The Disastrous Lake Naroch Offensive of World War I

Samuel Sullivan

The Eastern Front in 1916 echoed with artillery bombardments and troop offensives that resulted in massive casualties, especially for the Russians.

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(Janwillemvanaalst/Wikimedia Commons/Altered by the author)

The ineptitude of leadership from the Imperial Russian Army made Russia's vast superiority of numbers hardly an advantage. No example can better paint the picture than the disastrous Lake Naroch offensive, which kicked off on March 16th.

The lead up to 1916

Throughout 1914 and 1915, the western and eastern fronts' allied powers had little coordination in their attacks. Led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, the central powers could dictate the war while fighting against the French and British on the west and the Russians on the east.

During 1915, the eastern front had been the focus of the central powers. They thought eliminating Russia quickly and decisively would allow them to win a war on one front. If Russia was vanquished, the central powers could focus on routing the French and British on the western front.

Their strategy was effective, and by mid-1915, the Russians had been pushed out of Poland and back to a line that stretched from Riga in the north to Tarnopol in the South. However, the strategy was not decisive, and the two sides entrenched their positions, and the eastern front stagnated.

Why Russia was obligated to mount an offensive

On December 6th, The allies held the 2nd Inter-Allied Conference at Chantilly. French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre led the conference, and Yakov Zhilinski represented the Russian government. Their goals were to coordinate their efforts on the western and eastern fronts finally.

Zhilinski, acting under the instruction of Chief of Staff Mikhail Alexeev, pushed for the requirement that Allied forces coordinate during major offensives. The Russians were upset that they had had no relief from attacks in 1915 and that German and Austro-Hungarian forces were able to fight against them without worrying about reinforcing the western front.

Joffre and the other allied representatives agreed with the Russians, but ironically, it would come back to bite the Russians.

In February 1916, the Germans switched their focus to the western front and attacked the French fortress at Verdun. The fighting was brutal. The death tolls reached hundreds of thousands for both sides, with little tactical advantage.

The Battle of Verdun triggered the agreement made at Chantilly, and Joffre implored the British and Russians to mount counter-offensives. The British delayed months to act. Ultimately, they fought the Battle of Somme in July. The Russians acted more quickly.

The state of Russia's leadership

In September of 1915, despite almost full cabinet opposition, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II decided to promote himself to the Russian army's Commander-in-Chief. In a letter to Grand Duke Nikolai, his uncle and the man he was replacing, Tsar Nicholas II expressed that he had wanted to take command since the beginning of the war.

He thanked his uncle but said, "The ways of Providence are inscrutable, but my duty and my desire determine me in my resolution for the good of the State." Taking over leadership would prove an enormous mistake for the Tsar. It contributed to the populace's outrage that allowed Vladamir Lenin and the Bolsheviks to force the Tsar's abdication on March 2nd, 1917.

It got worse for Nicholas II. On July 17th, 1918, he and his family, including his wife, four daughters, and son.

Although the Tsar was officially in charge of the Russian army, the decisions were mainly left to Chief of Staff Alexeev, the final decision maker for allocating resources. He decided attacking through the north of the eastern front to take the city of Vilnius was the best plan. On paper, it seemed like a sure victory.

The offensive by the numbers

The Lake Naroch offensive at the onset seemed tactically sound for the Russians. Unfortunately, many factors, mainly poor leadership, caused it to be a disaster. Along the eastern front, the Russian forces had 1.5 million troops to the German/Austro-Hungarians 1 million. Even more promising was in the north, where the Russians had about 350,000 men to the Germans 75,000.

Alexeev tapped the resources of General Alexei Evert's Western Army Group. Evert had been compiling men and artillery for a year and a half leading up to the offensive, which explained the disparity in troop numbers between the Russians and the Germans. Evert was notoriously defensive and cautious.

The offensive would have two prongs that would follow the classic tactic of a pincer movement. General Alexei Kuropatkin would lead the Russian Northern Army Group south from Riga towards Vilnius. General Smirnov would lead Russia's Second Army (a part of the Western Army Group) from the east, past Lake Naroch. The two groups would meet at Vilnius and take the city.

Smirnov's group was the focus, and they had 1,000 artillery guns. The German defenses were the German Tenth Army led by field commander Hermann von Eichhorn. They had 400 artillery guns.

The Battle of Lake Naroch

The Russians began a bombardment of the German defenses on March 16th. They shelled the German lines for two whole days, hoping to soften them up and destroy their artillery.

On March 18th, the Russians felt confident enough to begin an infantry charge. The "over the top" order was given, and the Russian infantry rushed the Germans. Waves of Russian soldiers charged the German strongholds through "no man's land." Many ran to their deaths as the Germans mowed down masses of Russians with heavy machinegun fire. The two days of bombardments had been inaccurate, and most German artillery was still intact.

To make matters worse, the ground was muddy from the spring thaw, slowing the charging Russians. They charged in clumped groups that made them easy targets. This form of breakthrough tactic known as the human wave attack was outdated and hugely costly for the attacking side.

Eventually, the Second Army managed to breach the German lines and push them back, but only temporarily. When all was said and done, any gains made by the Russians were retaken by the Germans during counter-attacks. Although they took heavy losses on the first day of battle, the Russians were initially undeterred. They tried to breakthrough on the 19th and 21st of March with similar outcomes.

Meanwhile, on the 21st, General Kuropatkin's troops attacked the German line from the north. They lost 10,000 men on their first day of fighting and had to retreat. Both sides of the pincer were demolished and demoralized. General Evert finally called off the offensive on March 30th.

Takeaways

The Lake Naroch offensive was utterly unsuccessful. It did not alleviate pressure from the French at Verdun as it was designed, and its outdated tactics led to massive casualties for the Russians. According to Michael Duffy of Firstworldwar, losses exceeded 100,000 for the Russians. 70,000 were killed at Lake Naroch, and 30,000 were killed to the north. The Germans lost 20,000 men in the fighting.

Inept leadership seems to be the most to blame. The Russian generals had difficulty adapting to World War I's technological advances and relied heavily on outdated tactics. Many of the generals would be held to account by the Bolshevik's, just as Tsar Nicholas II was.

Alexeev died from a heart attack in October of 1917, which may have saved him from death at the Bolshevik's hands, whom he fought against. The Bolshevik's killed Evert and Zhilinkski, but Kuropatkin survived. He was arrested but was released and allowed to retire. He died in 1925.

The Russian people were ready for new leadership.

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