The Russian Offensive in summer 1916 was a major blow for the Austro-Hungarian Army, which suffered casualties of around 750,000 men. The most important tactical consequence of this defeat has been a large gap in the defensive line, which was impossible to be closed back by Austria-Hungary herself. A massive infusion of German assistance and troops was needed, however the Germans were busy on other fronts, and the support they could afford to provide was far being sufficient. This was the situation, which drew the Turkish troops to remote parts of Hungary, for the first time since the seventeenth century.
After the Gallipoli campaign, Mustafa Kemal’s famous 19th Infantry Division was moved northwards to Keşan and Şarköy where it merged with the 20th Infantry Division in January 1916 to form the new XV Army Corps. An order from the Ottoman High Command, which arrived on July 10, 1916, stated that the corps will be sent to Galicia and asked the corps headquarters when they could depart.
This was not an easy task. After all, more than 30,000 men were to travel through four different countries to a place they have never even heard of. In addition to this, they had not completed their preparations. A pioneer group of 13 officers and 34 troops left by train the day after receiving the order for departure. According to the departure plan the first units to depart would be in Uzunköprü on July 22, 1916 and the last units would leave on August 11. Only the infantry units of the 20th Division would get on the train in Alpullu, all the others in Uzunköprü.
Enver Pasha was in a rush. He wanted the troops to arrive the front as soon as possible and ordered two trains to depart from Uzunköprü station every day until July 29 and one train to depart from Alpullu every day after July 20. The corps headquarters, under the command of Col. Yakup Şevki Bey, departed from Uzunköprü for destinations in Hungary.
On July 21 the 57th Regiment of the 19th Division and an artillery battalion departed, followed by the 20th Division on July 22 and the rest of 19th Division two days later. The first elements of the corps began to arrive Hungary on August 5 and it took a total of 22 days for the whole corps to arrive their new place of duty. That the movement went so smoothly was mainly a result of the fact that trains carrying ammunition from Germany to Turkey were normally returning to Europe with empty wagons. The movement would not have been possible without using those trains.
Upon his arrival, Col. Yakup Şevki was told that the XV Army Corps was assigned to Army South commanded by Lt. Gen. Graf von Bothmer on a 28 km long section of the line on the west bank of the Zlotalipa River. Two German divisions, 55th Infantry Division and Bavarian 1st Reserve Division were on both flanks of the corps’ front and opposite there were elements of the Russian 47th and 113th Divisions and the 3rd Turkistan Division.
The first Turkish officer to inspect the frontline was Lt. Col. Mehmet Şefik, commander of the 19th Division, who took a car ride along the line under moonlight on August 12/13 . He saw only some engineering units and Austrian infantry units and could hear the artillery fire from far.
Archduke Karl of Austria visited Col. Yakup Şevki and his staff on August 20 at Hodorov station. The next day General Bothmer paid a visit to the Turkish headquarters and expressed his “honor of having the heroes of Gallipoli under his command together with German, Austrian and Hungarian troops.”
On August 22, Col. Yakup Şevki issued a memo stating that Turkish troops were now located in their respective positions and ready for action. The next day, an air reconnaissance report from the neighboring Hofmann Corps revealed that Russians were preparing for an attack.
First Contact with Russians
The Russian offensive commenced on September 2, and the initial fighting was most severe to the north of the Turkish corps where the German 55th Division faced a superior Russian force supported by intensive artillery fire on a front line that was only four kilometers wide. By noon, several Turkish regiments were engaged in battle. It was the 77th Regiment, which came in contact with the enemy first, and it managed to repulse the Russian infantry, which had crossed the Zlotolipa River. Meanwhile the reserve battalion of the 19th Division was ordered to move north and support the German division there.
The Russians got the upper hand. On September 3, the Hofmann Corps launched a counter attack however it could not do any better than just slowing down the opposition. On the night of September 4/5, General Hofmann repeated the attack, but this time he asked for Turkish artillery support. Thanks to the determined defense of the Turkish battalion in the south, which stopped Russian advance there, this attack was successful and the Russians had to withdraw from their positions, which meant that they failed to break the Turkish-German front line from north.
