Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes

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). 


Click to enlarge 

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.

Eastern Abattoir 

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.”]

See the previous installment or all entries.

Watch John Krasinski Interview Steve Carell About The Office's 15th Anniversary

John Krasinski and Steve Carell in The Office.
John Krasinski and Steve Carell in The Office.
NBC Universal, Inc.

The Office just passed a major milestone: It has been 15 years since the American adaptation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's hit British sitcom made its way to NBC, where it ran for nine seasons. To celebrate the show's big anniversary, former co-stars John Krasinski and Steve Carell reunited in the best way possible: Carell appeared as a guest on Krasinski's new YouTube show, where the two decided to spread some positivity.

Krasinski just launched his very own news show titled Some Good News, and it's exactly what we've all been needing. During this segment, he interviewed Carell via video call, and the two shared their favorite memories of working on the beloved workplace comedy.

"It's such a happy surprise," Carell said of The Office's continued success. "After all these years people are still tuning in and finding it." The two also addressed the question that's been on every fan's mind: is there a chance that we'll see the Dunder Mifflin crew reunite in some way?

"Listen, I know everyone's talking about a reunion," Krasinski said. "Hopefully one day we'll just all get to reunite as people."

You can watch the full episode below. (Carell joins the video around the 5:50 minute mark.)

15 Facts About John Brown, the Real-Life Abolitionist at the Center of The Good Lord Bird

John Brown, circa 1846.
John Brown, circa 1846.
Augustus Washington/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, was meant to start an armed slave revolt, and ultimately end slavery. Though Brown succeeded in taking over the federal armory, the revolt never came to pass—and Brown paid for the escapade with his life.

In the more than 160 years since that raid, John Brown has been called a hero, a madman, a martyr, and a terrorist. Now Showtime is exploring his legacy with an adaption of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Like the novel it’s based on, the miniseries—which stars Ethan Hawke—will cover the exploits of Brown and his allies. Here's what you should know about John Brown before you watch.

1. John Brown was born into an abolitionist family on May 9, 1800.

John Brown was born to Owen and Ruth Mills Brown in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800. After his family relocated to Hudson, Ohio (where John was raised), their new home would become an Underground Railroad station. Owen would go on to co-found the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and was a trustee at the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, one of the first American colleges to admit black (and female) students.

2. John Brown declared bankruptcy at age 42.

At 16, Brown went to school with the hope of becoming a minister, but eventually left the school and, like his father, became a tanner. He also dabbled in surveying, canal-building, and the wool trade. In 1835, he bought land in northeastern Ohio. Thanks partly the financial panic of 1837, Brown couldn’t satisfy his creditors and had to declare bankruptcy in 1842. He later tried peddling American wool abroad in Europe, where he was forced to sell it at severely reduced prices. This opened the door for multiple lawsuits when Brown returned to America.

3. John Brown's Pennsylvania home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania
The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Sometime around 1825, Brown moved himself and his family to Guys Mills, Pennsylvania, where he set up a tannery and built a house and a barn with a hidden room that was used by slaves on the run. Brown reportedly helped 2500 slaves during his time in Pennsylvania; the building was destroyed in 1907 [PDF], but the site, which is now a museum that is open to the public, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Brown moved his family back to Ohio in 1836.

4. After Elijah Lovejoy's murder, John Brown pledged to end slavery.

Elijah Lovejoy was a journalist and the editor of the St. Louis/Alton Observer, a staunchly anti-slavery newspaper. His editorials enraged those who defended slavery, and in 1837, Lovejoy was killed when a mob attacked the newspaper’s headquarters.

The incident lit a fire under Brown. When he was told about Lovejoy’s murder at an abolitionist prayer meeting in Hudson, Brown—a deeply religious man—stood up and raised his right hand, saying “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."

5. John Brown moved to the Kansas Territory after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which decreed that it would be the people of Kansas and Nebraska who would decide if their territories would be free states or slave states. New England abolitionists hoping to convert the Kansas Territory into a Free State moved there in droves and founded the city of Lawrence. By the end of 1855, John Brown had also relocated to Kansas, along with six of his sons and his son-in-law. Opposing the newcomers were slavery supporters who had also arrived in large numbers.

6. John Brown’s supporters killed five pro-slavery men at the 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre.

A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry
A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On May 21, 1856, Lawrence was sacked by pro-slavery forces. The next day, Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, was beaten with a cane by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor until he lost consciousness. (A few days earlier, Sumner had insulted Democratic senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler in his "Crime Against Kansas" speech; Brooks was a representative from Butler’s state of South Carolina.)

