from 'The War Illustrated', 26th August, 1916
'the Russian Drive into Galicia, 1916'
by Edward Wright

Battle Pictures of the Great War

left - from a French history magazine, a portrait of general Brussiloff
right : Russian troops and the Czar with general Brussiloff


The Russian Drive into Gallicia

At the end of June, 1916, it seemed as though all that the Russians had done to recover their full striking power had been done in vain. By an unexpected explosion of force they had again crippled the Austrians. Out of five Austro-German armies, ranged on a front of two hundred and sixty miles from the Pripet Marshes to the Bukovina frontier, two had been broken and two badly battered. Only the Central Austrian Army, under the Bavarian General Count von Bothmer, remained strong and firm. Of the total forces of nine hundred thousand Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans, a half had been put out of action.

Yet the Russian commander, General Brussiloff, who had accomplished this extraordinary stroke of surprise, could not claim a definite victory. It seemed, indeed, as though his successes would prove his undoing, for Hindenburg had come with tremendous energy to. the rescue of Austria. All the year the field-marshal had been quarrelling with Kaiser, Crown Prince, the German Chief of Staff, and the Austrian Chief of Staff. He held that the Verdun and Trentino operations were disastrous mistakes, and that as Russia was rich in men and poor in machinery, every available man, gun, and shell should have been launched against her early in the spring of the year.

Undoubtedly the old marshal was right. Events had confirmed him. So he insisted, in the first week of June, in getting practically all control of the war in his hands. He stopped the Trentino operations, slowed down the Verdun affair, and brought troops by the hundred thousand from the Italian and French fronts. The main stream of shells, the daily output of which was nearly half a million, was directed towards two places marked by arrows on Hindenburg's map. These places were Kovel and Lemberg. Something like a thousand more heavy guns were railed to the Kovel and Lemberg sectors. Two powerful new armies were transported towards the positions at which Brussiloff was hammering.

Then, in the third week of June, 1916, Hindenburg opened one of the two most important campaigns in the war. Next to the Battle of the Marne ranks the Battle of the Styr. Everything between October, 1914, and May, 1916, is episodal to these two powerful turning-points in the European conflict. Hindenburg did not intend merely to recover the ground at Lutsk and Dubno, which the Austrian Archduke had lost. He aimed to drain Russia of all her remaining strength by a long, horrible, grinding movement through the wheat-belt towards the Black Sea. Russia was still weak. Her new 6 in. guns were outranged by hundreds of German and Austrian monster pieces of artillery. Her shell supply, though fairly good, did not permit her gunners to maintain a long, hurricane fire.


Russian cavalry crossing a river during the advance


The Battle of the Styr

Hindenburg, on the other hand, could keep a thousand guns in action, day and night, for a month, replace them when worn out, and maintain his shell supply. Behind his lines was a vast and intricate network of light railways, connected with old and new main tracks. Germany's enormous production of rails, locomotives, and trucks was quite as important as her enormous production of shells and guns. Hindenburg fought chiefly by means of railway power.

His method was a slow one, and by the end of June his Kovel army had only regained the Stokhod River marshes and advanced a few miles towards the Styr River line. For the rate of the advance was conditioned by the rate of reconstructing the main railway track and building the light railway branches. But the method seemed irresistible. The hitherto victorious Russian armies, under General Kaledin and General Sakharoff, were overwhelmed by an almost continuous tempest of high-explosive shells and shrapnel bullets. Only when the new Russian trenches were flattened did the German and Austrian infantry send out patrols with machine-guns, and then advance in force. Much of the land by the Stokhod River was swampy, so that the Russians could not dig deep caverns for machine-gun shelters. Stubbornly fighting, and with many skilful rearguard actions, Kaledin withdrew towards Lutsk, while Sakharoff protected his flank in the Dubno sector.

When night fell, on July 3rd, 1916, it looked as though Hindenburg was likely to win the grand success in the war. So far the battle was not immediately decisive, but it was testing fully the strength of Germany and Russia; and Russia, despite the help obtained from British, Japanese, and American war factories, apparently could not withstand the pressure brought against her. And if she could not resist on the ground she had chosen for a display of her renewed strength, what could she do when Hindenburg had broken through?

