Eight Divisions East 1915 – the San battle I



2 - Eastern Front

When the Germans sent their eight divisions to the east, they brought a new style to warfare there. These, and their chief of staff, Seeckt, had absorbed western lessons—careful registration of guns, observation, camouflage, co-operation between infantry and artillery. German guns did not strew shell around in the Austro-Hungarian manner, in the vague hope of awakening an impression of unconquerable might in enemy breasts. Nor did they, in the Russian manner, disdain their own infantry as a worthless mob, tediously blundering into the skilled tournaments of their betters. German preparations on the field were also superior, since the Germans did not refrain from digging extensively.

The local weakness on the part of the two Russian corps facing attack was compounded by the primitiveness of their digging, which alone could provide an answer to the Germans’ artillery-superiority. But this front had been largely inactive since December 1914, and, as the spring thaws came, Russian soldiers disliked digging into ground that might conceal frozen corpses. In any case, no-one foresaw much action, or thought that it needed digging. Prescriptions from France were ignored; the melting of snow and ice made trenches difficult to keep going; and in any case officers sold off some of the equipment for their own trenches.

There was not much more than a thin, ill-connected ditch with a strand or two or barbed wire before it; and communications to the rear often ran over open ground. Bonch-Bruyevitch was sent to inspect the field-positions of the various fronts in spring 1915, and reported that III Army’s was ‘not serious’. There was almost no reserve-position, either. 10. Corps had wanted to build one, but was told that, if it could spare the labour for this, it must have more troops than it needed to hold the front line: one regiment was therefore removed from each of its divisions for the Carpathian offensive. A corps—21.—and infantry divisions were removed, replaced at best by cavalry divisions, which required support from the remaining infantry. The infantry that did remain was largely second-line, even territorial, in composition, armed, often, with antiquated rifles they had been barely trained to use. Yet the tactics of the time were that front-lines should be held as strongly as possible: even the Germans held that ‘support-troops should be kept as close as possible to the front-line because they are safer, there, from gunnery’. Minenwerfer and field-mortars were to profit from this. Yet confidence was strangely high. The Germans did their best to obtain secrecy, but, with large-scale, slow troop-movements, this could never be guaranteed, and by the end of April intelligence-reports on the Russian side revealed the presence of powerful German forces. Even on 11th April, as the Germans were reaching their decision, Yanushkevitch warned Alexeyev of the threat to western Galicia. Alexeyev did not respond. He ‘doubted’ the news; in any case he probably wrote off the alarm as yet another of Stavka’s attempts to make him give up troops for someone else’s offensive.

On 26th April Dobrorolski, chief of staff of III Army, said the Germans intended ‘breaking through at Nowysącz and north’—exactly correct. The local population of Ruthenes was so Russophil that information came in thick and fast—to such a degree that Seeckt wanted the populace moved out altogether. By 29th April, three German corps were noted; on the 30th desertions from the Austrian army revealed that attack was due to begin on 2nd May. None of this seems to have disturbed Russian confidence. Radko-Dmitriev was told, ‘There is nothing in III Army’s situation to suggest any danger’; the field-fortifications had been ‘strengthened in time’. The best counter would be a renewed Carpathian offensive, particularly by IX Army, with its six infantry and two cavalry corps on the Dniester, far to the south-east.

The German break-through was quite a simple affair. It began with a four-hour bombardment on 2nd May that reduced Russian trenches to rubble, swept aside barbed-wire, cut telephones and prevented local reserves from coming up in time. The bombardment ended with Minenwerfer action that scared the ill-trained defenders from their places, and the Russians lost a third of their men through gunfire alone—many of the rest reduced to a state of shock. One German corps attacked the point of junction of the two Russian ones, drove a wedge between them and took 4,000 prisoners in an hour. Since there were no rear positions, the defenders simply moved back into open country, still more vulnerable to gunfire. On that day and the next, the Germans advanced eight miles, and in this area ruined the Russian corps’ defence-system altogether—10. Corps fell from 34,000 rifles to barely 5,000, and a second-line division of 9. Corps further north simply disintegrated. A gap of five miles opened between the two corps. The commander of III Army, was not on the telephone, and was in any case absent for celebration of the St. George Order. But in any case there was little he could do. Local reserves had been pushed in, often through bombardment, in piece-meal style. There was not much else. Two regiments, force-marched into the gap, disappeared in it on 3rd May. Two cavalry divisions, hurriedly summoned, with twenty-four guns between them, also melted away in useless counter-attacks. Half of 63. Division, a second-line one, was marched forward without maps to much the same fate. The only substantial group in reserve was 3. Caucasus Corps, in two groups some way to the rear. It could not arrive until 4th May, and in any case, as Radko-Dmitriev reported, 10. Corps and the cavalry were ‘so seriously disrupted that even the arrival of 3. Caucasus Corps can only serve to cover retreat’. Most of the troops had been swallowed up in inadequate first-line defences, let down by their artillery, unable, in many cases, to use their rifles with skill. In any case many of these divisions existed purely on paper—facts known to the army command, but not, it seems, to the officers of Stavka.

