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).


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.

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