismic socio-political shifts on all sides.

For all its rapid reaction to events, impressive attempts to promote unity and efficient creation of ‘national’ institutions, the Rada’s provisional government was not long for this world.  Viewed by revolutionary socialists as a liberal, bourgeois enemy of the workers, and dismissed as such by the Bolshevik regime after Russia’s October Revolution, it was effectively overthrown in January 1918 by a rival soviet government based in Kharkov.  The Rada responded by declaring Ukrainian independence from the new Soviet Union on 22 January and making a separate peace with the Central Powers, which had been providing diplomatic and financial support since the spring.  This treaty, signed on 9 February and known in Germany as the Brotfrieden (‘bread peace’), left the Rada as a powerless puppet government and ushered in a long period of violent misery for the Ukrainian people.

Signing the ‘bread peace’. Bad idea.

On the positive side, the Central Powers granted Ukrainian control of the Cholm region, a northern province that was also claimed by an independent Poland.  The concession ruined Vienna’s hopes of getting Poland to accept an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, but the urgent need for Ukrainian food supplies was seen as more important.  In return, the Rada invited the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies to occupy Russian Ukraine, authorised their immediate seizure of grain and other supplies on a vast scale, and accepted German Field Marshal Eichhorn as effective military dictator of Ukraine and the Crimea.

Eichhorn’s ruthless attempts to meet the colossal demands for food laid down by the Third Supreme Command in Berlin brought severe hardship to rural Ukrainians, while his imposition of forced labour programmes to increase agricultural production fed rising nationalist unrest in the countryside.  By the time Eichhorn was assassinated by nationalists in Kiev, on 30 July 1918, military occupation was the only force keeping a lid on a chaotic cauldron of revolutionary turmoil, and the collapse of Germany in November brought anarchy in the Ukraine.

During the next three years fourteen different governments claimed to represent the Ukraine, and a state of civil war was only calmed by a fairly secure Bolshevik takeover in 1921.  From the that point the Ukraine became part of the USSR, and though the new Soviet Republic permitted some nationalist and peasant representation, no echo of the Rada’s legacy survived the brutal repression of Stalinism in the 1930s.

So why bother commemorating the birth of something that can only be described as a short-lived failure?  Because the Ukraine is now a sovereign state, in part constructed from the blueprints laid down by the Rada in 1917 and under severe pressure a century later. These days I think we can all agree that its future matters to ours, so on the grounds that it’s good to understand things that matter, here’s to the flawed godfathers of Ukrainian nationhood, and here’s to sneaking a bit of the Ukraine’s history, however sketchy and blind to its many controversies, into our heritage.

23, OCTOBER, 1916: Feeling Brave?

Today was the day, a century ago, that German and Bulgarian forces occupied Constanta, Romania’s most important Black Sea port and its principal trading link with the rest of the world. The capture came two days after Field Marshal Mackensen launched his renewed German-Bulgarian offensive from the south into the eastern Romanian region of Dobrudja, and the fact that the port was taken intact was a measure of how completely the attack had blown away Romanian defences. Romanian units simply fled, leaving Mackensen free to move northeast towards Moldavia and the Russian frontier, and threatening to cut off the capital, Bucharest, from the sea.

At this point, I recommend a quick look back at my last Romanian ramble (10 September, 1916: Fights Of Fancy), which left the campaign in mid-September. By that time the Romanian Army had spent three weeks attacking north into Transylvania and preparing an attack south into Bulgaria, but had achieved only the loss of its inflated fighting reputation and the chaotic scattering of its units. Meanwhile the Central Powers had manoeuvred multinational forces, under German control and using plenty of German equipment, into position for major counteroffensives on both fronts. Here’s the same old map, by way of giving that some context.

One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.
One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.

Mackensen’s army on the Bulgarian border couldn’t advance until the threat of a Romanian attack across the Danube had been eliminated, so General Falkenhayn’s northern force of some 200,000 men struck first. Its advance against outnumbered Romanian units strung out along the mountainous Transylvanian frontier region began on September 18, and the offensive got fully underway on 27 September with an attack in the centre of the 300km front, around the town of Hermannstadt.  Hermannstadt fell on 29 September, and surviving defenders fled for the hills, as did those driven back by the secondary attacks of another German army further east and an Austro-Hungarian army to the northeast.  By 14 October, all that was left of the Romanian invasion had retreated beyond the frontier where, joined by a few belated reinforcements sent from the south, they mounted delaying actions in an attempt to keep to Falkenhayn and Mackensen apart.

