12: Balkan Bravery


With the Germans retreating in the west we turn our attention back to the east. We first check in on Serbia to see how the tiny nation in the Balkans is doing against its neighbor to the north Austria-Hungary. Then we look at the second battle in east Prussia when the Germans confront the Russians at the First Battle of the Masurian lakes. Finally, we reflect on the first month of hostilities in Europe.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 12. Last week we ended with the German advance into France being stopped at the Battle of the Marne. This week we travel once again into Eastern Europe to catch up on events in the region. One area we have yet to visit is where the war started in Serbia. We will start there and find out how the small Balkan nation is holding up against the advances by the Austro-Hungarian empire. After we have caught up on events in Serbia we will once again journey into East Prussia to find out what happened to Remmenkampfs first Russian army after the Second Russian army was destroyed at Tannenberg. Finally, we will talk about our first big change of command when the Germans decide to switch up their Chief of Staff.

We should probably start with a summary of what the situation was in Serbia since we haven’t talked much about them in well over a month. Serbia was a small nation in the Balkans and one of its citizens had assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire on June 28th starting the cascade of events that led to war. Serbia was a small country with a small military by European standards with just around 500,000 soldiers able to be called up when the war started. They also weren’t very well supplied, falling far short of being able to provide a gun for every soldier. What they lacked in numbers and material they made up for in experience and belief in the cause. When Austria-Hungary would begin their attacks the second week of August every Serbian soldier and citizen knew that they were fighting for their countries very survival, and they fought like it.

The first shots of the war were fired on Belgrade on July 29th just hours after the declarations of war started flying around Europe. Early in the war Germany pushed hard on the leader of the Austro-Hungarian army, Conrad, to focus all of his strength on Russia. Germany saw Russia for the threat that it was and didn’t want Austria-Hungary using too much of its army in an attack on Serbia. Instead of leaving just enough men facing Serbia to stand on the defensive Conrad sent 19 divisions to the Serbian border, not too much under the 30 that were sent against Russia. Conrad had a documented hatred of Serbia so it isn’t too surprising that he would prioritize the attack against them. His excuse was that it was not proven that Russia would attack in Galicia due to their slow mobilization. As we covered just a few weeks ago the Russians would attack in Galicia to devastating results for the Austrians.

The 19 divisions facing Serbia were put under the command of General Oskar Potiorek who had been the governor of Bosnia before the war. Bosnia was the Austro-Hungarian territory closest to Serbia. Potiorek had never seen any military action and would not be described by many people as a good leader. An example of his exemplary leadership can be seen in a quote on supply the problems that his army was constantly facing “waging war means going hungry! If I start an operation today with 200,000, I know I can obtain my objectives with just 100,00 of them.” A really compassionate guy. On the other side of the line was Marshal Radomir Putnik who commanded the Serbian forces. Putnik had experience in the Balkan Wars and seemed to know what he was doing. One of the first things that the Serbian military did was abandon Belgrade, the Serbian capital. They knew that they couldn’t defend it because it was just a few miles from the border with Austria. Even with this fact morale was high in the government and the army they believed that they could beat Austria-Hungary when the inevitable attack came.

In a lot of theaters during the war there were instances of resistance to invaders by civilians but in Serbia they took it to a whole new level. In most countries civilian resistance was the exception, in Serbia it was the rule. After Conrad’s soldiers started crossing the border the civilian resistance started intensifying. This concerned the leaders of Austria-Hungary who were concerned that this form of resistance would spill over into minority groups close to the border. This led them to declare martial law in the Slavic territories of the empire and to round up Slavs in Bosnia to hold as hostages to ensure the behavior of their citizens. In Serbia any resistance was dealt with harshly, over 3,500 Serbian civilians would be killed in just the first two weeks of August. These executions were well published within the Empire because it was believed that this would initimidate other groups thinking about rebelling. In Serbia it didn’t seem to do much to quell resistance, an Austro-Hungarian solider wrote in this diary “We are not fighting against an army of 300,000 but against a whole nation.”

On August 10th Conrad’s troops began crossing the border into Serbia that was marked by the Drina river. By the 15th they had established themselves on the eastern bank of the river and were ready to begin pushing forward. The Serbians decided not to strongly resist against the crossing of the river and instead started a policy of small intense skirmishes that took advantage of the Serbian soldiers strengths, their experience and their knowledge of the terrain. These constant harassing tactics also played well against the Austro-Hungarian soldiers who were mostly inexperienced. The first large battle of the campaign would occur around Mount Cer on August 15th. The Austrians were trying to attack Serbian forces about 20 miles to the east of the Drina river on mountains up to 3,000 feet high. The Austrians were at a disadvantage because their artillery was not created to travel through the mountains so they had to leave them behind at the flat plane below. I’m not sure they would have made a huge difference though because during the night the Serbian troops were able to surround the Austrian Camp. They were at many points confronted by guards but they posed as Croatian troops from within the empire and the ruse worked. Remember that the Empires troops were from many different areas and ethnic groups and spoke many different languages so this sort of subterfuge actually had a pretty high chance of success.

