The Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia that late summer of 1914 put to the test of war two very different military systems; the relatively small, highly trained and proficient Germans versus the vastly larger, barely trained and barely competent Russians.

At the start of the war, General Von Prittwitz commaner of the German Eighth Army received a series of contradictory briefing, orders and directives that issued from Helmut von Moltke and the Imperial General Staff.  Prittwitz had the understanding that he should maintain contact with the Vistula at all costs. Yet he was to protect German territory as well. He was to fight the Russians, and yet not risk becoming decisively engaged.  He was authorized to fall back behind the Vistula if required, but that would be seen as a major defeat. Further, the defense was not to be passive but rather Eighth Army should take the offensive if possible.  As the German Army absorbed the reservist called up on mobilization and transitioned from peacetime to wartime establishments, Prittwitz and his subordinate commanders and their respective staffs struggled to fulfill all these conflicting missions.

The Russian’s operational orders to the two invading armies were as clear as they were aggressive.  The Russian First Army was to advance west than turn south meet the Second Army near Allenstein, roughly the middle of East Prussian territory.  Meanwhile, the Second Army was to move north by northwest to meet the First. The proposed juncture of the armies was supposed to have caught and destroyed the German forces in a “cauldron” battle between the two advancing Russian Armies and the Mausian Lakes or at least driven them beyond the Vistula River.

The start of the Great War was a chain reaction of treaty activations, exchanges of ultimatums, mobilizations ordered and finally declarations of war.  In the East the sequence of events was: on 28 July Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On 29 July Russia acting as Serbia’s ally, ordered a general mobilization.  On 30 July Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia demanding they stop mobilizing. Russia did not respond to Germany so on 31 July Germany also ordered a general mobilization in response to the Russians.  On 1 August Germany, acting on its treaty obligations to Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia and demanded the neutrality of Russia’s main ally France.  France, of course, refused to remain neutral and ordered its own mobilization.

The Russian High Command narrowly interpreted its treaty obligations to France to launch an invasion of Germany by Mobilization Day plus fifteen or M-Day + 15.  Therefore, Rennenkampf’s First Army with five cavalry and six infantry divisions totaling about two-hundred and fifty thousand men crossed the border on 17 August, although the Russian cavalry had been scouting forward for a few days previous to this.  Samsonov’s Second Army was still at its line of departure and would not jump off until 20 August.  Either one of the Russian armies outnumbered the defending German Eighth Army.

The Eighth Army was deployed from north to south, or left to right, in this order:  I Corps, faced east against the Russian First Army, from the River Angerapp to the border, XVII Corps was in support just south and west of I Corps.  I Reserve Corps was covering the south east while XX Corps covered the southwest against the Russian Second Army.  Russian armies were traditionally slow to collect and even slower to move.  So, Prittwitz was caught a bit off guard by the relatively sudden advance of the Russians on his left.  But he had already ordered I Corps, commanded by Hermann von Francois to fall back on Gumbinnen with the intention of concentrating most of the Eighth Army, minus XX Corps, there with the expectation of luring the whole of the Russian First Army into a giant ambush along the Angerapp in the vicinity of Gumbinnen.

Prittwitz was able to contemplate executing this plan only because the German’s superior intelligence gathering.  Traditionally, the collection of operational intelligence had been job of the cavalry. However, both sides’ cavalry were severely limited in their ability to perform this function. Russian cavalry doctrine was to dismount and act as dragoons when coming in contact with the enemy.  Obviously these tactics did not allow deep penetration of the German lines. Also Russian cavalry was notably slow; moving at between three and five miles an hour, barely faster that quick marching infantry.  The German cavalry was constrained by the fact that it was outnumbered some ten-to-one; a force ratio that caused even the boldest horseman to think twice before riding out to find the enemy.

