June 4, 1916. On the dry, open plains of Ukraine, the earth shakes with guns – a LOT of guns. 600,000 Russian soldiers pour out of their trenches and overwhelm the shocked Central Powers forces across No-Man’s-Land. This grand attack is the art of Russian General Alexei Brusilov. It will become the most destructive battle of World War I, but also Russia’s last gasp before Revolution throws the country into chaos. The Brusilov Offensive is on the march.
Pretty much every country involved in World War I had a bad time, but Russia might truly take the cake. Her army was huge and feared by everyone, but it went to war short of weapons, ammunition, uniforms and even shoes. Her generals were more interested in political bickering and bureaucratic infighting than defeating the Germans. Her industry was drastically underdeveloped, unable to produce the weapons and supplies needed to carry on a modern war. Finally, Russia was on the verge of political catastrophe, as the Tsar’s Imperial government was perpetually unstable ever since the Revolution of 1905. The nobility and upper classes of Russia lived in constant fear of another revolution, and the Tsar’s harsh repressive policies and conservative outlook kept any reforms from succeeding.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that World War I went so badly for Russia. In the opening rounds of the great conflict in 1914, Russia launched several enormous offensives. The ones against Germany were a catastrophe, resulting in the destruction of an entire army and the defeat of many others; the ones launched against Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, overran Galicia and experienced some success. 1915, though, saw the Germans reinforce their ally and drive the Russians back everywhere. The Russian Empire lost all its conquests along with Lithuania, Poland, and huge chunks of Latvia, Belorussia and Ukraine. By the end of 1915, the Russians were holding a line deep into Russia, confronted by German and Austrian-Hungarian forces. They had lost almost 3,000,000 men in 1914 and 1915, and vast amounts of equipment and supplies.
The Central Powers weren’t about to advance much farther, though. World War I armies were severely limited by their supply chains and logistics. Motor vehicles were nowhere near numerous enough to support a fast-moving advance deep into Russia, and the railroads could not support such a move either. If Germany and Austria-Hungary kept driving into Russia, it would be a march to nowhere, and cost them so many men and supplies that it would leave other fronts drastically exposed.
When 1916 dawned, the Germans were drawing as many troops as possible from the Eastern Front to launch their major attack on the French at Verdun; the Austrians, too, had to pull major forces away from the East to shore up their line in Italy. The demands of a multi-front war meant that for the Central Powers to mass enough force to be successful somewhere, they had to be weak somewhere else. They figured the safest place was the Eastern Front; they believed that the Russians had been so badly damaged that they could not hope to launch a successful attack in 1916, and anyway, the war could only be won in the West.
The problem with this thinking, of course, was the assumption that the Russians could not get better. At least one Russian could, though. His name was General Alexei Brusilov, commander of Southwest Front – which faced the Austro-Hungarians in Ukraine.
Brusilov was no one’s pick for a radical reformer and visionary. His background was old school all the way – a cavalry officer of the petty Russian nobility, with as conservative and traditional a background as you could ask for. Brusilov, though, was a man apart – clever, incisive, flexible and brave. He had been one of the only Russian generals with actual successes in 1914 and 1915, including a major counterattack that kept the Austrians from seizing Kiev.
Brusilov incorporated new tactical methods and ideas into his forces. He emphasized officer leadership, quick reactions, and small-unit infantry tactics. He changed Russian artillery tactics, using aerial spotting to target command posts, critical roads and other important targets rather than random spray-and-pray fire. Brusilov also envisaged, rather than a breakthrough, an offensive all along the front, with multiple weak points targeted and exploited to shatter the enemy frontline on a broad scale. In an age when generals were still launching human wave attacks with almost blind artillery bombardment, this was a new and scientific way of war – closer to the 1940s than the 1910s.
Brusilov was the only Russian commander who, confronted with the ruin of the Russian Army in 1916, believed he could attack thanks to his new ideas and methods. The Allies wanted to coordinate their attacks in 1916 to keep the Germans from shifting troops around to beat them one after another. The British and French both scheduled major attacks for June and July, and they wanted the Russians to do the same. Brusilov surprised the other Russian generals when he said he could not only attack in 1916, but he could win. No one believed him.
One of the main reasons the other generals had no faith in Brusilov was that they had no faith in Russian soldiers. After the terrible defeats of 1914 and 1915, and with dissension and discontent spreading through the ranks, the Russian rank and file were at the bottom of their morale and had begun to desert. Multiple Russian generals and politicians worried that the Army was on the verge of disintegration. Harsh discipline – including execution – and some improvement of conditions put the troops back in the ranks, but this could only go so far. The Russians were staying in the trenches, but could their officers really expect them to attack?
The Allies were caught off guard when the Germans launched their Verdun attack in February 1916. By May, the French were losing, and they knew it; they sent desperate pleas to the Russians and the British to do something – anything – to draw away German pressure. When the Russian high command received this request, they finally accepted Brusilov’s plan for an attack.
