Known also as the Brusilov breakthrough, the Brusilov offensive was one of the most successful ground offensive operations in World War I. Undertaken primarily by the Russian Southwestern Front between 4 June and 13 August 1916, this offensive accomplished simultaneous penetrations to depths of 60 to 150 kilometers (35 to 95 miles) across 550 kilometers (340 miles) of frontage, while shattering major elements of the Austro-Hungarian army.
In accordance with Allied negotiations at Chantilly in February 1916, the Russian high command promised summer offensives against the Central Powers to divert attention from northern Italy and to relieve pressure on the hard-pressed western front in France. Although the Russians had suffered severe losses during the withdrawals of 1915, the eastern front was now stabilized, with approximately 1.7 million troops in twelve armies arrayed across 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) in three army groups, or fronts (Northern, Western, and Southwestern). These fronts faced about 1.1 million Germans and Austro-Hungarians, with Russian manpower advantages of 2:1 north of the Pripet Marshes and 1.2:1 south of the Pripet. Russian troop units were largely at strength, but supporting heavy artillery remained inadequate, and shortages persisted in personnel replacements, rifles, and artillery shells. As Stavka, the headquarters of the Russian Supreme Command, began preparations for the summer, the Germans attacked at Verdun on 21 February, throwing the entire allied timetable into disarray. To relieve pressure in the west, Stavka hurriedly regrouped General Alexei Kuropatkin's Northern Front and General Alexei Evert's Western Front for a combined offensive against the Germans north of the Pripet. Known as the Naroch offensive, this gambit began on 18 March, but soon stalled because of inadequate artillery support, the early onset of the spring thaw, and the piecemeal commitment of reserves. Still, unexpected pressure in the east temporarily halted German operations against Verdun.
Against this backdrop, General Mikhail Alexeyev, the Russian chief of staff, continued to press for a summer offensive, in part to support the allies, and in part to preempt any German shift to the east. Although critics later charged that Stavka "advised much and ordered little," by 14 April it had produced a concept that called for a main offensive effort in the summer by the Western Front, supported on the flanks by its Northern and Southwestern counterparts. In response to Austro-Hungarian pressure against the Italians in the Trentino, Stavka advanced the Southwestern Front's offensive to 4 June, a week before anticipated mutually supporting Russian offensives in the north.
General Alexei Brusilov, commander of the Southwestern Front, insisted on careful preparation for the impending offensive. In contrast with conventional tactical practice, which emphasized massive firepower preparation and the accumulation of large reserves in a few sectors, he stressed surprise and the careful selection of numerous breakthrough sectors. He conducted a thorough reconnaissance, rehearsed, drove many saps (trench extensions) closer to the enemy lines, concentrated his reserves well forward, and limited his artillery to counterbattery fire to protect the assaulting infantry. Initially, he committed more than a half million troops and seventeen hundred guns against Austro-Hungarian forces numbering half his own.
As a result, the Brusilov offensive enjoyed major success before finally stalling from lack of support in the face of stiffening German-reinforced resistance. During the breakthrough phase (4–15 June), four Russian armies penetrated to varying depths, until on 14 June General Alexei Kaledin's 8th Army encountered fierce German counterattacks west of Lutsk. Meanwhile, other Russian armies reached Tarnopol and the Carpathians. General Evert's Western Front, however, lent ineffectual support, with the result that Brusilov's momentum dropped off, even though he continued to develop the breakthrough during his offensive's second phase, 16 June to 8 July. During the third phase, 9 July to 13 August, Stavka belatedly shifted forces to the southwest to support Brusilov's success, but too little came too late, and the offensive literally died out in a series of slugging matches along the Stokhod River. At the cost of half a million casualties, the Russians had succeeded, with assistance from near-simultaneous allied offensives on the Somme in France, in forcing the Germans to assume the overall strategic defensive. To meet the Russian challenge, they shifted more than twenty-four divisions to the east.
Despite varying degrees of tactical and operational success, the Brusilov offensive failed to produce victory or decisive strategic consequences. True, the Italians won a breathing space, and the Russians had relieved pressure on the western front. Romania now belatedly joined the Allied cause, but soon required reinforcement that further drained Russian resources. Ultimately, the price of Brusilov's offensive came high, in terms of both immediate casualties and the longer-term erosion in morale, manpower, and materiel that probably hastened the disintegration of the Russian army in 1917. In the end, much of the blame lay with Stavka's failure to effectively control multifront operations and to allocate sufficient reserves to support success. Nevertheless, the Brusilov offensive did manage to break the combat effectiveness of the Austro-Hungarian army, a circumstance from which that army never recovered.
See alsoWorld War I.
Brusilov, A. A. A Soldier's Note-Book, 1914–1918. London, 1930. Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1971.
Schindler, John. "Steamrollered in Galicia: The Austro-Hungarian Army and the Brusilov Offensive, 1916." War in History 10, no. 1 (2003): 27–59.
Stone, Norman. The Eastern Front, 1914–1917. London, 1975.
Bruce W. Menning