22: Winter in the East Pt. 2


In Prussia and Poland Germany is again on the attack first at the Vistula River, where poison gas makes its first appearance of the war and then in Prussia at the Second Battle of the Masuria Lakes. As winter turns into spring the Russians make one more attempt to break through the Carpathian mountain passes.



Hello everyone and welcome to episode 22 of History of the Great War. Last week we discussed the situation in the Carpathians with Austria-Hungary trying desperately, in some horrific winter weather, to push the Russians back from the mountains and being extremely unsuccessful at it. This week’s episode once again finds us on the Eastern front as we find out what was happening in Prussia and northern Poland while the Austrians were having so much fun in the Carpathians. The attacks in the Carpathians had been going on for months and while this was happening the Germans had been attacking in the north in two large actions, that at Boleemov and then at the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes. These battles come at a time when the Austrians were becoming more and more reliant on their German allies and it will be after these battles that we see even more German manpower shift down to the southern end of the front. There is also the continued strife in the German high command as they continue their split into two different camps an Eastern Camp centered on Ludendorff and a Western Camp centered on Falkenhayn. While there won’t be too much drama around this discord in this episode it is sort of that thing that sits at the back of everything.

In January Ludendorff decided that there would be another attack by the Germans on the eastern front, he just wasn’t sure exactly where. After weighing the options he settled on another attack in the middle of Poland on the Vistula plains. Yes, here again. This is roughly the same area that was attacked last November by the Germans, and they will have roughly the same goals this time, push the Russians back through Poland. The plan was to launch the attack at the end of January using the Ninth army near the Polish town of Boleemov. The most notable part of this battle is the use of poison gas. This would be the first use of gas in the war, something that will be far more common over the next few years. In this battle the gas used was Xylyl Bromide which is a type of concentrated tear gas. It wouldn’t kill the Russian defenders, like later gases were designed to do, but instead it was designed to incapacitate the Russians before the Germans attacked. The Germans would use 18,000 gas canisters which would be open up all along the front with the theory that the wind would carry it into the Russian lines. As it happened the winds turned out to be unfavorable and most of the gas ended up blowing back onto the German lines. This sounds like it has the making for a complete catastrophe for the Germans, but the freezing temperatures at the front would end up preventing it from having much of an effect at all. I’m no chemist, but if you believe Wikipedia, it claims that the biggest reason for this ineffectiveness is that it was too cold for the gas to effectively form an aerosol, so most of it ended up just staying on the ground or drifting into the lines with a concentration so low that it didn’t have an effect. So, interestingly, with the whole blowing back into the lines business the Germans were pretty okay with it not being 100% effective.

Even with the ineffective gas the Germans would still begin their attack on the 31st of January. The German infantry would attack but they would make very few gains and nothing that was gained would end up being significant. When the initial attacks failed the German commanders called the offensive off. This seems nice and logical to everybody looking at the past, but this is a time when generals all along the fronts were continuing completely ineffective attacks for days until men and material were completely exhausted, the fact that the German generals took a step back and decided not to keep trying to attack was very smart, relatively speaking. The Russians on the other hand would counter attack with 11 divisions all commanded by a single corps commander. Before the attack began General Ruzski would tell General Smirnov who was the commander of the II Army that was carrying out the attack that “Victory on your front cannot fail, as you have eleven divisions on a front of only 10 kilometers.” This sort of reliance on human mass and on its ability to push through offensives would prove to be deadly to the troops carrying out the attack. The Russians would attack for 3 days and would gain the ground back that Ludendorff took with the initial attacks, but remember none of that ground was really that important to begin with. The Russians would lose 40,000 men in the counterattacks and Ruzski would blame the defeat on the lack of resolution by the troops even after they attacked multiple times against the defending Germans. The attack would eventually be called off due to simple lack of ammunition. Ruzski and the Russians would try to pin the failure on many things from the men, to the commanders, just about anything that could be found to explain away the fact that the Russians had attacked with 11 divisions, which was far more than the Germans they were facing, and they couldn’t produce a result. This is a fine example of commanders during the war finding blame away from themselves, instead of looking at their own decisions and actions in search of a cause. Norman Stone in his book Eastern Front would say this of Ruzski’s reaction to the failure of the Russian attack “Characteristically, failure was ascribed to the wrong reasons. The inappropriateness of the season, the lack of planning, the crazy over-loading of a single corps command—none was noted.”

