Battle of Tannenberg (1914)
|Battle of Tannenberg|
|Part of the Eastern Front of World War I|
|Russian Empire||German Empire|
Paul von Rennenkampf
|Paul von Hindenburg,|
|30,000 killed or wounded; 95,000 captured||20,000|
The Battle of Tannenberg in 1914, was a decisive engagement between the Russian Empire and the German Empire in the first days of The Great War, fought by the Russian First and Second Armies and the German Eighth Army between August 17 and September 2, 1914. The battle resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Russian Second Army. A series of follow-up battles kept the Russians off-balance until the spring of 1915. The battle is notable particularly for a number of rapid movements of complete corps by train, allowing the German Army to present a single front to both Russian Armies. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Russia withdrew from the War. Russia's experience against Germany in World War II would be different, when she succeeded in pushing back the German advance and occupied almost the whole of Eastern Europe, which remained part of the Soviet sphere of influence until the end of the Cold War.
|Stalluponen – Gumbinnen – Tannenberg – 1st Lemberg – Krasnik – 1st Masurian Lakes – Przemyśl – Vistula River – Łódź – Bolimov – 2nd Masurian Lakes – Gorlice-Tarnów – Warsaw – Lake Naroch – Brusilov Offensive – Kerensky Offensive|
The Allied battle plan prior to the War had been based on France and the United Kingdom simply halting the German Armies in the west while the huge Russian Armies could be organized and brought to the front. The numbers were overwhelming; in perhaps as little as a month, the Russians could field around ten complete armies, more men than the German Army could muster on both fronts. Frustrating this plan was the Russians' lack of a quality railroad network—theirs operated on a different gauge than the German railroad network, meaning that unless the Russians acquired German railroad cars, most of their armies could only be brought to the German border. The presence of the armies of Austria-Hungary to the south, as well as initially those of Japan, to the east limited Russia's involvement in the beginning.
The Germans likewise, considered the Russians to be their primary threat. The entire Schlieffen Plan was based on the idea of defeating France and Britain as quickly as possible, and then transporting their armies by train to the eastern front. This allowed the Germans to garrison Prussia fairly lightly, with a single army, the Eighth. That said, there was little allowance for anything other than a spoiling retreat while the outcome in the west was decided. In order to delay the Russian forces as long as possible, the entire area around Königsberg, near the Russian border, was heavily fortified with a long series of fieldworks.
Just prior to the opening of the war, the situation developed largely as pre-war planning had expected. The German Eighth Army was in place southwest of Königsberg, while the two available Russian armies were located to the east and south, the latter in what was known as the "Polish Salient." Russian battle plans called for an immediate advance by the First Army under General Paul von Rennenkampf into East Prussia, with Königsberg as their short-term goal. The Russian Second Army under General Alexander Samsonov, located to the south, was to move westward around the Masurian Lakes and then swing north over a hilly area to cut off the Germans, who would by this point be forced into defending the area around Königsberg. If executed successfully, the Germans would be surrounded.
When the war opened, the battle initially went largely according to the Russians' plan. The Germans had moved up about half of the units of the Eighth Army, reinforced by small groups of the Königsberg garrison, to points to the east of Königsberg near the border. The Battle of Stalluponen, a small engagement by the German I Corps under Hermann von François was initially successful. The German theater commander, General Maximilian von Prittwitz, nevertheless ordered a spoiling retreat towards Gumbinnen. A counterattack planned for the 20th had a fair chance of succeeding, but François, apparently emboldened by his success at Stalluponen, attacked early and ruined the chance for surprise. The Battle of Gumbinnen ended with the Germans forced to retreat, in many cases via rail, to positions to the south of Königsberg.
Worried about his loss at Gumbinnen and the continued advance of the Russian Second to the south, von Prittwitz ordered a retreat to the Vistula, effectively abandoning eastern Prussia. When he heard this, Helmuth von Moltke, the German Army Chief of Staff, recalled von Prittwitz and his deputy, von Waldersee, to Berlin. They were replaced by Paul von Hindenburg, called out of retirement, and Erich Ludendorff as his Chief of Staff.
Things were not entirely as they seemed to the German commanders in Berlin. The two Russian commanders, Samsonov and Rennenkampf, hated each other after Samsonov had publicly complained about Rennenkampf's behavior at the Battle of Mukden in 1905. Although the common belief that the two generals had come to blows at a railway station has proved to be incorrect, Rennenkampf would be disinclined to help Samsonov except under dire circumstances. Meanwhile, Samsonov's Second Army was having serious problems moving forward due to fragile supply lines to the rear, and unknown even to Samsonov, Rennenkampf had decided to delay the First's advance to regroup after Gumbinnen.
