Russians Launch Brusilov Offensive, Arab Revolt Begins

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 238th installment in the series. 

June 4-5, 1916: Russians Launch Brusilov Offensive, Arab Revolt Begins 

Following the Russian defeat at Lake Naroch in March 1916, the military chiefs of the Central Powers complacently assumed that Russia had finally exhausted its offensive power. They proved disastrously mistaken. Heeding the repeated calls of their French and Italian allies, under pressure from concerted German and Austrian attacks at Verdun and Asiago, respectively, the Russians agreed to mount another major attack in June 1916 – this time with an important difference.

The difference was General Alexei Brusilov (below), previously commander of the Russian Eighth Army, now elevated to command of the entire Southwest Front, composed of four armies containing 650,000 troops, facing around 500,000 mostly Austro-Hungarian troops (the Südarmee or “South Army” was a hybrid Austro-German force). 

Today unknown to most Western readers, Brusilov was undoubtedly the most talented Russian commander of the First World War and in fact one of the best commanders of the war overall. While his grasp of grand strategy was middling, Brusilov’s genius lay in his close attention to battlefield tactics, with a special focus on organization, preparation, and deception.

Hailed as a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which different weapons work together smoothly as a unified whole, Brusilov carefully coordinated the action of heavy and light artillery, mortars, machine guns, aerial reconnaissance and finally the infantry attack itself to create openings in the enemy line which threatened encirclement, methodically forcing the enemy to withdraw again and again.

By dividing infantry attacks into waves, with the first waves armed with grenades and supported by subsequent waves carrying mobile machine guns, Brusilov mirrored many of the German innovations in stormtroop tactics. Additionally, he ordered heavy artillery to focus on the enemy’s rear areas, destroying communication trenches and preventing enemy reinforcements from moving forward. Perhaps most ingeniously, Brusilov ordered preparations to go forward without concealment along the entire Southwest Front, measuring some 280 miles from north to south; the result was paralysis, as his opponents found themselves apparently threatened everywhere, and thus unable to reinforce anywhere.

Click to enlarge

On June 4, 1916, the Russian Eighth Army’s artillery opened a relatively moderate but unusually accurate bombardment of the Habsburg Fourth Army’s positions, followed by careful observation from planes and artillery spotters to assess the exact degree of damage to frontline defenses. Only later in the day did Russian troops begin to advance, striking narrow areas of the front, all weakly held because the Habsburg commanders had been unable to shift reinforcements, exactly as Brusilov planned (below, Russian troops advance).

Despite this the Russians incurred heavy losses for modest gains over the first couple days – but their offensive, gradually grinding forward, was wearing down already demoralized Habsburg troops who now found themselves cut off from supplies and repeatedly forced to dig new defensive positions. The Austro-Hungarian First and Second Armies lost key sections of the front, but it wasn’t until the Russian Ninth Army broke through the Austro-Hungarian Seventh Army’s positions near Okna to the south on June 5 that the situation became critical for the Habsburgs.

The Austro-Hungarians responded by sending a constant stream of reinforcements to the front (suffering heavy casualties from Russian artillery as they did so) and finally managed to stem the advance of the Russian Ninth Army – but now the sheer magnitude of the Russian offensive began to tell, as the main focus of attack shifted to the Russian Seventh Army to the north. By June 9 the Russian Seventh Army had advanced around 20 miles and taken 16,000 prisoners – at which point the Russian Ninth Army was ready to return to the attack.

The constant shifting of fighting along the front confused and overwhelmed the Habsburg commanders, and further demoralized Habsburg troops, while the slow but steady advance energized the Russians. By June 8 the Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, was sufficiently alarmed that he swallowed his pride (no small feat) and asked his detested German counterpart, Erich von Falkenhayn, for help. Falkenhayn, preoccupied with Verdun, initially rebuffed the request, telling Conrad to end his Asiago offensive and withdraw divisions from the Italian front instead; only two days later, however, Falkenhayn relented and instructed the German commanders on the Eastern Front, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, to send five divisions to prop up the Habsburgs in the south.

The Germans were able to send the reinforcements because Brusilov’s colleague, General Alexei Evert, failed to mount a promised attack to the north with his Western Army Group – providing yet more evidence of the disastrous lack of overall coordination in the Russian high command. Evert’s negligence meant that Brusilov’s breakthrough in early June and the following weeks, however impressive, would ultimately remain a local victory. 

Nonetheless the Brusilov Offensive’s impact would be far-reaching: by the time it ground to a halt in September 1916, Austria-Hungary would be almost destroyed as a military power, left completely dependent on Germany for its continued survival. The Russian success would also persuade the Romanians to join the war in the second half of 1916 (with disastrous consequences for Romania). By the same token, huge losses sustained by the Russian armies in the latter part of the offensive would fuel growing anger at the Tsarist regime, helping lay the groundwork for revolution.

