Opening Round in the East (1)

The Steamroller: Russian infantry in August 1914 (Imperial War Museum)

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Note on Comparative General Officer Ranks

Rank structures and titles in the various armies of the Great War were not exactly equivalent. In the Russian Army  they were Field Marshal  (General-feldmarscal) General of Arm or Branch (General roda voysk), Lieutenant-General (General leytenant) and Major-General (General-mayor). The rank of field marshal was honorary, being conferred for distinguished service or on foreign monarchs. During the Great War it was not conferred at all; the last Russian to hold it had died in 1912. Unlike his fellow monarchs in Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Tsar did not hold the rank ex officio.

In the German Army general officer ranks were Colonel-General (Generaloberst), General of Arm or Branch (General der Waffengattung), Lieutenant-General (Generalleutnant) and Major-General (Generalmajor). The highest Army rank was Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall);in 1914 no general officer on the active list held this rank, which by custom was only conferred for distinguished service in wartime. Kaiser Wilhelm II held it ex officio as monarch and "Supreme Warlord."

In the Austro-Hungarian Army general officer ranks were General of Arm or Branch (General der Waffengattung), Lieutenant-General (Feldmarschallleutnant) and Major-General (Generalmajor). As in Germany, the highest Army rank, Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall), was held only by the monarch in peacetime. The rank of Colonel-General (Generaloberst) was introduced in 1915; as in the German Army it was the second-highest general officer rank. This addition brought the Army's general officer rank structure into conformity with that of the German ally.

In all three armies a General of Arm or Branch used the name of his parent branch of service, e.g. General of Infantry (General der Infanterie). A General of Artillery in the Austro-Hungarian Army was titled Feldzeugmeister: literally, Master of the Field Ordnance.

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For clarity, German formations are rendered in italics.

In 1914 the military geography of the Eastern Front was dominated by the Polish salient: the tongue of Russian territory projecting between East Prussia to the north and Austro-Hungarian Galicia to the south. For the Russians it provided a jumping-off point for a Russian offensive heading toward Berlin, less than 200 miles to the west. On the other hand, Russian forces deployed there were potentially vulnerable to converging German and Austrian attacks from the north and south respectively. The Germans, however, did not envision such offensive action in the initial stages of a war. Since they intended to make their main effort in the west against France they were compelled to stand on the defensive against Russia, relying on an Austrian offensive in Galicia to take some of the pressure off their Eighth Army in East Prussia.

As for the Russians, in the years before the war  rivalries and divisions within the officer corps had prevented the development of a single, integrated war plan. The great disagreement concerned the Army’s main effort. One faction, the "northerners," argued that it should be directed against Germany, seen as the main enemy; another faction,  the "southerners," preferred Austria-Hungary, seen as easier to defeat.  Probably the southerners had the better argument, but there was another complication: pressure from Russia's ally, France. Anticipating a German offensive against them when war broke out, the French pressed for prompt Russian action against Germany. Russia's ample military manpower—the proverbial Steamroller—must roll against Germany at the earliest possible moment. This was a plea that for political and diplomatic reasons the Tsar and his government found hard to reject. So the fundamental strategic issue was never resolved and in the end two entirely separate plans were made: one for an offensive into East Prussia and one for an offensive into Austrian Galicia. Only the Russian Army’s great numerical strength made this non-decision appear plausible.

The Eastern Front: August 1914 (Department of History, USMA West Point)

For the East Prussian offensive two field armies were projected: First Army, attacking due west from the vicinity of Vilna toward Königsberg, and Second Army, attacking northwest from the Polish salient toward the Vistula River. The defending Eighth Army would thus be enveloped and destroyed. Between them the two Russian armies had nine corps with nineteen infantry divisions, two rifle brigades, eight cavalry divisions, one cavalry brigade and rather over 400,000 men. Eighth Army had four corps with nine infantry divisions (six active, three reserve), two Landwehr infantry brigades, one cavalry division, various fortress troops and about 200,000 men.

Though heavily outnumbered the Germans did possess some advantages. Foremost among them was the military geography of East Prussia. The two attacking Russian armies would be separated by the Masurian Lakes region, called the Angerapp-Stellung (Angerapp Position) by the Germans. This area of marsh and forest was practically impassible for a large force, the few narrow paths through it being blocked by fortifications that could only be reduced by heavy artillery. But the Russian Army has very little heavy field artillery: only five battalions for the whole army. Thus it might be possible for the defenders, operating on interior lines with good lateral railroads at their disposal, to concentrate against the attacking Russian armies in turn, defeating each without interference from the other. The Germans also had the advantages of a much superior staff organization, more medium and heavy artillery, and better-trained troops.

The deficiencies of the Russian Army should not, however, be exaggerated. The shortages of weapons and ammunition that were to plague it later were not a factor in August 1914. On the whole the troops were well equipped with rifles, machine guns and light field artillery. Indeed, the Russian 76.2mm field gun was an excellent weapon of its type, definitely superior to its German counterpart. Medium and especially heavy field artillery were insufficient but this deficiency was not as important as it would become later. Insofar as the organization of the two invading field armies was concerned, the most glaring flaw was too much cavalry, whose requirements for rail transport and fodder made excessively heavy demands on the supply system.

Another problem was command and control of the East Prussian invasion. This was supposed to be provided by an army group headquarters—Northwest Front—that had been set up to coordinate the movements of First Army and Second Army. But as with the German OHL in the west, poor communications prevented the front commander, General of Cavalry Yakov Zhilinski, from exercising effective command. And he only made matters worse by establishing his headquarters in Volkovysk, some 250 miles from Königsberg: too far back to influence the battle but just close enough to bombard his subordinate commanders with questions and complaints.

Thus the Russians’ numerical superiority was rather less decisive than it appeared. In the first phase of their offensive the two attacking armies would be out of touch, unable to support one another. As they advanced their outer flanks would become exposed to attack from the fortified areas of Königsberg (threatening First Army) and Thorn (threatening Second Army). The additional divisions that could have provided the necessary flank protection were, however, being concentrated around Warsaw in the Polish salient for a projected offensive into Germany—this to be launched after victory in East Prussia.

If resolutely handled Eighth Army could therefore be expected to put up an effective defense. But resolution proved to be lacking on the German side in the first phase of the East Prussian campaign.

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