Helping the Western Front – Russian Front 1916

A posed photo showing an Austro-Hungarian bombing party cutting its way through enemy wire. The soldier on the right has wire cutters and, like the others, is carrying grenades in his belt. They are carrying the Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifle, nicknamed the “Ruck-Zuck” (“right now” or “very quick”).

Pioneers crossing the Narotsch River in Belarussia. German army pioneers were regarded as a separate combat arm trained in construction and demolition of fortifications, but they were often used as emergency infantry. One battalion was assigned to each Corps.

General von Pflanzer-Baltin with his staff. In the autumn of 1914, when Romania appeared to be turning against the Central Powers, he was charged with the defence of Transylvania. When the Russians crossed the Carpathians, and there was immediate danger of their driving onto the plains of Hungary, Pflanzer-Baltin, with an improvised division conducted a defence by taking the offensive. After fighting with varying success in the southern part of Eastern Galicia and in the Bukovina, the VII. Army under his command, was driven back by the Brusilov offensive in June 1916, and he was relieved of his command.

A German map of the southern sector of the Russian front to show gains between December 1915 and January 1916.

A German map of the northern part of the Russian front in 1916.

‘Over Christmas 1915, Falkenhayn had submitted a memorandum on the state of the war and prospects for the coming year to the scrutiny of his All-Highest War-Lord. He was opposed to further offensive action on the blank plains of Russia.’ Falkenhayn expected the Russian state’s problems to cause it to collapse in the near future but Hindenburg was not so complacent. He knew the German extended line was inadequately held and needed more troops.

Pointing to the summer successes, Falkenhayn told Hindenburg and Ludendorff there would be no major initiatives on their front. He also denied them any reinforcements and withdrew all German troops from Galicia, leaving its defence to the Austrians who were more occupied ‘with defeating Serbia and planning an offensive against Italy’. For Falkenhayn the west was where the war could be won: Verdun was chosen as the place to bleed France to death. Stavka chose to break this complacency with a major attack in March.

Winter passed with only minor activity by both sides on the Northern Front. Each army now dug-in to strengthen their positions. The German trenches were ‘strongly built in concrete, equipped with light railways and often their own generating plants, they included bomb-proof shelters. Recreation areas had been established not far behind the lines’. On the other side of the wire, the Russians were producing trenches that were comfortable. Walls were planked and stoves provided heating. There were even opportunities for relaxation.

The object of the three-pronged Russian attack was to throw the German northern wing back to the Baltic coast. When the build-up of forces had been completed, the Russians were to have numerical manpower superiority of 5:1 supported by artillery on an unprecedented scale. Captured soldiers in peasant dress and observed troop concentrations led the Germans to conclude an attack was likely.

The spring thaw began the day before the start of the offensive. After an eight-hour bombardment, the Russians launched their attack. Everywhere it failed. The next day the attack was resumed and although the situation was critical at times the German lines held: ‘the barbed wire in front of the German trenches was hung with the corpses of Russian attackers as far as the eye could see’. The same happened the next day, but when winter returned during the night the Russians were able to advance through relatively unprotected swamps. Little progress was made on day five until early evening when the Germans were threatened with disaster.

As the temperature rose, so did the water level. Everywhere turned to mud. Leutnant Stegemann wrote home describing the sudden change in his sector on the Dvina. ‘The river suddenly rose during the night of April 2nd with overwhelming force and rapidity. The previous afternoon the water in the flooded meadows had already risen so considerably that I had to send rations to posts about a mile away…in a boat’. The men in the boat were caught in the flood and its accompanying ice floes. ‘The water rose five feet in an hour. The floating masses of ice…capsized the boat’. In the pitch-dark night his men had to vacate ‘seven block-houses in a twinkling’. His own dug-out disappeared under the water.

The men held onto the capsized boat while efforts were made to establish telephonic contact with troops in the rear. Eventually a boat was found but all the time the water was rising, making it more difficult to get to the men. Then it was realised that thirty men were trapped in houses near the river bank; fortunately a bigger boat had been called for as well. Frozen and done in, all Stegemann could do was wait. While doing so, he changed his clothes, and smoked a cigar while drinking five glasses of brandy in an attempt to warm himself up.

During the wait, the boat from the rear area had managed to pick up three of the men in the river. Frozen through, they were sent off to hospital. By first light all his men had been rescued, except a sixteen-year-old corporal whose body was never recovered. His company now had new positions overlooking a two-mile broad lake. Other units were not as lucky as Stegemann’s: many men were drowned by the flood.

