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Kerensky Offensive

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kerensky Offensive
Part of the Eastern Front during World War I
EasternFront1917.jpg

Operations on the Eastern Front in 1917.
DateJuly 1–19, 1917
Location
Result Central Powers victory
Belligerents
 German Empire
 Austria-Hungary
 Russia
 Romania
Commanders and leaders
German Empire Leopold of Bavaria
German Empire Max Hoffmann
Russian Republic Aleksei Brusilov
Strength
German Empire/Austria-Hungary South Army
Austria-Hungary VII Army
Austria-Hungary III Army
Russian Empire VII Army
Russian Empire VIII Army
Russian Empire XI Army
Kingdom of Romania I Army
Casualties and losses
38,000[1][2] 60,000

The Kerensky Offensive (Russian: Наступление Керенского), also commonly known as the July Offensive (Russian: Июльское наступление) or Galician Offensive, was the last Russian offensive in World War I. It took place in July 1917. It was decided by Alexander Kerensky, Minister of War in the Russian provisional government, and led by General Brusilov. Such a decision was ill-timed, because, following the February Revolution, there were strong popular demands for peace, especially within the Russian Army, whose fighting capabilities were quickly deteriorating.

Discipline within the Russian Army had reached a point of crisis since the Tsar's abdication. The Petrograd Soviet's "Order Number 1" tremendously weakened the power of officers, giving an over-riding mandate to "soldier committees". The abolition of the death penalty was another contributing factor, as was the high presence of revolutionary agitators at the front including Bolshevik agitators, who promoted a defeatist agenda (and whom Kerensky tolerated considerably more than conservative agitators). Riots and mutineering at the front became common, officers were often the victims of soldier harassment and even murder. Furthermore, the policy of the new government towards the war effort was one of fulfilling obligations towards Russia's allies, as opposed to fighting for the sake of total victory, thus giving soldiers a less credible motivation to fight.

However, Kerensky hoped that an important Russian victory would gain popular favour and restore the soldiers' morale, thus strengthening the weak provisional government and proving the effectiveness of "the most democratic army in the world", as he referred to it. Starting on July 1, 1917 the Russian troops attacked the Austro-Germans in Galicia, pushing toward Lviv. The operations involved the Russian 11th, 7th and 8th Armies and the Austro-German South Army (General von Bothmer) and the Austrian 7th and 3rd Armies. After an initial success, the offensive was halted because the Russian soldiers soon mutinied and refused to fight. It collapsed altogether by July 16. On the 18th the Austro-Germans counterattacked, meeting little resistance and advancing through Galicia and Ukraine until the Zbruch River. The Russian lines were broken on the 20th, and by the 23rd, the Russians had retreated about 240 kilometres (150 miles).

The Russian provisional government was greatly weakened by this military catastrophe, and the possibility of a Bolshevik coup d'état became increasingly real. Far from strengthening Russian army morale, this offensive proved that Russian army morale no longer existed. No Russian general could now count on the soldiers under his command actually doing what they were ordered to do. This offensive also helped the start of the July days. One last fight took place between the Germans and the Russians in this war. On September 1, 1917 the Germans attacked and captured Riga. The Russian soldiers defending the town refused to fight and fled from the advancing German troops.

