10: Disaster in the East


While battles raged in Western Europe the Russian army was advancing into East Prussia, the heartland of the German army. Most of the German army was in the West and they were put in a situation where they were drastically outnumbered. How then, did the German army manage to inflict one of the most crushing defeats of the war on the Russian army? In the south the Austrians move over to the attack, running smack into the Russians in Galicia. It doesn’t go so well for them.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 10 I cannot believe we have made it to episode 10. Last week we saw the French and British forces in France in full retreat and the Germans continuing their advance. This week we turn, for the first time, to the Eastern front. The Eastern front had not been idle during August 1914 and today we will cover the two large opening battles of the theater Tannenburg and Galicia. We will start though by reviewing the Russian military situation in 1914 and how they planned to prosecute the war. We will then look at their invasion of Prussia that led to the Battle of Tannenburg. After detailing the battle and its consequences we will turn our eyes southward to find out how the Austro-Hungarian empire planned to help the Germans by attacking out of Galicia and into Russian territory. These battles combined would result in almost 750,000 men being captured, killed, or wounded. Needless to say they were very important to the course of the war.

Several weeks ago we talked about the organization of the Russian military, we found out that it was a massive army, larger than any other in Europe but it would take a long time for its numbers to be available due to lengthy mobilization time tables. It was led, at least theoretically by Grand Duke Nicholas the cousin of the Czar. One of the problems faced by the Russian military was that the Grand Duke was not a strong leader that dictated strategy to his generals. This resulted in a lack of a singular goal and objective for the Russian military at the start of the war. The Russians would split their troops into two fronts to face their enemies with the north-western front having 3 armies ready to move into Prussia and the south-western front with 4 armies ready to attack Austria-Hungary. Instead of these two fronts being organized with one as the primary and one the secondary they were both given equal priority from high command. This meant that the leaders of these two groups constantly competed for supplies and reinforcements and were constantly trying to prove that their plans were more important. In reality if everything possible had been concentrated on Germany the result of the war may have been very different. In total the Russians had over 100 divisions that they could put into play while the Germans had just 14 division in East Prussia. If the Russians had focused on Germany, and left only enough troops to the south to hold off the Austrians they probably would have had enough sheer numbers to make up for any strategic and tactical blundering of the Russian leadership. I really like the quote from Norman Stone whose book The Eastern Front 1914-1917was invaluable when researching this episode, he says “The Tsarist army was not crippled by its inferiority in artillery or men; it was crippled in its inability to use its superiority.”

For the northern Russian army group the plan involved three armies, with two available at the start of the campaign and another to join them a few weeks later. The First army would be placed under the command of General Rennenkampf and they would approach Prussia from the east. The second army would be under the command of Samsonov and would approach from the south. Due to giving them a bit of priority during mobilization, and the fact that most of their troops were already stationed in Western Russia when war was declared, these two armies were the first Russian forces that were ready to carry out their attack. Together these armies had 208 battalions of infantry and facing them was less than 100 battalions of Germans. Obviously the Russians were going into the campaign with a massive numerical advantage. One of the common themes that can be seen throughout the first months of the war is the underestimation of how much artillery ammunition would be required at the front when the fighting got started. The Russians provided over 700 rounds per gun for the troops invading Prussia and they believed that this would be more than enough for even the lengthiest of engagements. As it would turn out, much like for every other army in Europe, the artillery would use far more ammunition than planned resulting in some serious supply shortages shortly after hostilities started. One fact that exacerbated the supply issues of the Russian armies was the large numbers of cavalry that they possessed. The Russians had 9 cavalry divisions moving into Prussia which required a lot of supplies to keep both the men and horses fed. This much cavalry also made mobilization more difficult. One cavalry division numbering 4,000 took as much transport as an infantry division with 16,000 men. This difficulty would be worth it if the cavalry provided appropriate value on the battlefield but the Russians found this not to be the case. When the cavalry was used in a reconnaissance role the information that they provided was often out of date by the time it reached the people who could utilize it. Even when the information was received it was often inaccurate or incomplete causing the Russians to make some poor decisions.