After they surrounded the camp the Serbians would attack and the two armies would fight for hours into the morning. Once daylight broke the Serbians began shelling the Austrian positions, the Serbians were equipped with mountain guns which allowed them to take their artillery anywhere, and the Austrian troops began to retreat. The Serbians would end up losing about 3,000 men in the fighting which sounds bad until you realize that the Austrians had lost 28,000 and they had been pushed back across the Drina river and into Austro-Hungarian territory. By August 20th all of the Austrian troops in Serbia were back in the empire and they did not retreat in an orderly fashion. There was a lot of disarray, almost to the point of chaos. The Serbian army actually invaded the Empire territory for a few days but soon retreated back over the border. The goal of this attack wasn’t to actually take and hold territory but instead were meant as a morale booster and a propaganda victory. In these first actions on the Serbian front the Serbian army lost about 15,000 men, but the Austrians lost about three times that. Conrad did not blame his commanders for this huge defeat and instead chose to blame the Czech troops would had led the assault up Mount Cer. The Austrian troops were subjected to increased disciplinary measures and the Empire’s leaders went into damage control by claiming that Serbia was not the primary theater of operations and wasn’t really even that important. In fact at this point some of the troops were transferred to Galicia, which robbed the Austrians of some of their numerical advantage against Serbia.

At this point the Serbians had stopped the first invasion but they knew another would be coming soon and because of this they appealed to their allies for supplies and aid. The response they got was probably not as helpful as they hoped. Their allies in Russia, France, and Britain had at this point other problems to deal with a German invasion of France and the impending Russian invasion of Prussia. It didn’t help that Serbia was a landlocked country making it difficult to deliver supplies to the country even if somebody wanted to. While Serbia was seeking outside assistance the army wasn’t idle. They started running raids into Austrian territory and met many sympathetic civilians along the way. Unfortunately for these civilians once the Serbians left there were often reprisals. The Empire’s army would often round up those who had, or were suspected of, harboring Serbian troops and execute them. In these communities the Austro-Hungarian troops were often told to fire on anybody who gave even the slightest provocation.

In early September Conrad planned for his troops to mount another offensive into Serbia. The second invasion of Serbia would begin on September 8th with an attack by troops in assault boats across the Sava river. Once troops reached the other side they were forced to attempt an assault on prepared Serbian defensive positions, they didn’t fare so well. The next morning what was left of the Austrian troops retreated back across the river. Even with the casualties they had sustained so many boats had been damaged in the first crossing that they had to make several trips to get all the troops back across the river. On the 14th they would try again to cross the river and this time they at least managed to push out a reasonable bridgehead. The Serbians quickly counterattacked but were stopped. The Austrian troops were unable to take advantage of this success though and after a few days of trying to expand further into Serbia they were forced to retreat back to where they had begun. That would be the extent of the second attempt by the Austrians to invade, it hadn’t achieved much other than to get a bunch of soldiers killed. We will leave the Serbian front here for now as the Austrians licked their wounds and the Serbians basked in their triumphs.

We now turn our eyes northward to Prussia. When we last left Prussia the Russian Second Army had been annihilated at Tannenberg by the German 8th army. This was just one of the two armies who had invaded Prussia and the Russian first army, commanded by General Remmenkampf was still situated in Eastern Prussia. If you remember the Germans had already engaged Remmenkampf but after some inconclusive results had turned their attentions to Samsonov and his second army resulting in Tannenberg. After their victory the Germans still had to find a way to deal with Remmenkampf’s army which during the battle of Tannenberg had continued their advance westward and had managed to make it to a line between Konigsberg and Angerapp. Over the last few weeks both sides had brought in more troops with the Russians adding 12 more divisions to their already superior force. The Germans had transferred in troops from France, this had been requested by Prittwitz before he had been relieved of his command and these troops consisted of 2 Army Corps and a cavalry division. The German Chief of Staff, Ludendorff hoped to shift most of his army to the east to focus them against Remmenkampf. He planned to execute a plan very similar to what he had done at Tannenberg by using a strong force once again under the command General Francois to attack on the Russian left to punch through the flank and surround the Russian forces.

Ludendorff would commit over 80% of the German troops in Prussia to his attack, leaving a very thin screen in the south. Even with this large commitment the Russians would still outnumber the Germans by about 25% but it was really the best the Germans could do. The Russians expected the attack to come from the direction of Konigsberg in the north and had therefore concentrated most of their strength there. They were also depending on the 12 divisions, which would be formed into the X army, to arrive to bolster the defense of the left flank. Francois was given 3 divisions by Ludendorf to attack against the weak Russian left which would give him enough troops to greatly reduce the Russian numerical advantage in his area of attack. One of the biggest flaws of the German plan was due to their greatest weakness, their numerical inferiority. Anytime a smaller army attacks a larger one they are counting on either the enemy army to break or for large numbers of the enemy to surrender. At Tannenberg the smaller German force had been able to defeat the larger German one partially because once the Russians were surrounded they began surrendering in droves. Ludendorff was counting on this happening again.

