04 April 1916 – Brusilov
For the first ten months of the war, General Nikolay Ivanov was decorated for his great successes against the Austro-Hungarian army. But after his defeat at the hands of an Austro-German force, which threw him out of Galicia and back across the imperial boundary into Russia itself, Ivanov has been markedly pessimistic and unwilling to attack. Calling his troops “quite unfit to undertake any sort of offensive,” his only strategic goal has been “to save South-West Russia from further invasion by the enemy.”
As a result, he was sacked, and one week ago his former subordinate General Alexei Brusilov (see above) received command of the Southwest Front. He arrives at his new headquarters in Berdychiv today. A former cavalryman who acknowledged the uselessness of horse cavalry in modern warfare before the conflict, his orders are short and organized where Ivanov’s have been long and meandering. Never exactly a soldier’s general, he is nevertheless good at keeping the pulse of his 1.5 million men and is quite popular with them. The Austro-Hungarian defenses lying before him are as elaborate and well-prepared as any in the world, with some fences electrified, endless barbed wire, deep shelters and reinforced trenches, logistical and traffic control points, buried telephone and telegraph wires, and more. As a first order of business, he orders his staff to begin preparing detailed maps of the enemy front, and has his officers study them thoroughly at all levels. Aerial photography, and a thorough reconnaissance of the enemy trenches, enable units to thoroughly train and prepare for their objectives.
Brusilov soon realizes that three of his subordinate commanders are as cowed by the enemy’s success as Ivanov was. General Vladimir Sakharov is easily the most cooperative and courageous of them, and as a result he will be appointed to defend Romania later in the year. But General Alexei Kaledin, commander of Eighth Army and a favorite of the emperor, complains that the defenses before him are too formidable to attack; unable to replace him, Brusilov is virtually forced to hold his hand during the offensive planning phase.
General Dmitry Shcherbachev, on the other hand, is a Francophile who grumbles at the doctrinal heresies that Brusilov proposes: he wants to attack at several points with smaller formations along a broad front, using a short preparatory bombardment and approach trenches that will allow infantry to attack as soon as the shelling ends. Aware of developments on the Western Front, Brusilov also wants to use ‘storm troops,’ elite formations that will spearhead the larger attacking columns. Put to the test, Scherbachev’s first attack on the Strypa river fails miserably, and it is only at Brusilov’s direct order that he carries out a second, successful assault at Jazłowiec, saving his career.
Commanding Ninth Army on his left flank in Bukovina, General Lechistski constantly complains of inadequate heavy artillery — as indeed Brusilov remains short of big guns all along his front. Nevertheless, the new Southwestern Front commander is determined to make best use of his extant high-caliber cannons by using them more efficiently than General Aleksei Evert, whose recent fumbling attacks north of Brusilov’s front wasted a small mountain of shells by sweeping whole areas instead of targeting specific strong points. German pilots were easily able to spot the large infantry columns moving over the fresh snowfall, spoiling any surprise. Brusilov will take steps to conceal his precise movements, confusing Austrian intelligence with a flurry of false radio traffic, dummy artillery. and other deception measures.
Having formed the seed of a plan, when Brusilov meets the Tsar during a tour of his front on the 9th, he announces that his soldiers are “full of mettle” and will be ready to take the fight to the enemy in May. When he attends a meeting with the Stavka at Mogilev on April 14th, he is the only one of the Tsar’s three Eastern Front commanders who is actually eager to attack. Rather than accept a secondary role in a larger campaign, he convinces the General Staff to let him lead the offensive, though he will be unsupported with reinforcements. Despite the fact that his is the only front where the Russian Army does not greatly outnumber the Central Powers, Brusilov agrees to proceed with just his current available forces. It will prove to be a limiting arrangement for the most successful Russian offensive of the entire conflict.
Furthermore, the Russian strategy of attacking with all three army groups at once, thus preventing the Germans from using their superior railroad network to reinforce any point of breakthrough, will fail. Like Aleksey Kuropatkin, who commands the Northern Front, General Evert is timid and defensive, hunkering behind his front. Brusilov has the advantage of facing the weaker enemy, whereas they both face well-trained and equipped Germans, not the polyglot Austro-Hungarians, who helpfully transfer six of their best divisions to the Italian Front during May.