Eastern Front after the February revolution
Kerensky Offensive and the Central Power's Advance
1 July - 21 October 1918
author Paul Boșcu, November 2016
After the February Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar, the new Provisional Government decided to stage yet another offensive against the Central Powers. The Kerensky Offensive was named after Alexander Kerensky, the Minister of War, and later Prime Minister of the Provisional Government. The offensive started promising enough but the attack petered out as Russian troops refused to attack. A strong Central Powers counter attack broke the Russian lines and sent them into retreat. During the battle of Riga the Germans took the Baltic city from Russian hands, and were now very close to the Russian capital, Petrograd. On the home front, the Russian Provisional Government had trouble maintaining authority, especially in Petrograd. During the July Days an ill-conceived coup attempt took place. At the time the Bolsheviks were not strong enough the topple the government, but that state of affairs would not last long.

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After the end of the Russian February Revolution which resulted in the Tsar’s abdication, the Provisional Government turned their attention to the front. There they wished to organize a new offensive against the Germans, so as to coordinate their operation with their western allies. The offensive failed due to the disintegration of the Russian army. Many soldiers, sparked by the revolutionary spirit that had taken hold in Russia, and further agitated by the Bolsheviks, simply refused to fight. The Germans launched a counterattack and took all of the ground that Russia had won the previous year, plus the city of Riga. Internally Russia was plagued by problems, and it was only a matter of time before the Bolsheviks seized power.

The Provisional Government had continued on its more moderate course, calling for an expanded session of the Duma while reaffirming its intentions to continue the war. At the same time it presided over the beginnings of the breakup of the Russian Empire. In March and April, the government recognized the independence or autonomy of Finland, Poland, and Estonia.

Before the revolution in February, Russia had undertaken to coordinate its operations with those of Britain and France, and in particular to attack within three weeks of the start of the Anglo-French offensive. Alexeyev notified the French and British that Russia could not meet this commitment until July. In any case, the army's condition made it impossible to coordinate action with General Robert Nivelle's offensive in France, scheduled for mid-April.

The front had been static since October 1916, with the Germans preferring not to risk restoring Russian unity by attacking, so artillery and ammunition were plentiful. A new factor was volunteer shock battalions, which General Alexeyev, doubting the ordinary soldier's reliability, had formed from men who specifically asked to continue fighting.

Troops at the front, though they treated Alexander Kerensky as a popular idol on his tours of inspection, proved less enthusiastic for what has come to be called the Kerensky offensive, launched to bring about the defeat of ‘foreign military might’ for which there was so much verbal enthusiasm in the rear. General Dragomirov, commanding the Fifth Army, reported the warning signs: ‘in reserve, regiments declare their readiness to fight on to full victory, but then baulk at the demand to go into the trenches.’

After a two-day preparatory bombardment, Kerensky's offensive opened against the Austrians in the south, directed once again against Lemberg. Subsidiary offensives were launched in the center and the north. For two days the attack went well, and several miles of ground were gained. Then the leading units, feeling they had done their bit, refused to persist, while those behind refused to take their place. Desertion set in, and worse. Fugitives from the front, in thousands, looted and raped in the rear.

When the Germans, who were forewarned, counterattacked with divisions already brought from the west, they and the Austrians simply recovered the ground lost and captured even more, driving the Russians back to the line of the River Zbrucz on the Romanian border.

The collapse of the Kerensky offensive had dispirited even those soldiers who resisted the increasingly easy opportunities to desert. Their lapse of will allowed the Germans to launch a successful offensive on the northern front which resulted in the capture of Riga, the most important harbor city on the Baltic coast. Militarily, the Riga offensive was significant because it demonstrated to the Germans the effectiveness of a new system of breakthrough tactics. Politically, it was yet more significant, since it prompted a military intervention which, though designed to reinforce the authority of the Provisional Government, would shortly result in its collapse.

Among the most prominent delegates of the Duma was Alexander Kerensky, an orator of considerable power who was appointed the new Minister of War. As Kerensky considered Mikhail Alekseyev to be tainted by his former close links to the Tsar, he appointed General Alexei Brusilov as Commander-in-Chief with responsibility for carrying out the offensives. Wishing to seize the moment, Brusilov was obliged to forego some of the detailed preparations that had made his 1916 offensive so successful. General Brusilov began an offensive in Galicia with the objective of retaking Lemberg.