The rising water level and the mud made movement difficult and the dense fogs caused units to lose contact. As the front turned into a lake, the Russians called off their attacks and withdrew troops. Any Russian success was short-lived. On 28 April, after a high explosive barrage followed by gas, against which the Russians were unprotected, the German infantry reclaimed their lost positions in just one day.

Much concern had been expressed about the loyalty of some of the ethnic groups that made up the Habsburg forces. While there was no concern over German troops deserting, many of the ethnic groups in the Russian Army were happy to cross over to the Germans. Oskar Greulich was serving near Świniuchy during the April thaw. As on the Western Front, there was some degree of live-and-let-live in the east and religious festivals were often observed. ‘For some time not a shot has been fired on either side, although everybody is calmly walking about on the top, and even taking an afternoon nap up there!’

Whilst wary, both sides felt it foolish to disturb each other by shooting. ‘When the Russian sentry goes on duty, he thinks it necessary to inform his vis-à-vis of the fact. “Morning, Auyoosht!” he calls across the lake.’ Initially they did not respond or just sent an occasional bullet across, which was met by cries of ‘Germanski damn! Shoot nix!’ Greulich and his men then realised that their opponents were Lithuanians and Poles: ‘It is a good thing that there is a lake between us,’ he wrote, ‘otherwise many of these men would certainly have deserted to us.’

Both sides were religious, especially Bavarian soldiers. ‘On Easter Eve they (the Russians) called out: “Germanski shoot nix. Tomorrow peace!”’ The Russians then treated the Germans to a concert with mandolins and violins, ‘as beautiful as any one could hear at Easter in Eichelburg. In the evening the male voice choir strikes up, and solemn chants – no doubt Easter hymns – ring out into the night in three parts and sung by very good voices.’

Across the front many units witnessed similar events but only in the front line. In the rear, headquarters staff kept on planning. At the Austrian HQ, the Italian problem was paramount. They were not expecting a Russian offensive, had become obsessed with Italy, and had dedicated most of their staff energies to planning a south Tyrol offensive. To give the offensive every chance of success, they moved six infantry divisions from Galicia. Unknown to them, Brusilov had four armies, ready to strike consecutive blows along a nineteen-mile front. Careful shepherding of reserves had given the Russians a superiority of 125,000 men. Fortunately for the Russians, their postponed attack coincided with the birthday of the Fourth Army commander, so many key officers were not in place when the attack came.

The offensive began on 4 June with a hurricane bombardment (using two weeks’ supply of ammunition) that destroyed, except for some deep bunkers, the first three lines of the Austrian positions in Galicia. Part of the success was due to the Russian use of aircraft equipped with radio to direct the gunfire accurately. ‘The barrage continued throughout the day and well into the night to prevent the enemy repairing his barbed wire under cover of darkness, but was temporarily halted between midnight and 2.30 a.m. so that scouts could inspect the damage.’

The Austrian Fourth Army front collapsed. Against minimal resistance, the Russians were able to push a wedge between Fourth Army and Böhm-Ermolli’s Army Group. By the following day 40,000 prisoners had been taken, a number that swelled as the offensive spread along the line.

As Fourth Army collapsed, its neighbour, Seventh Army, retreated south. In turn First Army withdrew, putting the whole Austro-Hungarian position in considerable danger. Whole units melted away with some joining the Russian forces. ‘By the third day of the offensive, the severity of the situation was plain for all to see. The Russians had torn open a sizeable hole 32Km (20 miles) wide in the Austro-Hungarian front. Hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian troops were prisoners of war or had simply fled from the battlefield.’

After four days of fighting Fourth Army had shrunk from 110,000 to just 18,000 men under arms. As many as sixty per cent of the casualties were actually deserters.

‘Only in the centre was there little progress. Here Sakharov’s Eleventh (Army) had met Bothmer’s German-Austrian South Army which repulsed all assaults upon it.’ However, even here there was success. On 15 July, warned by his intelligence about a forthcoming attack on 18 July by Südarmee, Sakharov launched his own pre-emptive assault which took 1,300 prisoners and captured much of the ammunition stockpiled for the German attack.

Even though some Russian commanders did not attack until the due date and the northern end of the South West Front was pinned down, the advance moved rapidly. ‘By 17 June Czernowitz was taken and, on the 21st, the entire province of Bukovina. By the 23rd, the Russians were in Kimpolung and once more threatened the Carpathian foothills.’

Austro-Hungarian units were in retreat on a 250 mile front from the Pripet marshes to the Carpathians. German help would be forthcoming but only with strings. The South Tyrol campaign was to be closed, and troops moved from that front to Russia were to be under German control.

