21: Winter in the East Pt. 1


As the year turns on the eastern front the fighting continues in the winter conditions of central Poland and the Carpathian mountains. It is cold, it is snowing, but the fight goes on



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 21. Last week we discussed the French campaigns on the western front that spanned the coming of the new year in 1915 and this week we do the same in the east. These battles would be fought in late 1914 and early 1915 in winter weather conditions on the eastern front from Prussia in the north, through Poland in the center, down into the Carpathian mountains in the south. In 1914, if you remember, Austria-Hungary had attacked out of Galicia and against the Russians, but were defeated. The Germans and Austrians then attacked into Poland during the Battle of the Vistula River only to be defeated before accomplishing their goal of capturing Warsaw. The Russians had then counter attacked into Galicia where they were able to defeat the forces of Austria-Hungary and drive them back into the Carpathian mountains. This would then setup for the battles late in 1914 all along the front, but we will primarily be discussing the battles in Poland and the Carpathians today. These battles were fought in some absolutely horrific winter conditions. Men were freezing to death every night in their sleep, let along trying to fight during the day. These battles were so important to both sides because the Carpathians were the barrier between the Russians and the Hungarian heartland, if the Russians were able to push through the mountains they would be right into the heart of the empire, probably resulting in the end of Austro-Hungarian participation in the war.

To try to accomplish these feats the Russians had a huge number of men under arms, or at least that could be put under arms. We have discussed a few times that the Russians were seriously short of supplies for their armies and this meant that they couldn’t use all of their immense manpower reserve at the same time, there simply weren’t enough rifles. For right now, at the end of 1914 the Russians were still able to bring in trained and reasonably well equipped troops from some of their far off Siberian, Central Asian, and Caucasian military districts but there was a finite number of these troops to transfer. This meant that for the first year and a half the war they would only have a small numerical advantage on the Eastern front. In October 1914 they had 98 divisions facing 80 German and Austrians Divisions, this seems large but 16 of the Russian units were stuck guarding the Baltic and Black Sea coasts to ward off invasion. By January 1915 the Central Powers would have 94 divisions to the Russian 108. By May 1915, after the battles that we will discuss today and some troop movements to the Caucuses the German and Austrian troops would actually outnumber their Russian counterparts to the tune of 109 divisions to 100. I want to point this out at the beginning of this episode, because I feel that there is a misconception out there where people believe that in both world wars the Russians were always outnumbering their opponents at least 3 to 1, and that simply isn’t true. The Russians were also at a disadvantage due to the two front structure of their military organization, if you have been listening to several episodes in a row I bet you are tired of me harping on about this, but it really was important. The Northwest front, based in Warsaw wanted to devote all power against Germany, the Southwest front, based in Kiev, wanted to devote all power against Austria-Hungary. The Fronts were independent and much like in France there was a kind of Zone of the Armies where the commanders of both fronts held sway. These front commanders commanded vast swaths of the Russian countryside including the railway lines and rolling stock found in those areas. By late October most of the troops had arrived but rolling stock was still critical for the bringing up of supplies. As the front moved west the Russians ran into a railway problem. Before the war they had deliberately deprived Western Poland of railways as a defensive measure, they didn’t want a large rail network falling into German hands should they get the better of an early war offensive. Now the Russians wanted to attack in the area and found that the railways could not support them. There were just 4 east-west lines and only 2 that crossed the Vistula. Any large army would find it difficult to get enough supplies and reinforcements down these lines to keep any sustained offensive action in business. Neither front could depend on the other to send help either, this in contrast to the very efficient German systems that saw troops constantly being shuttled along the front or even from the West to the East. Further complicating the matter, at least strategically, is that both fronts had to be in line with each other. The Northwest front couldn’t retreat, even though they wanted to, without exposing the southwest front to a devastating flanking attack. The flip side was of course also true, the southwest front couldn’t be the only one to attack without opening up their flank in the same way. General Ivanov, the commander of the Russian Southwest front, believed that he was in position to deal Austria-Hungary the final blow that would knock them out of the war and he wasn’t forming this opinion without reason. Up to this point in the war the Russians had been pretty successful against the Austrians. They had kicked them out of Galicia and into the Carpathians. The Austrians also hadn’t been able to generate very many positive results. In preparation for an attack in early November Ivanov began moving troops out of the Carpathian positions and further to the north where they would advance toward Cracow. Ivanov’s armies would attack between Cracow and Shemeshl the goal was to push the rest of the Austrian troops completely out of Galicia and further into the mountains. Ivanov also wanted to resurround the fortress of Shemeshl . In the north, in the area of the Vistula, the Second and Fifth armies would attack through Breslau and Posen straight towards Berlin.

