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Eastern Front

World War I
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World War I
World War I
Date:
1914 - 1918
Location:
Europe
Context:
World War I
Key People:
Aleksey Alekseyevich Brusilov Franz Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf Max Hoffmann August von Mackensen Nicholas

Eastern Front, major theatre of combat during World War I that included operations on the main Russian front as well as campaigns in Romania. The principal belligerents were Russia and Romania (of the Allied and Associated Powers) versus the Central Powers countries of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Eastern Front, which stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, was more than twice as long as the Western Front. The greater distances and greater differences between the equipment and quality of the armies involved ensured a fluidity of combat which was lacking in the west.

Physical characteristics of the Eastern Front

In August 1914 the Russian and Austro-Hungarian–German armies faced each other across a frontier that stretched over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the Baltic Sea to the northern border of Romania, which was at that time neutral. This great length was due to the projection of Russian Poland as a huge salient between German East Prussia and Austrian Galicia. After Romania joined in the war on the side of the Allies in 1916, the front extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, a span of some 800 miles (roughly 1,300 km) in a direct line, or more than twice that distance if measured along the borders between the opposing countries. The shape of the frontier, the great distances, and the physical features and nature of the communications combined to divide the Eastern Front into three “sub-theatres” until the Russian retreat out of Poland in 1915. Thus, the operations in East Prussia, in the Polish salient, and in Galicia, though they formed part of a combined whole, each had their own special characteristics.

Louis IX of France (St. Louis), stained glass window of Louis IX during the Crusades. (Unknown location.)
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The greater part of the huge area of operations consisted of plains or gently undulating uplands. The only heights sufficient to constitute a serious military obstacle were the Carpathians, which extended in a semicircle from the southwest corner of the Polish salient to the Iron Gate on the Danube, forming a protective barrier for the Hungarian plains on the north and east. Opposite Russia they ran roughly parallel to the frontier, some 50–100 miles (80–160 km) from it; opposite Romania the Carpathians actually marked the frontier. It was a constant aim of the Russians throughout their operations, as well as the objective of Romania’s single abortive offensive, to pierce this barrier and reach the plains below.

Although the Eastern Front had but a single notable mountain barrier, the water obstacles in the theatre were numerous and formidable. The most significant from a strategic standpoint was the Pripet Marshes, a vast waterlogged wetland covering approximately 104,000 square miles (270,000 square km), where infrastructure was undeveloped and military movements on a large scale were extremely difficult in consequence. Other water lines which had a considerable effect on operations were: in East Prussia, the line of the Masurian lakes; in the Polish salient, the rivers Vistula, Narew, Bobr, Niemen, and Bug; in Galicia, the Dunajec, Wisłok, San, and Dniester; and in the Romanian theatre, the Danube itself, the Olt, and the Siret. Besides the rivers enumerated above, there were a number of lesser streams which influenced the course and direction of the operations. Strategy in this theatre was in fact largely determined by rivers. Rivers slow the movement of an advancing army but are seldom a permanent bar to its progress. Although many of the principal river crossings had been fortified in peace, these fortifications had little influence on the course of operations—except, notably, at Przemyśl. In East Prussia and in Poland were extensive stretches of forest, which had certain tactical consequences. The Carpathians also were thickly wooded.

The real key to strategy on this eastern European front lay in the communications and logistics systems. In this respect the contrast between Russia and its western neighbours was striking. The transportation system in Russia was extremely underdeveloped, in spite of all efforts in the years preceding the war to develop strategic railways. The Russian general staff had prevented road or railway construction in the north and in the southeast of the Polish salient in order to provide protection to a defensive position in the centre of the salient. This shortsighted policy seriously hampered Russian strategy when an offensive campaign from Poland was undertaken. Nor could Russia make much use of its great rivers as lines of supply, owing to lack of previous development. Thus, superior command and communications infrastructure gave Russia’s adversaries the inestimable advantage of greater mobility.

