New Offensive on Eastern Front, First Battle of the Isonzo
By Erik Sass
June 29, 1915: New Offensive on Eastern Front, First Battle of the Isonzo
The unraveling of the Russian armies that began with the breakthrough at Gorlice-Tarnow in May 1915 accelerated in the months that followed, as the German Eleventh Army under General August von Mackensen (below) launched a series of major offensives supported by the Austro-Hungarian Second, Third, and Fourth Armies. The new attacks widened the gap in the Russian lines and forced the Russians to withdraw again and again in what became known as the Great Retreat.
While hardly a blitzkrieg of the type unleashed on the Soviet Red Army in the Second World War, the Austro-German advance through Poland and Galicia in May-September 1915 was methodical and relentless, following a cyclical pattern with occasional pauses to consolidate and regroup. First punishing artillery bombardments blasted apart Russian defensive works (top, a German 30.5 centimeter gun on the Eastern Front), followed by massed infantry charges that captured huge numbers of prisoners (below, German uhlans escort Russian prisoners); then the Russians would withdraw to a new line of trenches further back, their pursuers would bring forward the heavy artillery, and it would start all over again.
Mackensen’s success allowed German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn and his Austro-Hungarian counterpart Conrad von Hötzendorf to withdraw some troops for operations elsewhere, including the Western Front and the Balkans. After the fall of Przemyśl on June 3, on June 10 the Austro-Hungarian Third Army was dissolved and many of the troops were sent to the Italian front; a new Third Army would be formed in September for the fall campaign against Serbia.
However Mackensen still had plenty of manpower to continue the offensive: on June 13 he launched an all-out assault along a 31-mile front, aided by the composite Austro-German Südarmee (South Army). By June 15 the Russian Third Army was reeling back, allowing Mackensen to turn on the Russian Eighth Army, which also beat a hasty retreat. After a six-day battle the Central Powers recaptured Galicia’s capital Lemberg (today Lviv in western Ukraine) on June 22, while the Russian Eleventh Army joined the general withdrawal.
Meanwhile in Petrograd the blame game was heating up. On June 26 Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov (below, left) resigned amid allegations of incompetence stemming from the string of defeats as well as the critical shortage of artillery shells, which he had totally failed to remedy; he was succeeded by Alexei Polivanov (below, right) who would himself be removed in March 1916 due to the animosity of the Tsarina, egged on by the sinister holy man Rasputin.
A New Direction
There would be no respite for exhausted Russian soldiers. On June 29, 1915, Mackensen launched the biggest offensive yet, attacking in a surprising new direction that forced the Russians to accelerate the Great Retreat.
After the fall of Lemberg, Falkenhayn and the overall commanders on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff, met to consider options for the next stage of the campaign. Thus far the Austro-German advance had followed a straightforward west-to-east direction, more or less dictated by the need to pursue the withdrawing Russian armies. However the liberation of most of Galicia opened up a new possibility: Mackensen’s chief of staff Hans von Seeckt pointed out that they could now exploit a gap between the Russian Third and Fourth Armies to attack north into Russian Poland, capturing the important rail hub at Brest-Litovsk and cutting off the Russian First and Second Armies defending Warsaw further to the west. To fill the gap left by the Eleventh Army they would also transfer the Austro-Hungarian First Army across the rear of the advancing Eleventh and Fourth Armies, while Army Detachment Woyrsch took over the First Army’s lines.
At first advance units of the German Eleventh Army faced virtually no resistance as they crossed north into Russian Poland on June 29, 1915, supported by the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army on its left flank. By July 2 however the Russian Third Army had rumbled into action, launching a fierce counterattack against the Eleventh Army’s advancing right flank along the Bug River, while Mackensen’s forces also encountered elements of the newly formed and short-lived Russian Thirteenth Army (above, Russian troops in a temporary defensive position). Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described a nighttime battle along the Zlota Lipa river on July 1-2:
When the sun had already dipped below the horizon, I thought that we would be spending the night behind the embankment and that the attack would not take place until the following morning. It turned out that I was wrong. Behind us artillery shots could be heard; the shells whizzed over us and exploded further up at the Russian position… “Advance!” called the Commander of our Regiment from the back of the embankment. How these words made me shudder! Each of us knew that it would be the death sentence for some of us. I was most afraid of being shot in the stomach, as the poor pitiful people would normally live on, suffering the most terrible pain, for between one and three days before breathing their last. “Fix bayonets! Forwards to attack! March! March!” Everyone ran up the hill.
