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The Great Allied Offensives of 1916

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The Great Allied Offensives of 1916

Post by cape_royds » Thu Aug 11, 2016 7:35 am

Historiographical Overview

I've made a few long posts on this forum, sharing notes I've made over the years in my own efforts to take a synoptic view of the Great War. This OP is the companion to the one I wrote earlier about the German strategy for 1916.

The Great War is a more difficult war to study than the Second World War. The action on all fronts is more closely interconnected in WWI than in WWII. The alliance politics of WWI are also more complicated than those of WWII.

In the study of the Second World War, the student of military history can often get away with being a bit lazy. High-level political commitment to total war came early in the conflict. Many of the campaigns can be studied as if they were free-standing events, without a fatal loss of comprehension. WWII as a whole can be tracked on a single simple trajectory, on which the strategic initiative passed from one side to the other.

But in the Great War, the strategic interconnection of campaigns is taking place on a time scale that is within the decision-making cycles of the campaigns themselves. The strategic initiative repeatedly passed back and forth between the warring coalitions. There were many important re-negotiations between allies and between enemies.

Ironically, while much of the operational fighting in the Great War was static, from a historiographical perspective, the Great War was more dynamic than WWII.

If you try to study campaigns of the Great War without looking back and forth at the strategic connections between theatres, and without frequent looks back up at the changing war policies of various governments, you can too easily jump to the conclusion that, "nothing in this war makes any sense, they're all idiots."

Unfortunately, the only way to make any sense out of WWI is by doing a lot more work than you have to do when studying other wars. You will still, after careful study, find much randomness and folly in the conduct of the war. But it is important to at least eliminate those perceptions of folly which are only the artefact of one's method of study.

The Allied Offensives of 1916: Grand-Strategic Overview

After the frustrations of the 1915 campaigns, the top political and military leaders of the Entente gathered in a series of conferences at Chantilly at the end of the year, to try to coordinate strategy.

The Central Powers enjoyed the benefit of interior lines, and had used them to good effect in 1915, concentrating forces alternately on the Eastern Front, on the Western Front, and in the Balkans. Russia and Serbia suffered heavy defeats, while the Germans were able to switch reserves to the West in time to prevent breakthroughs by the French in Champagne or by the British in Artois.

The grand strategy for the Allies in 1916 was straightforward. The only way to prevent the Central Powers from utilizing interior lines was for the Allies to launch offensives on all fronts in as close conjunction as could be practically achieved. Any of the offensives might be stymied by enemy reserves, but a favourable development on any front might rapidly precipitate a crisis for the enemy command, leading to a chain reaction of allied victories.

These big offensives would become known to history as the "Brusilov Offensive," (the Russians, starting in June) the "Battle of the Somme," (the British and French, starting in July) and the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Battles of the Isonzo (the Italians, starting in August).

Economic Overview

The crash munitions programmes begun in 1915 were beginning to yield some fruit. Churchill once wrote, "In the first year you get nothing. In the second year, you get only a trickle. In the third year, there comes a flood."

1915 was the year of "nothing." 1916 is the year of the "trickle." In 1915, some armies suffered desperate shortages of shells, hand grenades, or in the case of the Russian army, even shortages of small arms and bullets. In 1916, there are no more outright dearth of weapons and equipment, although shortages of shell for heavy artillery still had a significant impact on operations. Mass production of aircraft had begun, and in 1916 air superiority over the front lines becomes important.

In 1915, the Allies had inadvertently competed against each other for purchases in the USA and other neutral countries. By 1916, they had started coordinating purchases and loan finance. Profiting from the boom in demand, American banks began lending vast sums to the UK.

The Russian and Austro-Hungarian economies were already overheating. Inflation was becoming a problem. Bottlenecks led to sudden random shortages of a variety of things. For various reasons too lengthy to explain here, effective rationing and price controls could not be imposed.

The German war effort had not yet felt the pinch from the Allied blockade. However, the poorer parts of the German urban population began to suffer from high prices for food and other essentials, while they could not bargain freely for wages to match rising prices. The Germans also had to reduce rations to the surface fleet when it was not on active operations. The German supply management effort was patchy: good in some regions and sectors, inept or nonexistant in others. But actual widespread malnutrition was still a year or two ahead.

Force Overview

In 1916 the British Army was nearly ready to engage in a major offensive in its own right. In 1914 the British Army had been too small. In 1915 the British Army lacked artillery and ammunition. The British Army of mid-1916 was adequately equipped, although the mass volunteer "Kitchener Army" was still under-trained.

