The Brusilov Offensive and the European Union

A hundred years ago last week ended the bloodiest offensive of the First World War, with 2.6 million casualties — almost as much as the Somme and Verdun combined. Yet no one talks about this centenary. To understand why, imagine Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and a dozen former Austro-Hungarian countries laying a wreath in western Ukraine. Not very likely.

I am talking about the Brusilov offensive, named after the general who led it. On June 4 1916, half a million Russian troops attacked Austro-Hungarian trenches using new shock tactics that broke through the lines. 200,000 prisoners were captured in four days. For two empires, it was their last battle.

Within a year Russia was in the grip of the Bolshevik revolution. Another year later Austria-Hungary ceased to exist while Germany surrendered to its enemies in the West. 25 years after that, World War Two and the Nazi Holocaust shattered Eastern Europe again. No wanted to remember the Brusilov offensive, except those who fought in it.

I grew up with that living memory, passed down to me by my grandmother whose father was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. A minor aristocrat, Artur von Sacher-Masoch took dozens of photos of his experiences and survived the war to become a successful novelist. But the thing that traumatised him the most was the Brusilov offensive. As my grandmother told it, it was a hammer blow that spelled the end of the empire. Her father never stopped marvelling how he managed to survive it.

My grandmother was only a five-year-old girl when it happened, but it became a kind of family myth. The Brusilov offensive was her metaphor for those moments in life that grind you down and when bad luck never stops coming. And call it my soft spot for forgotten lost causes, but I think what happened 100 years ago on the plains of western Ukraine deserves some commemoration.

Let’s go back to April 1916. Sacher-Masoch, then a major in the infantry commanding a battalion of Bosnian Muslims, was posted to a village called Jezierzanka. You can’t Google it, and today it is called Ozeryanka, but then it was just behind the Austrian front lines about two thirds of the way from Lviv (then called Lemberg) to Tarnopol.

Part of a network of trenches and barbed wire extending from the Black Sea to the Baltic, the front at Jezierzanka was three lines deep. The troops lived in dugouts with stoves, reinforced ceilings and wooden walls, and the trenches gave them cover to run to machine gun positions ready to spray advancing Russians with arcs of overlapping gunfire.

The trenches in Galicia, German sector (A. Sacher-Masoch)

Not that anyone expected a Russian assault that summer. After advancing hundreds of miles the previous year the Austrians and Germans felt that the fight had gone out of the Tsar’s army, which appeared to be fighting a purely defensive war.

Meanwhile that April, a meeting was taking place in the Belarus town of Mogilev, the headquarters of the Russian High Command, Stavka. Alexei Brusilov had just been appointed commander of the southwest front — facing my great-grandfather. Brusilov gives a vivid account of the Mogilev meeting in his autobiography.

Stavka functioned as an extension of the Romanov court and Tsar Nicholas II presided over the dinner following the meeting. Before it started, a Stavka official took Brusilov aside for a bit of advice. As the new boy among the Tsar’s army commanders, Brusilov had best keep quiet in the meeting, and let the other generals with more seniority than him take the initiative. And being newest, he had the perfect excuse to spend 1916 in defensive mode while others did the fighting.

Brusilov decided to ignore this advice. The Tsar was under pressure from the British and French to draw German forces away from Verdun and the impending Somme offensive. So the commander whose front adjoined Brusilov — General Evert — agreed to a limited attack. Hundreds of thousands of Russians would die needlessly but the Tsar could use their deaths as a bargaining chip in his conversations with London and Paris.

The Stavka meeting in Mogilev. Brusilov is third from right.

Then Brusilov spoke up. He would attack as well. There was silence at this breach of protocol, and consternation broke out among the Russian top brass. Finally, it was agreed that Evert would lead the attack and Brusilov would be allowed to support it. And under no circumstances would any reinforcements or additional ammunition be given to Brusilov.

So Brusilov returned to his own headquarters to plan his attack. The orthodox view of trench warfare was to concentrate vast amounts of men and munitions at one point in order to break through — such as Verdun. The problem with that was the preparations were easily noticed by the enemy who would himself concentrate men and guns at the point of attack, negating any advantage.