After the failure of the gas attack at Boleemov Ludendorff was not dissuaded from launching more attacks. The next planned attack was in the north around the Masurian Lakes, the same site as the battle from 1914. The plan was to use the tenth army, commanded by General Eichhorn, to circle the lakes from the north while the eighth army, commanded by General Below, came in from the south. The attack had two major goals, the first of these goals was to encircle the Russian 10th army in the Masuria area, cut them off, and force them to surrender. This wasn’t terribly dissimilar from the battle of Tannenberg which had a similar goal. The second goal was a bit more grandiose, Ludendorf hoped that by punching through the Russian line in northern Poland he could then link up with Austrian troops coming out of the Carpathians from the south to encircle the entirety of the Russian troops in Poland. Keep in mind this was all planned before Conrad launched his attacks in the Carpathians, we saw how those went last week so this second goal was definitely not achieved. The only way the Germans could concentrate enough forces for the attack was to pull troops from Poland and from far eastern Prussia, leaving those two fronts lightly defended but allowing the Germans to have 15 infantry and 2 cavalry divisions at their disposal for the attack. The Germans would have artillery superiority during the battle as well, as was the norm on the Eastern front. They would be attacking against the Russian 10th army, so there is both a German and a Russian 10th army involved in the fighting, just to up the confusion factor. This Russian army was comprised of 11 infantry and 2 cavalry divisions, so the Germans had a slight advantage in the number men involved in his attack. The Russians knew that the Germans were amassing troops but when Ruzski heard about the concentrations he dismissed it. At this time Ruzski was trying to form a new Twelfth army that was to be made up of 6 army corps that would be used for an offensive later in the year. These were being concentrated to the south of the 10th army and Ruzski believed that while these troops were in the area the Germans would be unable to attack the 10th army. The problem is when the Germans launched their attack only 2 of the planned 6 corps were actually organized and ready to fight. This left the 10th army without any immediate strategic reserves. The commander of the Russian 10th army, General Sievers, was very concerned with his position, even writing to Ruzski stating his fears about this army’s position. He had been forced to commit nearly all of his men to the front line, leaving him without an army reserve should the Germans breakthrough but this may have been okay if the Russians were properly fortified in their positions, but they weren’t. Norman Stone would say about the 10th Army’s positions “The trench-system was primitive—at best a thin, interrupted, ditch, Over half of the divisions were second-line ones, containing only a tenth of their numbers from first-line troops; and since, in the Russian army, artillery commanders regarded such divisions as barely worth saving, there was always a tendency for guns to be saved at the expense of men.” Thankfully for the Russians the Germans would be launching the attack in the dead of winter, we have already seen how hard it is for armies to attack during this time of year, and this battle would be no exception. It would be cold, really cold, during the battle and there would be instances of blizzards occurring during the fighting, but even with these difficulties Ludendorff was confident that he could break-through the Russian line and kick them out of Poland completely.