The French Army of 1916 was good all-round, but it had reached its maximum mobilization. The Italian Army of 1916 was under-trained and under-equipped. The Russian Army of 1916 had restored its numbers and no longer suffered such a desperate shortage of arms as in 1915, but it had already lost too many of its best trained and most loyal NCO's and officers in the previous year's debacle.

The German Army of 1916 was well-trained and equipped, and after its 1915 victories, had relatively high morale. The Austro-Hungarian armies were gradually recovering their morale from the reverses of 1914, and were improving their equipment. The Turkish Army of 1916 had repulsed the attack on the Dardanelles, and while tattered, was still keeping itself in the field on no fewer than three subsidiary fronts. That was as much as anyone could expect the Turks to do.

Well, enough "wall of text" for one post. That's the briefest high-level summary I can manage. Strategy and operations to follow. I offer no apologies, because I like writing stuff like this, even if nobody else likes to read it.
Last edited by cape_royds on Thu Aug 11, 2016 8:10 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Post by Tubby » Thu Aug 11, 2016 5:00 pm

Any insight into why Italy switched allies from one world war to the next?

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Post by DMB » Thu Aug 11, 2016 5:04 pm

[quote=""Tubby""]Any insight into why Italy switched allies from one world war to the next?[/quote]

I think it would not be unconnected to fascism. After all, the Italians invented it.

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Operations leading up to the great Allied offensives

Post by cape_royds » Sun Aug 14, 2016 2:26 am

Still not enough background.

More on Verdun

As I described in the thread on German strategy in 1916, Falkenhayn launched his attritional campaign against the French at Verdun in February. He was deliberately attempting to forestall the Allied offensives which he knew would be coming. He wanted to inflict crippling losses on the qualitatively best of the Allied armies at that time. He shrewdly chose a place of attack, where Joffre would feel compelled to fight a major battle, regardless of its effect on his own plans.

Shortly afterwards, and at considerable cost to their offensive preparations, the rest of the Allied powers undertook operations to try to distract and divert the Germans:

1. The British extended the length of front they defended, in order to free more French troops for Verdun. The British paid a price for doing this, which went beyond the actual losses suffered by the units which they placed along their extended front. The most important price the British paid was that some of their new "Kitchener" divisions, which were supposed to be kept in the rear, getting extra weeks of training for offensive tactics, instead got stuck in the line, doing routine trench warfare. This had a significant impact on British artillery/infantry cooperation and brigade-level manoevring at the Somme.

2. The Russians launched a hastily prepared, ill-supplied offensive, under winter conditions, in the Lake Naroch sector. In the OP, I mentioned that it is easy to look at one campaign and exclaim, "what a bunch of idiots!" Regarded on its own, or even within the context of operations on the Eastern Front, the Lake Naroch offensive never had any prospect of success, even had they not suffered from an unseasonable thaw. But the Russian high command was behaving in good faith to the Allies, and took a costly risk in a vain effort to tie down more German troops in the east.

3. The Italians launched a hastily prepared, ill-supplied offensive, under winter conditions, at the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo. Again, if you only read a book about the Italian Front, the Fifth Isonzo was nothing but a pure waste of humanity, since on its own merits, it had no prospect of success. Again, the Italian command was behaving in good faith towards the Allies, in trying to take pressure off the French.

Lake Naroch and Fifth Isonzo were disproportionately costly to the Allies, and were strategically unsuccessful even when regarded as diversionary efforts. But there is more reason to give credit to Falkenhayn, then to put blame on Evert or Cadorna.

In an alliance, trust between leaders is important. Among troops and peoples, morale is important. The French army and people had already borne a heavy burden in the war. Once the French army became the target of another major German offensive, the French people had to see proof that their Allies would being willing to suffer in order to help them. War is about politics.

Up until the middle of 1916, it appeared that two of Falkenhayn's vital strategic assumptions were valid. The first assumption was that the British Army would not be able to launch its own major offensive until late summer or early autumn. The second assumption was that the offensive power of the Russian armies had been blunted by the defeats the Russians had suffered in 1915. Therefore, at least until June, Falkenhayn could feel that his strategy at Verdun was correct. Falkenhayn overrode the objections of Crown Prince William, who wanted to wind down the Verdun operation.

Trentino, or Asiago

Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian chief, Conrad, had continued with his own independent preparations for a pre-emptive spring offensive against the Italians in the Trentino. While agreeing that the Italian alpine flank was vulnerable, Falkenhayn had tried to discourage Conrad, arguing that this would be a divergent and non-decisive effort.

