On June 4, 1916, the Brusilov Offensive commenced: the largest and most remarkable military operation undertaken by the Imperial Russian Army and General Aleksey Brusilov, in the heat of World War I (1914-1918).
World War I, the first major battle for spheres of influence of the 20th century, encompassed a total of 38 countries. In 1916, Germany and Austria-Hungary mounted a series of offensives on the Western front against France - Russia’s ally in WWI - and recently joined Italy. The depleted allies requested that Great Britain and Russia launch diversionary attacks on other fronts to relieve the critical situation.
While the Russian command was drafting plausible strategies, General Aleksey Brusilov, a 63-year-old former cavalryman, known as “The Iron General” and very much respected by his faithful troops, confronted his superiors with a plan of his own. Favored by Emperor Nicolas II, but questioned by many Russian generals, the plan consisted of a massive offensive by Brusilov’s Southwestern front against Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia. An unexpected attack, Brusilov argued, would take pressure off the other Allies’ frontlines, and might even knock the Austro-Hungarians out of the war.
Brusilov started his offensive with a massive bombardment of the Austro-Hungarians from nearly 2,000 guns along a 200-mile front. The Austrian troops outnumbered the Russians 200,000 men against 150,000, but the effectively performed barrage rendered this material advantage moot, with Brusilov’s troops sweeping deeper into enemy territory, taking 26,000 captives in one day. Brusilov’s brief and accurate bombardment was an improvement on the customary protracted barrages, which damaged the battlefield so badly that the actual advance was made impossible. Another Brusilov innovation was the so-called shock troops, which attacked weak points along the line to later effect a breakthrough for the Russian Army to exploit.
In the course of the two-day advance, Russian troops progressed as deep as 47 miles into Austrian territory, taking 200,000 prisoners, forcing both Austrian and German troops to give up their offensives in Italy and France respectively and divert their weapons back east. The June 4 attacks totally spoiled Germany’s games for 1916 and depleted it prior to the upcoming British attack at Somme. The Brusilov offensive cost the Austro-Hungarian army a total of 1.5 million men, including 400,000 prisoners and almost 10,000 square miles of land.
With Russia in the middle of revolutionary turmoil, and short on human resources and provisions, the effectiveness of the Russian Army started to decline; with no ability to benefit from the outstanding operation which was the Brusilov offensive Russia withdrew from WWI in early 1918. The offensive is still credited with the permanent takeover of more enemy territory than any other Allied offensive on either front in that conflict. Moreover, the bleeding Austria-Hungary couldn’t recuperate to affect the situation in any way: its role was reduced to holding trenches, while the war was finished by Germany.
Ironically, the Russians did not realize the potential of the Brusilov tactics. Germany, on the other hand, got a grip on the “quick-launch” strategy and frequently used it later in the war. Shock tactics also played a large role in the early German blitzkrieg offensives of World War II.