For ordinary people living in the Austro-Hungarian provinces of Galicia and Bukovina, the Brusilov Offensive spelled yet another round of terror and displacement. A Polish landowner recalled the panicked scene in a village outside the city of Czernowitz, as peasants and townsmen fled the approaching enemy once again:

The horizon was red with the glow of fires. For the third time our poor villages were burning. Whatever had survived previous battles was now given up to the flames. Homeless refugees, evacuated from the threatened villages, were passing with their poor, worn-out horses and their cows – all their remaining wealth. In perfect silence; no one complained; it had to be.

 According to the same witness the arrival of defeated Habsburg soldiers, followed by abandonment by their own government, produced predictable results:

Then a panic began. Some one had come from a neighboring village reporting that he had seen Cossacks. Soon refugees from the villages outside were streaming through the town. General confusion. Children were crying, women sobbing. A mass flight began… Then a drum was heard in the square. It was officially given out that the situation was extremely grave and that whoever wished to leave the town had better do so immediately.

Meanwhile a citizen of Czernowitz recalled the growing chaos as the Russians approached on June 11: 

The gray dawn found the city in full flight. The streets were filled with crowds, the tramcars were carrying wounded soldiers… The square before the railway station was closely packed with people, but the police were admitting only railway officials. The women were begging, crying, lifting up their children… The artillery fire was drawing closer and closer, and above the heads of the crowd appeared a Russian aviator. Their hearts were shaking with fear.

In what was by now a familiar scene from the war, the town’s central square was clogged with terrified townspeople and peasants trying to board trains, as law and order rapidly broke down: 

The news that the town would soon come under fire led to a sheer panic. The crowd in front of the station was seized with frenzy. Against the resistance of the officials it forced its way into the station and invaded a half-empty military train. The same happened in the case of the next train, and to all the following ones. In the course of Sunday 6 to 8,000 people left Czernovitz.

Arab Revolt 

On June 5, 1916, the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein Ali threw off his status as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire and proclaimed himself King of the Hejaz, opening the Arab Revolt. At any other time the uprising would have been dismissed as a tempest in a teacup. But in the context of the First World War, the rebellion added a new chess piece to the board, which the Ottoman Empire’s enemies were quick to exploit – setting the stage for the dramatic (perhaps melodramatic) feats of T.E. Lawrence, a romantic figure who gripped the world’s imagination as “Lawrence of Arabia.” 

In mid-1916 no one knew who Lawrence (a low-ranking British intelligence officer) was. His crucial meeting with Hussein Ali’s son, Faisal, was still some months in the future. For the time being, Hussein Ali’s Hashemite Arab tribesmen were fighting on their own with outdated weaponry against the Turks, who were equipped with modern artillery, airplanes, machine guns, and rifles. The early results were not encouraging: under the flinty Fahreddin Pasha, the Turkish garrison at Medina rebuffed repeated attacks, forcing the Arabs to lay siege to the city. However the Turks were forced to commit precious resources to defending Medina and the Hejaz Railway connecting it to the rest of the empire (see map below). 

Although Hussein Ali’s aims might be considered nationalistic – he hoped to unify most of the Arabs of Arabia, Syria and Mesopotamia in a single pan-Arab kingdom – he was careful to curry favor with the Muslim world by presenting his rebellion as a blow against Turkish “infidels,” referring to the secular Committee of Union and Progress or "Young Turks," who had deviated from their pious forebears and failed in their duties as protectors of the Holy Places of Islam. His official proclamation of the rebellion, on June 27, 1916, read in part: 

We leave the whole Mohammedan world from East to West to pass judgment on this contempt and profanation of the Sacred House.  But we are determined not to leave our religious and national rights as a plaything in the hands of the Union and Progress Party. God (blessed and exalted be He) has vouchsafed the land an opportunity to rise in revolt, has enabled her by His power and might to seize her independence and crown her efforts with prosperity and victory, even after she was crushed by the maladministration of the Turkish civil and military officials. She stands quite apart and distinct from countries that still groan under the yoke of the Union and Progress Government.  She is independent in the fullest sense of the word, freed from the rule of strangers and purged of every foreign influence. 

As it happened, two of the most powerful foreign influences – Britain and France, soon to be Hussein Ali’s allies – had rather different ideas about the future of the Middle East. 

