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First World War


A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution
In Defense of the Russian Revolutionary Soldier, The Kerensky Offensive, July 1917
In Defense of the Russian Revolutionary Soldier, The Kerensky Offensive, July 1917
by Michael Kihntopf

By the middle of 1917, the Russian army stood at a crossroad in history, hat in hand, asking for direction as to which path was the best to follow. The path behind showed the ebb and flood of bloodstained footprints from nearly three years of war and could not be turned back upon. Before it lie three lanes, each leading toward a different future. Adding to its confusion as to which route to follow, there were the throngs of people who attempted to give directions. One group of would be directors said that the soldiers should remember their place and that no reforms were necessary; only the winning of the war mattered. Some other advisors talked about land reform but only after the war was over. The most vocal arguers told the soldiers to vote with their feet and go home; the war would take care of itself. At this moment of despair Alexander Fedorevich Kerensky stepped into the crossroad. Deftly he pushed aside all the would-be directors and called upon his revolutionary comrades to remember their obligation to the revolution and Russian pride. He asked the soldiers to take up their weapons and free the ancient soil from the invader so that the people's revolution could nurture itself. The mood was infectious and for a brief moment the soldiers' confusion disappeared.

Kerensky, minister of justice for the Russian Provisional Government which had replaced the Romanov dynasty, assumed the additional responsibility of minister of war in May 1917. To understand the scope of his new role, the minister set off for the war zone to review the troops and assess their potential for continuing the war. His first stop was at Kamenez-Podolsk where he consulted with the commander of the Southwest Front, General Alexei Brusilov. Together they motored from one end of the front to the other.

To his amazement, Kerensky found the combat areas devoid of the roaring sound of artillery and the clatter of small arms fire. In many places the trenches were almost deserted. The soldiers who could be found were in tatters and complained of not getting their just rations. When Kerensky asked where their comrades were, he was told that they were attending political meetings. He quickly surmised that the rank and file could be sorted into two groups: those who wanted to do the heroic things required by war and the Bolsheviks(1). The officers whom Kerensky met were lumped into three categories: the majority who were confused and unable to lead, a minority who were sabotaging the revolution, and a smaller group who knew how to approach and lead the revolutionary soldier. Kerensky attended many of the political meetings with the soldiers. At one such meeting, while waiting his turn to speak he realized that what the army needed was inspiration. Slogans! When it came time for him to speak he was ready. From the stage he called out to the soldiers(2), "Forward to the battle for freedom" and "I summon you not to feast but to death"(3). Thunderous applause! The slogans had had an effect but Kerensky knew that the battlefront was not the place to begin campaigns of indoctrination. Something more radical had to be done.

As the three day tour closed, Kerensky and Brusilov fell to discussing the army's condition in the back seat of the auto that was returning them to the general's headquarters. Both agreed that Kerensky's presence had been well received by the soldiers but they both knew that the impact would be no more than a mosquito bite's itch in days to come. The general and the minister surmised that the soldiers of the Southwest Front were incapable of assuming any further military action as long as the political turmoil existed at the front yet Kerensky was an optimist. As the miles wore on and the countryside faded into darkness, both of the car's occupants came to the same conclusion – the only thing that would restore the army's morale was a successful offensive. Kerensky and Brusilov were of the opinion that once the shooting began the soldiers would ignore the calls for political meetings and return to the trenches to support the comrades who chose to fight on(4).

Preparation for the offensive followed many paths. While Kerensky navigated the political road, Brusilov followed other paths formulating troop concentrations, objectives, and bringing up supplies to meet the planned beginning date of 1 July. The general's duties had increased three fold since the tour with Kerensky. Before his departure for the capital Kerensky had appointed Brusilov chief of the army's staff. This replacement of leaders without regard to military necessity was an omen of things to come. Brusilov had a little over 30 days to ascertain which officers he could trust to lead a demoralized army in an offensive designed to remotivate the Russian fighting force.