With the two Russian armies moving into Prussia the plan was to execute a classic pincer movement. Both armies would advance into Prussia at the same time, hopefully trapping the Germans between them as they met up in Western Prussia. This type of maneuver relied on good coordination because due to the lay of the land the armies would have 60 miles of lakes and forests between them. The greatest danger for the Russians was that the Germans would use their position to quickly attack one army and then the other before the Russian armies could join together and bring their numbers to bear against the smaller German force. In fact this is exactly what the Germans planned to do. The Germans planned to leave just a small screen in front of one army while they concentrated almost all of their forces against the other Russian army. This is a classic military maneuver to use when your forces are outnumbered by an opponent and should not have surprised the Russian generals at all. The First Army under Remmenkampf crossed into Prussia on August 15th but the Second army wouldn’t cross the border until the 20th. On the 20th the Germans would launch an attack against Remmenkampf’s forces, this action would come to be called the Battle of Gumbinnen. The Germans had some success in the attack, in one instance they were able to completely surprise the Russians by sneaking 2 German divisions into attack from an unexpected location. In most areas the German attack bogged down. When it became clear that there would not be a quick victory and with reports of the size of the Russian army coming from the south the German commander, General Prittwitz, became a bit panicked and sent a notice to Moltke that he was retreating and abandoning all of East Prussia. Moltke and the rest of the German high command were shocked by this notification and began searching for somebody to replace Prittwitz. Moltke chose General Paul von Hindenburg as his replacement. Hindenburg was 67 years old in 1914 and had been retired since 1911. He had served with distinction in the Franco-Prussian war and rose through the ranks before his retirement. When he retired he had achieved the rank of General of the Infantry. Moltke also began searching for a very capable Chief of Staff to pair with Hindenburg before sending them off to the East. He landed upon a person that we have met before, Erich Ludendorf. Fresh off of his success at Liege, and with his reputation as a capable staff officer, Ludendorf was chosen as Hindenburgs Chief of Staff. This relationship between the two, with Hindenburg as the figurehead and Ludendorf as the details man would be intact for the rest of the war.

The first German attack in the east had been a failure but now the army had new commanders. Immediately upon arrival Ludendorf conferred with Prittwitz’ Deputy Chief of Staff Max Hoffman who had devised a plan to attack and encircle the Russian Second Army approaching from the South. This was a tempting possibility because the Russian armies had drifted further apart since their first contact with the Germans. As soon as Ludendorf arrived he approved the attack and started putting it into motion. The first move the Germans performed was taking one Corps from the east and transporting them by rail to be on the left flank of the southern Russians. While these troops were on the move two Corps would march down from their positions in the east and attack the Russian right flank. These three corps were a majority of the troops that were in the east and when they left there was just one cavalry division and a reserve infantry brigade standing in front of the Russian troops. When the German troops were being repositioned Remmenkampf believed that they were retreating into the fortress of Konigsberg. This was communicated to the Second Russian Army and its commander, General Samsonov, agreed and believed that his army needed to attack and attack soon to cut off the retreat of the Germans from Prussia. As we know the Germans were not retreating and by moving forward the Russians were pushing their way into a nice little basket that the Germans were ideally positioned to cut off. One of the reasons that the Germans were so confident in their plans was that they were able to intercept orders, that were sent over unencrypted wireless, that detailed the orders given to each of the Russian armies. Instead of attempting to link up, the two Russian armies planned to have the second army continue to advance to the west while the first army advanced to the northwest. The number one objective of the German army was to keep the two Russian armies from joining together and gaining a huge numerical advantage there was relief when it was clear that the Russian armies weren’t even trying to join forces. A lot of the uncertainty felt by the German commanders was removed and it became clear that it would be possible to defeat each army individually.

The battle was planned to begin on August the 25th with an attack by General Francois and his troops positioned on the Russian left flank. However General Francois refused to attack on this date, citing the exhaustion of his men. He wasn’t really exagerating, his men had seen action during the Battle of Gumbinnen and afterwards they had been moved all the way across Prussia. On the next day Francois again refused to attack. Finally on the 27th Ludendorf personally visited Francois to convince him to attack. Ludendorf didn’t realize it at the time but Francois was actually helping the German plan succeed. While Francois was delaying, the Russians were continuing to push their center deeper and deeper into Prussia. By delaying a few days, when the attack finally did come, the ability of the Russian troops to resist was decreased. Because of the delay on the left flank the Germans marching against the Russian right flank actually attacked first. On the Russian right the XVII German corps attacked the two Russian divisions placed there to guard the important flank of the army. The attack was very successful and the two divisions retreated away from the rest of the army. When Francois finally did attack on the 27th the results were very similar. Again the Russians placed to guard the flanks were broken and retreated away from the rest of the army. Now the Russians had no real protection on the flanks. The Russian commander misinterpreted the attacks on his flanks as attacks by small German units attempting to spoil his attack and not the primary point of German effort. On the 28th Ludendorf fully realized the possibilities of the situation and ordered the two wings of the German army to meet up behind the Russians. On the 28th the two wings met in Willenberg and the Russians were cut off from retreating.

