41: Russian Retreat Pt. 2


The German’s unleash their offensive at the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnow, the Russians are left reeling.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 41. This week I would like to thank everybody who has liked the podcast on Facebook, at the time of this writing there are 153 of you, interacting with listeners is pretty awesome and Facebook seems to be the number one way for that to happen. If you would like to join in the conversation on Facebook you can like the show at Facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar. A giant thank you also goes out to Frank from California for his donation, he had the most amazing story about his father’s path through the war that was quite the read. Last episode we discussed the German and Austro-Hungarian preparations for an attack between Cracow and the Carpathians in southern Poland. The attack would have the objective of moving the German lines through the Polish town of Gorlice and Tarnow and hopefully all the way to the San River. The battle would come to be called, somewhat unimaginatively, the battle of Gorlice-Tarnow. The Germans had sent 8 divisions under the command of General Mackenson which would be joined by troops from Austria-Hungary allowing them to outnumber the Russians at the point of attack. Not only were the Russians outnumbered but they also weren’t well prepared for the attack. That is a pretty solid summary of episode 40 in 100 words or less. This episode we will look at the attacks by Mackenson and their stunning results, but first we will actually take a step back from the attacks of may to take a little detour up north to talk about some action that Ludendorff had undertaken in the North in an effort to pull Russian focus away from the attacks in the south. We will close out the day by looking at the further attacks in the south by Mackenson as a follow up to the initial successes.

I know that I left everybody on a cliffhanger last week so it is a bit odd for me to not follow it up immediately with the attacks at Gorlice Tarnow but we should probably head north to talk about these attacks since they are important to the overall situation on the front when the attacks begin. Ludendorff was given an objective in April 1915 and that mission was one of distraction. He was told by Falkenhayn to do whatever he could to pull Russian reinforcements north in preparation for Mackenson’s attacks in the south. Now there were limits on the “whatever he could” part of those orders. He wasn’t going to get any more resources so he had to make due with what he already had at his disposal which while considerable, wouldn’t be enough to launch a massive attack at the Russians in Poland which is what Ludendorff really wanted to do. With the resources available Ludendorff figured that he could launch an attack into Courland. Courland is a region on the Baltic Coast of Russia that was to the north of the current German positions in East Prussia. Courland is not exactly the most important piece of land for either side because there really wasn’t much of anything there that was important. There was the fortress city of Kovno and to the north there was the city of Riga in modern day Latvia but that is about it. The Russian navy thought it was important since it offered more access to the Baltic sea but General Alexeyev, the Russian army commander, placed very little importance on the region. In mid-April Ludendorff launched his attack with a few divisions of cavalry and a bit of infantry support, 7 and a half division of cavalry and five and a half divisions of infantry to be precise. A pretty big attack when you look at the cavalry being used but remember that cavalry divisions were much smaller manpower wise than infantry divisions so this was much smaller than most efforts on the eastern front. Due to how low he valued the area Alexeyev was actually going to just let the Germans have what they had taken but this didn’t sit too well with the Russian high command so they told him to send in troops to stop the Germans and to maybe try to push them back. The Russians would end up moving 9 infantry and 9 cavalry division in to stop the German attack. So with that, Ludendorff had pretty much achieved his objective. Some ground, albeit unimportant ground had been taken, and the Russians had been forced to react by sending in more troops. Seeing as he had achieved these things and being in a position where his troops could threaten Riga but weren’t really in a position where they were at risk from the Russians Ludendorff ceased his attacks. The Russians then brought even more troops in and settled into a defensive stalemate once again. So a pretty small action by Ludendorff in the north had been wildly successful not strictly through territorial gains but also by pulling a disproportionate number of Russian troops to the north, just in time for the attack in the south.

