Brusilov Offensive | Secret Session | 17 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

Let’s have an update from the Brusilov Offensive, why not? The south of the Eastern Front has now been steadily rumbling west for about two weeks. Russian cavalry has been clearly demonstrating that there is still a role for cavalry in the war that isn’t limited to making them glorified infantry. In open warfare, they can still scout in force and report back quicker than aerial spotters. Properly supplied with arse hortillery, they can provide just enough firepower to stop infantry digging in somewhere and keep them on the back foot. Like it or not, they’re still the only ground forces in the war who can travel faster than walking pace.

The key part here is of course “in open warfare”. Anyway. The offensive may have gained ground, but it’s come at heavy cost. General Brusilov is also rather concerned about what might happen if the Germans can shuffle some forces away from Courland and the Pripyet Marshes. Beating up on Austria-Hungary is one thing; fighting German troops is quite another. They need some support. Ideally they could use a day or two to stop and absorb reinforcements before pushing on, but that’s no good if it’s just going to hand the enemy a rest. The orders are changing now; take what the enemy gives you, but if they make a strong stand, pause and wait for reinforcements.

Evert dithers

So, remember General Evert and the north-western army group’s attack? The one that keeps not happening? The men in the south kind of need it to happen, PDQ. And while Evert has blustered and delayed, the German General von Linsingen is now about to launch his own attacks in support of his retreating allies, with the rather ambitious hope of threatening Lutsk from the north. It will at least give Evert’s army group another excellent excuse to continue doing absolutely nothing. More interestingly on a political level, von Linsingen is being given control of some of the Austro-Hungarians now arriving from the Italian Front.

So the situation at the moment; the Germans are shifting men around inside the Eastern Front, but as yet they’ve only sent a token force west from France. Those men under von Linsingen will be counter-attacking against the most northerly Russian army. The two armies in the middle are slogging on forward, but they could be stopped quite easily. In the south, nearest the Carpathians, the Austro-Hungarians are hardest-pushed. Faced with the concept of going back, back into Galicia, or even back into the mountains, the rate of desertion is taking a very sharp turn upwards. The situation is far from stable.

Chamber of Deputies

Meanwhile, in Paris, the French parliament has gone into a secret session. The Battle of Verdun has been going for four months now, and it seems all the French Army is capable of doing is holding its positions until they’re forced to retreat. The deputies now want a chance to properly assess and discuss the whole situation, without concern that secret information could be reported by the press. The British parliament has recently granted itself the emergency power to sit in secret during the war.

It is probably for the best that the Chamber of Deputies did the same thing. The secret minutes tell of proceedings being interrupted more than once by deputies physically fighting each other in the chamber. (“What do you call all this?” “The Union Sacree!”) The session will last until the 22nd, and many deputies have finally run out of patience with their commander-in-chief. One of their ringleaders is a deputy who gave up a ministerial job in the French war ministry to enlist as a private. In November 1914, Sergeant Andre Maginot (yes, this is “Maginot” as in “Maginot line”) was serving near Verdun when he suffered a serious leg wound and now has a permanent limp.

Maginot is now showing that his voice works perfectly well, thank you very much. On the first day of the session he drew the battle lines and aimed both barrels at General Joffre. “The Commander lives from day to day. He yields the initiative to his adversary instead of imposing his will on him. He has neither method nor energy. He counts on a miracle. He has shown us what he can do. It is necessary to replace him.” Perhaps now we understand why Joffre has been constantly complaining at General Petain, trying to get him to launch attacks.

Maginot’s assessment of Joffre’s apparent lack of energy at Verdun is, I think, somewhat wide of the mark. However. Joffre has been in command for the entire war. He has had nearly two years to show that he can win the war. So far he has entirely failed to demonstrate this with battlefield results, and now his support is slowly bleeding away. It will take a considerable effort over the next few days from the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, and minister of war General Roques, to save him, this time. There is only one thing still in his favour; there is no obvious successor.

But, as I see it, Joffre is now a dead man walking. If the Battle of Verdun is lost, then obviously, so too is he. But if the summer offensive works, and they can then roll back the German gains, there will be plenty of opportunity for ambitious subordinates to make their own case for being appointed as commander-in-chief in Joffre’s place. He is going to have to organise a charm offensive of Cadorna-esque proportions to save his job. But he’s a canny operator, and he’s not dead yet.

