Lake Naroch Offensive
The Russian Army launches a failed offensive against Germany
18 - 30 March 1916
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
During the Lake Naroch Offensive the Russian forces attempted an offensive against the German Army. The offensive was launched at the request of French Marshall Joseph Joffre. Its intent was to relieve pressure on the French forces fighting at Verdun, on the Western Front. The offensive at Lake Naroch failed due to a lack of adequate reconnaissance. This resulted in the Russian artillery's failure to destroy the well fortified German positions, which in turn led to direct infantry attacks against the German line that had minimal chances of success.

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The Lake Naroch Offensive was a failed Russian campaign on the Eastern Front of World War One. The offensive was launched at the request of French Marshal Joseph Joffre and was intended to relieve pressure on the French forces fighting on the Western front. It failed due to the lack of adequate reconnaissance. The Russian artillery failed to destroy the heavy fortified German position, and so General Alexei Evert ordered a suspension of offensive operations.

In 1916 the Russians would demonstrate their powers of recovery. Yet the underlying problems faced by the Russian Empire had not gone away. The fact that the weak and indecisive Tsar Nicholas II was nominally Commander-in-Chief could have stood as a metaphor for the undeveloped and primitive state of the country, in thrall to an inefficient and despotic system of government. Yet at the same time the Tsar’s symbolic accession to that position also underlined the continuing determination of the Russians to fight on regardless of losses. And the losses had indeed been grievous in 1915.

Despite the heavy losses of 1915, the Russians had plenty more men; indeed, they still mobilized a far smaller percentage of their teeming population than many other nations – as the French did not fail to remind them.

The artillery support was modest by German standards, but was Russia's heaviest yet. However, the prolonged concentration process was, as usual, detected, and the Germans were able to reinforce beforehand.

The Russian rear was a scene of epic confusion, complicated by the astonishingly large masses of cavalry deployed there, to no effect whatsoever at the front. It was altogether an episode that suggests commanders had lost such wits as they still possessed.

Russian resolve would be tested in the early part of 1916. When the German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn launched his devastating attack at Verdun on the Western Front, the French were soon vehemently demanding that the Russians should launch an offensive on the Eastern Front in order to relieve some of the pressure. Nicholas II simply passed on the responsibility to his subordinates on the North and West Fronts. It was decided to attack the Germans in the Belarus area, in what would become known as the Battle of Lake Naroch, with an ambitious pincer movement.

The course of operations in Italy during 1916 had one positive result: by attracting Austrian divisions from the Russians' southern front, it allowed the Tsar's armies to organize a successful counter-offensive against their weakened enemy.

Thanks to the mobilization of Russia's industry for war, and the call-up of new classes of conscripts, the Russian armies now outnumbered their opponents, by 300,000 to 180,000 in the north and 700,000 to 360,000 in the center. Only in the southern sector, commanded by General Aleksei Brusilov, did numbers remain equal at about half a million men on each side. In the north the Russians for the first time had a large superiority in guns and stocks of shells. Somehow, however, the advantage was cast away.

The offensive was carried out at a time of year that could not have been less suitable if it had been chosen by the Germans. The winter conditions had given way to those of early spring: alternating freezes and thaws that made the roads either an ice-rink or a morass. Shell would explode to little effect against ground that was either hard as iron or churned to mud; gas was also ineffective in the cold. Supplies presented problems that the best-trained army would have found impossible to solve: the manhandling of boxes of heavy shell through slush that was a foot deep.

The German advanced positions in the north threatened Petrograd, the Russian capital, and had brought the productive Baltic States under enemy occupation, where General Erich Ludendorff had created a full-blown occupation economy. In an anticipation of what Hitler would less imaginatively attempt after 1941, he divided the region into six administrative areas, under a German military governor, and set about harnessing its agricultural and industrial resources to the German war effort.

Ludendorff's plans went beyond the purely economic. ‘I determined to resume in the occupied territory that work of civilization at which German hands had labored in those lands for many centuries. The population, made up as it is of such a mixture of races, has never produced a culture of its own and, left to itself, would succumb to Polish domination.’

