The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 141st installment in the series.
August 26-30, 1914: Annihilation at Tannenberg
The saying “victory has many fathers” is especially true when it comes to the Battle of Tannenberg. One of the greatest triumphs in history—which saw the invading Russian Second Army totally destroyed by the German Eighth Army in East Prussia—Tannenberg was the unlikely offspring of successive commanders, aided, oddly enough, by miscommunication and downright disobedience on the German side.
Russians Rush Into Action
Like the other Great Powers, Russia’s general staff had drawn up elaborate plans for mobilization and opening moves in the case of war. One of the main goals was an immediate invasion of East Prussia, in order to keep Russia’s promise to its ally France. Both knew Germany would probably throw most of its forces against France when war broke out, assuming that Russia would take about six weeks to mobilize. By invading East Prussia much sooner than that—ideally within two weeks of mobilization—the Russians hoped to force the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France in order to defend the Fatherland.
Following the decision to mobilize against Germany and Austria-Hungary on July 30, 1914, the Russians kept their promise to France by rushing forces into the field before mobilization was complete, with the Russian First Army under Paul Rennenkampf (192,000 men) invading East Prussia from the east, and the Second Army under Alexander Samsonov (230,000) invading from the south. The armies were supposed to converge on the German Eight Army (150,000) under Maximilian von Prittwitz to complete a classic encirclement; however there were some obstacles (literally) in the form of East Prussia’s patchwork of lakes, which made it hard to coordinate the movements of the Russian armies, while poor communications and logistical issues delayed Samsonov’s advance even more.
After crossing into Germany on August 12, Rennenkampf’s First Army suffered a minor defeat in the Battle of Stallupönen at the hands of Hermann von François, a headstrong corps commander in the German Eighth Army with a habit of disobeying orders, on August 17. Encouraged by François’ modest victory, Prittwitz decided to abandon his defensive stance and advance east against the Russian First Army, while the Russian Second Army was still struggling to move up from the south. However, the German attack was rebuffed at the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, leaving First Army in control of the field.
Alarmed by this reverse and the plodding advance of Samsonov’s Second Army, which (finally) threatened to encircle Eighth Army, Prittwitz decided to retreat to the Vistula River, sacrificing East Prussia to defend the route to Berlin. But German chief of the general staff Moltke was unwilling to give up the Prussian heartland so easily and fired Prittwitz, handing command of the Eighth Army to Paul von Hindenburg, an older general called out of retirement, advised by a young, dynamic chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff. Moltke also transferred one regular and one reserve army corps from the Western Front to East Prussia, further weakening the German right wing in Belgium and northern France (just as the Allies hoped).
As Hindenburg and Ludendorff hurried to East Prussia, Prittwitz’s talented deputy chief of operations, Colonel Max Hoffman, was devising a daring new plan. Eighth Army would use East Prussian railroads to suddenly shift François’s I Corps south and catch the Russian Second Army unprepared. To gain time XX Corps under Friedrich von Scholtz, currently the furthest south, would hold off the Second Army as long as possible.
This plan was very risky, since it left Eighth Army’s flank open to attack by the Russian First Army—but, luckily for the Germans, Rennenkampf showed no sense of urgency about following up the victory at Gumbinnen, and First Army advanced at a decidedly sedate pace. His delay provided a crucial window of opportunity for Hoffman’s plan, which was already in motion when Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over command of Eighth Army on August 23.
In fact, the new commanders had been contemplating a similar move, but they now faced huge logistical challenges, working to hurry the artillery for François’ I Corps south by rail, while Scholtz’s XX Corps staged a fierce fighting retreat against forward elements of Second Army, throwing the Russians back at Orlau-Frankenau on August 24. Then on the evening of August 24 the Germans had a stroke of luck, intercepting uncoded radio messages sent by the Russian Second Army headquarters, which gave away its location and direction of march. With this vital information in hand, Hindenburg and Ludendorff now made the crucial decision to order XVII Corps under August von Mackensen and I Reserve Division under Otto von Below to move south by forced marches to complete the encirclement.
The following day Hindenburg and Ludendorff ordered François, whose I Corps was now arriving west of the Russians, to attack—but the normally bellicose commander flatly refused because his artillery was still in transit. Furious at this open insubordination and worried by (exaggerated) reports that the Russian First Army was approaching from the north, the Eighth Army leaders paid a personal visit to François’ headquarters and forced him to issue the orders under their direct supervision. However François, stubborn as ever, found ways to put off their implementation until his artillery finally arrived.
As it turned out, François was probably right: delaying the attack created more time for Mackensen’s XVII Corps and Below’s I Reserve Corps to march south and defeat the Russian VI Corps on August 26, while Scholtz’s XX Corps brushed aside a division from the Russian XXIII Corps and kept the XIII and XV Corps busy in the center. After a fierce daylong battle the VI Corps was in a headlong, disorderly retreat towards the Russian border, leaving Samsonov’s right flank vulnerable and thus opening the way for encirclement. Meanwhile the Russian troops were hungry and demoralized after three days of marching with no food, due to supply failures resulting from the rushed deployment.