Battle of the Somme

The man himself is well out of it today, though he’s being provided with updates on the secret session by his supporters and officials. He’s paying a pleasant social call on General Haig at Montreuil to review the plans. Gee, do you think they might somehow find a way to squabble over the start date for the Battle of the Somme? Amazingly, yes. Planning is now in its final stages; they really do need to nail this start date down. Oddly, it’s now Joffre suggesting a delay until the 1st of July, with Haig playing the “but what about the date we’ve already agreed?” role.

More discussion is had. It seems that German attacks at Verdun have now eased off. (They have, but only as a brief pause before another massive push, of which more very soon.) Finally we have an agreement that will stick. “Z Day”, as British parlance calls it, has now been finally fixed at June 29th. However, General Rawlinson and General Foch will keep an eye on the weather and will agree delays of a day at a time if the weather is unfavourable. Twelve days until Z Day. Less than two weeks.

An important little note here. At the Battle of Loos, Haig was rather annoyed by Foch postponing parts of Third Artois with which he was trying to coordinate. Now, postponement decisions will be taken jointly. It’s another subtle but important signal that the French are starting to take the BEF more seriously as its size grows past one million men, and they take the lead in a major offensive for the first time.

Kitega

A quick note from Africa, where the Force Publique has just finished conquering Urundi and its capital, Kitega. Another important bargaining chip for the peace table is now firmly in Belgian hands, and with Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck a thousand miles distant, the Belgian Empire has surely now guaranteed its post-war future, even if the Germans can somehow win a decisive victory. Belgian attentions will now turn to securing Lake Tanganyika, of which more later.

Henri Desagneaux

I fear Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux would not be reassured by General Joffre’s assessment that fighting at Verdun is slackening. If it is, he has not noticed. At the moment he’s in uncomfortably close reserve near Bras while another attack goes in. He’s supposed to be going into the new front line tonight, and very possibly attacking at some ill-defined point after that.

During the attack, German planes bombed our men ceaselessly. Our losses are enormous. The 106th Regiment already has 400 men out of action, two captains killed, a large number of officers wounded. The 5th Battalion of the 359th Regiment, advancing in support, was caught by gunfire and suffered heavily The 19th Company hasn’t got one officer left. In the 18th, three are missing. We have 32 Boches as prisoners. The positions are the same as before the attack.

The wounded from this morning’s attack are beginning to arrive; we learn what happened. Our artillery fired too short, and demolished our front-line trench instead of firing on the Boches. When we attacked, the Germans let us close to 15 metres and then caught us in a hail of machine-gunfire. We succeeded in capturing several parts of the trench but couldn’t hold them. At the moment our troops are scattered in shell-craters.

At nightfall, the dead arrive on stretchers. In this, the Ravin de Mort, they lay there, lined up, waiting to be put into the holes that are being hastily dug for them. A sad spectacle, which is repeated here every day.

One cannot imagine what the simple phrase of an official statement like “We have recaptured a trench” really means!

There has also been no food or drink all day.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

With his own guns well emplaced, Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler now has a grandstand seat as final preparations for the Somme begin.

New trenches all over the place. Some of the new communication trenches [run] back as far as three to four miles. In suitable localities, trenches had to be dug to provide assembly places for Brigades forming the second wave of the attack. These positions consist of a labyrinth 10 to 12 feet deep, roofed with wire netting and grass to escape aerial observation. Besides all this, the country is covered with a network of telephone trenches, deep narrow slits with about 20 cables in them.

When one looks down from Maricourt towards Susanne, the valley resembles one vast circus, with hundreds of motor-lorries, carts, timber-wagons, caterpillars dragging big guns, convoys of trench store wagons going forward to forward dumps, often hundreds of the little French trench mortar bomb carts, and strings of anything up to 300 pack mules or horses. The traffic is extraordinary. Our wagons often take six hours to do the seven-mile journey from the wagon line to the guns.

France ought really to be enlarged for this type of fighting.

I’ll get behind that proposal if it means an end to this accursed trench warfare.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is, quite understandably, reserving his thoughts on the fake death sentences of the 15th. He must be feeling pretty shitty right now, though.

An Adventist is my daily helper in the post-orderly work which they have allotted to me. One of the “spiritual leaders” of his set, he claims the Almighty as a special and personal friend of his; when he is not arguing with me about theological puzzles, he is telling me about the wonderful prayer meetings of his “peculiar people,” meetings which they hold in private rooms in the town.

Food here is quite satisfactory, though the total absence of vegetables and puddings is not conducive to good health. Constipation is general.

Or maybe that’s just the food.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

Further Reading

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