In Petrograd, Kerensky found a mixed atmosphere regarding the continuation of the war. The two most prominent political parties had stirred the social upheaval of the revolution into a veritable morass. The Bolsheviks were adamant about ending the war immediately. The Social Revolutionaries' representatives were making pro-German speeches and were in direct communication with the German government. The minister poured himself into the turmoil. He reminded his comrades of Russia's obligation to its allies. French and British delegates had asked the Russian Provisional Government to hold out until October. What was needed, the allies said, was a small scale offensive that would continue to tie down Central Powers' divisions. The added time would allow the Americans to deploy their army against any German build up that would occur should Russia feel it necessary to drop out of the war. Kerensky went on to say that the Revolution was having an effect among the Central Powers. Within the Austro-Hungarian army, Slavic units on the Southwest Front were agitating so much that the Austro-Hungarian command had moved a number of divisions to the Italian front. Pilsudsky's Polish Legion had already stopped fighting. Additionally, the Turkish and Bulgarian governments had sent out peace feelers. The minister's persuasive speeches bore fruit. On 15 June, the All Russian Congress, Bolsheviks refusing to vote, approved an offensive drive. Soon after, the Cossack Congress added their blessing. Kerensky had won the approval he needed but disparaging news came from the front. A number of soldiers and workers committees were still debating if the units they represented should involve themselves in an offensive.

Brusilov's problems started at a fronts' commanders' meeting on 11 June when the general found out that the soldiers of the Northwest and Western Fronts, roughly from Riga to the Galician border, were unreliable and would probably not agree to be a part of any battle no matter how small it might be. On the Western Front alone, the Tenth Army was 63,000 soldiers short while in the Second Army, soldiers' committees interfered in all aspects of administration down to divisional and regimental levels(5). The only good news from the fronts commanders was that the artillery contingents were very dependable. Brusilov realized that the offensive would have to be limited to the Southwest Front, his old command, where his personal prestige among the men still held sway. Therefore, the offensive's strategic target was to inflict as many casualties as possible on the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia with the intention of possibly forcing them out of the war. Tactically, the goal was to capture Lemberg which would disrupt communication and transportation between the German north and the Austro-Hungarian south. The clear limiting factors of the offensive were that there would be no diversional attacks in the north to keep the Germans from reinforcing their ally and that there would be no pool of reserves to bring forward should the offensive prove successful. Desertions, although decreased since April, had reduced unit strengths by one half to one third. Added to these limitations was a command problem.

When Kerensky had so astutely lumped the officers into three groups during his tour, both he and Brusilov had made notes regarding those who were the ineffectuals. Just three weeks before the offensive was to begin Brusilov and Kerensky began a policy of replacement. The general's hirings and firings were done based on which of his subordinates he could rely on to do the job; but the minister's were based on political factors. Army, corps, and the majority of divisional commanders were replaced(6). Kerensky had wanted to replace the negatively thinking officers with more positive and forward thinking people; however, the firings brought about a backlash that neither the general nor the minister had expected. Mass resignations(7). Officers at every level saw the firings as a threat to the officer corps. Some claimed that old wounds needed rest and recuperation while others simply followed what the private soldiers were doing and went home. In the final week of preparation many units found themselves led by ill prepared noncommissioned officers or men whom their fellow soldiers had elected into officership. Incompetent officers had replaced allegedly ineffectuals. As for the soldiers, they were back at the crossroads trying to decide which new path to follow while political advisers once again harangued them from all sides. To once again sweep the confusion away, Kerensky went to the front on 27 June. Artillery preparation began that evening.

On the surface, Kerensky's earlier optimism about the Russian soldiers going back to war as soon as the guns sounded again was paying off. Unlike the May trip when the minister had noted a lack of activity, cannons now roared and machine guns clattered. Everywhere men rushed about gathering supplies that they would need for the coming attack. Vast stores of ammunition, arms, food, and uniforms were available. The supplies that Russia's allies had begun shipping as early as 1915 had finally reached their destinations at the front(8). But, below this veneer surface was the seething confusion of committee politics.

