Image courtesy of University of Virginia

The Legacy of Tannenberg

By Kevin Robbie | published August 29, 2014 |
Thursday Review contributor

World War I, the so-called “war to end all wars,” began one hundred years ago this summer. This titanic conflict, which involved over 35 countries and four continents, brought about mayhem and slaughter on a prodigious scale and was the first industrialized war of the twentieth century. Like all wars, WWI left millions of people dead, maimed, orphaned and homeless. It was also a war punctuated by numerous huge battles which proved to be strategically inconclusive.

The struggle in Europe occurred on two primary fronts, east and west. Most of the western front fighting took place in France while eastern battles were contested largely on Russian soil. In the west, opposing armies, largely French, British and German, maneuvered in areas occupied by towns, cities and forests. The geography of northern France often impeded mobility and led, in part, to the development of trench warfare. Soldiers on both sides dug themselves into the earth and relied on the protection of dirt, lumber and concrete to shield them from enemy artillery.

On the eastern front, geography also influenced tactics. Relative to France, western Russia is an area of open plains and gradually undulating hills. In 1914, it was also sparsely populated and agrarian in nature. Thus, armies had much more room to move about on the battlefield.

Armies still moved on foot in 1914, although the internal combustion engine was being gradually introduced to provide faster and more efficient transportation for infantry. Artillery was drawn by horse. However, railroads had already in military use since the American Civil War and factored into pre-war plans. In fact, Prussia had made extensive use of the railroad in 1866 and 1870 during the Wars of German Unification. The employment of trains to move its army convinced the Germans to expand their rail network and integrate railway timetables into their mobilization plans.

Other nations, Russia included, also began developing mobilization plans which included railway timetables. Russia lagged behind western Europe, especially Germany, in this regard due to its immense size and sluggish industrial progress. The effect was that upon the outbreak of war in 1914 Russia’s army was slow to mobilize due to crippling logistical delays and bottlenecks. In addition, the Russian high command was not fully prepared to arm, equip, clothe, feed and move the huge number of men needed to fill the army’s ranks.

The Germans, on the other hand, were mobilized much more quickly and efficiently than the Russians. Anticipating a two-front war, the general staff’s railway section had organized train timetables in minute detail to provide for the rapid movement of troops and supplies to any affected area of the western or eastern fronts. The ability to mobilize and move soldiers and war materiel promptly would prove to be a critically important skill for the Germans at the end of August, 1914.

Once they had deemed their mobilization complete, the Russian High Command organized an invasion of East Prussia in order to ease the pressure the Germans were putting on the French army in the west. The First Army, under General Pavel Rennenkampf, was to strike northern East Prussia while the Second Army, commanded by Aleksandr Samsonov, would march roughly due west in the direction of the heavily forested Masurian Lakes. The Russian objective was to push the Germans backwards and pin them against the city of Konigsberg, or ultimately, force the Germans across the Vistula River.

For their part, the Germans planned on holding the Russians at bay in the east while exercising their main strength to defeat France. At that point, the Germans would entrain their troops eastward to defeat the Russians. The tenacious resistance of the French and British troops in the west, however, upset the German plans and Russia was able to invade East Prussia before the Germans could transfer the bulk of their troops.

The Prussian Eighth Army was tasked with defending East Prussia against the Russians. Its commander, Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, though competent, was not the man for the job. He had begun to panic after the Russians won a series of border skirmishes near the towns of Gumbinnen and Stalluponen. Prittwitz then ordered Eighth Army to retreat to the Vistula river, which meant effectively abandoning East Prussia and dealing a blow to German morale. Upon hearing that news, the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, recalled Prittwitz and his deputy to Berlin. They were replaced by Paul von Hindenburg, who was called out of retirement, and Erich Ludendorff. The appointment of Hindenburg and Ludendorff saved East Prussia but also had far-reaching effects in a military and political context as the war progressed.

