During the First World War, the Eastern Front was a theatre of operations that encompassed at its greatest extent the entire frontier between the Russian Empire and Romania on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria and Germany on the other. It stretched from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the south.
In the midst of this was a 200-mile long defensive line that stretched from the Pripet marshes to the Bukovina region in Ukraine. This stretch of frontier would be the unlikely source of inspiration for a young Austro-Hungarian soldier, Josef Kozeny (also referred to as Kořeny) . Painted during the lull in activity before the Brusilov Offensive, which took the Austro-Hungarian army completely by surprise in June 1916, Kozeny depicted the bombed bridge, fortified trenches and officers quarters of the complacent Austro Hungarian Army in a series of small oil on canvas works. He would record each works location, in pencil, on their handmade wooden stretchers. Unbeknownst to him, the Russian army was advancing on his locations, planning an offensive attack on the town of Lutsk.
Unlike the Western Front which had developed into a stalemate of trench warfare, the Eastern Front adopted a much more fluid system of warfare. At the outset of 1916 Germany was gaining momentum and it looked like they might be victorious at the Battle of Verdun, France. There was an urgent need to redirect German forces away from Verdun to the Eastern Trenches, in an effort to win the battle. This was accomplished with a series of Russian offensives, the first of which was the Lake Naroch Offensive in March 1916, which ended in failure.
General Brusilov replaced General Ivanov on 14th of April 1916 by order of the Czar Nicholas II. Brusilov had advised an attack on all fronts in light of Germany’s superior rail communication. The surprise attack would be launched at the end of May and the southwestern front would make the initial move with the main thrust following on the western front towards Wilno. The southern front’s objective was to take Kovel, an important Austrian railway center.
The Brusilov Offensive was a large tactical assault with the Russians outnumbering the Austrians 200,000 to 150,000. On the 4th of June 1916 General Brusilov ordered a bombardment of the 200-mile long front with 2000 guns. The Russian Eight Army overwhelmed the Austrian Fourth Army and pushed on to Lutsk, advancing forty miles. The success of the bombardment obliterated the Austrian front line, allowing Brusilov’s troops to move forward to take 26,000 prisoners in one day. The offensive slowed down after its first initial success. An inadequate number of troops and poorly maintained supply lines hindered Brusilov’s ability to follow up on the initial victories in June. The Brusilov Offensive is considered to be the greatest Russian victory of the First World War. Although it cost the Russians a million casualties, the offensive successfully diverted substantial forces of the Central Powers from the Western front, and pulled Romania into the war.
The works depicted here are based in and around the town of Nowosiolka. Nowosiolka (Nowosiolki) is a small village in Western Ukraine, close to Krakow. The village was on the Eastern Front in World War I where it was invaded by Russian forces in 1915. Ukranians were split into two separate and opposing armies. 3.5 million fought with the Imperial Russian Army, while 250,000 fought for the Austro-Hungarian Army. March 1916 was relatively quiet on the Eastern Front after the huge success the Central Powers enjoyed at Gorlice-Tarnov in summer 1915 and Russia was consequently reorganising its army. In March 1916 they attacked the Germans further in the north with terrible losses, but the Russian Army almost smashed the Austro-Hungarian Army in the summer of 1916 in the Brusilov Offensive. The works depicted here represent rather well the complacent Austro-Hungarian Army weeks before the offensive, i.e. the calm before the storm.
‘Dniester bei Odaye Feber 1916 A Destroyed Bridge on the Dniester near Odaye, February 1916′
Oil on canvas
34 x 47 cm
Signed and dated February 1916