Kerensky engaged in a well-publicized tour of the front, using all his presentational skills in proselytising for a new offensive, picturing the despotic German regime as the real enemy to long-term peace.

Tension between the Provisional Government and troops increased as Bolshevik peace propaganda spread alongside rumors of the impending offensive. However, senior officers remained optimistic, and the West Front told Stavka in mid-April that an offensive would be possible in one or two months, after revolutionary excitement had abated. The Front’s reports probably erred on the optimistic side because pessimistic officers were deemed counter-revolutionary; Kerensky dismissed large numbers of them.

News of the USA's entry into the war offered some encouragement, but was followed only ten days later by the collapse of Nivelle's offensive, and mutinies in the French army. There was now doubt whether the Western Front could last out the several months that would elapse before the Americans arrived in force. This increased the Entente anxiety to keep the Eastern Front active. They stepped up deliveries, and soon the material situation was better than ever. But psychologically things could hardly be worse.

Alexeyev and the Front commanders addressed a joint meeting of the Provisional Government and Soviet. Alexeyev told them bluntly that 'the army is on the brink of ruin', and others gave instances of the troops' interpretation of Bolshevik calls for 'peace without annexations' as meaning they need not attack even to recover occupied Russian territory. The Soviet would not act to restore discipline; the Provisional Government could not. All that resulted was that the War Minister, Kerensky, replaced Alexeyev with Brusilov. He began planning a scaled-down version of his 1916 offensive.

Brusilov was facing a different opponent this time. The death of the elderly Emperor Franz Josef in November 1916 had brought the far more liberal figure of Karl I to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Karl was not impressed with his Chief of General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf’s performance in the war so far. In March 1917 he replaced him with General Arthur Arz von Straussenburg. By this time, however, the main authority in the Central Powers lay with the Germans, and von Straussenburg had little independence of action.

Von Straussenburg was born in Hermannstadt (today Sibiu) in eastern Transylvania. When the Great War broke out he requested a field assignment and was transferred to the Eastern Front. During the early stages of the war he commanded first a division, during the Battle of Komarow in 1914, then an entire corps. During 1915 he participated in the campaign at Gorlice-Tarnów. In 1916 he commanded the Austrian 1st Army during the Romanian campaign.

After a two-day bombardment, the Kerensky Offensive began with a flourish, with the attack of the Russian Seventh and Eleventh Armies on the South-West Front. When the infantry went over the top, early results were promising, but then everything started to go wrong. The attack petered out in ignominy, and further planned attacks were either cancelled or abandoned. Then a vigorous Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive was launched at Tarnopol in Galicia. The Russians broke and retreated in chaos.

The best and most loyal units had been chosen as the assault troops, while the follow-up and reserve formations were far less committed. The South-West Front's assault began. The shock battalions led the way, but the infantry followed only reluctantly, and after two days refused to go on. Total losses, of 38,700 officers and men, were infinitesimal compared with those tolerated in previous years, but were now unendurable. So complete was the Eleventh Army’s collapse that even its Soldiers' Committees approved the shooting of deserters, but apparently no one was prepared to do any shooting.

The North Front's offensive lasted for two days. Of six divisions allocated, only two took part, and one of them had to be forced into the line at gunpoint. The other took two lines of German trenches, but then refused to continue and returned to its own lines. When the West Front attempted to attack, with 138 battalions against 17 German, the same happened.

Despite his reputation as a sympathetic socialist, Kerensky had no success in restoring troop morale. Austrian and German forces retook all of Galicia. The disorganized retreat of the Russian army gave up all the territory Russia had gained over the previous two years of fighting.

Kerensky and Brusilov faced a major mutiny among the troops in mid-July. Hundreds of troops shot their officers, abandoned the front line, and retreated in disorganized but still armed bands into the Ukraine. The Provisional Government put down an unsuccessful attempt of armed workers, supported by the Bolsheviks, to seize power in Petrograd as the troop mutiny began. After the put-down during these July days, the Provisional Government had Leon Trotsky arrested. Finland declared independence from Russia, and Lenin found refuge from arrest there. After these events, Kerensky became Prime Minister.

Faced with the mutiny of soldiers, the abortive Bolshevik coup attempt, and constant agitation, Prince Lvov resigned as head of the government, to be replaced by Kerensky, who remained in that office until the Bolsheviks seized power in November.

