Principally, it is the Western Front that comes to mind when one considers the First World War. It is there that the stagnation of trench warfare most forcefully exerted itself. The Eastern Front, however, was just as important in many ways. At the beginning, it was in the east that a Balkan crisis grew into the Great War; at the end, the exhaustion of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany had far-reaching consequences, setting the stage for a Second World War. The Eastern Front is crucial to the history of World War I.
The chain of events that began the First World War played out largely in the east. Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Russia resolved to come to Serbia’s aid; fatefully, Russian leaders concluded that it was necessary to fight Germany, too, if they would have any real effect on the Austrians. This brought Germany into the war, and Germany had the Schlieffen plan in place for just this contingency. In this way the war was carried over into the west.
1914: The belligerents began the war with very different expectations. The Germans looked to hold the Russians at bay while seeking a decisive victory in the west. Accordingly, they began with a defensive posture, trying to make do with the smallest possible number of men to hold the line. For Austria-Hungary, Russia was the greatest threat in the immediate term as well as the long term, and so the bulk of Austrian forces were arrayed to defend against the Russians.
The Russians had more complicated issues. Their reserves of manpower were larger, but their forces were less well-organized. France was pressuring Russia to go on the offensive, and in the wake of later disasters, it became easy to blame this ally, but under the circumstances, it was probably wiser for Russia to attack sooner rather than later. Significantly, the Russian border with its two enemies constituted a very large bulge surrounding Warsaw. It was too important to be given up to the enemy, but with the risk of being surrounded, it was imperative that the Russians should simplify their line. They meant to accomplish this by seizing East Prussia and Galicia.
The Russians sent two armies into East Prussia in August, hoping to overwhelm the limited forces that defended it. Although the Germans numbered only about half of the Russian attackers, decisive leadership dealt with this dual threat: the Germans advanced to defeat the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, and then drove First Army back at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. Russian losses exceeded German by a factor of ten. The German commander, Paul von Hindenburg, and his staff aide Erich Ludendorff, won this campaign with fast railroad deployments and rapid responses to events as they unfolded.
Austria could not afford to be passive on the Eastern Front, even more so because Germany could. The Austrians began the war with an offensive into Serbia, but soon it became clear that nothing stood in the way of a Russian invasion. The Austrian commander, Conrad von Hoetzendorff, inclined toward the offensive in any event, and so he began an attack of his own from Galicia into the southern corner of the bulge around Warsaw. Russian forces were already coming to meet him, and as it proceeded, each side placed the greatest strength at the opposite end of the front line. Austria pressed into Russian Poland, only to find that the Russians had captured the city of Lemberg.
This reversal compelled Germany to come to Austria’s aid. The German attack into the Warsaw bulge was ultimately repulsed, but it was successful in giving the Austrians time. This campaign saw Hindenburg’s promotion on November 1 to overall command of the war in the east, a role that also encompassed his Austrian allies.
1915: Germany and Austria began the year with some momentum, and they resolved to press the advantage. Early in January, they initiated offensives at each end of the Warsaw bulge, with the Germans attacking from the north while the Austrians focused on Galicia. Neither accomplished much during the winter. For the Austrians, the key effort was made in the attempt to relieve Przemysl, but the city surrendered on March 22. The Russians were gaining ground as a result of the Austrian offensive.
Austrian losses threatened the very existence of their army. The Germans could not afford the wholesale collapse of their ally, and so the Chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, provided Hindenburg with more resources and allowed for renewed offensives in the spring, even moving his headquarters to the east for direct supervision. The Austrian portion of the line was reorganized, and a new German army under August von Mackensen was sent to reinforce it.
The resulting operations were much more successful. Mackensen led an attack in the south that began on May 2 around Gorlice, and gained substantial ground in only two weeks. By the end of the month, significant Austrian forces were recalled in response to the Italian declaration of war, but German formations arrived in their stead, and in June, they recaptured Lemberg.
The main German forces attacked the northern part of the Warsaw bulge, and in August, they succeeded in capturing Warsaw itself. The Russians chose wholesale retreat instead of total destruction, and the southern group under Mackensen harried them, capturing Brest-Litovsk at the end of the month.
The Russian retreat was as orderly as its commanders could have hoped, but it brought with it several grave consequences. Firstly, it was devastating for the civilian population through which it passed, and did much to undermine Russian morale everywhere. Perhaps more fatefully, it prompted the Tsar to relieve his capable cousin, the Grand Duke Nicholas, of the supreme command and assume that position himself. The Tsar was much less of a commander than the Grand Duke had been, and furthermore, his absence from the capital only encouraged intrigues there, not least of which were those concerning Rasputin.
1916: In March, the Russians staged an abortive offensive near Lake Naroch in Belarus. In fact, the Germans were not as weak as Russian intelligence believed, and the artillery attack that preceded it had almost no effect. The offensive miscarried badly, and the Germans thought they could rest on the Eastern Front while pouring their effort into Verdun.
Their error was revealed in June. Russian General Aleksei Brusilov prepared the greatest Russian offensive of the war, attacking Austrian positions south of the Pripyet Marshes. The Austrians were thrown into general disarray, and again it fell to the Germans to shore up the lines. The Russians regained land up to the feet of the Carpathians, but sustained politically untenable losses in the process.
Austrian weakness brought Rumania into the war on the Allied side, but the Germans defeated them before the end of the year. The main consequence of the Rumanian war was the loss of Falkenhayn’s position as Chief of the General Staff and Hindenburg’s appointment to that position.
1917: Russia’s losses fanned revolutionary sentiment, and the first Russian Revolution deposed the Tsar in March. The Germans avoided offensive activity, preferring to allow the Russians to fight each other. The Russian Provisional Government, led by Aleksandr Kerensky, tried to remain in the war despite popular sentiment. Kerensky managed to wage one offensive in July, pitting Brusilov once again against the southern part of the front, but this time Brusilov was quickly rebuffed.
In November, the Provisional Government was put down by a Bolshevik putsch, and the Russian army dissolved for all serious purposes. The Bolsheviks made peace with Germany in December with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and this brought an end to the Eastern Front as a part of the First World War. Widespread conflict would persist in the region for three more years. These struggles, most of which had the character of civil wars, would in turn lay the groundwork for the resumption of war in 1939.
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