Soon after this successful attack, Turkish 20th Division heard explosions in south. It was heavy artillery fire and the Russians were attacking the Gerok Group on a 25 kilometer wide front line. On the night of September 5, fighting was very severe on this line. Russians had managed to push the Bavarian 1st Reserve Division back from their entrenchments during the day, but afterwards they had to withdraw as a result of the subsequent German counter attack. However Austrian units were in rapid retreat and it was impossible to stop the Russian advance at this sector. This was bad news for General Bothmer. Russian advance in south meant that soon the Gerok Group and the Turkish corps could be encircled by the enemy. And there was neither time nor strength to stop the Russians. He ordered retreat on September 5 at 8:00 pm. According his new plan, Gerok Group and the Turkish corps were to move back by 20-30 km and position themselves in a new defensive line there.
The order to retreat was received by the Turkish command amid confusion. They had not much contact with the enemy yet and it was difficult to explain the troops the reasons of this retreat. They had lost their friends in Gallipoli for just a few meters of territory and now they were asked to give up 20 kilometers. Not only did they not like the idea, but also they did not have the practical experience of retreating.
The retreat had to be done in great secrecy because if the enemy would get aware of this, the result could be disastrous. The plan was to leave eight battalions out of a total of 24 for both 19th and 20th Divisions at the entrenchments in the west bank of the Zlotalipa River as rear guard, and then walk inside the forest and reach the new defensive line. After that the remaining battalions would move as well. The plan was executed at midnight and the rear guards had a quiet night. The Russians were sleeping.
On the foggy morning of September 6, Russians launched a massive attack on the entrenchments. Turkish battalions did their best to return fire but soon Russian commanders realized that the number of guns firing at them was two thirds less compared to the day before. Meanwhile Turkish officers of rear guards were facing a very difficult choice. They were too weak to hold the line, but if they retreated they could endanger the two divisions because they would have much less time to prepare.
Lt.Col. Bahattin Bey, commander of the 61st Regiment and responsible for the 20th Division units in rear guard decided to order a partial retreat. The 2nd Battalion of his regiment was there and he left only the 5th Company there and ordered the rest to withdraw. Russians were quick to recognize this move. They focused their attack on this single company and Turks suffered heavy casualties.
These battles had shown that a front line of 16 km was simply too wide for a single corps. As a result of a request from the corps commander Col. Yakup Şevki, a hill and some fields around it, which were under the responsibility of the 20th Division, were given by the German command to the Bavarian 1st Reserve Division, thus narrowing the Turkish line. All was quiet in Galicia over the following few days. Turkish and German units were strengthening their lines and closing the gaps, whereas Russians were preparing for an attack at the Lipicadolna region in the south, which was the link between the Turkish line and the Bavarian division. On September 16, Russians launched a major attack, with an emphasis on the 61st Regiment. It started with heavy artillery fire pounding the Turkish entrenchments and followed by an infantry assault. Russians used also poison gas in this attack, especially against the 62nd Regiment, however it didn’t have big effect because Turkish troops were equipped with gas masks.
The 61st Regiment was forced back and the situation was extremely dangerous because after several weeks of intensive fighting Turks had no tactical reserves left. At around 3:00 pm the same day, the German 65th Brigade was ordered to launch a join counter attack with two battalions from the Turkish 20th Division. This was the first time that German and Turkish troops were involved in a joint operation and despite all the difficulties in coordination (especially the language barrier) the counter attack was a big success and Russians were driven back to their starting line. On September 17, Russians tried to attack once more, but forced back by a Turkish bayonet charge.
During the battles of September 16/17, Turkish XV Corps lost 95 officers and 7,000 men. Estimations for Russian casualties vary between 15 and 20 thousand. The front was stabilized for the rest of September, with both parties conducting local and small-scaled counter attacks. Germans gave one infantry regiment, one cavalry regiment and several artillery batteries to be put in reserve for the XV Army Corps for support in case of a Russian attack. With regard to the battles in this period, a Turkish soldier, İbrahim Efendi (Arıkan) wrote in his memoirs that despite the losses, the solidarity between Turkish and German soldiers was remarkable.
