42: Russian Retreat Pt. 3


With the Russians hurting, the Germans launch an even larger set of offensives with the goal of pushing them out of Poland.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 42, on this day June 28th 2015 we remember the 101st annivesary of the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the 1st anniversary of this podcast. To everyone who listens to the show, thank you. And to celebrate this week I will be posting random facts about the show out to social media on Twitter and Facebook. So if you want to know how many times you have heard me say the word “war” or how many hours you have been listening to my voice, or even the approximate number of cups of coffee I have drank while creating the show in the last year you should follow the show at twitter.com/historygreatwar or facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar. Last episode we discussed the opening attacks of the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive where Mackenson and his German and Austrian troops were able to punch a pretty significant hole through the Russian lines that forced the Russians to retreat several miles to the San River in western Poland. During these attacks they captured hundreds of thousands of men and put the Russians in an extremely precarious position. We start our episode today with a discussion of the Russian situation after the attacks in July 1915 before looking at what the German and Austrians planned to do to exploit it. We will then look at the three attacks that the Germans launched to try and capture Warsaw and push the Russians out of Poland completely.

Last week I spoke pretty extensively about the situation of the Third Army that had born the brunt of the attack of Mackenson’s army, this week I’m going to pull our map out a bit to talk about the Russian situation as a whole in their central sector which ran roughly from the Carpathians in the south to the border between Russian Poland and East Prussia in the north. By mid-June the situation all along this line can best be described as perilous, the defeats that the Russian armies had suffered in the south at the hands of Mackenson and in the north at the hands of Ludendorff had taken a situation that I would probably describe as okay and made it almost untenable. The Russians were pushed out into a salient that went west through Poland and pointed toward the center of Germany. Before Mackenson’s advance this salient had to be concerned with the forces in Eastern Prussia but now they also had to be concerned with the new German forces that had pushed in from the south. General Alexeyev found himself in command of most of this line, having taken over some of the line from Ivanov earlier in the summer. His line had been stripped of all reserves and they had been sent south so the weight of the front had shifted decisively from the north to the south. If you remember last week we discussed how the northern front had more troops but this was now reversed. Finding themselves in this strategic position it wasn’t long before some members of the Russian Army began to advocate for retreat. These rumblings started even before the second wave of German attacks in the south which had breached the Russian line along the San river. At first the group of leaders wanting to retreat was small and they spoke quietly, but they would become more bold as the defeats mounted and the situation deteriorated. These feelings were not without reason, there were 3 Russian armies in the Salient in Poland and if the Germans broke through in the north and south it is likely that these three armies would be very quickly surrounded and either forced to surrender of annihilated. If instead the Russians retreated before the Germans attacked they could bring the troops out of their risky position and they could shorten their line, which would mean that their shortage of troops wouldn’t be as painfully felt. In his book Eastern front 1914-1917 Norman Stone describes some of the reasons that a retreat couldn’t happen, in this quote he references Stavka, which is Russian High command, although I haven’t been using the word to hopefully avoid confusion “But Stavka shrank from such a policy. It would mean letting the Germans take Poland. It would mean abandoning forward positions at the very moment the western Powers were likely to take the Dardanelles; Russia would lose her arguments for eventual annexation of Constantinople; moreover, if the Italians, now, broke out into Austrian territory, Russia would maybe lose control of areas the future of which she desired to shape.” To go along with the problems Stone outlines there was also the fact that there were a string of fortresses built in Poland in the pre-war years, 6 of them in fact, Novogeorgievsk, Ivangorod, Grodno, Kovno, Osowiec, and Dvinsk. These fortresses had been built specifically to hold the line against a German advance into Polish territory and they contained almost 8,500 pieces of artillery, thousands of men, and countless shells, to make this a reality. To abandon them in 1915 without a fight, when so much money and effort had been put into the fortresses would have been to admit that all of that effort and money had been a waste. Abandoning them would mean that constructing them in the first place had been a mistake. Long time listeners of the History of the Great War podcast may remember what happened to two other fortresses back in Belgium when the Germans came to take them, and if you remember the fates of Namur and Liege them I’m sure you can extrapolate what might happen if the Russians were going to try to hold onto the fortresses. The two Russian commanders, Ivanov and Alexeyev seem to have agreed on very few things, but the necessity of Russian retreat was not one of them. Ivanov first suggested retreating all of the troops west of the Vistula to be instead behind the river where further retreat would be far easier. In response Russian High Command gave more of Ivanov’s front to Alexeyev. When Alexeyev then proceeded to suggest much the same thing he was specifically forbidden from ordering the retreat out of fears that it would cause the Germans to attack. So right before the German attack the Russians denied themselves the opportunity of a strategic movement that would have provided them ability to offer a stronger resistance and a better opportunity to retreat when the inevitable German attack was launched. When the time came for an involuntary retreat this decision would cost many lives.