Richert was lucky enough to survive the charge on the Russian trenches, although the terror and confusion continued:
Despite everything we made progress. Amidst the roar of the infantry fire you could hear the rattle of the Russian machine guns. Shrapnel shells exploded overhead. I was so nervous that I did not know what I was doing. Out of breath and panting we arrived in front of the Russian position. The Russians climbed out of the trench and ran uphill towards the wood nearby, but most of them were shot down before they got there.
To deal with the threat to Mackensen’s right flank, on July 8, 1915 Falkenhayn formed a new composite Austro-German army, the Army of the Bug (named for the Bug River area where it would operate) commanded by Alexander von Linsingen, formerly of the Südarmee. He also gave Mackensen direct control over the Austro-Hungarian First and Fourth Armies, much to the chagrin of Conrad, who found himself and his officers increasingly sidelined by the imperious Prussians of the German general staff. Conrad’s position wasn’t helped by the embarrassing (but temporary) rebuff of the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army by the Russian Fourth Army near Krasnik on July 6-7.
The Central Powers commanders also faced growing logistical difficulties, as their advance took them further away from their rail supply lines and deeper into territory where the retreating Russians had destroyed the railroads as well as most – but not all – sources of food (above, a Russian wheat field burning). Richert recalled hungry German troops finding scraps of food in an abandoned Russian trench: “In their trench were still pieces of bread left lying around and we eagerly consumed them. Many soldiers pulled the grains from the green heads of wheat, blew away the chaff and ate them, in order to overcome their pangs of hunger.”
After pausing to move up supplies and reinforcements, the Central Powers returned to the attack on July 13-16, 1915, with advances by the Austro-Hungarian First and Fourth Armies and the Army of the Bug setting the stage for the main push by the Eleventh Army on July 16. Elsewhere Army Group Gallwitz attacked south from East Prussia, smashing the Russian First Army, while the Ninth Army and Army Detachment Woyrsch tied down the Russian Second and Fourth Armies near Warsaw. As usual, the new offensive opened with a huge artillery bombardment. Helmut Strassmann, a gung-ho junior officer, described the furious barrage unleashed by the German guns on July 13:
From 8 to 8.30 there was rapid-fire and from 8.30 to 8.41 drum-fire – the quickest of all. During these twelve minutes there fell into the Russian trenches, on a breadth of about 200 yards, about 10 shells per second. The earth groaned. Our chaps were keen as mustard, and our blessed guns simply rushed them along… When our bayonets began to get to work the enemy surrendered or bolted. Very few got away, for we were so near that every bullet reached its mark… The Company shot down quite 50 men and took 86 prisoners. Our own casualties were 3 killed and 11 wounded. One of our best men fell close to me during the attack, in the very act of shouting “hurrah”. He was shot through the head, so had a lucky death, being killed instantly.
After heavy fighting, by July 19 Mackensen’s main force had advanced up to seven miles along a front stretching 20 miles west and south of Lublin. A Russian soldier, Vasily Mishnin, described the chaotic evacuation of Makov, a village west of Lublin on July 16, 1915:
It is raining heavily. Shells are already exploding nearby. Refugees are walking and driving from all directions. We are ordered to pull out of Makov immediately… The battle is raging, everything is shaking. In Makov there is a crush of people, an endless procession of carts, no way to get out of here fast. Screaming, noise and crying, everything is confused. We are supposed to be retreating, but in two hours we only make it down one street… Everyone is desperate to avoid being taken prisoner by the Germans.