The Russians within the pocket would begin to surrender on the 29th of August and by the 30th the battle would be over. In total almost 100,000 men were captured and over 75,000 were killed. To put this in perspective France lost 200,000 men in the entire first month of the war, Russia lost that many in one battle. On the other side the Germans suffered a little under 15,000 casualties. These obviously lopsided casualty numbers are a good indicator of just how total the victory achieved by the German army really was. On the 29th of August Samsonov committed suicide when it became clear how drastic the defeat would be. Hindenburg and Ludendorf would be credited with a great strategic victory while for the most part they just made the most sensible decisions at the time and the Russians kept making mistakes. To quote Norman Stone again “Tannenberg did not illustrate Russia’s economic backwardness. It merely proved that armies will lose if they are led badly enough.”

While the Russians were preparing for their invasion of East Prussia to the south troops from Austria-Hungary and Russia were facing each other in Galicia the eastern most territory of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians knew that the Germans would focus most of their troops on France at the beginning of the war and they were encouraged by the Germans to go on the offensive against the Russians to occupy as many Russian troops as possible. The goal of Conrad, the leader of the Austrian army, was to push the Russians completely out of Poland. To accomplish this Conrad had an army that was not in a really good place in 1914. Universal conscription had been put into place but due to a lack of funding most of the men in the Empire didn’t actually ever serve in the military, some estimates put it around only a 1/5th of the eligible men ever began their term of conscription. Even if men were conscripted into the military few of them completed their three year conscription period. This resulted in an Austrian army that was undertrained compared to the other armies of Europe. The priorities of the Austrian army was also confused. They first mobilized just against Serbia which caused a bit of a disaster when full mobilization was ordered. Trains that were supposed to be used to move troops to the east had been used to move troops against Serbia. Even after it became clear that Russia would enter the war Conrad did not concentrate all of his troops against them, instead he put priority on moving against Serbia. He also made the decision to move the concentration points of his army further south. When the armies were eventually to attack they had to march up to 100 miles to the north before attacking. The armies that were moving into Galicia would not be fully concentrated until the 19th of August. The plan was to have 4 armies in Galicia but half of one of them was used against Serbia at the very beginning of the war and would be arriving in the theater late. The troops that were available were often poorly supplied due to logistic problems that were a combination of infrastructure deficiencies and incompetence. Finally, the Austrian armies in Galicia didn’t have a clear objective other than to attack the Russians this prevented them from concentrating their efforts properly.

The Russians that were facing the Austrians were initially unable to take advantage of some of these problems that the Austrians were having partially because they also did not have a singular objective. The armies facing the Austrians adopted two plans one to attack against the Austrian railways leading to Cracow and the other to attack directly into Galicia from the east along the Carpathian mountains. These two very divergent objectives were thought to allow them to execute a great pincer movement against the Austrian troops. In practice these diverging directives would just prevent the Russians, much like the Prussia, from properly utilizing their numerical superiority. The Russian superiority was growing as the war went on, on the 18th day of mobilization the Russians were able to have 47 divisions facing the 30 that the Austrians could field. By the 30th day this advantage had grown to be 71 vs. 47. While in Prussia the numerical advantage of the Russians had not helped them to much, in Galicia against less capable opponents, it would be more important.

The Battle of Galicia would feature four distinct battles. The first three battles would ripple from the north to the south while the fourth battle would occur in the north as the Austrians attempted to reposition troops and the Russians took advantage of the movement to attack. The Battle of Kasnik was the first of these battles to be fought and it occurred from August 23-25. In this battle Austrian troops would actually have the numerical advantage and they also had better defensive positions which the Russians would be attacking. The Russian IV Army would advance against the Austrians and due to some misinformation that the Russians had they would attack with just 2 divisions into a force of 5 Austrian divisions. With this numerical advantage the battle had predictable results. When the Russians attacked the Austrians were able to stop them and to also push back the left and right flank of the Russian forces. After 2 days of fighting the Russians would have to retreat after suffering about 20,000 casualties. This success gave the Austrians a lot of false confidence in the abilities of their troops. This confidence would play a role in Austrian decisions over the next several days, with disastrous results.