With the Russian situation covered, lets turn once again to discussions amongst the German high command on what they wanted to do. This is the second large meeting on the subject after the one in early June had resulted in the resumption of attacks by Mackenson. Falkenhayn went into this meeting, of course, wanting only limited attacks in the east. He even, once again, floated the idea of pausing attacks on Russia to maybe see about the possibility of a separate peace. His real fear was that if the Germans attacked and they were successful the inertia of the attack would carry them into Russia. Falkenhayn would be quoted as saying “The Russians can retreat into the vastness of their country, and we cannot go chasing after them for ever and ever.” He just really didn’t want to get lost in an attack on Russia that could become an all consuming adventure for the German army. This is probably an accurate assessment of what would have happened. Another interesting dynamic to consider in this regard, and I haven’ been able to find out conclusively if Falkenhayn believed this or if this is just some historical revisionism taking place but if you look at the situation in Russia in 1915 you see a country that isn’t the most unified. Sure, the revolutionary spirit was not where it would be in the coming years but it was already there. There had almost been a revolution in 1905 and those sentiments hadn’t completely went away. In many cases there is nothing that unifies a country more than a foreign power invading. It isn’t unreasonable to believe that the overall morale and fortitude of the Russian soldiers would have slowly been ratcheted up as the Germans advance into the Russian heartland. The Kaiser did agree with Falkenhayn on the wisdom of not chasing the Russians all the way into the Russian interior, just the simple logistics of supplying an army of that distance was crazy. But the Kaiser would not discuss the separate peace idea and would look to others for their ideas. Ludendorff used this opportunity to once again float his idea for a huge offensive from two different directions, one launched from the south and one from the north with the gaol of cutting off all of the Russian troops in Poland. The specifics of this plan had actually been developed not by Ludendorff but by Hoffman, of Tannenberg fame. Hoffman had apparently taken several hours on the night before the meeting to convince Ludendorff of the merits of the plan. Having been convinced by Hoffman that the plan was the best available Ludendorff began planning and advocating for it in his usual enthusiastic manner. He even went so far as to tell Hoffman to have all the troops ready so they could be launched into the attack as soon as the Kaiser’s approval had been attained. The plan that Ludendorff presented involved the armies of the North and South marching first east and then pincering together to encircle all of the troops between them. The two armies would meet to the east of Warsaw in far Eastern Poland. While the plan was well received over the course of the meeting it was tamed down quite a bit and the plan that would finally result from the discussions would be a fair bit less ambitious than what Ludendorff had been proposing. The attack would be a three pronged offensive that was designed to completely push the Russians out of Poland. The three attacks would occur in Galicia under the command of Mackenson, to the North of Warsaw on the Narev river under the command of General Gallwitz, and finally Hindenburg and Ludendorff would attack in the north. The armies from the north and south would meet somewhere on the River Bug in Poland. The removal of the opening move east of the northern and southern armies is pretty important because it greatly reduced the size of the sack in which Russians could be encircled. Ludendorff at first strongly objected to the reduced scale of the attack, he was however forced to eventually accept the plan. It was still a very large operation that would require the Germans to abandon plans that had been made earlier in the year which were to deal with Serbia in summer 1915 and it definitely meant that Conrad couldn’t do anything against Italy anytime soon. Now the die had been cast and on July 12th three German attacks would be launched, one driving south, one driving north, and one driving west. We will cover them in that order, starting first with the attacks in the north, then moving to the south, and finally to the attacks in the center.