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Transcription

Last summer, Russia had nearly knocked Austria-Hungary out of the war with the Brusilov Offensive, but since then had seen political turmoil that culminated in a revolution and the abdication of the Tsar. The Allies were seriously concerned about Russia’s ability to continue the war, but this week, Russia and Alexei Brusilov are back. I’m Indy Neidell: welcome to the Great War. Last week the fighting on Mount Ortigara finally ended, with heavy Italian losses for no gain, the first American troops - 14,000 of them - arrived in France, Greece officially joined the Allies in the war, and Russia was preparing a big new offensive in the Southeast. And that offensive kicked off this week. Thing is, power in Russia had still been kind of split between the Provisional government, who wanted to create a liberal democratic system, and the Soviets and their revolutionary doctrines. A couple weeks ago, the Congress of Workers and Soldiers Soviets had begun, where the Bolsheviks had 100 of the 1000+ delegates. They were pretty emphatic about ending the war. The Congress as a whole though, which would end July 7th, gave its support to the Provisional Government as the supreme authority in Russia. Alexander Kerensky was Minister of War in the Provisional Government and he was all about renewing the offensive, as we saw last week. So two things happened at once on July 1st. There was a huge peace demonstration in Petrograd, and General Alexei Brusilov went on the offensive in Galicia. 31 Russian divisions - over 200,000 men, supported by 1,328 heavy guns - launched the attack, aimed at Lemberg, some 80 kilometers to the west. Brusilov had his main artillery and his most reliable troops packed in a 48km zone that was the main axis of advance, though diversionary and backups attacks extended this to nearly 160km total. Kerensky toured the front line positions for days, telling the men to fight for their land and their freedom, and also personally giving the order that began the offensive. (The Eastern Front) “Kerensky moved along the line... putting heart into some of the army’s least willing units. When one regiment refused to advance, Kerensky stood on the trench line in plain view of the Austro-Hungarians and told the men that if they would not attack, he would fight the enemy alone. The speech inspired the men and they went over the top, with many soldiers pausing to embrace Kerensky... Kerensky as swept away by the emotion and tried to join the attack... a journalist who saw the feat said it promised to go on record as one of the historic feats in war operations.” Thing is, though there were exceptions, most of the soldiers were still willing to go over the top. The 11th and 7th Russian armies were the vanguard, with the 8th army in reserve and the offensive began with great success. On the 1st, they took three lines of enemy trenches and 12,000 prisoners, on the second they were advancing again, taking another 6,300 prisoners. That day in a secondary action, the Czechoslovak Rifleman Brigade, part of the Czech Legion, a volunteer fighting force for the Allies-, went into action near Zborov against a far larger Austro-Hungarian force. In spite of that, they advanced deep into enemy territory, breaking through the entire trench system, and took 3,300 prisoners. From what I understand, they even convinced many Czech soldiers of the Austrian 19th Division to desert. (Gilbert). In general, the Austro-Hungarian defenses collapsed and men fled in panic. A gap opened in their lines dozens of kilometers long and more than 30 deep and it seemed the Russian had designed another masterpiece and as the week progressed they pushed the Austrians ever back. This might be a crisis for Austria in the field, but there was a crisis at home in Germany this week. On the 6th, Matthias Erzberger, the leader of Germany’s Catholic Center Party, a moderate monarchist, shocked the nation with a speech in the Reichstag. He had gotten information from international contacts through the Vatican, and he persuasively demonstrated that the unrestricted submarine campaign in effect for half a year had failed. Britain was nowhere near to being starved out of the war. He demanded reforms, among them a stronger role for the Reichstag, but also that Germany renounce all territorial gains for a “peace of reconciliation”. This outraged the conservatives, and there was actually kind of a war over policy with a bunch of factions involved. Those in favor of annexations of conquered territory vehemently attacked Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. The Chancellor was supposed to be in control, but since in Germany the government leaders didn’t have their own power base, since they weren’t chosen by the legislature, the long war had taken control from the Chancellor’s hands and the system had broken down. Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg, whom the nation loved and trusted, had no interest in creating a new system, and the only guy who had an interest and who could get Hindenburg to do what he wanted was Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, who was not elected by anyone or responsible to anyone. In fact, the Kaiser hated him, but by this time Germany was in many ways a military dictatorship run by Ludendorff. Here’s how that worked in action: On July 12th- so, next week - a telegram from army headquarters announced the resignations of both Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The reason given was that it was impossible to work with Bethmann-Hollweg. This was just plain blackmail - either he goes or we do, right? Funny enough, if this had happened in, say, France or Britain, any general behaving like this would’ve had his resignation accepted, I’m pretty sure, but what could the Kaiser do? He was furious but he had to give in. Bethmann-Hollweg resigned. This was never going to come at a good time, but this was specifically bad because Monseigneur Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII had recently called on Bethmann-Hollweg with an offer from the current Pope Benedict XV to try to mediate an end to the war. Now, you might think “well, that sort of thing hasn’t come to anything yet, why would it now?” Well, Pacelli figured the first step was for Berlin to specify its intention with regards to Belgium. Everyone in the world pretty much knew peace talks were useless until Germany showed some willingness to restore Belgium to its pre-war status. The Kaiser had long said that for reasons of national security, Germany would have to maintain control over at least part of Belgium, but he was now seeing that that might be pretty unrealistic. So Bethmann-Hollweg, without the army’s consent, of course, had told Pacelli that Germany was up for Belgian autonomy if France and Britain were as well. The Reichstag’s liberal majority would’ve supported this too, but with Bethmann-Hollweg gone, the opportunity was also gone. The new Chancellor would be Georg Michaelis, who was so obscure that the Kaiser had not only never met him, he had never even heard of him. Michaelis would prove completely ineffective and Ludendorff really was responsible for everything with no support from anyone either diplomatically or politically. But someone who was getting some support this week was the Arab Revolt. On July 6th, Arab Revolt forces working with Lawrence of Arabia occupied Aqaba without opposition after several days of fighting in the region. This is at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba, at the head of the Red Sea. The Arab forces were now 200km from the British front in Sinai, from where General Edmund Allenby was under instructions to take Jerusalem by the end of the year. The Arabs would receive 16,000 pounds worth of gold as a reward - that’s about 650,000 dollars today (Gilbert). Aqaba was an attractive target because it provided a base closer to Suez and Syria than Al Wajh down the coast, to which British explosives, ammunition, and gold could now be funneled. This was a pretty big achievement for the Revolt. And here are some notes to end the week. On July 2nd, the first regular convoy of merchant ships sails from Hampton Roads, VA. A concerted attack by German submarines on US transports was defeated the 4th, and also on the 4th came a German raid on Harwich, 17 were killed and 30 injured. And that was the week. Allied success in the Middle East and on the Eastern Front, and a political crisis in Berlin. This Russian offensive wasn’t as big as the one last summer, but it was still a heck of a lot of men, and the Allies were optimistic with the successes this week. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but remember, the huge success of last summer’s offensive came at a price - some two million casualties all told, with perhaps as many as one million dead. Could Russia afford another “success” like that? Could anyone? If you want to know more about the man behind the Russian offensives of 1916 and 1917, check out our bio episode about Alexsei Brusilov right here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is w.kabli. We could not do this show without your support on Patreon. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next time.