The situation, though serious, was not as dire as Prittwitz had described. Although the Russians outnumbered the Germans, their two field commanders, Samsonov and Rennenkampf, detested one another and were privately reluctant to assist one another. Their personal animosity combined with hasty preparation, poor communications and supply difficulties to portend disaster. The Eighth Army operations chief, Colonel Max Hoffmann, was aware of the friction between the two Russian generals and he suggested to Hindenburg and Ludendorff that they take advantage of it. Further, the Russians’ communications were being intercepted by the Germans. They were sending messages via uncoded radio transmissions because they lacked sufficient encoding equipment and telegraph lines, which were more secure.

The Germans used their information regarding Russian intentions to launch a major offensive against the two Russian field armies. The risky plan, largely developed by Colonel Hoffmann, was to initially fall on Second Army as it was considered to be the more serious threat. The Germans had stripped Konigsberg (to the north) of its southern defenses. This move left only the Prussian First Cavalry Division in place as a screen against an advance by the Russian First Army to the northeast. Hoffmann’s plan was risky because he was counting on the Russian First Army to maintain its slow advance due west. If it did so, Eighth Army’s left flank, now in place to oppose Russian Second Army’s right flank, would be secure. Additional intercepted communications indicated that Rennenkampf and Samsonov were continuing to act virtually independently of each other. They were setting their own trap.

The trap was sprung on August 26th, when Prussian XVII Corps, under General August von Mackensen, defeated Russian VI Corps and sent it retreating toward the border. Samsonov’s right flank was now open. On the 27th, General Herman von Francois turned his Prussian I Corps against the Russian I Corps and turned the Russians’ left flank. Francois employed ferocious artillery barrages which proved decisive in breaking the Russian lines.

While Samsonov’s flanks were being destroyed, he was present at an observation post but was receiving only scanty information. Thus, it was too late to prevent a disaster by the time he realized what was happening. Poor communications had plagued Samsonov and kept him in the dark, preventing the Russians from responding promptly to the agility and tactical mobility of the Germans. The Prussian cavalry screen had succeeded in delaying the Russian First Army so its belated attempt to assist Second Army was too little, too late.

The Russian Second Army surrendered on August 30. General Samsonov became lost in the forest the day before and he felt unable to face the magnitude of the defeat. He shot himself on the 29th. His body was later found by the Germans in the forest and given a military burial. His Second Army suffered 170,000 total casualties, with approximately half of those men being captured. Only 10,000 escaped over the border to Russia. The Germans captured over 350 artillery guns and they needed sixty trains to transport the captured equipment to their rear depots. German casualties amounted to approximately 15,000. The remnants of Second Army were cleaned up by September 2.

The Russian First Army was in its turn defeated several days later in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. Hindenburg turned Eighth Army northward to meet the southern edge of Rennenkampf’s forces giving the Russians no respite after the defeat of Samsonov. The attack commenced on September 7. Prussian XVII corps encountered early difficulties but was aided by I Corps arriving in the area on September 9. By September 11, Rennenkampf was faced with encirclement and he ordered a general retreat. The remains of First Army escaped into Russia but it still suffered 130,000 casualties, including 45,000 prisoners.

The earlier battle actually took place near Allenstein but was christened “Tannenberg” by General von Hindenburg. The name was suggested in a patriotic impulse by Colonel Hoffmann because of its historical resonance. The Teutonic Knights had been defeated at nearby Tannenberg in 1410. He also believed that Tannenberg simply sounded better.

The Battle of Tannenberg was significant mainly in its psychological impact. It provided a morale boost for the Germans and dealt a huge blow to Russian morale, civilian and military. The scope, suddenness and tactical brilliance of the German victory also played a role in the battle’s outcome as the defeat kept the Russians off-balance for several months. Further, the massive discrepancy in casualties, 10-1, was also noticeable. Combined with the subsequent Battle of the Masurian Lakes, “Tannenberg” pushed the Russians out of German territory until 1945. It also provided German propaganda with the fuel for the ascension of Hindenburg and Ludendorff - “The Duo” - the implications of which would resound in Germany for years.