Last episode ended with the beginning of the bombardment on May 2nd just before the attack began, and that is where we will begin again today. The bombardment was somewhat different than most because it was very brief, just four hours, but it was extremely intense during those hours with the combined German and Austrian artillery forces firing something like 700,000 shells during those hours across the 30 mile front of the attack. The level of this bombardment concentration was unheard of at this point in the war. At the end of the 4 hours the Russian trenches, that hadn’t been that great to start with, were in complete ruins. The Germans had also of course mixed in gas shells with their explosive and shrapnel shells, which didn’t help matters at all and pretty much just added insult to injury. After the bombardment had been going for 4 hours the infantry went over to the attack and followed the gas cloud on its way across no man’s land. What the infantry found as they moved forward was success that would have made any commander on the western front extremely jealous. The 6 Russian divisions that had been on the front probably didn’t even know what had hit them and with the pressure of the bombardment, and then the gas, and then the waves of German soldiers the Third army completely collapsed and in a lot of ways pretty much ceased to exist. The Germans had focused their main effort right at the juncture of two Russian Corps, right where communication was the worst, and as they moved forward they wedged their way between the Corps and the gap began to widen and it was soon 5 miles wide. The local russian commanders were forced into impossible positions, they had local reserves that they could use to try and slow the bleeding but the only way to get them to the front was through the hail of German artillery fire. So they had the choice of not moving the reserves forward and giving up miles of ground to the Germans or moving them forward and risking the casualties. In the areas where they pushed small units forward they were often shredded by fire and had very little effect. In the instances were larger units tried to move forward they often met a similar fate and had just as small of an impact on the course of the battle. Two infantry regiments, then two cavalry divisions, then an infantry division were all brought in to try and stem the tide and they seemingly just evaporated into thin air. All along the front the Russian soldiers that were actually bearing the brunt of the attack found themselves without any real hope either of help from their armies or of stopping the German advance. This feeling of helplessness would contribute to the huge number of Russian soldiers who would surrender during the battles. In just 24 hours the Russians were pushed back beyond the town of Gorlice and in 48 hours the Germans had advanced 8 miles. The casualty numbers that the Russians had endured during this time is staggering. One Russian corps started the battle with 34,000 men and after 2 days that number was just 5,000. One division of the 9th Corps just disappeared from the histories through casualties and surrenders. It didn’t help the situation that the troops that were being moved into the battle were not exactly of the highest quality. They didn’t have the best equipment, they weren’t the best led, they weren’t the best trained, and therefore they didn’t produce the best results. General Dragomirov, the commander of the 9th Corps would have this to say about the reserve troops that were being fed into the battle “Territorial troops have been utterly feeble, surrendering in droves.” General Ivanov, the commander of the Russian southern front, began to consider retreat to be an absolute necessity.

The only good news for the Russians was that they were able to pull back some of their troops to the south of the attack just in time to keep them from being cut off by the advancing Germans. One of the goals of the attack had been to quickly capture the roads leading north from the Mountains and trap the Russian troops just to the south of the attack in those mountains. Fortunately for the Russians they were able to pull back these troops to the River Wisloka which greatly increased the length of the Russian lines but it at least kept the line somewhat continuous from the point of the breach and to the south. Now, with the troops no longer at risk of being cut off Russian High Command insisted that the line be held, even though Ivanov believed that he had to keep retreating with as many troops as he could. The best indicator that retreating was necessary were the huge number of prisoners that the Germans were capturing. The number of surrendering troops is generally a good indicator of how dire the situation was along the front. A low number of surrendering troops, even if there were high number of casualties, generally meant that while an army was under pressure it was still holding itself together and still able to put up a resistance. As an army disentigrates the number of units being cut off and surrendering usually increases almost exponentially. On just the first two days of the attack the Germans had been advancing and capturing a lot of Russians, something like 140,000 during the first 48 hours. The Austrians then added another 30,000 to that number during the same time. It wasn’t just men that were being captured either, but 200 guns as well, which was a massive percentage of the guns available to the Third Army at the beginning of the attack. While the loss of guns was a long term problem, it wasn’t realistically much of a short term concern since it was proving impossible for the Russians to supply the guns they had left with enough ammunition to keep them firing given the disorganization of the situation near the front. The third army would receive less than 50% of the shells that it requested from the high command in the days after the attacks and this shortage of deliveries would continue for the weeks after the attacks. Every day the commanders at the front would request a certain number of shells that they thought they needed to keep firing and they would receive 50% or so of what they requested. Now, to be fair, I am sure that the front line commanders were inflating their needs a bit, but it is very doubtful that they were doubling them. It also isn’t like it was just the Russian high command being stingy, in a lot of cases they just didn’t have the shells to give to the armies.

