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Chronicals of Lake Narocz by Mieczyslaw Lisiewicz

This long out of print autobiographical work by this Polish author is reproduced here in full. I have transcribed the work and present it here for all to read. Copyright remains the property of the owners whoever and wherever they are. If anyone who is reading this has any historical facts, documents, maps or photographs about Narocz I would be very grateful if you would contact me, Alan at Landschaft I hope readers enjoy, as I have, the tales from this forgotten corner of the world.

Chapter XVIII: How a Tragedy Sank in the Mud


Nieslucz, Pronki, Narocz, New Miadziol, Swir, Glebokie, Krolewszczyzna, Miastro, Hatowicze, Pasynki, Czerechy, Kupa, Kobyinik, Szemeretowszczyzna, Niewiarowicze, Pomosza, Zanarocz, marshes of Czysciec, marshes of Hacie


Much is written of the Western Front Battles, virtually nothing about those on the Russian front where the fighting was characterised by huge Russian losses and weather conditions far worse than in the Flanders fields. The account is told mainly from the Russian perspective. The battle, know by the Germans as "die Sumpfschlacht" the battle of the mud, took place in the spring thaw, come early on 18 March 1916.

Read in conjunction with Chapter 19 which relates Wilhelm Neumann's account of lead-up to the battle of Narocz in which he died and Chapter 14 which relates Lisiewic's discovery of Neumann's grave, inscibed 18 March 1916.

Further reading

The Battle of Lake Narocz commenced 18 march 1916 (the date Lisiewicz notes on the gravestone he tripped over at te Pronki war cemetry). It was the Russians "share" of diverting the Germans from reinforcing the Verdun offensive; France's life or death struggle. There were 90,000 casualties in all, 20,000 to the Germans and 70,000 the Russians. The battle was inconclusive, but succeeded in it's strategic mission of tying up German troops in the East. 3,050 Germans are buried in the Pronki cemetry. Like Flanders, a lot must still lie where they fell. Unlike Flanders, they will never be recovered. I have been unable to find mention of the burial of the Russians, who suffered higher casualties. Chapter 18 hints at their fate - hurried unmarked mass graves.

Battle of Lake Narocz 1916

Wikipedia: Narocz Offensive

Pronki war cemetry (p16)

Chapter XVIII: The Text

ACCORDING to the notes of Captain Ignatynski of the Army Staff, on the evening of 9th March, General Ewert, Cornmander-in-Chief of the Russian forces on the north-eastern front, summoned to the "Hughes" General Ragoza. Their conversation was indeed strange, which is why Wlodimierz Szymeonowicz remembered it so well.

The "Hughes" station was close by the operative company, and was the most closely watched object in the whole command. Ewert stood by the apparatus and watched as letters pattered on to the narrow paper tapes. The thin, pale telegraphist in the uniform of the Signal Corps held his fingers on keys like those of a piano and looked fixedly at his C.O.'s face.

"General Ragoza is at the other end," he reported, not rising. The regulations permitted him to dispense with the usual formal army address. Ewert nodded. The apparatus clicked again. The telegraphist turned a spring and caught the tape.

"Ragoza reporting am at your excellency's disposal await orders-stop."

"Write!" by word and gesture His Excellency ordered the telegraphist, who bowed and put his thin fingers on the keys.

"I am ready, Your Excellency!"

"Well: good evening general stop Ewert here stop wish inform you landowners here invited me hunt tenth stop say thaw near stop apparently snow on lakes thawing from below stop would be unpleasant surprise stop what do you say general stop."

The machine clicked, the letters danced, the tape ran off the drum. The Chief of Staff took it and gave it to the General. The apparatus fell silent and again began to click and patter. The squeak of the unwinding spring was intolerable. The tape said:

"Report have noted information stop my opinion no danger stop winter here holds till April stop will take responsibility stop."

General Ewert, reading the tape, cleared his throat. He always did this when, not agreeing with someone's opinion, he did not wish to express his own. The Chief of Staff watched His Excellency's face rather anxiously. Ewert remained silent.

"I await further orders," reminded the telegraphist, recalling His Excellency that time was passing.

"Please write,'" suddenly remariced Ewert. His voice was deep and pleasant. He had ably adopted this voice of a gracious commander. "Thank you general stop chief of staff will attend all your wishes stop hope see you Minsk day after to-rnorrow stop will discuss details stop good night stop message ends stop."

"Good night your excellency stop please keep cheerful stop," came the answer with a clatter and buzz from the other end.

"Well, gentlemen, I think we may as well go." Ewert turned to the Chief of Staff and his adjutant.

They bowed in silence. The Adjutant, Captain Ignatynski, tore off the tape, unnoticed, as he left, and put it in his pocket.

