Friday, 23 January 2015

The Eastern Front Part 4 -The Battle of Tannenberg

August 30th 1914 saw France in crisis, with the Germans advancing on Paris and the Government feverishly debating abandonment of the city. In Britain it became known as "Amiens day" - the day the Times published the first honest account of how serious was the overall position and the extent of the British retreat. For the first time the British public were faced with the unpalatable truth, and the impossibility of a short sharp war. And yet, the day was an even bigger disaster for Russia. If Tannenberg was a triumph for Germany, it was a catastrophe for Russia, losing an entire army, and 30th August was the culmination. Ludendorff, ruthlessly ambitious, was quick to claim credit, despite his strong reputation for urging defensive measures only in East, and was widely regarded as the genius of Tannenberg. However, as we have seen, the die was cast for the battle before the new supremos Hindenburg and Ludendorff de-trained at Marienberg, following their breathless journeys from Germany and the Western Front respectively. 

The blue lines show the envelopment of
Samsonov's army

Francois’ quixotic move, against orders, to attack Rennenkampf at the northern end of the front had proved successful at Stalluponen, but not shortly afterwards at Gumbinnen, which had seen one of the few occasions where routed Germans fled in panic to the rear. The news of this had sent Prittwitz into the panic that led to his dismissal. Before he was replaced however, it was the strong views of the senior officers Hoffman, Francois, Below and Scholze that dissuaded him from retreat to the Vistula, and a concentration of the forces at the southern end of the front to await Samsonov’s army. The Germans were greatly aided by access to all the Russian orders, which were transmitted wirelessly and unencrypted because the Russians had no facilities for either.

Samsonov’s orders, repeatedly showered on him by Jilinski were to drive his 2nd army north west, and to the south of the Masurian lakes in order to intercept and cut off, around Alfenstels, the German forces moving on Rennenkampf to the north of the lakes. Nonetheless, Russian armies invaded in both directions during 21st and 22nd of August. Samsonov’s army had marched for days and was exhausted and hungry.
Rennenkampf, after his apparent victory at Gumbinnen, rested, and then moved on only slowly towards the Baltic. Maybe this was because Jilinski wanted the Germans to stay in East Prussia rather than retreat to the Vistula, so that he could cut them off by Samsonov’s advance. He detailed one third of Rennenkampf’s men to stay guarding Konigsberg, and the remainder to press on west to the Vistula. This was disastrous, as it left Samsonov to face the whole German strength, which had been moved south. His forces were markedly inferior and he was smashed. The Germans had sent more reinforcements south, judging that Rennenkampf would not follow to provide much needed relief for Samsonov. The Russians had disclosed their intentions by sending uncoded messages by radio. All this good fortune fell into Ludendorff’s lap as he arrived. Francois was the German general on the right flank charged with taking Usdau to gain complete control over the Russian left flank.
Hindenberg (L) and Ludendorff
leave for the Eastern Front and arrive
just in time for Tannenberg
Ordered by Ludendorff to attack on 26th, when he was not ready, he stalled until 27th. A great battle was fought all day, and won decisively by Francois, taking Usdau. Samsonov, his left and right flanks crushed in successive days, spent the night of the 27th in Neidenberg.  Retreat was his best option. At dawn on 28th the whole German force attacked and more carnage ensued. On 29th Samsonov rode out to the front line near Tannenberg and shot himself.
General disarray and surrender continued over the 30th and 31st – a massive defeat for Russia. Over 120,00 prisoners were taken – more than 60,000 of them by Francois’ corps.

Russian men and weapons captured at Tannenberg
The Masurian Lakes. After Tannenberg, Samsonov was dead and his army was routed. The Germans turned north to deal with Rennenkampf on the right hand flank towards the Baltic. Strengthened by the troops from France they had 17 Divisions to attack through the line of the lakes and take him head on. Rennenkampf still outnumbered the Germans by 2 to 1, but did not have the right dispositions or intelligence information. By weight of numbers and further reinforcements he built a defensive line against the Germans. They held firm until 9th September when Francois (again) broke through. He took Lotzen, which gave him a clear run to the north and the coast to cut off the remainder of Rennenkampf’s army. On learning this, Rennenkampf ordered a rapid retreat eastwards; with a counter attack by 2 corps to cover it. It worked – he got most of his army back to Russia. Jilinski was relieved of his command after all these reverses, on 17th September

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