The Siege of Leningrad and the Battles for Moscow and Stalingrad in World War Two (WWII) are well documented, but very little, certainly in the West, has been written about the Eastern Front during World War One (WWI). Apart from the crushing blows to the Tsar’s Imperial Russian Army at Tannenberg, the Masurian Lakes and the German Army’s march east, the only other battle that ever seems to get a mention is the short lived Brusilov offensive in June 1916.
Here, the author Frank Pleszak returns to the site and tells us about the little known Battle of Vileyka in September 1915.
During WWI there was significant fighting and demonstrations all along the eastern front from Riga on the Baltic Sea in the north all the way south to Romania, and once Romania entered the war, right down to the Black Sea. My dad was born and raised in a small Polish village about 100 kilometres east of Vilnius near to Lake Naroch (in what is now Belarus). Though he never mentioned it, there was a huge, and to the Russians catastrophic, battle there in the spring of 1916. It was of such importance that the historian Norman Stone said of it “Lake Naroch was, despite appearances, one of the decisive battles of the First World War. It condemned most of the Russian army to passivity”.
The ‘Battle of Lake Naroch’, the ‘Russian Spring Offensive of 1916’, occurred following the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ when the Eastern Front had settled down into positional trench warfare. It was an ill conceived, poorly planned, and disastrously executed Russian offensive across a front of nearly 100km over a series of frozen lakes and swamplands. Its intention was to bring Vilnius into striking distance in an attempt to draw German troops east and away from their offensive on the Western Front at Verdun. The Russian 2nd Army massively outnumbered the Germany XXI Army Corps, almost 450,000 infantry to 75,000 but suffered staggering losses of more than 120,000 while the Germans lost about 20,000. After two weeks of bloody and futile fighting in the most appalling conditions the battle came to an end with the Russians having only captured a tiny area to the south of Lake Naroch.
There is almost nothing written about this battle in the west and it is in danger of being lost to history. In a small effort to prevent this happening I have researched the battle from both sides and almost completed a book on the subject that should be published later this year.
Other than the Brusilov campaigns, Russia did have some other battlefield success. In fact in the lead up to the Naroch debacle, the battle for the small town of Vileyka, where the German advance east was stopped and then pushed back is considered by some to be one of the most significant military victories ever achieved on Belarusian soil. There will be a chapter with detailed information in my forthcoming book, but I include a summary here…
So, following on from the success at the second battle at the Masurian lakes at the end of February 1915, the German X Army, commanded by General von Eichhorn, after heavy fighting, had by mid-August, taken the strategically important fortress at Kaunas but then found the capture of the city of Vilnius altogether harder.
After regrouping to the north of Vilnius, supplemented with additional reinforcements, von Eichhorn’s X Army bypassed Vilnius and towards the end of August broke through Russian General Radkevich’s 10th Army in the so called Swenziany (Švenčionys) gap. Elements pressed on east through the city of Postavy towards Hlybokaje, but the bulk of the force headed south-east towards the City of Maladzyechna (Molodechno) and the primary objective; the city of Minsk.
By mid-September, amidst stiff opposition, General von Garnier’s VI Cavalry Corps (H.K.K.6.) had captured the towns of Vileyka and Smorgon. The 3 Cavalry Division moved on towards Maladzyechna, some units even approached the west of Minsk, and others had penetrated to the east of Minsk and attacked a bridge along the Beresina River south of Borisov. Stavka, the Russian high command, were clearly concerned. Not only was Maladzyechna an important railway cross roads but it also contained important secret government and military installations.
On 17 September, as the German X Army began to surround Vilnius, Russian forces were withdrawn and the city ceded to the Germans. But as the German Army marched east their supply lines had increased and become severely stretched. Russia’s had shortened and their material losses were made good from increased production at home together with supplies from France and England. The Russian 2nd Army, devastated at Tannenberg and then obliterated at the Masurian Lakes, had re-formed and re-grouped, and under General Smirnov were given the ‘honour to finally halt the German advance’.