As is the case in February in most parts of Northern Europe it began to snow two days before the attack on February 5th. In the two days before the attack on the 7th it would snow with reported depths up to 5 feet all along the front, there were also temperatures reported at 40 degrees below zero, I was going to put in a snarky comment about the differences between Farenheit and Celsius here, but according to the Internet this is the exact temperature where both scales are the same so my plan was foiled. Anyway…regardless of these conditions the German attack would began as planned on the 7th of February. On the first day of attacks the Germans would fall hardest upon a Russian second-line division that found its position completely hopeless. The defenses in the area would best be described as pathetic and when the German attack came the division practically disintegrated. 42 of the 50 divisional guns survived at least partially due to a disconnect between the artillery and the infantry. Norman Stone, in the quote from earlier discussed this tendency of the Russian artillery commanders to save their guns, being far more concerned about them than the men they were supporting. It is quite interesting reading accounts of these Russian artillery commanders who were very quick to bring in the horses and gallop the guns away in comparison to similar situations in the west where for example the British guns would stay at as long as they could, and sometimes far longer than they should, to support the men fighting in front of them. The Russians would go on to dismiss this attack by the Germans as a small attack by a small German detachment. The Germans however would continue the attack over the next few days and on the 9th three more Russian second line divisions found themselves under attack, again the result was similar with the forces almost completely destroyed, two cavalry divisions on the right flank experienced the same fate. I really feel sorry for these Russian troops at this point, they were put in a position were failure was all but guaranteed and there was nothing the men could do to turn it around. By the 10th the German Eighth Army had advanced far into the left flank of the Russian 10th army and on the Russian right things were going just as poorly. By the 11th the German troops had broken through the Russian center and were moving into the rear. To save the day Ruzski now looked to bring in the still forming Russian 12th Army that we discussed earlier in a counter attack from the south that he hoped would halt the German attack. To support this attack the central corps of the Russian Tenth Army, the 20th, was told not to retreat even though they were in serious danger of being cut off by the Germans. The 20th had to hold their ground as much as possible and try to delay the Germans while the 12th was brought in an prepared to attack, by the time the order to withdraw came it was far too late and the Germans were already moving in around the 20th to surround them completely. It wasn’t until the 14th that the Russians finally started to realize how large the German attacking forces really were, up to this point the Russians had believed that the enter German 10th Army was actually just a corps. It says something about communication in the area and the chaos of the battle that the Russians believed that the Germans were 1/4 their actual strength. Also on the 14th there was a thaw and all that ice and snow turned into water and the ground went from frozen to mud. Soldiers would end up getting drenched during the day and then everything would freeze again during the night. This made the battle even more difficult for the troops on the ground but through it all the Russian high command continued to assure the commander of the 10th army, and particularly the commander of the 20th corps that the 12th army would be coming to the rescue soon. While these assurances were coming in the 20th corps found themselves increasingly constricted to within the Augustov forest and by the 18th the Germans were able to decisively seal the 20th Corps into the forest and completely surround them. The Germans then began the process of constricting the area tighter and tighter over the next 3 days until the 21st. It got so bad for the Russians that there are records of multiple divisional staffs, that were usually miles apart, sharing the same houses as headquarters. Through casualties, deserters, and stragglers Russian regiments with a full strength of 3000 men found themselves down to a few hundred.

On February 21 the 20th corps would finally surrender with somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000 men, the sources seem to have difficulty agreeing on the number. Most of the men that surrendered were wounded, apparently a good portion of the healthy men of the 20th Corps had been able to escape through the forest, which makes sense, it can be very difficult to properly surround an army in a forest and it would be easy for small breaches in the perimeter to develop that would less Russian troops slip through. The Germans of course claimed to capture 100,000 men all told during the attack, but most historians see this as an exaggeration. The Russian 10th army lost about 55,000 men, which in the larger scheme of things wasn’t greatly disastrous for the Russians. The Germans also captured 185 guns, many of them taken when the 20th surrendered. I know I am being a bit wish-washy with a lot of the numbers here, but there is often quite a bit of ambiguity depending on which source you read. The Germans were trumpeting this battle as a success on the scale of Tannenburg so they may have been prone to a bit of exaggeration in their claims of the numbers of men captured. The battle would come to be called the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes, or the Winter Battle of Masuria, and once again it make Hindenburg a hero in Germany. For the second time in 6 months he was invincible and a genius, when in reality it was Ludendorff and poor Russian preparation that was the cause of the German victory. The one thing that is very real was the fact that the Germans advanced 70 miles, if they had captured 70 miles in the west the war may have been over but in the east it was just a bit of land in Poland that was of no real strategic value. It didn’t help that the Germans couldn’t actually continue their advance without first dealing with the fortress of Osoviet on their right flank. The Eighth Army was sent to deal with it, since it would seriously threaten the Germans if they advanced any further. Unfortunately for the Eighth Army Osoviet would prove to be well defended and it would become quite the obstacle. Osoviet wasn’t the most impressive fortification, not by a long shot, but the defenders were smart about using the strengths that they did have and they used flexible positions that would bend and not break to the German attacks from which they would immediately counter attack. Even after the Germans had launched several attacks, and used almost a quarter of a million artillery rounds the fortress still stood. Along the front in the area there was quite a bit of seesawing back and forth as well, in the last week of February two actions took place that saw both sides capture 30,000 prisoners. By Early March the Germans were forced to retreat back to the Prussian borders after constant pressure from the Russians. At the end of the day the Germans found themselves once again back where they started with nothing but some prisoners and some Russian casualties to show for their actions.