Many of the committee members were asking why they should risk their lives when the war was so close to an end. As the shells whistled overhead in their flight to the enemy's trenches, Kerensky hammered slogans at the soldiers in meeting after meeting. The minister's speeches electrified the Potiiskii Regiment whose members promised to support the battle to their last breathes. Those who posed questions about the offensive's necessity were ridiculed by their comrades. Kerensky labeled one soldier who was particularly outspoken as a coward and ordered him to leave the front immediately. Taken by surprise by the minister's action, the soldier begged to be allowed to stay and fight(9). The crescendo of artillery fire grew as the hours passed. Kerensky waited for the battle to begin at Eleventh Army's observation post.

Since the February Revolution, the Central Powers had had a policy of wait and see(10). Both the Vienna and Berlin army general staffs had prohibited any type of action except in response to a Russian assault. As a consequence, the entire front from the Baltic to Romania had entered into a state of suspended animation. The silence that pervaded the atmosphere was interrupted only by the shouts of one side's soldiers to the others. Although violence was prohibited, fraternization was not. Opposing soldiers met in no-man's-land, exchanged gifts, and talked about the war. Central Powers' soldiers were well schooled in what they were to say: Russians were encouraged to defect or to desert. They also emphasized that the war was of the tsar's doing and the British and French were perpetuating it at the cost of Russian soldiers' lives. Thinned ranks clearly showed that desertion took its toll but defections did not increase. From April to June, the prisoners of war held by the Central Powers increased by only 7,582(11), a vast decrease from the 10,000s that had been taken monthly before the Revolution. However, the quiet and friendliness came to an abrupt halt as Brusilov's battle preparation and Kerensky's speeches took hold.

On 12 June, General Max Hoffmann, German chief of staff for the Eastern Front, noted in his diary that the "Russians are getting lively"(12). Aerial photography confirmed the renewed activity. Bridges leading to the front as well as narrow gauge railways were built, repaired, or upgraded in broad daylight and not camouflaged. This was unlike the painstakingly, intricate preparations Brusilov's staff had carried out to mask their successful offensive in the summer of 1916 on the same front. Prior to that attack, Brusilov had ordered each army to designate a corps and a division within that corps to show signs of increased activity. The results of this spreading out of actions confused the Central Powers' staff officers and they were unable to determine where reserves should be placed to thwart the offensive. The Russian staff had also targeted numerous objectives in that drive so that the front was broad rather than narrow with predictable directions. This time, aerial photos and defectors showed that the Russian direction would be toward the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia with the intention of capturing Lemberg and possibly encircling the German Südarmée which was in the center of the front. Hoffmann had proposed a strike of approximately five divisions in this same area, through Tarnopol, shortly after news arrived of the February Revolution but the general staff had decided not to carry out the plan.

On 29 June 1917, the Russian army was better prepared than at any time during the war for an offensive. The two main thrusts of the attack were to be on the north and south of the Southwestern Front. In the north, the Eleventh Army was to attack the Austro-Hungarian Second Army at its hinge with the Südarmée. In the south, the Eighth Army was to assault the juncture of the Austro-Hungarian Third and Seventh Armies. While these two operations were going on the Russian Seventh Army would frontally assault the Südarmée with the intention of keeping it from reinforcing their ally either to the north or the south. Although the entire front was nearly 200 kilometers long, the foci were less than 50 kilometers each. Along the whole front Brusilov's staff had arranged 40 infantry and 8 cavalry divisions, mostly of Finnish, Siberian, and Caucasian origins, along with 800 light, 158 medium, and 370 heavy guns(13). Opposing the Russian hordes were 26 infantry divisions, one cavalry brigade, and 988 guns of which only 60 were of a heavy caliber(14). Most of the Russian artillery had recently arrived from Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok and had either Japanese or English markings. Along with the cannon had come more than enough shells both from the allies and Russian factories. Small arms too were in abundance as a result of American and Japanese shipments. This glut of materiel showed in the first few hours of the preparation barrage. Central Powers' observers noted that the cannonade was the most intense they had witnessed and that its duration was unprecedented. However, the shells dropped on positions that were devoid of manpower. Well warned of the offensive through deserters and the Petrograd news media, the Central Powers' staffs had evacuated the front line trenches. The barrage lasted two days. Strangely enough, artillery duels did not erupt; the Central Powers guns were silent.

