Memoirs & Diaries - Polish Account of the Brusilov Offensive, June 1916
An anonymous Polish landowner's account of Russian incursions into Austro-Hungarian held Czernowitz during the June 1916 Brusilov Offensive led by Alexei Brusilov
During the night of June 12th-13th terrific artillery fire was heard in the town [Czernovitz]. Somewhere near a battle was raging. For the third or fourth time since the beginning of the war we were passing through that experience.
I went to the army command to ask advice. A staff-captain had just arrived with news from the front. The Austrian troops were resisting. Still, after the front between the Dniester and Pruth had once been broken there was no other natural line for resistance. According to the accounts of the Austrian officers, the Russian artillery was, with magnificent bravery, driving up to new positions, thus preventing our men from entrenching and preparing a new line.
"How long can we hold out?" was my question. The old general looked at me and answered: "Only our rearguards are now engaged; our forces are gathering a few miles from here. If our flank near Horodenka holds out overnight we shall not evacuate the town."
I returned to Sniatyn. Small groups of inhabitants were standing about the streets, commenting on the news. Artillery and ammunition were at full speed passing through the town for the front. A few regiments of infantry marched through at night. The horizon was red with the glow of fires. For the third time our poor villages were burning.
Whatever had survived previous battles was now given up to the flames. Homeless refugees, evacuated from the threatened villages, were passing with their poor, worn-out horses and their cows - all their remaining wealth. In perfect silence; no one complained; it had to be. Mysterious cavalry patrols and dispatch-riders were riding through the streets. No one slept that night.
In the morning the first military transports passed through the town. The retreat had begun. Questions were asked. The Magyar soldiers quietly smoked their pipes; there was no way for us of understanding one another.
Only one of them, who knew a few German words, explained, "Russen, stark, stark, Masse" (Russians, strong, strong, a great mass). The approaching violent fire of heavy guns was even more enlightening. Our trained ears could distinguish their voices. Like a continuous thunder was the roar of the Japanese [Russian] guns; at intervals they were answered nervously by the Austrian artillery.
Suddenly the gun-fire stopped and the expert ear could catch the rattling of machine guns. The decisive attack had begun. All a-strain, we were awaiting news. Some soldiers appeared round the corner of the road, slightly wounded.
Then a panic began. Some one had come from a neighbouring village reporting that he had seen Cossacks. Soon refugees from the villages outside were streaming through the town. General confusion. Children were crying, women sobbing.
A mass flight began. Again cavalry and dispatch-riders. Then a drum was heard in the square. It was officially given out that the situation was extremely grave and that whoever wished to leave the town had better do so immediately.
We had to go. As I was mounting the carriage I perceived in the distance, near the wood on the hill, a few horsemen with long lances - Cossacks from Kuban. They were slowly emerging from the forest and approaching the town. "Drive ahead!" I shouted to the coachman.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
An "incendiary shell" is an artillery shell packed with highly flammable material, such as magnesium and phosphorous, intended to start and spread fire when detonated.
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