We start with discussions of actions in Courland, last week we covered the initial German advance into the area but this week we will talk about the next set of operations. Ludendorff believed that a large attack should be launched out of Courland against Russia, much like a deep advance in the south it would threaten the entire Russian line. Falkenhayn did not think that this was even remotely close to a good idea. Courland wasn’t a well developed area and there was serious difficulties in moving large groups of men in the area, and of course keeping them supplied. There were very few roads and almost no railroads and this meant that maintaining much mobility was almost impossible. In a broader sense critics of Ludendorff point to ideas like his proposed advance out of Courland as evidence of his unrealistic visions for offensives that would not have ever succeeded. It is also interesting to see that it was often Falkenhayn, Ludendorff’s greatest nemesis, that was responsible for tempering the scale of Ludendorff’s offensive which probably played at least some role in preserving his reputation as a commander. It is one of those interesting what-ifs that if Falkenhayn had really wanted to see the star of Hindenburg and Ludendorff drop a few pegs he could have let one of these large offensives take place, with the knowledge that it had a reasonable chance of failure (not that any military operation doesn’t) and through the failure maybe the public’s faith in the duo would have lessened. This would of course have been very selfish of Falkenhayn, lots of material and casualties would have went into such a move, but it would have been possible. For their part the Russians were mostly concerned that a further German attack would threaten Riga and Kovno. These locations were about 170 miles apart and being concerned with the safety of both of them meant that it required a lot of troops to defend both and to have enough in the middle to keep them safe. Alexeyev didn’t want to move any more troops into the area, citing the fact that the Russians already outnumbered the Germans as the reason, there were other places in the line that were far more at risk. He was however getting pressure from the Russian General Staff, especially a General Yanushkevitch, to move more troops into the area out of concern for losing more of the Baltic coast. Yanushkevitch, in fact, wanted Alexeyev to send his premier unit, maybe the best under his command in the form of the Guards Corps comprised of 27,000 men, into Courland to defend against a German attack. Alexeyev instead planned to use the Guards Corps as his primary means of covering the retreat of other troops in Poland. Due to Alexeyev’s reluctance to follow requests from his superiors it was decided that maybe Alexeyev couldn’t command as much of the front as he currently was in charge of and therefore there was a new front created, the Northern Front, which would be put under the command of General Ruzski, the general who had been in charge of the disaster at the Masurian Lakes in early 1915. While this was obviously a demotion of sorts for Alexeyev, in reality I doubt he minded too much, it wasn’t like he wasn’t busy with trying to keep his men from being encircled and annihilated in central Poland during this time. Anytime there is a command change for any unit in a wartime situation there is often a bit of confusion while the new commander moves in and figures out the situation, this confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that Alexeyev pretty much just washed his hands of the whole situation in the north as soon as he heard what was going to happen, even before Ruzski really had time to take over. It was around this time that the Germans decided to launch their attack, because that is what the Germans do. One of the areas that the Germans really focused on was the fortress of Kovno. The fortress complex of Kovno was manned by around 90,000 men and they had at their disposal 1,300 guns. In theory, it was a large, formidable series of forts and entrenchments, it did however, much like most of the fortresses we have discussed so far, have some pretty serious weaknesses. It had been initally designed and built in 1880, and artillery had changed a lot since that date. The fortress also hadn’t been kept in good repair or improved much for most of the time between 1880 and 1915. This meant that when the Germans came a knocking there was, for example, one fort where there was only a single brick emplacement to house a single battery, and all the rest were left in the open and exposed. There also weren’t barracks for the extra troops necessary in a siege situation to defend the guns, instead there were just enough for the peacetime compliment, plus a few extras. When you are talking about moving in 10’s of thousands of men to man the trenches and fortifications, the lack of space to house them becomes a problem. Also, none of the communication lines between forts were buried underground so they were very quickly cut by the German bombardment. In situations like this the German bombardment of the fortress almost couldn’t help but be very effective. The defenders put up a very good fight though, even though they were outgunned. The defenders of the first three forts to be focused by German fire held out for a few days, which I think is pretty good, before they were forced to capitulate with extremely high casualties. After the forts started falling a chain reaction began and they began to surrender faster and faster. After the first few surrenders the commander of the defense fled from the scene, reportedly being chased by the police. The German 10th Army, who was in charge of the attack, then took over the complex, capturing all the guns and 850,000 artillery shells. At this point a huge gap developed between Ruzski’s two armies which had been centered on Riga and Kovno. This gap was made worse by Ruzski’s fears of a German attack against St. Petersburg, then called Petrograd. The gap that developed was 50 miles wide and it was only patrolled by a meagre force of Russian cavalry. It was ripe for a German attack. Alexeyev refused to give more troops to Ruzski, this being after the attacks in central poland had begun and he was far more concerned with getting his army out in one piece than helping Ruzski with his mistakes. We will leave the rest of the tale of the shattered northern Russian lines until next week when Ludendorff launches is final 1915 offensive.

