Russians Attack At Lake Naroch

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 229th installment in the series.  

March 18, 1916: Russians Attack At Lake Naroch 

With France fighting for its life at Verdun, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre pleaded with his country’s Allies to immediately launch their own offensives against the Central Powers, in hopes of forcing Germany to shift troops from Verdun and take some of the pressure off France. The result was a series of attacks against Germany and Austria-Hungary, mounted with little hope of success in an effort to demonstrate solidarity. 

Following the total failure of the Italian attack on Austria-Hungary at the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, the next big Allied push was the Russian offensive against Germany on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, from March 18-30, 1916, where General Kuropatkin’s Northern Army Group attacked a thinly-held part of the German front. Despite a huge advantage in manpower (350,000 to 75,000) and artillery (1,000 guns to 400), the attack by the Russian Second Army under General Smirnov on the German Tenth Army under General Eichhorn ended in defeat, as well-entrenched German defenders in multiple lines of trenches repelled the human-wave style assaults of the Russian infantry. However, the fact that the Russians could mount an attack at all was a warning that the Central Powers ignored to their detriment. 


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Indeed, the Russian preparations for an attack at Lake Naroch came as something of a surprise to German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who complacently assumed that Russia was basically out of the war following serial defeats at the hands of the Central Powers in their 1915 summer campaign on the Eastern Front. While Russia was in fact under increasing internal stress (like most of the other combatants), it was far from finished. 

By the same token, Russia’s backwards infrastructure and the Russian Army’s lamentable logistics meant the Germans had plenty of time to prepare their defenses around Lake Naroch and its environs, now located in modern-day Belarus and Lithuania; they were aided by aerial reconnaissance which revealed huge – but slow – Russian troop movements. Malcolm Grow, an American surgeon volunteering with the Russian Army, recalled the columns of Russian infantry arriving in the weeks leading up to the new offensive:

For miles they stretched across the frozen landscape. The roads were like huge brown arteries through which flowed slowly moving columns of men, artillery and transports, ebbing on endlessly to replace our corps – a constant stream of gray-brown…Huge 9-inch and 6-inch guns came lumbering through the village. The roads had not yet begun to thaw and they were easy to move. Endless columns of caissons loaded with shells rattled back and forth bringing up shells…

The offensive would take place in swampy terrain amid frequent freezing, thawing, and re-freezing, which made it very difficult to dig trenches deep enough to offer protection. Grow described the shallow trenches and general lack of good cover against German artillery: 

The trenches were again at the edge of a great forest, facing across a flat open field, across which was another great forest of pines… The trenches were dug in only about two feet. There was a thick covering of ice on the bottom. To make up for their lack of depth, they had been built up in front with banks of dirt and sod. On account of the swampy character of the ground, very few dug-outs had been constructed and not one fit for use was at our disposal. We had to work in tents covered with pine boughs to hide them from observation… The only protection we had from the German artillery were the tree trunks.

On March 16, 1916 the Russian Second Army launched a huge two-day bombardment, with an intensity unprecedented for Russian forces in the First World War, but German dominance in the air meant that much of the artillery fire was inaccurate, due to a lack of aerial reconnaissance. Furthermore the combination of mist and smoke from the artillery shelling made it even harder for Russian spotters to identify targets and assess damage. Grow remarked on the low visibility:

I went down into our first-line trenches, which were half filled with icy snow and muddy water, coming up almost to my knees, and peered out through a loophole toward the German trenches. The black line of forest along which his first line ran was almost hidden by spurting clouds of smoke and dirt. A gray haze simply hid them from view where the high explosive shells tore up barbed wire and trench parapets. 

On March 18 the Russians unleashed the first of many human wave attacks aiming to overwhelm the outnumbered German defenders through relentless assaults, but paid a steep price when it was discovered most of the German machine guns were still in action. Their task was made even more difficult by the melting snow and ice, which turned the wide, flat fields into a muddy morass, pockmarked by shell holes filled with water. Finally, even when the Russians managed to break through in places, they faced a second and third line of German trenches, still mostly intact. Grow described the fate of the first wave: 

They were hardly over the top when the German machine-guns turned a withering fire on them, the machine-guns hammering and the rifles cracking. Across the flat, white field they went, and every here and there a man would go down sprawling in the snow. The German barrage fire appeared as a haze of whirling smoke and dirt, partly hiding them as they went through it, and the earth shook with the violence of the explosions. The sprawling forms were like the foam that a receding wave leaves on the sand as it sweeps back to its parent sea. Many came running or crawling back with all manner of wounds, as the advancing line became lost to sight in the tumbling, rolling fog of the barrage; but No Man’s Land was covered with men who would never move again. 


The Russian female soldier Yashka (real name Maria Leontievna Bochkareva) painted a similar picture of the Russian infantry attacks:

The signal to advance was given, and we started, knee-deep in mud, for the enemy. In places the pools reached above our waists. Shells and bullets played havoc among us. Of those who fell wounded, many sank in the mud and were drowned. The German fire was devastating. Our lines grew thinner and thinner, and progress became so slow that our doom was certain in the event of a further advance. 