However, the Russians did not have it all their own way. Falkenhayn was concerned about the Lutsk salient and managed to build up an eight division force (mixed Austrian and German units), without much opposition from the Russians. Commanded by General von der Marwitz, the force struck in the Kovel area. In four days of fierce fighting, they recovered a few miles of ground.

The Russian gains so far included 350,000 Austrian prisoners, 400 artillery pieces and 1,300 machine guns. Many defenders had been killed and wounded along a 200 mile-long front that had been penetrated, in places, to a depth of forty miles. On the Russian side, losses had also been heavy with over 300,000 casualties. Ammunition for the artillery was also very short. A great deal had been achieved by an offensive designed to pin down forces before the principal attack.

Brusilov’s men rested and waited for their supply columns. Without support from other armies the offensive would stall. None came, and, while the Russian commanders fought among themselves, the Germans moved four divisions from France and five from East Front reserves. The Austro-Hungarians also moved four divisions from the South Tyrol Front and the Turks sent troops to help.

No second Russian attack materialised. This gave the Germans time ‘to set up solid defensive lines, restore discipline and assume command of Austro-Hungarian units as small as companies’. The control by the German Army was confirmed when on 27 July, Hindenburg was made Supreme Commander of the Eastern Front with control of all military operations in the east. This was followed by the Kaiser becoming titular head of the United Supreme Command. The Habsburg army now had little say in its role.

The appointment of Hindenburg gave rise to great rejoicing among many of the troops, mainly because he had never lost a battle. Leutnant Stegemann described the men’s reactions: ‘I was quite astonished at my Hanseatickers, Mechlinburgers and Holsteiners, they were so wild with joy at the news.’ He was now the Company Commander and enjoying the responsibility.

Ordered to renew the offensive, Brusilov’s forces attacked on 27 July, routing the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian First Army. A pivotal point between Brusilov and Evert’s fronts was Kovel. With the offensive losing impetus, its capture became very important. The Tsar, as commander-in-chief, decided that this task should be undertaken by his Guards Army. The plan was for the infantry to break through and the cavalry to attack, routing the Germans. The attack was launched without artillery support and with insufficient preparation: the troops had to cut through the barbed wire before they could move. On the left the Russians were successful, taking 11,000 prisoners, forty-six guns and sixty-five machine guns, but losses were heavy.

They were especially heavy in some units of First Corps, whose commander felt that a flank attack was beneath his troops. He sent two of the finest Russian Regiments – the Preobrazhensky Guards and the Imperial Rifle Regiment – in a frontal attack along a causeway. Casualties were so heavy ‘many preferred to wade waist-deep through the bog’ even though their slow progress made them excellent targets for the German machine gunners and for the planes that bombed them. To make matters worse, their commander had forgotten to tell the artillery of the changed plan so they were shelled by their own side. With seventy per cent casualties, they took their objective, but the supporting cavalry withdrew and they were forced to abandon their gains.

A further attempt to take Kovel, as part of the re-opened offensive, appeared to be achieving results. Then the flanks failed and the impossible happened – the Guards withdrew. The reason was clear the next day. An army, classed by Major-General Knox as “‘physically the finest human animals in Europe” had lost 55,000 men. Throughout the army and the country there was an almost speechless fury at the whole catastrophic and futile episode’.

The advance continued. On 28 July Brody fell, Monstryska was occupied on 7 August, Nadworna fell on 12 August. Russian troops were across Südarmee’s lines of communication. There was no option but to pull back to the Zlota Lipa line to defend Lemberg.

As the offensive moved forward, it met German units that offered stiffer resistance. The advance slowed down and became costlier. Other fronts were stripped of men and equipment to keep up the pressure but this created bottlenecks and funnelled troops into positions where the Germans were at their strongest. Despite desperate attacks in August and September, the front eventually solidified.

It had been a bad period for the Central Powers. Between 4 June and mid-August, they had lost 400,000 men as prisoners and 15,000 square miles of territory. Their total losses were probably around 750,000 men. But many Russians had also been taken prisoner, sometimes gladly, as Adolf Stürmer, a law student who had volunteered in 1914, found out. He had volunteered for a patrol that was to blow up a bridge to slow down the Russian advance. Crossing the river they surprised a Russian post. There was no fight. The biggest Russian, immediately ‘made the sign of the cross and then put up his hands. Then they were all full of joy; kissed our hands and coats; tore the cockades out of their caps, and threw down their arms’.