Realising this, Brusilov ordered his men to prepare to attack along his entire front, so the enemy could have no inkling where the actual attack would take place. All along the front, trenches were dug into no-mans land, and telephone lines were laid. Russian reconnaissance aircraft photographed the Austrian lines and his artillery officers used the photos to plan where to use the limited ammunition at their disposal. And Brusilov kept the attacking troops well away from the front line until the very last minute.

And it worked. Nowhere did the Austrians or Germans have a clue, except maybe in one place. Back in Jezierzanka, Sacher-Masoch had a particularly good relationship with the local Jews. He was not only married to a Jew, but his family was well known in the area, known for their good works among the Galitzianer community. Such was the local gratitude that in 1890 a commemorative Hebrew-inscribed pewter plate had been struck in their honour (I still have this plate in my possession).

As a result, wherever he went in Galicia, Artur Sacher-Masoch was given provisions for his men and horses. And in the late spring of 1916, the Jews who had contacts on the other side of the lines came to him at Jezierzanka to warn of an impending attack. There was an element of self-interest in this warning. It was a time when Russia was the benchmark for anti-Semitism: the Jews of Galicia were firmly on the side of the Austro-Hungarians who defended them.

Galician Jew, 1916 (A. Sacher-Masoch)

Unfortunately, when Artur passed this warning up his chain of command it went nowhere, either as a result of incompetence among the Austrians or feelings of racial superiority among the Germans. So Brusilov’s attack on 4 June was a brilliant success. After their artillery expended just enough ammunition to destroy the connecting trenches, the Russian infantry crept from their saps and stormed the Austrian dugouts, throwing bombs into those whose occupants didn’t immediately surrender.

The Austrian army collapsed and fled a hundred miles west. Overnight Brusilov became a Russian hero, and started receiving sacks of fan mail. Then Evert, who was supposed to lead the main attack further north, failed to deliver. Anyone who has worked as a corporate manager will have met people like Evert, who work out that they can best succeed by letting their colleagues fail. Evert’s failure enabled the Germans to rush forces to plug the gap left by the routed Austrians. Outside their trenches and lacking intelligence on the enemy, Brusilov’s men were pulverised by German artillery fire. By October the offensive was over.

Dead Russian soldier after the Brusilov Offensive (A. Sacher-Masoch)

Miraculously, Artur Sacher-Masoch survived the retreat, photographing the fields of Russian bodies in the wake of the German counter-attack. But for Austro-Hungarians it was a shattering experience, literally. For the working class Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Hungarians, Croatians and other nationalities in the ranks, the empire had once been economically preferable to the risks of nationalism. Then Brusilov exposed its hollowness. As nations began forming within it, the army became unable to fight without Germany at its back.

Standard letter for enlisted men in the languages of the Austro-Hungarian empire

After Brusilov, Austria-Hungary gained its reputation for futility, pomposity and incompetence that you read about in The Man Without Qualities or The Good Soldier Švejk. But there was a moment of grief among those in the officer class, like my great-grandfather, who once had believed in it, and a sense of foreboding about the nationalism that would follow in its wake.

Looking back on things 100 years later, one can detect a few echoes. For all its many flaws, Austria-Hungary provided an alternative to nationalism, was an intellectual powerhouse and provided economic opportunity and tolerance for minorities, such as the Jews. The European Union fills some of these roles today, and offers similar opportunities that central Europeans enjoyed under the old Empire.

On the other side of the coin is Russia, which has cleaved to the narrow, racially-determined nationalism that dominated the decades after World War One. President Putin seems to channel Brusilov with his investment in a newly competent military, one that is capable of surprise attack rather than defence. And like Brusilov with his fan mail, Putin remains wildly popular among Russians.

Thankfully, these are still echoes rather than repetition. Europe isn’t in the midst of a world war killing millions of its citizens. Instead of an absolutist monarchy we have a peaceful union created by democratic nation states. Yet the tension between national sovereignty and the economic benefits of a larger entity remains. As challenges such as immigration reawaken nationalism, economic competence becomes ever more important. For me, I will channel the trauma of my great-grandfather (whom I never met), and hope that the European Union will not meet its Brusilov moment.

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