After multiple human wave attacks, the Russians finally broke through in some places, advancing up to ten kilometers – but were eventually forced to withdraw or face encirclement. Yashka described the retreat, followed by the dangerous work of retrieving wounded from the battlefield:

How can one describe the march back through the inferno of No Man’s Land on that night of March 7th, [N.S., March 19th] 1916? There were wounded men submerged all but their heads, calling piteously for help. “Save me, for Christ’s sake!” came from every side. From the trenches there went up a chorus of the same heartrending appeals… Fifty of us went out to do the work of rescue. Never before had I worked in such harrowing, blood-curdling circumstances… Several sank so deep that my own strength was not sufficient to drag them out… Finally I broke down, just as I reached my trench with a burden. I was so exhausted that all my bones were aching. 

By March 30, 1916, the swampy conditions, lack of ammunition and exhaustion of the Russian troops left little choice, and Smirnov’s superior General Evert called the offensive off; a coordinated attack near the Baltic Sea port of Riga also failed. The price was enormous but no longer shocking by the standards of the First World War: across all the offensives in this region they suffered around 110,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing and prisoners) including at least 12,000 from frostbite. Meanwhile the Germans lost “just” 20,000 men. Yashka remembered the stomach-churning aftermath of the battle: 

Our casualties were enormous. The corpses lay thick everywhere, like mushrooms after rain, and there were innumerable wounded. One could not take a step in No Man’s Land without coming into contact with the corpse of a Russian or a German. Bloody feet, hands, sometimes heads, lay scattered in the mud… It was a night of unforgettable horrors. The stench was suffocating. The ground was full of mud-holes. Some of us sat on corpses. Others rested their feet on dead men. One could not stretch a hand without touching a lifeless body. We were hungry. We were cold. Our flesh crept in the dreadful surroundings. I wanted to get up. My hand sought support. It fell on the face of a corpse, stuck against the wall. I screamed, slipped and fell. My fingers buried themselves in the torn abdomen of a body.

Afterwards she described the preparations to bury the bodies in mass graves: “Our own Regiment had two thousand wounded. And when the dead were gathered from the field and carried out of the trenches, there were long, long, rows of them stretched out in the sun awaiting eternal rest in the immense common grave that was being dug for them in the rear.” For his part, Grow got some idea of the losses in conversation with a Russian officer, who told him: “Of my company of two hundred men, only forty got back uninjured…” Later, Grow noted: “One regiment which had had four thousand men only a few hours before now had only about eight hundred!” 

The fate of wounded Russian soldiers was hardly much better, Grow added, as paltry medical facilities were quickly overwhelmed by huge numbers of casualties: “The cold was intense, and as our tent could not accommodate all the wounded, many had to lie in the snow wrapped in such poor blankets as we could supply. At times there were as many as a hundred lying in the snow outside the tent, many of them having only their wet overcoats to protect them against the cold!” 

The failure of the Lake Naroch Offensive encouraged the Germans to resume their former complacency, concluding that Russia had finally exhausted itself. In fact, the giant realm still had huge untapped reserves of manpower, and industrial production of war-related goods was expanding quickly. Perhaps most importantly, the Russian Army was experimenting with new offensive tactics, led by the brilliant battlefield strategist Alexei Brusilov.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Welcome to the Party, Pal: A Die Hard Board Game Exists

USAOPOLY/Amazon
USAOPOLY/Amazon

On the heels of the 30th anniversary of the classic Bruce Willis action film Die Hard last year, tabletop board game company The OP has created a game that will see John McClane once again battle his way through Nakatomi Plaza. Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist is a board game officially licensed by Fox Consumer Products that drops players into a setting familiar to anyone who has seen the film: As New York cop McClane tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, he must navigate a team of cutthroat thieves set on overtaking a Los Angeles high-rise.

The game has a one-against-many format, with one player assuming the role of McClane and the other players conspiring as the thieves to eliminate him from the Plaza.

The OP, also known as USAOpoly, has previously created games based on Avengers: Infinity War and the Harry Potter franchise. Die Hard has spawned four sequels, the most recent being 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard. Willis will likely return as McClane for a sixth installment that will alternate between the present day and his rookie years in the NYPD. That film has no release date set.

The board game is available for purchase on Amazon now for $40.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Good Ol' Facts About The Dukes of Hazzard

Getty Images
Getty Images

When The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on January 26, 1979, it was intended to be a temporary patch in CBS’s primetime schedule until The Incredible Hulk returned. Only nine episodes were ordered, and few executives at the network had any expectation that the series—about two amiable brothers at odds with the corrupt law enforcement of Hazzard County—would become both a ratings powerhouse and a merchandising bonanza. Check out some of these lesser-known facts about the Duke boys, their extended family, and the gravity-defying General Lee.

1. CBS's chairman hated The Dukes of Hazzard.

CBS chairman William Paley never quite bought into the idea of spinning his opinion to match the company line. Having built CBS from a radio station to one of the “Big Three” television networks, he had harvested talent as diverse as Norman Lear and Lucille Ball, a marked contrast to the Southern-fried humor of The Dukes of Hazzard. In his 80s when it became a top 10 series and seeing no reason to censor himself, Paley repeatedly and publicly described the show as “lousy.”

