To both western and eastern Europeans, the Battle of Lake Naroch does not exist. Knowledge at best is limited to a few obsessive World War I aficionados squirreled away in a campus basement of the Russian studies department. At best, they might mention the battle as one of many examples for the gross mismanagement of the war by the Russian Empire.
For those unfamiliar with the Battle of Lake Naroch, it occurred in late March of 1916. The Russian Empire had been asked by their allies, specifically the French, to relieve the massive pressure being placed upon it by the German attack on Verdun. The Russians were not exactly in the best shape to mount an offensive at this time. They were suffering from an acute shell shortage while in the process of recovering from the defeat inflicted upon them in the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign the previous year. Nevertheless, they agreed to an operation which would draw German forces away from Verdun to the Eastern Front.
The Worst Time of the Year
Too say that early spring was not the best time of the year for the Russians to stage an offensive would be an understatement. Actually, it is hard to imagine a worse time in western Russia to mount an offensive than the late winter/early spring. This is when the annual thaw takes place. After long, bitter months of cold, the first hints of spring arrive in fits and starts. The frozen ground begins to slowly dissolve into a watery muck. Lake Naroch is located in what is today western Belarus, an area known for its swampy, marsh laden ground. The slush filled muck which materializes each spring brings impassable conditions. Add to this, the fact that Russian roads were notoriously awful, little more than vague tracks in many places. Even good metaled roads would disappear beneath an icy syrup of muddy water. Offensive operations in this environment were nearly impossible.
The Germans opposing the Russians on the Eastern Front understood this. The common Russian soldier who experienced this wasteland first hand must have realized this as well. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership did not. Tsar Nicholas II felt that it was important to support his allies no matter what the cost (this was part of the reason he would lose his throne). The Russian commanders at the front were neither resourceful nor logical. They treated the brave, peasant soldiery with contempt and felt no compassion for these men. This led to one of the worst disasters in a Russian war effort that was filled with them.
Five Times the Casualties
The strategy and tactics of the Battle of Lake Naroch need not detain us for long. A few telling details and anecdotes will suffice. Consider that Russian forces outnumbered their German counterparts by three and a half to one, but sustained five times the casualties. Five times! On the very first day of the battle, the Russians lost 4,000 men compared to 200 for the Germans. How did this happen? During the day, Russian soldiers assaulted German positions defended with heavy artillery and machine guns that were calibrated with deadly accuracy. The Russian soldiers did not so much assault as wade into battle. At times, they were up to their wastes in frigid water. Then at night, temperatures would plunge below freezing, cementing the troops to the ground. Companies froze in place and had to be cut out of the ice. They were riven with frostbite. The official figure of 100,000 wounded for the Russians is only a rough approximation. There was no accounting for those who due to hypothermia, frostbite or sickness were rendered useless.
Swallowed by Space and Time
The Battle of Lake Naroch was a disaster, but a relatively unknown one. It could be called “missing history,” as it falls into an abyss of space and time unique to Russia. It was swallowed in the vast spaces of the Eastern Front, where large battles with untold casualties took place. Much of this has been lost to history, as historical consciousness has never really grasped the sheer breadth and brutality of this front. Lost in that space as well, a vast sea of humanity that drowned or froze in the marshes, swamps and slate gray waters of Lake Naroch.
The battle was also lost in time, as it was swept away by the whirlwind of the Bolshevik Revolution. The valor and tragedy so indicative of the Russian soldiers experience in the First World War at battles such as Lake Naroch was eventually written out of the history books. According to the Bolsheviks, these imperialist forces were fighting for the wrong cause, not one worth dying for. Yet the Bolsheviks failed to mention that without the folly of this war, without those men wading into those icy waters, there would have been no revolution.
Perhaps the Battle of Lake Naroch is most notable today for what it represents, as opposed to what actually occurred. It represents the folly of war, good men dying for a lost cause. The battle also represents a Russia today – the largest nation in the world – that can be searched across all eight of its times zones, but does not have one official monument to the eight million men who died fighting in the First World War. Now that is truly “missing history.” What a shame that the Battle of Lake Naroch is unknown to the west, what an even greater tragedy that it is unknown to Russia.