Russians Repel Hindenberg's Two Invasions While Fighting Austrians in Galicia (Poland)
Russian Forces, 2,000,000
Grand Duke Nicholas, Generalissimo
General Schiedeman (Warsaw Garrison)
Artillery manned by Japanese gunners
General Gurko (Cavalry)
German-Austrian Forces, 2,500,000
Field Marshal von Hindenberg
General von Ludendorf, Chief-of-Staff
General von Morgen
General von Linsingen
General von Below
The year 1914 closed on the Eastern front with two colossal defeats of the combined German and Austrian armies, under the supreme command of Field Marshal von Hindenberg, by Russian forces of lesser strength, commanded by Grand Duke Nicholas. For two months or more, nearly 5,000,000 men were engaged in mutual slaughter on a battle line extending from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathians.
The Germans, arrogant and boastful, had expected an early victory. Instead, they barely escaped annihilation. Were it not for the treachery of a Russian general of German birth—the same Rennenkampf who had betrayed General Samsonoff at Tannenberg and afterward abandoned his retreating troops — the principal German army must surely have been captured entire. These defeats at the hands of the despised Slavs proved as galling to Teutonic pride as their more spectacular failure in the Battle of the Marne.
In September, when the Russians were overrunning all Galicia, after dispersing the Austrian armies and advancing almost to the walls of Cracow, Germany took fright. If Cracow should fall, not only would the road to Berlin be open to an invading army, but the collapse of the Austrian armies might result in Austria suing for a separate peace.
Moreover, the Russians, in occupying Galicia, had seized the great petroleum wells near Lemberg, the sole remaining source of Germany's supply of oil. If she hoped to win the war, Germany must regain those oil wells. Still another motive which actuated Germany in planning the invasion of Poland, was the necessity of winning a decisive victory before the year closed in order to impress the Turks, whose alliance was greatly desired, but who were still holding aloof.
The general military conditions favored a vigorous German offensive in the eastern theater of war. On the Western front, where the recent German assaults on Ypres had failed, a stalemate was seen to be inevitable. The campaign on that front was settling down to trench warfare, enabling Germany to transfer many army corps eastward to assist Austria in her distress and possibly overwhelm Russia.
Hindenberg Given Supreme Command
General Paul von Hindenberg, who in August had annihilated one Russian army at Tannenberg, only to meet with humiliating defeat at Augustowa three weeks later, was detached from the Baltic front and given supreme command of all the German and Austrian forces in the eastern theater of war. His chief of staff was General von Ludendorf, the ablest of German strategists.
With half a million fresh troops at his disposal, to reinforce 2,000,000 German and Austrian soldiers already in the field, Hindenberg was ready in early October to begin his offensive. Knowing that the Russian center had been greatly weakened by the simultaneous advance of Russian armies into East Prussia on the north and Galicia in the south, and that Warsaw was defended by a very slim garrison, he resolved upon a double invasion of Russian Poland, with Warsaw as the chief objective.
One group of German armies was ordered to cut the Polish salient from the northwest, while an Austrian group of armies was invading Poland from the southwest. These armies, after forming a junction, were then to advance to the capture of Warsaw. Their combined strength, Hindenberg believed, was sufficient to overwhelm any force which the Russians might assemble. Once in possession of Warsaw, Hindenberg would control the Russian military base, and from that position in the spring he could proceed to the further conquest of Russia.
Germans Cross the Carpathians
Before launching his direct drive on Warsaw, Hindenberg had despatched 500,000 German troops across the Dukla Pass of the Carpathians into Galicia, to save the shattered Austrian armies from total destruction and defend Cracow, the capitol of Poland, from threatened assault. Uniting with the scattered units of the Austrian army, the Germans counter-attacked the Russians, holding them in check 70 miles from Cracow, and compelling the evacuation of Jaroslav and the raising of the siege of Przemysl.
German Army Crushed at Kovno
With his right flank thus protected by the Carpathians, Hindenberg took steps to secure his left flank before marching on Warsaw. Knowing that General Russky's Russian army was disposed along the Niemen River in a position equally favorable for a flanking movement around the German left, or for a quick advance to the relief of Warsaw, General Hindenberg ordered his Baltic army to advance to the Niemen and drive a wedge between Russky's army and Warsaw.