Before the Russians could execute their plans the Germans had some plans of their own. Ludendorff planned another offensive that would eventually come to be known, by some, as the Second Battle of Warsaw. This would be similar in composition and strategy to the previous attempt by the Germans to capture the Polish Capital with the one significant different that it would start further to the West than the offensive in October had. Ludendorff planned to use 15 divisions, this included some newly arrived reinforcements from the West. These reinforcements had been demanded by Hindenburg, who was now the Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern front. Podcast timeline note, if you were really paying attention during the German high command discussion during episode 19, you may remember that Falkenhayn had made a deal to transfer some troops to the East instead of resigning due to the insubordination of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, these are some of those troops. Even with these new troops the Germans would be outnumbered in the attack 15 divisions to 24. The main army used in the attack would be the Ninth Army and they would be attacking against the V Siberian Corps. These Russian troops were thinly spread and without proper entrenchments or fortifications. After the Germans hit them hard with massed artillery a gaping hole was opened in the Russian lines between the Siberians and their closest Russian neighbors to the south a gap that was 30 miles wide. It took the Russians about 4 days to get enough information to understand how much in trouble they were. The Russians then realized quickly, far quicker than they had in most of the early battles of the war, that they had to retreat and retreat quickly. The Russian Second Army retreated for two days to the city of Lodz, which was their main railway center used for supplies. The Germans would continue the attack in pursuit but would begin to run into problems. They had been sucked in by the retreat of the Russian army and found themselves in a trap laid by the Russians. When the Germans attacked Lodz Russian troops appeared on the German flanks and attacked, the encirclement of all of the German troops was a real possibility for awhile, but didn’t end up happening. The Battle of Lodz would end on 23 November with the city still in the hands of the Russians. Ludendorff would of course stage this as a giant victory for the Germans. It wasn’t really, but the amount of territory gained certainly seemed impressive, even if it really meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. He used the leverage that this quote unquote victory gained him to get more troops from the West, this was in the form of Four Corps. This is the rest of the troops originally agreed by Falkenhayn to be transferred to the East. There would also be another corps sent to help the Austrians, and they will appear later in our story. The troops sent to Ludendorff were used to attack Lodz in a series of assaults. The continual pressure from the Germans would eventually cause the Russians to retreat from the city in early December. The Germans were then able to advance another 30 miles to the Rawka and Bzura rivers to the southwest of Warsaw. Once they had reached the Rivers the Germans would try to again resume their offensive. They did not have much success. The territory in this area was wide, unobstructed farming lands that seem ideal for offensive operations however the Russians were quickly digging entrenchments that slowed the Germans down, and finally stopped them. The front started to stagnate just like it did in the west with one side digging, then the other, and suddenly the front was completely immobilized. These attacks from the start back on November 11th would cost the Germans 100,000 men. Some of the new corps from the west, which were not even close to full strength after the fighting there, found themselves at a fraction of their original strength. Ludendorff’s staff would record “It has to be said that the Russians have the advantage of the defensive, where they have always been good, and at that have a prepared field-position between the Vistula and the Pilica.” At the turn of the year it did not seem that Central Poland would be the area of the decision on the Eastern Front.

