Campaign In The East
( Originally Published 1918 )
LONG before the declaration of war the German military experts had made their plans. They recognized that in case of war with Russia, France would come to the rescue of its ally. They hoped that Italy, and felt sure that England, would remain neutral, but, no doubt, had provided for the possibility that these two nations would join the ranks of their foes. They recognized that they would be compelled to fight against greatly superior numbers, but they had this advantage, that they were prepared to move at once, while England was unprepared, and Russia, with enormous numbers, was so unprovided with railroad facilities that it would take weeks be-fore her armies would be dangerous.
Their plan of campaign, then, was obvious. Leaving in the East only such forces as were necessary for a strong defense, they would throw the bulk of their strength against the French. They anticipated an easy march to Paris, and then with France at their mercy they would gather together all their powers and deal with Russia. But they had underestimated both the French power of resistance, and the Russian weakness, and in particular they had not counted upon the check that they were to meet with in gallant Belgium.
The Russian mobilization was quicker by far than had been anticipated. Her armies were soon engaged with the comparatively small German forces, and met with great success.
To understand the Russian campaign one must have some knowledge of the geography of western Russia. Russian Poland projects as a great quadrilateral into eastern Germany. It is bounded on the north by East Prussia, on the south by Galicia, and the western part reaches deep into Germany itself. The land is a broad,' level plain, through which from south to north runs the River Vistula. In the center lies the capital, 'Warsaw, protected by a group of fortresses. The Russian army, therefore, could not make a direct western advance until it had protected its flanks by the conquest of East Prussia on the north, and Galicia on the south.
By the beginning of the third week in Au-gust the first Russian armies were ready. Her forces were arranged as follows: Facing East Prussia was the Army of the Niemen, four corps strong; the Army of Poland, consisting of fifteen army corps, occupied a wide front from Narev on the north to the Bug Valley; a third army, the Army of Galicia, directed its line of advance southward into the country between Lemberg and the River Sareth. The fortresses protecting Warsaw, still further to the east, were well garrisoned, and in front of them to the west were troops intended to delay any German advance from Posen. The Russian commander-in-chief was the Grand Duke Nicholas, uncle of the late Czar, and one of the most admirable representatives of the Russian at his best; a splendid soldier, honest, straightforward, and patriotic, he was the idol of his men. He had with him a brilliant staff, but the strength of his army lay in its experience. They had learned war in the bitter school of the Manchurian campaign.
The German force on the frontier was not less than five hundred thousand men, and they were arranged for defense. Austria, in Galicia, had gathered nearly one million men under the auspices of Frederick. The first movement of these armies took place in East Prussia. The Army of the Niemen had completed its mobilization early in August, and was under the command of General Rennenkampf, one of the Russian leaders in Manchuria. In command of the German forces was General von François, an officer of Huguenot descent.
The first clash of these armies took place on the German frontier near Libau, on August 8d. Two days later, the Russians crossed the frontier, drove in the German advance posts, and seized the railway which runs south and east of the Masurian Lakes. The German force fell back, burning villages and destroying roads, according to their usual plan. On the 7th of August the main army of Rennenkampf crossed the border at Suwalki, advancing in two main bodies : the Army of the Niemen moving north from Suwalki, the Army of the Narev marching through the region of the Masurian lakes. In the lake district they advanced toward Boyen, and then directed their march toward Insterburg, the most important town in the neighborhood.
To protect Insterburg, General von François made his first stand at Gumbinnen, where, on the 16th of August, the first important battle of this campaign took place. The result was the defeat and retirement of the Germans, and von François was forced to fall back on Koenigsberg.
Meantime, the Army of the Narev, under General Samsonov, was advancing through the country west of the Masurian Lakes. On the 20th his vanguard came upon a German army corps, strongly entrenched at the northwest end of the lakes. The Germans were defeated, and fled in great disorder toward Koenigsberg, abandoning their guns and wagons. Many prisoners were taken, and the Russians found themselves masters of all of East Prussia except that inside the Koenigsberg line. They then marched on Koenigsberg, and East. Prussia was for a moment at the mercy of the conqueror.
