3 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Trial By Fire

First of all, on the off chance anyone’s noticed, apologies for being AWOL lately.  Plenty of travel, a busted laptop, a touch of war weariness and the presence of small children… give that lot to 1917’s sword bearers during a Mediterranean heatwave, they could’ve stopped the First World War in no time.  In my case it’s merely slowed things down a little, and requires me to slip something slight into the early September slot.  That’s fairly appropriate, because I want to spend a little time on the Eastern Front, and a century ago the war in Eastern Europe was all but over.

July’s failed Kerenski Offensive had left the Russian Army in no shape for any kind of attack, while what little coherent energy Austro-Hungarian forces could muster was focused on the Italian Front and everyone involved, including the Romanian Army, had settled for status quo in the Romanian campaign.  Only the German high command had the strength to consider attacking options in the east, but its thoughts had turned to exploitation of occupied territories, its ambitions were still centred on submarine warfare and its immediate concern was defence of the Western Front.

All the same, the German Army did bother to launch one last attack in the east, at the far northern end of the front, where a limited offensive launched on 1 September took the Latvian capital of Riga two days later.  It did this for three reasons, and one of them was quite interesting.

The first was a matter of tidiness, because Russian positions in front of Riga formed a small but irritating bulge in the line. The second was a matter of provocation, because a move on Riga might suggest a further attack towards Petrograd and add to the ongoing chaos in the Russian capital. The third reason was a matter of military experiment, because the German Army thought it had found a way to beat defensive trench warfare.  This was a potentially crucial development, and needed testing.

I think I’ve made it clear over the years that ‘breakthrough tactics’ had been tried, tried again and found wanting on all the main European battle fronts since 1915, but were still being used on the grounds that more men and bigger bombardments might just make them work.  BEF commander Haig had stuck with breakthrough tactics for his latest attack around Ypres, with disastrous consequences, and was only just learning to make use of the alternative approaches demonstrated at Messines in June.  The German Army was meanwhile developing a more radical departure from breakthrough, advocated in print by a French Army captain in 1915 but first put to full practical use during the attack on Riga. Called ‘infiltration tactics’ by the British, they were known to the Germans as ‘Hutier tactics’ after the operation’s commander, General Oskar von Hutier.

Breakthrough involved a long, a massed bombardment of enemy strong points, followed by a massed, concentrated infantry assault on the wrecked remains of enemy forward positions.  Infiltration was preceded by only a brief ‘hurricane’ bombardment, after which small but powerfully armed units would attack into the spaces between enemy strong points with a view to disrupting rear and artillery positions.  Equipped with light machine-guns, light mortars, flamethrowers and sometimes light artillery, and given first call on aircraft support, these ‘stormtrooper’ units were expected to penetrate as deep as possible behind enemy lines, forcing defenders to abandon the pre-prepared second- and third-line positions that had scuppered so many breakthrough attempts for so many years.

A German light mortar – the stormtrooper’s friend, developed as mobile support for attacking infantry.

Infiltration tactics certainly worked at Riga, which was defended by the Russian Twelfth Army, led by new c-in-c General Kornilov and pretty much the last coherent fighting force at his disposal.  Warned of the impending attack by the transfer of German reinforcements from Galicia, Kornilov was already preparing a retreat on Petrograd (of which more another day) when Von Hutier’s Eighth Army stormed into action across a 5km front along the River Dvina.

With important support from German Air Force units enjoying uncontested dominance of the skies, meticulously prepared German divisions carried out the new tactics perfectly, and had established a strong bridgehead across the river by the end of the first day.  The Russians abandoned the defence next day, and anything militarily useful was evacuated from Riga before it fell on 3 September.  The Russian retreat, though fairly orderly, was not particularly efficient, and von Hutier’s forces chased stragglers up the Dvina for the next three weeks before offensive operations were halted.  By that time any thoughts of advancing on Petrograd had been shelved as unnecessary, because the Russian war effort appeared to be collapsing on its own.

Infiltration tactics at their most effective: the Battle of Riga.

So were infiltration tactics the key to unlocking the ghastly stalemate of trench warfare?  Not really.  They did open up the possibility of making relatively large territorial gains in a hurry, but they didn’t solve the supply and transport difficulties that had been making long-range exploitation of gains impossible since 1914. Within a few months they would be tested three times on the grand scale – by Austro-German forces on the Italian Front at Caporetto, by the BEF on the Western Front at Cambrai and by the German Army for its 1918 spring offensive in France – and on each occasion attacking forces would quickly run out of momentum and support. Infiltration methods would be used during the relatively open warfare that brought final Allied victory on the Western Front in the autumn of 1918, but only as one element in a blend of tactics, and only for limited, pre-planned infantry advances.

My excuse for wandering off into trench tactics is, yet again, the persistence of popular myths about First World War command attitudes.  To listen to the heritage chorus you’d think tossing away tens of thousands of lives, time after time, was fine with most generals so long as there were yet more men available for the next round at the mincing machine.  While there is some truth in the accusation at strategic level, most obviously among the German Third Supreme Command, field commanders were almost uniformly horrified by the grim realities of twentieth-century ground warfare, and never ceased trying to change them.  Von Hutier and his staff (like Australian General Monash at Gallipoli and British General Plumer at Messines, to name a couple off the top of my head) were prime examples of this determination to alter the equation, and were backed by an embattled German high command desperate for any battlefield edge.

Well before the Germans arrived in Riga, the Russian Army fled, wrecking its infrastructure and making escape very difficult for civilians and native troops in the enemy’s path.

The German war effort didn’t need Riga, given that the Russian Baltic fleet had effectively ceased to function, and it didn’t need the burden of extra Latvian territory.  It had started transferring troops to the Western Front almost as soon as the city had fallen, and left only a skeleton force to occupy the region, a force more concerned with keeping Latvia quiet amid revolutionary turmoil than with bleeding it dry to supply the war effort.  That’s not to say the people of Riga didn’t suffer – even before the occupation their city was wrecked and stripped of food by the retreating Russians – but it does suggest that the German Army, already stretched beyond reasonable limits, had been prepared to mount an entire offensive to test out a tactical approach that might defeat trench systems.  Case closed.  Generals did care.

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