Kerensky did not round up the mid-level and rank-and-file Bolsheviks. This proved to be a tactical mistake, since it allowed Lenin to maintain contact with his supporters from his nearby Finnish exile.

The mutiny in the army was partly brought on by the breakdown of morale and encouraged by radical newspapers circulated to the front and passed from hand to hand and read out loud for the majority of illiterate soldiers.

Although Kerensky won admiration in the west for his pronouncements of civil liberties, the unrest among the populace began to outstrip even the socialist Prime Minister’s reforms. Meanwhile, continuing losses on the war front and desertions of troops worsened his position. In August, factory workers went on strike in a demand that the war be ended.

The July Days gave Lenin a serious fright, not least because it was revealed in the aftermath that he was receiving financial support from the German government. Nevertheless, time was on his side: time measured not in the inevitability of the second revolution for which he was working, but in the increasingly limited willingness of the field army to remain at the front.

On the Romanian Front, the situation was slightly better. The Romanian army had greatly improved, and was unaffected by the Russian revolution. Thus it was planned to use Romanian forces alongside Russian. Here the shock battalions were not used to lead, but were deployed behind the troops, to shoot any who ran away. The assault began, but the offensive was stopped by the new Russian Chief of Staff Lavr Kornilov. From then on only the Germans would attack. The Romanian army would successfully hold the front during the summer against the German onslaught.

Although largely overrun in the autumn and winter of 1916, Romania had stayed in the war in 1917, holding a territorial rump in Moldavia with the aid of Russian reinforcements. France had sent a military mission and, while the Russian army disintegrated, the Romanian was rebuilt.

In July and August 1917, the Romanians successfully held off August von Mackensen’s army on the River Sereth, but its position was fatally compromised by the collapse of its principal ally.

The disaster of the Russian offensive triggered the replacement of Brusilov as Commander-in-Chief, by General Lavr Kornilov. The Russian Army was falling apart, and such attacks as had been carried out only served to cull the few remaining loyalist units still willing to actively prosecute the war.

Kornilov was a man of the people, the son of Siberian Cossacks. For that reason he believed he would be followed, even by war-weary soldiers, in a personal campaign first against the defeatist Bolsheviks, then against his country's enemies. However by now the vast majority of Russian soldiers were content to be passive observers at best; indeed, by the autumn it was estimated that some two million had deserted.

Now Kerensky was sufficiently emboldened to try and seize more power, proclaiming himself Prime Minister and then declaring Russia a republic. There was further cause for tension when Kornilov determined to stamp out political influences within the Army. His demands triggered a political crisis in Petrograd, where the Soviets were already campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty altogether, while the more right-wing elements within the Provisional Government tended to support the hard-line Kornilov proposals. Kornilov demanded the restoration of martial law, backed up by the death penalty for a multiplicity of offences including all forms of political agitation within the ranks.

Kerensky would be terribly hampered in his attempts to gain control of Russia by his continued belief in the prosecution of the war, fearing as he did the abrupt withdrawal of British and French economic subsidies and support if he reneged on the Entente. The Bolsheviks, in sharp contrast, offered outright opposition to the continuation of war.

Militarily, Kornilov’s program was entirely sensible. It was the only basis for continuing the war and for saving a government which, in a sea of defeatism, supported that policy. Politically however, Kornilov's program confronted Kerensky with a challenge to his authority, since its institution would inevitably entail conflict with the Soviets, the war-shy Petrograd garrison and the Bolsheviks, groups with which the Provisional Government was living in uneasy equilibrium.

The fiasco of the offensive on the front had shown the depths to which the army's morale had sunk. Kerensky was now Prime Minister, but the government was still competing with the Soviet for the loyalty of the armed forces, and had just survived a premature attempt to seize power by a Bolshevik faction. He could not implement the draconian measures that Kornilov wanted, so Kornilov began plotting to take power himself.

The Cossacks looked to Kornilov for leadership, and he had in particular the support of the Don Cossack Ataman (Headman), General Alexey Kaledin. The Western powers backed Kornilov, seeing his efforts to restore discipline as the only guarantee of Russia's staying in the war. Meanwhile conservative Russian politicians and financiers backed him as defender against a Bolshevik takeover.