The Russians weren’t just sitting there getting their faces kicked in though, General Radko-Dmitriev, the commander of the Third Army was trying to organize counter attacks. On May the 7th he launched a counter attack with two corps that had been provided to him from the South. Unfortunately when the attack was launched on the 7th it ran right into the face of fresh German reinforcements that had just recently arrived on the scene with the intention of attacking themselves. Before the attack Radko-Dmitriev would say of the attack that “I have great hopes in this manoeuvre, the only way of restorying the army’s position.” The attacks would end up being a horrible failure with the Germans stopping the attack, taking thousands of prisoners, and then beginning to push the remaining Russians back. As a way of communicating the scale of the failure lets look at the 24th Corps which had been brought up ffrom the south for the attack. The corps had a normal strength that hovered around 40,000 men but they would end the battle with just 1,000 men still fit to fight. I will just use this sentence as a delaying filler so that you can ponder on those numbers for a moment. On the fifth day the Germans captured the second namesake of the attack, Tarnow. The Russians were simply in a position where they had to retreat, but the Russian high command didn’t think that was the case quite yet. With hindsight as our guide it is of course easy to see that the Russian army had to retreat at least to the San river to put it between themselves and the Germans. In fact the Third Army commander agreed with these observations and was asking for permission to do exactly that. He saw a situation in which if he didn’t retreat, and retreat soon, and retreat very quickly, he wouldn’t have any army left to retreat with. General Ivanov, Radko-Dmitriev’s immediate superior, also agreed with him drawing many of the same conclusions on what would happen if the retreat wasn’t ordered. Unfortunately when Ivanov took these concerns to General Danilov, the Russian Chief of Staff, he was told “Your views cannot conceivably be submitted for the Supreme Commander’s approval” which is sort of where the idea stopped for the moment. The Russian General Staff didn’t approve because retreat would mean relinquishing all of the ground gained since the beginning of the war in Galicia and it would also mean abandoning the fortress of Przemysl which had only recently fallen into Russian hands. The capture of the fortress had been a huge victory for the Russians especially in terms of propaganda and to abandon it now without a fight was not even under any consideration. Dmitriev was told to have his third army continue to hold its ground. Ivanov’s Chief of Staff would say right around this time ‘The strategic position is quite hopeless. Our line is very extended, we cannot shuttle troops around it with the required speed, and the very weakness of our armies makes them less mobile; we are losing all capacity to fight.’ He would then shortly after have a nervous breakdown and have to be dismissed. It would take several more days, and a lot of losses before the Russian high command would authorize a retreat on May the 10th. This was not done willingly but was instead just a final realization that regardless of what the orders were the army would retreat or it would be annihilated where it stood. What was left of the army did eventually make it to the San River where the retreat, at least for now, stopped. The numbers vary a lot but the Third army had only 1/5th the men that it started the battle with, and that includes the tens of thousands of reinforcements it had gained since May the 2nd.

While the Germans were having such huge successes and Mackenson’s men were throwing the Russians back the Austrians to the south were having a bit of a hard time. The Russians had launched their attacks in the Carpathians with the hope that it would force the Germans to shift men from the attack to help their ally and it looked for a moment like it might work. By the middle of may the Austrians had lost a lot of ground in the mountains and had lost a lot of men and guns to the Russians. However, Falkenhayn and Mackenson pretty much just ignored the Austrians requests for assistance and focused everything on a renewal of the attacks on the San. The next round of attacks would begin along the river on May 16th. Before the attacks began the Russian positions were already perilous. Some divisions were down to 1,000 men, or 1/6th of their original strength and after the attack started the Germans quickly pushed across the river and deeply penetrated the Russian lines. Dmitriev attempted to relieve some of the pressure by launching a counter attack against the Austrian troops immediately to the south of Mackenson’s Germans but while they made some gains they were not enough to cause the Germans to be disrupted. The attack had been launched on the 19th and included several divisions that had been stripped from the Northern Russian line, 10 divisions in all and while Mackenson was forced to send some reinforcements to the Austrians the German troops quickly took care of the situation and It would be fully stopped by May the 25th. Overall it was not a great hinderance to the German advance and Mackenson had even taken the opportunity to launch another attack when essentially destroyed the Russian Corps that was facing his men that were already across the San. Oh, and on June the 4th the Fortress of Przemsyl was retaken by the German and Austrian troops, the second time that it had changed hands during the war.

