Naroch Lake - Encyclopedia

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"NAROCH LAKE, in Lithuania (formerly in the Russian Government of Vilna), the largest of the numerous lakes in which the tributaries of the Vilya and the Disna have their origin. It is nearly equidistant from Vilna (62 m.) and from Dvinsk (72 m.), and lies 37 m. N. of Molodechno railway junction. The lake, which measures 8 m. by 6 rn. at its longest and widest, drains into the small river Naroch, which, receiving another stream from Lake Viszniev at the village of Naroch (21 m. S. of the lake), flows on to join the Vilya E. of Smorgon. In Sept. 1915 this region witnessed the last attempt of Hindenburg to reach the lines of retreat of the Russian armies, and the successful counter-attacks of the latter (battle of Vilna-Molodechno). Next spring it was the scene of the great battle described below.

Battle of Lake Naroch, or Postavy (March 18-27 1916)

The conclusion of the German advance in 1915 had brought the German forces in this quarter on to a general line that ran from Lake Drisvyaty - the limit of the Dvinsk front - by Bidsy and Postavy to Lake Naroch and thence to Smorgon on the MinskMolodechno - Vilna railway, from which place it continued through Baranovichi southward. Although, broadly, this line runs N. and S., its course was really somewhat sinuous, conforming as it did to natural lines of defence, which in the campaigns of the Russian front are of supreme importance owing to the fewness of communications and the low economic development of the country. From Drisvyaty to Smorgon (about 95 m.), along the sinuosities of the actual line, only five gaps of more than about three miles wide exist in the barrier of lakes, rivers and marshes. These gaps lie N. of Vidzy, near Postavy, and on the proximity of Lake Naroch; and it was naturally at these points that the military efforts about to be described focussed themselves.

In the region of Lake Naroch the German line, held defensively since the close of the 1915 campaign, broke out of the general N. - S. direction into a salient, which, though weakened by the circumstance of its having 4 of the 5 gaps above mentioned on its front and flanks, offered a strong protective water-line, and so required relatively few troops to hold it. This salient, having about 45 m. of trench or water front, and a depth at its centre of about r o m., was in no sense a " pocket," and the chances of its becoming so by pressure on its flanks were limited by the narrowness of the gaps on these flanks that an assailant could use. Indeed, the higher authorities of the German east front seem to have expected an attack, not on the salient itself but further S., about Smorgon, where a rapid western advance by the Russians, with relatively good communications behind them, might have converted this flat salient into a really dangerous bulge. The Russian Command, however, chose otherwise.

In the N. the salient began at Vileity, where the course of the Komaika stream bends sharply westward and ceased to protect the German front. Between Vileity and Moscheiki is a gap 31 - 4 m. wide, and at Moscheiki, taking contact with another stream, the Olsiza, the line of defence began to follow a chain of small lakes and streams that is only broken by very narrow gaps between lake and lake till the greater Lake Miadzol is reached. Thus the Vileity - Moscheiki gap was the only place between Vidzy and Lake Miadzol at which the conditions were favourable to a great offensive. The front available was narrow, and communications poor, but great forests were available for the concealment of the attack preparations and the artillery. Though the gap is partly marsh, the Germans had preferred to run their line nearly straight across it - close up to the edge of these forests - rather than withdraw it some miles back to higher ground and leave the Vileity positions, on the one side, and the Moscheiki position, on the other, as dangerously advanced salients. Given sufficient troops and means and an improvement of the routes within the forests, it seemed that the breaking of the German line could be ensured, and once it was broken a vigorous drive southwestwards would take the attackers on to higher ground, where they would envelop the left limb of the salient and reap their harvest of prisoners and materiel.' Further, by obtaining control 1 A switch-line was drawn across this higher ground from Goduzizschki S.E. to the main position just N. of Lake Miadzol. But this line was incomplete at the time of the battle.