General Schubert was assigned the task of turning General Russky's flank. Instead of accomplishing his purpose, Schubert's group of armies was crushingly defeated at Kovno, Grodno, and Ossowiec. The German army, outflanked at both ends, was pushed back in confusion across the frontier, with a loss of 50,000 men and many guns. The disaster on the Niemen was aggravated by Schubert's message to Hindenberg, describing his defeat as a "strategic retreat," instead of a panic rout.
The Invasion of Poland
Deceived by this false assurance, Hindenberg confidently began his invasion of Russian Poland. The Teutonic armies advanced on Warsaw in four columns—one along the Thorn-Warsaw Railroad, a second along the Kalisc-Warsaw line, a third along the Breslin-Radom-Ivangorod Railroad, and a fourth from Cracow in the same direction.
As the German steam roller advanced, the force of Russians within the Polish triangle retreated slowly toward their base on the Vistula. The Germans in turn occupied Lodz, Radom, and all the other important cities and towns in the triangle, meanwhile repairing the railroad bridges destroyed by the retreating Russians.
By October 6, 1914, the German columns in the north had advanced almost to the gates of Ivangorod, while the Austrians further south had reached the Vistula between the Galician border and Ivangorod. Torrential rains were now falling, converting1 the roads into quagmires. Horses sank up to their flanks and wagons up to their axles in the deep mud. In this emergency, great stretches of forest were cut down and felled trunks used to make corduroy roads. In the soggier places, artillery causeways were built, but these were soon blown to pieces by the Russian shells.
Warsaw In Danger
As the Germans drew closer to Warsaw and the thunder of their cannon could be heard, panic seized the inhabitants. Of its million citizens all who could flee the capital did so. Warsaw's main defenses consisted of twenty detached forts, whose batteries were manned by Japanese gunners, and a garrison of 120,000 Siberian troops under the command of General Schiedeman.
On October 13, 1914, when the Germans had occupied the towns of Blondie and Prusskow, some ten miles from Warsaw, the garrison marched forth to give battle to the invaders. Though outnumbered two to one, the Russians, in a two days' battle, compelled the Germans to retreat. Reinforced, the Germans regained possession of the lost territory on October 16, 1914.
Meanwhile, squadrons of German airplanes were bombing Warsaw incessantly, day and night, killing and wounding hundreds of innocent non-combatants. The buildings shook with the detonation of the heavy guns. All foreigners had by this time left the city, but the peasants from the villages round about streamed into the city in vast numbers. On October 17, 1914, the Germans were within seven miles of Warsaw; they had even crossed the Vistula some miles south of Warsaw on pontoons. All that stayed their advance was a slim remnant of a division of Siberian troops, whose artillery had been silenced and who had been cut almost to pieces. They were virtually in retreat, offering scarcely any resistance. From the Rodno road, the shattered remnants of other regiments were already streaming back into Warsaw. It seemed as if the city must capitulate to the foe.
Just when despair was seizing the inhabitants, the Germans ceased their attack and the word spread from lip to lip that Russian reinforcements were arriving. An hour later, the advance host of a Russian army, which had marched 150 miles from Galicia, through the mud and rain, to the relief of Warsaw, hove in sight. They were followed by corps on corps of infantry, cavalry, and artillery.
The Germans Retreat 150 Miles
Without delay the Russian gunners opened fire on the German front, while the Russian cavalry began to roll up both the German flanks. October 21, 1914 saw the Germans in full retreat from Warsaw. Two days later they were in rapid flight as far as Lowics. On October 28, 1914, the Russians reoccupied Radom and Lodz, vigorously pressing the pursuit on a wide front. As they retreated, the German armies split in two columns, one fleeing westward north of the Pilitza River, the other due south, with an interval of 40 miles between them.
