On 11 February, 1916, in the Mogilev Headquarters there took place a meeting devoted to the further actions on the Western Front. In the beginning of 1916, the German army had started the assault of the largest French fortress Verdun. The loss of Verdun would open before German troops a free way to Paris that would inevitably lead to the capitulation of France. The situation near Verdun was desperate, thus the allied French command asked the Russian Headquarters to undertake a “diversionary” attack. In connection with a grave situation on the French front at the walls of the fortress of Verdun, it was decided to help to allies and to start the attack near the lake Naroch. The commander-in-chief of the Western Front A.E. Evert noted the unfavorable weather conditions and unavailability of his troops for the operation, but his reasons had not been heard. As a result the Naroch operation was entrusted to Infantry General A.F. Ragoza, the native of Vitebsk and graduate of the Polotsk Military School. He was temporarily appointed the 2nd army commander.
During the operation the Russian imperial army had to dislodge the enemy from the Belarusian lands and start the offensive in Lithuania and Latvia with the outlet to Mitava (nowadays – the Latvian city of Elgava), Bausk (nowadays Bauska), Vilkomir (nowadays the Lithuanian city of Ukmerge) and Vilna (Vilnius). However the strategic purpose of the action which would subsequently get the name the Naroch operation was another: to prevent German forces from attacking France. The Russian Western Front would rescue Verdun and Paris.
The decision of the Russian command to lead the attack in the Naroch region was based on a favorable configuration of the frontline and man power superiority over the enemy. However, as the course of further events showed, this decision was fatal. Actually natural features of the area (strongly cross-country terrain with an abundance of lakes and almost impassable marshy sites) excessively complicated the offensive actions.
Troops of the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 10th armies had to participate in the operation. The man power of Russian armies almost five times outnumbered that of the enemy, and twice Russian cavalry and heavy artillery did. However in comparison with personnel, the armament of Russian armies looked far more modest. Material support of Russian armies left much to be desired as well. There was no main thing: shells, cartridges, entrenching tool.
At the daybreak of 18 March, 1916 the artillery thunder had announced the beginning of the Naroch fight for Paris. On a site of breakthrough of the enemy’s defense the Russian artillery had concentrated the highest density of artillery fire for all the years of the war. In heavy, thawing snows at the approaches to Naroch Lakes, 20 divisions of the 2nd army formed on initial positions preparing to strike a breaking blow against the 10th German army.
The German defense totaled three lines and was strongly fortified and thought-out well: some lines of barbed wire behind which there was a network of entrenchments and communication trenches that went deep into the defense at a distance of up to two kilometers.
A deep-frozen earth was difficult to dig in; huge clods of ground, thrown up by explosions of eight-inch shells, killed and wounded like blast fragmentations, and it was impossible to take shelter into shell-holes filled with water from melted snow. Attacking troops were shot down by machine guns hidden in well protected sockets behind barbed wire. The interaction between Russian infantry and artillery was not adjusted too. It happened that shells hit friendly troops.
For 10 days and nights of heavy, persistent fights in the hardest conditions of spring slush, the Southern group of armies had re-conquered 10 square verst near the lake Naroch. The price of each verst made 7,800 human lives. 78,000 lives – such was the cost of Verdun for Russia.
On 19 March, for the first time during the Naroch operation the chemical weapons had been used. German artillery shelled Russian positions located in the northeast of the lake Vishnevskoe with poison gases.
28 March, 1916 is regarded as the end of the operation. But in fact fights on the front of the Southern group lasted till 31 March. There was a task in view: to take the height “Ferdinandov nos” (“Ferdinand’s Nose”). Russians managed to get control over the height in April only.
- From the Russian part, 407 052 bayonets, 18 428 sabers, 928 field guns including the 15th and 35th reserve army corps participated in the operation.
- During the fights from 18 March to 1 April, 1 200 people, one and a half tens machine guns and 10 square kilometers of enemy territory had been captured. Results of the 2nd army were more than modest.
- In the battles from 18 March to 1 April, 1 018 officers and 77 427 soldiers had been killed or wounded, included 12 000 perished from the frost. At the end of the March offensive 5 000 corpses had been removed from German wire entanglements. Material losses were great as well.
The offensive of Russian troops forced Germany to shift considerable combatant forces from under Verdun to the Russian front. During the operation the enemy forces which resisted the 2nd army had grown: 30 000 bayonets, 150 light artillery guns, 82 heavy artillery guns and more than 200 machine guns. The battle near Naroch had held Kaiser’s armies on the Eastern Front, and German command was forced to stop the attack near Verdun. Nevertheless Russian command did not proceed with the Naroch operation and at the end of March it was stopped. The offensive was led in spring slush on narrow sites of the front; armies were engaged to action in parts, reserves were late, and command of military units and formations was broken.
During the battles near Naroch the Russian army lost about 100 000 soldiers and officers. Germans lost in the battlefield about 30–40 thousand soldiers, 1 200 people were captured. Such is the result of the Naroch tragedy.
From the report of colonel Gippenberg who investigated the causes of failure of the Narich operation: ”…this is hardly a guilt of armies which deserve a deep respect… A categorical telegram has been sent: to fortify their position on the captured sites and to keep them by all means. But soldiers stand knee-deep in water and they put together Germans’ corpses and sit down on them to take rest as entrenchments are full of water. And wounded men, crippled, bleeding, suffering and groaning are creeping to hem…".
A.A. Kersnovsky, one of the most significant Russian military historians of the 20th century, named the Naroch operation of 1916 “the Naroch Golgotha”, and for many years it had been among the least mentioned battles of the Great War.
The Naroch battle became the first offensive operation of the Russian imperial army after the great retreat of 1915. Its experience was used by A.A. Brusilov when planning the Lutsk battle – the eminent Brusilov breakthrough.
The strategic purpose of the Naroch operation had been achieved. Having estimated the situation in the Naroch district as critical, Germans were forced to move hastily four fresh divisions to the operations area (two from Eastern Prussia and two from Belgium) which should have fought against Verdun. Any German unit had not been removed from the Russian front. Moreover, on 9–16 March, the Germans’ assault on the fortress of Verdun had essentially weakened. The echo of Naroch had reached France…