The Mitau Operation

On 23-25 November 1915 Stavka’s representatives in France met the Allies near Chantilly to coordinate plans for 1916 plans, and in December 1915 the Eleventh Corps on the Russian European Front launched a limited local offensive along the River Strypa. If the latter failed to break through enemy trenches and had no effect upon German planning, it was a sign that the Russian Army was far from destroyed. Nonetheless, on 8 February 1916 General von Falkenhayn opened the German campaign to destroy the French on the anvil of Verdun, while the Austrians now focused on routing the Italians in the Trentino.

By March 1916 the Russians were sufficiently recovered to respond to a French appeal with a major, two-pronged assault on the German entrenchments at Lake Naroch and Visjnevskoe, south of Dvinsk. In spite of a two-day bombardment, this 1915-style attack failed utterly. Whatever relief it gave the French at Verdun, the cost was perhaps 110,000 Russian casualties to 20,000 Germans, and it showed clearly that conditions on the Eastern Front paralleled fully the trench war in the West. Most generals now assumed that preliminary bombardments, followed by massive infantry assaults to produce breakthroughs to be exploited by cavalry, were the solution to the stalemate the Russians called “position warfare.” When these tactics failed, the generals again blamed shortages of munitions. So for a new offensive in the Vilnius area, the local command had demanded even more guns and shells. But these concentrations had precluded surprise at Naroch, and the bombardment on a very narrow front merely turned the battlefield into a muddy morass on which defensive firepower allowed even inferior forces of defenders to inflict stupendous losses upon the attackers.

Fortunately for the Russians, the generals gathered around Brusilov, now commanding the Southwestern Front, had pondered recent failures and developed new sets of operational and tactical approaches. These envisaged employing infantry assaults simultaneously at several different places with a minimum of artillery preparation. In fact, since Stavka was supporting the offensives in the north, when Brusilov proposed launching a secondary offensive, he was forced to achieve surprise by using only the forces in place for his planned strike toward the Carpathians. This was to take place along a 14-mile front at Lutsk, supported by attacks on smaller sectors at Tarnopol and Yazlovetsa, and a demonstration toward Lvov. Aerial photographs were used to brief his troops on opposing trench systems while secrecy was preserved by effective camouflage and building large underground bunkers, in which to hide the attackers. He also dispensed with the always visible cavalry, usually concentrated in masses behind the front, at the risk of not being able to support a breakthrough.

In the meantime the ltalians had appealed for help after the Austrians overran their positions in the Trentino. Consequendy, Brusilov launched his offensive 11 days early, on 22 May 1916. His armies struck along a 300-mile front in Galicia and Bukovina, with the important rail center at Kovel as their target. Because Stavka had withheld artillery support, Brusilov’s own guns fired only 250 rounds each in the first two days as compared to 600 rounds used daily on the Somme. Surprise was complete and the Austrian lines were ruptured, Lutsk recaptured, and the battle joined along the Strypa River (29 May-17 June). The Hapsburg forces were completely disorganized and demoralized, forcing the Germans once more to come to their aid. Making efficient use of the rail net, the Germans attacked the northern edge of the Lutsk salient. This stabilized the front, but not before Chernowitz fell to Brusilov’s Russians. Meanwhile, to the north, Stavka had attacked from Baranovichi. But like the simultaneous Battle of the Somme in France, this assault failed to break the opposing line, although the fighting lasted only 12 days. As for Brusilov, he now reverted to employing heavy bombardments and massive infantry attacks that failed to take the Kovno railhead. He declared his offensive ended on 31 July, though some heavy fighting continued thereafter, and his forces suffered 500,000 casualties in all. Yet his opponents had lost 1.5 million men and 582 guns.

Unfortunately Brusilov’s successes were quickly balanced by defeats elsewhere. After prolonged negotiations, Allied promises and Russia’s Galician victories persuaded the Rumanians to enter the war on 14 August 1916. Against Russian advice, they at once attacked Hungarian Transylvania, where Germans and Bulgarians under von Mackensen and von Falkenhayn quickly surrounded their forces at Hermannstadt. Having then captured the port of Constanza, the two German-Ied forces broke through the Carpathian passes into Wallachia and advanced upon Bucharest, which the Rumanians abandoned. As a result, Brusilov was soon forced to thin and extend his front some 300 miles to the southeast to open his own Rumanian front. The Rumanian retreat finally ended on the Sereth River in January 1917, but it left the Germans in control of Rumanian wheat and oil.

Despite this setback, the Allied meeting at Chantilly in November 1916 remained optimistic due to the German failure at Verdun and Brusilov’s success in the East. Although Alekseev was concerned over the Balkans, the Allies put that region in second place in their plans for victory in 1917. Nicholas II shared this view and Stavka began implementing the Chantilly plan for simultaneous offensives in France, Italy, and Russia.

To keep the Germans off balance, in late December Russia’s Northern Front struck silently through the fog to open the Mitau Operation, which recaptured and held Riga in a five-day battle. The Russian attack, carried out without preliminary bombardment on a 30- mile front, was reminiscent of tactics employed in the Brusilov Offensive (June 4- September 1, 1916). It caught the German defenders by surprise and pushed them back. The Russians took the towns of Mitau and Takkums, advancing up to 4 miles between the Aa and the Tirul Marsh. In the process, the Russians took upwards of 8,000 German prisoners and captured 36 guns. The Germans denied these figures, but the international media substantiated the Russian claims.

But on 9 January 1917 the Germans counterattacked and in time recovered most of the lost ground. Nevertheless, by the month’s end the 12th Army had stopped the Germans and held before Riga. German counterattacks from ceased by the end of the month. The Mitau Operation, the last offensive of the tsar’s Stavka, demonstrated that Brusilov’s methods had spread throughout the Imperial Army, that it was still capable of defeating both Austrians and Germans, and that it could cooperate in the Allies’ planned offensives.

Attack “without a shot”: Mitevska operation

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