of the railway line Postavy - Novosventsyany, they would be in a position, later, to push an advance against the Vilna - Dvinsk line, the artery of the German N.E. front. Lakes Miadzol and Naroch and the solid ground between them formed the flattened apex of the salient. In front of them, protecting the avenue to some extent, lie other lakes. Approximately at Lake Miadzol lies the watershed between the Disna and Vilya systems. The southern limb of the salient was short (72 m. in a straight line). It began at Bliznika on the shore of Lake Naroch and ended on Lake Viszniev near Ostrovlani. But the trace of the line, dictated by the ground, was peculiar and considerably influenced the course of the battle. Between the two streams that connect Lakes Naroch and Viszniev with the Vilya basin lies a wide area of marsh, but this area is traversed by two long land-bridges of higher, sandy ground, each 3-4 m. in breadth, which, running in from the E. and the S. respectively, converge in well-marked hills near Nosovice. Between these land-bridges the marsh drives a deep wedge, so that both for attack and for defence the southern face of the salient was divided into two distinct areas, which were connected, for the defence, by a trench-line across the narrowest part of the marsh, and, for the attack, by various islands of dry ground in the midst of the marsh whence enfilade or oblique fire could be brought to bear on the ridge; for, in order to minimize the frontage of his marsh-trenches, the defender placed them far up the wedge, leaving his positions on the sand-ridges as salients. Specially dangerous for the defence was the position on the E. - W. ridge, which ran close to Naroch and could be enfiladed both from the " islands " in the marshes and from the opposite shore of the lake. Here purely local conditions - the need of securing possession of what, for the region, are commanding hills - brought the German line to a positive apex. On the other hand, though a successful Russian offensive could be pushed along either or both the land-bridges, as far as their junction about Nosovice, advance beyond that village was barred by the Perekop stream, which, rising close to Lake Naroch and emptying into Lake Viszniev, cuts right across the dry land avenue, while, further, a long lake lying behind Viszniev would cramp the left flank of the advancing victor and limit him for many miles to the same frontage as that of his original attack. Thus the most that he could expect from success in this quarter was the seizure of a barrier or anvil (the Perekop), against which the garrison of the salient might be driven by hammer-blows from the Moscheiki gap.

The military features of the Naroch salient, then, afford an excellent example of the way in which strategic and tactical values change according to the scale of the operation contemplated. In the case of quite small operations, the salient must be regarded as very strong, while for a grand offensive on the largest scale - the case considered by the German Higher Command - the centres of gravity lay not in the salient itself, but away to its flanks, where the possibility existed of converting it into a great strategic " pocket." But, for the intermediate type of operations - the large-scale effort aiming at tactical and moral rather than strategic results - the attack possibilities, even on the short flanks of the salient itself, were not inadequate; and it was against this type of attack - too heavy for the local troops to meet, yet not so heavy that the Higher Command could afford to expend its entire reserves in supporting them - that the defence was, in the ensemble, weakest. This was the case that actually occurred, and it imposed the maximum strain both on the German fighting troops, who were called on to make head against great odds, and on the German Higher Command, for which (as Ludendorff's memoirs show) the correct disposition of the reserves was a matter of extreme difficulty and anxiety.

The choice of this intermediate form of offensive by the Russians was, however, not deliberate, but imposed by unforeseen events. Their original intentions and their first preparations were based on the decisions of the inter-Allied conference, which fixed July r as the date at which great offensives would be launched simultaneously on all fronts. But in Feb. the Germans forestalled this plan by attacking Verdun with such power and fury that the western front was thrown into a state of acute crisis. Repeated calls were made by the French for a relief offensive in the east, and the Tsar decided that these calls must be answered. Preparations were therefore expedited, and concentrated upon the Naroch salient, an objective evidently suited for such an offensive, and one in which local gains would improve the prospects of the later, main offensive contemplated.

The technical and tactical fitness of the Russian army for a trench-warfare offensive, however, was still low - as indeed it remained throughout 1916. Guns and munitions were available on a larger scale than in 1915; new methods had been adopted from the French fighting regulations of autumn 1915; and the army was stronger than at any previous period, in spite of its appalling losses.

But, instead of five months in which to study the application of these new methods to Eastern conditions of armament and communications, and to inoculate the army generally with the doctrines thereby established, there were now only a few weeks available, and this handicap was the more important as the army was now, substantially, a new army. It was the product of the wave of patriotic fervour which had followed the defeats of 1915.

Hitherto, the army in the field had been practically the peace army with its reserves, the latter trained to the same ideas and broken to the same discipline as the active troops. No new creations had been put into the field corresponding to the German " new reserve " formations of Sept. - Dec. 1914, or the British territorial and new army divisions. Surplus resources of the peace-trained categories, and batches of war recruits as well, had been absorbed in the system of the old army to replace casualties. But from Sept. 1915, when the Tsar assumed personal command and proclaimed a war of liberation, moral forces which had been excluded from, or scarcely tapped by, the old army system came into play. Recruiting and war-work were galvanized by a new spirit, and the Russian leaders, habitually more reckless in the expenditure of human life than those of the Central and Western European nations, now found themselves in control of new masses which, in reality, stood in need rather of control and economical management than of driving.

Given those moral and technical factors, the course of the Russian spring offensive of 1916 almost explains itself. Hasty preparations in the hinterland, ruthless urging-on of enthusiastic and inexperienced troops in the front line, might suffice in the open-field shock of crises such as Ypres or Lodz; but in a trenchwarf are offensive of limited scope, under peculiarly difficult conditions of ground and weather, they could only lead to costly defeat, except against an unusually weak opponent. Such an inferiority on the defender's side, however, the Russian staff was justified in assuming. Between Pinsk and the Baltic they had about 75 divisions, each of 16 battalions, to the enemy's 44, most of which had 9 battalions only; and it was possible with these proportions to keep numerically equal or superior forces on all parts of the line, while assembling very greatly superior masses at the points of attack.

