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 167th installment in the series.
February 7, 1915: Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes
Following Russia’s disastrous defeat at Tannenberg, the Eastern Front began to look like a seesaw, or occasionally a revolving door, as both sides took turns attacking, shifting their forces and looking for weak spots in the enemy line, only to see their offensives run out of steam before reaching their objectives (Warsaw and Lemberg for the Germans, Krakow and Silesia for the Russians). During this period there were limited gains, as the Russians managed to conquer and hold the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia, laying siege to the strategic fortress town of Przemyśl, while the Germans established a defensive perimeter by occupying a strip of territory inside Russian Poland. But neither side was able to parlay these advances into a decisive breakthrough.
This dynamic continued through the winter of 1914-1915, as the Russians called up millions of new troops and created three new armies—the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth—with the intention of resuming the offensive against East Prussia. For their part the Germans, having decided on the New Year to shift their focus to the Eastern Front, transferred troops from the Western Front to create the new South Army (Südarmee), bolstering the forces of their hapless ally Austria-Hungary, while to the north they also created a new Tenth Army in East Prussia and a new army group under General Max von Gallwitz (from August 1915 the Twelfth Army).
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On February 7, 1915, the German commander-in-chief on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg—assisted, as always, by his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff—preempted the planned Russian invasion of East Prussia with a surprise attack by the Eighth Army under Otto von Below, catching the Russian Tenth Army under Thadeus von Sievers unprepared, while the Russian Twelfth Army was still mobilizing. The Germans hit the Russians in the eastern Masurian Lakes region, the site of a previous victory (the battle is also called the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes).
This daring offensive, launched in the middle of a snowstorm, forced the Russians into a chaotic retreat through frozen swamps and forests filled with snowdrifts. By the end of the first week the Germans had advanced 70 miles, crossing the East Prussian border and threatening a total encirclement; indeed by the end of the second week the Russian 20th Army Corps was cut off in the Augustowo Forest, a dense old-growth forest crisscrossed by small lakes, and forced to surrender. The Germans also took huge numbers of prisoners, while thousands of Russian soldiers were incapacitated by frostbite.
The rout only came an end on February 21-22, 1915, when the Russian Tenth Army dug in along new defensive positions southeast of the Augustowo Forest, while the Russian Twelfth Army finally rumbled into action, threatening the German Eighth Army’s right flank from the southwest.
Once again the cost of defeat for the Russians was mind-boggling, with the Tenth Army suffering around 200,000 casualties, including killed, wounded, prisoners and missing (above, Russian POWs). An American correspondent, Edward L. Fox, described the aftermath in former Russian trenches captured by the Germans near the Forest of Augustowo:
Further on in the field… I saw a shapeless heap of men, and then another heap, and another, until I had counted six… I had never seen such men before. They were men postured like jumping jacks only their legs and arms were still. They were men who seemed standing on their heads, their feet over the trench top, turned soles up to the sky. Somehow, they gave you the impression of being all legs and arms,– stiff grotesque legs, stiff grotesque arms. They all seemed lumpy, all but one, and he was standing up… and he was standing because the piled dead braced him so that he could not fall.
By comparison the Germans lost "just" 16,000 men in all categories. And once again Hindenburg and Ludendorff had destroyed a Russian threat against East Prussia – but were unable to turn their victory into a knockout blow, as the Austro-German forces on the southern half of the front remained bogged down in the northern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
Meanwhile smaller engagements continued along the length of the Eastern Front, adding to the toll of dead and wounded. John Morse, an Englishman serving with the Russians in central Poland in February 1915, recalled horrifying scenes in captured German trenches, in a battlefield full of dead bodies stacked on one another:
They lay thickest in and about the trenches. In the bottom of the advanced trenches there was a foot depth of blood which had drained from the corpses… the men occupying the position were compelled to stand in it half-leg deep for several days until an opportunity came to clean the trenches, when the congealed horror was removed… and buried by the ton in holes dug for the purpose. In one part of the trench I helped remove a heap of sixty-nine corpses, lying eleven deep in the middle… [some] had been smothered under the weight of their dead comrades, or trampled to death.
And yet amid all the horror there were still moments of humanity between enemy soldiers, as individuals. J.M. Beaufort, an American observer with the German army, described the following vignette after the Winter Battle of Masurian Lakes:
One cold and grey morning, while driving through the extensive forests of Augustowo, we came across a scene that would have touched a heart of stone. A giant Russian was sitting cross-legged in oriental fashion in the snow. On his lap lay pillowed the head of a German private, whose stark body, long since cold and dead, was covered with the Russian’s overcoat. An empty flask lay beside them in the snow. The Russian’s left sleeve was soaked with blood, and, on investigation, we found that his elbow was completely smashed. And the man’s sole comment was: “Nitchewo.” [“It is nothing.”]