On September 30 fighting commenced when the Russian 3rd Caucasian Corps attacked on the Turkish line. Turkish positions changed hands a few times during the day, but at the end Russians went back empty handed. The Turkish casualty toll for the day was 45 officers and 5,000 men. On October 5/6, Russians renewed their attack with 13 regiments and managed to take a hill (named as Cevatbey Hill after a fallen officer) at the south part of the Turkish line with two regiments. After a heavy battle, four Turkish battalions won the hill back. According to the report of the corps command, the cost was 15 officers and 3,000 men in casualties. Russians casualties were estimated 12,000.
Regarding the battles of this period, a Turkish officer Lt. Mehmet Şevki Bey wrote in his diary that the Turks were in time accustomed to the kind of fighting in Galicia and knowing exactly what to do they could easily repulse the Russian attacks:
On days of Russian attacks, intensive artillery fire lasting for more than 24 hours were opened on our front lines, which were loosely occupied by us. When firing began, we were evacuating those lines and moving gradually back all the way to the fourth lines. Eventually, the naïve Russian infantry would attack, only to face our hefty fire of destruction. Being exposed to this fire on an open field, these Mujiks were losing at least 80 percent of their men, however they could still outnumber us with their remaining 20 percent. They would continue to advance and come face to face with our infantry. A brief fist-to-fist fighting inside the forest and then a bomb and bayonet charge from our boys. A continuous chanting of Allah, Allah. The Russians would retreat to where they have come from, we chase them and eventually we return to our own lines as well. The following Russian attacks would always follow the same routine and they always had to stop before our positions.” (Mehmet Şevki Bey)
On October 8, the Corps commander Col. Yakup Şevki was promoted to brigadier general. The week following the heavy battles of September 5/6 had provided the Turkish troops with an excellent opportunity for taking a rest and re-organizing. After that, there were some minor Russian attempts to gain territory, which were easily repulsed. Meanwhile General Bothmer shortened the length of the XV Corps sector by 10 km by locating the German 36th Infantry Division in the south part, which had been formerly occupied by the Turkish 20th Division. This was a much needed opportunity for the Turkish troops for rest and rehabilitation. On November 10, Yakup Şevki Pasha went back to Turkey to assume the command of the 14th Army Corps and he was replaced by Brigadier General Cevat Pasha.
November and December 1916 passed without any serious contact with the Russians. It was winter and both parties were in favor of strengthening their positions and providing winter uniforms for their troops.
At the beginning of 1917, shortages in manpower was filled with fresh troops from Turkey and the strength of XV Army Corps rose to 27,031 men with another 5,668 men training in regimental depots. The corps was also significantly reinforced with new units which enhanced its fighting efficiency. These included artillery batteries, intelligence and labor detachments, an aircraft company, a balloon detachment, a field bakery company, transportation units and a veterinary hospital. Turkish officers attended training programs.
The year 1917 started with the visit to the Turkish troops in Galicia by Crown Princes Abdurrahim and Osman on January 4. This was a big morale boost for the troops. This was followed by an encouraging message of Kaiser Wilhelm the next day and on January 22 successful Turkish commanders and troops were decorated with the German Iron Cross. On 4 February Brigadier General Cevat Pasha paid a visit to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.
On January 28, February 17 and 25, Russians attempted to take the Chikilani Hill at the north part of the Turkish sector. In all this attempts they were repulsed and suffered losses. A few attacks in March and April also didn’t produce any outcome other than heavy casualties for Russians.
A classified order from the Ottoman High Command arrived Galicia on 10 April. It said that they are planning to use the XV Army Corps in another front and Germans had a positive approach to this proposal. However the final decision had not been made and this information was given only to top rank officers. A few days later two Russian soldiers carrying a white flag approached the Turkish trenches. It seemed that nobody wanted to go on with the war and after the permission of commanders soldiers of both sides were allowed to exchange visits. However this gesture soon came to an end when Russians took two German soldiers hostage.