Ludendorff foresaw the transformation of Poland into ‘a more or less independent state under German sovereignty’ and by the spring of 1916 was planning to settle much of the Baltic States with Germans, who would take the land of the expropriated inhabitants. These latter did not include the Jews who, being often German-speakers, were regarded as useful instruments of occupation policy.

Ludendorff's scheme to Germanise the Tsar's possessions in Poland and the Baltic regions was one reason for the Stavka, the Russian High Command, to choose a resumption of the offensive in the north as its main strategy for 1916.

On the Eastern Front, neither allies nor enemies thought Russia capable of a major offensive in 1916, so Falkenhayn continued transferring troops to the west for his battle of attrition at Verdun. The Entente also decided to carry out a major Western Front offensive on the Somme, and sought limited Russian support, to inhibit German westward transfers.

After an artillery barrage, the Russian infantry attacked in massed waves, while there was also an attempt further north to clear the Germans back from the vital port of Riga. The Russian gunners had none of the skills required to draw up a complex gun program, spot the fall of shot or communicate the necessary corrections to their batteries. The result was that some 100,000 Russian casualties were suffered over the two attacks, for minimal gain. All in all, the attacks failed in their primary aim to reduce the pressure on the French.

An effective barrage needs more than just a large number of guns; in particular, it requires a detailed program of specifically targeted – and accurately aimed – fire. Counter-battery work was also weak; they proved unable to target German strong points, machine guns or headquarters to any great effect.

Of all bombardments in the First World War, this was — with strong competition — the most futile. Almost no reconnaissance had been conducted, so that the guns fired blind: on one part of the front they were even told to fire blind into a wood, behind which the Germans were thought to be. The guns were useless against German enfilading positions and communications trenches, since no-one knew with any accuracy where they were; even observation-posts for the guns were, as things turned out, vulnerable to machine-gun fire.

The artillery preparation was not coordinated with the assault by the infantry of the Second Army which, attacking on a very narrow front, ran into its own fire and then, in the salient it had won, came under bombardment by German guns from three sides.

By sending in waves of infantry over two kilometres, the Russians merely gave the German artillery a magnificent target; and when these occupied German trenches, they were fired on from three sides by German guns on the sides of the salient — guns that had been registered previously on the trenches, which were found evacuated.

Three-quarters of the infantry, 15,000 men, were lost in the first eight hours; yet 350,000 men were theoretically available for the offensive, and could have been deployed if it had been launched on a wider front. Reinforcement merely increased the casualty list without the gain of more ground.

The spring thaw began unexpectedly early, turning the ground ahead of the Russians into an almost impassable quagmire. Nevertheless, the offensive proceeded. Despite an unprecedented expenditure of shells, and disregard for casualties, the Russian West Front armies failed utterly. In three weeks it took an area slightly more than 1 mile deep by 2 miles wide, at the price of 70,000 killed, wounded or captured. And in one day of counter-attacking, the Germans retook it all.

On the North Front, General Vasily Gurko fared somewhat better, by attacking later and desisting sooner. He committed only four of his eight divisions; they had over 28,000 casualties, more than one-third of their strength. Diversionary attacks south of Riga and west of Dvinsk neither prospered nor drew off Germans. This time, immense efforts had been made to provide enough weapons and ammunition, but failure was again complete.

Lake Naroch paralyzed much of the Russian army for the rest of the war. Neither Evert nor Alexei Kuropatkin believed any more in the possibility of breaking through at all; indeed, Kuropatkin resigned. Evert stayed at his post, though having lost his faith in his troops, his guns, and his positions. Both of the fronts against Germany were now beset by crippling feelings of inferiority. Now the Russians would have no stomach for attack. It was only the emergence of a general whose common sense amounted to brilliance, and who selected a group of staff-officers who were almost a kernel of the Red Army, that gave the Russian army a great rôle in 1916. That general was Aleksei Brusilov.