The German Army’s key intelligence assets were the six aircraft assigned to each corps and army headquarters, the four airplanes assigned to each of the fortress cities of Thorn, Graudenz, Konigsberg and Posen.  Also Koningsberg and Posen each had a Zeppelin assigned. From the start of the war these aircraft provided vital intelligence on the Russian’s movements to the German commanders.  The Russians, despite having the second largest air force in Europe with nearly two-hundred and fifty airplanes, were complete failures at air reconnaissance over East Prussia.

Using the valuable intelligence gathered by the airmen, Francois, instead of falling back on the Angerapp, maintained a forward deployment of troops with the intention of bringing the Russians to battle just inside the border.  Covering as broad a front as possible, Francois’ two divisions were spread thin and the Corps commander had not maintained a force of infantry in reserve. A heavy Russian blow on any point of the German lines could have broken through.  However, Francois had a high opinion of his Corps and of himself, he believed he and his men could defeat, or at least hold, any number of Russian attackers.

Herrman von Francois was another Prussian Junker, but of Huguenot descent.  He, like Prittwitz, was the son of a general and a graduate of the Prussian Kriegsakedemie.  Francois was described as head strong and had a propensity for not obeying ordered he did not like.  He  was also known as a difficult subordinate and his proclivity for making and then executing his own decisions made him of limited use in staff assignments.  In East Prussia, his aggressiveness and his contempt for the Russians were what precipitated the Battle of Stalluponen.

The German First Division, commanded by Major General Richard von Conta, was deployed around Stalluponen on 17August.  While Francois was inspecting its forward positions, First Division entire front came under attack from at least three Russian divisions.  Francois, with no infantry reserves to deploy, ordered I Corps’ sixteen 150-millimeter guns forward from Gumbinnen to support Conta.  Also he sent a rider to his Second Division commander, Major General von Falk, with orders to attack northeast from Tollmingkehmen into what Francois saw as the left flank of the Russians.

The fighting was intense. By 1130 the German Forty-Third Infantry Regiment had deployed all its reserves and reported Russians to its front, one flank and its rear.  The Russian light artillery pieces soon proved to be the superior of its German equivalent, ranging the German guns.  When German gunners moved forward to compensate, they were often brought under sniper fire and in one case at least subjected to a direct infantry assault.  The battery was only saved by setting the guns’ elevation to zero and the fuses to zero time, turning the cannons into giant shotguns.  Infantry companies were deployed and then forgotten. Messages were lost. Long established chains of command were fractured as battalions and smaller unit were moved to fill gaps.  The only thing that saved the hard pressed First Division was the Russian’s inability to coordinate a single massive assault.

About midday, Prittwitz got the word that Francois’ I Corps was forty kilometer further east than it should have been and was heavily engaged with the enemy. The Army commander and his staff were horrified.   Prittwitz ordered an immediate withdraw and to ensure the order was delivered, he sent a staff officer forward to deliver it directly to I Corps’ Commander.  When the junior staffer found General Francois in the Stalluponen church bell tower, he is said to have shouted: “The commanding general orders you to break off the battle at once at retire on Gumbinnen.”  To which Francois replied hotly: “Tell General von Prittwitz that General von Francois will break off battle when the Russians are beaten!”  The junior officer having no desire to get between two angry generals didn’t deliver that reply.

However, First Division was in such close contact with the Russians it was unlikely to be able to disengage even if General Francois had ordered it to so.  In fact, First Division was being squeezed into a pocket and was in danger of being surrounded, when relief arrived in the form of Falk’s Second Division.  Even before he had received Francois’ order to advance, Falk had been on the move: “marching to the sound of the guns”.  Leaving behind two battalions of infantry and a battery of light artillery, Falk moved north with four battalions and thirty guns. By 1400 Falk’s force had deployed and crashed into the open flank of the Russian Twenty-Seventh Division, just as the Forty-Third Infantry Regiment launch a local counterattack against the same division. It was too much for the Russians after a hard day of fighting. The Twenty-Seventh Infantry Regiment dissolved in a panic and the rest of Russians, fearing being rolled up, fell back.  The Germans captured about three thousand Russians and that many were also killed or wounded.