Conrad himself understood that, unless some German divisions joined in the Trentino offensive, it would be unlikely to knock Italy out of the war. However, the Austro-Hungarian army badly needed to regain its confidence after disasters such as Lemberg or Przemysl. The Austrians had only been junior partners in the victories against Russia and Serbia in 1915, so a successful all Austro-Hungarian offensive in 1916 would restore morale in a way that victories won under German tutelage could not.

Conrad knew that many Slavic regiments in the imperial army were politically unreliable. But Slavic regiments, even the notoriously disloyal Czechs, had performed well against the Italians. Conrad believed that a victorious offensive against Italy would not only improve morale and efficiency in the army, but it would also help rally the subjects of the Habsburg Empire. War is about politics.

The Italian and Russian failures at Naroch and Fifth Isonzo confirmed Conrad's opinion that the Austro-Hungarian forces could commit their strategic reserves to an offensive against Italy at little risk.

The Austrian attack in the Trentino began in May. It was ably conducted at the tactical level, and achieved considerable success. However, after heavy initial losses, the Italians were able to meet the crisis without needing outside support from their allies.

There's a summary of the Central Powers' pre-emptive offensives in 1916 and the Allied improvised reaction to those offensives. Now, starting in June, come the Allies' own prepared full-scale offensives.

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Brusilov Offensive: principles and doctrine

Post by cape_royds » Fri Aug 19, 2016 2:04 am

The Russian Army had partly recovered from its big defeats in 1915. There was sufficient manpower to make good the numerical losses. It should be noted that Russia in the Great War was never able to make full use of its military manpower potential. Russia did not have enough industry to arm its potential manpower, nor did Russia have a railroad infrastructure sufficient to supply its potential manpower at the front. Consequently, while Russia enjoyed a numerical advantage over the Central Powers, this margin was never as wide as it could have been. You could say that the Central Powers were able to successively face Russian armies in detail.

In terms of munitions, the Russian Army of 1916 was still badly outgunned by the Central Powers. A German division still enjoyed a wide advantage in effective firepower over its Russian counterpart. But it wasn't as bad as in 1915, when Russian soldiers and batteries were often unable to shoot back. In 1916, the Russian Army still lacked modern heavy artillery.

The Allied grand strategy called for coordinated summer offensives. How was Russia to fulfill its commitment to that grand strategy? Lacking heavy artillery, could Russian armies expect to break enemy fortifications on any sort of scale? Unable to make fullest use of potential manpower, could Russian armies afford to sustain massive infantry losses?

Enter Brusilov, the commander of the Russian southwestern army group. His reasoning:

1. Austria-Hungary is the weaker enemy. Attack them.

2. We don't have the heavy artillery, railroad infrastructure, or deep trained manpower reserves to attempt a deeply echeloned breakthrough assault on a narrow front. Instead, we should mount a widely distributed set of attacks on a broad front, with minimal artillery preparation.

3. Normally, a spread-out set of attacks, without much artillery support, against prepared defenses, could only be expected to result in complete futility. However, we observe that the Austro-Hungarians' latest tactical doctrine has rendered them vulnerable to a sudden descent.

A bit of elaboration here: what was it about the Austro-Hungarians' tactical doctrine that now made them more vulnerable than before?

After the disasters of 1914, and with regard to the shaky loyalty of some units, the Austro-Hungarian command had placed an emphasis on trying to preserve troop morale at the low echelon level. What did this mean? It meant an emphasis on force preservation. Austro-Hungarian battalion and regimental commanders were told to focus on improving their fortified works, and on avoiding unnecessary actions. Clashes in No-Man's-Land were kept to a minimum. Less raiding. Fewer night patrols.

These doctrinal changes did yield some apparent benefits. Austro-Hungarian rates of desertion, sickness, and disciplinary violations, all went down. Censors reported that the troops' morale had improved, judging from letters being sent home. The trench and bunker systems themselves were well-sited and well-built.

However, this passive, force preservation, doctrine had the vital consequence of conceding to the Russians an increasing dominance over the No-Man's-Land. The Russians were able to raid Austro-Hungarian lines to "fetch a tongue" and gather low-level intelligence, while the Austro-Hungarians seldom did so. At night, the Russians could advance their saps and trenches towards Austro-Hungarian lines, and could cut their wire, with little fear of the enemy mounting a counter-attack.

It is worth contrasting this situation with the sort of highly active trench warfare taking place on important stretches of the Western Front. For example, the British and the Germans were constantly "bickering" over No-Man's-Land. The patrolling and raiding and sniping and sapping and random "hate" bombardments inflicted considerable losses, even on the so-called "quiet" sectors. But those armies had high enough morale, strong enough discipline, and ample enough supplies, that battalions could suffer 5-10% losses on a "quiet" tour, get pulled out for a brief rest, and then get rotated back in to do it all over again. Over and over. Thousands died or were maimed, in squabbles over who owned a few shell holes.

