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Lake Naroch Offensive

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lake Naroch Offensive
Part of Eastern Front during World War I
Date18–30 March 1916
Result German victory
 German Empire  Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
German Empire Hermann von Eichhorn Russian Empire Aleksei Kuropatkin
Russian Empire Aleksei Evert
Units involved
German Empire 10th Army Russian Empire 2nd Army
720 guns[1]
887 guns[2]
Casualties and losses
20,000 casualties[3][4]
(German estimate)
40,000 casualties[5]
(Russian estimate)
110,000 casualties[6]
(German estimate)
76,409 casualties
(12,000 due to hypothermia)[7]
(Russian estimate)

The Lake Naroch Offensive in 1916 was an unsuccessful Russian offensive on the Eastern Front in World War I. It was launched at the request of Marshal Joseph Joffre and intended to relieve the German pressure on French forces.[8] Due to lack of reconnaissance, Russian artillery support failed to overcome and neutralise the well-fortified German defenses and artillery positions, leading to costly and unproductive direct attacks, hindered by the weather.[9] On 30 March General Evert ordered to stop the offensive.[10]

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What do you do if you launch an attack and lose over 100,000 men while the enemy loses fewer than 20,000? Well, if you’re Russia and it’s 1916, you plan an even bigger attack. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week saw zeppelins bombing England all week long, airplanes dropping bombs at Salonika, further Russian advances in Anatolia, small German gains at the seemingly endless battle of Verdun, and a British failure to advance far enough in Mesopotamia. But they hadn’t stopped trying. “They” were the British and Indian troops under General George Gorringe who were trying to rescue their comrades under General Charles Townshend who had been under siege at Kut-al-Amara on the Tigris River since early December, and it wasn’t going well. On the morning of April 9th, the British tried a dawn attack on Sanniyat, but it failed. On the 12th, though, the Turkish right was forced back 2 kilometers, and Gorringe’s men made advances on the other side of the river two days later. Thing is, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they were, the British inevitably took casualties, and unlike the Ottomans- close to Baghdad- they could not replace their losses. In addition, the floodwaters that appear in the Tigris every spring meant that the fighting forces were hemmed in to narrow strips of land where frontal assaults were the only possible tactic, and since there was pretty much no cover of any kind, such assaults were suicide. Second Lieutenant Cuthbert Aston had this to say, “We have superiority of guns and numbers, and it's just these infernal machine guns that make one man as good as a battalion on this level coverless country. If it weren’t for those damn machine guns we’d be in Kut now!" But they weren’t, and the men trapped in Kut were at the point of starvation. How much longer could they hold out? Frontal assaults against machine guns weren’t working anywhere else either, certainly not on the northeastern front, where the Battle of Lake Naroch finally came to an end this week. This battle was a huge disaster for the Russians, with their losses- as I said- reported at over 110,000 compared to just 20,000 for the Germans- and 12,000 of the Russian losses had been to frostbite- and all the ground that the Russians had initially taken had been re-taken by the Germans. Clearly something had to be done because the Russian advantage in men would not last forever at that rate of attrition, and it was General Aleksei Brusilov who figured he was the man to do it. On the 14th, he put forward his plan to the Stavka for a massive summer offensive. This Offensive would take place in Galicia primarily against the Austro-Hungarian forces. The goal would be to take some pressure off of Britain and France on the Western Front, take a lot of pressure off of Italy, and hopefully knock Austria-Hungary out of the war. And perhaps that would be the future mother of all offensives, but the current mother of all offensives was in full swing on the Western Front at Verdun. By the beginning of this month, German Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn had realized that fighting a war of attrition at Verdun was going to expose his own forces to comparable losses to those of the French and his optimism was fading. First, he’d tried a narrow offensive east of the Meuse, but it was stopped at the outer line of fortifications, then he’d tried an offensive on the west bank, but it had come under fire from the heights of Mort-Homme and Cote 304 and failed as well. So the strategy now was to attack on the entire front, some 30 kilometers wide and even hit Cote 304 and Mort Homme simultaneously. This kicked off April 9th and lasted for four days. Torrential rains then came and pretty much halted all activity for the rest of April. At first, it seemed like a German success; they reached what they thought was the top of the Mort Homme, only to find that it