Nevertheless, the scale of the forces deployed still meant the Russians had the upper hand. As they were currently deployed, the Eighth Army could not even cover the entire front along Samsonov's line of march, leaving his left wing in the southwest open to advance with no opposition. Unless troops from the Königsberg area, currently the I and XVII Corps, could be moved to check this advance, the Germans were in serious danger of being cut off.
Colonel Max Hoffmann, von Prittwitz's deputy chief of operations, was well aware of the bad blood between the two Russian generals, and what it was likely to mean for the two armies' plan of action. Guessing that they would remain separated, as they were at the time, he proposed moving everyone not already in Königsberg's eastern defense line to the southwest, moving the I Corps by train to the left of Samsonov's line, a distance of over 100 miles (161 km). The XVII Corps, south of the I, would be readied for a move directly south to face Samsonov's right flank, the VI Corps. Additionally the small cavalry forces nearby would move to the Vistula River area to the west. It appears he hoped the cavalry would draw Samsonov westward, further separating the armies. This left only a small portion of the Königsberg area directly in front of the First Army defended, while the approaches from the south were entirely open.
In theory, the plan was extremely risky. If the First Army turned to the southwest instead of advancing directly westward towards Königsberg, they would appear on the Eight Army's extreme left flank, allowing for either a counterattack against the Eighth, or alternately turn north towards Königsberg from the south, which was now undefended. However, Hoffmann remained convinced of the plan, both because he was aware of the animosity between the generals, as well as the fact that the Russians continually sent out their next day's marching orders over unencrypted radio communications. It appears they believed that the Germans would not have access to Russian translators, but the Germans easily intercepted and translated the transmissions.
When von Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived on August 23, they immediately stopped the retreat and put Hoffmann's plan into action. They did, however, leave the cavalry where they were, forming a screening force in front of the Russian First's left flank. François's I Corps were transported over 100 miles by rail to the far southwest to meet the left wing of Second. Hindenburg's remaining two corps, under Mackensen and Below, were to await orders to move south by foot so as to confront Samsonov's right wing. Finally, a fourth garrison corps was ordered to remain near the Vistula to meet Samsonov as his army moved north. The trap was being set.
Ludendorff also learned at this point that von Moltke had decided to take three Corps and a cavalry division from the western front and redeploy them to the East. Ludendorff protested that they would arrive too late to have any effect, while at the same time weakening the battle and engaging against France. Von Moltke considered Prussia too politically important to possibly lose, and ignored Ludendorff's protests.
Starting on August 22, Samsonov's forces had met the Germans all along his front, and had successfully pushed them back in several places. On the August 24 they met the Germans at the minor Battle of Orlau-Frankenau, where the heavily-entrenched German XX Corps had stopped the Russian advance. Undeterred, Samsonov saw this as a wonderful opportunity to cut this unit off completely, because, as far as he was aware, both of his flanks were unopposed. He ordered most of his units to the northwest, towards the Vistula, leaving only the VI Corps to continue towards their original objective, Seeburg.
Ludendorff issued an order to François' now-deployed I Corps to initiate the attack on Samsonov's left wing at Usdau on August 25. François rejected this direct order, choosing to wait until his artillery support was ready on the August 27. Ludendorff and Hoffmann would have none of this, and traveled to meet François to repeat the order to his face. François agreed to commence the attack, but complained of a lack of shells.
On the way back from the meeting, Hoffmann received new intercepts from the Russian radio. Rennenkampf was going to continue the next day's march due west, ignoring Samsonov, just as Hoffmann had hoped. No matter the outcome of the next few day's battle, the Russian First Army would not be a serious concern. A second intercept of Samsonov's own plans made it clear that he would continue his march northwest, having concluded that the Germans would continue to retreat in front of Tannenberg.
Ludendorff and Hindenburg were skeptical that the intercepts were real—after all, what commander would be stupid enough to transmit orders in the clear, let alone two of them. Nevertheless, they were eventually convinced they were indeed real, and the plans were put into action. I Corps would open its attack on the Russian left flank on the 25th, while orders were sent to XVII Corps to move south and meet the Russian right flank as soon as possible.
Given the need for immediate action was no longer pressing, François once again demanded he be allowed to wait for his artillery supplies. Ludendorff and François began arguing, and eventually François delayed enough to allow the battle to open on August 27, as he had wished.