Troops were left to invest Koenigsberg, and East Prussia was overrun with the enemy. The report as to the behavior of these troops met with great indignation in Germany; but better information insists that they behaved with decorum and discretion. The peasantry of East Prussia, remembering wild tales of the Cossacks of a hundred years before, fled in confusion with stories of burning and slaughter and outrage.
Germany became aroused. To thoroughly understand the effect of the Russian invasion of east Prussia, one must know something of the relations of that district with the German Empire. Historically, this was the cradle of the Prussian aristocracy, whose dangerous policies had alarmed Europe for so many decades. The Prussian aristocracy originated in a mixture of certain west German and Christian knights, with a pagan population of the eastern Baltic plain. The district was separate from Poland and never fell under the Polish influence. It was held by the Teutonic knights who conquered it in a sort of savage independence. The Christian faith, which the Teutonic knights professed to inculcate, took little root, but such civilization as Germany itself had absorbed did filter in. The chief noble of Borussia, the governing Duke, acquired in time the title of King, and it was here, not in Berlin, nor in Brandenburg, that the Hohenzollern power originated.
East Prussia, therefore, had a sentimental importance in the eyes of the Prussian nobility. The Prussian Royal House, in particular, had toward this country an especial regard. Morcover, it was regarded by the Germans as a whole as their rampart against the Slav, a proof of the German power to withstand the dreaded Russian. That this sacred soil should now be in the hands of a Cossack army was not to be borne. The Kaiser acted at once.
Large forces were detached from the west and sent to the aid of the eastern army. A new commander was appointed. Ile was General von Hindenburg, a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War who had been for some years retired. After his retirement he devoted his time to the study of East Prussia, especially the ground around the Masurian Lakes. He became more familiar with its roads, its fields, its marshes, its bogs than any of the peasants who spent their lives in the neighborhood of the lakes. Before his retirement, in the annual maneuvers, he had often rehearsed his defense against Russian invaders. Indeed re-port, perhaps unfounded, described his retirement to the displeasure of the Emperor William at being badly worsted in one of these mimic combats. He had prevented the country from being cleared and the swamps from being drained, arguing that they were worth more to Germany than a dozen fortresses. A man of rugged strength, his face suggesting power and tenacity, he was to become the idol of the German people.
His chance had come. His army consisted of remnants of the forces of von François and large reinforcements sent him from the west. In all, perhaps, he had with him 150,000 men, and he had behind him an admirable system of strategic railways.
The Russian High Command was full of 'confidence. Rennenkampf had advanced with the army of the Niemen toward Koenigsberg, whose fall was reported from time to time, without foundation. Koenigsberg was in fact impregnable to armies no stronger than those under Rennenkampf's command. Samsonov with the Army of the Narev, had pushed on to the northeastern point of the lakes, and defeated the German army corps at Frankenau. Misled by his success, he decided to continue his advance through the lake region toward Allenstein. He marched first toward Osterode, in the wilderness of forest, lake and marsh, between Allenstein and the Lower Vistula. His force numbered 200,000 men, but the swamps made it impossible to proceed in mass. His column had to be temporarily divided, nor was he well informed as to the strength of his enemy. On Wednesday, the 26th of August, his advance guards were everywhere driven in. As he pushed on he discovered the enemy in great numbers, and late in the day realized that he was facing a great army.
Von Hindenburg had taken a position astride the railway from Allenstein to Soldau, and all access to his front was barred by lakes and swamps. He was safe from frontal at-tack, and could reinforce each wing at pleasure. From his right ran the only two good roads in the region, and at his left was the Osterode railway. On the first day he stood on the defensive, while the Russians, confident of victory, attacked again and again. Some ground was won and prisoners captured, and the news of a second victory was sent to west-ern Europe.
The battle continued, however, until the last day of August and is known as the battle of Tannenberg, from a village of that name near the marshes. Having worn down his enemy, von Hindenburg counter-attacked. His first movement was on his right. This not only deceived Samsonov and led him to reinforce his left, but also enabled von Hindenburg to seize the only good road that would give the Russian army a chance of retreat. Mean-while the German general was hurrying masses of troops northeastward to outflank the Russian right. While the Russians were reinforcing one flank, he was concentrating every man he could upon the other. Then his left swept southward, driving in and enveloping the Russian right, and Samsonov was driven into a country full of swamps and almost without roads.
