3 December 2013, 10:06

The Brusilov offensive

The Brusilov offensive
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The Brusilov offensive took place in summer of 1916. Officially it is called “a Russian army offensive on the South-Western Front during the First World War”. However, most people know it as the Lutsk or Brusilov offensive. 

The title “Lutsk” comes from the old military tradition when a battle gets named after the place it was launched.

But something different happened to this one and it was named after the commander, an unprecedented fact in itself.

Naturally, we need to say a few words about this remarkable man – General Alexei Brusilov. He came from a line of soldiers and started his military career during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. By the beginning of the First World War Brusilov was already a general in the cavalry and a commander of the 12th division.

When war broke out, Brusilov was assigned to lead Proskurov’s group of troops and by 1916 took command over all armies of the South-Western Front. It was a large-scale military unit consisting of four land divisions, artillery, cavalry, aviation, sappers and reserves. The total number of servicemen was quite impressive – about one and a half million. The fact that Brusilov was the one in charge of them is no accident - he was considered one of Russia’s most courageous commanders. Brusilov’s fellow-officers thought his character and will would bring the Russian army to a bright future. And it seems like they were right after all.

It was 1916. The First World War had been raging for two years. Both sides had mobilized all their resources – from financial and manpower. Many battles were won and lost, but neither side made significant progress. On the contrary, the war was fought mostly in trenches. The army of the Triple Entente, of which Russian forces were a part, and also the troops of Austro-Hungarian bloc created deep defenses on the front lines. It was all artillery on the front with no open flanks.

Rare attempts to break through enemy defense resulted in numerous battle casualties and were never successful. Nevertheless, the war went on: neither side was willing to surrender its position. Officers and privates in the Russian army were spoiling for a fight, wanting to bring the war to the end and to victory. Their allies – the English and French armies – supported their determination.

The governments seemed to be on the same page too. The Triple Entente agreed that a simultaneous attack against the Central Powers was necessary. In March, 1916 the officials of the Entente gathered for a conference at the French residence Chantilly, where the final decision was made.

A strategic operational plan for the Russian army was devised in April by the Stavka, the Russian high command. Michail Myagkov, a member of the Russian Military Historical Society, explains what this document consisted in.

"The Allies – Russia, England and France – coordinated their military operations. According to the plan of the Russian high command, an immense offensive was planned for summer. And while the Western Front was a priority, at the meeting with the Stavka in April, 1916 general Brusilov insisted on striking the enemy from the South-Western Front first," Michail Myagkov said.

Initially the South-Western armies commanded by Brusilov were given a supporting role in the offensive. They were assigned to defend and hold back enemy forces, while the Western Front delivered the main blow. There is an easy explanation for such strategy: in the opinion of the Stavka, the South-Western Front was too weak to hold an offensive, and the government had neither time, nor money for its reinforcement. But Brusilov rejected being in a subordinate position on principle. So he convinced the Stavka to change the plan and let his armies lead the offensive. The Russian high command approved Brusilov’s plan with one condition – he could only make use of his own forces. The general thought it was enough.

As we know, there are few examples in history when a commander pushed so hard to complicate his own mission. Brusilov put everything on the line – his authority, prosperity and life of his soldiers. But, in the end his pulled it off, keeing the Russian army’s image intact.

After thorough preparation, Brusilov’s operation started on June 4th, 1916. The first to start the offensive was artillery, later joined by other divisions of the South-Western Front. The operation lasted 70 days. Dr. Sergei Bazanov, leading researcher of the Institute for History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, explains the important effect of the battle on the course of the First World War.

“Firstly, this operation brought Austria-Hungary to the verge of a military and national catastrophe; they just couldn’t carry on fighting as they did before. Secondly, Germany felt that its allies were weakened so they had to pull off their troops from the Western and Eastern Fronts to send them to the rescue,” Sergei Bazanov said.

German forces came to the aid of Austria-Hungary to close the gaps in its defense that the Brusilov offensive opened. As a result, the German army was defeated, battle after battle, on the other fronts. Sergei Bazanov points out that the Brusilov offensive cost Germans great losses.

“The enemy lost up to one and a half million man killed, wounded and captive. Russians lost about half a million which is three times less even considering that it was an offensive action,” Sergei Bazanov said.

According to Dr. Bazanov, Brusilov found a way out of trench deadlock and for the first time in world history, managed to break through the echelon defense. Maybe that’s why this operation was named after the commander who organized and carried it out. However, not everybody shares the same opinion. “the Personal impact of general Brusilov wasn’t as significant as many claim”, said Pyotr Multatuli, leading researcher for the Russian Institute of Strategic Research.

“The breakthrough was a result of the collective leadership of the Stavka. Of course, Brusilov’s contribution to the victory was considerable but his role was deliberately exaggerated back in 1916-17 by the liberal opposition for the sake of depreciating Tsar’s part in the operation. Yet we need to keep in mind that he was a Commander-in-Chief after all,” Pyotr Multatuli said.

Historians opinions of on general Brusilov’s role in the Lutsk offensive differ. But there is hardly anyone who would deny the significance of this operation. Pyotr Multatuli considers the battle to be one the major events of the First World War. Sergei Bazanov adds that the operation completely changed the course of the war. He says the offensive of the Russian armies of the South-Western Front marked a turning point which brought victory to the Entente.

“Because of the Brusilov offensive the year of 1916 became a crucial point for the First World War. Just like 1943 was crucial for the Second World War. The ammunition shortage was resolved and reinforcements helped reduce causalities on the Northern and Western fronts. All this allowed Brusilov to accomplish his operation,” Sergei Bazanov said.

Being one of the greatest battles in war history, the Brusilov offensive didn’t end the conflict between the Triple Entente and its enemies. The end came only two years later, when the Russian empire no longer existed. The soldiers who took part in the offensive were undeservedly forgotten for years. But today – leading up to one hundred years since the First World War – those lost heroes are being remembered. As Elena Rudaya, leading researcher of the Institute of the Russian History, reminds us: “Without understanding the lessons of the past we can’t solve the problems of the future”.

“The lessons of that period are highly important both for Russia and other countries. The revival of the historical memory about the role of our soldiers in the First World War is necessary, not for national pride, but for the sake of succession of historical perception,” Elena Rudaya said.

Leonid Reshetnikov, Director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Research shares the same opinion:My granddad was killed at the Carpathians in the Brusilov offensive. During the Soviet times my parents had to keep quiet about it. Not that you could get persecuted for talking about it but it wasn’t popular. Nowadays we are restoring this historical memory.”

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