Death of Kitchener

On June 5, 1916, the British suffered one of the great symbolic losses of the war with the death of Lord Kitchener, who perished at sea after his ship, the HMS Hampshire, hit a mine and sank with all 650 hands aboard just off the Orkney Islands. Kitchener had been en route from Scotland to Archangelsk in northern Russia, with plans to visit the Eastern Front and strengthen ties with Britain’s ally. 

An iconic hero from colonial wars of the Victorian era, hastily appointed Secretary of State for War by the profoundly unprepared British government in the first days of August 1914, “Kitchener of Khartoum” provided continuity and reassurance for ordinary Britons during the first months of this unprecedented conflagration. As the mustachioed face of the recruiting posters proclaiming “Lord Kitchener Wants YOU,” his avuncular image was ubiquitous, even as his own role in government shrank. 

Indeed, Kitchener had been steadily sidelined by his colleagues in the Cabinet, who criticized his apparent inability to delegate responsibility, combined with chronic indecision and frequent inattention to crucial matters. At the same time, Kitchener was held responsible for the shell crisis, Gallipoli, and Loos, among other disasters. It was an open secret that the trip to Russia was intended to get Kitchener out of the way for a while (succeeding more than anyone expected).

Despite his shortcomings, for the British and Allied publics Kitchener’s loss was a major blow; in fact he was the highest-ranking serving military officer to die during the war. It was especially devastating coming close on the heels of the British losses at Jutland, which many observers decided was a defeat, despite government propaganda (the judgment of history is more ambiguous). Tragically, far worse was to come: the great British offensive at the Somme was less than a month away.

See the previous installment or all entries.

12 Epic Facts About David Lynch's Dune

Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In 1984, more than a decade of development hell culminated in the release of Dune, the long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel about a messianic figure rising from a desert planet where a mysterious spice was harvested. After several different filmmakers tried (and failed) to bring it to the screen, Dune finally arrived via David Lynch, a then up-and-coming filmmaker who’d never been tested on a film of that size and scope.

The result was one of the most fascinating cinematic messes of the 1980s, the product of a tricky adaptation process, editorial clashes, and a filmmaker who never felt satisfied with the work he was doing under the watchful eye of his producers. In celebration of its 35th anniversary, here are a dozen facts about the making of Dune, from last-minute casting choices to battles over the final cut.

1. It took years to get Dune made.

Though Dune didn’t make it to the big screen until 1984, the journey from page to film actually began more than a decade earlier with producer Arthur P. Jacobs, best known for science fiction hits like Planet of the Apes. Jacobs announced his production of Dune in 1972, seven years after Frank Herbert’s novel was initially published. Jacobs’s production eventually unraveled and the producer passed away in 1973, leading to an effort from French producers to get the film made. That, too, eventually fell apart, leaving the rights to be claimed by yet another producer.

By the late 1970s, producer Dino De Laurentiis had purchased the rights to Dune, hoping to make the film with his daughter Rafaella, who adored Frank Herbert’s original novel. Then came the problem of finding a director, which Dune had struggled with before.

2. Several directors tried to make Dune.

Back in 1972, when Jacobs was working to get his adaptation of Dune off the ground, he announced that director Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) would direct the film. Ultimately, the adaptation proved too unwieldy and costly for Jacobs to mount, and the rights were passed along to French producers who’d purchased them for director Alexandro Jodorowsky, best known at the time for his surreal Western El Topo.

Jodorowsky launched an extravagantly ambitious plan to adapt Dune into something that was very much his own vision, conceiving the project as an epic that would run as long as 14 hours, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a cast including everyone from his own son Brontis as Paul Atreides to Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí as the Emperor. After three years in pre-production, Jodorowsky had already burned through much of the film’s budget, and the project stalled while gaining its own legendary reputation. Jodorowsky’s vision for the project was ultimately immortalized in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

In 1980, with De Laurentiis now driving the project, the director’s chair was offered to Ridley Scott, then fresh off his own sci-fi success with Alien. Scott was interested, but several factors—including Universal Pictures’ anxiety over the project’s budget—led him to ultimately walk away in favor of yet another sci-fi project: Blade Runner.

With Scott out, Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis went searching for another director. That’s when they saw a new historical drama called The Elephant Man.

3. David Lynch was hired for Dune because of The Elephant Man.

A photo of David Lynch
Getty Images

At the end of 1980, David Lynch only had two feature films to his name: The experimental nightmare Eraserhead and the acclaimed historical drama The Elephant Man, both of which were black-and-white films that showcased Lynch’s knack for striking visuals. The Elephant Man catapulted Lynch into mainstream visibility and critical acclaim. The film earned eight Academy Award nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, and won three BAFTAs, including Best Film. It also drew the eyes of Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis, who saw Lynch as the perfect up-and-coming visual stylist to tackle Dune. Despite their love of The Elephant Man, the De Laurentiises did not go back and watch Eraserhead until after Lynch was hired.

