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.
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.
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.