The German’s had won. They had fought three Russian divisions to a standstill.  But the massive numbers of the Russians were starting to tell as the Rennenkampf’s other corps continued to move forward to both the north and south of Stallponen. Francois now decided to obey the army commander. He ordered a withdrawal to the River Angerapp.  That night the Germans slipped west.

Russian General Yepantschin, III Corps commander, was determined to renew the attack at 0400 18 August, but his patrols found that the Germans were gone.  Unsure where the enemy had headed, the Russians did not move forward again until late in the afternoon of that day.  Convinced that the Germans were south of him, Rennenkampf pushed straight west intending to cut the Germans off from Konigsberg, and push them into a pocket between his First Army and Samsonov’s Second.  The Russians continued to move slowly forward on 19 August, meeting no major German resistance. On 20 August, Rennenkamfp ordered a halt and a day of rest.  This would give his weary army a change to get its footing back.  More importantly, the Russian logistics system was failing miserably; with the supply wagons far behind the front line. A halt would give these supplies a change to catch up.  The Russians, as doctrine demanded, dug in and fortified buildings where they stopped.

While the Russians slowly followed the German I Corps, Prittwitz encouraged by the success at Stallenponen and egged on by the aggressive Francois decided on an attack to stop the advancing Russians.  Prittwitz was finally convinced to attack by two new facts; first Samsonov’s Second Army had finally crossed the frontier and if the German’s didn’t defeat the Russian First Army now, they might never get the chance and second; a radio intercept had caught Rennenkampf’s order to halt and rest, therefore Prittwitz had some good ideas where he could find the Russians.

Prittwitz deployed three of his four corps and two independent divisions.  From left to right was Francois’ I Corp with the First Cavalry Division attached was just to the north of Gumbinnen, in the center moving from its line of departure on the River Angerapp was XVII Corps, on XVII Corps right, and also moving east was I Reserve Corps and on the far right was the Third Reserve Division.  XX Corps was still in the south opposing the Russian Second Army.  The German plan of battle was to have I Corps attack first to fix the enemy and make it turn north to face the attack.  Then XVII Corps would attack into the exposed left and rear of the Russians while I Reserve Corps would act as XVII Corps flank guard.

At first, Francois’ attack, prefaced by a night march, went very well. The German cavalry found a gap in the Russian lines and I Corps literally caught the Russians napping. As the Russian defenses stiffened and the Russian artillery started to come into play, the offensive started to slow.  Also slowing the attack were the trenches and fortified building that the Russians had prepared overnight.  However, the Russians soon fired off all their artillery shells and without that support the defenders soon fell back.  While the Russian Twenty-Eighth Division was all but destroyed, its Corps sister: the Twenty-Ninth Division, launched a series of fierce local counter attacks that took back some of the villages. The German Second Division artillery, feeling threatened by the Russians began to blast the landscape at random in a misguided attempt to stop the Russians.  Most of the rounds actually landed on German troops.  Hot, tired, having fought through what was called a “nightmare landscape” of concealed trenches, fortified villages and well hidden snipers, the German soldiers of I Corps had had enough; they broke and ran. Hastily rallied and reorganized by field grade officers, the German moved carefully forward again, but by 1600 with no sign of the XVII Corps and with no reserves, I Corps was ordered to halt.

In the center, XVII Corps did not fare as well as I Corps.  XVII Corps’ commander was August von Mackensen. Mackensen was a rarity among German generals. He was a Saxon from a middle-class background and had not attended the War Academy.  However, his career had flourished none the less. He was an able administrator and was a favorite of the Kaiser, who had ennobled him, thus the “von” in his name.  He was the senior Corps commander in the German Army, having lead XVII Corps since 1908.