Ewert went hunting, and on the lakes the water rose higher and higher.

Two days before the offensive Ragoza gave the following order of the day :

"Let the troops know that the reserves and artillery have orders to fire on all who so much as' halt for a moment during the attack. The slightly wounded are to return, immediately their wounds have been dressed, to their stations on the field of battle. Troops should be informed that the Military Police are watching all the roads leading from the front, so that no deserter will escape from the front alive."

The order ended with the following words ;

"Where blood is being shed there is no place for ink. Apart from orders and reports I wish no one to bother me with chits."

The attack was due to begin on 18th March.

Enormous masses of troops, trudging through the marshy roads, began to reach the front. The appointed divisions rested in temporary positions.

Ragoza's forces comprised General Plaszkow's group, which consisted of eight full, rested, infantry divisions, of which two were divisions of picked Siberian riflemen, besides two cavalry divisions. This was the right fist of the steel giant which spread its body, bristling with bayonets, from Wilejka to Glebokie.

The second group, under the command of the energetic Balujew, was concentrated between New Miadziol and the village of Swir. Again eight divisions formed the trunk and head of the battering-ram which was to throw its weight with all its force on the Germans.

The third group lay in wait in the area of Glebokie and Krolewszczyzna, its tentacles reaching to the Miastro. This was composed of two recently strengthened, experienced corps, brought from the south. Each corps had two divisions, each division, four regiments. They were to attack first, and by their unexpected attack draw on themselves the enemy forces, thus easing the task of Plaszkow and Balujew.

In this way Lake Narocz became the centre and turning point of all Ragoza's plans. To the north and south of the lake the attacking troops were to grip in their steel pincers about four divisions of German troops, force them into the lakes and swamps, destroy them, drown them, and thus revenge themselves for the Mazurian lakes.

Ragoza's troops, gathered on a comparatively small sector, amounted to over 600,000 men. The Germans had scarcely 40,000.

Till the last moment, by night, so as to escape observation from the air, groups of soldiers, waggons, cars, sleighs, and carts moved forward. The roads behind the front were black with the dense, silent columns. Hundreds of thousands of pairs of boots trampled the snow and mud. Millions of tons of steel armour floundered over hills and valleys. Every-where moved men breaking up the ice and hard snow with picks, piling up pyramids of shells and building shelters. A thick net of telephone wires covered the whole forest country of Uzia and Danilowicze, woods near Molodeczno and Glebokie, like-a great spider's web.

At length everything settled down, crouched low, waiting for one short little order; forward. No one knew yet which was to be the day or hour.

On the 18th March the agreed order came! It was 7-30 a.m. From the storming points between Hatowicze and the first headland the seventh division of Siberian rifles moved to attack. The drawn-out strings of tirailleurs went down the shore to the ice and dived into the dense mist which had fallen on the lake at evening. The mist was opaque and dark, nothing could be seen in it. Ahead of the soldiers, wading up to the ankles in icy water, went officers with compasses in their hands. The target of the attack was the Island, on which they were to fall unawares, cut down every one of the German defenders and then attack Pasynki, Czerechy, and Kupa, reach Kobyinik and there cut off the German units still defending themselves between Nieslucz and Szemeretowszczyzna. The plan was made easier by the dense mist.

They moved in silence, not shooting, while above their heads flew great shells from the heavy guns to the Island. Firing every day, knowing the elements, surer because there was no wind, the battery by sheer explosive power should blow the defence to ribbons, and turn the Island into a furrowed stretch of ground, from beneath which would protrude only the remains of torn wire and bits of crumbling concrete.

Soon to the ears of the moving men came other roars and whistles of German shells. At the same time through the mist machine-gun bullets began to dart. First here, then there, rang out the chatter of machine-guns; at last the whole front gave out groans, whistlings and roars. Those going across the ice strained their eyes, but there was nothing to be seen. Each of the soldiers saw before, behind and beside him rows of vague shadows, and heard the splash of many feet. The water was deep, from the ankle it rose half-way up the calves, but one felt that the ice below was still, strong. Now on their warm faces began to fall splashes thrown up in fountains by the shells. They rose invisibly in the mist with a terrible rushing noise, and even more terribly fell back. The mist grew thicker. The white clouds grew dark from explosions and the curling, biting smoke. The ranks increased their pace, and the splashing sounded louder. The earth was no protection from the fire, and there was nowhere to lie. There was only one thing left to do : go forward. And even if someone had turned back, would he have reached the shore? The clouds of smoke and mist wrapped them in a thick shroud, and no one knew exactly where he was going, nor where he was. They pushed forward, quicker, quicker.

