40: Russian Retreat Pt. 1


With the Germans on the defense in the West they gather their strength for a summer of attacks in the East.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 40. A big thanks goes out to Andrew, James, Michael, and Jeff this week for their donations to the show. I would also like to remind everyone that the best way to help out the show is to leave a review on iTunes or to share the show on social networks this helps us reach more people and grow the show. This week we take a trip out to the eastern front in 1915 because during the summer of that year there was a lot of action taking place between the forces of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Over the next four episodes we will discuss all of the action taking place between May and August 1915. While France and Britain were struggling to launch attacks in the west and on the beaches of Gallipoli Germany and Austria-Hungary would launch some massive offensives in the east and these successive hammer blows would leave the Russians reeling. Today we will spend most of our time focusing on the situation in the east in May 1915 before the attacks began and then taking a look at what the Germans and Austrians planned to do. This episode ties in timeline wise, roughly, with episode 37 from the Western Front.

First, lets do a bit of a review on what the situation was in the east in mid 1915. One of the big narratives of this year has been about how the Germans were avoiding large offensives in the west. I started the year discussing it and nearly every action in the west has in some way tied into that fact. The battles in the east during the summer were the payoff of this focus for the Germans. These would be the German offensives of 1915 and as such all of its offensive efforts were being focused on the attacks. There were many reasons that the attacks were launched when and where they were. The first reason is best explained by Crown Prince Wilhelm, the Kaiser’s heir, in some of his correspondence with Falkenhayn. He said that if the Germans were ever going to get around to Western offensives they had to do something about Russia, it was just a fact. He went onto say that actually defeating Russia would be extremely difficult, bordering on completely unrealistic due to Russia’s huge manpower reserves and huge distances on the eastern front. To get around this fact he said that the goal should be to try and damage them so badly that they were no longer a threat, even if they remained technically unbeaten. This type of goal is pretty wise when you look at the history of armies attacking into Russia. Charles the Twelth of Sweden and Napoleon topped the list in 1914 of people who had invaded Russia only to find out that trying to conquer it is extremely unwieldy, especially with the weather. In both cases they found out that the distances and manpower reserves of Russia were just too vast to try and conquer. Of course in the next world war the vicious fighting in the east would once again prove the difficulty, even with massively improved mobility and technology. So the Germans realized that they probably couldn’t knock Russia completely out of the war so the goal was instead to just inflict as much damage as possible with the lowest cost. Hopefully they could be injured enough that they could no longer launch any form of attacks along the front. The biggest benefactor of these German plans wasn’t actually Germany, as weird as that sounds, but instead Austria-Hungary. Falkenhayn was never a huge fan of helping out the Austrians, believing that they should be able to take care of themselves. After all, Germany was fighting the combined forces of France, Britain, and Most of Russia, all Austria-Hungary had to deal with was Russia and a tiny Balkan country, how hard could it be? However, even if Falkenhayn didn’t want to help them, one big change in 1915 made it almost a necessity. That change was the possible entry of Italy into the war, which would make the Austro-Hungarian military position almost impossible to maintain. The Austro-Hungarian army of 1915 wasn’t any bigger than the one that had started the war with the constant series of defeats, or at best pyhrric victories, in the Carpathians having sapped all of its strength. Couple the numerical concerns with the fact that it was becoming more difficult to depend on some of the minority groups in the ranks, Czech and Ruthene troops were especially unreliable on the Russian front as often they found far more in common with their slavic enemies than with their Austrian or Hungarian commanders. Both of these facts combined to make them pretty much desperate for German help. Conrad, the Austrian military commander, wanted Falkenhayn to send in a bunch of German troops that would come in and slap Italy and Russia around for a bit to get them to back down. Falkenhayn of course didn’t like this plan, he wanted to use German troops for German goals and objectives on their pieces of the front. Falkenhayn even went so far as to say that Austria would just concede the ground Italy wanted just to keep the Italians out of it. This territory was in the Trieste region to the north and east of Italy. This type of concession could have worked wonders to persuade Italy to stay out of the war, and there is a reasonable chance that if they were made Italy wouldn’t have entered the war at all. But it was also completely impossible for Austria-Hungary to really make the concessions. Conrad played is final trump card when he told Falkenhayn that he would rather make a separate peace with Russia than give up ground to the Italians. This was of course a very big step and would have put Germany in a bigger pickle then they were already in. So much like a trump card takes the trick Falkenhayn was pretty much forced to start planning under the assumption that troops would be sent to help the Austrians sooner rather than later. This also meant that the Austrians would not be trying in any way to keep Italy pacified and they would be entering the war in May 1915. We will talk about what happens on the Italian front in episode 44ish, so pretty soon.

