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.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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