On the evening of August 26, with I Corps’ artillery in hand at last, François ordered an attack on the Russian I Corps guarding Samsonov’s left flank the next day, opening with a devastating “hurricane” bombardment at 4am. John Morse, an Englishman serving in the Russian Army, described the artillery duel in this area:
The air, the ground, everywhere and everything, seemed to be alive with bursting shells… Generally the sound of it was a continuous roar. The heavens were lit up by the reflections of discharged guns and exploding shells, and the pandemonium was dominated by a shrieking sound… [from] the rush of projectiles through the air.”
In terms of casualties, Morse noted, “Of course the loss of life was very great. I can only say the ground was heaped with dead and dying.”
As François’ I Corps pushed the Russians back on August 27, Scholtz’s XX Corps was locked in a ferocious battle with the Russian center, still attacking, while Mackensen’s XVII Corps and Below’s I Reserve Corps closed in from the northeast, officers urging exhausted troops towards the thunder of great guns to the south.
By the evening of August 27, the flanks of the Russian Second Army were in complete disarray, falling back towards the frontier all along the line. Alfred Knox, the official British military observer attached to Second Army, described the chaos unfolding just behind the front, on the Russian side of the border:
A long convey of wounded has entered the town… Losses, according to all accounts, have been dreadful, and chiefly from artillery fire, the number of German guns exceeding the Russian. A plucky sister [nun] arrived from Soldau with a cartload of wounded. She said there had been a panic among the transport and the drivers had run away, leaving the wounded… She said that the artillery fire of the Germans was awful.
And things were about to get much, much worse: Unbeknownst to the Russian troops streaming southward, by this time François’ I Corps had sent the Russian I Corps reeling back into Poland and thereby succeeded in turning Second Army’s left flank. On August 28 François followed up with a sweeping attack to the east—once again disregarding Ludendorff’s explicit orders—cutting Second Army’s line of retreat into Russian Poland and completing the encirclement.
The disaster was total: As the remnants of the Russian I and VI Corps dragged themselves to safety in Russian Poland, from August 28 to 30 the rest of Second Army was surrounded and annihilated. The scale of the defeat was breathtaking, as the Russians suffered around 30,000 killed and missing, 50,000 wounded, and 90,000 taken prisoners (below, Russian soldiers surrender) for a total of 170,000 casualties, versus just 14,000 casualties in all categories for the Germans. Along with the horrible human toll, another casualty of Tannenberg was the legend of the “Russian steamroller,” which would flatten all opposition in its irresistible progress to Berlin. Germany was safe, at least for now.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff had scored a victory that surpassed all their hopes, but in truth it was due just as much to Russian failings as German skill. Knox, the British observer, summed up the deficiencies:
The whole machine was inferior to the German machine. There was no proper co-operation between corps commanders. The men were worried by orders and counter-orders. The morale of all ranks was much affected by the number of the enemy’s heavy guns … [The generals] forgot the wonderful capacity of the East Prussian railway system. They sent the 2nd Army forward without field bakeries, imagining, if they thought of the soldiers’ stomachs at all, that a large army could be fed in a region devoid of surplus supplies.
Knox also recorded a firsthand account of the fittingly tragic denouement for Second Army’s commander, General Alexander Samsonov, who threw caution to the wind and rode to the frontline as the fortunes of war turned against him, then found himself cut off in the wholesale retreat:
All the night of the 29th-30th they stumbled through the woods… moving hand in hand to avoid losing one another in the darkness. Samsonov said repeatedly that the disgrace of such a defeat was more than he could bear. “The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” He went aside and his staff heard a shot. They searched for his body without success, but all were convinced that he shot himself.
Desperate Fight at Le Cateau
As the Russian Second Army was obliterated on the Eastern Front, on the Western Front the terrible Great Retreat continued, with the French and British armies falling back before the onrushing Germans following the battles at Charleroi and Mons, slowing them where they could with rearguard actions. On August 26, the British II Corps commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien disregarded an order from Field Marshal John French (apparently a frequent occurrence with headstrong commanders in the early days of the war) and decided to make a stand at Le Cateau, about 100 miles northeast of Paris.
The British II Corps faced three divisions from the German First Army under Alexander von Kluck. After an opening artillery barrage, the German infantry advanced in close formation over open ground towards the British lines, as at Mons, and with similarly bloody results, as massed rifle fire and shrapnel shells cut swathes in the attacking units. A British officer, Arthur Corbett-Smith, described the carnage:
A blue-grey mass of enemy infantry appears advancing with steady, swinging pace. At 500 yards or a trifle more one of your regiments opens rapid fire on them. You can actually see the lanes in the German ranks ploughed through by the British rifle-fire. Still they advance, for the lanes are filled almost immediately. Nearer and nearer, until that regiment which began the advance has almost ceased to exist. The remnant breaks and scatters in confusion, and as they break away another new regiment is disclosed behind them. Such is the method of the German massed attack, overwhelming by sheer numbers.
Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, quoted an ordinary “Tommy” (British soldier) with a similar, if more succinct view: “We kill ‘em and kill ‘em, and still they come on. They seem to have an endless line of fresh men. Directly we check ‘em in one attack a fresh attack develops. It's impossible to hold up such a mass of men. Can't be done, nohow!”
As casualties mounted, the Germans attempted to outflank the British from the west but were rebuffed by the newly formed French Sixth Army under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury, hastily created by chief of the general staff Joffre with troops from the Army of Lorraine. Nonetheless by mid-afternoon the German frontal assault was beginning to wear the British down and Smith-Dorrien, seeing himself hopelessly outnumbered and with a breakthrough imminent, organized an orderly retreat to the south, covered from the west by French horse artillery. The British had suffered 7812 casualties, including around 2500 taken prisoner, while 5000 Germans lay dead; perhaps more importantly, Le Cateau helped delay the German advance on Paris.
After the battle the Great Retreat resumed, pushing French and British troops to the limit of their endurance. Gibbs, attached to a cavalry unit, recalled:
For twenty miles our cavalry urged on their tired horses through the night, and along the sides of the roads came a struggling mass of automobiles, motor-cycles, and motor-wagons, carrying engineers, telegraphists and men of the Army Service Corps. Ambulances crammed with wounded who had been picked up hurriedly from the churches and barns which had been used as hospitals, joined the stampede… Many who were wounded as they tramped through woods splintered by bursting shells and ripped with bullets, bandaged themselves as best they could and limped on, or were carried by loyal comrades who would not leave a pal in the lurch.
The retreat was made even more difficult by huge columns of refugees, mostly peasants and villagers fleeing Belgium and northern France. A British Corporal, Bernard Denmore, recalled:
The roads were in a terrible state, the heat was terrific, there seemed to be very little order about anything, and mixed up with us and wandering all about over the road were refugees, with all sorts of conveyances—prams, trucks, wheelbarrows, and tiny little carts drawn by dogs. They were piled up, with what looked like beds and bedding, and all of them asked us for food, which we could not give them, as we had none ourselves.
However there was a silver lining, as the journey was equally onerous for the pursuing Germans. John Ayscough, a chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force, wrote his mother: “A German officer taken prisoner yesterday say that their men had had nothing to eat for four days, and had to be driven to fight at the point of the bayonet.”
As the enemy closed in on Paris, the Allies began clearing out of vulnerable positions. On August 28 the British commander, Field Marshal French, ordered the evacuation of the British forward base at Amiens, followed the next day by the main supply base at Le Havre and the strategic channel port of Boulogne; the new British base would be at distant St. Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay. Arthur Anderson Martin, a surgeon serving with the BEF, happened to be present at Le Havre, where he witnessed the chaotic scene at the harbor, involving all the trappings of a modern army:
Everyone was shouting and cursing; contradictory orders were given… The stage between the ship and the big sheds was packed with all sorts of goods in inextricable confusion. Here were bales of hospital blankets dumped on kegs of butter, there boxes of biscuits lying packed in a corner, with a forgotten hose-pipe playing water on them. Inside the sheds were machine-guns, heavy field pieces, ammunition, some aeroplanes, crowds of ambulance waggons, London buses, heavy transport waggons, kitchens, beds, tents for a general hospital, stacks of rifles, bales of straw, mountainous bags of oats, flour, beef, potatoes, crates of bully beef, telephones and telegraphs, water carts, field kitchens, unending rolls of barbed wire, shovels, picks, and so on.
Meanwhile as August drew to a close the chief of the French general staff, Joseph Joffre, decided to relocate his headquarters from Vitry-le-François, located on the Marne River about 60 miles east of Paris, to Bar-sur-Aube, about 30 miles further south, and the military governor of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, advised the government that the capital itself was no longer safe. Across the channel, on August 30, The Times published a brutally honest account by Arthur Moore, later known as the “Amiens Dispatch,” giving the British public its first unvarnished view of the war to date; farsighted observers now understood that Britain was in for a protracted conflict that would require all her strength.
But unknown to even the highest authorities, the tide was already turning in the Allies’ favor. On the evening of August 30, von Kluck, commanding First Army on the German right, decided to shift his direction of march from due south towards the southeast, to pursue the retreating British. However this would open his fight flank to attack by the new French Sixth Army under Maunoury, drawing on troops scraped together by Gallieni from the garrisons in Paris. Meanwhile Joffre also created a new special army detachment under Ferdinand Foch, one of the most aggressive French generals, with troops from the Third and Fourth Armies.
The stage was set for the Miracle on the Marne.