Battles - The Battle of Lake Naroch, 1916

General KuropatkinUnder pressure from the Germans at Verdun in early 1916, the French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre pressed his allies to launch offensives of their own to draw forces away from Verdun wherever possible and to place Central Powers forces under increased pressure (a policy agreed during the Chantilly Conference of December 1915).

Britain responded - belatedly - with the Battle of the Somme in July; the Italians with another Isonzo battle.  Russia, under Chief of Staff Alexeev, responded with an offensive drive in the Vilna-Naroch area (Lithuania today).

With 1.5 million Russian forces facing just 1 million combined German and Austro-Hungarians the Russian prospects appeared good.  Alexeev consequently chose to launch the offensive in the north where the numerical disparity was at its greatest.

He therefore instructed General Kuropatkin's Northern Army Group to attack from the northeast towards Vilnius; the focus of the attack however was to be from the east of the city, led by General Smirnov's Second Army (part of Evert's Western Army Group) consisting of 350,000 men and 1,000 guns, against which were ranged just 75,000 men and 400 guns of Eichhorn's German Tenth Army.

General EichhornPreceded by a wildly inaccurate two-day artillery bombardment - the heaviest to date on the Eastern Front - the Battle of Lake Naroch was launched on 18 March 1916 using dated breakthrough tactics.

The infantry assault unleashed following the artillery bombardment became rapidly bogged down in the mud associated with the developing spring thaw.  Ill-prepared and lacking an effective supply system the attack was a notable failure.  Russian forces bunched up during attack and consequently made ready targets for machine gun fire.

The Germans lost 20,000 men in casualties during the battle; however Russian losses were significantly higher, at 70,000 at Lake Naroch with another 30,000 further north.  Subsequent follow-up attacks on 19 and 21 March proved similarly unsuccessful.

Meanwhile Kuropatkin's advance from Riga, begun on 21 March, was beaten back within a day with the loss of 10,000 men.  A minor success was achieved however by General Baluyev's Second Army, which advanced a few kilometres along the shores of Lake Naroch while under cover of fog.

Artillery attacks continued into April but German counter-attacks succeeded in recovering what little ground the Russians had succeeded in capturing.  The attack had not caused the Germans to divert resources from Verdun; in this respect alone it was therefore a notable failure.

Shortly after the Lake Naroch debacle the Russians heeded another call for help, this time from the Italians.  The Russian response on this occasion however was markedly more effective: the Brusilov Offensive.

'Strafing' is attacking ground troops by machine guns fired from low-flying aircraft.

- Did you know?