It was a decisive victory, arguably the greatest achievement of the war but it had been won at a high cost. ‘Brusilov’s losses were 450,000 and his reserves reduced from 400,000 to 100,000. Total Russian war losses were now 5½ million. It had been a spectacular but Pyrrhic victory that weakened and destabilised the Romanov Empire, and gained little of strategic importance.’ All eyes then turned to Romania.

Romania’s entry into the war meant that Brusilov had to make a fresh effort in support of Russia’s new ally. On 29 August, Bothmer’s Südarmee was attacked at Brzezany and the town of Potutory taken. While the offensive failed in its main purpose of removing a German salient because of stubborn German resistance, Niziov on the Dniester fell and the Austrians were forced back to Halicz. Continued fighting brought the Russians some local successes, but the continual reinforcement of Bothmer’s men meant that there was no chance of a serious Russian success. And with the Romanians quickly needing help, the Russian focus moved further south.

The Romanian retreat after their defeat at Kronstadt meant a further change in Russian plans. Although twenty-seven Russian divisions moved to help, a further Romanian retreat meant that the Russian front had to be extended 400 kilometres. This new responsibility was paid for at the expense of Brusilov’s offensive.

Russian officers blamed the Romanians for their situation, but in truth, their offensive effort had been slacking because of a shortage of men and arms. They were now fighting against positions where reinforcements could be made available. The balance of strength had also shifted. ‘At the beginning of the battle 39 Russian infantry divisions opposed 37 Austrian and one German division. By 12 August, reinforcements from other fronts had increased the South West Front to 61, but they were opposed by 72 enemy divisions of which 24 were German – 18 having been sent from the west.’

Writing home on 3 September, Leutnant Stegemann described the fighting his company had been through. ‘Fierce but victorious battles. I have been through some ghastly times. On the 31st August the Company lost three officers and 50 men, mostly in hand-to-hand fighting…The Russians attack every day, but are always repulsed with terrific loss’. Three days later he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class by Excellenz Litzmann, Hindenburg’s second-in-command and a Stegemann family friend. Litzmann sent his greetings to the family and told him to ‘write this: I congratulate you on the success of your son, who, through his smartness and courage, with the assistance of his splendid Company, has by his counter-attacks driven back the already demoralized Russians, and by storming Hill 259 averted what was a grave menace to my army-group.’ Two weeks later he was killed in action. General Litzmann wrote to his parents when he heard the news. ‘I wish to express my deep sympathy with you and your wife. You may both feel proud of your son, and may say to yourselves that you have offered up a sacrifice to the Fatherland the influence of which will be of lasting value to the brave 165th Regiment. Our heroes do not die in vain and they live on for us through their shining example. Leutnant Stegemann, who held the recaptured Hill 259 for 5½ hours against overwhelming odds with the greatest gallantry, and only after the last cartridge had been fired fought his way, with his little handful of men, back through the Russian ranks, will never be forgotten.’

Brusilov had been ordered to stop the attacks but insisted on a few days longer. On 16-17 October fifteen divisions attacked towards Vladimir-Volhynskyi and its railway lines. German artillery caused heavy casualties among the attacking troops but without spotter planes the Russian artillery could do nothing to affect the outcome. After two days the Russians abandoned the battle. The last campaign of the Russian Army had been mounted on behalf of Italy and, the Russians believed, destroyed by Romania.

In Russia there were food and fuel shortages. The number of strikes was increasing and the dissatisfaction was spreading to the armed forces. Military rioters were shot as were soldiers who fired on the police during a strike at the Renault factory in Petrograd. There was discontent in the navy and merchant marine: during 1915 there had been mutinies aboard two ships. ‘Amidst these manifestations of unrest, the government remained paralysed by internal upheaval.’

Some realised that ‘the long-awaited revolution was moving closer’ and began to plan their programmes for when it arrived. Only one of the many plots and conspiracies hatched in the last month of the year came to fruition: Rasputin, a court favourite and confidant of the Tsarina, was murdered by a trio that included a Prince. One of his predictions would come true before the war ended. ‘If he died at the hands of any member of the royal family the dynasty would fall within a year, and that its principal members would suffer violent deaths.’

However, the discontent was in the rear. At the front the troops were outwardly untouched. Reinforcements had arrived and morale was good. Heavy artillery was arriving from Britain and supplies were at a high level, putting them on a parity with the Germans. Although fraternisation was not allowed, from the messages exchanged by both sides it was clear that the Austro-Germans were war-weary. The British naval blockade was working and they were hungry: at times they crossed the lines to beg for food from the Russians. They were also aware of the growing Russian strength, realised that there was no breakdown of authority among the front-line soldiers, and knew that they could not leave the Habsburgs to look after the front themselves.