One of the reasons that Conrad was so adamant about getting help from the Germans was that he knew they had an advantage in the summer of 1915 and that advantage was gained by the material problems that the Russians were having all long the front. Back in episode 34 we touched upon some of the economic difficulties that the Russians were having. Just to summarize, the Russians had a lot of men, that was never a problem, but trying to keep the supplied was. The Russians were producing just 50,000 new rifles per month when they needed almost 200,000 just to cover attrition based replacement needs, let alone actually growing the troops in the field. They also produced 2 million shells during the first 4 months of 1915, at a time when the Germans were producing millions of shells every single month. These problems were made worse by their inability to properly distribute the material that they did have. I didn’t talk too much about this in episode 34 but one of the problems the Russians were having was the fact that they were heavily reliant on horses transport to get material to the front. This wasn’t a voluntary move, not at all, they just didn’t have the same amount of railroads as some other countries and those railroads they did have weren’t as efficient or well maintained as their German counterparts. This put them in a transport crisis where the only real option was to rely on horses and wagons to take a huge amount of the supplies the last miles from the railheads to the front line. These horses of course also needed supplies, so those had to be brought up as well. This problem was only compounded by the continuing reliance on Cavalry by the Russians. All of the armies had started the war with large components of cavalry, but most of those had been heavily paired down since the beginning, the Russians were just slower to do this. These cavalry divisions took far more supplies per man to keep going, just making the supply situation worse. While the inability to move supplies up the front had some obvious results there were also some less obvious side effects of this inability of the Russians to quickly transport things around the front. Since they couln’t move troops around like their German enemies they had to rely on a big thick heavy line to stop an advance because they couldn’t bring up reinforcements quickly enough to contain breakthroughs. The reliance on a strong, heavily defended, front line meant that they were, in general, most exposed to German artillery fire and if the Germans did manage to break through they would be able to achieve that line rendering advance that the allies had been trying so hard to make happen in the West. With these facts and how Austria-Hungary was acting Falkenhayn began to accept the fact that German assistance was going to have to happen and knowing the same things about the Russian situation he decided that if there was going to be German help, he was going to go all in. Falkenhayn met with Conrad to discuss his opinions on where the attacks should happen. The Austrian general said he believed that the Russian line between the Galician towns of Gorlice and Tarnow could be broken through if he was given a force of about 4 German divisions. Attacking in this area would take pressure of the Austrians and also, if it was really successful, put the Russian positions in central Poland at risk. Falkenhayn examined the options and agreed with Conrad’s assessment. On April 13th he discussed his plans with the Kaiser who gave the go ahead for the offensive. On their way east were 8 German divisions, not the 4 requested by Conrad, and they would be commanded by General Mackeson who is soon to become one of the most successful generals of the war.

This is the first time that we have met General Anton Ludwig August von Mackeson. Side note here, how awesome does that name sound? That is like 4 good solid strong names just for one person. Mackenson was born in 1849 which made him 65 in 1914. He had started his military career as a volunteer during the Franco-Prussian war and worked his way up the ranks from there. During the Franco-Prussian war and afterwards he served in the cavalry and was at one point considered maybe the best horseman in all of Germany. Through connections he would find himself as the personal military history tutor to a young Kaiser Wilhem II, which was of course great for his future military prospects. He began serving on the Germany General Staff in 1891 and would serve on it for many years. He would become a close associate of Schlieffen and was even considered as a possible successor to Schlieffen on his death. That spot of course went to Moltke and Mackenson would begin his war when he took command of units in the east where he would lead with distinction at the battles of Gumbinnen and Tannenberg. If you remember way back in episode 10 we discussed these battles that were the first major actions in the east and they occurred in East Prussia not long after the war began. With these actions under his belt he was put in command of the 9th Army when its then current commander, Hindenburg, was promoted to the commander of the entire Eastern Front. He would command this army for the first few months of 1915. Once it became clear to Falkenhayn that he would be taking offensive action in conjunction with Austria-Hungary he gave the command to Mackenson. Some sources claim that part of the reason that Mackenson got the jobb was because he wasn’t closely connected with Hindenburg and Ludendorf. If you remember the tension between Falkenhayn and the Dynamic Duo the reason that this consideration is important becomes apparent. The army that Mackenson was put in command of was called the 11th Army and he would technically be taking orders from the Austro-Hungarian leadership. But there was a caveat that he would only comply with orders from the Austrians after “due consultation” with the German high command. What this meant was that while he was taking orders from Conrad, it was only the orders that Falkenhayn liked, and for the most part Mackenson would have a good amount of operation freedom once the action got going. Personal opinion time, although some historians agree with me, I think that Mackenson was one of the better commanders of the war, you pretty much can’t argue with his results in the East. He wasn’t some military genius that could have somehow solved the Western Front problem, but he was very good at accomplishing his goals when they were possible. This comes later in the war, but is probably worth mentioning in his introduction but one of the things he is most remembered for was his treatment of Serbian soldiers and civilians during the 1916 invasion of Serbia. He would lead the troops that would eventually cause the small country to fall but he would keep it from being a raping and pillaging expedition. He is one of the very few, maybe the only one, of the enemy commanders during the war that is remembered favorably in Serbia, which probably says everything that anybody needs to know about his character.

