The Russian Imperial Army has been portrayed as unfit to wage a modern war. It is best known for a catalogue of disasters at the hands of the Germans, notably at Tannenberg in 1914 and Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915, and then for its sudden collapse in the 1917 revolution.
Yet General Alexsei Brusilov launched one of the most successful offensives of the First World War in June 1916 – an event in sharp contrast to the failed offensives at Verdun and on the Somme.
In 1914, Russian successes against the Austro-Hungarians and a subsequent advance to the Carpathian Mountains, which threatened an invasion of Hungary, were counter-balanced by defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes at the hands of the Germans.
The stalemate reached at the end of 1914 was broken by the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive of May 1915, which broke through the Russian defences east of Cracow and led to ‘the Great Retreat’ of the Russians along the entire Eastern Front.
This rescued the Austro-Hungarians in the Carpathians, and ended the Russian threat to Hungary and Silesia. But, despite huge losses in men and materiel, the Russian armies survived and established a new line running from Riga in the north to Czernowitz in the south.
Many incompetent commanders were removed or reassigned, notably Nikolai Ivanov, who was replaced as commander of the South-Western Front by Alexei Brusilov in March 1916.
The winter of 1915/1916 allowed the Russians to rally. The Army recovered its strength, the war economy cranked up, and the munitions factories increased the production of shells. By 1916, the Russians were ready to take the offensive again. Brusilov was to play a major part in reversing Russian fortunes.
An Allied conference at Chantilly in December 1915 agreed that offensives would be launched on the French, Italian, and Russian fronts. The aim was to keep the forces of the Central Powers dispersed. The Russians were to attack by early June.
Accordingly, in April 1916, a conference of front commanders at Mogilev chaired by Tsar Nikolai and General Alekseev agreed to launch simultaneous assaults by all three fronts (Northern, Western, and South-Western). These Allied and Russian plans were disrupted by the German offensive at Verdun and the Austrian offensive at Asiago in Italy. This prompted the French and the Italians to increase the pressure for Russian action.
This was the immediate context for Russian attacks at Lake Naroch in March and on Brusilov’s South-Western Front in June. Rather than attacking on a narrow front, Brusilov decided to launch simultaneous assaults with all his armies. This meant dispersion of force, not least artillery.
He was deliberately forsaking the concentrated, sustained artillery bombardment that usually preceded offensives and was designed to pulverise the enemy’s defences on a particular sector of the front. Both the Tsar and Alekseev opposed Brusilov’s plan, arguing for the traditional approach and a concentration of Russia’s limited resources on a narrow front.
Making a virtue of their ammunition shortages, on 4 June 1916 the Russian artillery mounted an intense and brief but accurate and effective ‘hurricane’ bombardment of the Austro-Hungarian defences.
Seeking shelter from the bombardment in their deep dugouts, the Austro-Hungarian defenders were unable to fire on the advancing Russians and, once their positions had been overrun, they surrendered in their thousands. By the end of the first day, there was a 20-mile wide by five-mile deep gap in the Austro-Hungarian line.
Brusilov had achieved the breakthrough that most commanders could only dream of during the First World War. As there were no substantial defences behind the first trench line, the Russians were able to advance very quickly during the next three days, capturing more than 200,000 enemy soldiers. The Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff was forced to seek German assistance and to close down the Asiago offensive as he moved his divisions back to Galicia.
Brusilov lacked the reserves to sustain his breakthrough offensive. The Russian Army was not yet mechanised, still relying on horse-drawn transport, and the creaking Russian infrastructure simply could not deliver the necessary flow of fresh men and munitions needed to power a continuous advance.
The incompetence of most senior Tsarist commanders – many of them court favourites and aristocratic non-entities – remained a crucial failing throughout the war. The high command was also divided by rivalries and personal disagreements which prevented close cooperation at crucial moments.
By the time Brusilov had regrouped, been reinforced by the Guard Army (Aleksandr Bezobrazov), and resumed the offensive on 28 July, the opportunity to exploit the initial success had passed.
In an impressive feat of logistics, the Germans had transferred ten infantry divisions so as to establish a defensive line opposite Brusilov strong enough to repulse renewed Russian attacks with heavy losses. Brusilov launched another offensive between 7 August and 20 September. This reached the Carpathian Mountains, but suffered further heavy losses, then lost momentum.
The offensive finally ran out of steam in October as Brusilov exhausted his supplies and reinforcements. Blaming the Tsarist system for his inability to exploit the initial success of his offensive, Brusilov, like many others, began to think that only revolution would enable Russia to modernise and secure victory.
Dr Simon Innes-Robbins, a graduate of the University of Nottingham and King’s College London, is Senior Archivist at the Imperial War Museums. This is an extract from an article that appeared in issue 71 of Military History Monthly.