Contents

Background

The offensive was ordered by Alexander Kerensky, Minister of War in the Russian provisional government, and led by General Brusilov. Such a decision was ill-timed, because, following the February Revolution, there were strong popular demands for peace, especially within the army, whose fighting capabilities were quickly deteriorating.

Discipline within the Russian Army had reached a point of crisis since the Tsar's abdication. The Petrograd Soviet's Order No. 1 tremendously weakened the power of officers, giving an over-riding mandate to "soldier committees". The abolition of the death penalty was another contributing factor, as was the high presence of revolutionary agitators at the front including Bolshevik agitators, who promoted a defeatist agenda (and whom Kerensky tolerated considerably more than conservative agitators). What is more, the High Command failed to act appropriately, as they failed to effectively combat the democratisation of the army and were sluggish in reacting to the difficulties that the officers had faced. There were very few commands that Stavka was able to implement in regards to controlling the body of troops and restoring officer power; simply because they would have been ignored by the men.[3]

Riots and mutineering at the front became common and officers were often the victims of soldier harassment and even murder. Furthermore, the policy of the new government towards the war effort was one of fulfilling obligations towards Russia's allies, as opposed to fighting for the sake of total victory, thus giving soldiers a less credible motivation to fight.

However, Kerensky hoped that an important Russian victory would gain popular favour and restore the soldiers' morale, thus strengthening the weak provisional government and proving the effectiveness of "the most democratic army in the world", as he referred to it. Brusilov deemed this the 'last hope to which he could resort', as he saw the collapse of the army as inevitable.

Offensive

Starting on July 1, 1917 the Russian troops attacked the Austro-Hungarian and German forces in Galicia, pushing toward Lviv. The operations involved the Russian 11th, 7th and 8th Armies against the Austro-Hungarian/German South Army (General Felix Graf von Bothmer) and the Austro-Hungarian 7th and 3rd Armies.

Initial Russian success was the result of powerful bombardment, such as the enemy never witnessed before on the Russian front. At first, the Austrians did not prove capable of resisting this bombardment, and the broad gap in the enemy lines allowed the Russians to make some progress, especially against the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army. However, the German forces proved to be much harder to root out, and their stubborn resistance resulted in heavy casualties among the attacking Russians.

As Russian losses mounted, demoralisation of infantry soon began to tell, and the further successes were only due to the work of cavalry, artillery and special "shock" battalions, which General Kornilov had formed. The other troops, for the most part, refused to obey orders. Soldiers' committees discussed whether the officers should be obeyed or not. Even when a division did not flatly refuse to fight, no orders were obeyed without preliminary discussion by the divisional committee, and if the latter decided to obey orders it was usually too late to be of any use.

The Russian advance collapsed altogether by July 16. On July 19, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians counterattacked, meeting little resistance and advancing through Galicia and Ukraine as far as the Zbruch River. The Russian lines were broken on July 20 and by July 23, the Russians had retreated about 240 kilometres (150 mi) (Vinny). "The only limit to the German advance was the lack of the logistical means to occupy more territory".[4]

Aftermath

The Russian provisional government was greatly weakened by this military catastrophe, and the possibility of a Bolshevik coup d'état became increasingly real. Far from strengthening Russian army morale, this offensive proved that Russian army morale no longer existed. No Russian general could now count on the soldiers under his command actually doing what they were ordered to do.

This offensive helped the start of the July Days, and also affected the situation in Romania. Russo-Romanian forces, which first broke the Austro-Hungarian front at Mărăşti in support of the Kerensky Offensive, were stopped.

One further fight took place between the Germans and the Russians in 1917. On September 1, 1917 the Germans attacked and captured Riga. The Russian soldiers defending the town refused to fight and fled from the advancing German troops.

References

  1. ^ Cite error: The named reference heenan111 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  2. ^ Cite error: The named reference heenan117 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  3. ^ Hingston, Thomas, 'Officers and the Revolution: February – October 1917' (Dissertation at Queen Mary History Department, 2017).
  4. ^ Livesy, The Viking Atlas of World War I (1994) p.134

Biography

  • Anthony (ed) Livesey(1994),The Viking Atlas of World War I.Viking. ISBN 978-0670853724

This page was last edited on 5 April 2019, at 19:05
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