Once Mackensen’s army had captured Constanta with barely a fight, the Russians finally got serious about the potential threat it posed to their frontier and their Back Sea operations.  Russian naval units bombarded the port and, with the Brusilov Offensive finally at its ragged end, Stavka diverted an impressive 36 infantry and 11 cavalry divisions to a new ‘Army of the Danube’ on the Romanian front.  Transport problems meant most of them didn’t arrive until December, but the declaration of intent was enough to dissuade Mackensen from any serious incursion into Moldovia.

Russian manoeuvres (or anything the other Allies might attempt) couldn’t do anything much to stop the two armies converging on Bucharest and that part of the country most useful to Germany, the fertile Wallachian heartlands and the Ploesti oilfields. As October ended, Mackensen was poised for the kill, and the only thing preventing Falkenhayn from breaking through to the lowlands was the Romanian Army’s token resistance in the Carpathian Mountains.  For now Romanian King Ferdinand, his court and government – the architects of their country’s disastrous gamble on war – remained in the capital, well-dressed rats in a trap, but plans were already being laid for their flight to Iasi, safely behind Russian lines in Moldovia.

That was just an update, and I’ll come back to Romania for the next phase of its demise sometime in the next few weeks, but the ease with which Romanian forces were brushed aside in October 1916 does raise one general point worth making. We’re used to the idea that the developed powers of the early twentieth century enjoyed even greater technological superiority than they do today over what tends to be called the third world, but it’s easy to forget that in 1916 the third world started much closer to our doorstep.

Men from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Russia, southern Italy, in fact from anywhere except those few wealthy countries or regions with largely literate populations, lived and fought in conditions and with assumptions closer to the 18th than the 20th century. These were conscripts or volunteers who, like the Romanians facing German units, had never before seen heavy artillery, gas, mortars and other state-of-the-art field weaponry, let alone fought against them.  Anyone tempted to look down from posterity’s smug heights on those who ran away, or to draw odious comparisons between the First World War’s brave and apparently not so brave, could do worse than wonder how modern conscripts of any nationality might behave against weapons from the Starship Enterprise.

Romanian troops in training – the kind of training that wasn't much use against heavy artillery.
Romanian troops in training – not the kind of training likely to be  much use against heavy artillery.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

10 SEPTEMBER, 1916: Fights Of Fancy

Broadly speaking, the historical impact of the First World War didn’t have much to with armies and battles.  For all that fighting killed a lot of people, wrecked a lot of terrain and occasionally captured swathes of territory for one side or the other, its principal effect between 1914 and 1920 (and I’m being conservative about the dates) was to prolong and expand the conflict. That meant the extension and spread of ‘total war’, a new and terrible phenomenon that transformed and tested Europe’s biggest economies and societies – and only a fool, a liar or a media professional would even try to deny that total war was the prime catalyst for the profound changes wrought upon the planet by the First World War.

The economic, political and social stresses of total war would defeat Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Germany before their failures were confirmed on the battlefield. Ability to survive the same stresses (and the radical, permanent changes they provoked) would enable Britain and France to end the War with battlefield victories, while the USA’s grand success would have little to do with military prowess and everything to do with industrial, socioeconomic and political adaptability, along with a transformed take on the world. Italy achieved almost nothing on the battlefields, was lucky to survive three years of total war as a functioning state, and fell apart almost as soon as the conflict was over.

But that’s the big picture of the big hitters. The First World War also wrapped its wider identity around plenty of smaller affairs, local conflicts that were continued or begun under the umbrella of the great alliances, and some of them were all about the fighting. Various colonial struggles involving the British Empire spring to mind, as does the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in late 1915, and today marks the centenary of a pivotal moment in another. The moment in question was the fall of Silistra, a port city on the Danube, to German and Bulgarian forces on 10 September 1916, a blow that shaped the brief but lively war between Romania and the Central Powers.

I talked about Romania’s decision to go to war against the Central Powers a couple of weeks back (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…). It was a calculated, greedy choice, and it quickly translated into military action because some strategists on all sides saw it as a potential turning point in the War on the Eastern Front.