The Austro-Hungarians couldn't do that sort of thing. If they tried, their armies might melt away. So they didn't push their troops too hard in minor actions, with the hope of preserving their numbers, their supplies, and their spirit for major fighting. That wasn't necessarily stupid.

Unless, of course, a clever enemy figured out how to take advantage of it. That's what Brusilov did. He recognized that the Austro-Hungarians' doctrinal weakness cancelled some of the Russians' structural weaknesses, e.g. shortage of modern heavy guns.

He proposed that Russian infantry gradually advance their assembly trenches close to the Austro-Hungarian lines, in order to give the Austrians little time to respond when they went over the top--and that this take place over a broad front. Select groups of infantry would practice doing raid-style infiltrations, and this would be the principal mode of attack. Austro-Hungarian wire would get cut by night parties.

Artillery barrages would mostly be used not so much to destroy Austro-Hungarian positions, but to delay Austro-Hungarian reserves from reaching the front line. Once Russian and Austro-Hungarian infantry became intermingled, enemy artillery would be reluctant to bring down retaliatory fire.

If the infantry assault, with a sudden onset, penetrated the Austro-Hungarian defensive system over an extended area of front, the enemy high command would be in a quandary as to where to commit their strategic reserves. There would arise the possibility of a widespread collapse of the entire enemy defense.

Thus ran Brusilov's reasoning. Others in the Russian high command were sceptical. However, they were not as hidebound as often made out to be. They did give Brusilov the green light to try his plan. In gist, the Russian high command told Brusilov, "If you think you can do it, with the resources you got, then go for it."

The Austro-Hungarians would only get limited indications that a major Russian offensive was pending. There was little preparatory bombardment. Along no particular section of front was there much accumulation of Russian manpower or supplies. Austro-Hungarian frontline units, due to their passivity, were not obtaining timely unit identifications to show Russian dispositions.

German and Austro-Hungarian spies and aerial reconnaissance did detect widespread signs of movement and activity on the Russian southwestern front. However, none of this information gave any conclusive indication of a major offensive. Where were the new battery positions, the new or expanded supply dumps, the new billeting areas for infantry reserves, that you would all expect to see when the enemy is preparing for a big thrust? As far as either the German or Austro-Hungarian high commands could determine, the activity on the Russian southwest front was consistent with an intention to launch a series of diversionary or holding attacks. Nothing much to worry about.

A change in Austro-Hungarian defensive tactical doctrine, led to a change in Russian offensive tactical doctrine, and opened up the possibility of a major strategic surprise.
Last edited by cape_royds on Fri Aug 19, 2016 2:23 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Brusilov offensive--success, limitations, continuance, cost

Post by cape_royds » Tue Feb 21, 2017 5:56 am

I had meant to write additional detailed matter on the Allied 1916 offensives last fall, but one thing led to another, and now six months have gone by.

So I am just going to make a few remarks about the limits of success for the Russian "Brusilov" offensive, which after initial great success, petered out in the fall of 1916.

The success was indeed great: a broad section of the Austro-Hungarian front collapsed. There was a deep Russian advance, and a great capture of prisoners and guns. From that time onward, the Austro-Hungarian armies on the Eastern Front had to be "corseted" by German troops (i.e. German units had to be interspersed among the Austro-Hungarian armies). Increasingly, too, the Austro-Hungarian armies, industries, and government came under undisguised German tutelage.

But while the Brusilov offensive was successful, the success was limited in time and space. There was only so long it could go on, and only so far.

While any offensive, in any war, if not immediately decisive, is prone to exhaust itself due to logistical limits or enemy reaction, nevertheless the Brusilov offensive was inherently limited, even besides the operation of such universal factors.

The Brusilov offensive was limited in its exploitation, for some of the same reasons why it succeeded in making a breakthrough. Brusilov had achieved strategic surprise by deliberately foregoing extensive logistical preparation. There were no massive dumps of supplies, no widespread building of branch railways, no great concentrations of infantry reserves, close to the front, and ready to carry on the momentum of attack. If such preparations had been made, surprise would have been lost, and there probably would not have been any breakthrough to exploit.

The other Russian offensive in 1916 (Baronovichi), the one under the command of Evert, was intended to be more deeply prepared and on a narrower front, and was directed against the Germans instead of the Austro-Hungarians. It failed from the start.