Mackensen ordered his Corps on a twenty-five kilometer night march in a cold rain. Also, despite being a hussar commander, Mackensen failed to use his cavalry reconnoiter.  However early that morning he had received a liaison officer from I Corps. This officer stated that I Corps was sweeping the enemy from the field and all XVII need do was attack north.  Mackensen having no better ideas did just that.  His corps ran into a meat-grinder similar to what I Corps was facing: concealed trenches, fortified villages, well hidden snipers and accurate artillery fire.  Soon both his divisions were stopped in front of defenses that could not even see much less attack with any chance of success.  In a desperate attempt to break the bloody stalemate the German artillery moved into the open to support the infantry with direct fire. These batteries were soon slaughtered by a combination of sniper fire and Russian counter-battery artillery fire. After twelve hours of this hell, the Germans broke and ran, streaming back to rear as individuals and small disorganized groups.

The I Reserve Corps was a unique organization in the German Army.  All officers and men below the commanding general and his staff were reservists. Only about half of them were local East Prussian men, the other half coming from far and wide; industrial workers from the Ruhr rubbed shoulders with Hanoverian farmers and college students from Gottingen.  The Corps commander was Otto von Below.  He was what the German’s called an “old Hare” or alter Hase; a long serving line officer with limited staff experience.

I Reserve Corps job was to advance east to protect Mackensen’s right flank, by finding and “fixing in place” any threatening Russians.  Unlike XVII Corps, Below had used his cavalry and yet could find no major formations of Russians to his front. However, air reconnaissance reported two Russian Corps headed his way.  What happened next was a classic meeting engagement when neither side had a chance to dig in: every hilltop and stone building became a place to either defend or attack.  The German reservists “gave as good as they got” and by the afternoon they held the field and had prevented the two Russian Corps from attacking into Mackensen’s open right flank.

By that late afternoon the battle ground to a draw. True, the Germans had been failed to outright defeat the Russians. But they in turn had not been defeated either.  However, this lack of victory played  Prittwitz’s taunt nerves. The German General panicked and commanded full retreat west of the River Vistula.  Prittwitz then called Moltke , told the Chief of Staff of his command to withdraw  and also said that it was doubtful that the Germans could hold the Vistula without support.

Moltke had no time for a panicked General in East Prussia.  So he quickly decided on two course of action.  One there would be no retreat to the Vistula. Two von Prittwitz and his chief of staff, would have go and be quickly replaced by steadier men.  Recalling Paul von Hindenberg from retirement to send him east and Moltke assigned the brilliant Erich Lundendorff as his Hindenberg’s new Chief of Staff.

While the new command team of went east, General Prittwitz had found his spine. Also, Colonel Max Hoffman, Eighth Army’s very able Operations Chief had come up with a plan to defeat the Russians had persuaded Prittwitz to execute it.  The German army was to move south to deal with the Russian Second Army instead of retreating west.  However no one informed von Moltke or his staff.  Lundendorff and Hindenberg arrived they were briefed on the new plan and quickly approved it.  Eighth Army moved quickly south, setting up the Battle of Tannenberg.

By late afternoon the Battle of Gumbinnen had ground to a halt, with neither side having a great advantage. True, the Germans had been at least partly defeated by the Russians.  But it was far from a disaster.  The largest effect of the battle was on General von  Prittwitz the German Army Commander’s already overstretched nerves; in short, he panicked and ordered a general retreat to the west of the River Vistula.  Prittwitz then called Helmut von Moltke the Chief of the German Imperial General Staff and informed him of his decision to retreat and also told Moltke that it was doubtful that Eighth Army could even hold the Vistula River line without reinforcements.

Moltke deeply involved in the battles in the west had little time for a panic in the east.  He quickly determined two things. First, a retreat to the Vistula was not acceptable and second, Prittwitz and his chief of staff, von Waldersee, would have to be replaced and quickly.  Moltke recalled Paul von Hindenberg from retirement to send him east and assigned the brilliant Erich Lundendorff as his Chief of Staff.