In the south we visit Mackenson’s army that was doing Mackenson things as it started up its attacks again. There wasn’t too much different this time except that this time they were heading almost straight north instead of east. Conrad wanted Mackenson and his army to be marching further to the east to hopefully trap more Russian forces but he was almost completely ignored by Mackenson and Falkenhayn. This moment is the picture perfect moment to describe the hierarchical organization in which Mackenson was technically under the command of Conrad, but never really listened to him. Overall, Falkenhayn left the specifics of the attacks up the Mackenson and is quoted as saying “It is endlessly less important where Mackenson and the Bug-Armee break through, than that they should merely break through somewhere.” The Bug-Armee was the name for the forces attacking the south, named after the River in which they were pushing towards. Falkenhayn was correct in his assessment that the Germans only had to achieve a decisive breakthrough somewhere to begin a chain reaction along the front. Mackenson now had 33.5 German divisions under his command with 8 more Austrian divisions joining in the attack on the right. On the front that was being attacked there were roughly an equal number of Russian divisions. For these new attacks Mackenson didn’t change his tactics very much, heavy concentration of artillery fire in the center of the attack with the intent of raining as much weight of fire on the enemy as possible and then a push straight through. No flanking maneuvers or fancy footwork in the attacks. It had worked once, so why change it up now? The continued reluctance of Russian commanders to either order a retreat or provide their men with suitable defenses assisted the Germans in the attack greatly. The Russians hadn’t been in their current positions long, but even so they were underprepared from where they could have been once the German attack came. Mackenson began the attack by moving toward Lublin and Cholm and he had captured both before the end of July. The Russians were getting bludgeoned all along the front and their tendency to not order retreats was soon causing them to lose men far faster than they could be replaced in the line. By the end of July Alexeyev, now the commander of the area having taken over command after the last attacks had to constantly explain to the Russian General Staff why his army was doing so poorly in its fighting. Afterall, it was a new large army that had been assembled and put in place specifically to keep Mackenson bottled up in his positions. The entire front had been robbed of reinforcements to make this happen, and yet it wasn’t stopping the German advance. Alexeyev would tell high command “You appear not to appreciate the situation regarding III and XIII Armies (on Mackensen’s front). In numbers, they are now insignificant, exhausted in an extreme degree, incapable of further resistance.” The result of the battles were casualties figures that seem much like what had happened during the first week of the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive, the Russian 10th Corps was down to 4,000 total men. The two armies facing Mackenson were short of their full number by 180,000 men. Even the luckiest of the divisions that found themselves in the path of Mackenson would end up losing 1/2 of their strength.

We now turn to the third and last of the attacks that we will discuss today, that of General Gallwitz and his German troops along and over the Narev river with the goal of marching on and capturing Warsaw. For this purpose Gallwitz had 10 and a half divisions under his command and over 1,000 artillery pieces. While capturing Warsaw was the objective it was also hoped that the Russians would try to defend the city and its surrounding fortifications which would give the other German armies the ability to wrap around behind the defenders. I feel like in these episodes I have referenced the events of early 1915 about 20 times, but here is another one to add to the number. If you remember back in February the Germans had tried to take Warsaw but their offensive had stalled out before they could reach the city. The same goals had been set for that offensive, and the plan was pretty much the same for the attack, the one advantage Gallwitz had was of course the current Russian situation when he launched his attack on July 13th. The Russians were not under any illusions as to the strength of the force that Gallwitz was attacking into, just 7 divisions and 350 guns was a weak force to face the Germans. Alexeyev had been trying to move some reinforcements into the area, but just didn’t have time to get things sorted out before the Germans launched their attacks. The Germans, in what I can only assume was a purposeful move, attacked right at the junction between two Russian armies with a bombardment that was, as usual, very destructive. On the first day of the attack there was already a gap of 2 miles in the Russian front, with not very much in front of the Germans but the Polish countryside. General Litvinov, the commander of one of the Russian armies involved ordered his men to fight and die where they stood instead of retreating, and they died, a lot. The two closest Russian reserve corps were moved in the direction of the attack but when they arrived the troops were not held together as large units and were instead handed piecemeal to the two Army commanders. That sentence is worded a bit negatively, and that is purposeful on my part. In this situation I’m sure the Russian commanders didn’t see an alternative but to move men in as fast as possible and to wherever they were needed but I can think of very few instances where this type of tactic worked during a large scale defensive. I am not a military historian, and I haven’t done any research into this specific topic