"Russia has not yet reached the zenith of her power."
June 4, 2016 7:50 AM   Subscribe

One hundred years ago today, an enormous Russian offensive begins. The attack surprised nearly everyone, including enemies and the rest of the Russian command.

The massive assault on Austro-Hungarian forces was intended to aid already or soon-to-be hard-pressed Russian allies France, Italy, and Britain, while also hoping to knock an enemy empire out of the war.


General Alexei Brusilov combined aerial reconnaissance, meticulous planning, innovative infiltration techniques, shock troops, and an enormous artillery bombardment to shatter two Austrian armies, gain hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and win more territory from the Central Powers than any Entente offensive to date. Inspired, Romania entered the war on the Entente's side.

However, the offensive also cost Russia dearly, perhaps as many as one million casualties. Romania fell to a Central Powers campaign. And in eight months the war-weakened tsarist regime would fall to revolution.

More:
Brusilov's statement on the attack. Brusilov, "Hero of the Hour", in the New York Times.

A critical account by a German general.

Some film footage. Indiana Neidell sets the stage. Bonus: 20-odd seconds of Brusilov at table with cool soundtrack.
posted by doctornemo (14 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
From the NYT piece: "...with the enthusiasm of a great, united nation behind him."

Most of what I've read about Russia in WWI has maybe been coloured by the Revolution, and depicts a nation full of reluctant peasants, a nation which hardly wanted to go to war at all. Which was it, I wonder?
posted by clawsoon at 9:02 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Russia seems like a perpetually angry bull, exhaling steam and thumping the ground, intimidating with promises of a ruthless charge that never comes.
posted by ariadne_88 at 9:08 AM on June 4, 2016


General Von Cramon's report in the "Critical account" link is fascinating. It was an official report, yet it reads like a literary account of the battle. I wonder how common that was at the time?
posted by KGMoney at 9:20 AM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


From what I remember, a lack of artillery shells forced Brusilov to alter the usual "pound 'em until they're mush" strategy that had dominated Great War thinking (a strategy that destroyed the battlefield and made any sort of progress impossible). German reviews of the battle led them to try new tactics the following year, at Caporetto where they nearly knocked Italy out of the war, and which both sides finally figured out worked best the next year, when the trench warfare was finally overcome and the western front finally moved.

The Germans eventually combined the lessons they learned at Cambrai (groups of tanks work great) with Brusilov's to devastating effect twenty years later.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:43 AM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Ah the First World War, when losing only 500 000 men counted as a decisive victory.

General Von Cramon's report in the "Critical account" link is fascinating. It was an official report, yet it reads like a literary account of the battle. I wonder how common that was at the time?

That's typical for the remarkable German officers of that period, perhaps the best educated officer corps in human history.

From what I remember, a lack of artillery shells forced Brusilov to alter the usual "pound 'em until they're mush" strategy

I understood it to be a deliberate choice. A long Somme-style bombardment informs the enemy of what part of the line to reinforce.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:22 AM on June 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Russia seems like a perpetually angry bull, exhaling steam and thumping the ground, intimidating with promises of a ruthless charge that never comes.
For Eastern countries such as Poland, where I was born, the charge has come a few times over the years. When I last visited in 2014 the Crimean invasion was headline news, and there was an interesting national-scale victim blaming story. It sounds like Russia on offense is so frightening to the neighbors that a story of Ukraine’s leadership “asking for it” is a comforting way to say “it can’t happen here.” 
posted by migurski at 10:43 AM on June 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


Russia seems like a perpetually angry bull, exhaling steam and thumping the ground, intimidating with promises of a ruthless charge that never comes.

Adolf Hitler would like a word with you. Tsar Nicholas also has some thoughts on the matter.
posted by wabbittwax at 11:37 AM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


If you're looking for more military literature from the First World War, Rommel's Infantry Attacks contains a gripping account of the Romanian Campaign of 1917.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:23 PM on June 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


I understood it to be a deliberate choice. A long Somme-style bombardment informs the enemy of what part of the line to reinforce.

No, it wasn't deliberate. Brusilov wasn't given enough artillery to do the usual bombardment, so he had to get creative with his approach. Since he couldn't just indiscriminately pound everything, he looked for key points to target, and hit just them. That left the rest of the ground fairly intact so ground troops had an easier time advancing.

