Was the Kerensky Offensive doomed from the start?

History Asked by gktscrk on January 13, 2021

I’ve been reading about Russia in the Great War during 1917, and what is quite surprising for me is the Kerensky Offensive. Primarily, what is surprising is that the army was in great material terms by summer: "better prepared than at any time during the war" as described here. In light of this, was the Russian preparation of their troops done to the utmost they could given the circumstances or had they left some obvious preparations incomplete? Is there anything the General Staff (either before or after Brusilov replacing Alekseyev) thought they lacked? Were the Russians aware of how prepared the Germans were to repel them?

Russian motivation for the attack is described:

A concerted offensive had been planned at Allied conferences starting in late 1916. In June 1917 the coalition launched the attack, believing action could strengthen Russia’s diplomatic hand, secure Allied credits, and halt the breakdown of order in the army and the country’s interior.

The operation failed after initial successes against the Austro-Hungarians in the south when the Germans transferred troops and counter-attacked—essentially steamrollering across the Russian front and causing the collapse of numerous armies. In one of the articles, it also said that the Russian failure to attack in the north and south at the same time was fatal to the success of the mission but I’ve not seen that mentioned elsewhere (and the cause of the delay wasn’t described).

Worsening weather conditions are also noted as one of the reasons the attack failed and the retreat ended up so poorly though not by other sources. Most other descriptions blame the Revolution which had sapped the morale of the soldiers who were no longer motivated.

Changes in leadership are also mentioned as being particularly hurtful to the Russians (all errors from the original):

Although the army officers held different attitute about the feasibility of the offensive, none of
them ever questioned the necessity of Russia’s continuous, active role in the WWI. Even the pessimist
officers would agree that the defensive operations were to be only transient until morale and
discipline were fully reestablished. However, Kerensy could not wait. Determined to implement
the offensive as , Kerensky replaced the cautious Alekseyev with the bold and aggressive Brusilov
on May 22.

This makes it sound as if the attack was more a political decision than a military one—Brusilov’s optimistic attitude about the assault succeeding is noted as being based on false premises in the paper:

As historian R. Feldmen pointed out, Brusilov arrived at his conclusion largely based on misinterpretation of the soldiers’ revolutionary zeal as enthusiasm to continue the war. Indeed, as observed from the documents of soldiers voices during mid-1917, their opinions on the war divided widely.

At the same time, of course, in Petrograd the very thought of attacking Germany in another offensive was anathema to numerous Revolutionary cliques who turned it by default into a political issue. However, the Entente also wanted a Russian advance to occur as had been promised in 1916.

One Answer

Most likely, yes

Several things to consider:

  • WW1 was mostly infantry war, and infantry suffered enormous casualties. Mutinies and dissatisfaction were common thing even in the West (French mutinies in 1917 for example) and poor Russian soldiers had even worse. Casualties were very high, they were often led by haughty but incompetent officers. Even more competent ones like Aleksey Brusilov usually considered Russian soldiers as expendable. Comparatively, Russian industry was less developed then let's say German or British, and only advantage they had was sheer size of the army. Thus, they often sacrificed soldiers for foggy strategic goals (like helping Western allies) people on the ground could not understand.

  • Russia proper was not endangered. WW1 was mostly fought in western parts of Russian Empire, present Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine etc ... This territory was not inhabited with Russian population. In fact, local population didn't care much which empire would rule over them. Common Russian soldier (unlike in WW2) didn't have the felling that he is defending Motherland, his family and home. After years of fighting they simply wanted all to end. Idea that Germans or Austrians could invade and occupy Russia looked very remote. Although Eastern front of WW1 was not as static as Western, fighting was still in trenches and by foot soldiers, and as witnessed by Brusilov offensive, advancing more then few hundred kilometers was simply impossible.

  • Agitation against the war was tremendous, especially by Bolsheviks who were actually brought and paid by the Germans to do just that. Of course, even February Revolution which brought Kerensky to power stemmed from the fact that population was deeply dissatisfied with war and misery it brought. In fact, unofficially, it was expected from Kerensky not to push to far - if he could not negotiate peace with Central Powers at least he was supposed to avoid huge loss of life, restricting himself to defense.

Overall, Kerensky offensive did look like huge gamble that (expectedly) didn't pay off. To his defense, it could be said that he didn't have much choice - his grip on power was slipping, Bolsheviks were already creating dual levers of power and would soon demand all power to (their) Soviets. He could not solve huge economic crisis (none could, but Bolsheviks were promising a lot) . Only thing that remained to him was to somehow gain support of the Army trough victory, at the same time gaining some respect from western Allies. Even without this offensive it is very likely Bolsheviks would strike against him at opportune time. Unfortunately, situation in the Army was such that mounting large scale strategic offensives was simply impossible.

Correct answer by rs.29 on January 13, 2021

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