Russians were preparing for a new offensive. They were reinforced by Siberian and Finnish troops; and Russian Premier Kerenski, accompanied by General Brusilov, was visiting the front. In May, the XV Army Corps received a decisive order to return to Turkey. 19th Division was to leave as soon as possible but 20th Division had to remain in Galicia for some time. Between June 11 and July 7, 1917, the 19th Division was entirely moved back to Turkey.
Russia’s Last Hope
A major Russian attack began on June 29. They were using their new 205mm railway artillery guns and 155mm howitzers. Turkish 20th Division and the German units on its flanks were doing their best against the heavy artillery fire and the Russian infantry, which had a clear superiority in numbers. On July 1, Turkish troops came under gas attack from Russian artillery shelling.
We realized that the bullets were falling at the same spot, but they were not exploding, rather making only a little noise. We saw that a greenish yellow gas layer was slowly rising and widening. A chlorine cloud, just like the one that Mehmetçik had seen in Berlin, was surrounding us!.. The number of the bullets falling increased rapidly and soon we could see gas clouds rising not only to our left, but to our right, to our front and to our back, basically everywhere. (Mehmet Şevki Bey in his diary)
The gas attack did not help the Russians with their offensive. The situation was hopeless for the Russian troops, who were successfully repulsed by Turks after three days of severe fighting and bayonet charges. The Russian retreat came even before the 250th German Regiment, which was sent as a reinforcement for the Turkish 20th Division, has arrived.
Now it was time for the Turks to strike back. On July 12, the Turkish offensive began with artillery fire from all positions. İbrahim Efendi wrote in his memoirs: “As our long range guns were pounding the Russian positions in a way to cut their ammunition supplies, headquarters and roads from one side to the other, Russians returned fire throughout the day. When it was evening, the gun fire slowed down. The enemy fired gas shells at the German positions on our left flank, however they did not cause any harm… On the night of July 12/13 a major bombardment against the enemy was started with the participation of German, Austrian and Hungarian units of all sizes… It was like the skies were tearing apart. As the shelling was going on, at around two o’clock were ordered to reinforce the German positions at Kurzhani. We departed immediately and arrived in the German headquarters.”
On July 15, the headquarters of the XV Army Corps left Galicia on train bound to Istanbul. The 20th Division was now under the command of the Rohatyn Group. Since all their attempts to move forward and breaking through the Turkish line have been futile, Russians decided to retreat. They left their positions, evacuated the towns and villages they kept and began moving eastward. On July 21, the 20th Division received an order to follow the retreating Russian army together with the German South Army and destroy the Russian units between the rivers Dnyester and Sereth.
They started the pursuit next day. On the way they were inspected by Kaiser Wilhelm and received his appreciation. Russians were having difficulties in establishing a defensive line east of Zebruc River. Meanwhile Turkish and German troops were trying to cross the river. At that point, on order was issued which implied the Turkish division to stop, not cross the river and prepare for going back to Turkey.
On August 5, Turkish 20th Division was replaced by German 24th Division and was brought back to staging areas behind the lines and adjacent to rail terminals. While preparing for departure, ceremonies were held and medals were given. Artillery units departed on August 16 and infantry units on August 22. By September 26, 1917, all the units of the 20th Division were back in Istanbul.
In Turkish tradition, what justifies and glorifies war is that it is performed to protect the home territory. However this was not the case in Galicia. This campaign was an economy of manpower mission, which allowed the Germans to concentrate their troops somewhere else. Today, the Galician campaign is not remembered by Turkish people as an “unnecessary war", yet it simply draws less attention compared to the epic of Gallipoli or the drama of Sarıkamış where home defense was the question.
Galicia was the first time that Turkish army fought on foreign soil under the command of allied powers. It showed how high Turkish soldiers’ performance can be if they are adequately equipped and supplied. In Galicia, Turkish XV Army Corps sustained overall losses of around 25,000; and the Russians took 10,000 Turkish prisoners of war, who were were deported to remote areas like Kazan, Moscow and Siberia.