The battle that would come to be known as the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes would begin on the 7th of September. Francois and his three divisions attacked into an area where they had managed to gain a numerical superiority. Not only did the Germans outnumber their opponents but they were also attacking mostly second line troops that did not even come close to matching the Germans in terms of battlefield experience and ability. They began to quickly break through the Russian line which might have been stopped by the Russian Tenth Corps that was just arriving in the area but the commanders of the Tenth corps were unwilling to feed in their units piecemeal. On the 9th, about 48 hours after his attack began Francois arrived in Lotzen, cutting off some Russians to his west. In the north the Germans had executed frontal attacks against the Russian positions. I feel like at this point, after 11 episodes I don’t need to tell you this but these attacks were not successful and pretty much just served to rack up German casualties. This was a critical point in the battle for Remmenkampf, his right and center were holding well and maybe even had the advantage but his left was in complete tatters. At Tannenberg Samsonov had been put in a similar position and he had decided to continue to advance, Remmenkampf chose to do the opposite and started to retreat. While his troops were retreating he also began to quickly move troops from his right to his left to stall Francois. This decision and these moves allowed him to stop Francois from encircling his army and it allowed his army to retreat mostly intact. The Russians would end up retreating all the way to the Russian border.

The Army would cross the border on the 13th of September having successfully avoided the German trap. Ludendorff wasn’t very happy that his plans had failed and blamed Francois for not attacking hard enough against the Russians to close up the trap before they could escape. Francois was simply experiencing the same problems that commanders all over Europe were having. Due to the size of the armies in 1914 it was extremely difficult to properly surround them and cut them off. It took a monumental mistake by your enemies to make an attempted encirclement a reality and at the Masurian Lakes Remmenkampf did not make a monumental mistake. The Germans did however continue the pursuit of the retreating Russians army into Russian territory but by the 20th of September they were running out of steam and by the 25th they were back in Prussia. These attacks into Russia did not really accomplish much since they devolved into mass attacks against the Russians when they stopped to defend. Large number of casualties were incurred on both sides, which wasn’t all that unique at this point in the war. By pursuing the Russians Ludendorff had turned a solid German success into sort of a draw. Most of the Russian prisoners were taken by Francois in the first few days of his attack and it probably would have been better for the Germans if they had just been satisfied with kicking the Russians out of Prussia.

While the German army was attacking in the East big decisions were being made about who would lead the German army in the coming months. Moltke had been the leader for several years but during the opening phases of the war his plans had not gone perfectly. In the West France and Britain still had armies in the field and the Schlieffen plan had not succeeded in knocking them out of the war. In the East, even after the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, the situation was still a bit up in the air. Kaiser Wilhelm was not involved in military decisions, that was left up to the Army Chief of Staff a role filled by Moltke. While the Kaiser couldn’t make military decisions he could appoint, or remove, the Chief of Staff. It was after the failure of the invasion of France that the Kaiser decided to replace Moltke and on the 14th of September the Kaiser told Moltke to report sick and to resign because of the sickness. Moltke hung around at army command for a few weeks because nobody wanted the public to know that things were going poorly and replacing the commander of the army just a few weeks in to the war would not have looked good. While it can be debated until you run out of breath about whether or not it was actually Moltke’s fault that the Schlieffen plan had failed at the end of the day it didn’t matter. His goal at the beginning of the war was to lead the German armies to a quick victory over Britain and France and he had failed.

So with Moltke gone who was going to replace him? The Kaiser chose the German War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn to become the new German Chief of Staff. Falkenhayn had not been a big fan of Moltke’s and is quoted as saying that in early September “Schlieffen’s notes are at an end and therewith also Moltke’s wits.” Falkenhayn was just 53 in 1914 which made him the youngest of any of the national commanders at that point in the war. From the beginning he had believed that the war would be long and hard fought. He was known to be a skilled commander and he would show it during his years of command of the German armies. Churchill would consider him to the most skilled German commander during the war. As soon as he took command he put into motion plans to try to encircle the British and French armies between their current locations and the English channel to their north. This would set into motion a series of battles called the Race to the Sea which will be the focus of next week’s episode.

Before I finish up this week I would like to make a note about timelines. This podcast was originally created with the intention of chronicling the events of the war week by week. So far I think I have done a pretty good job of sticking to this timeline and I thought I would be able to maintain it throughout the entire war, oh how naïve I was to believe that such a thing was possible. Up to this point in the war battles have been pretty quick hitting, with durations measured in days or even hours but that is about to change. Soon battles will be measured in weeks and months meaning that I have to get away from my week-by-week portrayal of events or things are going to get very confusing. In an effort to maintain a coherent narrative you will see us covering larger time frames over the coming weeks and months. I have come to the realization that unless I want to confuse the listeners beyond belief this is the only way to move forward with the podcast. You can still however expect events to stick, at least loosely, to the timeline of the war, so if it happens in October 1914 it should be covered somewhere in an October 2014 episode. So, on that rather lengthy programming note, bye for now.