With the knowledge that the Germans would be attacking into Poland in the middle of November Conrad decided to join in on the attack at around the same time. He made this decision even though the Austro-Hungarian army had already suffered absolutely horrific losses. He planned for a series of attacks around Cracow in Poland towards the northeast, to coincide with Ludendorff’s attacks further north. The attacks would begin on November the 16th and would be assisted, at least in part, by the German Ninth army, or at least the far right wing of it, to the north. Conrad even went so far as to move the Austrian Second Army from its positions in the Carpathians to assist in the attack. As the offensive got going the Austrians initially made some progress, particularly in the fighting to the north of the Vistula River. The attacking troops were however outnumbered and it was only a matter of time before the Russians could bring up reinforcements to begin to slow the advance. As the pressure from the Russian reinforcements grew the Austrian troops were not only stopped from advancing, but they also began to fall back. By the 26th Conrad had to admit defeat and was forced to give up all of his armies gains to date, in fact the Russian counter attacks were so successful that by the 26th the Austrian troops found themselves further west than their initial line back on the 16th. This course of events was bad for the Austrians, but things got even worse when the Russians took advantage of the removal of Austrian troops from the Carpathians and decided to attack. There were five major passes through the mountains and Russian troops led by General Brusilov, who will play a huge role in the war in 1916, were able to capture one of them, Lupkow pass, on November the 20th. Up until this point the Russians had controlled Galicia, but were safely on the other side of the mountains, now with one of the passes under their control the threat of them entering the Hungarian plain and threatening Budapest became very real. After this success another Russian conference was held, called by the Grand Duke, on November 29th. General Ruzski wanted to retreat in the north, all the way back to Warsaw, citing his casualties during the battles of Lodz. In the south Ivanov wanted to attack, citing the success the Russians had just had around Cracow and in the Carpathians. Ivanov saw this as an opportunity to quickly follow up an Austrian set back with another blow. Ivanov would again convince the Grand Duke that his was the correct course of action and he was able to get the Grand Duke’s permission to continue the attack. Now the problem wasn’t one of intentions but one of supplies, on parts of the Russian front the guns were being rationed down to 10 rounds per gun per day, so not much of an artillery presence. As the Russians prepared for another attack Conrad pre-empted them on December third. Conrad saw an opportunity to attack a 20 mile gap that had developed between the Russian Third Army and Brusilov’s Eigth Army between the towns of Limanowa and Lapanow to the south of Cracow. In this attack Conrad would use the best formations available to him, the German 43rd Division and the Austrian XIV Corps. The 43rd division was even fresh and well rested, something that was becoming rare in this area of the front. The troops were able to make great progress initially, they were able to push the Russians back up to 40 miles, and just like every battle up to this point once these initial gains were made the Russians were able to bring in more reinforcements and slow the advance. In fact ,the Russians probably could have stopped the attack much sooner if they would have handled their reserves properly, in what is a comical tale now, but I’m sure was nightmarish for the men involved General Ivanov mishandled an entire corps of Russians troops which resulted in them marching back and forth for several days before being properly directed to the fighting. By 10 December this attack had ended and the Austrians had established their lines on the Dunajec-Biala line and in the Carpathians. While this attack wasn’t a massive success it did put the kibosh on Ivanov’s planned offensives. With the new positions of the Austrians troops the planned offensive just wouldn’t be possible. The Limanowa-Lapanow battle would go down as a success for the Austrians but it would also be a milestone as described by John Keegan in his book The First World War. “Yet, though a victory, Limanowa-Lapanow was also a last gasp. Never again would the Imperial and Royal Army unilaterally initiate a decisive operation or deliver a conclusion an Austrian commander could claim as his own. Thereafter, whether in the conflict with Russia or in the coming war with Italy, its victories—Gorlice, Caporetto—would be won only because of German help and under German supervision. Henceforward it would always fight as the German Army’s Junior and increasingly failing partner.”

The attacks of November would all be wound down by the middle of December and over the first four and a half months of the war the Russians had suffered 1.5 million casualties from an army that originally numbered 3.5 million. This number is staggering, but with their manpower reserve of some 10 million it wasn’t the biggest of concerns for the Russians. The Austrians had lost 1.3 million casualties out of the original number of 3.35 million mobilized troops in August. To back up these casualties the Austrians had only 2 million unconscripted men. This was a serious problem for the Empire, it was simply running out of men far faster than its adversaries. This problem was exacerbated by the heavy casualties experienced by the NCO’s and regular officers. This would have been a problem for any army in 1914, but for an army made up of untrained or poorly trained conscripts it was far worse. Keep these issues in mind as we move forward into yet another set of offensives by the Empire.