was just the north crest, and that the real summit was hundreds of meters away out of reach. The fight for Mort Homme then became an artillery battle. I read in John Keegan’s “The First World War” of an officer in the French 146th Regiment named Augustin Cochin who spent five days, April 9-14, in the Mort Homme trenches without seeing a single German. “The last two days soaked in icy mud, under terrible bombardment, without any shelter other than the narrowness of the trench... the Boche did not attack, naturally, it would have been too stupid... result: I arrived there with 175 men, I returned with 34, several half mad... not replying any more when I spoke to them.” A little note here- Eugen von Falkenhayn was chosen to lead the German attack on Mort Homme; he was the elder brother of the German army chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn, and childhood tutor to the German Crown prince. True story. And you may remember that little brother Erich was often criticized for his caution? Well, that caution seemed to run in the family. General Max von Gallwitz spoke of Eugene’s slowness like this; “We shall be in Verdun at the earliest by 1920.” The rains would last for 12 days, and during this time Von Gallwitz was thinking about the next attempt on Cote 304. It would be purely artillery and would blast the French from the hill, and never before in history would such a concentration of firepower have been witnessed. Ideally that would save some German lives, because this week, on the 11th, German losses since the beginning of the war are counted at 2,730,917. (Chronology of the Great War) But how did the Allies look in general? As you no doubt have guessed, they had grown considerably since 1914 (this is all from Keegan). Italy, the weakest industrially, had by now raised the number of infantry battalions from 590 to 693, it’s field artillery now numbered over 2,000 pieces, the army in the actual combat zone had grown since 1915 from a million to a million and a half. Russia, in spite of suffering losses in almost unimaginable numbers in 1915, was back up to strength. By now, Russia had nearly two million men in the field, and they were also now properly equipped, which was not at all the case last year. Russian industry had expanded big time. Engineering output had increased by a factor of four since 1913, chemical output had doubled. There had been a 2,000 percent increase in shell production, and over 1,000 percent increase in rifle production. Actually, standard shells had been produced at a rate of 358,000 per month at the beginning of 1915. By the end of the year it was nearly five times that, one and a half million shells a month. This year, Russian heavy guns would be as well stocked as those of the Germans and French. And speaking of the French, 25 new infantry divisions had been added to the French army in the past year. The French army was now more than 25% stronger than it had been in 1914. That was nothing compared to the British, who had fielded only a small army back when the war broke out. By now, Britain had 70 divisions in service, ten times as many as before the war. And here’s one little completely unrelated side note to end the week: Orthodox Easter was April 10th, and there were mini truces on the Austrian front with soldiers from four Russian regiments crossing to the Austrian lines to fraternize. The Austrians took them prisoner. Things like the Christmas Truce 16 months ago were things of the past. And that was the week, the Germans raining fire at Verdun, the Russians losing over 100,000 men in the north for no gains at all, but making plans to drastically alter the game, and the British desperate but still unable to break through on the Tigris. On this day 100 years ago, April 14th, 1916, Winston Churchill wrote from the trenches of the western front to his wife, “I greatly fear the general result. More than I have ever done before, I realize the stupendous nature of the task; and the unwisdom of which our affairs are conducted makes me almost despair at times of a victorious issue... Do you think WE should succeed in an offensive, if the Germans cannot do it at Verdun with all their skill and science? Our army is not the same as theirs; and of course their staff is quite intact and taught by successful experiment. Our staff only represents the brainpower of our poor little peacetime army- with which hardly any really able men would go. We are children at the game compared to them. And in this day-to-day trench warfare- they lose half what we do...” This may have been true, but those children were now better armed and more numerous than ever, and growing every day, and how long could the Germans keep up with that? In case you were wondering why Winston Churchill was sitting in the trenches and not doing his Lord of the Admiralty thing anymore, click here to find out how his disaster at Gallipoli unfolded 101 years ago. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Panot - help us reach our next milestone on Patreon so you can meet us on original locations of World War 1. Follow us on Twitter and on Instagram for more stories from the great war. See you next time.