In the morning of 1 July the artillery stopped. Kerensky, looking through binoculars from the Eleventh Army's observation post, faced a few anxious moments. He was unsure if the soldiers would leave their trenches. His answer soon came as a few specks appeared in no-mans'-land. These were followed by a few more and then there was a general onslaught. Kerensky noted, however, that the soldiers advanced without artillery support or did the artillery respond when the Austro-Hungarians' cannons finally opened fire. The counter fire drove Kerensky and the Eleventh Army's staff into a bunker to await further reports.

News that the Austro-Hungarian 19th Division, made up primarily of Czechs, was in the trenches dictated Eleventh Army's direction. The Russians had placed a battalion of former Czech prisoners of war who had gone over to them across from the Czech division. In the calm before the battle, words were traded between the two groups. When the assault began, the 3000 men of the 19th Division surrendered to their fellow Czechs(15). The result was a huge gap in the Second Army's line. Resistance to the Russian push was minimal. The Zoraisky Regiment took the village of Presovce and the Fourth Finnish Division, assisted by the Czech brigade, moved into good positions on the heights of Zborov and Korshiduv. After the first day of fighting, the Russians had taken nearly 18,000 prisoners along with 21 guns and 16 machine guns(16). Kerensky was jubilant and telegraphed Petrograd to recommend that the divisions be awarded the Red Banner; however, as the hours wore on no further reports of advances were received along the Eleventh's front. Kerensky's mood changed to disappointment and he left for the capital.

The Russian Seventh Army in the center of the line was the strongest of the three engaged in the offensive. It had 20 infantry divisions along with four cavalry divisions. This should have been enough manpower to carry the Südarmée which was comprised of 10 infantry divisions, six German, three Austro-Hungarian, and one Turkish, but the task was more than they could accomplish. The attack began on 4 July instead of in conjunction with the assault on the Second Army. The delay undoubtedly alerted their enemy. The Russians, after occupying the abandon front trenches, ran into a heavy fusillade of artillery and machine gun fire. Losses were horrendous. In a number of places, not even the abandon trenches could be held. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, the Seventh Army had gained a few kilometers but there were no reports of multitudes of prisoners being taken or materiel captured. The Südarmée still held the line.

On the left flank, Eighth Army's progress was more successful than the other two armies. Eight infantry divisions and four cavalry division attacked the Austro-Hungarian Third Army consisting of six infantry divisions on 7 July. The Russians exploited the gaps creating by the abandonment of the front line defenses and created a salient that bulged ahead to capture Halicz on the following day. Fearing the worst, the Austro-Hungarian commander threw in German reserves to shore up the line. Hoffmann had placed these soldiers in reserve to be used when the Russian advance waned. Sent in too soon, they were chewed up and the Russian moved on. After three days fighting, the Eighth Army had netted approximately 10,000 prisoners and 80 artillery pieces(17).

The Central Powers' reaction to the Russian offensive was, at best, reserved. When First Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff received reports of the attacks he quickly telephoned Hoffmann, but the conversation was not centered on containing the drive. Instead, Ludendorff asked if Hoffmann still thought a drive through Tarnopol would be successful and how many divisions would he need to accomplish the task. Hoffmann felt that the assault would succeed and asked for four divisions(18). Ludendorff gave the go ahead for the drive and promised six divisions, if all could be spared from the French and Belgian fronts, in 14 days. Hoffmann noted in his diary on 1 July that "the Russians are attacking" and he hoped that they would keep it up for eight to 10 days. Such a duration would extend the Russian supply and communication lines to the point of breaking; however, within a few days the offensive was already showing faltering signs.