Characteristics of the armies

The armies that met on the Eastern Front were all conscript forces. Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany required three to four years of service from able-bodied males of military age, to be followed by several years in reserve formations. Military strength was counted in terms of divisions (12,000–20,000 officers and men), the smallest military units capable of independent action. In August 1914 the Russian army consisted of 102 regular divisions divided into six field armies, boasting a total manpower of some 1.4 million. Germany’s eight field armies consisted of 98 regular divisions, supplemented by 27 Landwehr (reserve) brigades, for a total strength of 1.9 million men; although this force was significantly larger than Russia’s army, it would have to be deployed on two fronts. Austria-Hungary’s six field armies were divided into 48 divisions, with a total manpower of some 450,000.

Of the Germans little else need be said; their army of 1914 was among the most powerful instruments of war the world had yet seen. The raw material of the Russian army was in many ways excellent. The typical Russian infantryman was noted for his discipline and bravery, but he often lacked leadership, as the army did not possess a deep well of officers and senior enlisted men from which to draw. Once the original cadre of regular officers and noncommissioned officers had fallen, there were few candidates to replace them, because the Russian system did not produce reserve officers with great efficiency. The Russian army was very weak on the technical side; it was lacking in artillery, and it fielded large masses of cavalry, provision for which threw a great strain on the communications and logistics systems, but which accomplished little. In no way—except by weight of numbers—could a Russian army hope to gain the advantage over a German force.

The Austro-Hungarian army, only slightly, if at all, superior to the Russian on the technical side, was inferior to it in fighting quality. This was in large part due to a senior officer corps that was mediocre at best. Austro-Hungarian troops tended to perform comparatively well when operating under German command. A Russian force was almost always the master of an Austro-Hungarian force of similar size, but it required a great numerical preponderance to meet a force of Germans with any hope of success. The high state of discipline, training, leadership, and armament of the German army reduced the significance of the initial numerical inferiority of the armies of the Central Powers.

Due to the comparative slowness of mobilization, poor higher leadership, and lower scale of armament of the Russian armies, there was an approximate balance of forces in August 1914 which prevented one side from gaining a quick victory. The Russian military expert Gen. Nikolai N. Golovin rated one German division as the equivalent of one and a half Russian divisions. Germany and Austria-Hungary also enjoyed the advantage of interior lines of communication which enabled them to send their forces to critical points on the battlefronts by the shortest route. According to Gen. Wilhelm Groener, Germany’s railway network made it possible to move eight divisions simultaneously from the Western Front to the Eastern Front in four and a half days. Even greater in importance was the advantage that Germany derived from military traditions and a system of command dating back to the reforms of Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, Count Neidhardt von Gneisenau, Count von Roon, and the elder Helmuth von Moltke. Skilled in directing a war of movement and quick to exploit the advantages of flank attacks, German senior officers, with the exception of Moltke’s namesake nephew, were capable of successfully directing the operations of large formations.

1914: The outbreak of war and initial campaigns

Plans for the campaign

The German plan of 1914 was a modification of one drawn up by Alfred von Schlieffen many years previously. It provided for an offensive against France designed to obtain a rapid and decisive victory and a defensive in the east against Russia until the decision had been obtained in the west. The choice of France for the initial offensive was actuated chiefly by the relative slowness of Russian mobilization and by the impossibility of gaining a rapid decision against Russia owing to the great distances. Germany’s problem in the east was then to determine the minimum strength to be left for defensive purposes. This was eventually fixed at nine divisions, active and reserve, with one cavalry division, for the protection of East Prussia. Certain second-line troops were tasked with the defense of the Eastern Front fortresses such as Posen (now Poznań, Poland), Thorn (now Toruń, Poland), Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), and Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) and to watch the Polish frontier. The troops in East Prussia, organized into four corps, formed the Eighth Army under Max von Prittwitz.

The chief of the Austro-Hungarian general staff, Franz, Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, had planned an offensive into southeast Poland between the Vistula and Bug rivers, directed at Chełm and Lublin. This was to be carried out by the First and Fourth armies (under Gen. Viktor Dankl and Gen. Moritz von Auffenberg, respectively). To protect their right flank and rear, the Second and Third armies (under Gen. Hermann Kövess and Gen. Rudolf von Brudermann) deployed east of Halicz and Lemberg. Conrad’s offensive was originally designed as part of a combined Austro-Hungarian–German offensive, in which German forces from East Prussia were simultaneously to attack along the Narew River. German and Austro-Hungarian forces were to meet about Siedlce and thus cut off the whole Polish salient. Conrad had repeatedly urged this plan on Moltke but had failed to induce him to provide sufficient troops to take the offensive from East Prussia, before France had been disposed of.