The Russian summer 1916 offensive had achieved its maximum relative gain by August, and so viewed solely on its own, it probably should have been wound down before the autumn. But as I argued in the OP, events on the various fronts in the Great War are more closely interwoven than was the case in World War Two. The Russian command was not viewing the Bruilov offensive purely in its own right. There were other considerations which demanded continuation of the offensive, despite the obviously diminishing returns.

What were those considerations?

1. By August, the British are fully engaged on the Somme, and the Italians are fully engaged on the Isonzo. Therefore, Russia should keep attacking in order to prevent the Central Powers from diverting forces against the British or Italians. After all, simultaneous attack on all fronts is the core notion of the Allied grand strategy.

2. Rumania is considering joining the Allies. While Rumania's forces are not very powerful, nevertheless Rumanian belligerency might prove to be the straw that breaks Austria-Hungary's back. Alternatively, Rumania could try to knock Bulgaria out of the war, which would have fatal consequences for the supply of munitions to Turkey. But if Russia winds down their offensive, the Rumanians might be discouraged from declaring war.

3. It is possible that Austria-Hungary might be close to suing for peace. What if it all it takes would be a few more weeks of pressure, to make them give up?

So if you ever wonder why General Brusilov would have been meat-grindering his own ill-supplied army in the mountain passes of the Carpathians in the fall of 1916, long after any prospect of further breakthrough had vanished, it wasn't because Brusilov was some sort of fool.

But imagine if you were a soldier in that army! How would things seem? Every day one would witness the apparently senseless death or mutilation of one's friends, in carrying out poorly supported attacks, in unfavourable terrain, without the benefit of surprise.

Earlier in this thread I wrote that Russia had already lost too many of its best and most loyal officers in the defeats of 1915. Junior officers are usually the people in an army who suffer the heaviest losses in a war (lieutenants have the highest KIA rate of all ranks). In pushing the 1916 offensive despite diminishing returns, the Russian army suffered still more serious officer losses. The impact on the Russian army's operational ability, however, was less important the the political impact on the Romanov regime itself. The regime depended fundamentally on the political loyalty of the minor aristocracy of the provinces. But this was the class that produced most of the army's junior officers and thus suffered disproportionate losses.

The campaigns of 1915 and 1916 not only did economic and military damage to Russia, they also resulted in direct political damage to the Romanov regime, because of the physical loss of many of the persons from which it received the most active and effective forms of loyalty.

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Post by DMB » Tue Feb 21, 2017 12:24 pm

Do you think that by the end of 1916 the chances of eventual success for the Triple Alliance had more or less disappeared, despite the stalemates and continuation of the war?

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Post by cape_royds » Tue Feb 21, 2017 6:55 pm

Good question. Many answers.

In late 1916, the Great War was not a conflict that could be prospectively evaluated. The logic of the war was going to be relentlessly a posteriori--empirically determined in the course of military combat and political strife.

For example, American bankers definitely thought that the Entente was a sure bet. Those bankers were looking at the aggregate human and material resources of the opposing alliances. Viewed on the aggregates, it always looked like the Entente had an inevitable advantage. But there is a big difference between potential aggregate resources, and the actual successful application of those resources. In my thread about the strategies of 1915, I talked about the problems the Entente had in effectively combining their raw material, human, and technical resources. Because of the shortcomings of application, by 1917, American industrial and financial elites had to pressure the US government into direct participation in the war, as the best remaining chance to make good the huge bets they had made on the Entente.

German militarist elites still considered that they had a couple of trumps they hadn't played yet. One card was full industrial mobilization--this would be the "Hindenburg Programme" of late 1916. Another card to play was unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain. Bethmann-Hollweg was seen as a "wet" so in 1917 he got sacked and replaced by Michaelis, who was a rubberstamp for Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Austro-Hungarian militarist elites had long been convinced that their Empire was in an existential struggle. That's why guys like Conrad had pushed for war in the first place. Now in A/H there did develop in late 1916 an important "dove" faction, under the new Emperor Charles. A/H pushed Germany to propose a peace conference in Dec. 1916. A/H was probably the only combatant major power at that time that was willing to seriously go back to status quo ante. But A/H had no chance of getting that, unless Germany was willing to go along. The Germans were instead focused on escalation, so A/H was dragged along willy-nilly.

The Ottoman Empire, for its part, really was engaged in an existential struggle. All of the Entente Powers wanted to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. Unless the Central Powers obtain a favourable peace, the Ottoman Empire was finished. Regardless of whether there was any remaining prospect of victory, anyone who wanted there to continue to be such a thing as an Ottoman Empire had no choice but to keep on fighting.

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