Back on the front foot
The H.K.K.6.’s rapid advance had left them vulnerable. Whilst they had easily crossed the rivers, streams and swamps their infantry and artillery support struggled over rivers with bridges blown up by the retreating Russians. The Russian 10th and 2nd Armies struck back, and immediately halted the German advance before Maladzyechna, and then pushed them back north along a 40km stretch of the River Wilja from the town of Vileyka to Milcza where they were slowly reinforced with advanced infantry units of the 115 Infantry and eventually 75 Reserve Divisions.
By 22 September the town of Smorgon between Vilnius and Maladzyechna had been recaptured by a combination of a Russian 10th Army offensive together with Russians withdrawing from Vilnius. The Germans were exhausted and hungry, most of their artillery and supplies of food and munitions were still far behind their front. The Russians counter-attacked at Vileyka. Smirnov’s 27th Army Corps commanded by General Balanin had moved into positions to the south of Vileyka along the southern bank of the River Wilja and bombarded German positions. At 16:00 an infantry company supported by a machine gun company attacked across the railway bridge south of the town, scattering the German defenders that enabled two companies to ford the river and through the night occupy high ground to the southwest of the town.
By the early morning of 23 September all the Russian artillery, including two heavy batteries, had assembled to the south of Vileyka and by the same time further infantry had crossed the Wilja near the village of Olszyna just to the east of Vileyka causing a distraction to the German defences. Taking advantage, a further three infantry brigades were moved quickly from reserve to consolidate the breakthrough.
The Germans regrouped and counter-attacked the positions to the south and west, but even more Russian Infantry was brought up to assist. The German action was brave but futile and by mid-afternoon as the Russians massed ready to storm Vileyka from the south, southwest and west of the town the Germans stubbornly repeated their attacks. At 16:00 massed Russian artillery began bombarding the outskirts of the town and at 16:30, as the wooden houses burned, Russian Infantry moved forward from the south. Within minutes they had driven the Germans back towards the centre of the town. Fierce hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting took place at almost every building but by 17:00 the centre was under total Russian control. Dogged German resistance prevailed around the cemetery and at the nearby prison but with the assistance of targeted Russian artillery the fighting quickly moved to the northern outskirts where a German howitzer was captured. The Germans fought desperately to recover the lost gun but Russian support arrived and repeated German attempts failed.
At the same time Russian units moved, largely unopposed, around the west of the town preventing any German withdrawal to the west. Fighting within Vileyka concentrated along the northern perimeter and particularly around the railway station where a furious firefight erupted with the station changing hands several times. More Russian units moved in from the southwest and eventually cleared the remaining resistance around the cemetery before moving to the northern edge of town where they helped capture the station.
The closing stages
20 kilometres to the east at the village of Sosenka Russian cavalry failed in an attempt to capture the bridge over the River Wilja that was guarded by a single company of 80 German defenders. But nearer to Vileyka Russian infantry had crossed the Wilja around the village of Kasuta and within 4 hours had forced the German X Army back along the road towards the town of Kurzeniec, capturing the villages of Kaczanki, Hrycuki, and Kłynie together with several light field guns in the process.
Further Russian infantry crossed the Wilja capturing the villages Chołopy and Małmhy on the eastern outskirts of Vileyka. The remaining Germans were surrounded on three sides and their support was too far back to assist. Their position was hopeless so during the night all remaining units were withdrawn to new positions north of Vileyka around the village of Wołkowszczyzna.
The battle for Vileyka was effectively over. The Germans, overstretched without supplies, exhausted and hungry, struggled on for a few more days but with increasing demands from the Western Front it became clear that the prospect of any further German short-term progress to the east was unrealistic. On 25 September General von Hindenburg ordered a halt to the advance east, withdrawal of all the forward troops along the River Wilja back to positions around Lake Naroch, and for the establishment of permanent defensive lines (Dauerstellung) which were developed through the winter of 1915.
Isolated but bloody fighting erupted periodically in sections along the whole of the new front through the winter and early spring of 1916. Both sides continued to build up their forces and prepare for battle, but neither were prepared for the onslaught that eventually came in the March of 1916. The Russian success at Vileyka was not to be repeated; in fact, despite overwhelmingly superior forces they were so badly beaten that the consequences were drastic and far-reaching…