The Brusilov Offensive was undertaken by the Russian Army against the Central Powers on the Eastern Front of World War One. It was one of the worst crises faced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the war. The battle took place in what is today western Ukraine, in the area adjacent to the towns of Lviv, Lutsk and Kovel. The offensive was named after the Russian general who planned it, Alexei Brusilov, commander of the Southwest Front.
The military problems of the First World War consisted of a number of circles to be squared. A successful offensive needed both surprise and preparation. These were incompatible: preparation of millions of men and horses took so long that surprise was impossible. In the same way, mobility and weight could not be reconciled. A huge weight of guns could be assembled. The enemy might be defeated. Then the guns could not be moved forward. In other words, armies would be mobile only if they did not have the weight to make their mobility worthwhile. Brusilov and his staff were the first to try to find solutions to these problems.
After the failure at Lake Naroch, there was a general unwillingness among the senior commanders to risk their reputations further. The only general willing to step up to the mark was General Alexei Brusilov. When he discovered that eight German divisions had been withdrawn by the Germans and dispatched to the Western Front, he was more than willing to use his four armies (the Eighth, Eleventh, Seventh and Ninth Armies) to attack the Austro-Hungarians south of the Pripyat Marshes, with the intention of pushing them back through Galicia.
Brusilov had already established a reputation as by far the most competent and aggressive of the Russian generals. He had also demonstrated a mastery of the new techniques of warfare through a combination of practical experience and diligent study. By 1916 he had managed to produce a blueprint for success, some of which predated the tactical methodology being established on the Western Front. In this he was greatly assisted by his specially selected and highly trained staff officers, who were the men who had to convert his intentions into action on the ground.
The Austrians noticed some of the preparations in front of their lines, but refused to believe that the Russians were capable of launching anything other than crude mass attacks reliant on the press of numbers alone. Indeed, Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian Chief of Staff, was considerably more preoccupied with supervising the offensive he had launched on the Italian front than with what Brusilov might be planning on the Southwest Front.
Brusilov finally launched his offensive. The bombardment worked spectacularly, with the field guns clearing the barbed wire while the heavier guns targeted the Austrian batteries, machine gun posts and command centers. Over the next two days, at varying times, the Russian infantry emerged to charge across the narrow No Man’s Land, often catching the Austrians unawares deep in their dugouts. Under the pressure the front collapsed, while multiple breakthroughs triggered further forced withdrawals by the units on the flanks in order to avoid being cut off.
Brusilov's preparations worked admirably. The enemy was genuinely surprised when the attack opened. The Russian Army overwhelmed the Austrians and pushed on to take the communication center of Lutsk, and to advance forty miles beyond the start line.
Soon the Austrians were falling back all along a 250-mile front stretching from the Pripyat Marshes right down to the Carpathian Mountains. This left only one realistic option for Conrad: appeal for help from the Germans once more. Conrad travelled to Berlin, cap metaphorically in hand, for an audience with the unprepossessing figure of Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff. It did not go well. In order to help them, the Germans demanded that all Austro-Hungarian units in Galicia be under direct German command. Conrad had no choice but to concede.
Just as the Germans were flexing their power over the Austrians, the Russians were demonstrating that there was a complete absence of unified direction within the Russian Army itself. While Brusilov had paused to rest his troops, he had fully expected that in mid-June Evert, who was in command of the neighbouring West Front, would launch the next phase of the attack. Instead, Evert produced a variety of excuses to justify delaying his attacks. It was the combination of the arrival of massed reserves and Evert’s obtuse inactivity that gave the Central Powers the chance to stabilize the line.
By the time Evert was ready to attack, Brusilov’s armies had already returned to the fray, although any visions he might have had of knocking Austria-Hungary out of the war were fast fading. The relative lack of tactical sophistication of Evert’s West Front armies when they did belatedly attack was also starkly apparent, and their casualties were correspondingly high. Still, Brusilov’s Southwest Front armies continued to make progress, hurling back the Austrian Fourth, First and Second Armies.
The Germans' principal concern was to hold Kovel because its loss would cut the north-south railway, hampering movement between the Austrian and German fronts. A mixed German-Austrian force was assembling in the Kovel-Manevychi area to attack the Eighth Army's northern flank, but the Russians disrupted its preparations by attacking first. In the end the Germans managed to stop the Russian advance during the battle of Kovel.
One consequence of the relative success of the Brusilov Offensive was to convince Romania that now was the time to join the Entente. Bordered by Russia, Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria, she had the misfortune to be weaker than any of them. The Romanian Army had not yet recovered from the drubbing it had received in the debacle of the Balkan Wars; nor had it undergone a program of much-needed modernization. Many members of the Romanian royal family and politicians were overtly pro-German, but the country’s best opportunities for profitable national expansion all seemed to involve the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The late summer of 1916 saw a concerted move by Hindenburg to reestablish his pre-eminent position. He had been nominally in charge of the German Army in the east, but had hitherto been adroitly sidestepped by Falkenhayn. However, Falkenhayn’s position was fast deteriorating, due to the perceived failure of his Western Front strategy. Hindenburg saw his chance and demanded the appointment of a unified Commander-in-Chief on the Eastern Front. Falkenhayn’s fall was imminent and he was eventually replaced as the German Chief of General Staff by his old adversary Hindenburg. At the same time Hindenburg’s protegee, Ludendorff, was appointed Quartermaster General, putting him in de facto control of German war strategy.
The Russian troops now surged across Galicia, advancing toward the foothills of the Carpathians, although they were still nowhere near as far advanced as they had been in 1915. The offensive would continue deep into September, but the rate of Russian casualties was rising steeply. Even to Brusilov it had become apparent that ultimate victory was dependent on defeating Germany, which seemed as unlikely as ever. Failing to capitalize on their numerical advantage, the Russian attacks were either incompetently handled or, where successful, unsupported through the chaos endemic in the Russian High Command.
The Russian victory was simply attributed by all observers to the low quality of the Austro-Hungarian army. The opinion was widely held in Germany, beginning, of course, with Falkenhayn. But it was also, most curiously, put about by the Austro-Hungarian official historians; and some Austro-Hungarian officers. But what was said later does not at all accord with what was said at the time, by the units involved. The truth of the matter seems to be that if such troops were ably commanded, they fought well. If they were not, then they collapsed much more than other troops might have done — partly because of the language gap, partly because of the class-gap between officer and man.
The Central Powers’ alliance had begun to weaken toward the end of the Serbian campaign, in late 1915. Conrad had been irritated that Germany took such preponderance in the area; he resented depending on Bulgaria, feared Bulgarian ambitions in Albania and elsewhere, and even considered making a separate peace with the Serbians in order to contain these ambitions. All Falkenhayn wanted to achieve, from a military viewpoint, was some kind of passable situation in the Balkans; while indirect German control over Bulgaria, perhaps even of Albania through Bulgaria, suited him politically much better than direct Austrian control of anything.
Brusilov's offensive captured 8,255 officers and 370,153 men. Including killed and wounded, it deprived the Central Powers of over 700,000, and took over 15,000 square miles (38,000 km2) of territory, by far the Entente's biggest success so far. Brusilov's unorthodoxy had been brilliantly vindicated. But the price was high. Russian casualties were over 550,000, and three-quarters of the Front's 400,000-man reserve was expended. Success also brought increased commitments in the south, where the Ninth Army's advance into the Carpathian foothills more than doubled its front line.