In the Line of Fire: 70 Articles from the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

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  5. WW1 memories: my grandfather's story

Lacking the firepower to blow holes in the enemy line, as Mackensen had done at Gorlice, Brusilov adapted tactics developed on the Western Front to the broader scale of the East. He brought forward all reserves and put them to work digging out large holding areas fronted by huge ramparts that would hinder enemy observation.

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They then dug communications trenches to allow the reserves to shift behind the lines, and finally sapped to within sixty meters of the Austrian front lines. When the soldiers were not digging, they practiced assaulting reconstructions of the Austrian positions derived from aerial reconnaissance photos. Army commanders also used the photographs to determine their attack points, which were to be on fronts fifteen to twenty kilometers wide. The preparatory barrage of 4 May lasted only a few hours and focused on the Habsburg artillery: no infantry attack followed.

A second, short artillery fusillade around noon blew small holes in the Austrian front lines but again, there was no follow-up attack. At Sapanow, however, the story was different. The focused Russian barrage had shredded the defensive obstacles of the Habsburg Second Army and disrupted communications between front and rear. Curtain fire pinned many units in their bunkers. When thirteen armored vehicles appeared out of the smoke and dust, several units in the front line broke and fled. Russian troops moved quickly into the gap and began expanding the attack horizontally along the front trench; a second wave soon followed, moving to the next trench and repeating the process.

Machine gun units followed to secure the breakthrough, and then the cavalry pushed through the gap. The best Austro-Hungarian units had been diverted to Italy for the Trentino Offensive, and they feared that any setback might damage the mettle of their untested units. Disobeying directives from headquarters, the army commanders therefore sent their reserves forward piecemeal to plug each small gap that appeared. This might have worked against the traditional Russian attack, in which a broad, deep column attempted to push through the line; however, against the broadening waves sent forward by Brusilov it meant that the reserves were isolated and often destroyed in detail.

The Austrian Seventh, which was perhaps most guilty in this regard, lost its entire position in the course of two days and spent the night of 5 June desperately re-entrenching in an open field five kilometers behind the lines. The broad spaces of the Eastern Front stretched front lines thin and intensified the effect of the multiple Russian breakthroughs. The retreat of the left wing of the Austrian First exposed the right flank of the Austrian Fourth, and drew off the reserve. Lacking adequate reserves and a well-developed supply and transportation network, his armies could pursue the fleeing Austrians only slowly.

The extensive Russian offensives planned for the Northern Front failed to materialize, moreover, as the Russian commander lost his nerve. The more mobile German Army thus had time and reinforcements to stem the attack. Falkenhayn sent four divisions to aid the Austrians on 14 June; four additional divisions arrived from the Western Front a month later, along with a complement of German artillery. German units counter-attacked the Russians and established new defensive positions while their aircraft drove the Russians from the skies, denying them the benefits of reconnaissance.

Reinforced by the Russian Guards Army and units drawn from the Northern Front in mid-July, Brusilov sought to extend his gains while the chance still remained. Without adequate intelligence, and lacking heavy artillery and the time for extensive sapping though, his commanders fell back on the tactics of — and met with similar results.

Initial success at Brody and at Chartorysk stalled as better-trained German soldiers moved into the lines and German officers assumed command of Austro-Hungarian units. The Guards Army found itself pinned down by German artillery behind the Stochod River and lost more than 30, men between 27 July and 4 August while attempting to take the important rail junction of Kowel.

Discouraged and lacking both resources and a plan, the remaining Russian commanders allowed the offensive to simply peter out in mid-August. The Brusilov Offensive had regained for Russia nearly all the territory lost on the Southwestern Front during and virtually ended the Habsburg military effort. The failure of General Aleksei Evert to attack simultaneously in the north, however, meant the Russians gained no ground there while the Germans were free to transfer reserves south and halt the offensive.

The Austro-Hungarians had lost more than 9, officers and over , men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner— almost 70 percent of the effective fighting force of May Conrad had been forced to withdraw four divisions from Italy to man the lines in Galicia. He was promoted to Field Marshal in November , but it was a face-saving measure as Hindenburg and Ludendorff formally assumed command over the entire Eastern Front. German soldiers filled out Austro-Hungarian units, and Habsburg soldiers donned German field grey uniforms and spiked helmets. Even the sole army nominally still commanded by an Austrian Army Group Archduke Karl was in reality controlled by its German chief of staff, General Hans von Seeckt Perhaps the final, unsustainable blow, however, was the death of Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria on 21 November ; thereafter, the Habsburg Empire simply unraveled.

The cost of Russian success, however, had been tremendous and left the Russian Empire hardly in better shape. The demoralizing experience in Romania, along with the massive losses in July and August, finally broke the Imperial Russian Army. Small anti-war incidents occurred in some corps as early as 1 October, and more than a dozen regiments mutinied in December Politically, and strategically, however, the Eastern Front remained important simply because its continued existence prevented the Germans from transferring large numbers of troops to the Western Front.

It looked briefly as if Russia might rejuvenate itself once again. In February and March, demonstrations in Petrograd as St. Petersburg had become known, to avoid Germanic connotations shook the foundations of the tsarist regime.

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Cossacks, previously staunch and feared defenders of autocracy, sided with the demonstrators, as did many military units—who preferred the risk of imprisonment over going to the front. Disturbed, Russian chief of staff General Mikhail Alekseyev circulated a memo to his army commanders to assess their support for the tsar; he was forced to tell Nicholas that the military believed he should resign. Most also insisted on maintaining military discipline — with some easing of the draconian punishments so infamous in the Russian Army, but even this clashed with the revolutionary sentiment of the day.

