The Brusilov Offensive took place in 1916. The offensive started in June 1916 and ended in August of the same year. The Brusilov Offensive ironically was nearly a major success in a war that had been a disaster for the Russians up to that year.
After the disasters at Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes, the Russian army had fallen back to a line from Riga in the Baltic through to the Pinsk marshes near the Rumanian frontier – about 500 miles long. It was divided into three sectors:
The North-West Front led by General Kuropatkin
The West Front commanded by General Evert
The South-West Front commanded by General Ivanov
All three commanders were reluctant to take up the offensive against the Germans. This seems to have been a direct result of the disasters that met the Russians at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes – and in the case of Samsonov resulted in his suicide.
By 1916, the glaring deficiencies in equipment that the Russian soldiers had were gone. Soldiers were being properly trained and rifles were being produced at a rate of 10,000 a month. Most front line units had a full complement of machine guns and were fully stocked with artillery shells. The winter months of 1915-1916 had been relatively quiet for the Russians and the time had been constructively spent in training new recruits. Therefore in 1916 the Russian army was in a much better state than it had been at the start of the war. The one area of shortage was a lack of experienced officers – they had been killed.
This ‘new’ army had its first blooding in the spring of 1916. The massive German attack at Verdun required the Allies to use the Russian military in the effort to get the Germans to withdraw troops from the Western Front to the east. The initial phase of this diversionary Russian attack by the West Front sector was remarkably successful – German records indicate just how surprised the Germans were at the severity of the artillery onslaught they suffered and the success of the Russian advance. The Russians took the advanced lines of the Germans and then, inexplicably though probably as a result of timid leadership, the artillery and aeroplane support given to the infantry were withdrawn leaving the Russian troops on the ground in shallow marsh trenches and exposed to poison gas attack. Unable to withstand gas attack after gas attack (the Battle of Lake Naroch), the West Front army had to withdraw. However, the attack had shown what it was capable of doing. Its subsequent retreat was more a comment on its commanders as opposed to the men on the ground.
To assist the Allies in the Battle of the Somme, the Russians had planned a major attack in the east so that the Germans would have to split their forces between both fronts. Ivanov had been replaced by General Alexey Brusilov who had shown excellent leadership skills in the 1915 retreat. Brusilov was also a champion of the offensive as the only way to win a war.
In April 1916, the offensive was discussed. Both Evert and Kuropatkin argued in favour of a defensive campaign and Brusilov was the only front commander to argue in favour of an attack on all three fronts. He argued that the Germans might be able to cope with an attack on just one front but that they would not cope with an attack on all three fronts. Evert and Kuropatkin were not convinced. In the end it was decided that Brusilov would launch at attack by the South-West Front that would be followed by attacks by the other two fronts.
Brusilov returned to his sector and ordered the generals of the four armies under his control to set-out their own plans of attack. By doing this, Brusilov was convinced that the Germans would not be able to work out where the main attack would come within that sector – though, in fact, there was not to be a specific hammer-blow attack but a widely dispersed attack. Brusilov also ordered all correspondents out of the area and refused to give out any information that was likely to make its way to the tsarina Alexandra.
Brusilov’s men were going to attack a very well defended line. Mines, some electric fences, barbed wire, well-dug trenches etc had all been built by the Austro-Hungarian forces there. However, Brusilov had used his time to produce very detailed maps and he had ordered his officers to study these maps in great detail. His advance trenches – dug for his men for the start of the campaign – were less than 100 metres from the Austro-Hungarian front lines. Because of the nature of the attack – all four armies attacking at the same time – Brusilov had no reserves to call on. In this sense, his attack was all-or-nothing.
Brusilov’s attack started on June 4th. Three of his four armies had great success. Precise artillery bombardments and surprise helped this. By June 8th, the Austrians were in full retreat. Brusilov’s main targets were Lutsk and Kovel. Archduke Joseph Ferdinand was celebrating his birthday at Lutsk and such was the accuracy of Russian artillery units on the city that he had to abandon these celebrations. However, Evert failed to start his attack on the 9th and Brusilov was told that the West Front would only start its attack on the 18th June. The Germans in the east, commanded by Luderndorff, managed to get together enough men to support the ailing Austrians in the southern sector and this all but doomed Brusilov’s offensive to failure.
Ironically, the success of the initial attack by Brusilov’s armies meant that they were to experience communication problems as they advanced so quickly west. As a result, Brusilov’s forces advanced on two lines within their sector that went in the opposite direction to the other, thus diminishing their effectiveness. Combined with Evert’s lack of action and the skill of Luderndorff as a commander, Brusilov faced major problems despite his early success.
Evert’s attack did not materialise. Instead, his men were transferred south and put at the disposal of Brusilov. This was exactly what Brusilov did not want as he knew that German intelligence would identify the movement of Evert’s men south and transfer their own men there. Because the Germans had a superior rail network within their area, they could move their men quicker than Evert could. Therefore, Brusilov found that he was facing experienced German troops that had been moved south in considerable numbers by Luderndorff. The spectacular advances west that Brusilov’s men had gained dried up and by August 10th it had come to a halt. By this date, the Russians had lost about 500,000 men and the Austrians 375,000 men.
The Brusilov Offensive – the only campaign in World War One named after an individual commander – came close to success but ultimately has to be deemed a failure in the sense that it did not achieve what it set out to achieve – the transfer of sufficient German troops from the Western Front to facilitate an Allied success at the Somme. However, its failure was not the result of Brusilov’s incompetence – the offensive nature of Brusilov’s military thinking was in stark contrast to the sterile defensive mentality of Evert. If Evert had committed his men to an attack in his sector, Luderndorff would not have been able to transfer his men south and Brusilov would have fought just the Austro-Hungarian forces in the south. In all probability, if Evert had played his part, the campaign in the east would have been very successful. The impact this might have had on the Somme is open to speculation, and in the sense of World War One is irrelevant as it did not happen. However, it could have been very significant and Brusilov’s name may well have been more well known that it is.