As Kornilov's popularity grew among moderates, Kerensky's authority dwindled, until a challenge became unavoidable. Kerensky could not throw in his lot with Kornilov, since he correctly doubted whether the general commanded sufficient force to put down the extremists. Equally, he could not turn to the extremists, since to do so would be to subordinate the Provisional Government to their power, which the most extreme among them, the Bolsheviks, would then be certain to wrest into their own hands. He could only wait for events to take their course.

It was at this very point of crisis for the Russians that the Germans struck. The port of Riga in Latvia had long been a German objective, situated as it was at the mouth of the Dvina River on the Baltic coast. By this time the Russian Army was in an advanced state of disintegration. Many soldiers had deserted; those who had not were mostly beyond the control of their officers, and had killed many of them. In a matter of days, Riga fell into German hands.

The Russian defences ran along the eastern riverbank but with a substantial bridgehead on the western bank. The river at this point was about 450 yards wide, representing a formidable obstacle to the German Eighth Army, commanded by General Oskar von Hutier.

Not only had the Germans amassed some 750 guns and a further 550 heavy mortars for the offensive, but von Hutier also intended to employ the sophisticated barrage techniques devised by his artillery adviser, Lieutenant Colonel Georg Bruchmüller. This brilliant officer had developed a system of short, intense bombardments which left the defending forces stunned and unable to respond when the main assault was launched.

A heavy concentration of gas shells mixed with high explosive shells would be directed at the Russian batteries: the aim was not necessarily to destroy, but rather to saturate the area with gas, forcing the Russian gunners to don their gas masks, which vastly reduced their ability to carry out their tasks. Meanwhile, all the identified observation posts, command posts and communication centers would be pounded, with the intention of blinding the Russian commanders and preventing them from reacting as they became isolated from events.

The bombardment would move through distinct phases, like the movements of a musical symphony, culminating in ten minutes of mayhem as all batteries concentrated on pounding the Russian infantry positions, before finally a creeping barrage, the feuerwalze, would roll forward, preceding the infantry into attack.

Under von Hutier’s guidance, specialist assault squads had also been trained in stormtrooper tactics, building on the operational experience and experimentation already existent within the German Army, but also taking note of the increasingly sophisticated infantry tactics of the Entente. The stormtroopers were generally armed with light machine guns, flamethrowers and hand grenades, while their tactics emphasized the importance of bypassing centers of resistance to break through to the vital gun batteries and headquarters. Isolated strong points could then be dealt with by the heavier weapons brought up by the follow-up troops.

At Riga everything would be complicated by the serious additional obstacle of the river, so the infantry assault units were carefully trained in amphibious operations, using boats to establish bridgeheads that would then allow for the rapid construction of pontoon bridges by specialist engineers.

As the German engineers completed the bridges behind the new bridgehead, the Russians fell back in disarray. The front line would only stabilize some twenty miles northeast of Riga. The fourth largest city in Russia was overrun by the Germans with disturbing ease.

The loss of Riga was a huge blow for the Russians. Kornilov chose to present it not as the result of German military skill, but rather as the consequence of the undermining activities by the Bolshevik conspirators within the ranks. These tactlessly expressed views brought him into conflict with Kerensky, who came to believe that Kornilov was about to launch a military counter-revolution. In the end, Kornilov could not generate sufficient support within the Army and he was peremptorily dismissed by Kerensky. He took on the title of Commander-in-Chief himself and rehabilitated General Mikhail Alekseyev to act as his Chief of General Staff.

Kerensky’s belief seemed to be confirmed when Kornilov accused the Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks of being nothing more than the tools of the German High Command. This outlandish statement temporarily reunited the Provisional Government and the Soviets, who set up armed militias and prepared to repel a military intervention by Kornilov.

The dispute resulted in collateral damage to Kerensky’s reputation as well: denounced by the Bolsheviks to the left and threatened by the conservatives to the right, whether fairly or not, many came to believe that Kerensky was little better than the Tsar he had replaced.

Bolshevik union members cooperated in diverting Kornilov’s train, and organized factory workers poured into the streets to protect the revolution from the threat of Kornilov’s counter-revolutionary troops. The Bolshevik party took some credit for forestalling the expected Kornilov coup attempt. The Soviet also told the front-line troops what was happening; many of Kornilov’s senior officers, including the South-West Front's commander, Anton Denikin, and all his army commanders, were arrested by their men.