While Hindenberg and Lundendorff headed east on the same train, Prittwitz had recovered his nerve. Further, Colonel Max Hoffman, Eighth Army’s vastly able Operations Chief had devised a plan to defeat the Russians in detail and had convinced Prittwitz to implement it.  So, instead of retreating behind the Vistula, the German army was to move south to confront the Russian Second Army.  Unfortunately for Prittwitz and Waldersee, no one told Moltke that they had reconsidered the retreat and what the new plan was.

Paul von Hindenberg was a graduate of the vaunted Prussian War Academy.  He had been commissioned into the Prussian army at the age of twelve. He had fought in both the Seven-Weeks War and the Franco-Prussian War.  He had a well deserved reputation for steely calm and iron nerve.  Before being recalled to command Eighth Army he had been retired since 1911.  Hindenberg had been off active duty for so long, he had reported for duty in the Old Prussian Blue uniform instead of the new field gray or feldgrau uniform.

Erich Ludendorff was the opposite of his new boss. Excitable, yet brilliant, Ludendorff was picked to be Hindenberg’s Chief of Staff because of his exceptional leadership in the capture of the fortress city of Liege, but he was too junior to command an army.  Also Ludendorff was not a Prussian Junker, but of middle-class background.  Yet, he was also a graduate of the War Academy.  However the two generals were different, they made a good team; a “happy marriage” and were soon simple known as “H and L”.

When Hindenberg and Lundendorff arrived, Hoffman presented his plan to the new command team and it was quickly approved.  This quick approval is not surprising since “H and L” had arrived at basically the same concept while riding on the train east.  This synchronicity however should not be seen as something unusual.  For years the Germans had war-gamed a two front Russian invasion of East Prussia and had come to the correct conclusion that the only way to win was to defeat one Russian army on one side of the Masurian Lakes, then using the excellent north-south rail-lines to turn on the other invading force and defeat it.

Leaving behind the First Cavalry Division, the Konigsberg garrison and a handful of local landwehr (reserve) units to screen the Russian First Army, the Germans started to move.  Francois’ I Corps had the furthest to go and used the excellent German rail system to move from being the far north corps, behind the rest of the army and then disembarking to become the most southern corps.  XX Corps, which had been screening Samsonov’s Army, now was the center of the German line. Below and the I Reserve Corps broke contact with the Russians moved first west than south to become the left-center. Mackensen’s XVII Corps, which had suffered the most at Gumbinnen turned west and then south as well and marched while it reorganized and refitted to become the far left of the new German lines.

The Russian General commanding Russia’s First Army, Rennenkamfp, who had held the line at Gumbinnen  soon realized that the Germans were thinning out in front of him, but he did little more then slowly patrol forward.  The Russian general surmised, that after the failed attack at Gumbinnen, that the Germans were now retreating north toward Konigsberg, so he immediately called for heavy artillery and more infantry to conduct a siege of that fortress city.  He also radioed his intentions in the clear for the Germans to intercept.  A second radio intercept, this time of  Russia’s Second Army commander, Samsonov,  with orders to continue attacking west, was handed to Hindenberg.  So on 25 August, Hindenberg knew that Rennenkampf was unaware of the Germans locations or intentions and that he would be completely out of position to intervene in the coming battle.  Further, “H and L” also now knew that Samsonov was also unaware that he now faced nearly the whole might of Eighth Army and was obligingly sticking his neck into the noose by continuing to attack westward.

Francois’ I Corps was to be the hammer to I Reserve Corps and XVII Corps anvil, but Francois seemed to have lost some of his aggressiveness.  Complaining his heavy artillery was not in position, he was slow off the mark on 25 August, not attacking until 1500, and then only fitfully.  Meanwhile, the Russians were pressing XX Corps slowly back in the center and Mackensen’s troops were fighting and winning on the German left, essentially destroying the Russian Fourth Infantry Division.