In the absence of German cooperation, it is difficult to see what permanent success Conrad could have hoped for from the proposed Chełm-Lublin offensive, because, as already pointed out, the Russians had neglected the infrastructure in that area expressly to frustrate the operation he had chosen. From the German point of view, however, this Austro-Hungarian offensive fitted in admirably with their strategic plan, because, whatever its outcome, it would keep the Russians fully engaged and thus safeguard the vital industrial areas of Silesia, until the campaign against France had been won.

The Russians had accurately gauged the intentions of both their adversaries. Their original plan was to take the offensive against the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia and to act defensively in the Polish salient and against the Germans in East Prussia. They were, however, pledged to their French allies to assume the offensive against Germany at the earliest possible date. Six armies were initially deployed along the front line. The First (or Vilna) Army under Gen. Paul von Rennenkampf assembled on the eastern frontier of East Prussia, and the Second Army under Gen. Alexander Samsonov gathered at Warsaw. These two armies formed the Northwestern Front, under Gen. Yakov Grigoryevich Zhilinsky. They were intended for action against the German forces in East Prussia. The Southwestern Front, under Gen. Nikolai Ivanov, consisted of four armies, of which the Fourth (under Gen. Anton Salza) and Fifth (under Gen. Paul von Plehwe) were to deploy on the Lublin-Chełm railway to meet the expected Austro-Hungarian offensive; the Third Army (Gen. Nikolai Ruzski) and Eighth Army (Gen. Aleksey Brusilov) were to take the offensive at once from the eastern frontier of Galicia in the direction of Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine). The Austro-Hungarian and Russian plans were almost the exact counterpart of each other. Grand Duke Nicholas assumed chief command of the Russian armies as a whole. Though no great strategist, he was shrewd and had a strong personality. His chief of staff, Gen. Nikolai Yanushkevich, was a man of no significant military ability who owed his position to his charisma at court. The Russian war plan was attributed mainly to Gen. Yuri Danilov, head of the operations branch of the general staff.

In addition to the front line armies, the Sixth Army was assembled at Petrograd for the protection of the capital and as a general reserve, the Seventh Army at Odessa to guard the Black Sea coast, and an army in the Caucasus to watch Turkey. At the last moment, after mobilization, a momentous change in the Russian dispositions was made. The First and Second armies were ordered to invade East Prussia at once, without waiting to complete their concentration. This change was made solely to assist Russia’s allies in the west.

East Prussia: August–September 1914

Rennenkampf’s First Army comprised six and a half infantry divisions and five cavalry divisions, and Samsonov’s Second Army was made up of 10 infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions. They had thus in combination an overwhelming superiority over Gen. Max von Prittwitz’s Eighth Army, which was defending East Prussia. Coordination between them was, however, completely lacking and led to their defeat in detail. Zhilinsky, who was responsible for combining the action of the two armies, was a man of some administrative capacity but little aptitude for command. Samsonov’s army had to move before its concentration was completed and was deficient in transport. The arrangements for obtaining and recording intelligence were indifferent in spite of the large masses of cavalry available. So defective were the means of communication that the Russians were frequently forced to issue “in clear” (unencrypted) orders by wireless, with the result that the Germans often had complete information of their enemy’s moves and intentions.

With the German declaration of war against Russia on August 1, 1914, all hope had been lost of the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary remaining a localized affair. Armies were already mobilizing along what would become the Eastern Front. Rennenkampf crossed the frontier on August 17, driving back a German force at Stallupönen (now Nesterov, Russia). After a hard battle at Gumbinnen (August 19–20), Rennenkampf defeated Prittwitz, who had concentrated against him the bulk of his army, leaving only one corps to observe the southern frontier. Meanwhile, Samsonov, moving slowly forward by Mława, crossed into East Prussia on August 21, causing Prittwitz, in momentary panic, to announce his intention of withdrawing behind the Vistula.