To thoroughly understand the plight of the Russian army one must have some idea of the character of the Masurian Lake district. It was probably molded by the work of ice in the past. Great glaciers, in their progress toward the sea, have ground out hundreds of hollows, where are found small pools and considerable lakes. From these glaciers have been dropped patches of clay which hold the waters in wide extents of marsh and bog. The country presents a monotonous picture of low, rounded swells and flats, interspersed with stunted pine and birch woods. The marshes and the lakes form a labyrinth, difficult to pass even to those familiar with the country. The Masurian region is a great trap for any commander who has not had unlimited acquaintance with the place. Causeways, filled with great care, and railroads permit an orderly advance, but in a confused retreat disaster at once threatens.
This was the ground that von Hindenburg knew so well. The Russians resisted desperately, but their position could not be held. Disaster awaited them. They found their' guns sinking to the axle-trees in mire. Whole regiments were driven into the lakes and drowned. On the last day of battle, August 31st, Samsonov himself was killed, and his army completely destroyed. Fifty thousand prisoners were taken with hundreds of guns and quantities of supplies. Von Hindenburg had attained the triumph of which he had so long dreamed.
It was an immensely successful example of that enveloping movement characteristic of German warfare, a victory recalling the battle of Sedan, and upon a scale not inferior to that battle. The news of this great triumph reached Berlin upon the anniversary of the battle of Sedan, and on the same day that the news came from the west that von Kluck had reached the gates of Paris and it had a profound effect upon the German mind. They had grown to believe that the Germans were a sort of superman; these wonderful successes confirmed them in this belief.
No longer did they talk of a mere defense in the east; an advance on Warsaw was demanded and von Hindenburg was acclaimed the greatest soldier of his day. The Emperor made him Field Marshal, and placed him in command of the Teutonic armies in the east.
But von Hindenburg was not satisfied. The remnant of the defeated army had fled toward Narev, and without losing a moment von Hindenburg set off in pursuit. Rennenkampf, all this time, strange to say, had made no move, and at the news of Samsonov's disaster he abandoned the siege of Koenigsberg and retreated toward the Niemen. At Gumbinnen he fought a rear-guard action with the German left, but had made up his mind that the Niemen must be the Russian line of defense. Von Hindenburg, following, crossed the Russian frontier and in the wide forests near Augustovo there was much fighting.
This action, described as the first battle of Augustovo, was only a rear-guard action, the Russians desiring merely to delay the enemy for a day or two. German reports, however, described it as a victory only second in importanee to Tannenberg. Von Hindenburg then occupied Suwalki. He apparently had become over confident, and hardly realized that Rennenkampf was continually being reinforced by the Russian mobilization.
The Russian High Command understood the situation very well. Their aim was to keep von Hindenburg busy on the Niemen, while their armies in the south were overwhelming the fleeing Austrians. Von Hindenburg was deceived, and continued his advance until he got into serious trouble. His movement had begun on September 7th; his army consisted of the four corps with which he had won Tannenberg, and large reinforcements from Germany, including at least one guards battalion, and a number of Saxons and Bavarians. The country is one vast mixture of marsh and lake and bog. The roads are few, and advance must therefore be slow and difficult. Rennenkampf made no attempt to delay him beyond a little rear-guard fighting. The German army reached the Niemen on September 21st, and found behind it the Russian army in prepared positions, with large reinforcements from Vilna.
The river at this point was wide and deep, and hard to cross. The battle of the Niemen Crossings was an artillery duel. The Russians quietly waited in their trenches to watch the Germans build their pontoon bridges. Then their guns blew the bridges to pieces. There-upon von Hindenburg bombarded the Russian lines hoping to destroy the Russian guns. On Friday, the 26th, his guns boomed all day; the Russians made no reply. So on the morning of the 27th he built bridges again, and again the Russians blew them to pieces. Moreover the marshy ground made maneuvering almost impossible. On the 28th he gave the order for retreat.
He realized that the game wasn't worth the candle; he might easily be kept fighting on the Niemen for months, while the main armies of the Russians were crossing Austria. Von Hindenburg conducted the retreat with a skill which came to him naturally from his knowledge of the marshes.