The next day Francois was still only attacking slowly and still complaining about his lack of artillery support. Meanwhile, another radio intercept indicated that Rennenkampf was detaching a corps to move south and attack the Germans. This news caused some concern in the German headquarters with Ludendorff considering calling off further attacks to deal with the new Russian force.  However, more intercepts and aerial scouting soon showed the Russians were not moving south, but rather north. So Hindenberg ordered the plan to continue.

On the 27 August, the Russians were breaking through hard pressed XX Corps in the center.  Ludendorff ordered Francois to detach a division to support XX Corps.  Francois refused and continued to press east and north.  Now with his heavy artillery in place, Francois was his bellicose self again and was driving the Russians into a sack. Meanwhile, Mackensen was continuing to press south.  On 29 August after two days of fighting, Francois’ I Corps met troops from XVII Corps at Willenberg completing the encirclement of Second Army.

Samsonov now finally realized what had happened and ordered his ill-supplied men east to escape.  Some obeyed.  Others, out of ammunition, out of food and out of hope, simply sat down and waited to be captured.  Samsonov couldn’t bear the shame of his defeat, saying over and over again, “The Tsar trusted me,” shot himself, rather than face the recriminations. The Russian Second Army had ceased to exist. The Russians suffered some fifty-thousand dead and wounded and over ninety-thousand prisoners were taken. The Germans lost less than twenty-thousand total dead and wounded.

Without a doubt the Battle of Tannenberg was a victory for the Germans; a defensive victory, but a victory none the less.  In macro-historical terms the battles in East Prussia; Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, had three primary effects. First they made the reputation of Hindenberg and Ludendorff such that in a few years “H and L” became the de-facto dictators of Germany. Second, the defeat for the Russians started a chain of events that eventually lead to the collapse of the Russian armies in 1917.  Lastly, the victories in the East so seized the mind of the German high command that they over committed resources to the defeat of Russia, when they should have been focusing on France and Britain in the West.

In today’s military it is axiomatic that an army should train as it will fight.  However the flipside of this coin is often ignored; that is to say, that an army will fight as it has been trained nearly regardless of circumstances. In the battles in East Prussia both the Germans and Russians soon found that prewar doctrine had to be modified in the face of the new circumstances of the war.   The Germans adapted to this new way of fight far faster than the Russians.

There are three levels of warfare in modern warfare; tactical, operational and strategic.  The levels of war are generally associated with geography, numbers of soldiers and resources involved.  Broadly speaking, the tactical level involves echelons at division and below and has a narrow geo-physical focus, such as a single terrain feature or some other single military objective; a hilltop, a town or a river crossing, for example.  The operational level concerns echelons at division to army or army group, or front, and will generally be concerned with a theater of war, involved combined arms and seek resolution or decision through a campaign designed to achieve an operational outcome, such as the conquest of a region or defense of a wide geographic area.  The strategic level is concerned with all military and political operations related to the war effort and the outcome of the war in its entirety. The strategic level is the province of the national leadership and the senior national military commanders.  Each level is closely related to the levels above and below and the three in total represent a spectrum.  Each level influences the others and builds or falls on the results of the levels below it.  Tactical victory should lead to operational and strategic victory.

Ultimately the battles in East Prussia in that fall of 1914 were strategic and operational “must wins” for the Germans.  A defeat would have opened the German heartland, including Berlin, to an attack by as many as three Russian armies. However, the victories were no more than tactical and operational level wins for the Germans, no matter how one-sided they were.  Because in short, the Germans could not turn East Prussia from an operational level victory into a strategic one; they simply lacked the resources to divert from the Western Front. Further the Russian Army had soon replaced all the soldiers and equipment lost in the campaign. Also the Russians could afford to lose in East Prussia and still not be removed from the war or even face a threat to their vital centers, such as Moscow or St. Petersburg.  In fact it would take three more years of hard fighting and much internal turmoil to finally knock Russia out of the war.


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