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.

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