“The time has come for the elimination of our wicked enemy. All armies of our front shall participate in the attack. It is my uncrushable hope that our iron army will gain complete victory”
An appeal issued on 3 June by the Southwestern Front leadership.
Austro-Hungary, when preparing spring offensive against Italy (the so-called Asiago Offensive, also known as Strafexpedition), decided to move select units together with heavy artillery from the Eastern Front. Germans also sent some of their divisions to the Western Front, where at that time the fighting in Verdun was still in progress. Russians with the aid of military intelligence and aerial pictures found that the Central Powers had withdrawn the most valuable units from the Eastern Front without leaving sufficient reserves at the sencond line.
After fights in 1915 in Galicia, the Russians became reassured that the Austro-Hungarian forces could be beaten. The great offensive of the Triple Entente at three fronts was to be launched on the 1st of July 1916. At first, the Russians planned to attack a part of the front staffed by Germans, near Vilnius. Ultimately, however, they came back to the initial plans of attacking the wicker enemy - Austria-Hungary.
The commander of the Eight Army, general Brusilov, put forward that the attack should be carried out by the troops of the Southwestern Front. Commanders of the units operating north to Polesia were sceptical about that idea. Despite this reluctance, Brusilov tried to persuade them of the rightness of his concept. In March of 1916 he was appointed as the commander of the Southwestern Front. The facts that weighed in Russians’ favour were the Central States’ dismissive attitude and Russian ability to maintain the date and place of the planned attack in secret.
At the end of May 1916, Italians found themselves in a difficult position after the Battle of Asiago (15 May - 10 June 1916). They made an appeal to the French leadership and also directly to the Russians with a desperate request for help. As a consequence, Stavka (the General Headquarters of the High Command) decided to start the offensive earlier. On the first day, Austrians thought that the enemy forces were relatively small and that losses caused by Russian artillery fire were mariginal. In accordance with the reports coming to the Austrian command, by the evening of 4 June several dozen soldiers were killed and 400 wounded.
On that day, the Austro-Hungarian aircrafts bombarder Russian command posts in order to disorganize the Russian offensive. However, the effectiveness of this move was not significant. The Russians in turn used mine-throwers to destroy barbered wire. In several places of the front the Austro-Hungarian troops might have used gas, but due to changes of the wind direction, the Russian troops did not suffer serious damage.
The account of losses of the 5 June was shattering the 4th Austro-Hungarian Army. Two divisions had been smashed and reserve units had been broken up in different parts of the frontline. The prospects for keeping the defence line loooked dim. The following day, i.e. 6 June, brought shortage of ammunition. But it was 7 June that appeared to be catastrophic. The units making the most strenuous efforst as a result of the offensive that had been going on three days then began to withdraw. The atmosphere of defeatism was spreading among the Austro-Hungarian soldiers. The misconducted staff changes in the Austro-Hungarian army also played in favour of the Russians. Archiduke Joseph Ferdinand was one of the dismissed, and the position of the commander of the 4th Army he had held was given to general Karl Tersztyanszki. Clumsily conducted personnel reshuffles aggravated chaos in the Austro-Hungarian ranks.
Between 4 and 7 June at Lutsk (Lat. Luceoria) , the Austro-Hungarians losses amounted to 82 thousand soldiers. The Russians took over 66 cannons and 159 machine guns, as well as a large number of rifles and amunition depots. On the other hand, the Russian army suffered losses amounting to over 6 thousand killed and 26 thousand wounded. More than one thousand soldiers were missing.
The ease with which the Russians succeeded was clearly visible in the first week of fighting, when they even did not have to use their all powers. Lutsk, chosen as a place for headquarters, appeared to be too close to the frontline, which proved to be yet another unfavourable condition to the Austrians. The Russians, however, did not take advantage of the disastrous situation in which the units of the Central Powers had found themselves. On the Southwestern Front all reserves were used up and the Russians did not manifest increased activity north of the Pripyat River. As a consequence, the balance of power was not weighted too heavily towards the Russian army. The troops of the Western and Northern Fronts, although twice the size of the enemy army, remained passive. This inaction resulted from scepticism of the tactical units’ generals towards Brusilov’s ideas.
Moreover, three-week fights provided a sufficient amount of time for the Germans to draft in the units from other fronts. When the second phase of the Brusilov offensive was launched in early July, this time these were Russians who had to face new challenges - the enemy troops not demoralised by earlier failures.
The Brusilov offensive led the Russian army one step closer to the victory. On 8 June the Russians took Lutsk and crossed the Styr River. Bukovina was taken and a "route" through the Carpathians was opened. The Germans feared that Austria-Hungary could make separate peace with Russia. Due to failures, the Danube monarchy became completely dependent upon German military support. The situation was so acute that at the end of July 1916 the German troops sent to Volyn were joined by Turkish corps.
Battering of the 4th and 7th Austro-Hungarian Armies after conquering Lutsk created a breach in that part of the front. The opportunity, however, was not exploited, since the German corps led by general Alexander von Linsingen organised a counterattack. The unit removed the precarious breach by 25 June. In the following days, the Germans were assured that they did not have to expect any hazard north of Polesia. This sense of security allowed them to throw the reserves in the vicinity of the Stokhid River, which was possible as a result of passivity at the Southwestern and Northern fronts.
In the following weeks, the pace of Brusilov offensive decreased. There is no doubt that the Russian attack of the city of Kowel in the Volyn region, constituting an important traffic junction with two railways crossing, was a failure. Eventually, on 10 August Brusilov gave an order to move to the so-called “active defensive”, which completed the operation. Although the victory was incomplete, it must be noted that for the third time during the First World War, the Eastern Front was breached and the trench warfare interrupted. The Front moved 70-75 km westwards in Volyn and 120 km westwards in Pokuttya, thus having been lengthened from 500 to 660 km and consuming reserves of the Russian army.
The offensive Brusilov eased the Austrian pressure on the Italian army and accelerated the decision of Romania to enter the war. Austria-Hungary lost more than 600 thousand soldiers, 580 cannons, and 1800 machine guns. Nationality problems in the Danube monarchy were also aggrevated. The victory did not cause widespread enthusiasm among the Russians. A great number of victims and the lack of significant, enduring conquests proved to be difficult to handle for the society that was falling deeper and depper into chaos, anarchy, and, finally, in revolution.