On the Allied side, most (though not all) analysts expected Romania’s army to make a major regional contribution, distracting the Bulgarian and German forces deployed in front of Salonika, and posing a direct threat through Transylvania to Austria-Hungary (at the time still defending its heartlands against the last efforts of the Brusilov Offensive further north). This rosy viewpoint ignored several important factors. First, Romania was difficult to defend, menaced as it was by Bulgarian or Austro-Hungarian enemies on two sides. Secondly, the summer of 1916 had seen Germany assume effective strategic control over its enfeebled allies, increasing the likelihood of a coordinated attack on Romania from both sides; and thirdly the Romanian Army, its reputation sky high after a successful Second Balkan War, was in fact rubbish.

Limited peacetime conscription meant Romania’s army was big by regional standards, 860,000-strong after mobilisation in 1916, but rapid expansion had left it pitifully short of modern weapons. Half its 1,300 artillery pieces were obsolete, most were housed in fortresses, hardly any machine guns were available and some units were 40% short of rifles that were anyway of nineteenth-century vintage, as were the brightly-coloured uniforms worn by troops. Decked out as targets and ill-equipped, the same troops went into action with little training or competent leadership, thanks to an officer corps that was good at dressing up, getting wasted and duelling, but a hopeless shambles in military terms.

Military reality made little difference to an atmosphere of one-eyed, expansionist ambition in Bucharest. Dividing its forces into four armies – and ignoring British advice to attack south through Bulgaria, towards Salonika – the royal high command left one army to defend the Bulgarian frontier and sent the other three north, through difficult Carpathian Mountain passes, to invade Hungarian Transylvania. Some 400,000 Romanian troops crossed the Hungarian border along a 300km front on 28 August, a day after the declaration of war, and advanced into southeast Transylvania unopposed by 35,000 Austro-Hungarian defenders, but crippling supply problems and command ineptitude had halted progress by 10 September.

Meanwhile, as might have been expected by any Allied strategist not high on optimism, Germany had organised and launched an invasion of Romania by the Central Powers. One of the Eastern Front’s most experienced and successful commanders, General Mackensen, was put in charge of a Danube Army, made up of German, Austrian, Bulgarian and Ottoman units, to attack north into the Dobrudja, an ethnically Bulgarian region seized by Romania during the Balkan Wars and including all the country’s coastline. A diversionary attack struck the fortress of Tatrakan on 2 September, and took it four days later, while the main force advanced further east towards Silistra, only about 150km from Bucharest. When Silistra fell on 10 September, the entire Dobrudja region was opened up to Mackensen’s army.

<img class="wp-image-1050 size-medium" src="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg" alt="I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you'll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest. " width="300" height="244" srcset="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg 300w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-768×624.jpg 768w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-1024×832.jpg 1024w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949 have a peek at this website.jpg 1099w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px” />

I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you’ll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest.

Romania suddenly needed help, but its new allies were better at making promises than keeping them.

Any hope of direct Anglo-French support had evaporated with the failure of General Sarrail’s earlier attempt to move north from Salonika (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), and though Sarrail’s multinational force did launch an even less ambitious attack into southern Serbia on 13 September, German and Bulgarian delaying tactics were enough to prevent any significant progress before November and it had no impact on events in the Dobrudja. Meanwhile the Russian high command, still busy pouring resources into breakthrough attempts in Galicia (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), would only spare a token 50,000 men to provide limited support for the 70,000 or so Romanian troops facing Mackensen’s advance.

Having learned the true value of its alliances, the Romanian high command dithered for a few days before abandoning the invasion of Transylvania and, from 15 September, transferring more than half its northern force to the Bulgarian front, as the Army Group South, for an attack across the Danube.  The Romanian pause for thought in Transylvania had meanwhile given enemy reinforcements time to reach the sector, in the form of the German Ninth Army and its new commander, none other than former Chief of Staff, General Falkenhayn.  His combined German and Austrian force of around 200,000 men now outnumbered remaining Romanian units strung out along the Carpathians, and he launched a counteroffensive on 18 September.

So three weeks into a war that the Romanian government and most Allied strategists believed would break the deadlock on the Eastern Front, scattered Romanian armies had failed in one offensive and were in the process of regrouping for an attack into Bulgaria – but faced powerful invasions on two fronts with dangerously inferior numbers.  Not stalemate, then, or attrition, but a war of rapid movement, pitting 20th-century German equipment, tactical nous and organisational skill against strictly19th-century Romanian forces led by a naive, effete elite.

