|The debating chamber of the State Duma 1916|
Russia started the year in better shape than for most of 1915. With greatly shortened lines and winter respite the Russian armies had opportunities to recover and to strengthen both men and materiel. However, there was general discontent and a deep unhappiness with the war among the populace. The gaps between the ruler and his people; between the senior commanders and their troops were dangerously wide. Tsar Nicholas had stifled a popular uprising in 1905 but had not embraced reform. He was now in supreme, but not highly competent, command of the army. Many of his senior generals were at odds with each other. The ill fated pre-revolutionary parliament, the Duma, reopened in February 1916, and for the first time in his life the Tsar visited it, and his vulnerability showed.
The leadership made several efforts to counter the 1915 German gains, and launched a major offensive from the Caucasus into Anatolia. In concert with France and Britain they planned a major assault for the summer to match the expected push either side of the River Somme.
Eastern Front. In the early weeks, Russki’s army to the northern end of the front was still vulnerable, and German prospects for further progress into the Dvinsk salient looked good. From there they would be able to push further towards the Gulf of Riga allowing another attempt to link up with the naval presence there. There would be a two weeks window when the western approaches to the Gulf would be possible and the countering Russian navy access would still be ice-bound. However, here was where the Russians were planning an action of their own against the very salient created by Germany’s advance to Dvinsk. They attacked in late March, and had some success, holding up the German plans. At the far end of the front in the south, they also counter-attacked and occupied the important high ground of Usciezko (today in Western Ukraine) above the river Dniester. However the main action of early 1916 was fought by Evert’s central army against Hindenburg’s right centre, in the area of Lake Narotch, approximately 70 miles due east of Vilnius. It was launched a good deal earlier than the Russians would have liked, but in urgent response to French pleas to create some sort of diversionary pressure away from Verdun. Evert’s forces launched eight attacks between mid March and mid April. For the first time they had strong artillery for pre-bombardment, and their infantry was able to follow up effectively to take ground. By 15th April the Russians had gained over a mile, and a breakthrough to the main route to Vilnius was possible. Inexplicably, at this point the Russian staff decided to move the heavy artillery and spotter planes (both in short supply) to another area of the front. Hindenburg brought in reinforcements to close the gap, and on 28th April launched a massive counter-attack that in less than a day reclaimed all the ground they had lost in a month. Nevertheless, as a diversionary action it was a success, and also demonstrated (with the usual high cost in lives) that with proper artillery support the Russians could match the Germans.
The invasion of Anatolia. Since being removed from the Eastern Front to command the forces in the Caucasus, the Grand Duke Nicholas had been preparing an offensive into Turkish Anatolia. However, the plains of western Anatolia leading on to the Bosphorus and Constantinople could only be approached from the Caucasus via the hostile mountain territory of eastern Anatolia.
|Erzerum - the remote lofty eastern gateway|
to the plains of western Anatolia
The key fortress town in the east was Erzerum, 6,000 feet high in the mountains, which guarded the only feasible routes through to the west - barring a sea landing across the Black Sea. Indeed, Russian naval actions in that area had effectively isolated Erzerum to two long and difficult access roads, as the shorter route from the coastal city of Trebizond was blockaded. The Grand Duke was building up his forces for a springtime offensive against the 100,000 garrison of Erzerum. As with the Eastern front, the attack had to be brought forward. On this occasion it was because the final evacuation of Gallipoli in January 1916 enabled the transfer of significant resources to Erzerum and to Mesopotamia, pressuring Nicholas to act before they could influence the outcome. He moved fast and started his advance in the teeth of severe winter conditions on 11th January. His men fought their way along narrow roads and passes and on 18th took a crucial junction village only 33 miles from Erzerum.
|Russians with captured Turkish guns at the edge|
of Erzerum, February 1916