In the second week of June the attacking took a bit of a breather. This allowed both sides to take a deep breath and take stock of the situation. The attacks had many far reaching consequences. The first, and most immediate concern for the Russians was that the Russian southern front had been stripped of essentially all reserve formations and nearly all Russian troops were in the line. The casualties had been in the realm of 400,000 including prisoners and while the Russians were known for their manpower reserves not even they could absorb these loss numbers without having some problems. The short term solution was to move troops from the Northern Front to assist and Alexeyev had to give up 2 Corps, then another two Corps, before it was eventually decided that Alexeyev’s front should be expanded further south. So he had to give up a bunch of troops and take over more of the line. This created a situation where the Russians weren’t really strong anywhere, which the Germans couldn’t fail to notice and would soon take advantage of. There were also some other effects like the Russian government withdrawing any notion of support for the operations at Gallipoli. Originally the Russians had promised troops to assist should the Royal Navy manage to punch through the Dardanelles and make it to Constantinople, with the Gorlice-Tarnow attacks this was withdrawn and the British were told they had to fend for themselves. The Russians did have one piece of good news through, on May the 23rd the Italians had officially entered the war on the side of the Russians to that could theoretically provide some relief. And in fact on June the third a large conference was held with the military leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary in attendance to decide what precisely was to be done. They of course all had separate priorities and wanted separate operations to be launched that would fulfill their own individual goals. Falkenhayn wanted to move troops West, not to launch an attack, but to counter the British build-up of troops. Hindenburg and Ludendorff wanted a new grand attack iin the East with the goal of surrounding all of the Russian troops in central Poland. This massive encirclement could push the Russians back hundreds of miles and maybe even knock them out of the war. Falkenhayn argued that the Germans simply didn’t have the resources for such a huge undertaking. Ludendorf countered this concern with the fact that if they weren’t going to go for some kind of knockout blow then what exactly were they doing in the war at all? Ludendorff was always supportive of going for the knockout blow as we will see in 1918. Oh, and don’t forget about Conrad, the leader of the Austrian military wanted to attack Italy, but nobody really listened to him very much. At the behest of the Kaiser a compromise was reached between the German leaders. Ludendorff would give more troops to Mackenson for a renewal of his attacks, Conrad would move some more troops to the Italian front that were strictly for defensive protection from the inevitable attack and were in not situation to be used for an offensive. This compromise pleased nobody, but it was what was going to happen, and was probably the best thing to do.

Mackenson would use these reinforcements to launch his next attack in mid-June and it would be launched from the German positions that were already across the San. Mackenson would comment before the attacks that he felt he was facing “completely defeated troops” and really, he was. The Russians were around 500,000 men short of full strength across the entire front and they were holding a paper thin line that was completely unprepared to fend off any attack. It very quickly became apparent to everyone, much faster than it had in early May, that the Russians had to retreat, and retreat quickly. Grand Duke Nicholas was convinced just after the attack was launched that a retreated should be ordered immediately and would inform the Tsar that it was about to begin. He would also take the opportunity to complain about the quality of the reinforcements that were arriving at the front ‘the quality of replacements, as regards their training, is beneath criticism. Their training has been very hurried, and because rifles are short, they do not even know how to fire.’ On Jun 20th the evacuation of Lwow and all of Galicia north of the Carpathians was ordered and on June the 22nd the Germans entered Lwow. By the end of June Mackenson had captured another 240,000 prisoners which brought the total number of captured to 400,000 for the two months of May and June 1915, just staggering. And on that bombshell this episode is now over, but the saga of the eastern front offensives is sort of just getting going. Next week we will take another nice long look at the Russian situation on the front after all of these attacks, and spoilers here, it isn’t pretty. Then we will talk about the next moves that were being planned for the German and Austrian armies, I don’t have the episode exactly planned yet but there is a very good chance we even dive into the attacks during July that would be like hammer blows against the Russians. Also next week History of the Great war will be celebrating its one year anniversary so if you want to celebrate in the same way that I will be you will have a bottle of Duvel, a Belgian beer, ready to pop open as soon as the episode is released. Until next time, have a good week.