The German dispositions were accurately known to the Russian staff. From the river Disna to Krevo (S. of Smorgon) was the point of von Eichhorn's X. Army. At the beginning of March 1916 there were, between these limits:the 7th Landwehr Div., Bavarian Ca y. Div., 3rd Ca y. Div. from river Disna to Vileity inclusive, grouped under " No. 6 Cavalry Staff " (Gen. von Garnier); the 42nd, 115th, 31st and 75th Res. Divs. and 9th Cay. Div. (reconstituted as a normal infantry division) under XXI. Corps headquarters (Gen. von Hutier), round the Naroch salient to Lake Viszniev inclusive; the III. Res. Corps of two divisions, from Viszniev to Smorgon exclusive; and the XL. Res. Corps, at Smorgon and Krevo. Behind his centre, in the salient, Eichhorn placed his army reserve, the Both Res. Div. Counting in the last named, this gave an average density of one battalion to the mile over the whole front (the equivalent of 87 battalions for 85 miles). In winter the front had to be fairly evenly held, as the lakes gave only a diminished protection till the thaw should set in. Nowhere did it reach a density of two battalions per mile, except at the most exposed point - the apex of the line on the land-bridge S. of Lake Naroch on the dangerous VileityMoscheiki front - where it was about one and one-half. As a comparison it may be noted that, at the Somme, von Below's I. Army had an average density of three battalions to the mile. On the Russian side General Ragosa (commanding the II. Army in succession to Gen. Smirnov) disposed of II infantry divisions and one ca y. div. in line, viz. - I. Corps of three divisions N. of Postavy (exclusive); XXXIV. and IV. Siberian Corps, four divisions, from Postavy (inclusive) to Lake Naroch (exclusive); and V. and XXXVI. Corps (four divisions) and Ural Cossack Div. facing the Naroch - Viszniev front, besides other forces in the same proportion opposite the German III. Res. and XL. Res. Corps. For the battle, these were reinforced by the I. Siberian, XV. and XXVII. Corps (six divisions), and 6th and 8th Ca y. Divs. in the forests facing Vileity - Moscheiki, and by the III. Siberian and XXXV. Corps (four divisions) opposite the Naroch - Viszniev front. In all, then, there were 21 infantry divisions and 3 cavalry divisions, equivalent to about 345 battalions of infantry. Elaborate measures were taken to keep this concentration secret. Some of the combats initiated with the object of misleading the German command almost ranked as battles, notably the fighting of March 19-26 at Jakobstadt on the Dvina; and, although von Hutier kept " General Headquarters, East " informed as to the forces gathering on the Naroch front, the collation of his reports with those from other sources did not enable Ludendorff definitely to discern the real point of attack till the eve of the battle. Moreover, even within the salient itself, von Hutier was unable to accumulate his meagre forces on the flanks, for the lakes along this front were still frozen hard. At the last moment Ludendorff sent the XXI. Corps one fresh division, the 107th, and detailed others (86th Div., half 85th Div., 119th Div. and one regiment) to follow in succession, if required. The Russian surprise concentration, in short, was successfully achieved, in spite of all the handicaps of trackless hinterland, hurry and enemy vigilance. At 6 A.M. on March 18 the Russian artillery opened fire on the NarochViszniev front - with an intensity that the Germans had never yet experienced on the eastern front - followed at 7 A.M. by that on the Vileity - Moscheiki front, which took under fire also the defenders N. of Vileity and those S.E. of Moscheiki as far as beyond Postavy.

The main lines of the struggle which followed were governed by the conditions of terrain and of moral above discussed. As in the case of the French offensive on the Aisne thirteen months later, the significance of the battle lies less in its incidents than in its general results. On the first day, after a bombardment which was at first very effective but fell away later as the Russian batteries were picked up successively by the German artillery, masses of infantry debouched to the attack on the Vileity - Moscheiki front and the Naroch land-bridge, the Viszniev land-bridge being at the same time attacked by smaller forces. In the night of March 17-8, and on succeeding nights, various attacks were delivered on the minor gaps in the lake barrier between Postavy and Lake Miadzol, and they had the effect of keeping von Hutier constantly anxious for the security of his front, and so - till the arrival of the fresh divisions - limiting the reinforcements available for the Vileity - Moscheiki and the Naroch - Viszniev fronts, on which the weight of the Russian offensive was concentrated.

