The Great War was fought on a global and industrial scale, quite rightly having the title of the First World War. It was a new type of war, fought on a magnitude and with a military technology never previously seen and is fully deserving of all the research, media attention, and debate that it generates.
Most people in the west are well aware of the horrendous battles that were fought on the Western Front during the First World War. The names of the Battles of the Ardennes, Flanders, Passchendaele, The Somme, Verdun, Ypres, and many more are instantly recognisable to most of us, even now, a hundred years or more after they were fought. They all elicit visions of a primitive, futile, and bloody struggle with huge loss of life fought in muddy trenches typically over little bits of barren land, for no immediately obvious reason.
But there was conflict all around the world. The Balkans, the Caucasus, Italy, the Middle East, Romania, and Turkey all had battles fought on their territory. There were battles at sea, in the colonies, and of course there were battles on the Eastern Front. Some huge and well documented, others small and seemingly insignificant, but all had a profound impact which still resonates to this day.
But how many in the west can name any of the battles of our ally Russia on the Eastern Front? They were no less brutal, fought for the same obscure reasons, in similar and sometimes worse conditions, and with comparable if not greater loss of life to those in the west. Some will have heard of the Battle of Tannenberg, or perhaps the Battles of the Masurian Lakes, some may even have heard of the Brusilov Offensive or possibly the Karensky Offensive.
Not many will have heard of Lake Naroch: before 1918 it was part of Imperial Russia, for a short time between the wars it was Lake Narocz in sovereign Poland, it is now in land locked Belarus. Fewer still will know of the often overlooked, short but fierce, and highly significant battle that took place there in the swampy land that surrounds it in the spring of 1916 at the height of the First World War.
It was there in the low-lying muddy ditches, bogs, marshes, and forests surrounding the thawing lake that a poorly organised and badly orchestrated Russian offensive against a numerically inferior German army failed so catastrophically. High hopes had been placed on striking a crushing blow to the eastern flank of the Central Powers’ territory, but after a few weeks of abject failure the measure of success was reduced to the capture of a salient with a small insignificant piece of high ground known as ‘Ferdinand’s Nose’.
Though the Battle of Lake Naroch is usually referred to as ‘The Russian Spring Offensive 1916’, sometimes as the ‘Battle of Postawy’, to the Russians it is known simply as ‘Нарочская операция’ (Operation Naroch). But to the Germans it was ‘Die Russische Frühjahrsoffensive 1916’, ‘Die Schlact am Narochsee’ and it was truly ‘Die Sumpfschlacht’ – ‘The Swamp Battle’ – the ‘Battle of Mud’.
It was such a significant loss to Russia that it not only effectively paralysed its entire army for the rest of the war and prompted a major evaluation of Russian military strategy, but possibly also contributed to the early Russian withdrawal from The Great War itself and also in the revolution that followed which resulted in the removal of the last Russian Tsar effectively changing world geopolitics forever.
Though the Battle of Lake Naroch was fought on Polish territory, at the time of the battle Poland didn’t actually exist. It had been partitioned in 1772, again in 1793, and was permanently partitioned in the Third Partition of 1795. Throughout the 19th century Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign country.
Poland has a turbulent history. The First World War at the beginning of the 20th century turned out to be a disaster for the empires that had divided Poland. Germany conquered the Russian held parts of Poland and to court the favour of the Poles promised to form a Polish kingdom after the war. When the war ended in 1918 the Poles took charge of their country and expelled the defeated Germans. After 123 years the Polish nation was again reinstated, but not everybody was happy.
The successful allies decided that the new Polish Second Republic should have its own access to the Baltic Sea and so allocated a strip of land known as the Polish Corridor, which cut through Germany severing the German lands of East Prussia off from the rest of Germany. This was to leave Poland in a vulnerable position with Germany, who was not only sore at losing this land, but which had become separated from one of its own significant power bases.
The new Polish Republic was soon in conflict, having bloody border disputes with Ukraine in 1918, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia in 1919, and Russia from 1919-1921. Significantly the old adversaries of both Germany and Russia continued to be a threat throughout the 1930’s, a threat that was to come back with a vengeance in 1939.
The Battle of Lake Naroch – Eastern Front, March 1916
Painting unveiled to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Lake Naroch March 1916
The Battle of Vileyka, 1915
From Manchester to Belarus
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