Revolving Door War on the Eastern Front
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 154th installment in the series. NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.
November 19, 1914: Revolving Door War on the Eastern Front
As the Race to the Sea on the Western Front reached its climax at Ypres, to the east the fighting became even more fragmented, with the vast front diverging into three different theatres from the Baltic Sea to the Romanian border. Whereas before the war on the Eastern Front resembled a seesaw, now it looked more like a revolving door, as both sides advanced and retreated simultaneously in different sectors.
After hostilities commenced in August 1914, the Russians mounted ambitious invasions of German East Prussia and Austria-Hungary’s northeastern province of Galicia. The Russian Second Army was destroyed in East Prussia at the Battle of Tannenberg, but the attack on Galicia fared much better, forcing Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf to call on the Germans for help.
The tide began to turn against the Russians (for the first time) with the formation of the new German Ninth Army under Paul von Hindenburg in Silesia in mid-September. With the German Eighth Army guarding East Prussia and a new army detachment, the Woyrsch Corps, watching the border with Russian Poland, in early October 1914 the Ninth Army spearheaded an advance into Poland from the southwest, forcing the Russians to begin falling back all along the line, including further south in Galicia.
By mid-October, the Austro-German forces were closing in on Warsaw, and on October 10 the Ninth Army (now under August von Mackensen) defeated the Russians at Grójec, about thirty miles south of Warsaw. By October 12 Mackensen’s forces were just seven miles from the city, while in Austrian Galicia Hapsburg forces lifted the Russian siege of the key fortress town of Przemyśl.
But the tables were about to turn yet again: the Austro-German offensive was already grinding to a halt due to limited manpower, reflecting German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s decision to concentrate his resources for a final blow against the British, French, and Belgian forces at Ypres on the Western Front. Meanwhile the new Russian Second Army was arriving northwest of Warsaw, and to the southeast the Russians halted the advance of the Hapsburg Seventh Army at the San River in Galicia.
By October 17, Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, were already contemplating a strategic withdrawal from Poland, and Mackensen began pulling his troops back from positions outside Warsaw on October 20. As expected, the Russians began their second major advance along the entire front from Galicia to northwest Poland, recapturing the key towns of Stanislau and Czernowitz (today Stanislavivka and Chernivtsi, Ukraine) by the end of the month, and renewing the siege of Przemyśl on November 10. To the north they recaptured Łódź in western Poland on October 28, prompting the German general staff to order the Ninth Army to fall back to defensive positions along the Silesian border on October 30.
The fighting on the Eastern Front was just as fierce as on the Western Front, despite (or perhaps because of) its relative mobility. Stanley Washburn, an American correspondent following the Russian Army, described the Battle of Ivangorod, also known as the Battle of the Vistula River, which took place in a wooded area southeast of Warsaw:
… the forest for miles looks as though a hurricane had swept through… Men, fighting hand to hand with clubbed muskets and bayonets, fought from tree to tree and ditch to ditch… Dead horses, bits of men, blue uniforms, shattered transport, overturned gun carriages, bones, broken skulls, and grisly bits of humanity strew every acre of the ground… Here it is no figure of speech about the ground being soaked with gore. One can see it—coagulated like bits of raw liver; sand and earth in great lumps are held together by this human cement.
The Russian troops pursued the retreating German and Hapsburg forces amid heavy rain that inundated the countryside and turned large sections of the Eastern Front (like the Western Front in Flanders) into oceans of mud, adding to the general misery. John Morse, an Englishman serving with the Russian Army in Poland, encountered a horrifying landscape after crossing the Vistula:
The country was in a terrible state. The Germans had no time or opportunity to bury their dead, and the whole district, for hundreds of miles, was strewn with the bodies of men and horses, sometimes half-covered by water, often floating in it… the corpses soon began to decay, and the whole land stank revoltingly; and the men kept their pipes constantly alight to counteract the offensiveness. Owing to the state of the ground it was scarcely possible to bury many of these bodies, and they were left to rot away where they lay, or floated.
Further south the front moved with startling speed, as Austro-Hungarian armies collapsed, for the second time, in the face of a determined Russian offensive. Anton Denikin, a Russian officer who would later become one of the main leaders of the counter-revolutionary White forces during the Russian Civil War, recalled an attack which almost succeeded in capturing Archduke Josef, a cavalry general commanding the Austrian VII Army Corps:
With no artillery preparation I threw my regiments at the enemy trenches. The raid was so unexpected that it panicked the Austrians… [The archduke] had such confidence in his security that he fled with his staff only when he heard Russian machine guns in the streets of the village. On occupying his former lodgings, we found untouched a table laid with a coffee service bearing the archduke’s monogram and we drank warm Austrian coffee.
