The Battle of Tannenberg (1914) was the first decisive clash between the Germans and the Russians in the twentieth century. It is the battle that forged the partnership, and the subsequent legend, of the German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. By facing their foes piecemeal, and taking advantage of interior lines of communication, the Germans were able to defeat an attacking force nearly twice their size.
In 1914, the border between the German and Russian empires passed through modern Poland. The Russian part of Poland, centered around Warsaw, extended like a bulge into Central Europe, surrounded by East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia in Germany, and by the Austro-Hungarian Empire to its south. On the German side of the border, an extensive series of lakes known as the Masurian Lakes dominated the southern part of East Prussia.
Strategically, German planning was fundamentally defensive. Ever since the end of Bismarck’s diplomatic system, Germany anticipated that it would face at least two powerful enemies, France and Russia, whenever a major war actually erupted. General Staff planning since the tenure of Count Schlieffen concentrated on a policy of knocking out the French as soon as possible, while holding the Russians at bay until Germany could focus the bulk of its forces against them. Significantly, German tactical theory since the time of Frederick the Great emphasized rapid maneuver as a means by which a smaller force could defeat a larger force: by sending all of one’s forces against part of the enemy’s force, an overall numerical disadvantage can become a local numerical advantage. In this way, an outnumbered defender can repulse a larger invasion. This is precisely what happened at Tannenberg.
When war broke out in 1914, Russia had six armies stationed in the area. The First and Second Armies were earmarked for East Prussia, while three other armies were directed towards Austria-Hungary, and the last was held in reserve. Because the Germans did not invade Russia, First and Second armies were to invade East Prussia from the east and south, respectively. Against them stood a single German army, the Eighth. There were several dangers in this plan, however: it relied upon the cooperation of two army commanders, Pavel Rennenkampf and Aleksandr Samsonov, who were known to hate each other; coordination was effected in part through the new medium of radio, and the Russians had not yet learned the wisdom of encoding their messages; and the path of Second Army lay through the Masurian Lakes, which necessarily broke up formations and impeded cooperation.
Still, the Russians experienced a small degree of luck at the beginning of the campaign. The German Eighth Army was commanded by Max von Prittwitz, and he responded to the dual incursion with static defense. First contact was made in the northeast on August 19, when Rennenkampf’s army engaged German defenders near Gumbinnen. When Prittwitz determined that another army was approaching from the south, he ordered his men to withdraw from Gumbinnen. His intention, which he freely related to Chief of Staff Moltke, was to hold off both invaders while he prepared a retreat. He wished to set up a new line of defense on the other side of the Vistula.
Moltke relieved Prittwitz of command, and replaced him with a recent retiree, Paul von Hindenburg, and a staff officer who had distinguished himself in the attack on Liege, Erich Ludendorff. They would arrive on August 23. A new plan was already underway on the German side, following the initiative of staff officer Lt. Col. Max Hoffmann; Hindenburg and Ludendorff would largely implement Hoffmann’s plan.
Hoffmann saw that the Russian Second Army was vulnerable as it passed through the Masurian Lakes; First Army appeared likely to remain in place for a few days. If the Germans threw everything at Second Army, leaving behind only a small detachment of cavalry to occupy the attention of First Army, they could defeat Second Army in detail and then shift to face First Army. XVII and I Reserve Corps were already heading south when Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived; from the far left wing in the north, Gen. François’ I Corps traveled by train to the extreme right wing in the south. III Reserve Corps also deployed by rail, but entered the fray nearer the center.
After resting on the 21st, First Army began to march again on the 22nd; thinking the enemy was in retreat, but still in force before him, Rennenkampf advanced slowly. On the 23rd, the center mass of Second Army engaged the Germans. Thinking that Eighth Army was in retreat, Samsonov secured permission from his overall commander, Zhilinskii, to adjust his goals further west. On the 25th, Samsonov began to receive reports suggesting greater numbers of the enemy than he had anticipated. It was too late to receive aid from Rennenkampf, who had just been given different orders, including laying siege upon Königsberg.
The Germans launched their attack on August 26. Facing only Second Army, they enjoyed a small numerical advantage, not to mention other advantages, such as superior training and coordination. The Russians began to retreat, although the terrain ensured that it would be neither rapid nor easy.
With his troops arriving by train, Gen. François was ordered to move east, attacking the Russian western flank. François saw an opportunity strike more decisively; reporting that it would take time to get his men in battle formation, he sent part of his force in the appointed direction and a larger body to march behind Russian lines. This was carried out on the 27th. By the end of that day, the Russian center was unsupported, with both flanks having collapsed.
It is not understood why Samsonov proceeded to go on the offensive again on the 28th, rather than retreating or taking a defensive posture. For their part, the Germans also continued the attack. Second Army collapsed upon itself over the course of two days, and at the end of the 29th, Gen. Samsonov committed suicide. His army took a little longer to die, with the last pockets of resistance surrendering on the 31st.
It was a devastating loss for the Russians. German estimates count more than 120,000 prisoners, with roughly another 50,000 lost. The Russians claimed that hardly more than 60,000 were taken prisoner, and the remaining losses numbered 70,000, but even if that were true, then the total losses were still 130,000. In contrast, German losses of all kinds did not exceed 15,000. The German victory was one-sided by any estimate, and the Eighth Army was still free to swing to the northeast and fight Rennenkampf’s First Army.
The Battle of the Masurian Lakes followed hard on the Battle of Tannenberg, with first contact beginning on September 5. On the 11th, the Russian army began its retreat, and within two days the battle was over.
Germany had successfully defended itself in the face of the initial Russian invasion. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were lauded as heroes; within two years, they would assume overall command of the entire German war effort. Between 1914 and 1917, they succeeded in breaking the Russians, freeing large numbers of troops to ride west and participate in the battles in France and Belgium. The conditions in the west were very different, and ultimately, they were unable to secure victory, but for many Germans, the victors of Tannenberg were the best hope in the face of a grinding war of attrition.
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Greenwich Editions, 1989.
Ibid., The Historical Atlas of World War I. Henry Holt, 1994.
Sweetman, John. Tannenberg 1914. Cassell, 2002.
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