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.

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