2. The Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee got 35,000 fan letters a month.


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While John Schneider and Tom Wopat were the ostensible stars of the show, both the actors and the show's producers quickly found out that the main attraction was the 1969 Dodge Charger—dubbed the General Lee—that trafficked brothers Bo and Luke Duke from one caper to another. Of the 60,000 letters the series was receiving every month in 1981, 35,000 wanted more information on or pictures of the car.

3. Dennis Quaid wanted to be The Dukes of Hazzard's Luke Duke—on one condition.

When the show began casting in 1978, producers threw out a wide net searching for the leads. Dennis Quaid was among those interested in the role of Luke Duke—which eventually went to Wopat—but he had a condition: he would only agree to the show if his then-wife, P.J. Soles, was cast at the Dukes’ cousin, Daisy. Soles wasn’t a proper fit for the supporting part, which put Quaid off; Catherine Bach was eventually cast as Daisy.

4. John Schneider pretended to be a redneck for his Dukes of Hazzard audition.

New York native Schneider was only 18 years old when he went in to read for the role of Bo Duke. The problem: producers wanted someone 24 to 30 years old. Schneider lied about his age and passed himself off as a Southern archetype, strutting in wearing a cowboy hat, drinking a beer, and spitting tobacco. He also told them he could do stunt driving. It was a good enough performance to land him the show.

5. The Dukes of Hazzard co-stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat met while taking a poop.

After Schneider was cast, the show needed to locate an actor who could complement Bo. Stage actor Wopat was flown in for a screen test; Schneider happened to be in the bathroom when Wopat walked in after him. The two began talking about music—Schneider had seen a guitar under the stall door—and found they had an easy camaraderie. After flushing, the two did a scene. Wopat was hired immediately.

6. Daisy's Dukes needed a tweak on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Bach’s omnipresent jean shorts were such a hit that any kind of cutoffs quickly became known as “Daisy Dukes,” after her character. But they were so skimpy that the network was concerned censors wouldn’t allow them. A negotiation began, and it was eventually decided that Bach would wear some extremely sheer pantyhose to make sure there were no clothing malfunctions.

7. Nancy Reagan was fan of The Dukes of Hazzard's Daisy.

Shirley Moore, Bach’s former grade school teacher, went on to work in the White House. After Bach sent her a poster, she was surprised to hear back that then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was enamored with it. “I’m the envy of the White House and I’m having your poster framed,” Moore wrote in a letter. “Mrs. Reagan saw the picture and fell in love with it.” Bach sent more posters, which presumably became part of the decor during the Reagan administration.

8. The Dukes of Hazzard's stars had some very bizarre contract demands.

Wopat and Schneider famously walked off the series in 1982 after demanding a cut of the show’s massive merchandising revenue—which was, by one estimate, more than $190 million in 1981 alone. They were replaced with Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer, “cousins” of the Duke boys, who were reviled by fans for being scabs. The two leads eventually came back, but it wasn’t the only time Warner Bros. had to deal with irate actors. James Best, who portrayed crooked sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, refused to film five episodes because he had no private dressing room in which to change his clothes; the production just hosed him down when he got dirty. Ben Jones, who played “Cooter” the mechanic, briefly left because he wanted his character to sport a beard and producers preferred he be clean-shaven.

9. A miniature car was used for some stunts in The Dukes of Hazzard.

As established, the General Lee was a primary attraction for viewers of the series. For years, the show wrecked dozens of Chargers by jumping, crashing, and otherwise abusing them, which created some terrific footage. For its seventh and final season in 1985, the show turned to a miniature effects team in an effort to save on production costs: it was cheaper to mangle a Hot Wheels-sized model than the real thing. “It was a source of embarrassment to all of us on the show,” Wopat told E!.

10. The Dukes of Hazzard's famous "hood slide" was an accident.

A staple—and, eventually, cliché—of action films everywhere, the slide over the hood was popularized by Tom Wopat. While it may have been tempting to take credit, Wopat said it was unintentional and that the first time he tried clearing the hood, the car’s antenna wound up injuring him.

11. The Dukes of Hazzard cartoon went international.


YouTube

Warner Bros. capitalized on the show’s phenomenal popularity with an animated series, The Dukes, which was produced by Hanna-Barbera and aired in 1983. Taking advantage of the form, the Duke boys traveled internationally, racing Boss Hogg through Greece or Hong Kong. Perhaps owing to the fact that the live-action series was already considered enough of a cartoon, the animated series only lasted 20 episodes.

12. In 2015, Warner Bros. banned the Confederate flag from The Dukes of Hazzard merchandising.

At the time the series originally aired, little was made of the General Lee sporting a Confederate flag on its hood. In 2015, after then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spoke out against the depiction of the flag in popular culture, Warner Bros. elected to stop licensing products with the original roof. The company announced that all future Dukes merchandise would drop the design element. Schneider disagreed with the decision, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Is the flag used as such in other applications? Yes, but certainly not on the Dukes ... Labeling anyone who has the flag a ‘racist’ seems unfair to those who are clearly ‘never meanin’ no harm.'”

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