The capture of Halicz on 7 July severed the rail link between Lemberg and Stanislau. By the end of the day, the Russians had crossed the Lomnitza valley and were assaulting Kalusz which the Austro-Hungarians, now without reserves, were forced to abandon. The following day, bolstered by the newly arrived Bavarian Cavalry Division, the Reserve Jaeger Guard Battalion, the Reserve Guard Shützen Battalion and an armored train, the Dual Monarchies' soldiers attempted to retake the town. The counterattack was initially successful but the Russians, with superior numbers and flashing bayonets in house to house fighting, soon forced their enemies out of the town. The retreating Central Powers' soldiers pulled back to the left bank of the Stryi River where they managed to hold the Russians with the aid of heavy rains that turned the otherwise tranquil streams in the area into raging torrents and made roads impassable.

The promised German divisions, only four could be spared from the west, began arriving on 9 July and were massed in front of the Russian Eleventh Army. These divisions were the 1st Guard, 2nd Guard, 5th and 6th Divisions. The two Guard divisions were designated as the lead elements of the counteroffensive. The start date was to be 15 July but the heavy rains that had stopped the Russian advance also caused a postponement to 19 July.

In eight days of fighting the Russian Eighth Army had created a salient in the Central Powers' line that was 90 kilometers wide and 64 kilometers deep. The salient had compressed the Austro-Hungarian Third Army against the flank of the Südarmée threatening that organization's real echelons. Disregarding logical tactical thinking, the Südarmée did not pull back to avoid encirclement. Had it done so, Kerensky and Brusilov would have achieved the victory they were seeking and possibly reformed the Russian army to better protect the fledgling Republic from Bolshevik take over. Instead, the Südarmée stood firm as did the Austro-Hungarian Seventh whose communication with Third Army had nearly been severed. The salient, rather than becoming a means for defeating the Südarmée, became a trap for the Russians.

South of the salient, the Austro-Hungarian Seventh Army had no one to fight. On 15 July they began probing the Russian line along the Lomnitza River. To their amazement, the Russians pulled back from the Lomnitza and took up positions on the Lodziany River. Sensing that the Russian positions were lightly held, the Austro-Hungarians made a concerted effort along a line from Novica to the Lodziany River to Kraisne. Novica was taken. Fresh Russian reserves countered and retook the town but Bavarian and Croatian units took the heights above the village. Two attempts to dislodge the Central Powers' soldiers failed. To avoid the entrapment of their men who were west of the village, the Russians abandon Novica and Kalusz on 16 July. In the north, Hoffmann applied the coupe de maine.

The 1st and 2nd Guard carried the Russians' first defense lines at Brzesany on 19 July at the point where the salient was hinged with the Russian Seventh Army and pushed forward(19). The effect of the attack was felt all along the line. Under pressure from the south and the north, the Russians withdrew from the positions west of Halicz. To keep the withdrawal from turning into a rout, Eighth Army's staff moved the Dagestani, Circassian, and Kabardian Regiments ahead. These fresh troops encouraged those who were withdrawing and for a few brief moments, the Central Powers' soldiers were held at bay but the general retreat had already begun. Thirty-two kilometers south of Brody, the German divisions were momentarily held up but the voluntary retreat of the 607th Mlynovskii Regiment caused a domino effect of unit pullbacks all along the line. A gap of 40 kilometers opened and into it poured the Central Powers' soldiers.

On 21 July, the Germans reached the Sereth River in numerous places and were on the edges of Tarnopol. Brief counterattacks near Trembowla on 21 and 23 July broke through the German line but strong artillery fire drove the Russians back. The German's 2nd Guard entered Tarnopol after 2 days fighting. In the Russian Eighth Army's salient, the fresh Caucasian soldiers hadn't been able to hold off the Austro-Hungarians. By 22 July, the salient was gone and the Russians were on the Zlota Lipa. With the fall of Tarnopol, the Eighth pulled back toward the old 1914 Russian border. Three days later the remaining Eighth Army units took a stand between the Dniester and the Pruth, east of Czernowitz. The Central Powers soldiers managed to breach the line in a few places and take Czernowitz but on the whole the Russian line held. It was the last action for the Russian 1917 summer offensive as well as the Central Powers' counteroffensive. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians had advanced 145 kilometers in 10 days. Their supply and communication lines were over extended and the soldiers exhausted.