By November 10, 1914 the Russians had not only forced the Germans out of Poland, but some of their detachments had penetrated 20 miles into Prussian territory. Hindenberg's army finally found protection on a line based on Thorn, Posen, and Breslau, 150 miles from Warsaw.
Poland Devastated by the Germans
During this retreat through Poland, Hindenberg showed himself a true Vandal by destroying everything in his path—railways, bridges, telegraphs, roads, villages. He found Poland blooming like a rose; he left it as desolate as a desert. No such destruction had visited any other section of Europe, unless Belgium be excepted. More than 200 cities and 9000 villages were destroyed, and 7,000,000 people were reduced to the point of starvation.
Austrian Disaster in Galicia
The collapse of Hindenberg's first offensive also spelled disaster to the Austrian army in Galicia, commanded by General Dankl. Defeated in the Battle of Kosiencia, the Austrians were driven pell mell back to Radom. The entire right wing of Dankl's army was finally surrounded at Kielce, October 28, 1914, 12,000 prisoners being taken in a walled graveyard.
Meanwhile, General Dmitrieff, the idol of Bulgaria, in command of a Russian army, had borne down upon the Austrians in Galicia and shut up two of their crack divisions within the Avails of Przemysl. All other Austrian armies in Galicia that were able to escape had made their way in confusion to the border.
Hindenberg's Second Drive for Warsaw
Hindenberg's army, though driven back 150 miles across the German border, was still intact and undismayed by defeat. In mid-November, when Turkey's entrance into the war as an ally of Germany was assured, Hindenberg decided to hazard another invasion of Poland.
The military situation seemed to justify this decision. Russia's main armies were deeply engaged with the Austrians in Galicia; her new levies were turning southward to repel the advancing Turks in Trans-Caucasia ; Warsaw was indifferently defended by 200,000 troops, and exposed to attack from three directions. Now was the time to strike a blow at Warsaw and compel the withdrawal of Russian troops from Galicia, where they were once again menacing Cracow and the historic gate to Berlin and Vienna.
Carefully reorganizing his forces, and reinforcing them with picked Prussian troops, Hindenberg called to his aid two generals of distinction who had been kept in the background hitherto. General von Mackensen was summoned from Danzig, to which place he had been exiled for too frank criticism of the Crown Prince, and assigned to the command of the northern army, guarding the eastern approaches to Thorn. General von Morgen was placed in command of the southern army operating from Halicz. Hindenberg himself directed a third reserve army operating in the center.
Russians Again Betrayed in Battle of Lodz
From his base on the Thorn River, Mackensen' on November 12, 1914 crossed the Polish frontier with an army some 800,000 strong, supported by much artillery. Before this superior force, General Russky's Russian army withdrew, intending to fall back on the strong defenses behind the Bzura River, half way to Warsaw.
In their retreat, the Russians skirted the city of Lowicz, moving southward to Strykow and thence on to Lodz, which is protected on its west side by a great belt of nearly impassable marshes. In close pursuit, Mackensen's right wing quickly seized the western crossings of the marshes; his extreme left moved toward Plock, while his center advanced against Piontek, where a heavy causeway had been engineered for heavy transport through the marshes.
Two German corps, 100,000 strong, in a furious assault on November 18, 1914 captured the causeway. After crossing over, they split the Russian line and rolled up both flanks. One Russian wing was isolated around Lodz, the other on a line running east of Brezin to the Vistula.
The Germans, strongly reinforced, at once began the envelopment of the Russian army at Lodz, attacking in overwhelming force and with great vigor on the front, flank, and rear.
The Russians, though resisting gallantly, were on the verge of surrender when reinforcements arrived from Warsaw and Galicia.
Then was witnessed a military maneuver absolutely unique in warfare. While Mackensen was striving to envelop Russky's forces, Grand Duke Nicholas was endeavoring to envelop the enveloping army. General Ewerts with one column of Russian troops struck hard at Mackensen's left flank, while General Rennenkampf was closing in on the right flank.
When the Germans saw the great Russian army closing in on them, they fought frantically to cut their way out of the deep salient. Fighting at close quarters, man to man, quarter was neither asked nor given. Day after day the terrible conflict raged round about Lodz; closer and closer the Russian circle was drawn; the losses on both sides were appalling. At the height of the battle, fearing capture, one of the Kaiser's sons escaped from the trap in an airplane.