After the fighting during the Battle of Krasnik both sides appealed to the armies to their southwest for assistance. This meant that the Russian fifth army and the Austrian fourth army would now meet at what would be called the Battle of Komarov. This battle would start on August 26th and once again the Austrians would have the numerical advantage. In a stroke of good luck, the Austrians were also able to get troops in between the two Russian armies, the fourth and the fifth and they used this advantage to attack heavily on the Russian flank. While this was occurring there were also attacks against the Russian center but here the Russians had the numerical and positional advantage so the Austrians weren’t able to make much headway. Throughout all of the battle the Russian fifth army did not have contact with the army that should have been on their left. The Austrians only recognized this weakness once the battle had started and they were able to use it to their advantage. They moved troops to the left of the Russian army and attacked the disorganized Russian troops positioned there. They were able to make good headway against these troops and were almost able to surround the Russians. Unlike his counterpart at Tannenberg the Russian commander realized the delicate position that he was in and ordered a retreat. This retreat saved most of the army but there were still 20,000 Russians captured by the Austrians. If the Austrian commanders had been a bit more bold and had vigorously attempted to surround the Russians they may have been able to trap the entire army. Regardless of this missed opportunity the confidence of the Austrians once again grew as they ended their second battle victorious.

With all of the problems that the Russian armies to their north were having the two southern most Russian armies were under mounting pressure to attack the Austrians in front of them. Here the Russian armies had placed their third and eighth armies and unlike in the previous battles here they had an advantage in manpower over the Austrians. The Austrians were not aware of the fact that they had far less men than the Russians and on August 26th they attacked with half the number of troops that they were facing. This attack didn’t go so well. After the Austrians had attacked the Russians counterattacked and the Austrian formations were decimated. Some units suffered 2/3rd of their men as casualties. The Russian commander did not recognize how much of an advantage he had and as a result he was hesitant to continue the attack after his initial successes. This hesitancy to attack allowed the Austrians to withdraw and avoid the complete collapse of their army. One benefit of this hesitancy is that Conrad did not believe his commander’s when they said that they were heavily outnumbered. He assumed that since the Russians didn’t continue their attack, they did not have the advantage. As a test to this theory he ordered another attack to begin on August 29th. Again the Austrians were outnumbered almost 2 to 1 and of course it didn’t go very well this time either. With the Austrian troops in retreat Conrad believed that since his troops had been successful in the north if the southern Russians advanced he could then turn his northern armies and advance them south to catch the Russians in the flank. While in theory this was a good plan it ignored the very important fact that the northern Austrian troops had been marching and fighting almost continuously for two weeks and were exhausted. They would now have to disengage from the northern fronts and march south where they would once again be called into battle.

When the troops marched south they realized that the Russian’s had been preparing to attack to the north to help their brethren who had been defeated by the Austrians. This had been ordered after the constant pleading by the northern Russian troops for support. This move prepared the Russians perfectly for the Austrian attack. The tired Austrians got bogged down with the Russian forces and were not able to either break through them or circle around them. While these events were occurring the northern Russians had recoverd far faster than the Austrians anticipated and had once again attacked. With a 2 to 1 advantage in manpower they were able to break through the Austrian troops left to defend against them. As the Russians attacked the entire northern Austrian front completely collapsed under the weight of the attacks.

Fighting continued until the 11th of September when Conrad realized that his position was simply in too much danger. Russian cavalry units were raiding the rear areas of his armies and there was the real possibility of the Austrian armies being completely cut off. He therefore ordered a retreat of all of the Austrian troops in Galicia. This retreat turned into a disaster due to no real preparations being made for actually executing the retreat before the order was given. It really didn’t help the Austrians that it was around this time that it started heavily raining which turned the roads into muddy quagmires. Luckily for the Austrians the Russians did not closely pursue the retreating troops and instead they decided that this was a good opportunity to rest their men. This decision was pretty much the only reason any of the Austrian troops were able to retreat to safety. Overall the Austrians had suffered around 350,000 casualties, nearly 50% of the number of men they had initially committed to the attack. On the other side the Russians had suffered 250,000 casualties. With their armies depleted so drastically over so short a period of time the Austrians were in a very tight spot and were very quickly becoming dependent on German help to accomplish anything against the Russians.

The battles of Tannenberg and Galicia cost the armies of Eastern Europe hundreds of the thousands of men, the shear scale of the casualties dwarfs that of the Western Front. During both battles generals on both sides had misinterpreted the movements of their enemy which set them up for devastating defeats. Thankfully for both sides their victory balanced out their defeat at least a little, or the war in the east could have been over very quickly. While the front in Galicia would stay quiet for awhile as the two sides licked their wounds in the north another battle would be fought against the Russian First army that was still in East Prussia. We will find out what happens to Remmenkampf’s Russian First Army in two weeks. Next week the German attack reaches its climax in front of Paris and the French and British finally move to the attack on the banks of the Marne.