Long Somme-style artillery barrages went on for days, giving the enemy enough time to bring up all the reinforcements they needed, and churned up the battlefield to slow the advance enough for those reinforcements to position themselves defensively, but they were also the accepted military wisdom of the day. If Brusilov had had enough artillery he would have used it, too, and contemporaries figured his success would have been greater if he'd had more artillery available. His success was inspiration combined with desperation.

The following year the Germans were starting to experience the same limiting factor, and decided to try the concept out in Italy because they weren't completely convinced it was right. The western allies were completely unprepared for its success because they were still sure greater bombardment = greater success.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:08 PM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


Brusilov in that short film clip has some seriously engaging eyes.

As usual Dan Carlin covers this episode nicely in his Hardcore History podcast "Blueprint for Armageddon IV".

.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 2:42 PM on June 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Anyone interested in the battle and the war on the Eastern Front should read W. Bruce Lincoln's Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918, part of his brilliant trilogy of books on Russia before, during, and after the Bolshevik Revolution (and you really have no excuse not to, with prices like "Hardcover from $0.73, Paperback from $0.01"). He has a whole chapter on the offensive, which I won't try to summarize except to say that Evert and Kuroptkin did their best to screw Brusilov over, out of a combination of old-fashioned thinking and what looks, frankly, like cowardice.

> From the NYT piece: "...with the enthusiasm of a great, united nation behind him."

Most of what I've read about Russia in WWI has maybe been coloured by the Revolution, and depicts a nation full of reluctant peasants, a nation which hardly wanted to go to war at all. Which was it, I wonder?


It was the latter, but you can hardly expect a newspaper in an allied nation thousands of miles away with virtually zero understanding of Russian conditions to say so.
posted by languagehat at 2:56 PM on June 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


For Eastern countries such as Poland, where I was born, the charge has come a few times over the years. When I last visited in 2014 the Crimean invasion was headline news, and there was an interesting national-scale victim blaming story. It sounds like Russia on offense is so frightening to the neighbors that a story of Ukraine’s leadership “asking for it” is a comforting way to say “it can’t happen here.”

I should had clarified that I was talking about post -1989 Russia, not the USSR or Tsardom.

I absolutely agree that the threat for its former soviet satellites - as well as the non-slavic Balkan states- is always legitimate. It's an opportunistic, vulture move over nations where the Soviet trauma is still fresh. But more importantly, it happens with the tolerance of western Europe, which just spews some idle threats while it's in bed with Putin, and likes to pretend, like Metternich used to say, that Asia begins at the Landstrasse. Look what they did in the Balkans, where Russia's puppy committed 2 genocides in 1 decade. (Absolutely nothing by the way, that's what they did.)

Putin's Russia is a badly hurt beast, that relies on intimidation to survive. He uses tactics that are reactionary and opportunistic, and he takes full advantage of the idle, rotten, corrupted and greedy EU to flaunt his mafia-like style of ruling. Despite this bravado, he runs a train-wreck of social and financial disasters. I don't see where Russia will be able to generate any momentum to reach some grand power, it has to keep moving frantically just to keep its head above water. It can of course do plenty of damage to the fragile states that have the misfortune of being its neighbors, with EU's blessings. This is also very irrelevant to a conversation about WWII.


Adolf Hitler would like a word with you. Tsar Nicholas also has some thoughts on the matter.

Hitler dealt with the USSR. But I was referring to modern day Russia, why aren't you all telepathic?!
posted by ariadne_88 at 6:17 PM on June 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


General Von Cramon's report in the "Critical account" link is fascinating. It was an official report, yet it reads like a literary account of the battle. I wonder how common that was at the time?

If you're looking for more military literature from the First World War, Rommel's Infantry Attacks contains a gripping account of the Romanian Campaign of 1917.

Yes, my quick skim of General Von Cramon's report was very much in line with the style of Infantry Attacks. The latter is an extremely interesting book for anybody with an interest in infantry warfare of the period. Rommel's unit ends up fighting all over Europe, so it's a really complete look at the German fronts of that war. And, yes, the style is very literary, so it's easy to read as well. (Even at the absolute height of my grognardiness, I couldn't make it through Guderian's book, but I read Infantry Attacks and The Rommel Papers several times each.)
posted by tobascodagama at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh, I really enjoyed Achtung Panzer. So if you enjoyed Infantry Attacks more, I'll take that as a recommendation to find it.

Damn, on top of the Lincoln stuff, I have a lot of new books to track down...
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:29 PM on June 6, 2016


« Older Stem Cell Therapy Crosses a Threshold   |   47 Years of Peace and Love Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments