43: Russian Retreat Pt. 4


The Russians are in retreat, the Germans in pursuit. The bloody summer in the east comes to an end.



Hello everyone and welcome to episode 43 of the History of the Great War Podcast. This week I would like to thank Christina, Jennifer, and Harry for their donations to the show. Harry and Jennifer are from Australia and Christina is from Belgium. The international nature of the listeners to the show still sort of boggles my mind if I think about it too much. If you would like to contribute to the show you can at historyofthegreatwar.com/donate. I would also like to thank listener Harrison for a bit of grammar correction and don’t worry I will try not to make those mistakes again. This week is our fourth episode in a row detailing the events on the Eastern Front during the summer of 1915, and it will also be our last episode on the topic for awhile. We will be travelling to other theaters for most of the rest of the year but I think it will be pretty obvious why this is the case once we get to the end of this episode. Last week we saw the Germans make a giant gash in the Russian line that caused them to have to retreat. The retreat would go on for mile after mile as the Russians stayed one step ahead of the Germans. First we will discuss a bit about the retreat and how it was going before we take a break from the action to look at a change in the Russian High command. We will then look at the last attacks in the north and south during the fall of 1915 before all of Germany’s strength, and hence all off the attacking force in the east, was moved to other theaters. At the end of the episode will of course take a step back to look at how all of the attacks had effected all of the participants and the damage caused during the battles, it was a lot.

We start today by picking up right where we left off last week, the Russians were retreating from the German attack. After bungling so many operations up to this point you might expect the Russian retreat to be a rout that was disorganized and in general a disaster. This wasn’t actually the case. Unlike almost every action up to this point the Russian retreat was organized, especially when you take into account the situation that they were in. The Germans in the north found themselves slowed by some of the rivers that they were having to cross which gave the Russians time to give ground before them. There were also several fortress complexes in the path of the Germans that they had to deal with in their advance. One of these was Novogeorgievsk which I will be referring to as Novo from here on out, because that is really hard to say. This is one of the fortress system that we talked about last week that the Russians were pretty dead set on holding onto. Novo especially was a symbol of Russian power in the region and therefore the Russian high command gave a decent amount of thought to its defense. Alexeyev however, didn’t want to spend many resources, if any at all, to defend it. He thought that it would turn into another Kovno, where a large number of troops and shells had been quickly captured by the Germans. Alexeyev fully believed that the fortresses were just a trap and the more resources you put into them the more were going to get trapped when they fell. High Command disagreed, and they believed that Novo would be more like Przemysl that had held off all attempts to take it for months. To reinforce the defenders of the fortress Alexeyev sent just three divisions. The 11th Siberians which was a skeleton division at this point and two second line divisions the 63rd and the 58th. The 58th didn’t even arrive until the very last moment before the German attacks began. These men joined the permanent defenders of the complex along with their compliment of guns and shells, of which they had nearly a million. There is a possibility that some of the resources dedicated to the defense could have been evacuated if it had been ordered before Warsaw fell, but Russian officials blame a lack of rolling stock as the reason that this couldn’t happen. They were basically using a lack of trains to justify doubling down on the defense, especially after the events of the siege would transpire and it wouldn’t end up going so well. After the Germans had captured Warsaw they moved onto Novo and began their siege. There is a story that seems to pop up in several histories that on the very first day of the siege a Russian chief engineer, while making rounds to the forts was captured along with a map of the entire complex. General Beseler, the German who had been in charge of the Siege of Antwerp, was moved in and supervised the siege and with the plans for the complex it was all quite easy. When the dust had settled the Germans had captured 90,000 soldiers. Novo would fall to the Germans just a few days after the fortress of Kovno had falled in the north.