In Petrograd, where there had been joyous celebrations over the victories just three weeks previously, the air was now charged with allegations of why the offensive had failed. News of unit desertions had reached the capital as early as 12 July. With the approval of the soldiers' soviets, unit commanders were given permission to shoot deserters; however, the drastic measure did little to stem the tide. The 28th and 29th Divisions, who had initially pledged to support the offensive to Kerensky, had withdrawn themselves from the action. Other reports stated that the Izmailoveskii, Jaeger, Moscow, Grenadier, and Finland Guard Regiments had left Tarnopol open to the enemy. Most of the reports were countered by the regimental committees who asked the people to consider the realities of war. The 6th Grenadiers Division called attention to their losses during the offensive. Their ranks had had 3400 men when the Central Powers' attack had begun. By the time they had reached Tarnopol, these ranks had been thinned by the loss of 95 officers and 2000 soldiers to all categories of casualties. The Jaegers said that another unit had relieved them and they had simply performed a retreating movement while the Finns reminded their comrades that they had participated in the deadly street by street fighting in Tarnopol. The 2nd Guard said that they were taken out of the line to help the military police force the 1st Strelkoyi Regiment into position for an attack and had also put down a mutiny by the Keksgolm Guard Regiment. Putting all the recriminations aside, Kerensky knew that the army was no longer capable of continuing the war; however, ever an optimist, he felt sure that tighter control would bring them around. His first reaction to the failure was to replace Brusilov with the commander of the Eighth Army, General Lavr Kornilov. The second action was to seek an end to the war that could only result in the new Republic's demise if the slaughter continued. Casualties included 40,000 killed, less than 3000 captured, and 20,000 wounded. Not included in the wounded count were 7500 cases of wounded fingers and 10,000 having unspecified and unidentified wounds(20). Kerensky opened a channel through the Swedes to the Central Powers in an effort to bring about a peace.

Footnotes

(1). Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe, Kerensky's Own Story of the Russian Revolution, New York and London: D. Appleton and Co., 1927, p. 197

(2). Ibid, 197

(3). Ibid, p. 196

(4). Ibid, p. 199

(5). Browder, Robert and Alexander F. Kerensky. The Russian Provisional Government 1917 Documents. Stanford University Press, 1961, p. 940

(6). Lincoln, W. Bruce. Passage Through Armageddon, The Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986, page 407

(7). Thompson, Holland, Ed. The Book of History, The World's Greatest War, Vol. 17, New York: The Grolier Society, 1920 – 21. page 716

(8). Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe, Kerensky's Own Story of the Russian Revolution, New York and London: D. Appleton and Co., 1927, p. 221

(9). Ibid, page 219

(10). Ludendorff, Erich. Concise Ludendorff Memoirs 1914-1918. London: Hutchinson and Co., Ltd., Undated. Page 195

(11). Golovine, Nicholas V. The Russian Army in the World War. New York: Yale University, 1931, page 90-91

(12). Hoffmann, Max. War Diaries and Other Papers, Vol. 1. Translated by Eric Sutton. London: Martin Secker, 1926

(13). Stone, Norman. "Kerensky Offensive", The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War 1, Vol. 8, pages 2449-2453

(14). Ibid

(15). Herwig, Holger H. The First World War, Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918. London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold. 1997, page 334

(16). Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt and Wlodzimierz Onacewicz. Triumphs and Tragedies in the East 1915-1917. New York: Franklin Watts Inc., 1967, page 72

(17). Thompson, Holland, Ed. The Book of History, The World's Greatest War, Vol. 17, New York: The Grolier Society, 1920 – 21. page 719

(18). Hoffmann, Max. The War of Lost Opportunities. Nashville Tenn.: Battery Press, 1999, page 182

(19). Ibid, page 185

(20). Browder, Robert and Alexander F. Kerensky. The Russian Provisional Government 1917 Documents. Stanford University Press, 1961, p. 989
Written by Michael Kihntopf kihnt@swbell.net
Copyright © 2004 Michael Kihntopf
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