Lets now move on to talk about what the plan was for these troops that were moving into the east. In his book the Real War Liddell Hart would have this to say about the situation “Tactically unlimited, its strategic object was at first only the limited one of relieving the pressure on the Austrian front, and, concurrently, of reducing Russia’s offensive power.” The attack would be launched along similar lines to the Limanowa-Lapanow attack that we covered back near the beginning of the year with an attack to the south of the Polish town of Cracow between the River Vistula and the Carpathian mountains. Unlike earlier attacks these summer attacks would not involve any action in the mountains, which is just sort of funny if you think about it. The Austrians had been so determined to attack through the mountains in the dead of winter when they were at their most inhospitable but when the summer rolled around and an attack at those elevations may have been possible, they decided not to attack in that region. The consequence of this was that the attack would be launch on a narrower front than the previous attacks and he had the general aim of reaching the River San. This river was considered a stretch goal though, and it wasn’t though to be mandatory for the attack to be deemed a success. If it was reached that would be great, if not that was okay because it would still accomplish the goal of reducing the pressure on the Austrians. This attack was always planned as the first in a series throughout the summer so as long as it gave the Austrians a greater ability to prepare for the next attack that is all that was required. At his disposal Mackenson had the 11th German and the 4th Austro-Hungarian armies which meant he had 14 divisions and he would be facing just 6 Russian divisions at the point of attack. The German troops were some of the best formations available during the summer of 1915 with the 1st and 2nd Guards divisions and the 19th and 20th infantry divisions being the core of the German army. The total number of troops was around 120,000 and of course they had their typical sizeable amount of artillery acccompanying them. There is a lot of variation in what I am seeing for artillery gun numbers during the battle, which is somewhat typical of Eastern front affairs, some sources claim a bit over 500 artillery guns and other claim over 2,000 were on the German side. Obviously those numbers are very different and are far more divergent than is typical, which is why I wanted to point it out. Time for another somewhat random aside here. Anytime you read history books you should always be looking out for biases from the author. Sometimes these biases are such that they sway the history in one way or another, maybe painting one side in a different light than other sources, it is one of the interesting things about studying history, there is rarely a black and white answer. During all of my time with the sources for this show I have a pretty good catalog of some of the author’s biases and can account for them. However, sometimes you run up again a bias that doesn’t really change the entire narrative but instead just puts one particular piece of a story in much sharper focus. So that brings me to The Eastern Front 1914-1917 by Norman Stone. The book is great, and I highly recommend it, but Stone must have some kind of weird affection for the Minenwerfer, because he mentions it, and he mentions it very often. The minenwerfer means literally mine thrower in German and this is the first time it has really come up during our episodes. It was one of those early innovations of the war that was just absolutely perfect for trench warfare. A minenwerfer was a small siege mortar that could be used in the trenches as sort of short range artillery. They had a very short range but, given the low distance that the shells had to travel, they could be extremely accurate. It is one of those signature weapons that the Germans had during the war and there would be 10’s of thousands of them in the trenches on all fronts used by all sides by the end of the war. Stone mentions minenwerfer numbers for several battles when in almost every other source they aren’t mentioned at all. I can only assume that Stone believes that they played a huge role in the course of the war so he wants to bring them into the spotlight or maybe he just really liked writing the name. It is one of those interesting things that you run into sometimes if you read enough books on the same subject. So the Germans had some number of artillery guns, between 500 and 2000, and some number of minenwerfer, exactly 96 according to Stone, and facing them the Russians had the assemblage of just 150 artillery guns. I guess I don’t have to say much about that. The Germans also had a million shells ready to be dropped on the Russian lines which, of course, the Russians couldn’t come even remotely close to matching. The German advantage wasn’t just in the form of material though, they also brought with them a whole host of lessons that they had learned while both attacking and defending in the west. These included changes to artillery tactics with the increased emphasis on the careful registration of guns on specific targets before the attacks began. The German commanders also more heavily practiced cooperation between the infantry and the artillery so that their combined power would have maximum effect on the enemy. These and other lessons would be critical to making the upcoming attack a success.