As we have discussed on the show several times, the Russians were not very quick to order a retreat, but now that it was a fact the entire command chain really bought into the idea and made it happen. Some historians actually question if they had to retreat as far as they did, it may have been possible to stand and fight against the Germans well before the Prypet marshes but once the Russians started believing that they didn’t have the men and material to stand and fight it was hard to break out of that mindset. Retreat was always the safer option. By August 7th the Polish salient was mostly flattened and by August 22nd the line ran from the fortress of Osowiec in the south, a fortress still holding off the German advances, up to Brest-Litovsk, and then north. Very soon after the Russians had abandoned Brest-Litovsk and started to retreat into White Russia. In theory Brest-Litovsk had been a fortress as formidable as any of the others that the Russians had, but it was just abandoned at the last minute. The fortress of Osowiec actually stood for quite a while, as long as any of the fortresses that Russia tried to defend, but it to was taken on August 26th. In an ideal world the German armies to the north and the south of the retreating Russians would have been able to pinch off some Russian forces, surround them, and force them to surrender. Mackenson and Gallwitz both had strong forces, and both did their best to advance as quickly as possible, but it just wasn’t possible. In his book The First World War John Keegan would write “Every day the Russians would retreat three miles or so, construct a new line and wait for the Germans to stumble up towards it … In time the Germans came up to primaeval forest … and the great marshes of the Pripet.” The German commanders were actually quite impressed with the conduct of the Russian retreat, in their journals and official accounts when speaking of the retreat they would praise the Russian organization. As the retreat continued the Russians kept getting stronger and stronger as their line shortened and they were joined by reinforcements. This strengthening of the Russian lines just as the Germans were getting further and further away from their supplies was just too much for the Germans to break through decisively. The Germans were even having problems properly utilizing the strength that they did have. At times Gallwitz was only able to utilize have of the men under his command because there simply wasn’t enough of a front to try to attack. By far the biggest problem for the Germans through was the difficulties in getting supplies to the front. The rail lines that they were using to supply the forward troops all stopped at the Vistula and every step beyond that point was one more step away from the rail dumps. It wasn’t just the railways that were a problem though, the roads in most of the country that they were moving through weren’t what one would call great. Everything that the tens of thousands of men needed to march and fight had to be pulled forward over these roads and every day it had to be pulled further. Even simply necessities like water became a huge problem for the Germans. The Russians had been dealing with these same supply problems in the area but they ahd the advantage of having a static line to transport supplies to, they didn’t have to try and keep up with an advancing army. The Germans also had the disadvantage of advancing into territory that was completely decimated. Much like the Germans did in their retreat to the Hindenburg line in 1917 the Russians were making sure that the Germans found nothing to help them along. The scorched earth policies of the Russians meant that any type of food or supplies that couldn’t be carried with the Russians was destroyed. Cattle and Pigs were either driven east or killed on the spot. This decimation would leave a scar on the countryside that would still be effecting the area well past the end of the war. There were also the huge number of refugees that the Russian activities created, millions of the non-Russian ethnicities of eastern Poland found themselves kicked out of their homes, which were often destroyed, and forced onto the road. They would suffer horribly from diseases like cholera, typhus, typhoid, or just simply starvation. Thousands and thousands of them would die, but the extent of their suffering and the exact number of deaths will probably never be known.

The Russians had now successfully extricated their men from Poland, but after the great defeats of July and August it was time for our second big command change during the war, the first being replacement of Moltke by Falkenhayn. Near the end of August the Czar sent word to Grand Duke Nicholas that he was being transferred to be the Viceroy of the Caucasus. It was technically a promotion, but every body knew what it really was, both at the front and back home in Russia. The Grand Duke was popular in most of Russia and so his forced removal from the command position was taken hard on the home front, with some students rioting at the Grand Duke’s alma mater upon hearing the news. The replacement would be the Czar himself which was odd on a couple of levels. First he had no real military career to speak of and he was also known to be a bit wishy washy when it came to trying to make decisions. Heck, half of the problem during his reing was because he wasn’t decisive enough when he needed to be and now he was in overall command of the Russian armies. Nicholas claimed that part of the reason that he made himeself commander was out of a “duty to the country which God had committed to my keeping.” He also thought that he needed to share in the burdens that his country was facing during the current struggle. This would be the only instance during the war where a monarch of one of the European country would take direct control of their troops and for good reason. Monarchs in 1914 weren’t military men in the vein of Frederick the Great or Henry the Fifth. Nicholas was under no illusions though about what the change might mean for him. He would be quoted as saying to the French Ambassador that “Perhaps a scapegoat is needed to save Russia, I mean to be the victim. May the will of God be done.” I admire the guy for the sacrifice that he knew he was making at the time, but if I was one of the military leaders of Russia, I probably wouldn’t have been filled with confidence by the move. The Czar also cleaned house in the Russian High command and would appoint Alexeyev as his new Chief of Staff, which, from every thing I have read and I don’t call myself an expert on the talent pool available, seems like a solid choice. The change of command would be effective on September 1st, just in time to put the Czar in charge when the final lunges by the Germans and Austrians took place in September.

By the end of August the Russian center was fully retreated and the German advance had been halted. There were however two last attacks to be launched and the first would be in the north where Ludendorff would again attack out of Courland. In late August Falkenhayn had informed all of this commanders in the East that all offensive operations needed to be spooled down in the near future, reports were mounting of renewed allied offensives in the West scheduled for September, so it was important to get reinforcements onto the Western Front before those hit. Even knowing this information Ludendorff, and also Conrad to the south, would launch their attacks. The objective of this new attack was to capture the city of Vilna, which is now called Vilnius and is a city in Lithuania. Ludendorff hoped that he could get one last large attack in before more of his resources were taken from him and sent West. Throughout the summer months Ludendorff had a lot of success in the north but now the situation was different. No longer would the primary focus of the Russian commanders be on trying to stabilize the center of their line, now they could focus on Ludendorff’s attacks. Also, with their line shortened considerably there were far more reinforcements available to the Russians than at any point in the summer months. Both of these factors would make the capture of Vilna all the more difficult for Ludendorff and his men. During the attack Ludendorff would command 32 divisions that were concentrated in the attack, against just 18 division of the Russian 10th army. On September 9th the attack began with a German attack right at the city, but they quickly ran into difficulties. The Russians had prepared themselves for a frontal attack and were concentrated perfectly to meet the German thrust toward the city. Because of this readiness the first German attacks hit the center of the Russian line and just bounced off. In response Ludendorff moved his primary point of focus to the flanks and he found a weakness on the Russian northern flank. The Russians had sacrificed the strength of this area to reinforce the center and when the Germans attacked on September 12th they were able to penetrate far enough to cut the main Vilna to Riga rail line which was extremely important since it was the best way to get supplies in and out of the city. The cutting of the rail line alarmed the Russians and prompted them to move 4 more corps, an entire army, into the area. This meant that the Germans were now outnumbered by the Russian defenders. It is often difficult to successfully attack with less numbers than the defenders are able to field and the Germans experienced these problems as well, when their attacks continued they were obviously having difficulties. The new Russian army had been positioned to keep the Germans from advancing further east, but they could still attack to their south, which might just cut off Vilna, because of this push south the Russians abandoned the city on the 17th and on the 18th the Germans had captured it. Further attacks were launched in the coming days after the fall of the city, but the number advantage was just too high for the Russians and the German attacks were quickly beat back and they were even put on the defensive for awhile. In late September Falkenhayn requested more troops for France, in the form of 13 divisions, and Ludendorff was forced to abandon the attack on September 26th. This battle is one of the battles that depending on the historian’s throughts on Ludendorff you get some widely differing opinions on it. If the historian isn’t a big fan of Ludendorff you get a lot of talk about how there were far too many casualties for what was gained and that Falkenhayn was obviously correct in making sure that Ludendorff was restrained throughout the summer. On the other hand if the historian is a fan of Ludendorff they often point to the fact that if Ludendorff had been allowed to launch similar attacks earlier in the summer the Russians would have been far more vulnerable. They point to Falkenhayn’s cautiousness as what kept Ludendorff from making a decisive move. Both of these views may be correct, or at least partly correct. The attacks in the north would have been easier if they had been launched earlier when the Russians were preoccupied, at the very least if the Germans wanted to attack in the north it should have been made earlier. But I personally don’t think they should have, even if the attack would have been very successful it probably wouldn’t have had a big effect on the situation. By the time you hit Vilna, unless you are going to commit to capturing Riga which is quite the stretch, you are in sort of a dead zone in terms of important objectives. Just jump on Google maps, do a search for Vilnius Lithuania, and check it out for yourself. Just keep zooming out until you see something that looks important.

Not to be outdone, but always playing second fiddle, in the south Conrad wanted to launch his own attack to keep up with Ludendorff’s in the north. I know that I often fall into pretty flippant language anytime I talk about Austrian attacks in recent episodes, and I finally realized why right now, while writing the previous sentence. In my mind I see Austria as Germany’s younger brother. He sees his older brother doing cool awesome things and he just has to give it a shot. He never quite manages to make these attempts pay off, and as an outsider you can’t decide whether to laugh or to give him props for trying. That is how I see Austria-Hungary in 1915, a younger brother who just wants to be cool. I also thought it would be a fitting end to our discussions of the Russian defeats at the hands of the Germans by discussing a Russian victory over the Austrians. G.J. Meyer would have this to say about the Austrian attacks in his book A World Undone “On August 31, apparently swept up in one of his periodic fantasies about duplicating the triumphs of the Germans, Conrad had launched his tattered forces on a sweeping offensive aimed at encircling twenty-five Russian divisions and, after defeating them, driving eastward into Ukraine.” Conrad’s goals were lofty, encircling 25 of Ivanov’s divisions on Galicia. And when the first attacks were launched there was acctually a bit of success. Through the last few days of August the Austrian troops were advancing in eastern Galicia. Ivanov was forced to ask his commanders to send him reinforcements, but none were given. Conrad believed that this would be his time for triumph, nevermind the fact that at that moment 6 divisions were being pulled out of the line and being sent to prepare for the Serbian offensive. It was right around the time that those divisions left that the whole thing went off the rails. The Austrian Fourth Army moved forward out of the city of Lutsk and did not properly guard its flanks. Russian troops attacked out of a forest and took 70,000 prisoners on one day, September 22nd. With this massive loss the Austrians were forced to retreat giving up most of their advances. With the retreat continuing the Austrians were forced, once again, to ask for German help and troops were sent south to recapture the city of Lutsk, which the German troops did successfully in the last week of September. While this attack only occupies the second to last paragraph of this episode, it was still extremely costly for the Austrians, around 300,000 casualties were suffered. A huge number of these were from troops surrendering, or being marked as “missing” in official reports. The Fourth army alone had 30,000 marked as “missing” while having 10,000 wounded, 7,000 sick, and 2,000 killed. Austrians first attempt at an independent attack in months was an absolutely disaster.