On June 4, 1916, Brusilov’s army tore into the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army. The Austro-Hungarian military was a weak point in the Central Powers coalition; it had suffered so badly in the first months of 1914 that it had never really covered, and the morale of its soldiers made the Russians look positively motivated.
The Russians opened their attack, not with the usual days-long artillery saturation that gave the enemy time to bring up reinforcements, but an accurate, savage, and quick barrage. The Russian troops had secretly dug their trenches within 100 yards of the Austrians, and almost the minute the artillery stopped firing they were in the enemy trenches. The shock of the ferocious attack and the expert training of the Russians told. (Brusilov had his troops drill the exact order of the attack for weeks, constructing whole trench lines in the rear areas for them to train on).
Rather than trying for a narrow breakthrough attack on one area – a favorite tactic of the Germans – the Brusilov Offensive chomped out 300 miles of Austro-Hungarian front line. Multiple specifically targeted weak points cracked under the Russian onslaught, and as the Austrians began to panic and scatter in all directions Brusilov sent in the cavalry. Divisions of horse-mounted troopers, still kept in reserve in this age of machine guns and barbed wire, swept across the trenches and into the retreating Austrians.
By June 8, practically the blink of an eye in World War I time, Brusilov’s men took the town of Lutsk, almost capturing Archduke Josef Ferdinand, the Austrian commander. They had taken 200,000 prisoners and completely shattered the Austrian lines in Ukraine. The Russians drove on like a bulldozer, but Brusilov knew that he could not go on forever. He would eventually overstretch his supplies and have to stop. He urged the other Russian forces to the north to launch their own attacks to keep the Germans and Austrians distracted.
The other Russian generals, though, were still hidebound old conservatives who did not believe in new tactics or in concepts like “treating your soldiers like people.” They dragged their feet to attack, and even when they did they launched the same old human wave assaults that they had two years before. They didn’t work then and they didn’t work now. This delay and these failures allowed the Germans to pull troops from the northern sectors, and the Austrians to pull troops from the Italian front, to hurry along the vastly superior German railroads to block Brusilov’s advance. In desperation, the Germans even diverted reinforcements from Verdun, which was supposed to be the decisive battle of the war.
Throughout the summer, Brusilov could not be halted, but only slowed. By July 28 he launched a second and equally devastating blast of attacks, and by the time his attack finally ground to a halt in September he had reached the Carpathian Mountains. The Brusilov Offensive had taken an enormous amount of ground by Western Front standards, but it was far more important than the ground it took.
The Brusilov Offensive was the high point of Russia’s World War I war effort, and this was due almost entirely to Brusilov himself as well as his skilled lower officers and the courage of his soldiers. His armies had not only retaken Russian ground and caused huge enemy casualties, they had also crippled the Central Powers and forced the Germans to pull troops away from Verdun. It was the most important victory either side had won since the trenches went up across France in 1914, and was marked by a huge improvement in Russian tactics and strategy. The Germans would copy many of Brusilov’s methods and use them to great effect in 1917 and 1918 against the Russians, Italians, and finally the Western Allies in Ludendorff’s “Kaiserschlacht.”
The Russian strategies of Brusilov – especially the attack over a wide front – were also the origin of the successful Soviet strategies of World War II, known as “deep battle” doctrine. The problem was that no other Russian general of World War I believed in Brusilov’s attacks; he was the only one to implement the new methods, and this kept the Russians from winning a much larger victory in 1916. The Brusilov Offensive could have been much more successful had the other Russians known genius when they saw it.
The Russians accomplished something else: they finally broke the back of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Though the Austrians had performed miserably in World War I so far (which I will get to later this year), they lost over 600,000 men in Brusilov’s great attack, which essentially wiped the board of all their skilled men and officers. The Austrians hadn’t been great before; after Brusilov, they wouldn’t even be able to function without significant German support. Even if the Central Powers won the Great War, the kneecapping of the Austro-Hungarian Army doomed their empire to future extinction.
Finally, the Brusilov Offensive had a most pyrrhic effect on the Russian Army. Despite their victory, the Russian armed forces had suffered almost 1,000,000 casualties in their great struggle. Most of these were the result of poor Russian generalship on other fronts, but even Brusilov himself was blamed for the losses. At the height of the offensive, he received multiple anonymous notes from Russian soldiers to the effect of “If I survive tomorrow’s battle, General, I am coming for you next.”
The Russian system was so broken that even victory could not repair it. Revolution was on the horizon. Just after Russia’s greatest victory of World War I, the seeds of urban uprising and upheaval were being sown in the streets of the capital. The Brusilov Offensive could bring Russia closer to winning World War I – but it could not save the Tsar’s government, and may have helped bring about its demise. From their greatest victory sprang the seeds of Russia’s greatest catastrophe. Typical Slavic irony.