“If I had seen it without knowing him, I probably would have walked out,” Rafaella De Laurentiis later said of Lynch’s debut feature.

4. David Lynch turned down Star Wars to make Dune.

After The Elephant Man became a massive critical success, Lynch began work on the film that would become Blue Velvet, but at the same time other filmmakers were looking at the director to take on more commercial projects. According to Lynch, he was at one point considering working on an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (which was finally adapted as Manhunter by Michael Mann in 1986), but an even bigger offer had also arrived on his table. George Lucas was looking for a filmmaker to take on directing duties for his third Star Wars film, and wanted Lynch.

“I went to meet George Lucas, who had offered me the third Star Wars to direct, but I’ve never even really liked science fiction,” Lynch later recalled. “I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing.”

So, Lynch turned down what would become Return of the Jedi, ultimately in favor of taking on Dune.

5. David Lynch hadn’t heard of Dune before he was offered the film.

David Lynch, despite his leaning toward various genre quirks in his works, was never a particular fan of science fiction, which put him in an interesting position in the early 1980s when he was offered two major science fiction projects in the wake of The Elephant Man’s success. He was so out of the loop on major sci-fi stories, in fact, that when Dino De Laurentiis called him, he had a difficult time understanding exactly what he was being offered.

“And Dino says, ‘I want you to read this book, Dune,’” Lynch recalled. “I thought he said ‘June,’ you know, and I said, ‘June’? He said, ‘No, Dune.’ And so then a friend of mine said, ‘Man! That is a great science fiction book,’ and I said, ‘I know, that’s what I heard.’ So I started reading it.”

Lynch went on to get so deep into Dune that he wrote half a dozen drafts of the screenplay, and consulted frequently with author Frank Herbert.

6. Kyle MacLachlan was cast in Dune because he was an unknown actor.

Kyle MacLachlan and Ramón Menéndez in Dune (1984)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When it came time to cast Dune, Lynch and Rafaella De Laurentiis knew it was important to strike the right tone with the actor who would play the film’s hero, Paul Atreides. To do this, they decided that instead of pursuing a known star, they would seek out an unknown young actor who could lend a somewhat mysterious presence to the film. De Laurentiis sprang into action and organized casting agents for a nationwide search to find the film’s Paul. While casting scout Elizabeth Leusting was combing the Pacific Northwest for talent, she came across a 25-year-old actor who’d been performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Kyle MacLachlan was nearly finished with school and was already planned to make a move to New York City to begin auditioning on his way to an acting career. Instead, he was put on the fast track by winning the lead role in Dune.

MacLachlan’s casting wasn’t just the launch of his screen acting career. It was also the beginning of a lengthy collaboration with Lynch which included Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet, as well as the iconic cult TV series Twin Peaks.

7. Helena Bonham Carter was Dune’s original Princess Irulan.

As the cast of Dune was coming together and preparing to begin production on the film in Mexico City, the producers ran into a major obstacle. Helena Bonham Carter, the original choice to play Princess Irulan, had a scheduling overlap between Dune and A Room with a View, which she was already shooting. Because the schedules conflicted and A Room with a View “wouldn’t let her out” of work on that film, there was what Virginia Madsen later called a “mad scramble” to find a replacement actress.

Madsen, then an relative unknown, went in to audition in an all-white outfit which David Lynch later saw a Polaroid of. Based on her “classic look,” he chose her as Princess Irulan, which she later called her “big break.”

“Really all I had to do was that monologue, and I was really a glorified extra,” Madsen said.

8. David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis clashed over the edit.

Dune is a massive, densely detailed novel that establishes a vast sense of place and continuity, which made it a particular challenge to adapt. Once Lynch had a usable screenplay to make the film, the massive scope of Dune translated over into production in Mexico City, where 75 sets and thousands of costumes were made to bring Lynch’s vision of Herbert’s universe to the screen. By the end of production, Lynch had put together a work print that was 4-5 hours long, and eventually trimmed that down to a cut of the film that was somewhere near three hours.

De Laurentiis was having none of that. The producer believed the film needed to be closer to two hours in order to be theatrically successful, and set about condensing Lynch’s original cut down to his preferred runtime. Sequences were cut or heavily abbreviated, and De Laurentiis even oversaw reshoots to add certain elements, including the opening in which Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) speaks directly to the camera to set the stage for the story. The additions were made after test screening audiences complained the film was hard to understand, but they arguably only muddied the waters even more.

