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18 March 1916 – Belarus

Where northeastern Europe has abundant lakes and rivers, in the north of what is now Belarus, the Eastern Front has settled into odd kink along the water features in an otherwise straight line running south from Lithuania. From Lake Narač (Naroch; see above) to Lake Vozyera Vishnyewskaye, a nine mile salient thrusts out into territory held by the Central Powers, curving back towards the southeast from the shore of Vishnyewskaye. Today, the area between the two lakes becomes the scene of Russia’s largest offensive of 1916 so far.

Like Italian Field Marshall Luigi Cadorna’s attacks along the Isonzo river, this effort is a direct response to the Battle of Verdun, which has prompted France to call for supporting attacks under the terms of the December conference in Chantilly. Also like Cadorna’s actions at the Isonzo, this operation will be a complete failure.

In personal command of the Stavka (General Staff) since last September, Tsar Nicholas II and his Chief of Staff General Mikhail Alekseyev have too high an opinion of their army and its capabilities, depending too much on poor roads and creaking rails to supply an army on 1.5 million soldiers in the advance. Outnumbering the German and Austro-Hungarian allies better than 3-2 within the sector, their strongest advantage on the entire Front, the Russian Army’s offensive training and battle doctrines nevertheless remain virtually unchanged from a year ago.

The weather is no help, alternately freezing hard enough to claim thousands of hypothermia and frostbite victims, then thawing the ground with springtime warmth so that it turns into a muddy bog.

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A sketch map of the Lake Naroch battle. Note how the ‘lanes’ of the attack are determined by the water features. Click to enlarge

Beginning today, the opening bombardment is by far the largest seen so far on the Eastern Front. Nearly nine hundred guns maintain a steady rate of fire over the next forty-eight hours, but the shelling is ineffective, largely missing important tactical targets and barely suppressing German artillery while wasting firepower in blanket coverage of whole areas. Already cursed by defeats since the beginning of the war, General Alexei Evert’s Tenth Army then advances in broad columns, delighting the German machine gunners as they bunch up into easy targets. Accurate German artillery fire also savages the oncoming tide of men with shrapnel.

Follow-up attacks also fail on the 19th and 21st, when in the best moment of the entire campaign, General Baluyev’s Second Army advances into a six-mile strip of land between the lakes under a helpful fog. But the attack is aimed directly into the teeth of German defenses — and through a quagmire that prohibits effective casualty evacuation, or timely deliveries of food and ammunition. Russian units which do succeed in the advance thus find themselves unable to hold out against counterattacks. General Alexei Kuropatkin also begins a supporting attack near Riga on March 21st, but it lasts only one day, costing 10,000 Russian lives. Evert calls a final halt to attacks on March 30th, admitting the failure to achieve “decisive results” with the onset of spring rains; artillery duels and local actions will continue until April 14th.

Badly outnumbered and outgunned on paper, General Hermann von Eichhorn’s Tenth Army is a well-oiled machine of destruction that has inflicted more than 100,000 casualties at the cost of only 20,000 Germans killed, wounded, or captured at the end of the battle. Nor is the Kaiser forced to withdraw any troops from the Western Front. Instead, the Russian Army has further shattered its morale with yet another wasteful series of human wave attacks. Alekseyev plunges deeper into pessimism, becoming even more conservative with his forces. Desperately in need of adaptation, but unable to shed its old habits, the Russian Army is failing.

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A German illustration of the fighting at Lake Naroch shows Germans retreating to a secondary line of defense