Rennenkampf followed him closely, keeping up persistent attacks through the woods and marshes. The path of the retreating army lay through the forest of Augustovo, a country much like that around the Masurian Lakes, and there the Germans suffered heavy losses. Von Hindenburg managed, however, to get the bulk of his forces back across the frontier, and continued his retreat to the intrenchments on the Masurian Lakes.
The Germans lost 60,000 men in killed, wounded and prisoners, and von Hindenburg handed over the command of the German armies in East Prussia to General von Schubert, and hastened southward to direct the movement to relieve the Austrians at Cracow.
But quite as important as the campaign m East Prussia was the struggle in Galicia. When the war began the Germans contemplated merely defense in their own domain; such offense as was planned was left to the Austrians farther south.
Galicia is a long, level country lying north of the Carpathian Mountains, and in this country Austria-Hungary had gathered together a force of hardly less than one million men. A quarter of these lay in reserve near the mountains ; the remaining three-quarters was divided into two armies; the first, the northern -army, being under the command of General Dank], the second was that of von Offenberg. The base of the first army was Przemysl; that of the second was Lemberg.
The first army, it was planned, was to advance into Russian territory in the direction of Lublin. The second army, stationed southeast of the first army, was to protect it from any Russians who might strike in upon the south. The first army, therefore, contained more picked material than the second, which included many troops from the southern parts of the empire, including certain disaffected contingents. The first army made its advance as soon as possible, and entered Russian territory on the 11th of August. It went for-ward with very little loss and against very little resistance.. The Russian forces which were against it were inferior in number, and fell back towards the Bug. The Austrians followed, turning somewhat toward the, East; when their advance was checked by news of catastrophe in their rear. On the 14th of Au-gust the Russian army under General Ruzsky crossed the frontier, and advanced toward the Austrian second army.
The Russian army was in far greater strength than had been expected, and when its advance was followed by the appearance, upon the right flank of von Offenberg's command, of yet another Russian army, under Brussilov, the Austrian second army found itself in great danger. Ruzsky advanced steadily from August 14th until, on the 21st, it was not more than one day's advance from the outer works of Lemberg, and the third Russian army under Brussilov was threatening von Offenberg's right flank.
Von Offenberg, understanding the strength of the enemy, undertook to give battle. The first outpost actions were successful for the Austrians, and helped them in their blunder. On the 24th of August the two Russian armies effected a junction, and their Austrian opponents found themselves threatened with disaster. An endeavor was made to retreat, but the retreat turned into a rout. On the 28th Tarnopol was captured by the Russians, and the Austrian army found itself compelled to fall back upon defense positions to the south and east of Lemberg itself.
The attack of the Russian armies was completely successful. The Austrian army was driven from its positions, and on September 4th the Austrians evacuated Lemberg and the Russian forces took possession of the town. The Austrians fled. The population welcomed the conquerors with the greatest enthusiasm. An immense quantity of stores of every kind were captured by the Russians together with at least 100,000 prisoners. There was no looting, nor any kind of outrage. The Russian policy was to make friends of the inhabitants of Galicia.
But there was no halt after Lemberg. Brussilov divided his army, and sent his left wing into the Carpathian passes; his center and right moved west toward Przemysl; while Ruzsky moved northwest to reinforce the Russian army on the Bug. Meanwhile the position of Dankl's army was perilous in the extreme. There were two possible courses, one to fall back and join the remnants of von Offenberg's army, the other to attack at once, before the first Russian army could be reinforced, and if victorious to turn on Ruzsky.
Dankl's army was now very strong. He had received reinforcements, not only from Austria but from Germany. On the 4th of September he attacked the Russian center; his attack was a failure, although he outnumbered the Russians. The battle continued until the tenth.
Everywhere the Austrians were beaten, and driven off in ignominious retreat. The whole Austrian force fled southward in great disorder; a part directed its flight toward Przemysl, others still farther west toward Cracow. Austria had been completely defeated; except for a few German detachments near the border, Poland was clear of the enemy. The Russian flag flew over Lemberg, while the Russian army was marching toward Cracow. The Russian star was in the ascendant.
But the Austrian armies had not been annihilated. An army of nearly a million men cannot be destroyed in so short a time. The Austrian failure was due in part to the disaffection of some of the elements of the army, and in part to the poor Austrian generalship. They had underestimated their foe, and ventured on a most perilous plan of campaign.