Old-school stuff, all dash, derring-do and dunces – and worth a mention, partly as a reminder that not all First World War fighting conformed to the trench-bound heritage stereotype, and partly as a commemorative nod to a historically important campaign that is largely forgotten where I live.  Oh, and as a set-up for another instalment in a few weeks, when Romania’s hubris really hits the fan.

27 AUGUST, 1916: Growing, Growing, Gone…

It had been coming for some time, but a hundred years ago today the Kingdom of Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary, triggering a counter declaration from Germany.  Going to war would turn out to be very bad idea for Romania in the short term, and was arguably a mistake that has shaped the country’s subsequent history, so this seems a good moment to loose off a preliminary briefing about Romania’s First World War.

Formed from the former Ottoman provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia, Romania had existed as an independent nation since 1878.  In 1914, it was a constitutional monarchy along German (rather than British) lines, with an indirectly elected National Assembly that exerted little actual control over a Crown Council appointed by King Carol I, who was a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The country’s participation in the Second Balkan War (6 September 1915: Caveat Emptor) had increased its size to almost 140,000 square kilometres, including the Dobrudja region taken from Bulgaria, and swollen its population to more than 7.5 million.

The Romanian economy was predominantly agricultural – though the Ploesti oilfields to the north of the country were becoming increasingly important – and largely dependent on commerce and capital investment from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Tied to both empires by a secret treaty of 1883, Romania enjoyed excellent relations with Germany, which had financed construction of some 5,000km of state railways by 1914, but Vienna was viewed as a hated enemy, accused of maltreating 3 million Romanians in Habsburg Transylvania.

Romania in 1914
Romania in 1914

The Transylvanian issue was King Carol’s excuse for ignoring the treaty and declaring Romania’s neutrality in August 1914. The country’s geographically pivotal position (in Eastern Front terms), and its inflated military reputation since the victory of 1913, meant it was considered a prize potential ally, but though both belligerent power blocs made offers of military and economic aid, only the Allies could offer Transylvania.  Popular pressure to join the Allies weakened the position of King Carol, whose personal preference for the Central Powers was never in doubt, and by the time he died in October he was losing influence to the prime minister, liberal Francophile Ion Bratianu.

The new king, Ferdinand I, took a more balanced view – as befitted a Germanic monarch with a British wife – and allowed Bratianu to pursue a deniable pro-Allied policy, aimed at extracting maximum territorial gain from prolonged negotiations.  By the summer of 1916, both Ferdinand and Bratianu were sufficiently impressed by the nearby successes of Russia’s Brusilov Offensive to agree that an Allied victory was just around the corner, and Romania duly declared war against the Central Powers on 27 August.

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The International Herald Tribune’s take… nothing to do with reality, and normal service for the press in 1916.

During the next two years Romania would become a battleground. Two-thirds of the country would be stripped of resources and infrastructure under enemy occupation, more than 200,000 Romanian soldiers would die, and an estimated 500,000 civilians would be killed by invasion, occupation or starvation.  In short, the First World War wrecked Romania,  and it made little difference that the country emerged from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with its size almost doubled since 1914.  The calculated gamble on war that sprang from the bad seed of aggressive nationalism, and its obsession with territorial gain, had blasted a young nation from the path to sustained socioeconomic development, and it would be a very long time before Romania got back on the road.

I realise this has been so brief it’s almost terse, but I can’t spare the time for anything more detailed just now, because over in Germany there’s a totalitarian dictatorship brewing and it’s going to take some explaining. I will come back to the sad story of the Romanian campaign as it unfolds, but in the meantime log Romania as yet another victim of belief in war as a legitimate act of statecraft, a faith that had sustained empires for a century or more, but that has led nation after nation down the path to self-destruction in the mechanised age.

4 JUNE, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…

On the Western Front in early June, the German assault on Verdun was still grinding down French territory by the metre.  In the Alps to the north of Italy, Austro-Hungarian forces were threatening breakthrough in the Trentino Valley.  In Chantilly, half a year earlier, the Allies had agreed to launch supporting offensives whenever one of them was attacked.  So where were the British and Russians when the French and Italians needed them?

The British Army in northern France was deep into exhaustive preparations for its offensive at the Somme, a grand scheme that was hardly a secret, hardly different in anything but scale to all the BEF’s previous grand schemes, and impervious to haste – but was at least expected to be a game-changer.  Meanwhile the Russians, though far more amenable to bullying by their allies, were generally considered incapable of a successful attack after almost two years of miserable failure.

