Two Russian Armies Invade East Prussia
Russian Northwest Forces, 450,000
General Gilinsky, Commander-in-Chief
First Army—General Rennenkampf, Commander
General Gurko (Cavalry)
Second Army—General Samsonoff, Commander
German Forces, 500,000
General von Hindenberg, Commander-in-Chief
General von Francois
General von Morgen
General von (1er Goltz
General von Scholtz
General von Muehlmann
Contrary to all expectations, the Russian armies were the first to strike an effective blow. Their mobilization was a miracle of celerity, enabling them, early in August, to take the initiative. Accordingly, while the Russian armies of the south were preparing to invade Galicia as a means of defending their left flank against Austrian assault, the armies of the north were advancing from two directions toward the East Prussian frontiers to protect their right flank.
The first Russian army of 200,000 men was commanded by General Rennenkampf, a German-born officer, who had distinguished himself in everything save morality during an army service of 40 years.
The second Prussian army, numbering 250,000 men, was commanded by General Samsonoff, a brilliant, if rash, tactician. The supreme control of these northwestern armies was vested in General Gilinsky, a figure-head selected for a purpose by General Sukhomlinoff, the Russian Minister of War, who was subsequently court-martialed on suspicion of treason.
The chief objective of the Russian armies was the fortressed city of Königsberg, on the Baltic coast, then garrisoned by 100,000 men, under command of General von Francois, a Germanized Huguenot. Königsberg was otherwise defended by 1200 heavy guns, a girdle of 15 forts, and the guns of the German fleet that lay off shore.
Between the Russian frontier and Königsberg there spread a vast extent of lake and swamp land, some 90 miles in length and 60 in depth, known as the Mazurian lake region. Only a few lines of railroad traverse the edges of this forbidden region, whose quaking interior is as mysterious and impenetrable as Thibet.
The two Russian commanders were ordered to advance to the frontiers, organize their lines in the rear, and then boldly advance into East Prussia, encircling the Mazurian lakes. Rennenkampf's army was to push westward from Kovno on the Niemen River, and then skirt the Mazurian lakes on the north, while Samsonoff's army pushed northward out of Poland, skirting the lakes on the southern end.
General Samsonoff, upon arriving at the Polish-Prussian frontier, halted his advance in order to organize his lines in the rear as directed. General Rennenkampf, on the contrary, chose to disobey his express orders. His cavalry advance reached the frontier on August 3, but instead of waiting to organize his line in the rear, Rennenkampf decided to take the offensive, without notifying Samsonoff of his independent action.
A cavalry division, commanded by General Gurko, after a clash with the German outposts at Libau, crossed the frontier at Lyck, on August 5, 1914 driving the Prussians' advance patrols back 15 miles and cutting the railroad that skirts the Mazurian lakes.
As they fell back before the Russian invaders, the Germans set fire to all their villages and farmsteads, and destroyed all roads in the path of advance.
Once across the border, General Rennenkampf moved northwest, intending to follow the main line of railway connecting Petrograd and Berlin.
Battle of Gumbinnen
A German army, 150,000 strong, under General von Francois, meanwhile had moved out from Königsberg to block the advance of Rennenkampf's forces. The two armies met at Stallupohnen, on August 17, 1914 and after a brief engagement the Germans were driven back on a 35-mile battle line, having Gumbinnen as its center. Here the first real battle on the Eastern front was fought, lasting four days, August 20-24. It was a desperate, hand-to-hand struggle, in which the Russians used their bayonets and hand grenades so effectively that the Germans were defeated with heavy losses, withdrawing in haste to Insterberg. Three days later, the Germans were ousted from this position, falling back toward Königsberg.
All the region east of the Meml River was now in possession of Rennenkampf, including the cities of Tilsit, Labian, Tapian, Gerdanen, Korschen, Rastenburg, Angerburg, and Goldap. The control of six important railroads centering in Königsberg also fell to Rennenkampf.
Instead of following up his victory and destroying the Germans, as was then easily possible, Rennenkampf chose to halt at Insterberg, thereby bringing disaster to Samsonoff's army.