The Germans had captured huge numbers of prisoners on the first two days. But they too had suffered. They could not exploit the victory with much speed, for their own supplies had to be hauled up over broken country, and at Biecz they encountered 3. Caucasus Corps, which gave a good account of itself, on 4th–5th May. It proved impossible to move fast enough to cut the roads leading north from the Carpathians, and trap the Carpathian part of III Army. Only one division—Kornilov’s—was caught, partly because its order to retreat came too late, partly because its supply-routes were taken up with other troops’ supplies, partly because Kornilov foolishly counter-attacked: he surrendered on 6th May, with all but five guns. The corps in the region had retired towards the Dukla Pass, and formed something of a line on the river Wisloka, by 6th May.

This line was nearly a hundred kilometres in length, more or less running north-south, fifty miles west of the San. It was outflanked to the south as Austrian groups emerged from the Carpathians. The Germans assaulted its western side. Nothing at all had been done to prepare the line. Almost nothing could come in as reserve—Alexeyev had promised the half-strength, second-line 13. Siberian Division, but only half of it could come in—two regiments, not even full-strength. Two battalions of a hastily-composed ‘composite division’—scraped together from oddments found lying around the front—were also sent. But the troops expected to defend the line had been destroyed. Radko–Dmitriev asserted that, while nominally he might have twenty divisions, in fact they were worth five. 10. Corps had been reduced to 1,500 rifles—half of a regiment. He talked of ‘the Germans’ crushing strength, which with numerous artillery has in a short space literally destroyed our trenches and wiped out the defence in places to the last man’. Dragomirov of 9. Corps said ‘territorial troops have been utterly feeble, surrendering in droves’. Ivanov reckoned the army should go back to the San and re-fit. Brusilov was offered command of the entire area. ‘On my honour’ he turned the offer down. Yet Stavka insisted on retention of the Wisloka lines: Italy was about to intervene, IX Army would soon be in a position to attack Austria-Hungary in the Bukovina, such that Romania might come in as well.

III Army had already lost over 200 guns; also, its shell-reserve had been expended much faster than foreseen. It now had to suffer shell-shortage, on top of everything. On 3rd May Radko-Dmitriev complained that he needed 50,000 rounds at once. He was told by Kondzerovski, for Stavka, ‘Your demands are in the impossible class’, and he was sent 22,000. On 5th May the demand was for 31,000, supply 18,000. The next day, demand was for 20,000: ‘I know that this cannot square with your earlier warnings on the subject, but my situation is exceptional’. Supply was 12,500, with a demand for proper accounting. This latter came back on 8th May: 9. Corps needed 43,000 and had 4,000; overall, 20,000 were needed at once, and 25,000 daily thereafter. 15,000 were then supplied.

Radko-Dmitriev sought to organise a counter-attack. He took 3. Caucasus Corps and 24. with other divisions that had come out of the Carpathians, and attempted counter-attack near the Dukla Pass. This occurred on 7th–8th May, just as a fresh German division came in, a renewed German offensive prepared, and a German stroke on the northern side under way, Radko-Dmitriev said: ‘I have great hopes in this manoeuvre, the only way of restoring the army’s position.’ There was a set-piece battle that gave the Germans thousands of prisoners, 24. Corps dropping to less than a thousand rifles, in a force, nominally, of forty thousand.

Further north, the Prussian Guard broke through, forcing a retreat that left the rest of 10. Corps and much of 9. Corps in disorder—the Austrian IV Army, following it, taking thirty thousand prisoners. Only a radical retreat, to the San, could have saved the unbroken part of the army. But Stavka would not allow this at all, and Ivanov’s credit was so low that he could not behave with normal autonomy: on the contrary, he was now begging desperately for reinforcements from Alexeyev’s front. Danilov still behaved as if army corps were of full-strength. He talked grandiosely of counter-attacks. There came a medley of declamation and scripture from the Grand Duke. Ivanov, demanding retreat, was told by Danilov: ‘Your views cannot conceivably be submitted for the Supreme Commander’s approval’; and from the Grand Duke: ‘In view of your staff’s continual demands to retreat on this or that part of the front, you are hereby categorically ordered not to undertake any retreat whatsoever without my express permission’—fine, fighting stuff, that condemned III Army to bleed to death.

On 10th May the nerves of Ivanov’s chief of staff broke: ‘The strategic position is quite hopeless. Our line is very extended, we cannot shuttle troops around it with the required speed, and the very weakness of our armies makes them less mobile; we are losing all capacity to fight’. Przemyśl must be given up, together with Galicia; the Germans would invade the Ukraine; Kiev must be fortified; Russia must ‘renounce serious military activity until we have recovered’. He was at once dismissed. But it took more than Stavka’s fortitude to hold III Army, which on 10th May was given permission to retire to the San. It had lost nearly 200 guns, and the Germans had taken 140,000 prisoners, in six days. Of 200,000 men and 50,000 replacements, only 40,000 unwounded men reached the San—10. and 24. Corps barely existed at all; 9. Corps had lost four-fifths; 3rd Caucasus, three-quarters. 21. Corps had 2,000 men, 12. Corps less than 8,000. Even retention of the San would be difficult enough. However, Stavka kept its hopes. On 6th May Alexeyev promised to send a corps and a division (he sent the weak 15. Corps); 5. Caucasus Corps was due to come from Odessa. Above all, the new IX Army would soon be ready for its attack in the Bukovina.

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