but everytime I can recall that an army leader has fed a large reserve force into the line piecemeal it general only achieves the dilution of whatever strength that unit could have had, and instead the men generally just die piecemeal and spread out. I would love to hear if anybody had counter examples of this. In 4 days of attacks the Germans managed to capture 24,000 prisoners, which is a very small number when compared to the prisoner numbers I have been throwing out over the last few episodes, but there were far fewer men involved in these actions on the Narev. Alexeyev, realizing the situation, ordered all of the troops back to the Narev river where he hoped that the waterway would offer some protection from the oncoming Germans. The same General Litinov was not optimistic about his armies chances at their new positions ‘My army will be unable to hold out for long on this new line, as it is not fortified and its right flank is altogether unsuitable for defence.’ Even with the weakness of their new positions the Russians did have one advantage, as they fell back they were met by more and more reinforcements. By the time that the Russians had reached the river the Germans had lost any numerical superiority that they had at the beginning of the offensive. The Russian numbers were nearly double in the lines at the Narev when compared to what they had been at the beginning. Even though Gallwitz still believed that his men could still push through to Warsaw when they attacked the Russian line they were stopped. Really, in a vacuum it is pretty likely that the Russians could have held the line on the Narev against any German attack that could have hit them with the resources that Gallwitz had. Unfortunately for the Russians, none of these actions were happening in a vacuum. In the south Mackenson’s attack north was making great progress and if the Russian troops stayed to defend against the German attacks it was very likely that they would be cut off. Therefore it was decided by Alexeyev and Russian High Command that the men should retreat to the Vistula River. With the decision to retreat to the Vistula the Russians were also forced to abandon Warsaw and Alexeyev was told to start the evacuation of the city. Alexeyev began evacuating his troops from around Warsaw as quickly as possible, a feat that probably wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the fact that the Russian formations were at 1/2 strength. On August 4th the Germans entered the city.

And that is all for this week. Next week we will continue covering the Russian retreat from their Polish salient as they try to stay one step ahead of their German pursuers. The tale of the Russian Retreat will be coming to an end next week with the exhaustion of the German attack and the Russians will also make a critical command change. We will also, of course, talk at length about the consequences of the massive Russian defeats in the east. Before we end this episode though I solicited some questions on the Facebook to celebrate the 1 year anniversary of the show. The first question was around what my plans were for covering the war at sea from one of the first people to like the Facebook page listener Brad. Well Brad, yes, and it will be soon. In about 3-4 episodes, after we take our Italian excursion, we should be covering quite a bit about the Naval action up to this point in the war. The last time we talked about naval action I was quite brief, as I often was in episodes last year. In the coming episodes we will talk a length about the great adventure of Admiral Spee and his little fleet, we will look at the mysterious British Room 40, the Battle of Dogger Bank, and the frustration on all sides that the hugely expensive navies had not managed to find a decisive battle. I also have an episode dedicated strictly to submarine warfare pencilled in for later this year. The second question comes from listener William who asks about a very specific source “Myth of the Great War: A New Military History of World War 1” which I have read, although it was probably a decade ago. The book actually holds a very special place in the genesis of this podcast because I remember, after reading it, being a bit confused about how much it contradicted other sources that I had read about the events of the war. This caused me to fall deeper into the research hole. There are a lot of pieces of Mosier’s work that I don’t think I agree with, but it is still at least an interesting perspective since so many histories out there swing very hard in support of the British.

Mosier takes a very different approach to his history and definitely swings very hard in the other direction. I have already started the source list for 1916, I like to think ahead, and thanks to the donations of the listeners the source list should be greatly expanded, I will just have to see if Myth of the Great War makes the list. And speaking of lists, I’m hoping to very soon be done with a website redesign that I have been poking around on for while that will focus a much greater emphasis on the source list for the show. The current site doesn’t make for an easy browsing experience for episodes and sources but hopefully the new one will be far superior with the ability to properly filter sources by year, topic, and episode. Also, if any listeners have a favorite book about the war let me know on Facebook, Twitter, or through email. There are thousands and thousands of books on the war, and I can’t pretend to have read a 10th of a 10th of 1 percent of them so I am always up for hearing about a cool book from some obscure author on some obscure subject. With the questions out of the way I think it is time to call Year 1 of the History of the Great War podcast complete, I hope everybody had a great week and joins me again next week as we finish our series on the Great Russian Retreat of 1915.