If nearly 300,000 Russians had failed to defeat 50,000 Germans, then the cause was lost in advance. Yet by now there was a superiority, on these two fronts, of almost 800,000 men. No-one had any idea as to how this might be used. Inevitably, the generals fell back on their standard excuse for failure: shell-shortage.

Younger officers of the Russian army did have some notion that this pessimism was unnecessary. On the two fronts north of the Pripyat, they did not do much. But on the southwestern front, their voices were heard. These officers began to get control of the southwestern front. In the first place, Nikolay Ivanov was removed from command in April, his place taken by Brusilov. It is notable that officers of this front, in particular, formed a strong kernel of the Red Army in 1918–19.

A new Russian army was coming into existence, one where modest and sensible technicians were coming to power, men who could use the immensely promising natural qualities of the Russian soldier. Yet its emergence in 1916 broke a Tsarist pattern of much durability, and the dismissal of Ivanov, and his replacement by Brusilov, is a remarkable enough occurrence in the circumstances. Ivanov was a powerful figure in the army. But he, too, was something of a ‘great poster’ — supposed to be very popular with his men, no doubt kept on for that reason. The Tsar was persuaded to release him in spring 1916.

Brusilov arrived in Berdichev to take over the front, while Ivanov sobbed throughout dinner. He went to Stavka — ‘Ivanov has become a complete old granny and needs doping’ — and sat ostentatiously in his motor-car as conferences went on, until in the end the Tsar appointed him ‘adviser’, and included him in the Stavka deliberations. In March 1917, because of his alleged popularity with the masses, he was entrusted with the pacification of Petrograd, which was not a successful venture.

The removal of Ivanov was a sign that, as far as questions of command went, a new type of officer was emerging. Brusilov had been a very successful commander since 1914, taking VIII Army and at times being responsible for the whole of the Carpathian front. Before 1914, he had clearly been intelligent and agile in exploiting the promotions system to arrive at high command without falling foul either of the cavalry-General Staff clique or of the war ministry clique: of course his social origins helped.

Brusilov had a gift of choosing able subordinates, and enforcing their will on recalcitrant conservatives. Although he was unmistakably part of the world of 1914, he nonetheless had enough of the new Russia in him for its elements to break through in the front under Brusilov’s command. A new style came at once to the headquarters in Berdichev.

By the time the offensive ended, Russian losses totalled 100,000, including 12,000 men who had died of exposure in the harsh late-winter weather. In April a counterattack by the Germans, who had lost 20,000, recovered all the ground the Russians had gained. The prospect of another offensive did not appeal to many of the Russian generals.

Prospects for the general offensive promised in June did not augur well, since the Stavka again wished to attack in the north, above the Pripet Marshes that divided the front into two. In fact, Evert, commander of the army group that had failed at Lake Naroch, did not want to attack at all. Mikhail Alexeyev, the Chief of Staff, was nevertheless insistent and secured the reluctant cooperation of Evert and Alexei Kuropatkin, the other army group commander on the northern sector, on the understanding that there would be copious reinforcements of men and material.

The Lake Naroch Offensive was yet another military failure. However, when Alexeyev began to plan 1916's main operation - the offensive to support the Somme - he produced only an expanded version of it. For the support of the Somme it did not matter whether German troops stayed in the east defending themselves or helping Austria-Hungary.

Stavka blamed the commanders for bad organization, the artillery for not supporting the infantry, and the infantry for lacking vigor. But the real culprit was Stavka's blithe insistence in going ahead despite the thaw. Nor did the offensive succeed in drawing off any Germans from Verdun.

Recognition of the extreme incompetence with which affairs had been carried out in March 1916 remained on a purely theoretical level. As before, artillery and infantry blamed each other, the only positive consequence being a demand for yet more shell. The way was open to a demand for four and a half million rounds per month, and also to the eighteen million shells that were stockpiled to no effect save, in the end, to enable the Bolsheviks to fight the Civil War.