The Battle of Lake Naroch, an offensive on the Eastern Front by the Russian army during World War I, ends on this day in 1916 after achieving little success against German positions near Lake Naroch and the Russian town of Vilna (in modern-day Lithuania).
With French forces under heavy attack at the fortress town of Verdun, French Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre called on his allies in early 1916 to launch offensive operations of their own in order to divert German resources and ease pressure on Verdun. Britain’s answer to this entreaty would come only months later, at the Somme in June. Czar Nicholas II and the Russian chief of staff, General Mikhail Alekseyev, responded more quickly, with a planned offensive drive in the Vilna-Naroch region, where 1.5 million Russian soldiers would face just 1 million combined German and Austro-Hungarian troops. In their haste to come to France’s aid, however, the Russian command seemed to overestimate the capability and preparedness of their own troops, especially against the well-trained, well-organized German army machine.
The Russian offensive, launched on March 18, 1916, began with a two-day-long artillery bombardment (the longest yet seen on the Eastern Front) against the Germans that for the most part failed to do the planned damage due to inaccuracy. Russian infantry troops from the Tenth Army, commanded by General Alexei Evert, then moved forward against a heavily fortified German defense, suffering heavy casualties. Due to the spring thaw, many of the approaching infantrymen became bogged down in the mud, slowing the offensive; the lack of an effective supply system also hurt the Russians, as the battle stretched on for almost a month. A smaller operation near Riga, begun on March 21 by the northern Russian army division of General Alexei Kuropatkin, met with equal results.
By the time artillery attacks were shut down on April 14, the Germans had recovered the entirety of what little ground they had lost. Russian casualties numbered 110,000, while the Germans lost only 20,000. Both armies’ casualty rates were boosted by deaths due to exposure to the harsh northern weather: 12,000 Russian soldiers died from frostbite.
Also on April 14, as battle concluded around Lake Naroch, General Alexei Brusilov, commander of the Russian South-west Army, presented his plan for an ambitious attack along a broad stretch of the Eastern Front, to take place within the coming month. Like the British with their Somme offensive, Brusilov saw the heavy German involvement at Verdun as an opportunity to launch new attacks elsewhere. The famed Brusilov Offensive, launched June 4, 1916, would secure more territory than any other Allied offensive of the war and would succeed not only in diverting German attention and resources from Verdun but would also nearly knock Austria-Hungary out of the war.
Meanwhile, in the British trenches on the Western Front that same day, Winston Churchill, then in command of an infantry battalion, wrote to his wife, Clementine, expressing anxiety over the planned increase in fighting on all fronts due to the upcoming Allied offensives: I greatly fear the general result. More than I have ever done before, I realize the stupendous nature of the task; and the unwisdom with which our affairs are conducted makes me almost despair at times of a victorious issueDo you think we should succeed in an offensive, if the Germans cannot do it at Verdun with all their skill and science?