The Soviet gained most from Kornilov's attempt to establish a military dictatorship, and its failure showed that the army and population had lost interest in the war. The German capture of Riga a few days later passed almost unnoticed. Kornilov's failure further fragmented the army. The men now saw their officers as the chief obstacles to peace, and many moderate military committees were replaced by radical ones.

In the event, Kornilov was maneuvered by others into staging a coup he had not planned, which failed through the refusal of his soldiers to join in, and so was removed from command. His fall ended any chance of sustaining the fiction that Russia was still fighting a war.

During that autumn, Kerensky’s political position deteriorated still further in conjunction with the inexorable rise in popularity of the Bolsheviks. They were now seen as the only grouping that had consistently opposed the war, while their promises of widespread redistribution of land had an obvious attraction to ordinary workers and soldiers. They were also well organized, with the recently released Trotsky engaged in creating a strong armed militia known as the Red Guard.

The Bolsheviks continued to maneuver in the Petrograd Soviet, and by October they had established a majority there. Pressured from both the left and the right, Kerensky found himself increasingly isolated. His talents as a speaker soon proved inadequate to provide answers to the dilemmas of the Provisional Government.

Bolshevik and German propaganda exploited war weariness to increasing effect. By the time the Bolsheviks seized power, the army's attitude, as described in Stavka's report for the second half of October, was 'one of highly nervous expectancy. Now, as before, irresistible thirst for peace, universal desire to leave the front... constitute the main motives on which the attitude of most of our troops is based. The army is simply a huge, weary, shabby and ill-fed mob of angry men, united by their common thirst for peace and common disappointment.'

The Provisional Government lost what remained of its authority in the aftermath of the Kornilov affair. Kerensky's dismissal of Kornilov lost him what support he retained among moderates and senior officers, without winning him any from the forces of the left. The Bolsheviks were, indeed, now determined to mount the second revolution, while Lenin, who had now established his absolute leadership over the party, was looking only for a pretext.

The Germans launched Operation Albion, a brilliantly conceived combined operation to seize the Estonian islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Riga, which they successfully completed. The Germans were getting threateningly close to Petrograd, the Russian capital. It was then that Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally chose to make their move, breaking all their remaining links with the Provisional Government and launching the Bolshevik Revolution.

Operation Albion was another sharp jab from the Germans: not enough to trigger a national tide of resistance but just enough to promote war weariness and despair amidst the Russian ranks.

The thin facade of Kerensky’s government was soon cracked as armed Bolsheviks seized government buildings and grabbed control of communications and key commercial institutions. The Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, was stormed and most of the delegates were swiftly arrested, although Kerensky himself managed to escape. By mid-November Moscow too had fallen to the Bolsheviks. Kerensky fled the country, never to return, although he would survive until 1970.

Russia did not go Bolshevik because the masses were Bolshevik from the start of the Revolution, or because of the machinations of Soviet and Bolshevik leaders. She went Bolshevik because the old order collapsed, more or less as Lenin — uniquely — had foretold.

By the autumn of 1917, the towns were starving and disease-ridden; stratospheric inflation deprived wage-increases, and indeed the whole economic life of the country, of meaning; production of war-goods fell back so far that the army could not fight, even if it had wanted to. Mines, railways and factories seized up. Kerensky and his sympathisers in the Soviets wished to restore things through cooperation with the old order. This program did not work, for the economy collapsed in chaos. The way was open to Lenin, who promised a new system altogether.

Kerensky tried to arouse resistance to the Bolsheviks in the Army, but the response was lukewarm at best. The few units that answered his call were unable to overthrow the well-armed and highly motivated Red Guards.

Economic chaos drove Russia towards Bolshevism, sometimes in spite of the Bolsheviks. This economic chaos was frequently ascribed quite simply to backwardness: Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain of a war, and the effort to do so plunged her economy into chaos. But economic backwardness did not alone make for revolution, as the examples of Romania or Bulgaria showed; and in any case, Russia was not backward in the same way as these countries, as was shown in her capacity to make war-material in 1915–16.

The economic chaos came more from a contest between old and new in the Russian economy. There was a crisis, not of decline and relapse into subsistence, but rather of growth. There was a sudden burst of progress during the war – much greater commercial activity, much greater labor-mobility, much more investment – and hence much greater exploitation of the country’s labor-force than before. This phenomenon bode very well for Lenin and his Bolsheviks who could exploit the workers’ growing dissatisfaction.