The Russian Army’s early offensives on the Eastern Front had achieved little more than parity against attacks by the Central Powers, and had been thrown back hundreds of miles by the German-led offensives of 1915.  Its only real success had come in early 1916 on the Caucasian Front, where smaller armies under General Yudenich had outmanoeuvred and outfought weakened Ottoman forces to occupy eastern Armenia, but since then the Lake Naroch offensive, a first attempt to distract German forces from Verdun, had collapsed in complete failure.

Understandable pessimism about Russian capabilities didn’t stop the French – in what they and the rest of the world considered their hour of greatest need – from demanding a renewed effort in the east almost at once, or dissuade the Russian high command, Stavka, from reluctant agreement to the challenge.  Stavka did demand time to build up manpower and artillery in preparation for yet another heavily concentrated attempt at ‘breakthrough tactics’… only to be told by one general that he was ready to attack on short notice with the minimum of reinforcement.

The maverick in question was General Alexei Brusilov.  Approaching his mid-60s, and an aristocrat unhampered pre-War factional alliances, Brusilov had commanded the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front since 1914 and made it the most respected Russian fighting unit in the theatre.  Having managed to emerge from the fiascos of 1915 with some credit, he had been appointed c-in-c of the Eastern Front’s southwestern sector in March 1916.  In April, he proposed a series of simultaneous attacks all along his sector of the front, without the massed artillery and tightly focused infantry assaults required by breakthrough tactics.

Stavka wasn’t overly impressed.  Both central sector commander Evert and northern sector commander Kuropatkin enjoyed considerable numerical superiority over enemy forces shorn of many German units, but Brusilov didn’t.  His armies in the southwest mustered about 600,000 men and 1,700 big guns, against some half a million men (almost all of them Austro-Hungarian) and 1,350 guns. His plan was authorised, but with little enthusiasm or optimism, and only as a preliminary to a more conventional offensive being prepared by Evert.

Brusilov may have been deaf to the siren song of breakthrough tactics, but experience had taught him other, more valuable lessons in the grim craft of trench warfare.  In stark contrast to previous Russian offensives, his attack was carefully prepared, making extensive use of reconnaissance aircraft, of sappers to mine towards enemy positions and of huge dugouts to protect waiting reserves.  It also stood out from previous Russian battle plans in making almost no use of cavalry.

Weeks of Russian preparation were observed but not interrupted by (German) General Linsingen’s five armies, four of them Austro-Hungarian and one Austro-German.   Aware of Brusilov’s numerical strength, or lack of it, they kept faith with a well-constructed trench system and, when the attack came, concentrated infantry in forward positions to await the usual Russian tactics – an ineffectual preliminary bombardment followed by massed breakthrough attempts on narrow fronts.  That’s not what they got.

The attack opened on 4 June with an extraordinarily accurate series of bombardments that inflicted heavy casualties on forward defenders.  Infantry assaults all along the line followed, scattering Austrian reserves to multiple crisis points and bringing immediate success in four main areas.  To the north, with the Pripet Marshes on its right, the Russian Eighth Army attacked along a 30km front, steamrollered through the Austrian Fourth Army and took the town of Lutsk on 6 June.  Further south, the Russian Eleventh Army broke through at Sopanóv, taking 15,000 prisoners, and the Seventh Army gained ground with a smaller victory at Jazlowiec.  None of these matched the progress made by the Russian Ninth Army, at the extreme south of the line, where an initial victory around Okna on 5 June was followed two days later by a secondary breakthrough to the north that drove the Austrian Seventh Army into headlong retreat.

eastern_front_may_1916
All that mass slaughter calls for a map, so here it is, complex and stolen but illustrative if you’ve got the energy for a close look.

 

The retreat soon became a chaotic rout.  Conflicting orders from above and the breakdown of transport arrangements split the Seventh Army in two, with half hurrying west to the Bukovina region while the rest attempted to hold a line at the River Prut, beyond Czernowitz, until driven back from 17 June.  Brusilov next launched an attempt to trap German forces positioned between his own and the central sector, but it was called off for lack of meaningful support from Evert’s command, and with supply lines lengthening the offensive paused for rest and reinforcement.  At this point the Russian advance had taken some 200,000 prisoners and 700 guns, shifted the front line as much as 80km west in places, and all but cleared Galicia of Austro-Hungarian forces.