The Russian infantry attacks, which began after 3-4 hours artillery preparation, were extremely violent but disjointed. The defending artillery was worked to a well-prepared scheme, and (according to German accounts) assisted by sound-ranging posts. On the N. flank its counter-battery shooting into the forests had the effects of what later came to be called a " counterpreparation." In the debris of trees and bushes, the Russian infantry attacks lost unity and force, and were delivered at different times on different sections of the front. The available Russian artillery could thus devote itself to each objective in turn, but, on the other hand, the more efficient artillery of the defence could concentrate on each assault as it debouched over the glades separating the Russian forests from the woods in the German line across the marsh. Thus the German infantry, though very much inferior in numbers, was able to stand assault after assault, while suffering heavy losses under the Russian artillery fire and holding defences that were breastworks rather than trenches; and at nightfall the Russians drew back into the forests, having suffered enormous casualties without reaching the enemy's trenches at any point. Attacks on the village of Vileity, held by the right of the German 3 rd Ca y. Div., were equally futile. On the Naroch - Viszniev front also the assaults were fierce but disunited, and here too the artillery of the German 75th Res. Div. and 9th Ca y. Div. could focus it1; efforts on each assailant in turn, even that of the III. Res. Corps S. of Lake Viszniev cooperating at times. In sum, the Russians, on the first day, suffered useless and terrible losses in regimental assaults delivered against steady infantry, uncut wire and skilfully handled artillery.

For the following night and day, the Russians changed their tactics. The artillery devoted itself to the demolition of trenches, to wire-cutting, and to the harassing of the billets in the villages behind the defenders' lines, with frequent small infantry attacks intended to force the defence to man its trenches and to march its reserves hither and thither. In this policy they were to some extent successful; the first of the German reinforcing divisions to arrive, the r07th, was put in piecemeal to stiffen the VileityMoscheiki front. Outside the battle-field, Russian threats at Vidzy, at Jakobstadt and elsewhere grew more serious. Then, in the night of March 19-20 massed attacks were delivered on the Vileity - Moscheiki front.

The weather conditions both for attackers and defenders had now become terrible. On March 15 a thaw had set in, which, but for Verdun, would probably have caused Ragosa to postpone the whole operation. By March 20 it had reached such a point that the ice on the lakes was covered by 2 ft. of water, while the German trenches in the marshes, no longer pumped out, were waist-deep, and the communications were mere mud. Exhausting as were these conditions for the German soldier, they were paralyzing for the Russian staff. In the forests, which were not seamed with tracks like an Argonne or a Bois le Pretre, formation for attack and transmission of orders and supply became almost impossible. The night attack on Vileity and on the woods near Moscheiki was utter confusion for both sides. Part of the German defence system was overrun in the first assault, but in the haphazard, frequently hand-to-hand, fighting that followed, superior cohesion and cooperation defeated superior numbers, and the Germans regained the lost trenches, with the aid of parts of the 107th Div. On March 20 the Germans began to receive further reinforcements, the 86th Div. and half of the 85th Div. (r 10th Bde.). These, however, were held for the protection of the centre and the S. front of the salient, and only the 80th Res. Div. was moved somewhat to the north.

On the night of March 20-1 the night assault was repeated, this time with larger numbers and simultaneously on both the battle fronts. On the N. flank, the assault swept over parts of the defences as before and penetrated deep into the marsh-woods, seeking especially to drive S. and S.W. on to the higher ground behind Postavy. Again resolute counter-attacks stopped its progress, but this time the Russians retained possession of the captured front trenches. On the land-bridge S. of Lake Naroch, a wild assault swept completely over the German 75th Res. Div. holding the " apex," and it was with difficulty that the defenders' line was reconstituted some kilometres farther back. Only on the Viszniev land-bridge was the assault definitely repulsed. The situation for the Germans became extremely critical. But again it was saved by counter-attack. On March 21 the last forces of the 107th Div., with the exhausted 42nd Div., retook the marsh trenches from the equally exhausted Russians; and on the Naroch land-bridge the putting-in of the whole 80th Div. (brought back from the N.), with parts of the 170th Bde. and 86th Div., not only stabilized the defence but gave it the upper hand. Then it became possible to relieve the exhausted 42nd and 75 th Res. Divs. by fresh troops.

The battle continued for a week longer, on the same lines as in the critical days, but with decreasing intensity on the part of the Russians. Presently the lost " apex " was recovered by the Germans, and nearly a month later a local attack still further improved the position on the Naroch land-bridge. But by that time the whole front had become quiet. The last severe battleday was March 26; after that date the Russian relief-offensive expired without having caused one German soldier to be brought over from France. The German Eastern Headquarters had passed through a period of extreme anxiety, and it is arguable that on March 17-8 they were taken by surprise. But, if so, their recovery was instant, and they managed to meet the calls of the defence out of their local reserves. For the Russians, the first offensive of the new armies was a disaster of far-reaching importance. Prepared, up to the moment of launching, with great adroitness, it had been " choked in blood and marsh " with an enormous cost in mass-casualties and mass-disillusionment.

(C. F. A.)

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