4-Jun-1916 - The Brusilov Offensive

Austro-Hungarian horse artillery advance through the recently captured Polish village of Kazimierz on this propaganda postcard.

Contributed by Grace Yoshizawa (wyosh@intergate.bc.ca)

The Brusilov Offensive

Cause | The Plan | Preparation | The Battle | Effects


General Alexei Bruslilov

Appeals from France persuaded Russia into launching a dual winged attack into Vilna Naroch as a counter to German activity in Verdun. Instituted on 18-Mar-1916, it ground to a halt in the mud of the spring thaw. German losses of 20,000 men were nothing compared to the 70,000 - 100,000 lost by the Russians. It did nothing to improve already low Russian morale.

Later that spring the Austrians attacked Italy at Trentino, bringing cries for help from the Italian government. The Russian government saw an opportunity to re-establish their previous military prestige and bolster public morale with a potentially glorious victory. General Aleksei A. Brusilov organized and launched this delayed, but still somewhat premature, surprise offensive on 4-Jun-1916.

The Plan

The Eastern Theater.
(click to zoom)

General Brusilov replaced General Ivanov on 14-Apr-1916 by order of the Czar Nicholas II. Brusilov proposed an offensive to the Czar but the two other generals, Evert and Kuroptkin, preferred to stay defensive in the war, claiming a lack of heavy artillery and shell for an offensive. They argued heatedly until the Czar agreed to give the go ahead for Brusilov's Offensive. Brusilov had advised an attack on all fronts in light of Germany's superior rail communication. The surprise attack would be launched at the end of May and the southwestern front would make the initial move with the main thrust following on the western front towards Wilno. The southern front's objective was to take Kovel, an important Austrian railway center. The four armies were to be given six weeks of preparation time without obvious amassing of troops or preliminary artillery preparation in order to preserve the element of surprise. With four armies forming behind a 200 mile line sector, anticipating the main attack becomes very difficult. Unfortunately, Brusilov's initial plan disintegrated (much like the Schlieffen Plan) in the field.


Austro-Hungarian marksmen of the Tiroler Kaiserjaeger
await action on the Eastern Front, 1916.

The original plan anticipated six weeks of preparation time. This was not to be so. The Austro-Hungarian line Brusilov intended to break through was solidly fortified. One behind the other, three defensive belts lay. Each belt was a minimum of three well-built, full-depth trenches including machine gun nests, sniper hide-outs and communication tunnels dug 50-60 feet apart. Aerial photographs, courtesy of Russian aircraft, provided an excellent view of these defenses and the information transferred to a large-scale map. Officers studied the terrain of the intended battle site. Most soldiers kept well behind the line. The Russians dug their own trenches as assembly and jump off points along the Austrian Front-line trenches. As Brusilov readied his troops and the end of the month drew nearer, the pressure began to mount. Then, just before the projected date of attack, Evert announced his Western Front troops required more time for further preparation. Brusilov was alarmed, to say the least, as his Southwestern Army was only a preliminary diversion for Evert's main Western offensive. The urgent situation at Verdun to the West added further pressure on the success and swiftness of the Russian offensive.

The Battle

Russians bringing in wounded German POWs.

The surprise assault was launched on 4-Jun-1916. Three of the Russian armies broke through Austro-Hungarian lines. The element of surprise, a thorough artillery prep and the alacrity with which the Czechoslovakian soldiers of the Austrian army surrendered fostered the Russian attempts. The thrust towards Kovel and Lutsk succeeded in capturing the latter on 8-Jun. By this time, the Austrians were in full and fast retreat. Mind that this was just the preliminary attack. The stronger offensive was to follow. No reserves had been constructed as the attack was a wide spread, one-shot effort, not the typical hammer blow assault. On 9-Jun, a very frustrated and distressed Brusilov was informed that the Western attack was deferred until 18-Jun. Evert was unwilling and hesitant to commence his maneuver. By then, the German General Ludendorff, intent on reinforcing the severely weakened Austrian army, had managed to scrape together a counter attack. The preliminary main thrust split its advance in two directions due to vague instruction from the GHQ. The chance to take Kovel was lost. On 18-Jun, a small, poorly readied, and futile front moved towards Baranowicze. This was Evert's long awaited and much needed main thrust for which Brusilov's army was only preliminary. It was then that Brusilov realized that the Russian GHQ would do exactly what he had been so vehemently opposed to. They transferred troops from Evert's Western Army to Brusilov's Southwestern, assuming the additional troops would assist in exploiting fully the success of his initial attack. The German, making the best of rather meager resources, noticed the move of troops and prepared a counter to the south. Because of their superior rail, they arrived first. And the battle continued. By the end of July, very little progress had been made in spite of renewed attempts. Austrian, German and Russian armies began to tire. With Russian casualties numbering more than half a million, the Offensive ground to a halt on 10-Aug-1916. But the effort was not entirely in vain. Austria had lost extensive territory and, excluding the dead and wounded, 375,000 as POW's.


Russian POWs by German artist Max Rabes, 1916.

The Brusilov Offense had quite an effect on the course of history. Strategically, it weakened the Central Powers on the Italian front and at Verdun. The Austrians were forced to forsake their Italian victory, rushing to fight the Russian in the North. An important factor on the Western Front, the Eastern attacks saw Germany terminating its Verdun Operation to transfer no less than 35 divisions from the Schlieffen right hook to the Eastern Front. This helped to sufficiently undermine Schlieffen plan enough for France to sustain a successful defense. The Offense ruined Austria-Hungary. Weakened by political turmoil, Austria was unable to cope with its losses, of funds and of soldiers. It was forever eliminated as a major military power. The future brought the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the formation of the Austrian and Hungarian republics.

Within its own, the loss of one million Russian soldiers and the decayed public morale hung heavily on the people. Widespread famine caused by the diversion of all resources to the war effort induced rioting. Nicholas II abdicated from the throne and the provisional government, set up in his place, was overthrown in a Bolshevik coup abruptly afterwards. In 1917 the Russian Revolution was well under way. A failed success, the Offense assisted the Allied war effort but brought upon itself much strife.

© 1996 Grace Yoshizawa - All rights reserved