Both sides brought up reinforcements during the second half of June.  Twelve fresh divisions joined Brusilov, while the Central Powers, still preoccupied with offensives elsewhere, managed to add sixteen (far less fresh) divisions from France and Italy.  Nine of the latter took part in a counterattack against the Russian Eighth Army from 20 June, but it had made only token gains and cost 40,000 casualties when it was called off at the end of the month, by which time Brusliov had launched a second phase of attacks.  Often distinguished as the Ukraine Offensive, these had taken another 40,000 prisoners and 63 guns by 7 July, pushing the sector’s front line between 10 and 35 kilometres further west.

The Eastern Front offered a more spacious take on carnage... Brusilovs troops advance.
The Eastern Front offered a more spacious take on carnage… Brusilov’s troops advance.

This was sensational stuff, prompting loud celebrations in Britain, France and Italy, exposing the fragility of Austro-Hungarian units and weakening Falkenhayn’s position as German Army chief of staff – but the length of his supply lines and his own 50,000 losses again forced Brusilov to pause.  That gave Stavka, the most outstandingly incompetent wartime high command in a competitive field, a chance to stifle the enterprise.

To the north of Brusilov’s front, General Evert had begun his own, breakthrough-style offensive on 2 July, but it followed the usual, ill-prepared pattern of earlier Russian operations and collapsed inside a week with 80,000 losses.  Stavka then decided to concentrate all its offensive efforts in the southwest, and ordered Brusilov to mass his forces for another breakthrough bid, this time at the north of his lines towards Kovel.  In a move that typified its inability to separate political and military priorities, it transferred overall command to Evert – an ardent monarchist who epitomised the caution, inefficiency and cabalism of many senior Russian generals – as a means of overcoming his reluctance to shift forces south.  This marked the end of the Brusilov Offensive proper and the beginning of what is known as the Kovel Offensive, which would get underway in late July, grind on until October and mark a grim return to the failed tactics of 1915.

I’ve had enough massed armies for one day, particularly in the wake of last week’s longwinded Jutland manoeuvres, and I’ll talk about Kovel later in the summer.  For now, that was the Brusilov Offensive. Its successes marked an important stage in the fateful transfer of military power in Germany to Ludendorff and Hindenburg, but clearly failed to change anything much about the Russian high command.  In strategic terms it achieved little more than another temporary and costly positional shift in the front line, and although it did help persuade Romania to join the War on the Allied side, hindsight sees that as more of a disaster than an achievement.  Not much in return for several hundred thousand killed or wounded (and yet another battering for the battle-scarred landscape of Eastern Europe), but worth commemorating as another massive battle we tend to ignore because no Tommies were involved.

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.

1 JANUARY, 1916: Pantomime Time

Not much in the way of significant centenaries today, apart from the British capture of Yaounda, the main German inland settlement in Cameroon – but I’ve talked about Cameroon before (6 September, 1914: They Speak French Now…), and Yaounda was just part of a long endgame that would see the colony subject to Anglo-French partition in March.  Instead, let’s mark the appointment, on New Year’s Day a century ago, of Russian Tsar Nicholas II as a British Field Marshal, and spin it into a reminder that the Great War in Europe didn’t take holidays.

To be fair to the British heritage industry’s seasonal focus on trench hampers and letters home, most of the European battlefronts were quiet over Christmas and New Year.  Despite very mild weather, and leaving aside the BEF’s incessant campaign of trench raids and nuisance operations (essentially the high command’s way of reminding everyone there was a war on), nothing much was happening on the Western Front.  Meanwhile British operations in Gallipoli were ending in evacuation, and the new front at Salonika was a masterpiece of inactivity.

Most European fronts not contested by British ground forces were similarly becalmed.  The alpine battle in northern Italy had been snowed off for the winter, and the invasion of Serbia was all but over, though Austro-Hungarian troops were almost ready to move into defenceless Montenegro.  On the Caucasian Front, where the distraction of Gallipoli had curtailed Ottoman ambition, Russian forces were preparing steadily for an offensive in the early spring. Stasis had also set in along the northern and central sectors of the Eastern Front, where trenches were too far apart for nuisance raids, German and Austro-Hungarian numbers had been depleted by the Serbian campaign, and the weather was cold enough to kill whole units of ill-equipped Russian infantry overnight.