Though he was dissatisfied with his lack of final cut on the film, Lynch has resisted any opportunity to go back and recut Dune, so much so that when the film was expanded for a television release, Lynch asked that his name be replaced with “Alan Smithee,” the traditional pseudonym for directors who don’t want to be credited on films they’re unhappy with.

9. David Lynch learned a valuable filmmaking lesson from Dune.

Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984)
Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Dune was David Lynch’s third feature film, and it turned out to be his first and, to date, only exercise in big-budget franchise filmmaking. Ever since Blue Velvet his career has been marked by smaller budget, often downright experimental, feature films so singular that they’ve earned their own adjective: Lynchian. There’s a reason for this, even beyond Lynch’s pursuit of his own particular filmmaking interest. On Dune, he learned a very specific lesson that would help to define his future as a director.

“When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death, die the death. And died I did,” he recalled. “When you have a failure, like they say there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s so freeing. It’s beautiful, in a way.”

10. Dune helped get Blue Velvet made.

David Lynch has come to look back on Dune as a disappointing exercise in compromise, but he also acknowledges that making the film was “both great and horrible, side by side.” Though he clashed with De Laurentiis over the cut of the film, he did still find a kinship with his producers that went beyond the difficulties of making the film.

“I love Dino and I love Rafaella and I loved working with them,” he later said. “We were like a family. I just know the way they are and they know the way I am. We loved each other in spite of it.”

De Laurentiis obviously loved Lynch back, and had faith in what he could do if he was granted more artistic freedom on a smaller film, because the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group financed Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet. That film, a nightmarish mystery that once again starred Kyle MacLachlan, is still considered among Lynch’s greatest artistic successes.

11. There were big sequel plans for Dune.

At the time Dune was in production, Frank Herbert had already published four novels in his Dune series, with two more – Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune – set to follow in 1984 (the year Dune was released) and 1985. That meant there was a vast sandbox of intellectual property for De Laurentiis and company to play in if the film was successful, and the producers certainly intended to keep going. After completing work on Dune, Lynch went right into working on the screenplay for a sequel, and MacLachlan was contracted to return for up to four more films if Dune proved a success. Years later, Virginia Madsen recalled that her own contract for Dune was for three movies, as the producers “thought they were going to make Star Wars for grown-ups.”

Of course, Dune ultimately grossed a little more than $30 million worldwide on a budget of at least $40 million, so no sequels were in the cards.

12. Frank Herbert enjoyed David Lynch’s Dune.

Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984)
Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Nearly two decades passed between the time Frank Herbert published Dune and the release of David Lynch’s film adaptation. Along the way, Herbert saw the many different attempts to bring his story to the screen, and he spent a good deal of time in consultation with Lynch as the director developed his version of the Dune screenplay. So, when it was completed, how did he feel about the film?

In an interview with Lynch from around the time of Dune’s release, Herbert seemed quite pleased with the film, particularly the visuals.

“I get asked a specific question a lot of times, if the settings, the scenes that I saw in David’s film match my original imagination, the things I projected in my imagination. I must tell you that some of them do, precisely,” Herbert said. “Some of them don’t, and some of them are better. Which is what you would expect of artists such as David and Tony Masters. I’m delighted with that! Why not take it and improve on it visually? As far as I’m concerned the film is a visual feast.”

Additional Source: Lynch on Lynch, Revised Edition (2005), edited by Chris Rodley

Rewind Time With This Blockbuster-Themed Party Game

Amazon/Big Potato Games
Amazon/Big Potato Games

With only one Blockbuster location left in the world, the good old days of wandering video rental store aisles and getting chewed out for late fees are definitely a thing of the past—but like so many relics from the '90s, the pull of nostalgia has ensured that Blockbuster (or at least the brand) won't disappear for good. Now the video store is back in the form of a party game from Big Potato Games that is designed to test the movie knowledge of you and up to 11 friends.

Marketing itself as “a movie game for anyone who has ever seen a movie,” the Blockbuster party game consists of two parts. In part one, players from each team compete head-to-head to name as many movies as they can that fit under specific categories (e.g., movies with Tom Cruise, famous trilogies, movies with planes). In the second half, two teams face off against each other to test their skills at a game of movie-related charades. The catch? Players can only describe movies in one of three randomly chosen ways: acting out scenes, rattling off a famous quote, or describing the films with one word.

The real selling point of the whole package is that Big Potato fit all the game cards and buzzer into a box that is virtually identical to the old-school Blockbuster VHS rental cases, right down to its distinct color scheme and shape. All it's missing is the membership card. 

The Blockbuster board game costs $26 on Amazon and $20 at Target. That’s a fair price for getting the chance to rewind time.

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