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Remembered Today:

8 August 1916 - Battle of Kovel (Eastern Front).


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8th August 1916:

Russia's "July 1st".

After two months of successful operations by Brusilov, Alekseyev (the "Ludendorff" to the Tsar's "Hindenburg") finally decides to extend the frontage of their attacks by bringing in Evert's West Front. Brusilov had been starved of reserves, and opened his attack with not much more than parity with the CP forces. This forced him to adopt a new approach, and had succeeded against the Austro-Hungarians through early use of what would develop into "infiltration tactics" - sapping to within 50 yards of CP positions, surprise barrages, reinforcing success etc. When Evert took over the northern end of the operations at Kovel, he decided upon a smashing barrage and narrow front attack - a reversion to unsuccessful 1915 tactics - rather than to reinforce Brusilov's success further south. As the fighting for Kovel had intensified in the preceding month, von der Marwitz observed that the battles now "resemble conditions in the West".

8/8/16 was a disaster for the Russians, despite massive firepower and overwhelming numerical superiority. At Kovel, the Russians had massed 29 Infantry and 12 Cavalry divisions to 12 AH and German divs. Attacking out of a marsh (sounds stupid, but they were trying to convert a tactical advantage to strategic victory by getting forward of the Stokhod marshes), the barrage was ineffective, as were the human wave tactics used - a frightening parallel with some parts of July 1st on the Somme. From Norman Stone's "Eastern Front" (the tactics to which he refers are ever-more-gargantuan short-frontage attacks, a sort of badly-executed "bite-and hold"):

"Moreover the tactics used were much like the strategy itself: theoretically the obvious answer, in practice calamitous. Troops advanced in waves, one after another, and were therefore very vulnerable to heavy rifle-fire, traversing machineguns, high-explosive shell. The Guard - and especially the Semenovski and Preobrazhenski regiments attacked seventeen times, with wild courage, and made none but trivial gains. So many Russian corpses lay stinking in no-man's land that Marwitz, the German commander, was approached with a view to establishing a truce, so that they might be buried. He refused: there could be no better deterrent to future offensives than this forest of rotting corpses. But for STAVKA, these tactics seemed to be the obvious answer. It was easy enough for men to simply walk forward from a trench, in a long line; and troops that followed them into the trench would walk forward similarly. Again, a long thin target was seemingly less vulnerable to artillery-fire than the thick masses which had been the rule for attackers in 1914-15. But at the bottom, these tactics reflected the commanders' opinion of their men. Generals - who had found that it took ten years to make a 'real' soldier of the kind of volunteer they had found before the war - could not imagine that the raw recruits of 1916 could perform any manoeuvre but the simplest. If anything complicated were tried, the troops would break down into a useless mob, given to panic. It was easy to have the troops walk forward in a long line, dressing to the left, their officers in front and their sergeant-majors behind, ready to shoot any man who left his place. Commanders therefore neglected tactical innovations - in particular the principle of fire-and-movement, by which small 'packets' of infantrymen, moving forwards in bounds, diagonally from shell-hole to shell-hole, could alternately offer each other cover. These principles were used, first, in the German army, mainly because it suffered from a severe crisis in man-power and had to think of some way by which lives could be saved. Other armies, with a longer 'purse', were saved the effort of thinking things out, or of applying doctrines the truth of which they half-suspected. Yet in 1918, the allied victory owed at least as much to tactical innovations as to improvements in weaponry, including tanks."

The Russians, probably predictably, learnt from this failure only one lesson - that they needed still more firepower. They would renew their Kovel offensive at fortnightly intervals for three months using ever-heavier attacks without success. So deluded were they that Evert would plan for a 1917 offensive on an 18 kilometre front (less than the Somme) to be hit by 67 Divisions and 814,364 rounds of heavy shell (plus an unstated amount of field artillery, but presumably in the millions of shells).

In some respects these attacks were to Russia what Galicia had been to the Austro-Hungarians in 1914, or the Chemins des Dames would be to the French or Kaiserschlact to Germany, their "11th Isonzo" - the consumption of the last reserves of manpower with the physical and moral strength to prevail. What was left over lacked the ingredients to do more than hang on until the country fell apart or until the other guy cashed his chips (mandatory nod to Petain - the French were the only nation of those five to truly recover).


PS: If you are interested in events in the east, I recommend a visit to the Warchron forum, the only English-language site (that I know of) dedicated to all aspects of this front. http://www.warchron.com/forum/. Quiet, but growing...

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