Entente’s strategy on the Eastern Front for 1917 was agreed upon at the Chantilly Interallied Conference in November 1916. Russia was to launch in 1917 a general offensive on the Eastern Front, complemented by an attack by France and England in the west. Sometimes, however, military plans are thrown in disarray by both sudden military changes on the field or steep political changes.
In 1917, against a backdrop of excessive optimism, the Entente went on the offensive on the Western Front as well as in the east. Vimy Ridge, Arras, Chemin de Dames, Cambray, Passchendaele, Galicia, Moldavia were the most important battlefields in the interval spanning April and November 1917.
On the Eastern Front, the Russian High Command (the STAVKA), decided that the target of their main attack would be Galicia, in the hope that General Brusilov would repeat his success from 1916. On the other fronts of the Russian army, including the Romanian one, support operations were to be carried out. Moreover, after the autumn disaster of 1916, the STAVKA saw the Romanian army as a hindrance and had reserved for it a limited role in the future offensive operation. Only the Second Romanian Army, commanded by General Alexandru Averescu, was considered up to the task of defending its position in the event of a future engagement.
In the spring of 1917, the STAVKA would change its attitude regarding the role that the Romanian Army will play in the coming offensive action. The radical change was determined by the impact of the February Revolution on the Russian army. The participation of soldiers’ councils in Russian decision-making, the democratization and the abolition of punishments led to the reduction of Russian officers’ authority among their own soldiers. The weakening of discipline among Russian soldiers made way for revolutionary speeches, and more and more soldiers demanded peace and refused to obey the orders that were given by their officers. Therefore, Russian officers and commanders were increasingly intimidated and frustrated. The figures are conclusive: between March and May 1917 between 400.000 and 700.000 soldiers in the garrisons behind the front were in a state of revolt. At the end of April 1917, General Shcherbachev replaced General Sakharov as the head of the Russian High Command appointed to serve under King Ferdinand of Romania.
The first inspection of Russian troops on the Romanian front made by Shcherbachev would “raise great fear for the future” and came to the conclusion that an “offensive was indispensable to suppress the anarchy among Russian soldiers”.
In the middle of May, Shcherbachev attended a STAVKA meeting with the main Russian military decision-makers to discuss the crisis in the army, but also about the details of the coming offensive. The STAVKA proposed to the political decision-makers in Petrograd (the Kerensky government) to halt the democratization of the army (which was rejected) and to launch a general offensive on all fronts at the same time in order to obtain the greatest possible impact. But on June 15, the head of the STAVKA, General Alekseyev, was replaced by General Brusilov.
For the Romanian Front, the STAVKA approved a plan made by Russian General Nikolai Golovnin, which fit perfectly with the vision of the Chief of the Romanian General Staff, Constantin Prezan, who also envisioned an attack in the Nămoloasa area.
The Russian disaster in Galicia
The Russian offensive in Galicia, launched on July 1, would prove to be a disaster. The Russian troops attacked Austro-Hungarian and German forces in Galicia, pushing them to Lvov. The initial successes of the Russian armies were owed to powerful artillery preparations. At first, the Austrians were not able to resist the bombardment, and the wide gap in the enemy lines allowed the Russians to make some progress. German forces proved to be much more difficult to defeat, as their resistance resulted in large losses among Russian troops.
On this backdrop, a part of the Russian army, intoxicated by Bolshevik ideas, refused to fight, disobedience and desertions became commonplace. The Russian advance was stopped on July, 16. On July 19, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians counterattacked, encountering little resistance and advanced through Galicia and Ukraine to the Zbruci River. The Russian lines were completely broken on July 20, and by July 23, the Russians withdrew some 240 kilometres.
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Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa