The Great War: Opening Round in the East (Four)
Topic: Military History
(For clarity German units are rendered in italics.)
Legends cluster around the famous Battle of Tannenberg. It has been said, for instance, that in the years before the war General von Hindenburg had studied the problem of defending East Prussia and developed the plan that produced victory. But there was not much to such tales. As noted earlier the Eighth Army more or less had its course of action laid out for it by the military geography of the region and the configuration of the rail net. By the time that Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived at the Eighth Army’s headquarters staff officers, a certain Colonel Max Hoffman prominent among them, had produced a plan by which Rennenkampf’s First Army in the north would he held off by a thin screen of cavalry and Landwehr brigades while the bulk of the German forces hurried south to confront Samsonov’s Second Army.
On the other side the actions of the two invading armies were becoming more and more disjointed. Their higher headquarters, Northwest Front (General Yakov Grigorevich Zhilinskiy) was some distance away in Warsaw and Zhilinskiy himself provided little in the way of leadership beyond exhortations to speed up the advance. Despite having won a tactical victory at Gumbinnen Rennenkampf was convinced that he faced the bulk of Eighth Army and could not resume the offensive until his supply situation was put to rights. Samsonov was more receptive to Zhilinskiy’s prodding. His troops had first met the Germans (XX Corps) on 22 August and pushed them back in several places. This encouraged Samsonov to press on despite his own supply problems. Zhilinskiy demanded that First Army should get going so as to support Second Army’s attack. But Rennenkampf was not short of excuses for doing nothing: German opposition, his own army’s exhaustion, lack of food, fodder and ammunition.
As Zhilinskiy nagged, Rennenkampf dithered and Samsonov marched into East Prussia, the German plan was being put into execution. By 25 August I Corps had been transported from the Konigsberg area and occupied a strong position opposite Second Army’s left flank. I Reserve Corps and XVII Corps had similarly been moved to positions opposite Second Army’s right flank. Of all this Samsonov had no inkling. He thought that only his center faced a major concentration of troops in the form of XX Corps. Thus a great opportunity seemed to beckon. Second Army’s center in the strength of three corps would attack XX Corps, nailing it in place. Meanwhile the army’s flank corps would advance to complete the enemy’s destruction.
In reality, Second Army was inserting its head into a noose. On 26 August, after an intemperate argument with Ludendorff over his supply situation, General von François launched I Corps into an attack on the Russian right flank. His corps artillery had not all arrived, however, and François did not press the attack that day. On the front of XX Corps there was heavier fighting, one Russian infantry division being largely destroyed. But Second Army was still advancing against the thinly manned German center and at Eighth Army headquarters nerves began to fray. A report that Rennenkampf had resumed his advance in full strength moved Ludendorff to say that the battle should be broken off. But Hindenburg steadied his Chief of Staff’s nerves and the report was soon found to be exaggerated.
Also on 26 August Eighth Army was notified by OHL that three corps and a cavalry division from the western armies were being dispatched to East Prussia. Still confident of victory in the West but concerned about the situation in the East, Moltke thought that he could spare the troops. Ludendorff replied that the battle would be decided before the reinforcements could arrive; however, he added, they’d certainly be welcome.
But there was no real reason for worry. On 27 August, with his artillery concentrated and his troops resupplied, François launched a heavy attack that drove the Russian left flank (I Corps) back in confusion. The same thing happened on the Russian right, where the XVII Corps and I Reserve Corps, now fully concentrated, attacked and drove back VI Corps on 27-28 August. This left Samsonov’s center group—three corps strong—in a perilous position, with German forces advancing past both flanks. By the time the Russian commander fully grasped the situation it was too late. I Corps and XVII Corps gained contact on the evening of 28 August. The bulk of Second Army was now encircled. Samsonov ordered a retreat but the German cordon prevented all but isolated groups from slipping away. Throughout the day on 29 August the Russians launched desperate attacks in an effort to break out, thousands dying in the attempt. By 30 August the surrounded troops had lost all cohesion and mass surrenders began. But General Samsonov was not among the prisoners. He chose instead to commit suicide, lamenting to his staff that “The Tsar trusted me. How can I face him after this disaster?”
In all, the casualties of Second Army amounted to 78,000 killed or wounded and 92,000 made prisoner. Three corps were completely annihilated and two more were chased out of East Prussia in disorder. At the end of August the remains of Second Army amounted to the strength of a division: perhaps 12,000 troops in all.
And through it all First Army had scarcely budged. The aggressive behavior of the German screening force—cavalry supplemented by Landwehr troops drawn from the garrison of Konigsberg—continued to convince Rennenkampf that he was facing much stronger opposition. He resumed his advance on 26 August, moving very slowly. On the day of crisis, 28 August, his leading troops were still fifty miles short of Second Army’s right flank. A week later, in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, First Army was driven out of East Prussia. With the lesson of Tannenberg before his eyes, Rennenkampf made sure to retreat in good time and his army, though badly battered, regained Russian soil in one piece.
Though Tannenberg was certainly a major victory that gave a tremendous boost to German morale, it was far from decisive. Even as Samsonov’s army was being destroyed fresh Russian forces were reaching the front in ever-greater numbers. In Galicia, as we shall see, the Austro-Hungarian Army had met disaster. And far away in France, the German offensive was beginning to falter. The Germans had gained a breathing space but it was clear that the war would continue for a long time.
Tannenberg did show that the German Army was a military instrument of considerable efficiency. As has been noted the correct line of operations in East Prussia was obvious from a glance at the map. It was in the execution of that operation that the German superiority was revealed: the handling of reserves, the management of the rail net, the quality of the staff work. The Russian Army did not lack for brave soldiers or capable commanders. In 1914 it was reasonably well armed and equipped. But there was nothing on the Russian side to compare to the German Army’s Großgeneralstab (Great General Staff) or even to its NCO corps, whose excellence explains why even second-line reserve formations fought so effectively. That the Germans did not hesitate to strip fortified areas of their garrisons and send such relatively elderly reservists into the field demonstrated a level of confidence in NCO leadership that other armies did not share.
Finally, a word about personalities. Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff were hailed as the saviors of East Prussia and the prestige they gained thereby was destined to elevate them to the summit of power. But the famous partnership was not as smooth as legend had it. Hindenburg was quite well aware that his Chief of Staff regarded himself as the brains of the operation, with the former serving largely as a figurehead. For his part Ludendorff resented the share of credit that went to Hindenburg for victories that he, Ludendorff, believed were due to his own genius. In truth the two men complimented one another, albeit not without friction. Stolid, phlegmatic, unimaginative but decisive, Hindenburg (usually) provided the steadying hand that Ludendorff, intelligent, driven, highly professional but nervy and high-strung, so greatly needed.
As for Colonel Max von Hoffman, who was deputy chief of operations at Eighth Army headquarters during Tannenberg, it is to his diary that we owe much of our knowledge of what went on during those days of crisis. An extremely intelligent man with a sardonic streak, he was known to say that the famous Duo had received the plan of battle ready made on the day of their arrival in East Prussia. And as we have seen there is much truth in that claim. Hoffman remained on the Eastern Front throughout the war, playing a notable role in events yet to be related.
The German victory in East Prussia and the Russian victory in Galicia set up the pattern of the Great War on the Eastern Front. It remains to tell how the latter came about.
Posted by tmg110
at 1:01 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 5 May 2016 10:47 AM EDT