Key point: Russia had minimal preparations and did not understand the speed and nature of modern war. They would be crushed and the Czar would be overthrown.
The high command of the Imperial Russian Army, known as Stavka, met on April 14, 1916, at Mogilev in Belarus to discuss possible offensive action against the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies on the Eastern Front. Stavka Chief of the General Staff General Mikhail Alekseyev was the main speaker at the gathering. Among the other high-ranking officials attending the meeting were General Dmitri Shuvaev, the Russian war minister; Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, inspector general of the artillery; and Admiral A.I Ruskin, chief of the naval staff.
Nicholas II was also present, not only as czar and autocrat, but also as supreme commander of all Russian armed forces. Many privately thought his self-appointment to supreme command was an unmitigated disaster, coming as it did after a string of Russian defeats at the hands of the Germans. Nicholas had no military experience or training in war, and his martial exploits were confined to wearing elaborate uniforms and taking the salute in parades and reviews.
Nicholas presided at this meeting but said little and remained so passive he must have seemed a mere cipher. The most important people at the meeting were the three front commanders, because they were the ones who would be tasked with making Stavka’s orders a reality. General Aleksei Kuropatkin commanded the Northern Front, General Aleksei Evert commanded the Northwestern Front, and General Aleksei Brusilov commanded the Southwestern Front.
The atmosphere in the room was one of pessimism and gloom, although no one was willing to have Russia capitulate to Germany. Since the outbreak of war in 1914 Russia had willingly assumed the role of sacrificial lamb, slaughtered on the altar of Allied solidarity. In August 1914 Russia had attacked Germany prematurely before it had had an opportunity to fully mobilize when the French were hard pressed on the Western Front. Their Gallic allies had all but begged them to do so, and the Russians complied with a hasty invasion of East Prussia.
As a result, the Germans were forced to transfer troops to the East, a major factor when they were defeated at the Marne and their offensive ground to a halt. Russia had helped save France, but at a terrible cost. The Russians were utterly defeated at Tannenberg in August, and by some estimates sustained as many as 100,000 casualties.
Worse was to follow. The Germans launched the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive in 1915, forcing the Russians into what later was termed the “Great Retreat.” Warsaw fell, and Russian Poland was occupied by German troops. As the weeks went on, and defeat piled upon defeat, it seemed nothing could slow the German juggernaut, save topography.
The troops of the Imperial Russian Army, bloodied and battered, were nevertheless optimistic as they trudged ever eastward. Many of them—even the illiterate peasant soldiers who filled the ranks—took comfort in the traditional Russian tactic of trading space for time. In 1812 Napoleon had been lured into the vast Russian hinterland, a movement that planted the seeds of his later destruction.
“The retreat will continue as far—and as long—as necessary,” Nicholas told the French ambassador. “The Russian people are unanimous in their will to conquer as they were in 1812.” A Russian joke said that the czar’s army would retreat to the Urals, on the boundary of Europe and Asia. By that time, distance and attrition would wear enemy armies down to one man each. The Austrian would surrender, according to custom, and the German would be killed.
Nevertheless, a sense of war weariness and futility began to seep into the Russian psyche. This was not 1812; indeed, it would take far more than the Russian winter to dispose of the Germans and their junior partners the Austrians. The Central Powers had inflicted two million casualties on the Russian armies, even though Russia was not yet knocked out of the war. “The Russian bear had escaped our clutches, bleeding no doubt from more than one wound, but still not stricken to death,” said German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg.
The meeting at Mogilev was colored by the events of this recent past. The mood was somber, and there was probably a sense of déjà vu when General Alekseyev said that Russia had agreed to a spring offensive, largely to support a British drive on the Somme scheduled for the summer of 1916. It would be limited and involve the North and Northwestern Fronts.
Stavka envisioned a two-pronged attack along the Divna River, but Generals Evert and Kuropatkin, who would execute the proposal, vehemently objected. They pointed out that scarcely a month before an offensive in the vicinity of Lake Narotch had been a fiasco. No fewer than 300,000 Russians had been unable to get the better of 50,000 Germans, and the effort collapsed in a sea of mud, blood, and freezing temperatures. The Russians suffered upward of 100,000 casualties, including 10,000 who died from exposure.
Alekseyev brushed aside their objections. While conceding that Russian losses had been great, he observed that as many as 800,000 fresh troops would fill the depleted ranks. This gave the Russians more than enough troops to launch a new offensive. Evert and Kuropatkin were not convinced, but they grudgingly agreed to a limited attack.
General Aleksei Brusilov then spoke. The balding sexagenarian, with his intense eyes and a long, thin mustache, still looked like the dashing cavalryman he had once been. He had last seen active duty in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 where he had served with distinction. Four decades is a long time to have been absent from the battlefield, but he made up for it by an open, enquiring mind that displayed brilliance if not genius. Brusilov studied Western European military techniques and knew how to adapt them to a different climate, geography, and even culture.
“I propose that we should launch an offensive on the Southwestern Front to support the plan,” said Brusilov. “We have numerical superiority over the Central Powers; why not use it to our advantage, and attack on all fronts simultaneously? I ask only the express permission to attack on my front at the same time as my colleagues.”
After Brusilov finished there was a stunned silence. He was proposing an attack that would stretch for hundreds of miles, and the majority of the officers around the room had little confidence that the Imperial Russian Army could mount such a large-scale attack. Brusilov had another opinion. With meticulous preparation, enough armaments, and a change of tactics, he was sure the Russians could achieve a breakthrough and at the very least knock Austria-Hungary out of the war.
Brusilov knew that the terrible defeats Russia had suffered at the hands of the Germans were not the fault of the common Russian soldier. The Russian Army was composed mainly of conscripted peasants, whose immediate ancestors had been downtrodden serfs. They were stoic, stubbornly brave, and could endure hardships and wounds that might wear down or kill a Western soldier. Granted the peasants were illiterate, but they did not need to read and write to pull off a successful attack. For the millions of men who filled the ranks, a deep and abiding faith in Orthodox Christianity was all they needed. And after God, their faith was in the czar, who would lead them to victory against the Teutonic invaders.
Alekseyev tried to dissuade Brusilov, saying he could expect no artillery support and certainly no reinforcements. Brusilov said he accepted those conditions and still wanted to go ahead. Alekseyev, bowing to the inevitable, gave Brusilov’s plan his conditional approval.
After the meeting, General Nicolai Ivanov, the former commander of the Southwestern Front and at that time an adjutant to Czar Nicholas, made a last-ditch effort to stop the Brusilov by appealing directly to the czar. Nicholas, usually indecisive on such matters, refused to intervene. “I don’t think it is proper for me to alter the War Council’s decisions,” Nicholas said. “Take it up with Alekseyev.”
Russia had begun the war in 1914 ill equipped for a modern conflict. The country was still developing, with its industrial revolution in its adolescent phase, and modern war demands mass production. At that time, Russian factories were producing only 1,300 shells a day, which amounted to 35,000 a month, while Russian artillery was using 45,000 shells a day. The Russian Army outfitted its infantry with the 1891 model Mosin 7.62 mm rifle. It was an adequate weapon, but production lagged the first year. Some recruits literally were sent to the front without weapons under the assumption that they might be able to pick up a weapon from a dead or wounded comrade.
By early 1916 the situation had improved. Russian factories were producing 100,000 rifles a month. Additional arms were obtained from the Allies. Although there were still shortages, Brusilov was confident that precise planning could neutralize the problem. For one thing, artillery barrages just before an offensive tended to be very long. This enabled the enemy to know precisely where the blow would fall. With such knowledge, the enemy could shift reserves to the threatened spot.