The German army, however, was allowed to escape because of treachery in the Russian high command. General Rennenkampf, the German commander of one of the Russian armies—the same traitor who had betrayed Samsonoff at Tannenberg and afterward deserted his army on its retreat—deliberately disobeyed his orders to close in on the Germans.
The situation was as follows: Two entire German corps, 100,000 men, had been caught in a pocket whose mouth was almost closed. It was Rennenkampf's task to close that pocket. Through a "tactical error," as he claimed, Rennenkampf permitted the German corps to escape capture. A third time he had proved a traitor to his adopted country. For this supreme act of treachery Rennenkampf was court martialed and retired in disgrace.
Russians Evacuate Lodz
From Flanders and France, Hindenberg quickly transferred several corps and much heavy artillery to reinforce Mackensen, enabling the latter to renew his offensive on the Bzura front. So sure was Hindenberg of victory that he promised Warsaw as a Christmas gift to the Kaiser. Day by day, for a fortnight, Mackensen pounded the Russian line, with a reckless expenditure of men, losing 11,000 in a single day.
The German left wing, meanwhile, had pushed forward beyond Lodz. The position being no longer tenable, the Russians evacuated the city in the night. On the morrow the German guns for fifteen hours shelled empty trenches which the Russians had abandoned on the preceding day. Without opposition the Germans entered Lodz on December 6, 1914.
The whole Russian line was withdrawn eastward in good order, occupying a strongly defended position in front of Warsaw, on the line of the Bzura and Rawka rivers. Here the Germans' advance was definitely checked. Hindenberg's second invasion of Poland had failed.
German Victory at Kodno
While Mackensen's main army was advancing on Lodz, General Morgen's German army on his left had scored a notable victory. Moving out from their base at Halicz, the Prussians, on November 14, 1914, encountered the right wing of the Russian Baltic army, on a line extending from Wloclawek, 30 miles south of Kodno.
The Russians, with a strength of only three corps, held their ground until crushed under the weight of numbers. After losing 20,000 prisoners and 70 guns, besides thousands in killed and wounded, the Russian right wing fell back to the Bzura River. For this victory, General von Mackensen was raised to the rank of an Under Field Marshall.
The Fighting in East Prussia
While engaged in the drives for Warsaw, the Germans had restricted themselves largely to defensive measures in East Prussia. But in concert with Morgen's November attack on the Russian right wing in Poland, General von Below was directed to advance out of East Prussia, cross the Russian border, and cut the main railway line between Petrograd and Warsaw.
Below pushed forward to the Russian frontier, but was driven back with heavy losses to a secure position behind the Mazurian lakes. Subsequently, in December, von Below's army was summoned to the assistance of Mackensen's army at Prasmycz, and barely escaped envelopment. Again he retired behind the Mazurian lakes, there to remain during the winter, which had now set in.
Collapse of Russian Drive on Cracow
IN order to protect Warsaw, during Hindenberg's invasion, the Russians had been compelled to withdraw a large part of their forces from Galicia. The Austrians, with the aid of powerful German reinforcements, were consequently enabled to lift the siege of Cracow, reoccupy Jaroslav and recover the greater part of western Galicia. The Russians, however, still held Lemberg and were investing Przemysl. Their raids across the Carpathians had temporarily ceased, to be resumed in the early spring. Due to Hindenberg's drive on Warsaw, the Austrians had been given a new lease of life.
Enormous Losses on Both Sides
For five months not fewer than 5,000,000 men had been engaged on the Russian front, along the Baltic, in Poland, and in Galicia. The combined losses of both armies have never been officially published.
The Germans allege that the Russians lost 743,000 in killed, 421,500 in totally disabled, and 310,000 prisoners. The Russians claim to have taken 360,000 German and Austrian prisoners, and they set the German losses in killed and wounded at a figure at least equal to their own.
Wikipedia: World War I
Wikipedia: Paul von Hindenburg