General Samsonoff's army of the Narew, from its base on the Polish frontier near Mlawa, had moved northward into East Prussia on a wide front, intending to round the southern edges of the Mazurian lakes and effect a junction with Rennenkampf's army west of the lakes in preparation for a combined assault on Königsberg.
After crossing the border, Samsonoff advanced with great rapidity, his main attack being borne by two central army corps, whose flanks were protected by covering corps, marching slightly in the rear. In quick succession, the Russian frontal corps captured the important cities of Soldau, Neidenburg, Ortelsburg, and Passenheim, driving the German forces before them like sheep, and advancing on Allenstein.
Several German reserve divisions had meanwhile been sent from Königsberg to assist in the defense of Allenstein. They hurriedly constructed a defensive position at Frankenau, a few miles to the east, and there awaited the Russian onslaught.
In a two days' battle, Samsonoff's central corps defeated the Germans, who retreated from Frankenau in great disorder, some toward Königsberg, others toward the southwest and abandoning all their guns and carriages.
All but one of the railroads out of Königsberg were now held by Samsonoff's two central corps. Apparently the German forces were doomed. The right wing of Samsonoff's army at Allenstein was only 45 miles removed from the right wing of Rennenkampf's victorious army at Insterberg.
Samsonoff had been informed some days before of Rennenkampf's victory in the north, and as he, too, had driven a German army before him, no doubt entered his mind of a sweeping Russian victory.
Even though the Germans should receive strong reinforcements and attack him with superior numbers, Samsonoff would have no misgivings, being well assured that Rennenkampf, only two days march removed from him, would rush to his assistance with his army of 200,000. Never was a general more basely deceived than Samsonoff.
Hindenberg Takes Charge
Appalled at the disaster which threatened their armies in East Prussia, the German General Staff hurriedly detached four corps from the French front and transported them by rail to East Prussia. They intrusted the supreme command of the new army to General Paul Hindenberg, a retired corps commander, 67 years of age, who had made a profound study of the Mazurian lake region and knew every passable road, every fordable stream, in that interminable stretch of bogs, swamps, marshes, and lakes.
Hindenberg arrived at Marienburg on August 23, 1914 and began to collect the scattered German units. With an army of 500,000 at his command, and the advantage afforded by his perfect knowledge of the Mazurian deathtrap, he could confidently plan the destruction of the Russian forces. His strategy was simplicity itself. The two Russian armies were divided. He would drive a wedge between them, seize all the possible avenues of escape by rail or road, and by superior force drive first one and then the other army into the treacherous Mazurian swamps, there to perish miserably.
By August 26, 1914 Hindenberg's army, well concealed, was in position on a line from Allenstein to Soldau. His artillery was so placed as to bear upon every causeway along which the Russians could thread their way through the maze of ponds and bogs.
In addition to the swamps he knew so well, Hindenberg had powerful allies high up in the Russian court and camp, many of whom were of German blood. Chief among these was the Czarina, wife of the Czar, a German by birth and by preference. Associated with her were powerful officials in the Ministry of War, and in the army. They were in a position to betray Russia by revealing to the German General Staff information concerning projected movements of the Russian armies which would enable the Germans to forestall the efforts of the loyal Russian generals. They were able, moreover, to withhold military supplies, especially ammunition, from the armies in the field.
Though they had permitted Grand Duke Nicholas to assume the ostensible command of the Russian forces, the real authority was vested, not in him, but in Sukhomlinoff, Minister of War, who could choose the generals and control the army supplies, who knew all the secret codes and all the orders that were issued, and who could so arrange the army movements that they might not co-ordinate.
Germany had so little to fear from Russia in East Prussia that at the outset of hostilities she had scarcely 250,000 troops stationed there. For was not Sukhomlinoff the Russian Minister of War? And was not one of the Russian armies of invasion commanded by General Rennenkampf, a German by birth, whose brother was the German governor of Thorne, whose uncle held high place in the German court, and who himself was a favorite of the German-born Czarina?
After his failure to support General Samson- off, in the battle shortly to be reviewed, Rennenkampf was regarded as a traitor, and as a traitor he was put to death during the Russian revolution in 1917.