Many commanders resigned, recognizing that it was impossible to conduct affairs in this manner. Alexander Kerensky , the revolutionary minister of war, believed otherwise; he was convinced that, stirred by patriotism and revolutionary fervor, the Russian people would rise up and smite the Germans. Bochkareva led her unit into combat on the Southwestern Front, where it served as part of the Russian Eleventh.

When German reinforcements arrived, the Russians broke in turn and returned to their own lines. Many of her surviving comrades were later lynched by male soldiers, and Bochkareva narrowly escaped with her life. Dismayed, Bochkareva soon left and went to the United States , where she met President Woodrow Wilson and dictated her memoirs.

On 19 July, the Germans counter-attacked toward Tarnopol; the Russian formations opposing them simply vanished.

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The Central Powers advanced twelve kilometers on the first day of the offensive and captured Tarnopol on 25 July. By early August, the Russians had evacuated both Galicia and the Bukovina, surrendering all of the gains of In the chaotic flight to the rear, soldiers shot their officers and simply began walking home.

For all intents and purposes, Russia disposed of no organized military force south of the Pripet Marshes. The counter-offensive nonetheless ground to a halt at the Galician border. Austria-Hungary had no further reserves to dedicate to the attack, and the Germans needed every available man on the Western Front. For the moment, Russia was spared. Ludendorff, however, was determined to drive Russia from the war and free up some of the eighty German battalions that remained on the Eastern Front. Shifting his artillery north, Ludendorff ordered an attack on Riga; if that city fell, he reasoned, the road to Petrograd would be open and Russia would be forced to conclude peace.

General Oskar von Hutier's Eighth Army took the city two days later; anticipating the attack, General Vladislav Klembovsky had withdrawn his Twelfth Army several weeks earlier, leaving only a skeleton force to defend Riga.

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Ludendorff thus failed to achieve his strategic objective of forcing a Russian surrender directly. The fall of Riga, however, triggered a dramatic power struggle within Russia. General Lavr Kornilov , who had replaced Brusilov as chief of staff in August, demanded that Kerensky by this time the head of the increasingly weak Provisional Government transfer power to him in order to deflect the impending crisis. Kerensky refused, and Kornilov began moving his army toward Petrograd. Feeling betrayed by the army, Kerensky turned for support to the Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin , which only recently had been suppressed for an attempted coup of its own, the so-called July Days.

The Bolsheviks, with Leon Trotsky's Red Guard now armed and enjoying a reputation as the defenders of revolutionary democracy, staged a nearly bloodless coup on the night of November.

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Kerensky fled the capital. Lenin suggested a truce on all fronts to be followed by negotiations, which the British, French, and Americans rejected. Germany, on the other hand, was eager to settle the war and opened unilateral talks with the new Bolshevik government on 3 December at Brest-Litovsk. They agreed on an armistice, which took effect on 17 December, but little else.

Trotsky somewhat naively expected the Germans to negotiate on the basis of no annexations and no indemnities; the Germans instead put forth harsh territorial demands. After signing a separate peace treaty with Ukraine , Germany marched its armies into the areas vacated by the deserted Russian soldiers, including the Baltics.

Violence continued almost unabated for the next four years, however, as the various states and populations fought for power.

WW1 memories: my grandfather's story

Russia devolved into civil war , with parties of all stripes including socialist trying to moderate or overthrow the Bolshevik regime. A three-way struggle evolved in the Ukraine, with Russians fighting Ukrainian nationalists, and anarchists under Nestor Makhno fighting both. The Allies perpetuated the chaos and violence of the Eastern Front as well, as they refused to accept the Bolshevik withdrawal.

Italy, Romania, Greece, and Serbia also provided small troop contingents, while France supplied funding for Russian forces fighting the Bolsheviks. The Allies also hoped to deny, at least, the vast resources of Ukraine and central Russia to the Germans. Thus while Hindenburg and Ludendorff transferred forty divisions to the Western Front they also, significantly, left almost as many to manage the occupation and exploit the resources of the areas gained. The war on the Eastern Front thus continued to influence developments in the West to a degree that, even today remains generally unrecognized.

It may be, as scholars generally agree, that the war was and only could have been decided in the West; however, without the East that decision might have been very different. The sheer weight and surprising ability of the Russian Army to sustain military operations and inflict damage upon the Central Powers siphoned valuable resources from the German war effort.

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In January , near the height of the German commitment to the Eastern Front, there were fifty-five German infantry divisions and nine German cavalry divisions operating against Russia. As late as November , at the close of the war, there were still twenty-seven German infantry divisions deployed in the East.

More than 1. While those numbers represent roughly only a quarter of the German forces deployed and the same proportion of casualties, they are not insignificant. The timing and nature of German deployments was also critical. The Brusilov Offensive, for instance, drew as many as eight German divisions from the Western Front that might well have been used at Verdun.

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The occupation of Ukraine tied down thirty or forty divisions that might have enabled the Spring Ludendorff Offensives of to find success. All of these aspects, along with the development of the creeping barrage, the experiments with poison gas, and many others, may not have been decisive for the conflict as a whole, but they certainly contributed to the decision. Dowling, Timothy C. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. Does mowing the lawn or driving a fuel-inefficient car in Ann Arbor, Mich.