The Kerensky Offensive (Russian: Наступление Керенского), also called the July Offensive (Russian: Июльское наступление), was the last Russian offensive in World War I, taking place in July 1917. In the offensive, the Russian army was aided by the Kingdom of Romania.
The offensive was ordered by Alexander Kerensky, Minister of War in the Russian provisional government, and led by General Brusilov. Such a decision was ill-timed, because, following the February Revolution, there were strong popular demands for peace, especially within the army, whose fighting capabilities were quickly deteriorating.
Discipline within the Russian Army had reached a point of crisis since the Tsar’s abdication. The Petrograd Soviet’s Order No. 1 tremendously weakened the power of officers, giving an overriding mandate to “soldier committees”. The abolition of the death penalty was another contributing factor, as was the high presence of revolutionary agitators at the front including Bolshevik agitators, who promoted a defeatist agenda (and whom Kerensky tolerated considerably more than conservative agitators).
Riots and mutineering at the front became common and officers were often the victims of soldier harassment and even murder. Furthermore, the policy of the new government towards the war effort was one of fulfilling obligations towards Russia’s allies, as opposed to fighting for the sake of total victory, thus giving soldiers a less credible motivation to fight.
However, Kerensky hoped that an important Russian victory would gain popular favour and restore the soldiers’ morale, thus strengthening the weak provisional government and proving the effectiveness of “the most democratic army in the world”, as he referred to it.
Starting on July 1, 1917 the Russian troops attacked the Austro-Hungarian and German forces in Galicia, pushing toward Lviv. The operations involved the Russian 11th, 7th and 8th Armies against the Austro-Hungarian/German South Army (General Felix Graf von Bothmer) and the Austro-Hungarian 7th and 3rd Armies.
Initial Russian success was the result of powerful bombardment, such as the enemy never witnessed before on the Russian front. At first, the Austrians did not prove capable of resisting this bombardment, and the broad gap in the enemy lines allowed the Russians to make some progress, especially against the Austro-Hungarian 3rd army. But the German forces proved to be much harder to root out, and their stubborn resistance resulted in heavy casualties amongst the attacking Russians.
As Russian losses mounted, demoralization of infantry soon begin to tell, and the further successes were only due to the work of cavalry, artillery and special “shock” battalions, which General Kornilov had formed. The other troops, for the most part, refused to obey orders. Soldiers’ committees discussed whether the officers should be followed or not. Even when a division did not flatly refuse to fight, no orders were obeyed without preliminary discussion by the divisional committee, and even when the latter decided to obey orders it was usually too late to be of any use.
The Russian advance collapsed altogether by July 16. On July 19, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians counterattacked, meeting little resistance and advancing through Galicia and Ukraine as far as the Zbruch River. The Russian lines were broken on July 20 and by July 23, the Russians had retreated about 240 kilometres (150 mi) (Vinny). “The only limit to the German advance was the lack of the logistical means to occupy more territory”.
The Russian provisional government was greatly weakened by this military catastrophe, and the possibility of a Bolshevik coup d’état became increasingly real. Far from strengthening Russian army morale, this offensive proved that Russian army morale no longer existed. No Russian general could now count on the soldiers under his command actually doing what they were ordered to do.
This offensive helped the start of the July Days, and also affected the situation in Romania. Russo-Romanian forces, which first broke the Austro-Hungarian front at Mărăşti in support of the Kerensky Offensive, were stopped.
One further fight took place between the Germans and the Russians in 1917. On September 1, 1917 the Germans attacked and captured Riga. The Russian soldiers defending the town refused to fight and fled from the advancing German troops.