But on the morning of July 4th, 1916, there was an extraordinary change in the situation. The explanation was that General Brussiloff had foreseen everything that his opponent would do. He had foreseen it for quite a. year, when he was fighting Mackensen and Linsingen in Galicia. And he had been preparing for a year against the Hindenburg- Mackensen blasting tactics. Two new mighty Russian armies, composed of several millions of men, had been training all the winter, spring, and early summer for a decisive test of strength against Germany's siege-guns, shell factories, and railway works.

Old Asiatic Warfare Revived

Unknown to the Germans, a third Russian army, under General Lesh, advanced under cover of darkness in the Kovel sector, towards the Styr front at Kolki. Lesh, who had fought Mackensen at Cholm, in August, 1915, was one of the most original minds in the Russian Army. With Alexeieff. his chief, Brussiloff his local commander, and his comrades Kaledin, Sakharoff, Tcherbacheff, and Lechitsky, Lesh had worked out a strange, new, stern way of fighting.

All these Russians, with Alexeieff drawn from the peasantry and Brussiloff from the old aristocracy, had gone back studiously and deliberately to the old Asiatic form of warfare. At first there was nothing remarkable about Lesh's infantrymen. They came forward in open artillery order, while their guns were breaking paths for them in the Austrian wire entanglements. The advanced companies, charging over the wide spaces between the opposing trenches, took shelter in shell-holes, linked some of them together In-digging, and helped to cover with their musketry and machine-gun fire the next open, thin wave of attack. In all this there was nothing different from the British and French method of infantry advance, except in regard to artillery support.

The Russian guns could not dominate the greater number of more powerful German and Austrian pieces of artillery. The gunners, indeed, often could not spare shell to batter and choke all the enemy's dug-outs. Generally, they dodged the hostile counter- battery fire, broke path's in the entanglements, and maintained a curtain fire on the Austro-German second line. Their chief task was to hinder ammunition and food leaching the enemy's first line. All the grand work of attack was carried out by the Russian infantry and cavalry.

For the waves of advance continued, until their number began to grow terrifying. In places the Germans say they counted a series of thirty-six waves. Yet the tactics were not those of the German mass attack. No large, compact targets were presented amid the hurricane of shrapnel and squalls of machine-gun bullets with which. Linsingen tried to break up the advance. The Russians were wide apart, and after a short rush they fell and dug themselves in with intense labour.

When most of the old shell-holes were full of Russian infantrymen, firing against unbroken, fortified lines of parapets and redoubts, tens of thousands of Cossack horsemen galloped out and over their crouching foot soldiers, in an apparent act of general suicide. The German and Austrian gunners lifted too late to catch the wild horsemen, who, while the enemy was changing the range, whirled through the tempest of shrapnel. Instead, however, of riding on, madly and hopelessly, at the hostile trenches, the Cossacks leaped from their little horses, turned their mounts into living cover, and opened fire. Then the Russian waves of infantry resumed.

The method of the Russians became clear. They were adapting to modern conditions the swarm attack of the Mongol era. In her day of extreme crisis, strange, mediaeval, half-Oriental Russia, with her terrible memories of the Mongol and Tartar conquerors of the world, reverted to the swarm method of ancient Asia. All that she had learnt in other periods of bitter strain from Genghis Khan's and Tamerlane's lieutenants she revived and modernised for use against Germany. Millions of armed, newly-trained men were echeloned between the Styr and the Black Sea. As the front ranks wasted under the hurricane fire from the Teutons' guns, the mass behind surged onward in another wave movement.

If the Russian gunners could maintain their curtain fire over the Austro-German communications the end was inevitable. It was reached in twenty-four hours in one sector and in thirty-six hours in the other. Then naked human power—a long steel weapon in the strong hands of an angry peasant—triumphed over all the elaborate mechanism of slaughter devised by German science. Mainly with the bayonet and sabre the Russians struck home. High explosive was needed too much by gunners to spend on hand-bombs, and the Russians preferred the bayonet, despite its awkwardness in trench and dug-out fighting.

