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The battle of Kovel-Stanislav, 4 June-20 September 1916 is better known as the Brusilov Offensive after the Russian General who planned and executed the attack. Alexei Brusilov had proved himself to be one of the more able Russian army commanders, and early in 1916 he was appointed to command the South West Army Group, on the front between the Pripet Marshes and the Romanian border.
In December 1915 the Russians had agreed to mount a summer offensive during 1916 as part of the general Allied plan for the year. The Allies plans were disrupted by the Central Powers. First the Germans attacked at Verdun, triggering an abortive Russian offence at Lake Naroch (18-26 March 1916), mounted at French request in an attempt to force the Germans to transfer troops from the Western Front. Then on 15 May the Austrians attacked on the Trentino and threatened the entire Italian front. Once again the Russians were asked if they could intervene, this time to drag Austrian troops away.
The Russians had been planning to launch a massive set-piece attack north of the Pripet Marshes, beginning in late June 1916. At a meeting in April it was decided to continue with this northern offensive, and all available Russian reinforcements went to the support it. Amongst the Army Group commanders only Brusilov was confident of success. He though he had developed a method that would allow him to break the weakened Austrian lines in front of his armies, and as he was asking for no reinforcements and little new material, his plan was approved. It too was to be launched in late June. When the request for assistance came from Italy, Brusilov was willing to launch his offensive three weeks early.
Brusilov had a simple plan. He realised that the problem with an attack on narrow front was that it allowed the enemy to flood their reserves to the crisis area, and plug the gap. He decided to launch his attack along a 200 mile front with all four of his armies, a total of 200,000 men, supported by 900 guns. The artillery bombardment would be short but intense, to maintain the element of surprise. He also took some sensible precautions that were not common along the Russian lines. No mans land on the eastern front was often up to be a mile wide. Brusilov narrowed this gap, and built forward trenches that reached within 75 yards of the Austrian and German lines. Dugouts were built to protect the troops while they were preparing to advance.
Brusilov was faced by four Austrian and one German army – 150,000 men supported by 600 guns. By the standards of the Western Front he did not have enough men to make a successful attack, but when the battle began on 4 June the Austrians and Germans were caught entirely by surprise. By the end of the first week the Russian Eighth Army at the north of the line and the Ninth at the south of line had both pushed Austrian armies back at least ten miles. The Austrian Seventh Army, at the south of the line, was close to collapse. By the middle of June it had been split in two, and Russian troops were advancing towards the Carpathians.
Everybody but Brusilov was surprised by the extent of his victories. The Russians flooded reinforcements south to keep the advance going, while the Germans eventually moved fifteen divisions to the Eastern Front. The initial Russian advance continued until the middle of July, and was followed by two more attacks. The final offensive lasted from 7 August-20 September. When it ended the Russians had advanced between twenty miles (in the middle of the line) and one hundred miles (in the south), where they had reached the eastern slopes of the Carpathians.
Both sides suffered massive casualties during the Brusilov offensive. The Russians lost one million men, the Austrians at least that many and the Germans 350,000. The battle had a series of momentous consequences. The Austrians could no longer mount independent offensive operations, and had to accept an ever increasing level of German control. On 27 August, encouraged by the Russian success, Romania declared war on the Central Powers. It reduced the already limited standing of Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff, and at the end of August he was replaced by Hindenburg (Falkenhayn would then go on to play an important role in the defeat of Romania). Finally it exhausted the Russian armies. The losses suffered during the Brusilov Offensive have sometimes been blamed for the outbreak of revolution in 1917.
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