Before we leave the Eastern front for a while we have just one more early year offensive to discuss and it seems only fitting to end the second of two eastern focused episodes with another offensive in the Carpathians, this time by the Russians. After the Second Masurian Lakes battles Ruzski was put on the defensive, and he even thought the smart thing to do would be to abandon all of the exposed areas in central Poland, but this would compromise positions in the south so he couldn’t do that. There were also a few reasons to launch an attack in the Carpathians. There was the planned Dardanelles action that the British would soon be launching, so this would sort of be in support of that, although tangentially. The Entry of Italy into the war was imminent, something we will go into more detail next week, and by attacking Austria-Hungary Russia would be helping the Italians. Then there was also the pride angle, there were a few countries looking to join in the war in the region and the Russians wanted to be the ones to hit Austria-Hungary with the knock out blow, they had spent so much blood already trying and they didn’t want the Italians to steal their achievement. And finally, this was really all that the Russians could do to help the Western allies in their attacks in early spring, any attempts against the German front were doomed to failure so they hoped an attack in the south would be a success. These were the reasons that Ivanov was told to attack through the Carpathians and into Hungary but once again he found the other front commanders a bit less than accommodating. Ruzski certainly wasn’t giving up any troops after what happened at the Masurian Lakes and even Alexeyev was less supportive than he had been in previous months. Because of these reasons the attack would be launched with only the 30 divisions already on the front, the best that Ivanov could do was to pull some troops from the soon-to-surrender Shemeshl and from his right wing so that he could launch the attack with some level of concentration on his left wing. The conditions were a bit more favorable at least the temperatures were a bit higher than when the Austrians had launched their attacks earlier in the year and there was a period of thaw in the mountains that helped to cut down on the snow and ice. Oh, and what they were facing on the Austrian side could barely be considered an army. The Austrian second army had lost 52,000 men just in the week before the Russian attack and the combined German Austrian force in the center was down to 1/3 strength, the Austrian third army was roughly the same. The mood at Conrad’s headquarters could best be described as very tense, to the point of desperation. The Russians were actually quite smart about how they would carry out the attack, they would attack with short, sharp, small attacks through the passes in the mountains, they would win some territory and then stop attacking and dig in and then do another leap later. This was an early instance of the bite and hold tactics that would later be used on the Western Front and here, even without the masses of artillery found in the west, they were successful. Part of this success is because the Austrian commanders believed they had to stand absolutely firm and not give up a single piece of the passes, if the Russians could push through they would presumably march on Budapest. By early April, as the attacks continued, the Austrians were screaming for help from the Germans. They were sent another Corps, this time under General Marwitz who brought troops from Ludendorff in the north and was also given the command of what was left of the German Troops the Austrians had been commanding. This new German force played a part, along with lack of supplies, of bringing the Russian attack to an end. Ivanov would officially halt the offensive on April 10th with the largest gains being made by General Alexei Brusilov and the Russian Eighth Army who had captured miles of passes leading into the Danube river valley. Ivanov cited high losses, exhaustion, and the complete thawing of supply routes that made it almost impossible to move supplies, combined with renewed snowfalls at higher elevations as the reason that the attack was called off without achieving its goal. The one thing that the attack did do is it pulled yet more German troops down into the Mountains, making it more difficult for the Germans to amass enough troops to launch large offensives in the north.

It will be awhile before we come back to the eastern front so it may be best to take stock of what has happened over the first few months of 1915. In the north the Germans had attacked several times, and had in a few occasions like the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes, been able to capture a large amount of enemy territory however by April they found themselves right back where they started on the border between Prussia and Russia. In the center on the borders of Poland the front was more fortified than anywhere else in the east. In the south the lines ran through the Carpathian mountains where it was extremely difficult to launch an attack either way. The Russians had lost almost 2 million men in the war so far but still dominated the front from Cracow south through the mountains while the Germans had superiority in the north, but not enough of a superiority to deal any decisive blow. The Austrians, as we covered last episode, were in a real pickle. They were in serious trouble in just about every way imaginable. And that is where we will leave the eastern front for about 20 episodes as we move off to other theaters and other operations. We will be back later in the year to find out how the Germans finally are able to knock the Russians back and bit in what will be called, rather ominously, the great retreat. Next episode we will be looking at some of the countries who have, or will be soon, entering the war such as the Ottoman Empire and Italy all of whom will very soon begin to affect our story. As always, thank you for listening and you can check out more information about the show at Historyofthegreatwar.com, facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar, or twitter.com/historygreatwar