The Eastern front would take a bit of a breather after the November offensives but the leaders were already planning their next moves. Falkenhayn still preferred for the Germans to focus on the Western front for further action, which Conrad, or course, strongly disagreed with. As time had progressed, due to the losses suffered, Conrad had become more and more dependent on German support in the form of forces and supplies. This support would just be more important in future actions after the losses of November and December. He not only wanted to keep the German forces that he had already received, but he also wanted more. Conrad was also becoming seriously concerned about the fortress of Shemeshl which was the largest Austro-Hungarian fortress situated on the San river and currently under siege by the Russians. Conrad came up with an offensive plan that would have two major goals the first to relieve pressure on Shemeshl and, with a victory, to deter Italy from joining the Entente against Austria. The first goal meant that the offensive had to be launched over the Carpathians. An Austro-Hungarian army would push through the passes in the western Carpathians, a combined German-Austrian force would attack through the central passes, and another Austro-Hungarian army would capture the last set further to the east. This seems like a completely logical plan, three army attacking along three separate axis with the goal of pushing through the Russians. But this is Winter. In the Mountains. Thousands of feet above sea level. To quote Norman Stone from his book Eastern Front 1914-1917 “The offensive maybe looked sensible on a map. On the ground, it was—in the words of Austrian official historians whose kindness to Conrad amounts to considerable distortion—‘a cruel folly’” The conditions were atrocious, these passes were in the depths of winter, the troops were trying to attack through these ice bound passes that were covered in deep snow. The temperatures were so low that rifles had to be held over a fire before they could be used. Unfortunately for the troops, Conrad had committed himself to relieving Shemeshl and couldn’t see other options regardless of the conditions. This kind of tunnel vision by army leaders would happen at other places in the war when leaders found themselves fixated on specific cities, areas, or attacks. It meant that Conrad, even when the attack began to falter, saw no other possible course of action other than to double down and keep pushing. Falkenhayn wasn’t a fan of Conrad’s new plans, and he began to like them even less when Ludendorff suggested a German offensive be launched to support the attacks in the south. In fact if you go back in time a bit before the offensive in the Carpathians was in the planning stages Conrad came to Ludendorff with concerns about the Carpathian positions and their ability to hold back future Russian attacks. Ludendorff, fearing for his southern flank, offered two and a half infantry divisions to assist. Conrad then decided that he had enough strength to go on the offensive. So the Austrians were so weak that they couldn’t hold the line and needed help, but they were then strong enough to go on the offensive, but they weren’t strong enough to go on the offensive unless the Germans also attacking in the north. Really, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Regardless of the logic, when it came time, Ludendorff would assist the Austrians with an attack in Poland.

The Russians weren’t quite sure what to do as 1915 began. Ivanov, of course, was pushing for more offensives in the south, more convinced than ever that one more push would knock Austria out of the war. There would be another attack into East Prussia which seemed like the most attractive option, far better than attacking the German fortifications in Poland and trying to attack through the nightmarish conditions in the Carpathians. The Grand Duke supported the attack into East Prussia and even prepared to pull troops from other parts of the front to make it happen. Ivanov would flatly reject this northern offensive plan, refusing to part with a single battalion of troops to assist, and instead wanted troops for an offensive in the south as soon as possible. When reports of the German troops moving into the Austrian line filtered up to Ivanov he then continued asking for troops just as loudly, only this time to help in the defense. At this time the Russians had about 99 divisions along the entire front compared to a combined 83 for Germany and Austria. Ivanov had 29 of these divisions in the Carpathians and Galicia, there were 23 and a half more in Poland, and then 17 and a half in East Prussia. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Russians where they planned to attack wouldn’t matter since they would end up getting attacked before their attacks could be put into action.

I haven’t touched too much on Shemeshl which was the largest, most modern, fortress in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The empire used it to dominate Galicia and project its power in the region. The plans for the fortress were originally drawn up in the early 1800’s but the construction wouldn’t start until 1854 when the Crimean War started. The constructions was in an endless limbo of on again off again construction as the relations between Russia and the Empire wavered back and forth. When the relations were good, like before the Crimean war, not much was accomplished, but when the relations were a bit heated like after the Crimean War or leading up to 1914 there would be a flurry of activity. By 1914 there were several lines of entrenchments, barracks, magazines, and permanent fortifications. When the war started the troops put a lot of work into strengthening the fortifications and digging new trenches to connect the permanent forts. This resulted in 30 miles of trenches and 650 miles of barbed wire being put in place shortly after the war had begun. More artillery was also brought in to strengthen the garrison of 127,000 and an additional 18,000 civilians. The Russians would put these fortifications to the test starting on September 24th when the Russian Third army arrived and began three days of attacks that would cost the Russians 40,000 casualties. After the early October battles of Galicia the front shifted back to the east and the Austrians were able to lift the siege and evacuate most of the civilians. After the Battle of the Vistula River the fortress was again put under siege for the Russians and by Mid-December it would be kept under constant artillery fire. So that brings us up to speed on where we are at, the fortress would take an oversized importance over the first few months of 1915 as the Austrians struggled to relieve the trapped garrison.

