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.