Samsonoff, after his victory at Allen- stein, was puzzled at the failure of Rennenkampf to effect a contact with his forces. He knew that Rennenkampf was at Insterberg, only 45 miles away, and that the wings of the two armies could be brought together in a two days' march. Believing that there was no German force on his front capable of re sistance, he rashly decided to abandon his safe position at Allenstein and push forward through the treacherous Mazurian lake region, seize the crossings of the Vistula River, and capture the fortress of Graudenz.
In thus plunging into the Mazurian labyrinth, Samsonoff all unwittingly was walking into Hindenberg's trap. To an invading army, the morasses of the vast Mazurian lake region present insuperable obstacles.
Instead of military roads and wide plains for the deployment of troops, the only footing which the region afforded for troops was along the narrow isthmuses which separate the countless ponds and swamps, or in the defiles between the rolling hills. Some of the ponds have sandy bottoms and are easily fordable; others are clay wells which would engulf an army which attempted to cross them. Similarly, many of the marshes are firm enough for the passage of men, while others are treacherous bogs.
Any invading army, crossing this labyrinth, would of necessity divide into a number of columns, all widely separated and unable to co-ordinate their movements. The lines of communication behind the advancing armies would be few and difficult, and the opportunity for a successful retreat in case a superior foe was encountered, would be comparatively slight. Now Samsonoff had no expert knowledge of this lake region, while to Hindenberg it was an open book.
The Great Battle of Tannenberg
As late as August 26, 1914 General Samsonoff was unaware that a superior German force threatened his line. On that day, his army was disposed along the western edge of the Mazurian lakes on a 35-mile front, extending north and south. His two advance corps occupied Allenstein at the north, another corps held the center of the line at Hohenstein, while the two cover corps were stationed at Soldau in the south.
Hindenberg's array lay well concealed a few miles to the west, covering this Russian line. Having prepared a trap for the Russians, Hindenberg was ready to lead them into it. With his vastly superior forces, he expected to gain an easy victory over the Russians. In broad outline, his plan was to roll back the flanks of Samsonoff's army at Allenstein and Soldau, and then, by striking hard at the Russian center, near Hohenstein, force the entire Russian army into the Mazurian swamps, where he should destroy it at his pleasure.
In developing this strategy, Hindenberg seems to have wholly disregarded the existence of Rennenkampf's Russian army, only a few miles to the north. Perhaps he knew Rennenkampf to be a traitor who would in no case come to SamsonofPs assistance if attacked.
At all events, when ready to launch his surprise attack on Samsonoff's army, Hindenberg planned as if he knew that no clanger menaced him from Rennenkampf's direction. He had withdrawn all the German forces, excepting two divisions of cavalry, from in front of Rennenkampf's line, leaving only 10,000 Germans behind to hold in check a Russian army of 200,000.
Hindenberg began his double flanking movement on August 26, when he turned Samsonoff s left flank at Soldau, bending it back as far as Neidenberg on the very edge of the Mazurian swamps and seizing at the same time the sole remaining railroad by which the Russians might have effected their retreat into Poland.
Simultaneously, the Germans attacked the Russian center at Hohenstein, but here they met with such stout resistance that they were compelled to fall back to a prepared position. Had it not been for their superior artillery the German line no doubt would have been broken.
While the Russian center and flank were thus engaged, Hindenberg was achieving his "masterstroke" on the Russian right flank.
General Samsonoff, only a few hours before, had led his two advance corps out of Allenstein on his rash expedition to Graudenz.
The two corps, broken up into widely separated columns, were threading their devious way along the narrow isthmuses that skirt the Mazurian lakes and swamps. They were in complete ignorance of the attacks then in progress on their center and left flank.
All unwittingly, they were walking straightway into Hindenberg's trap. That astute general, who knew every inch of the Mazurian lake region, intended to flank the moving Russian columns in a novel way. Using 10,000 requisitioned motor vehicles, he rapidly transported two army corps through the gap between Rennenkampf's idle army at Insterberg and the bending right wing of Samsonoff's army, getting in the rear of the Russians.