Facing the incoming German attack was the Russian Third Army which defended the line between Cracow and the Carpathians. As the attack drew closer this army found itself in the same position as all Russian armies at the edge of the fronts lines, isolated and without support. When I say “front” in this case I mean the end of one of the two Russian zones of control that they had split their line into right from the start of the war. In this case the Third Army was the northern most army of the Southern Front. This arrangement always caused problems for the armies on the far end of the lines and it didn’t help that the commander of the Southern Front, General Ivanov, was during the spring of 1915 building up men and material for a renewal of the attacks in the Carpathians. This meant that the Third Army was being asked to take over more of the line so that armies further south could consolidate their men while also being asked to give up men to be used in the attacks in the south. The results of these changes were that the Third Army would have very few reserves in place when the attacks would come since they had been forced to give them up and move them to the south. I believe that this problem was mostly caused by the division of the between two commanders with Ivanov in the south and Alexeyev in the north. It is likely that if all of it had been under one commander, or if Grand Duke Nicholas the highest commander had been stronger in his control, that troops would have been moved down from Prussia or northern Poland to assist in the area around the Third Army. At this point there were move divisions in the north at 57 than there were in the south, at 41, even though the Northern front was not planning any kind of attack. So the Southern front was having to scrape every man it could from the front to collect enough strength to launch attacks which weakened critical sections of the front all due to the conflict between Ivanov and Alexeyev and the lack of a strong central authority figure. Unfortunately for the Russians the section of troops that were effected the most by these shortages were the troops furthest to the West on the Third Armies front where two corps held the line just south of Cracow near the Polish town of Gorlice. Yes, this is the same Gorlice that is the focus of the upcoming German attacks, as far as I know there is only one Gorlice in Poland. The only bright spot for the Russians was that that Third Army hadn’t been in action for awhile and this meant that it was at least well rested and was better supplied that was typical for Russian armies on the eastern front. Norman Stone would cite a French Observer, Langlois, who claimed that this supply situation was actually a negative. He claimed that it was an example of mismanagement of shells since the third army’s front was inactive and was just sitting on the shells while on other parts of the line troops in action were struggling to get anything for their guns to shoot. I guess there is some logic in this opinion, but only if you are working on the assumption that the Germans are never going to attack and there is no chance they would ever attack quiet parts of the line. Even though the Third Army was rested and slightly better supplied it still had some serious problems. First of all the trenches in the area were very underdeveloped, to the point of being laughable. For whole stretches of the front it looked more like one long, barely connected series of ditches than a serious military defensive position. The barbed wire, while present, was very sparse especially by Western Front standards and it would be easily dispatched by German shelling. Then there was the fact that communication wires to the rear were often not even buried, just laying on the ground as they ran from the front to the rear. These would be easily cut by shelling when the time came. All of these facts point to a complete lack of emphasis by the Russian commanders when it came to being always prepared for an attack since It was the commander’s responsibility to make sure that the men under his command were doing what was necessary to prepare for an attack. Unfortunately even when some of the units wanted to improve their section of the line they were told improvements weren’t necessary. Norman Stone would say about a situation where one Corps of the Russian army asked for permission to build a reserve trench line on their section of the front “10. Corps had wanted to build one, but was told that, if it could spare the labour for this, it must have more troops than it needed to hold the front line: one regiment was therefore removed from each of its divisions for the Carpathian offensive.” Some good solid negative reinforcement there. So in situations like the ones present it isn’t that crazy that the Russian commanders weren’t trying to actively improve or strengthen their line of defense.

As the attack drew closer Mackenson would move this men into the line over the course of 10 days, only moving at night to try and conceal the build up of forces from the Russians. While the Russians weren’t improving their lines the Germans and Austrians were slowly pushing their lines out into the wide no man’s land to make the jumping off point closer to the Russian lines. In this section of the front the lines were at times thousands of feet apart so moving new lines closer to the Russians was imperative for a successful attack. With preparations like that it was impossible to keep the preparations from the Russians forever and by the end of April the Russians were beginning to suspect that there would be some form of action with the primary indicator being the presence of German troops in an area previous occupied by Austro-Hungarian troops. On April 29th it was confirmed by the Russians that 3 German Corps were on the front and preparing to attack while on the 30th an Austrian deserter revealed the plans for the whole of the offensive that was planned to take place just two days later. The Third Army’s commander, General Radko-Dmitriev, who we will discuss quite a bit next week, seems to have dismissed most of these reports and did not believe there was anything to worry about. Mackenson would issue his orders for the attack and in them he would stress the importance of a quick breakthrough with the following words “The attack of Eleventh Army must, if its mission is to be fulfilled, be pushed forward fast … only through rapidity will the danger of the enemy renewing his resistance in the rearward positions be averted … Two methods are essential: deep penetration by the infantry and a rapid follow-up by the artillery.” The date of the attack was set for May 2nd and as the hour drew closer it became clear that the weather on the day of the attack would be perfect. Four hours before the attack began the guns began to fire…..and that is where we will end the episode for this week. Next week we will dig into the attacks by Mackenson’s men before looking at their results and the next set of attacks launched in the exact same spot. It should be a very action packed episode.