bukovina

02 January 1916 – Czernowitz

Quickly overwhelmed in Russia’s initial invasion of Hapsburg territory, the heart of Bukovina was recaptured, lost again, and retaken once more in a series of Austrian offensives from January to March. Now the southern end of the 500-mile long Eastern Front rests on a line of hills known as the Berdo Horodyszcze along the east bank of the Strypa between the Pruth and Dniester rivers. Overlooking Czernowitz, the capital of Bukovina province, these heights have been the objective of two Russian armies in the attack since December 23rd, with a fifty hour-long preparatory bombardment beginning the fight in earnest on the day after Christmas.

These attacks have focused on the towns of Toporowce and Bojan, but the assaults have been as futile as they have been relentless. This ferocious, if forgotten, battle pits the Russian VII, IX, and XI armies against the Austrian 7th Army and the German Südarmee, with the Central Powers winning a clear victory despite Russian propagandists with glowing claims of success. Yesterday, six Russian regiments ‘won’ a space about seventy-five acres in size around the former village of Rarancze in an attempt to break through to Czernowitz; today, the attack resumes at great cost in blood without taking any new ground.

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An Austrian sniper uses a telescopic sight in trench fighting near Czernowitz

The Russian offensive pauses slightly for two days on the 5th of January, resuming on the 7th, which is Christmas Day according to the Russian calendar. Austrian pilots report reinforcements moving in the Russian rear as well, and the attacks redouble again on the 11th with a seven-hour series of human wave attacks accompanied by hundreds of artillery guns. These attacks focus on the Austrians rather than the Südarmee, but they are stopped by accurate defensive fire and determined infantry fighting behind the standard defenses of the Great War: parapets, barbed wire, and aerial observation. In fact, Austrian pilots report reinforcing movements, allowing them to anticipate another seven-hour series of assaults on the 11th. Finally, on January 15th the Russian offensive grinds to an exhausted halt; tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are dead, wounded, or captured, having gained almost nothing with their lives.

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An Austro-Hungarian water transport team slakes the thirst of a front-line unit

Why this terrific waste? According to contemporary sources, there are two main reasons. One is that the Russians hope to draw enemy strength away from Montenegro, but the Central Powers invade the tiny Balkan state anyway, arriving hot on the heels of the disintegrating Serbian Army during the winter battle. But the other reason is still-neutral Romania, which the Russians hope to impress into joining the Entente alliance against the Central Powers. Romania does indeed covet the provinces of Bukovina and  Transylvania, both of which which lie on their national borders and have large Romanian populations. The Romanian Prime Minister has missed previous opportunities to shift the balance of the conflict, however, for he wants guaranteed rewards at minimum risk. This time will be no different.

Meanwhile, the war is still destroying armies. Still lacking a reserve army, the Imperial and Royal Army (k.u.k.) is being hollowed out, relying more and more on German support to conduct operations. Russia is throwing half-trained conscripts into battle behind fewer and fewer officers of declining quality. The Eastern Front is turning into a struggle over who will be the last to reach the bottom of the barrel.

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Shell damage in Czernowitz, which the Russians faslely claim to have captured this week

  • Pierre_de_Fermat

    Have enjoyed the posts. For a nice (though now somewhat out of date) literature review of the war, see Adam Gopnik’s The Big One from August 23, 2004 The New Yorker.