With the winding down to the two battles in the north and south of the line the months long battle in the east was finally over. The list of casualties was massive with the Russians losing 1.4 million men, 750,000 of which were captured. Let me just repeat those numbers, 1.4 million with 750,000 captured. It hadn’t been a bloodless summer for the Germans though, they had lost around 300,000 men and the Austrians had lost around 300,000 as well. So when you add all that up 2 million men had been killed, injured, or captured during the five months of fighting on the eastern front in 1915. It is probably worth comparing this to another battle, maybe it will help to put in in perspective. Gallipoli? Only about 500,000 total. The Somme? Around a million. Verdun? Around a million as well, still only about half. Stalingrad, THE battle of WW2, the one where the Germans staked everything on capturing the city and the Red Army staked everything on holding it, 2 million casualties. For a theater not well remembered in Western nations, the campaign in the east in 1915 was extremely important. During the retreat thee Russians had destroyed huge swaths of the countryside, causing millions of people to become refugees. Most of these new refugees were non-Russian ethnic groups like Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians. The Russians had also lost a huge amount of territory and had been forced to retreat from all of their lands in Poland all the way to the area around the Pripyet marshes. Even though the Germans had inflicted so much damage on the Russians they were unable to achieve their goals. Their goal had been to cripple Russia so badly that it would either look for peace or would be incapable of continued resistance. Unfortunately, by the time the fall rains came, and the forces were needed elsewhere, neither of these things had come to pass. The Russian army had lost many commanders of course, both in the form of casualties or dismissals and their supply situation was still pretty bad and for the next several months of the year the Germans would have the command of the eastern front. But, the Russians weren’t out, they were still standing after the Germans had thrown so much at trying to beat them down. They still had men to train up and prepare and equip. In just nine months they would be back and in 1916 they would launch another round of offensives against Austria-Hungary, and it would be successful. While the Germans hadn’t achieved their ultimate goal, the breather did allow them to check a few things off of their to-do list though. First on that list would be the conquest of Serbia that we will cover later this year and second was a move of troops to the West to meet the incoming French and British attacks. Even with all of the success though, the tension between Falkenhayn, Ludendorff, and Hindenburg wasn’t even close to be over. G.J. Meyer again from A World Undone “As for Ludendorff and Falkenhayn, all the successes of 1915 had done nothing to cool their mutual hatred. When they met at Kovno late in the year to join in the kaiser’s ceremonial celebration of their conquests, Falkenhayn used the occasion to throw down the gauntlet. “Now are you convinced,” he demanded of Ludendorff, “that my operation was correct?” “On the contrary!” Ludendorff replied. Russia had not surrendered. Russia had not sued for peace. How could anyone be satisfied? Falkenhayn was heard to say that when the war ended it was going to be necessary to court-martial Ludendorff.”

With the close of the Summer offensive we will leave the Eastern front for probably the rest of the year. It has been a long, hard road for both armies and there wouldn’t be much action in the theater until 1916. I will also be taking a short break from the show for 3 weeks, during which time I can prepare and get a good head start on the episodes for the rest of the year. Just to give a basic outline on what you have to look forward to when we come back we will spend a few episodes on the action on the Italian Front followed by several episodes on the war upon the seas before launching into a many part saga of the 1915 Western Front Fall Offensives. Not sure how many episodes that last set will be, at least 5 most likely. So I wish everyone who listens a very wonderful month of July and I hope you will join me in 3 weeks for History of the Great War 1915, part 2.