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After the disasters of 1915, it seemed impossible that Russia could recover from its losses, overcome its shortages of equipment and ammunition, and fight against the Austrians and Germans on anything like an equal footing. In fact, Russian military power was steadily growing. Even though skilled officers and experienced soldiers were in short supply after eighteen months of savage fighting, by 1916 Russian industry was finally providing the troops with what they needed to fight effectively. Russia still had too many timid or unskilled generals, but a harsh process of elimination had finally put Russia’s best field commander of the First World War, Aleksei Brusilov, in command of the Southwestern Front. After Russia’s other fronts failed to use their improved material position to attack successfully, Brusilov’s Southwestern Front unleashed a massive attack in the summer of 1916 that demonstrated what well-led and well-equipped Russian soldiers were capable of doing. In the process, Brusilov smashed the Austrian army beyond repair, turning it into a force wholly dependent on its German ally. The end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916 were short breathing spaces in the almost constant fighting on the Eastern Front since the outbreak of war, marking the first lengthy respite from combat after eighteen months of almost continuous campaigning. The Russians were exhausted by their lengthy retreats, and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were almost as 10 The Brusilov Offensive, 1916 232 Stone_The Russian Army in the Great War 5/19/15 9:43 AM Page 232 exhausted by their pursuit. Both sides used the time to construct much more elaborate trench systems than had been possible for the previous eighteen months. When fully elaborated, defensive systems could consist of two or three trenches in a belt; two or three such defensive belts were separated by several kilometers, all mirrored by enemy systems across the front lines. Whichever side had the burden of attack now faced a much more formidable task. The Austrians in particular benefited from the lull in fighting. While Italy continued to attack in the Alps, Austria’s geographic advantages reduced its combat losses dramatically in late 1915 and early 1916. There were some isolated local actions on the Eastern Front in late 1915. Stavka had been holding Dmitrii Shcherbachev’s Seventh Army in Odessa for a potential amphibious invasion of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. When Serbian defeat made that pointless, Stavka redeployed the Seventh Army north to the Strypa River to join an attack by the Southwestern Front at the end of December. The offensive achieved no notable results, but did identify several basic problems of Russian tactics, including breakthroughs that were too narrow (allowing them to be covered completely by enemy fire), poor coordination between infantry and artillery, and slipshod reconnaissance . Those lessons would pay dividends in summer 1916.1 After the massive losses of territory and manpower that Russia had suffered during 1915, the initiative in 1916 clearly lay with the Germans. Following failed efforts to knock France from the war in 1914 and Russia in 1915, the question for the German high command was “what next?” Ludendorff , obsessed with his own potential successes and blind to strategic considerations, urged renewed offensives against Russia. Falkenhayn, as usual, was the voice of reason: with German supply lines already stretched to breaking, and no clear geographic goal in Russia that would assure German victory, renewed offensives offered only unending marches into trackless space. Passivity was likewise not an option. Austria-Hungary was increasingly dependent on Germany in military terms, and both powers were beginning to feel real economic pain from the Allied blockade. Time worked against the Germans. Bereft of other choices, Falkenhayn resolved on the only option left to him: a renewed effort to drive France from the war. He decided to attack the French at the fortress of Verdun, a point that they could not abandon: by using superiority in firepower, he would bleed the French to defeat. On the Allied side, the priority in early 1916 was achieving a coordinated THE BRUSILOV OFFENSIVE, 1916 233 Stone_The Russian Army in the Great War 5/19/15 9:43 AM Page 233 policy to replace the ad hoc, uncoordinated war Britain, France, and Russia had been fighting. After the outbreak of war, nearly a year had passed before the first major inter-Allied conference, a 6 July 1915 meeting at Calais. A more serious effort at cooperation finally came at Chantilly in December 1915 to organize coordinated...


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