Suddenly someone shrieked, then another, a third, a fourth. The animal cries rose to the heavens and changed into a general roar. Spread from mouth to mouth, full of fear and horror they drowned for a moment all the roars of the battle. For a dreadful thing happened, not to be believed or imagined : when the first ranks of Russians reached the shores of the Island, the ice, eaten away by the premature warmth and two days of rain, crushed by thousands of shells, gave way. First in the water appeared great bubbles of air which broke with a splash. Then from beneath the ice poured black streams of water, soiled by the ooze stirred from the bottom by shells, then the ice broke into pieces, and whirlpools sucked down everything which was on the surface. What-ever did not go down, was crushed by the floes which struck one another. The shrieks of the drowning, the roar of breaking ice, the whistle and crack of shells formed a hellish chorus. And all was covered by the impenetrable mist, which drew dark curtains over the field of death.

When the Germans heard the shrieks of the drowning, they only began to shoot the harder.

From this hell no one came out alive. The seventh Siberian division ceased to be. According to German sources there were drowned at that time-on 18th March, 1916, between 8 and 10am.-12,000 people.

But that was only the beginning.

Simultaneously with the seventh Siberians, two other corps attacked the Germans, six divisions on the southern sector. Here too on all the area between the lakes of Swir and Narocz, near Niewiarowicze, Szemetowszczyzna, Pomosza, Pronki, Zanarocz and Nieslucz, on the marshes of Czysciec and Hacie, lay a thick, damp, chill, impenetrable mist. Neither the one side nor the other knew where the enemy was, nor when a dark column of riflemen would loom up out of the fog. The artillery pounded blindly at the white mass and the rags of mist which rolled slowly across. The explosions of shells sounded dully on the earth softened by the rains. The attackers floundered in deep, slippery mud. Every few moments under the soldiers' feet opened yawning gulfs, 'and at the same time, with roar, whistle, crack and thud, a steely death raced across the swamps.

The Germans, in spite of the daylight, lit searchlights and sent up rockets, but the lights raced impotently over the gloomy dusk, and did not disperse the white darkness, only hanging on its edges a small circle with rainbow edges. At last there came out of the mist over the German trenches a row of bewildered faces. Then began a struggle with bayonets, knives, teeth, hand grenades, and fists. Flame-throwers were used, from whose fierce heat bodies were charred and the grass under the snow caught fire. In spite of their desperate defence the Germans were at last smothered by sheer weight of the dense mass of men, who came on in ever new waves out of the darkness. The German front line fell into Russian hands.

In the course of the morning a wind got up and the mist melted, showing the scene covered with shells, splintered trees, tangled wire, the whole area charred by the flamethrowers. In this desolation lay men wounded, burnt and killed in heaps. That same night the German reserves made a counter-attack, driving the Russians back into the bogs of no man's land. In the darkness the battle began again.

The next morning rain began to fall and fell without a pause for three days and nights. Many of the trenches dug during the winter in marshy ground, breastworks, traverses, fortifications, flanking positions, and communication trenches, began to dissolve into a sea of mud and mire. The lazily flowing ooze filled up the dugouts. passages and cellars, and began to overflow the trenches like lava. The mire swallowed up wounded, dead, and living. Everything as far as the eye could see changed into a sticky, brownish, devouring mass of gurgling mud.

That unexpected cataclysm: the muddy flood saved the Germans. They had used up their last reserves and were so worn out by the four days of unceasing battle that the soldiers fell asleep over their rifles while actually firing, whereas the Russians were able to send ever new columns to the attack.

Ragoza raged. Vanished from Balujew's group-wiped off the -face of the earth, like the seventh Siberians-were the other Siberian division and two more infantry divisions: the tenth and sixty-eighth. One could say with truth they were drowned in the mud. Ragoza yet once more threw the remaining divisions into attack. Regiment after regiment struck ineffectively, wading to the waist in mud and slime. Only on the 1oth day was the vain attempt to make war against nature called off.

"Days and weeks passed," one of those who took part in this battle, a young German officer, writes in his diary, "before our soldiers managed to bury the Russian corpses lying nearest our positions, and before the Russians decided to do the same with the pyramids of bodies which lay in no man's land or rotted in the strips of water. For the sake of speed it was necessary to dig ditches in the swamps and pile in the fallen. They were immediately sucked down by the thick ooze of the spring soil. Even in the summer we were still digging up from under the mud, in some sectors, whole dugouts ('ganze Unterstande'), full of corpses."

The battle on Narocz went down in military history as the battle of the mud-"die Sumpfschlacht." German sources estimated the Russian losses at over 100,000 dead and wounded, while confining their own to barely 13,000. But the 107th Landwehr division alone, which was composed of only the oldest and youngest age-groups, lost 2000 killed.

They are all buried in Nieslucz, in the cemetery near Pronki.