Brusilov’s Offensive: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

In 1915 and 1916 the First World War battles along the solidified trench lines of the Eastern and Western Fronts followed a familiar pattern: the attacker would launch a massive weeks long artillery bombardment to shatter the defenses. At the appointed time, the attacking infantry officers would blow their whistles and they and their men would climb out of their trenches i.e. “go over the top”, into “no man’s land” and get mowed down by machine guns because artillery never kills everyone. But soon the weight of numbers told and the attackers broke through. However the breach was not exploited because the attacker’s reserves and logistical support couldn’t traverse the artillery shattered terrain quick enough. Even if they could, the defensive reserves were already close because the build up and long bombardment gave away the point of attack. The defenders would inevitably counterattack and retake the positions. The defeated attacking commanders would cry lack of artillery and demand more and heavier guns, and more shells. The bloody cycle would continue. Millions died.

In early May 1916, the Imperial Russian government was under intense pressure to launch a general summer offensive in order to draw the Germans away from Verdun where the Germans were erasing a 3000 man infantry regiment from the French order of battle every day. The Russians reluctantly did so but only had enough shells for an adequate pre attack bombardment for one front, and they chose General Ewart’s Western Front. The other fronts would have to make do with enough shells for just a single day’s bombardment, well below the minimum ten days thought necessary to break the standard German or Austro Hungarian triple belt defensive line.

The Southwest Front Commander, General Aleksei Brusilov, protested that the lack of shells would cause excessive casualties. He was told that was his problem and to attack anyway. Brusilov wasn’t a deep thinker but he was a practical and competent cavalrymen who cared deeply for his soldiers. He gathered his staff to figure out a way to break the opposite Austrian lines without murdering entire armies. He and his staff locked themselves in the headquarters for three days and did what Russians do best: drink vodka and figure out new, efficient, and effective ways to kill people.

They did.

After the vodka laden brainstorming and planning session with his staff, Brusilov issued new guidance to make up for the lack of artillery support for the upcoming June offensive. Normally, at least ten days’ worth of shells were needed to break a triple belt trenchline, he had but one. To make up for this weakness, he had to use what he had more efficiently, specifically his infantry. Strong points and key terrain in the Austro-Hungarian line were identified, scale models were created, and picked troops were assigned, specially equipped, trained, and rehearsed in their capture. The rest of his troops dug massive underground bunkers that could house these assault troops close to the front lines without alerting the Austro-Hungarians. They also went back to old siege techniques from 17th and 18th centuries, and dug assault and infiltration trenches into no man’s land, some of which got to within 75m of the enemy forward trenches. Brusilov also used his artillery to directly support the infantry attacks, instead of the indirect blanket support heretofore used so far in the war. He would have just a single hour’s worth of initial bombardment, and its only task was forcing the defenders into their own bunkers. The artillery would then switch to counterbattery and opportunity fire which necessitated an overhaul of the poor fires coordination between the artillery, infantry, and aviation. Finally, he brought up all of his reserves, and more importantly, delegated most of them to his army commanders since he did not see the Austro-Hungarians counterattacking in force the way the Germans would farther north. His army commanders could respond more quickly with them close at hand.

On 4 June, 1916, the entire Russian Army, from Baltic Sea in the north, to the Carpathian Mountains in the south, went over the top. Troops of Ewart’s Western Front facing the Germans were massacred. Brusilov’s Southwestern Front broke through and exploited the breach on the first day.

With no massive telltale artillery stockpiles and troop concentrations, the Austro-Hungarians were completely surprised by the attack. Brusilov’s revolutionary new tactics ensured that most forward Austro-Hungarian units were captured in their bunkers settling in in anticipation of a long bombardment. In most areas, two of the three trench lines were overrun before the defenders put up any resistance. And the third was easily punched through. Since the roads were relatively undamaged by the shelling, the nearby reserves quickly drove into the Austro-Hungarian rear areas.

In a war where offensive gains were measured in yards for the last 20 months, Brusilov’s Southwest Front drove forward fifty miles in 72 hours. Despite the seemingly narrow gains on the map, Germany’s ally crumbled.

By July, the Germans had to withdraw troops from the North and West to finally stop Brusilov’s drive from knocking the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the war. This relieved pressure on the French, but it finally ground the Russian’s wildly successful offensive to a halt. Still Brusilov was the darling of Tsar Nicholas’ II court and the Southwest Front was showered with resources. If Alexei Brusilov could do so much with just a single day’s artillery, imagine what he could do with twenty!… or so the thinking went.

Unfortunately, Brusilov didn’t learn his own lessons.

With the massive support, Brusilov reverted back to the old ways. Four months and one million casualties later, the Russian people were tired of the senseless killing. Revolution was in the air.

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