Under the terms of the Chantilly Agreement of December 1915 Russia, France, Great Britain and Italy were committed to simultaneous attacks against the Central Powers in the summer of 1916. Russia felt the need to lend troops to fight in France and Salonika (against her own wishes), and to attack on the Eastern Front, in the hope of obtaining munitions from Britain and France.[11]

The Lake Naroch Offensive was launched at the request of France, in the hope that the Germans would transfer more units to the East after their attack on Verdun.[12] Nicholas II acceded to the French request, choosing the Lake Narach area in what is now the Republic of Belarus because there the Imperial Russian Army had a significant numerical superiority over the German forces under the command of General Eichhorn.

Comparison of strength

The Russian Second Army was made up of 16 infantry and 4 cavalry divisions, 253 battalions, 133 squadrons and had 887 artillery pieces, whereas the German forces numbered 9 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions, 89 battalions, 72 squadrons and 720 guns of various calibres.[13]


The Russian initial artillery bombardment was quite long (it lasted two days), but inaccurate, leaving most of the German artillery intact, and the Russian troops, who made the mistake of crossing no man's land in groups rather than scattered about, were easy targets for German machine guns. The attackers gained 10 kilometers, but did not inflict any serious damage to the German defences — which were well-organized and fortified — although the Russians greatly outnumbered their adversaries.

The territory gained by the Russians was lost to subsequent German counterattacks. A secondary attack mounted near Riga on 21 March had no better luck.


The whole operation turned out to be an utter failure, as it abated the Russians' morale without providing any help to the French, and has become a shining example of the use of a widely known World War I method of war, the human wave attack. Huge masses of people were continuously sent into the battle over and over again in the same place of the enemy front. Eventually, the attack on the German positions was brought to a halt because, as General Evert noted in his order issued on 30 March, it had not led to "decisive results" and "the onset of warm weather and abundant rains" had turned much of the area into swamps.[14]


  • Holstein, Günther. Nacht am Narocz [Night at Lake Narach] text set to music by Siegfried Wagner for tenor and piano in 1919.
  • Keegan, J. (2001). Der erste Weltkrieg. Eine europäische Tragödie [The First World War. A European Tragedy]. (in German) Rowohlt-Taschenbuch-Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg, ISBN 3-499-61194-5
  • Podorozhniy N. E. (1938). Narochskaya operatsiya v marte 1916 g. na russkom fronte mirovoy voyni [The Naroch Offensive in March 1916 on the Russian Front of the World War] (in Russian) Moscow: Voenizdat. 1938
  • Stone, N. (1998). The Eastern Front 1914–1917. Penguin Books Ltd., London, ISBN 0-14-026725-5
  • Zabecki, D. T., editor (2014). Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History. ABC-CLIO, ISBN 978-1-59884-980-6
  • Zentner, C. (2000). Der erste Weltkrieg. Daten, Fakten, Kommentare. Moewig, Rastatt 2000, ISBN 3-8118-1652-7


  1. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, p. 47
  2. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, p. 47
  3. ^ Spencer C. Tucker, Priscilla Mary Roberts, The Encyclopedia of World War I: A Political, Social, and Military History, 2005, p. 381
  4. ^ Подорожный, 1938, p. 152
  5. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, p. 153
  6. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, p. 152
  7. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, pp. 124–125
  8. ^ Zabecki, 2014, p. 735
  9. ^ Zabecki, 2014, p. 735
  10. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, p. 149
  11. ^ Stone, 1998, p. 221, 252
  12. ^ Keegan 2001, p. 325
  13. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, p. 47
  14. ^ Podorozhniy, 1938, p. 149

External links

This page was last edited on 7 March 2019, at 17:35
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