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Note on Comparative
General Officer Ranks
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
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.
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
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
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
The deficiencies of the
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
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.