Winter weather was less of a menace at the southern end of the Eastern Front, generally known as the Galician sector, but the mere fact that fighting was possible doesn’t explain why a full-blown Russian offensive was at the peak of its intensity on New Year’s Day 1916.  This was the Bessarabian Offensive, sometimes known as the Battle of the Strypa, after the river that was its main focus, and though it was one of the War’s more pointless exercises in mass slaughter, it was an anomaly that seems worth a look before we all settle down to a stale mince pie from the trench hamper.

I’ll start with a map (stolen of course, and removable on complaint).

romania-map-1000

You’ll notice it doesn’t mention Bessarabia, and that’s because I couldn’t find a comprehensible map that did, but it does put the region in a wartime context. Bessarabia is the wedge of land east of the River Dniester, some 500km of Black Sea coast either side of Constanta forming its base, and the area around Czernowitz (Chernivsti) its point.  Most of Bessarabia is in modern Moldova, and was part of Romania at the start of 1916, but the northern tip of the region (now part of the Ukraine) formed a border between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires – and marked the southern extremity of the Eastern Front for as long as Romania remained neutral.

The Kingdom of Romania, which had been juggling bribes from all sides since 1914, wasn’t likely to stay on the fence for much longer, and the need to impress Bucharest was one strategic justification for an immediate Russian advance south beyond Czernowitz. Another was the desire, albeit somewhat belated, to disrupt Austro-Hungarian operations in Serbia, and a third was the Russian high command’s simple urge to fight back, and be seen to fight back, after the terrible losses of 1915.

The fact that the Russian Army was capable of fighting back at all reflected startling improvements in output and quality of equipment since the summer’s establishment of the War Industries Committee (26 June, 1915: Hope and Hopelessness).  Sadly, the spirit of reform hadn’t extended to Stavka, the Russian high command, which was still a byword for dithering, bickering and scattergun strategy.  At a time when the entire Russian Army was in desperate need of reconstruction and recuperation, Stavka’s decision to fling new resources into action at the first possible opportunity was entirely typical, as was the choice of what was essentially a showpiece operation along a limited front in a far-flung corner of the theatre.

The show got underway as soon as the decision to attack in Bessarabia had been reached – in mid-November, and in time to bolster Russian demands at December’s Chantilly conference for more offensive activity from its allies. The world’s press was provided with regular updates on the offensive’s aims and estimated time of arrival, while Tsar Nicholas II, in personal command of Stavka since the late summer (hence the New Year honour from his cousin, George V), inspected preparations at the front in a blaze of publicity. Pre-match propaganda wasn’t unusual at a time when it was impossible to conceal preparations for a major land attack, but this was particularly loud, and generated high levels of expectation among Russia’s allies at a time when they had little else to cheer.

To say that the offensive itself failed to live up the hype would be a major understatement.  Sector commander General Ivanov prepared for action at a snail’s pace, eventually building a 2-to-1 manpower advantage over Austro-Hungarian defenders before launching the attack on 27 December. In an attempt to imitate the German ‘breakthrough’ tactics used during 1915’s Triple Offensive, Ivanov massed nine infantry and two cavalry corps for assault along a narrow front, but he failed to provide them with reserve support and was unable to respond when initial attacks were repulsed by Austrian artillery. The only Russian success came on the southern wing, where General Shcherbachev concentrated all his artillery along a single kilometre of the line and almost broke through, but lack of reserve support and well-organised counterattacks soon snuffed out the threat.

Two weeks of fierce fighting followed, featuring an equally unsuccessful re-run of the initial operation on 1 and 2 January, and continuing through the Russian calendar’s Christmas Day (which fell on 7 January) before Ivanov abandoned the operation on 10 January.  By that time what amounted to a failed PR exercise had cost the Russian Army about 50,000 men and gained it nothing at all.

The Bessarabian Offensive didn’t make much difference to the grand scheme of things, and the only lesson Stavka drew from the experience was the same one Joffre kept mis-learning on the Western Front:  that breakthrough tactics would work given yet more concentrated firepower at the point of attack.  I still think the battle is worth remembering, and not just as a seasonal signpost along the way to total war.

For great swathes of Eastern Europe, including the battle-scarred imperial margins of the Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, the First World War is not forgotten or reduced to clichés in the British manner, but is a visceral, visible memory of death, upheaval and destruction on a vast scale.  In a modern world that makes Eastern Europe our close neighbour, it seems a shame not to at least notice that.

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.