Prittwitz was promptly replaced by Paul von Hindenburg, with Erich Ludendorff as chief of staff. Within a week Ludendorff had completely defeated the Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg (August 26–30, 1914), surrounding and capturing the greater portion of it. Receiving a reinforcement of two corps which had been hastily recalled from France, Ludendorff then turned on Rennenkampf, who had remained inactive during the disaster at Tannenberg. From September 1 to September 15 Rennenkampf was attacked and driven out of East Prussia with very heavy casualties at the Battle of Masurian Lakes.

In these operations the Russians had suffered a total loss of some 250,000 men, crippling in spite of Russia’s immense reserves. Much war matériel had also been lost, and this could not easily be replaced. On the other hand, this invasion of East Prussia, by causing the recall of two corps from the west at the moment of France’s crisis, had made possible the victory at the Marne.

Operations in Galicia: August–September 1914

Meanwhile, in Galicia, Austria-Hungary had suffered a serious defeat at the hands of Ivanov’s Southwestern army group. The offensive of the Austro-Hungarian First and Fourth armies toward Lublin and Chełm at first made satisfactory progress, with battles at Kraśnik and Komarów ending in their favour. However, their flank guard of the Second and Third armies was unable to withstand the onslaught of the Russian Third and Eighth armies. On September 2 Lemberg was lost, and the advance of the victorious left wing was consequently stayed. Two corps from the Russian Ninth Army (which had been formed at Warsaw as a central reserve) now reinforced Ivanov’s right wing, and the whole Austro-Hungarian line was gradually pressed back. On September 11 a retirement to the San was ordered by the Austro-Hungarian command; by the end of the month they had withdrawn to within 50 miles (80 km) of Kraków, leaving their fortress of Przemyśl to withstand an extended siege.

The first and second invasions of Poland

The Austro-Hungarian defeat in Galicia compelled the German Supreme Command to send direct assistance to its reeling ally. This was done by the transfer of five and a half corps, formed into the Ninth Army, from East Prussia to the Kraków-Częstochowa front. From there the Ninth Army marched on Warsaw in the last days of September in conjunction with a simultaneous advance along the whole Austro-Hungarian front up to the Carpathians. The Russians had halted on the San after the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian forces and were in the process of transferring troops north to form a new front south of Warsaw. This regrouping was carried out in safety behind the Vistula, with only cavalry being left to oppose the German advance west of the river.

By the middle of October, the German Ninth Army was near Warsaw, but the Austro-Hungarian advance had been held up on the San. The Russians now counterattacked all along the line. In the south they drove the Austro-Hungarian forces back to the Dunajec River, in the centre they compelled the German Ninth Army to fall back, and in the north the newly constituted Russian Tenth Army crossed the frontiers of East Prussia. The intention of Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian commander in chief, was now to invade Silesia with his Fifth, Fourth, and Ninth armies, in that order from the north. His right flank was to be protected by the Tenth Army in the east of East Prussia and by the First and Second armies north and west of Warsaw, his left flank by the advance of the Third and Eighth armies in Galicia. The Germans had thoroughly broken up the infrastructure in southwest Poland during their retreat, and the Russian advance was slow and halting. Their more nimble opponents once again used the superior mobility given them by their highly developed network of railways to launch a telling counterstrike.

A German Eastern Front Command was constituted under Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and the German Ninth Army, now under Gen. August von Mackensen, was withdrawn from southwest Poland and concentrated between Posen and Torun. It advanced on November 11, with its left flank on the Vistula, against the right flank and rear of the Russian main armies. The Russian First and Second armies were severely mauled, and by November 17 the Second Army was in a critical situation, almost completely surrounded at Łódź. It was saved by a skillful intervention by Russian Gen. Paul von Plehwe’s Fifth Army, and the Germans were now themselves faced with envelopment and disaster. Thanks to Rennenkampf’s failure to act with due haste, however, they extricated themselves from danger. Four corps from the Western Front were released with the conclusion of the First Battle of Ypres, and these now joined Mackensen. This enabled him again to advance and to capture Łowicz and Łódź by December 12. In the south, heavy fighting had taken place east of Kraków with no decisive result.