Meanwhile to the east the Army of the Bug and the Austro-Hungarian First Army had established bridgeheads across the River Bug, clearing the way for further advances towards Chelm, another key transportation junction on the way to the main objective of Brest-Litovsk (below, a Russian hospital train).
The Central Powers’ advance slowed somewhat in the face of fierce Russian resistance beginning July 20, but it still posed a clear threat to the rest of the Russian forces to the west, prompting the Russian commander on the northwestern front, Mikhail Alekseyev, to order the evacuation of Warsaw on July 22. This was the first step towards the final Russian withdrawal from all of Poland, leaving thousands of square miles of scorched earth in its wake.
Indeed, the fighting inflicted a heavy toll on the region’s inhabitants, as hundreds of thousands of Polish peasants abandoned their homes to flee with the retreating Russian armies into what are today Ukraine and Belarus. Ironically the German advance also destroyed the livelihoods of German settlers who had lived throughout the region for centuries. Richert recalled the scene in one small settlement:
We came to a village, half of which had been set on fire by the German artillery. The inhabitants were standing around bemoaning the loss of their burnt out homes, from which smoke was still rising. Most of the inhabitants of the village were German settlers. A woman who was standing by her burnt out house told us that her house had already been burnt out the previous autumn when the Russians advanced. They had rebuilt it in the spring, and now she was homeless again.
Not everyone fled: some Polish peasants decided to stay behind and take their chances with the conquering Germans and Austrians, as Richert discovered when he wandered into a peasant hut he believed to be empty, only to find a terrified woman with her child. Luckily for her, he was a co-religionist – and happily for him, she had food to share:
When she saw me, she fell to her knees from fear and held her child towards me. She said something in her language – probably that I should spare her for the sake of her child. In order to calm her down I gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder, stroked her child and made a sign of the cross to it, so that she should see that I too was a Catholic, like herself. Then I pointed at my gun and then at her and shook my head to show her that I would not do anything. How happy that made her! She told me a great deal, but I did not understand a word of it… She gave us boiled milk, butter and bread.
However most interactions probably weren’t quite so friendly; for one thing the Germans and Austrians, while still hoping to woo the Poles to their side, couldn’t conceal their racist disdain for “backwards” Slavs. Helena Jablonska, a Polish woman living in Przemyśl, complained in her diary:
It pains me to hear the Germans bad-mouth Galicia. Today I overheard two lieutenants asking “Why on earth should the sons of Germany spill blood to defend this swinish country?”… I had managed to keep quiet up till then, but this was really too much for me. I told them they were forgetting that it was to defend their Berlin from a Russian onslaught that we had been made to sacrifice Lwow [Lemberg] and devastate Galicia. I said that, in fact, we had deserved their help much sooner than it came.
Although few Poles welcomed the occupiers with open arms, as Jablonska’s comment indicates they weren’t necessarily afraid of arbitrary acts of violence either, in marked contrast to the capricious barbarity of Nazi German troops in the Second World War. In fact most rank and file soldiers were probably too tired and hungry to expend much energy on oppressing the locals, beyond requisitioning any food they might have. By mid-July some German troops had marched over 200 miles in the previous two months, and the advance was set to continue unabated through the hot Eastern European summer. Richert remembered:
We marched on. As a result of the intense heat, we suffered greatly from thirst. As a result of the dry weather, there was a great deal of dust on the poorly made-up roads and tracks; the marching columns of men stirred it up so much that we were advancing in a real cloud of dust. The dust landed on your uniform and pack, and worked its way into your nose, eyes, and ears. As most of us were unshaven, the dust gathered in our beards, and the sweat ran down continuously, forming streams in the dust-covered faces. On marches like this, the soldiers looked really disgusting.
