Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Developments on the Eastern Front

French Troops landing at Lemnos 1915

In any discussion of WW1events in 1915, the elephant in the room is Gallipoli. For all the scale and significance of other happenings on the Western and Eastern fronts, and at sea, during 1915, nothing matches Gallipoli in terms of enduring catastrophe. Right up there with the Somme and Passchendaele for the exemplar of the "Lions led by donkeys" argument, Gallipoli was a saga running right through the year  - then after that the inquests ran and ran. The 'lions' came from Australia, New Zealand, India and France as well as from Britain, and their courage and sacrifices were truly heroic. I will devote several posts to the Gallipoli campaign, and the decisions of the 'donkeys' as the year passes, but first a summary of actions on the Eastern Front in the early months of the year. The precarious position of the Russians at this time was more due to weapon shortages and communications failures than their courage or tactical positions. However, it increased the pressure on the Allies to force the Dardanelles straits and open a new theatre of war.The first action in the east for Hindenburg to threaten the Russians was the large pincer movement – the Crab -  from near to Konigsberg in the north to the Carpathians in the south.

On 31st January, the first attack by the left claw of the pincer began what the Kaiser called the Winter Battle of Masuria, engaging with the enemy on 4 February. It included the first use of poison gas by the Germans, but the extreme cold temperature limited its effectiveness. In deep snow and blizzards, the armies of the German pincer moved forward, aiming to encircle the bulk of the opposing Russian army. By 12th February, steady progress had cut off the Russian retreat towards Kovno, and on 14th the right claw of the crab pierced Lyck. The Kaiser visited the rear of the lines to congratulate them on their important victory, and 350,000 Russians were marching eastwards to escape the trap, burning villages en route. Chaos and fierce fighting ensued. Russian counter attacks from Kovno came to support their retreat, but they were driven steadily south. Many Russians escaped to the safety of Grodno, but many were left unprotected in the Augustow forest, which was completely encircled by the German by 18th February. The Russians resisted bravely for 4 days, but by the end of 21st, 30,000 soldier and 11 Generals had surrendered. It was like a re-run of Tannenberg. 
Abandoned Russian trench in the
Forest of Augustow

This ended the vicious winter battle. The Russian 10th army had not been completely encircled, but was finished as a potential invading force, and had lost nearly 250,000 men – nearly half of them dead. However, the remnants of the Russian right were now dug in, and with some reinforcements, were able to mount a counter attack, with success at Kosno, at the line of the river Nieman; and at Ossowietz, and by mid-March Hindenburg had withdrawn the left of his line to stability about ten miles inside the Russian border.

In the centre, a major battle at Przasnysz – fought in extreme cold and blizzards -  went the way of the Russians, and effectively put paid to Hindenburg’s designs on Moscow.
Further south, on the Russian left, battle raged through the winter for the Carpathians and, even more intriguingly, for the plains of Hungary, reached by the extreme left of the Russians skirting round to the east of the mountains, and advancing towards neutral Roumania to the east. This was a dangerous development for both Austria and Germany, for military, political and above all resource reasons. In the wake of Berchtold’s resignation on 13th January, the depleted and demoralized Austrian forces had been reorganized into three armies. The central of these was mainly German, and was newly commanded by Ludendorff, bitterly contemptuous of his Austrian allies. 
Boraevitch, commanding the western army, was charged with the relief of besieged Przemysl, but made little headway towards it. To the east, the army of von Pflanzer-Baltin had to counter the Russian moves into Hungary, and had more success than the western army. They captured the key railway line at Stanislau by the end of February, cutting the Russian supply line.
By late March, the two sides had more or less fought each other to a standstill. The Russians were in strong positions to the north of the Carpathian passes, but had withdrawn from Hungary on their left. Despite their offensives, the Austrians were a long way short of their targets – the relief of Przemysl and Lemberg. In fact, on 22nd March after a siege of seven months, Przemysl fell, after further rounds of incompetent defence by its garrison commander. It had been the first and most vital element of the Austrian empire’s defence against invasion from the east. Buchan writes “The fall of Przemysl was not so much a Russian achievement as an Austrian disgrace”. There now followed a lull, while Hindenburg considered his options and the Russians consolidated.

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