The Battle of Tannenberg was the first major battle of World War One, fought between Germany and Russia, who surprised everyone with its fast mobilization. Germany planned to quickly fight a two-front war against France and Russia, knock France out of the war, then focus its resources on Russia. The plan didn’t work, but Germany issued a crushing blow against Russia, largely due to its fast rail movements that allowed it to focus on two Russian armies at once (and Russia failing to encode its messages did nothing to help).  Germany named the battle after Tannenberg in order to avenge a defeat from 500 years earlier in which the proto-German Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  The past was alive and well in the minds of these combatants.

  1. Austria Attacks Serbia
    1. On August 12, the Austrian army invaded Serbia, using many soldiers that A-H had promised Germany that they would send against Russia. Germany’s leaders were angered when they found out.
    2. The Serbs had mobilized 500,000 soldiers from a population of only 4 million. Many Serb soldiers did not have weapons or ammunition, but they had a lot of confidence and motivation. They also had better technology and more combat experience.
    3. In four months of fighting the Serbs held off the Austrians, who retreated back into Bosnia on December 15. They suffered over 100,000 casualties.
    4. During the invasion, the Austrian army committed many atrocities against Serb civilians (3500 were executed in the first two weeks alone). The Austrians would take and publish photos of the victims.
  1. Russia Invades Germany (August 7, 1914)
    1. Meanwhile, the Russian army had mobilized more quickly than Germany expected.
    2. On August 7, Russian forces invaded East Prussia, where the Germans had relatively few soldiers. They hoped to capture Konigsberg and cut off the main German army in the error. The Germans were determined not to lose Konigsberg.
    3. At the same time, the German commanders in the East were ordered not to attack Russian forces until France was defeated. The German general Francois disobeyed this order and attacked anyway.
    4. After two battles on the 17th and the 20th (Battle of Gumbinnen), German forces retreated 150 miles, leaving East Prussia nearly unguarded.
    5. To stiffen the German forces’ resolve, two generals were sent to the east: Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff.
    6. Hindenburg and Ludendorff rallied the Eastern troops.
    7. In addition to sending Hindenburg and Ludendorff, Moltke also sent several divisions from the Western front. As it would turn out, they were not needed.
    8. After Gumbinnen, a note was found on a dead Russian officer that detailed most of the Russian plans for their upcoming offensive. This, together with the fact that the Russians did not encode their communications, gave the Germans a huge advantage.
  1. The Battle of Tannenberg (August 26-30, 1914)
    1. The Two Forces
      1. The Russian force in East Prussia was divided into the First Army under Paul von Rennenkampf and the Second Army under Alexander Samsonov. The First Army was on the right (north) and the Second Army was on the left (further south).
      2. The armies were separated by the Masurian Lakes (great defensive ground). In addition, the two army commanders hated each other and would not work together. All this meant that the Germans could attack the two Russian armies one at a time.
      3. The overall Russian commander was the Grand Duke Nicholas, who was barely competent.
      4. The German senior commander was Hindenburg, who commanded the only German army in the area, the 8th Army.
      5. The Russians had a total of about 500,000 men, while the Germans had about 200,000. Most Russian soldiers were new recruits, while the Germans were more professional. Also, the Russians had inferior transport and communication systems. They also did not have enough ammunition.
      6. The Russians had twice as much artillery than the Germans, but the German guns were better, and their artillery units were better.
      7. German commanders were, in general, much better than Russian ones.
    1. The Battle
      1. The Russian 2nd Army was threatening Konigsberg, but its advance had been slowed by rough terrain and supply shortages.
      2. Hindenburg sent a corps under Hermann von Francois by rail around to the Russian 2nd Army’s left flank. The Russians did not notice this. Hindenburg sent two more corps to march directly toward the 2nd.
      3. The remaining German force kept the 1st Army in place.
      4. Hindenburg ordered Francois to attack, but he held off.
      5. Samsonov attacked the Germans near him, but German General Francois attacked his left flank. On the 29th, he began marching around the 2nd army’s left, attempting to encircle it.
      6. The commander of the Russian 1st army was ordered to send soldiers to help Samsonov, but he stalled, and the reinforcements did not make it on time.
      7. The 2nd Army was surrounded. Many either broke and ran or surrendered. Samsonov went into the woods and shot himself.
      8. Casualties: Germany lost about 1800 killed, 7500 wounded and 4700 missing (14,000 total). Russia lost about 50,000 killed and 100,000 captured (150,000 total). The Germans also captured between 350 and 500 Russian guns.
    1. Aftermath
      1. Although the battle took place 19 miles from Tannenberg, the Germans named it after that village, out of vengeance (Tanneberg was the site of a Polish defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1410).
      2. The battle Germany’s greatest WWI victory, but it was largely symbolic. “Victory where the Germans had not expected it (in the east) was used to cover over its absence where it was actually most needed (in the west)” (Hew Strachan)
      3. Hindenburg and Ludendorff became national heroes in Germany.
      4. In early September, the First Army was defeated at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes and had to retreat.
      5. The German victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes meant that the Russian advance into Germany was halted. Germany no longer had to worry about the “Russian Steamroller.”
  1. The Battle of Galicia (Lemberg) (August 23 – Sept. 11)
    1. The Austrian supreme commander, Conrad von Holtzendorff, was feeling very confident. He had a complicated plan to let the Russians advance and then swing around to the north.
    2. The Russian army was being reinforced, and by Sept 1, it had twice as many men as the Austrian army it faced. On September 3, the Russians took Lemberg (A-H). The Austrian army had to retreat to the Carpathian foothills.
    3. The Austrian army was plagued by problems caused by linguistic differences. Sometimes non-Slavic units attacked Slavic units fighting for Austria, thinking they were Russians. Sometimes Slavs fighting for Austria would desert, and a few even defected to Russia.
    4. Units would become lost, sometimes for days.
    5. The Austrian army took over 420,000 casualties (100, 000 dead, 220,000 wounded, and 100,000 or more captured). The Russians lost about 250,000, with 40,000 captured.
    6. The Russians had pushed the front 100 miles (160 kilometers) into the Carpathian Mountains, completely surrounded the Austrian fortress of Przemyśl and started a Siege of Przemyśl which lasted for over a hundred days.
    7. The battle severely damaged the Austro-Hungarian Army, destroyed a large portion of its trained officers, and crippled Austria.
    8. The Russian victory at Lemberg helped soften the blow of their defeat at Tannenberg.
  1. Przemysl and Warsaw
    1. The Russian Army planned to take the Austrian city of Przemysl, then Krakov, then Budapest. On September 26, they began a siege of Przemysl.
    2. To counter this, the Germans sent 4 army corps to East Prussia. These froze thousands of Russian soldiers at the Vistula River by conducting several minor attacks. The Germans captured Lodz on December 6
    3. The Russians fought off an Austrian attack on Warsaw (Battle of the Vistula).
    4. A few more battles occurred, and then the Eastern Front settled into a stalemate for the first part of the winter.

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