While 100,000 Germans were thus touring in motor trucks across his entire front, to take Samsonoff in the rear, General Rennenkampf, with 250,000 troops at his disposal, never stirred to the assistance of his doomed compatriots, though his army might easily have crushed Hindenberg's flanking movement and averted a terrible disaster to Russian arms.
Russians Sink in Mazurian Swamps
The inevitable happened. With both the Russian flanks enveloped, Hindenberg's reserves pounded the Russian center at Hohenstein and very soon Samsonoff's entire army was thrown into hopeless confi'oion. By virtue of his uncanny knowledge of that dismal swamp region, Hindenberg then mercilessly pushed the Russians deeper and deeper into the treacherous morasses.
Whole regiments of Russians were seen to disappear suddenly in the morasses; others, as they slowly sank, were blown to atoms by the huge German guns carefully positioned on the solid ground, which Hindenberg had chosen.
Fifty thousand Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were driven back at the point of the bayonet into the muck of the .swampland, imploring mercy from the heartless Huns, who shelled them even as they sank.
Out of 250,000 brave Russians who had entered Hindenberg"s trap, only 60,000 managed to escape, by the Ortelsburg road eastward. The two frontal corps were captured intact.
General Samsonoff, while seeking to escape through the forests with members of his staff, was suddenly stricken with heart trouble. Unable to move a limb, prostrate and utterly helpless, he was deserted by his staff in the dark woods. Days afterward his corpse was found with a bullet wound in the head, but whether he died of suicide or was murdered by Russian traitors has never been revealed.
Rennenkampf Basely Deserts His Army
Rennenkampf's army, after the Samsonoff catastrophe, was reinforced by a full corps. With this army of 250,000, Rennenkampf pretended to plan a further advance into East Prussia in the direction of Königsberg, yet a few days later he permitted a small German cavalry unit, with a single battery of guns, to break through his front, shell Gurnbinnen, cut his line of communication and create a panic among the Russian transports stationed there.
The next morning Rennenkampf gave orders for an organized retreat of the whole army toward the Russian frontier. But without waiting to conduct the retreat, this traitor and coward deserted his army and escaped by motor to the Russian front.
General Gurko, the Russian cavalry leader, with great moderation, pictures the disgraceful episode: "General Rennenkampf evidently was himself so shaken by the successive reports received that he had lost all self-control, and leaving his staff he departed by motor car for the Russian frontier. He eventually reached Kovno, abandoning all power over his forces and leaving them to get through the hazards of the retreat, fighting on their own account."
Twice Rennenkampf had betrayed his country and the army which so loyally had obeyed his orders. Before dismissing him from these pages, we may anticipate by revealing that in the following November, when the German armies were again in retreat, on another front, Rennenkampf again betrayed Russia by permitting two surrounded German corps to escape from the net which Grand Duke Nicholas had drawn about them. Until then, he had escaped punishment for his treachery by reason of the Czarina's powerful aid. For that supreme act of treachery, or incapacity, Rennenkampf was deposed from his command. Ostracized, he slunk into obscurity and so continued until he met his deserved fate in 1917.
After Rennenkampf's desertion of his army, von Hindenberg pushed rapidly northward with his superior forces, hoping to cut off the retreat of the Russians, but the loyal Russian generals in charge of the retreat were not to be caught napping. They succeeded, though not without heavy losses, in withdrawing across the frontier. A Siberian army corps which had been pushed out from Grodno to protect the retreat was overwhelmed at Lyck, losing 20,000 prisoners.
Once across the northern and southern borders, the shattered Russian armies were rapidly reorganized—the First army with its base on the Niemen, the Second army on the Narew and the new 10th army along the Augustowa Canal. This line was strengthened by the proximity of a fort and further reinforced by a series of defensive works.
Gen. Rennenkampf evidently was himself so shaken by the successive reports received that he had lost all self-control, and leaving his staff he departed by motor car for the Russian frontier. He eventually reached Kovno, abandoning all power over his forces and leaving them to get through the hazards of the retreat, fighting on their own account.”— General Gurko, Russian cavalry leader