Even as the Russians advanced in Galicia, the Germans were regrouping in preparation for yet another offensive in the north, creating a revolving door dynamic. In early November Hindenburg, now overall commander of German forces on the Eastern Front, secretly transferred the Ninth Army under Mackensen north to the area near Posen for an invasion of Russian Poland from the northwest, while Conrad sent the Austrian Second Army to take over Ninth Army’s old positions. These moves set the stage for Mackensen to attack the advancing Russians on the right flank, and maybe even execute another huge encirclement like Tannenberg.
The Battle of Łódź began with the Ninth Army taking the Russians completely by surprise, first smashing into the right flank of the Russian First Army under Rennenkampf on November 11, taking 12,000 prisoners and sending the First Army reeling backwards. This in turn opened a gap between the Russian First Army and the reformed Second Army under General Sergei Scheidemann, exposing the latter to encirclement by a German pincer formed by the Ninth Army from the north and the Woyrsch Corps from the south.
Seeing the threat the Russian commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nikolai, hurried the Russian Fifth Army under General Pavel Plehve northwest, covering a remarkable 70 miles in two days through forced marches and successfully relieving Second Army with a counterattack on Mackensen’s right flank on November 18. As the German and Russian armies clashed in winter conditions including heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures, Rennenkampf’s First Army regrouped and advanced west again, turning the tables and suddenly threatening part of Mackensen’s Ninth Army with encirclement on November 21-22. However the German commander of the 25th Reserve Corps, Scheffer-Boyadel, staged a dramatic breakthrough over three days of relentless fighting from November 23-25, finally reuniting with the rest of the Ninth Army on November 26.
With the end of the Battle of Ypres, Falkenhayn was able to send Hindenburg reinforcements for Mackensen, allowing the Germans to resume the offensive against Łódź with a new attack in the south in early December, forcing the Russians back and laying siege to the city. Violetta Thurstan, an Englishwoman volunteering as a nurse with the Russian Army, recalled tending to wounded Russian soldiers in Łódź as the city came under German shellfire (top, destroyed buildings in Łódź):
… fresh wounded were being brought in every minute and there was no one else to help. Lodz was one big hospital. We heard that there were more than 18,000 wounded there, and I can well believe it. Every building of any size had been turned into a hospital, and almost all the supplies of every kind had given out. The building we were in had been a day-school, and the top floor was made up of large airy schoolrooms that were quite suitable for wards. But the shelling recommenced so violently that the wounded all had to be moved down to the ground floor and into the cellars. The place was an absolute inferno. I could never have imagined anything worse.
On December 6 the Russians evacuated Łódź and pulled back to new defensive lines behind the Bzura and Rawka Rivers in Central Poland. Now the path lay open for a new German offensive towards Warsaw.
As the Germans advanced in Poland, the Russians were advancing in Hapsburg territory, approaching within 20 miles of Krakow and capturing the strategic Dukla Pass (later the scene of a dramatic battle on the Eastern Front in WWII) in the Carpathian Mountains on November 28. In the days to come General Alexei Brusilov’s Eighth Army descended the slopes of the Carpathians to invade the Hungarian plain, threatening the heartland of the Kingdom. By December 7 Krakow was under siege and the Austrians were preparing to defend Prešov in what is now Slovakia. The fortress town of Przemyśl remained under siege, with 100,000 Hapsburg troops trapped by the Russian Eleventh Army, and it was only a matter of time before it fell.
But German successes to the north forced the Russians to abandon Brusilov’s offensive into Hungary, in order to consolidate their strength for a renewed thrust on Krakow in the center of the Eastern Front, which would in turn (they hoped) leave the Germans no choice but to call off their own offensive towards Warsaw.
As it happened, the new balance of forces resulted in stalemate. By the winter of 1914 both sides had brought up most of their immediately available reserves, material shortages were making themselves felt, and the weather made major offensive operations difficult, if not impossible. In the second half of December the German offensive towards Warsaw stalled, and the Russians withdrew from Hungary in the face of an Austrian counter-offensive. The Carpathian passes would change hands again that winter, and to the north the Germans would score a victory at the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes in East Prussia in February, but neither side achieved a major breakthrough.
Indeed, little would change until spring 1915, when the Germans shifted their focus from the Western Front to the Eastern Front, in the hopes of giving Russia a knockout blow.
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