Conrad would begin the Austro-Hungarian attacks on January 23 1915 when 41 German and Austrian divisions would attack 42 Russian divisions with the goal of pushing the Russian troops back from the Carpathian mountains and relieving the garrison of Shemeshl . The German divisions, the 3rd Guard, 48th Reserve, and 5th Cavalry were the key to the whole operation. They were supposed to punch through the lower Beskid range and wheel outwards to meet up with Austrian Divisions coming through the other passes. As soon as the offensive was launched it instantly ran into problems. It was difficult to make any headway due to the terrain and all the weather problems that we discussed previously. Ice, Snow, and temperatures far below freezing meant that the German and Austrian troops gained at most a hundred yards per day. Over the course of a week they were finally able to push the Russians off of passes that were the objectives of the first few days of the attack. As the Germans slowly made gains the Russians began to bring in new divisions to attempt to stem the tide. Most gains of the offensive were actually made on the far eastern end of the attack area where the Austro-Hungarian troops were able to reach the river Dniester around mid-February. Once they reached this objective they had exhausted themselves in the attack and found themselves critically overextended and they became easy picking for the Russians to attack. It really wasn’t surprising that the offensives high in the mountains didn’t produce grand results but by mid-February Conrad was getting desperate. He had been informed by the commander at Shemeshl that the garrison would be out of the supplies by mid-March. The only thing Conrad could do was to try the same attack again and he assembled 20 new divisions for the attack, however these divisions were mostly paper divisions. Almost every single unit was criminally understrength from actions of the last few months. The attack would theoretically begin on 17th February but they found the weather to be in even worse than the month before. The only really noticeable part of the attack was the artillery guns that were firing into the Russian lines. The strength of one Austrian Army went from 50,000 men to 10,000 in a single week. This rate of attrition was a combination of men freezing to death and combat casualties. The Austrians would lose over 90,000 men in these attacks in the last few weeks of February and gains were shallow to the point of non-existing. Norman Stone would write in his book Eastern Front “Kralowetz, chief of staff of the Austrian X Corps, later wrote that the Russians’ counter-attacks succeeded because they encountered ‘men already cut to pieces and defenseless… Every day hundreds froze to death; the wounded who could not drag themselves off were bound to die; riding became impossible; and there was no combating the apathy and indifference that gripped the men’” Throughout March the Russians would counter attack continuously, the Russian troops particularly those from harsh areas like Siberia and Finland were less affected by the cold, and by and large were better prepared to fight in the conditions with both proper supplies and experience. Even when three new German divisions arrived the Russians still advanced, negating all of the gains made up to this point since January. We will discuss these Russian counter attacks, and their wide ranging effects next week but for now it is enough to say that the Austrian efforts in the Carpathians had failed, and the morale in Shemeshl hit a new low.

According to A World Undone, after the attacks in the Carpathians “there was no basis upon which even to pretend that anything had been accomplished.” During the offensives in the Carpathians somewhere around 800,000 men became casualties, most from sickness and disease. Add these to the 1.2 million casualties suffered by the Austrians and you get an empire that was rapidly running out of men. In April they would have to send the recruits of 1914 into the armies, those men who had reached military age during the 1914 calendar year, and this amounted to a mere .5 million men an tiny number when facing Russia. The Austrians needed massive German help, and fast. Falkenhayn was still hesitant to give as many troops to Conrad as he wanted, Falkenhayn still believed the war would be won in the West and he wasn’t convinced the Austrians would use the German troops well. Add to this problem the fact that Romania, Bulgaria, and Italy were all looking at jumping into the war and every battle result could cause them to swing one way or the other. Italy would be by far the most problematic for Austria-Hungary. It would open a whole new front in the west. Conrad and Falkenhayn debated how best to handle these smaller states entering the war, how to get them on their side, and how to keep them from joining the Entente. George Clerk of the British Foreign Office would say “If Bulgaria and Romania can be got in now it is the beginning of the end of the war” With the importance of these states, and how they would affect the situation of Austria-Hungary we will spend an entire episode examining them and their influence in a future episode. And what about Shemeshl , the second of the primary goals of the Austrian offensives in January and February? Nothing could save it now. There was simply nothing the Austrians could do to reach the fortress in time to relieve the troops inside. By mid-March the garrison elected to surrender. They would make one last sortie against the Russians, which was pretty much pointless, the final act of defiance by the garrison was to demolish as much of the fortifications as they could and to blow up the artillery, ammunition, and supplies before surrendering on 22 March. In an instant, 120,000 men became prisoners of the Russians.

Thank you for listening to another episode of The History of the Great War podcast, next week we will be back to find out how those Russian counter attacks faired in the Carpathians and what Ludendorff was doing in Eastern Prussia in early 1915.