Russian generalship had been most admirable, and the Russian generals were men of ability and experience. Brussilov had seen service in the Turkish War of 1877. Ruzsky was a professor in the Russian War Academy. In the Japanese war he had been chief of staff to General Kaulbars, the commander of the Second Manchurian army. Associated with him was General Radko Dmitrieff, an able officer with a most interesting career. General Dmitrieff was born in Bulgaria, when it was a Turkish province. He graduated at the Military School at Sofia, and afterwards at the War Academy at Petrograd. On his return to Bulgaria he commanded a regiment in the Serbian-Bulgarian war. Later he became mixed up in the conspiracy against Prince Alexander, and was forced to leave Bulgaria. For ten years he served in the Russian army, returning to Bulgaria on the accession of Prince Ferdinand. Later on he became Chief of the General Staff, and when the Balkan war broke out he commanded one of the Bulgarian armies, won several important victories, and became a popular hero of the, war. Disgusted with the political squabbles which followed the war, he returned to Russia as a general in the Russian army. With men like these in command, the Russian Empire was well served.
After the decisive defeat of the Austrian army under General Dankl, certain changes were made in the Russian High Command. General Ruzsky was made commander of the center, which was largely reinforced. General Ivanov was put in command of the armies operating in Galicia with Dmitrieff and Brussilov as his chief lieutenants. Brussilov's business was to seize the deep passes in the Carpathians and to threaten Hungary. Dmitrieff's duty was to press the Austrian retreat, and capture the main fortresses of central Galicia.
There are two great fortresses on the River San, Jaroslav and Przemysl, both of them controlling important railroad routes. Jaroslav on the main line from Lemberg to Cracow, Przemysl with a line which skirts the Carpathians, and connects with lines going south to Hungary. Jaroslav was fortified by a strong circle of intrenchments and was looked to by Austria for stout resistance. The Austrians were disappointed, for Ivanov captured it in three days, on the 23d of September. Dmitrieff found Przemysl, a harder nut to crack. It held out for many months, while operations of greater importance were being carried on by the Russian armies. The plans of the Russian generals in some respects were . not unlike the plan previously suggested as that of the German High Command. At the beginning of the war they had no desire to carry on a powerful offensive against Germany. The expedition into East Prussia was conducted more for political than for military purposes. The real offensive at the start was to be against Austria. The Russian movements were cautious at first, but the easy capture of Lemberg, the fall of Jaroslav, and the demoralization of the Austrian armies, encouraged more daring strategy. With the Germans stopped on the north, little aid to the Austrians could come from that source. The Grand Duke Nicholas was eager to strike a great blow before the winter struck in, so his armies, swept to the great Polish city of Cracow. The campaign against Austria also had a political side.
Russia had determined upon a new attitude toward Poland. On August 15th the Grand Duke Nicholas, on behalf of the Czar, had is-sued a proclamation offering self-government to Russian Poland. Home rule for Poland had long been a favorite plan with the Czar. Now he promised, not only to give Russian Poland home rule, but to add to it the Polish peoples in Austria and Germany. This meant that Austria and Germany would have to give up Galicia on the one hand, and Prussian Po-land on the other, if they should lose the war. In the old days Poland had been one of the greatest kingdoms in Europe, with a proud nobility and high civilization. She was one of the first of the great Slav peoples to penetrate the west. Later she had protected Europe against Tartar invasion, but internal differences had weakened her, and, surrounded by enemies, she had first been plundered, and later on divided between Austria, Russia and Prussia. Never had the Poles consented to this destruction of their independence. Galicia had constantly struggled against Austria; Prussian Poland was equally disturbing to the Prussian peace, and Russia was only able to maintain the control of her Polish province by the sword. Of the three the Pole was probably more inclined to keep on friendly terms with Russia, also a Slav people. The policy of the Czar encouraged this inclination and produced disaffection among the Poles in Galicia and in Posen. Moreover, it gave Russia the sympathy of the world which had long regarded the partition of Poland as a political crime. It encouraged the Czecho-Slays and other dissatisfied portions of the Austrian Empire.
The results were seen immediately in the de-moralization of the Austrian armies where considerable numbers of Czecho-Slovak troops deserted to the Russian army, and later in the loyalty to Russia of the Poles, and their refusal, even under the greatest German pressure, to give the German Empire aid.