The morning of August 26 opened with the Russian First Army advancing westward, meeting little resistance. The troops that were formerly directly in front of them had moved to the south, facing the Second Army's right flank. There was still time to close the gap between the armies and thereby threaten the German movements, which by this point were being reported back to Russian headquarters. Nevertheless, on the night of August 25, the Russian field commander sent orders for the First to continue directly to Königsberg, orders that were once again intercepted.
Due to François' delays, it was the German XVII Corps that opened the battle proper. They met the two separated divisions of the Russian VI Corps near Seeburg and Bischofstein, turning them both back toward the border in disarray. The right flank of the Russian Second Army was now open. In the meantime, the Russian advance toward Tannenberg continued to be blocked by the XX Corps in front of them. Their only successes were in the middle, where their XIII Corps advanced towards Allenstein unopposed.
François opened his own attack on the Russian left on the 27th, held by the Russian's own I Corps. His artillery proved to be decisive, and by the night the Russians were falling back. In order to help stabilize the line, Samsonov ordered the seemingly successful XIII Corps to abandon Allenstein and turn southwest to help break through at Tannenberg. By the time this maneuver was complete, the bulk of the Russian Second Army were all in the Tannenberg area, consisting of the newly-arrived XIII, the XV and parts of the XXIII.
By the evening of August 28, the full extent of the potential danger to the Russians was evident. The I Corps on the left and the VI Corps on the right were both retreating. Meanwhile the center was having serious supply problems and could no longer hope to maintain an offensive. Samsonov had no option but to order a retreat to re-form the lines to their southeast near the border. Meanwhile he asked Rennenkampf to ignore Königsberg and turn southwest to help.
But it was too late. François by this time had advanced due east to form a line to the south of the Russians between Niedenburg and Willenburg, directly in front of their retreat. At the same time, the XVII Corps in the north had moved southwest to meet him. The next day the Russian center met these troops on their way to regroup, and realized they were surrounded. A pocket formed east of Tannenberg, near Frogenau, and was pounded throughout August 29.
Attempts by the Russian First Army to come to their aid were also far too late to help. The cavalry screen proved effective at delaying them, and by the time the battle was already over their closest unit was still to the northwest of where the initial contact between the German XVII Corps and Russian VI Corps, perhaps as much as 45 miles (72 km) from the now developed pocket. Other units were scattered back along the line to Königsberg, and now the First was itself in a dangerously spread-out position.
By the time the battle ended on August 30, 95,000 Russians troops were captured, another 30,000 killed or wounded, and only 10,000, mostly from the retreating flanks, managed to escape. The Second Army no longer existed. The Germans suffered fewer than 20,000 casualties and captured over 500 guns. Sixty trains were required to transport captured equipment to Germany.
Rather than report the loss of his army to the Tzar, Samsonov committed suicide by shooting himself in the head on August 29, 1914.
After the battle
The German Eighth Army now faced only the Russian First. In a series of follow-up battles, notably the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, the First was almost completely destroyed, and turned back over their borders. A Russian Army would not march on German soil again until the end of World War II.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff were both hailed as heroes, although Hoffmann was generally ignored in the press. Apparently not amused by Hindenburg's role, Hoffmann later gave tours of the area noting, "this is where the Field Marshal slept before the battle, this is where he slept after the battle, and this is where he slept during the battle."
Ludendorff sent the official dispatch from Tannenberg, and the battle was named Battle of Tannenberg at the direct request of Hindenburg. Hindenburg chose Tannenberg because of its historical significance; it is the location where the Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Slavic forces at the Battle of Grunwald (referred to in German as Schlacht bei Tannenberg—that is, also as the Battle of Tannenberg). Interestingly, an ancestor of Hindenburg's had fallen at the battle in 1410.
One interesting side-effect of the battle has since become an arguing point among historians. The three corps, one complete army, that von Moltke had sent to bolster the east, never arrived in time to have any effect. However, over a week was lost due to this confusion. Some have suggested that the removal of an army in the west in the midst of battle was a reason the Schlieffen Plan failed. If this is true, it means that Tannenberg was possibly the battle won that lost the war for Germany.
The battle is at the center of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel, August 1914.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Showalter, Dennis. Tannenberg: Clash of Empires. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991. ISBN 978-0208022523
- Sweetman, John. Tannenberg 1914. London: Kassel, 2002. ISBN 0304356352
- Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books, 1962. ISBN 034538623X
All links retrieved September 26, 2023.
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