When the new Austro-German front broke, the terrific Russian pressure at once produced large results. The mounted Cossacks spread in a mobile flood in the rear, towards the Pripet Marshes, surrounded brigades, and shot down gun-teams.. Nearly half the hostile forces on the sector were put out of action. But when General Lesh and General Kaledin came to the Stokhod line they were held up. Rain fell heavily, widening the marshes by the river, and, under these untoward weather conditions, the advance on Kovel had to be postponed.

But only the direction of the great Russian thrust was altered. Kovel had been an alluring goal of attack, because it was a main railway junction, where the German and Austrian forces connected. Had it been taken, Hindenburg's Polish and Courlander lines would have been seriously endangered. But as Kovel was newly moated by the rain- soaked marshlands, General BrussiloS turned towards Lemberg.

The enemy's Lemberg line was defended by a man of Arab blood, Bohm Ermolli, whom Sakharoff, in the first surprise attack, had pushed back towards Brody. In the second week in July, Sakharoff was given the great stream of men that Kaledin and Lesh were for the time unable to use. Sakharoff struck on July i6th, 1916, with unparalleled effect.


general Sakharoff


Russian Night Swarm Attack

He had learned that Hindenburg's Staff was arming Bohm Ermolli for a more terrific attack than Linsingen had delivered. Linsingen's vain thrust had only been intended to shake the blunt front of the Russian salient. Bohm Ermolli's task was to win a decision by striking a terrific blow low on the Russian flank. For three weeks he had been increasing his forces and his heavy-gun power and storing shell. In village cellars, which the Teutons afterwards had no time to blow up, two hundred thousand shells were found, and more than that quantity was exploded by them in their retreat.

Sakharoff could not await the blow. His guns were too weak to answer the enemy's monster artillery. So he attacked at the time when the over-confident, careless enemy was immersed in the muddle of his own final preparations. Avoiding the Styr line, where the chief phalanx of Krupp and Skoda guns was placed, Sakharoff struck at his enemy's flank. About an hour after midnight the Russian infantry advanced in silence through the darkness, without artillery preparation, made a series of brushwood paths across a marsh, and put a light bridge over a stream, without being discovered.

They reached the wire entanglements and removed some of the supports, and then, being at last observed, rushed the Austrian fire trenches. By the time the first line was taken the troops in the second line were well prepared to resist But, with the marsh and river bridged, and the entanglements and fire-trenches taken, the enemy was left with no means of resisting the nocturnal swarm attack of the Russians.

The German and Austrian gunners were baffled by the darkness, the loss of their observing officers, and the general confusion in their second line. They did not know where the Russian bridges had been built, and could only use shrapnel fire as a general curtain. By sunrise the Russians were encircling important forest positions where hostile batteries were placed, and after a long, dreadful series of hand-to-hand combats in daylight among the head-waters of the Styr and its tributaries, the battle was won by nightfall. Captured German and Austrian guns, with their huge shell supplies, were turned upon Bohm Ermolli's broken army. Brody was stormed, and the enemy's lost big pieces were hauled within eight miles of the Lemberg railway.


a bridge destroyed by the Austrians


The Spirit o! the Hive

Loud echoes of the rage of Hindenburg resounded across Europe. He wanted to dismiss not only Bohm Ermolli and Ermolli's chief, the Archduke Frederick, but every Austrian Royal commander and ordinary general.

The total German and Austrian losses exceeded three-quarters of a million men. More than 330,000 officers and men were prisoners. Hindenburg had failed on the Styr more completely than Moltke had failed on the Marne. Everything seemed to show that the veritable turning-point in the war had been reached.

The Russian Staff calculated it had sufficient men to go on making swarm attacks for two years. Not in the days of Napoleon had the Russian people reached so terrible a height of communal battle fury. The systematic atrocity of the Teutons had revived in them the spirit of the swarm, by which in ancient time they broke the power of the Golden Horde. Like a cloud of angry bees they fought, eager to sting and die so .that the stock might survive and flourish. Eighty out of a hundred of them were patient, quiet, pious peasants, still coloured with primitive village Socialism and mediaeval trains of thought. To them the Kaiser was Anti-Christ; it was not death to fall fighting him, but martyrdom. Glorious and dreadful were the Russians when this high mood was upon them.


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