In response to those events, Brown led a group of abolitionists into a pro-slavery settlement by the Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24. On Brown’s orders, five slavery sympathizers were forced out of their houses and killed with broadswords.

Newspapers across the country denounced the attack—and John Brown in particular. But that didn't dissuade him: Before his final departure from Kansas in 1859, Brown participated in many other battles across the region. He lost a son, Frederick Brown, in the fighting.

7. John Brown led a party of liberated slaves all the way from Missouri to Michigan.

In December 1858, John Brown crossed the Kansas border and entered the slave state of Missouri. Once there, he and his allies freed 11 slaves and led them all the way to Detroit, Michigan, covering a distance of more than 1000 miles. (One of the liberated women gave birth en route.) Brown’s men had killed a slaveholder during their Missouri raid, so President James Buchanan put a $250 bounty on the famed abolitionist. That didn’t stop Brown, who got to watch the people he’d helped free board a ferry and slip away into Canada.

8. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was meant to instigate a nationwide slave uprising.

On October 16, 1859, Brown and 18 men—including five African Americans—seized control of a U.S. armory in the Jefferson County, Virginia (today part of West Virginia) town of Harpers Ferry. The facility had around 100,000 weapons stockpiled there by the late 1850s. Brown hoped his actions would inspire a large-scale slave rebellion, with enslaved peoples rushing to collect free guns, but the insurrection never came.

9. Robert E. Lee played a part in John Brown’s arrest.

Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Shortly after Brown took Harpers Ferry, the area was surrounded by local militias. On the orders of President Buchanan, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee entered the fray with a detachment of U.S. Marines. The combined might of regional and federal forces proved too much for Brown, who was captured in the Harpers Ferry engine house on October 18, 1859. Ten of Brown's men died, including two more of his sons.

10. John Brown was put on trial a week after his capture.

After his capture, Brown—along with Aaron Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, Shields Green, and John Copeland—was put on trial. When asked if the defendants had counsel, Brown responded:

"Virginians, I did not ask for any quarter at the time I was taken. I did not ask to have my life spared. The Governor of the State of Virginia tendered me his assurance that I should have a fair trial: but, under no circumstances whatever will I be able to have a fair trial. If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment, without this mockery of a trial. I have had no counsel: I have not been able to advise with anyone ... I am ready for my fate. I do not ask a trial. I beg for no mockery of a trial—no insult—nothing but that which conscience gives, or cowardice would drive you to practice. I ask again to be excused from the mockery of a trial."

Brown would go on to plead not guilty. Just days later, he was found “guilty of treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel, and murder in the first degree” and was sentenced to hang.

11. John Brown made a grim prophecy on the morning of his death.

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown passed his jailor a note that read, “I … am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” He was hanged later that day.

12. Victor Hugo defended John Brown.

Victor Hugo—the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who was also an abolitionist—penned an open letter on John Brown’s behalf in 1859. Desperate to see him pardoned, Hugo wrote, “I fall on my knees, weeping before the great starry banner of the New World … I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown.” Hugo’s appeals were of no use. The letter was dated December 2—the day Brown was hanged.

13. Abraham Lincoln commented on John Brown's death.

Abraham Lincoln, who was then in Kansas, said, “Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”

14. John Brown was buried in North Elba, New York.

John Brown's gravesite in New York
John Brown's gravesite in New York.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1849, Brown had purchased 244 acres of property from Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist, in North Elba, New York. The property was near Timbuctoo, a 120,000-acre settlement that Smith had started in 1846 to give African American families the property they needed in order to vote (at that time, state law required black residents to own $250 worth of property to cast a vote). Brown had promised Smith that he would assist his new neighbors in cultivating the mountainous terrain.

When Brown was executed, his family interred the body at their North Elba farm—which is now a New York State Historic Site.

15. The tribute song "John Brown's Body" shares its melody with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It didn’t take long for Brown to become a martyr. Early in the 1860s, the basic melody of “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us,” a popular camp hymn, was fitted with new lyrics about the slain abolitionist. Titled “John Brown’s Body,” the song spread like wildfire in the north—despite having some lines that were deemed unsavory. Julia Ward Howe took the melody and gave it yet another set of lyrics. Thus was born “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Union marching anthem that's still widely known today.

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