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.
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.
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.