While many Polish peasants fled voluntarily, that wasn’t the case for hundreds of thousands of Jews, as the Russians – angered by the fact that the Jews obviously preferred German rule and collaborated with the German military – continued their policy of forcible mass deportations into the Russian interior (below, Polish Jewish deportees). Ruth Pierce, a young American woman living in Kiev, witnessed the arrival of Galician Jews who were confined to camps before being shipped onwards to Siberia:
And down the hill was passing a stream of people, guarded on either side by soldiers with bayonets… They were Jews, waxen-faced, their thin bodies bent with fatigue. Some had taken their shoes off, and limped along barefooted over the cobble-stones. Others would have fallen if their comrades had not held them up. Once or twice a man lurched out of the procession as though he was drunk or had suddenly gone blind, and a soldier cuffed him back into line again. Some of the women carried babies wrapped in their shawls. There were older children dragging at the women's skirts. The men carried bundles knotted up in their clothes. “Where are they going?”--I whispered to Marie. “To the Detention Camp here. They come from Galicia, and Kiev is one of the stopping-places on their way to Siberia.”
Italy Defeated at First Battle of the Isonzo
As the Central Powers pushed deeper into Russian territory on the Eastern Front, to the south the Allies suffered another defeat on the Italian front, where chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna flung his armies against well-entrenched Austrian defenders at the First Battle of the Isonzo, with predictable results. As its name indicates this was just the first of twelve battles along the Isonzo River, most employing massed infantry charges that produced huge casualties for minimal gains (below, the Isonzo River valley today).
After Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915, the Austrians immediately withdrew to strong defensive positions built along foothills and mountainsides over the preceding months in expectation of an Italian attack, giving up a small amount of low-lying territory in return for a huge tactical advantage. Over the following weeks four Italian armies crept forward cautiously until they reached the Austrian defenses, in what became known – rather inaccurately – as the “Primo Sbalzo” or “first leap” (it was less of a leap and more of a crawl). The advance then halted until the disorganized Italians could complete their mobilization and bring up artillery and shells. Finally, by June 23, 1915, everything was ready, more or less, for the first major Italian offensive.
The main Italian war aim was capturing the port city of Trieste, with its mostly Italian population, and the first attack was accordingly carried out by the Italian Second and Third Armies, under General Frugoni and the Duke of Aosta, respectively, against the Austro-Hungarian Fifth Army under Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, entrenched on the high ground above the Isonzo River. The attack would focus on the defensive positions above Tolmein (Tolmino in Italian, today Tolmin in Slovenia) and Gorizia, now part of Italy; as a result much of the fighting would take place in rough, craggy terrain at elevations over 2,000 feet.
Cadorna doesn’t seem to have benefited much from the lessons learned by Allied generals at painful cost over almost a year of war on the Western Front, but he at least understood the value of prolonged artillery bombardments to soften up the enemy’s defenses. Thus the opening week of the First Battle of the Isonzo was devoted to heavy shelling, which however failed to break up the massive barbed wire entanglements in front of the Austro-Hungarian trenches, sometimes literally dozens of meters wide. Conditions were made worse be heavy rains that turned hillsides into slippery cascades of mud, which somehow had to be scaled beneath Habsburg machine gun and rifle fire.
The big infantry charge sent 15 Italian divisions forward along a 21-mile front on June 30, but despite a numerical advantage of almost two-to-one the assault failed almost completely, gaining a single bridgehead across the Isonzo through a huge expenditure of blood and ammunition (above, crossing the Isonzo; below, Italian wounded).
On July 2 the Italians launched another attack towards the Carso (Karst) Plateau, a strategic elevated plain riddled with pits and caves, and managed to capture Mount San Michele on the western edge of the plateau. A third attack against the Doberdò Plateau advanced less than a mile; elsewhere the Italians were pushed out of their hard-won positions in the hills above Gorizia. By July 7, 1915, it was all over; the Italians had suffered 15,000 casualties, compared to 10,000 for the Austro-Hungarians, for negligible gains. With every hour that passed the Habsburg defenders were receiving reinforcements and digging in deeper (below, Austrian troops in the Isonzo).
However none of this deterred Cadorna from launching another offensive, again relying on overwhelming numerical superiority and using substantially similar tactics, in the Second Battle of the Isonzo from July 18-August 3, 1915. The Italians scored some modest successes in this battle, but as so often in the First World War it proved a Pyrrhic victory, costing 42,000 Italian casualties.
See the previous installment or all entries.