from 'The War Illustrated', 22nd September, 1917
'The Truth About Tannenberg'
By Lovat Fraser

Chapters from the Inner History of the War

German troops entering the city of Ortelsburg during the battle of Tannenberg, August 1914

 

There is no secret about the actual Battle of Tannenberg. It was fought between August 27th and 31st, 1914, in the region of the Masurian Lakes in East Prussia, and it gave the Germans a victory over the Russians equivalent in magnitude to Sedan in 1870. The broad facts are now quite well known. What is not so clear is the question of the true consequences of the Battle of Tannenberg, material and moral. Despite its crushing termination, it had no results comparable to those of Sedan. How, then, did Tannenberg affect the course of the war? What was its influence upon Germany, upon Russia, and upon the allied cause?

It may be said at once that perhaps the greatest result of Tannenberg was that it led to the discovery of Marshal von Hindenburg by the Germans. It does not matter whether Hindenburg is a great soldier or not. I do not think he is, though unquestionably he is endowed with that massive simplicity and directness of thought which is one of the marks of the truly great soldier. The real point is that he is the mainstay of German confidence, and that the bulk of the German nation implicitly believes in him.

Eliminate Hindenburg, and you will find no one left in whom the Germans put their trust to the same degree. After three years of war the two most prominent soldiers are Hindenburg and Cadorna, and it is interesting to reflect that both of them are over seventy years of age.

One of Germany's Miscalculations

The dramatic feature of the earliest stages of the war in Eastern Europe was the unexpectedly rapid mobilisation of the Russian Army. In this respect Germany made, one of her many miscalculations. She considered that she could mass the bulk of her forces in the west, destroy the French Army, and take Paris, before Russia was ready. She would then, she hoped, be able to overwhelm Russia at her leisure. In both respects she was wrong. In the west she was forced back on the defensive within five weeks, and in the east the Russians were pouring into the relatively unguarded province of East Prussia long before they were expected.

The dominating factor in the operations in East Prussia was the tangle of woods and lakes and swamps in the south-eastern portion of the province, known as Masuria, This desolate region was almost impassable for troops, though there were one or two practicable routes through its centre. Russia planned the invasion of East Prussia with two armies. The Army of Vilna, under General Rennenkampf, concentrated behind the River Niemen. The Army of Warsaw, under General Samsonoff, concentrated behind the River Narew. Rennenkampf in the north marched on Tilsit and Insterburg and Konigsberg. Samsonoff sent a portion of his troops through the heart of Masuria by way of Lyck and Lutzen, but his main advance was from the south by way of Mlawa in the direction of Allenstein. Thus the lakes and the swamps intervened between the two armies, and the division proved fatal.

Rennenkampf's cavalry was well over the border by August 6th, but his invasion in force did not begin until August 16th. He fought and defeated the Germans under General von Francois, an officer of Huguenot descent, at Gumbinnen on August 20th; and afterwards he moved through Insterburg towards the fortress of Konigsberg. The intention of the Russians was to unite their two armies west of the lake region, and to cross the Vistula; but it may be doubted whether this would have been a safe proceeding while Konigsberg was still untaken, and in point of fact the junction was never effected.

The Kaiser Sends for Hindenburg

Samsonoff's invasion on the south began like a triumphal march. His right traversed the worst of the lake region, his left and centre swept everything before them. The Russian armies were first-line troops, but the German corps left in East Prussia were composed almost exclusively of men of the second and third line. On the 21st Samsonoff's right fought the considerable Battle of Frankenau, when the Germans fled in disorder. Next he took Allenstein. More than half of the province of East Prussia was in Russian hands by the 22nd. The civil population was in wholesale flight, and fugitives began to pour into Berlin. In Petrograd 20,000 was subscribed for the first Russian soldier who should enter the German capital.

On August 22nd the Kaiser sent for General Paul von Hindenburg, and in six days the Russian invasion was broken. That is Hindenburg's great title to German gratitude. Hindenburg was then living in retirement in Hanover, after having commanded corps at Konigsberg and at Allenstein. No man living had a better military knowledge of the topography of East Prussia, though the stories of his studies of the lakes and marshes are believed to be exaggerated. He arrived at Marienburg, on the Vistula, on August 23rd, and decided to attack Samsonoff first. He had brought with him as Chief of Staff General von Ludendorff, who witnessed the Russian campaign against the Japanese in Manchuria.

The rapidity of Hindenburg's. victory was due, in the first instance, to the incomparable German railway system. He carried to the junction at Osterode, west of Allenstein, and also to points west of Soldau, all the troops he could gather from the garrisons of Graudenz, Thorn, and Posen. Germans say that it was the finest piece of railway work in the war.

Russians Surrounded and Broken

Samsonoff seems to have been entirely unsuspicious. He was expecting Rennenkampf's army to join him at Allenstein and continue the march to Berlin. There must have been nearly half a million Russians over the border by that time. Samsonoff no more anticipated Hindenburg's stroke than Von Kluck foresaw Maunoury's blow at his flank after he crossed the Marne. The Russian intelligence system was woefully defective. They had few aeroplanes, and the cavalry could not work with freedom in such densely wooded country. When air scouts at length brought the news that great numbers of vehicles were moving out of Osterode by road, the Russians thought the airmen must have seen transport trains. On their first contact with Hindenburg's skirmishers, on August 26th, they believed they were encountering the rearguard of a retreating enemy.

Hindenburg's strategy was simple but masterly. He deserves all the credit he received for Tannenberg. He moved first against Samsonoff's left, near the Polish frontier. Samsonoff, suddenly realising that he was in contact with a great army, swiftly reinforced his left. Then Hindenburg's improvised motor transport came into play. He swooped round on Samsonoff's right and enveloped him. He struck terrific blows at his weakened centre, driving him back towards the lakes and swamps. Finally the feint against the Russian left became a reality, and Samsonoff's principal line of retreat to Mlawa in Poland was cut off. The Russians were encircled by a force inferior to their own in strength. They were broken into disorder, and swept into the marshes.

Whole regiments are said to have been drowned. Many guns were lost in the quagmires. Battalion after battalion surrendered. Hindenburg took 90,000 prisoners of the flower of the Russian active army, he is believed to have inflicted 30,000 casualties, and the remnants escaped in disorder. Samsonoff and his Chief of Staff, General Pestitch, were killed by a shell on the last day of the battle. Rennenkampf, in the north, had to retire into Russia. Hindenburg tried to cut him off, but failed, though he captured 30,000 of his troops and 150 guns.

Moral Effect of Tannenberg

The moral effect of the Battle of Tannenberg was undoubtedly enormous. It was so skilfully manipulated that it entirely obscured in German eyes the great repulse at the Marne, which came little more than a week later. East Prussia was the stronghold of the Junkers and the birthplace of the Prussian spirit. Its invasion, seemed like a blow at the heart; its clearance meant an incalculable relief. The battle recalled the origins of Prussian history; it revived memories of the ancient antagonism between Teuton and Slav. On that very field of Tannenberg the Teutonic knights had been routed by the Poles in 1410, and five hundred years afterwards Prince Bulow could still write with regret of "the black day of Tannenberg". Hindenburg's triumph seemed to retrieve the present and to avenge the past. He became the idol of the nation, he has been regarded as the chief German bulwark ever since.

The precise military results of Tannenberg were less decisive than they seemed at the moment. Though the Russian plans were thrown out of gear, the concurrent invasion of Galicia was not seriously checked. Hindenburg came to grief when he advanced to the Niemen; and, while his popularity remained unaffected, the Russians were soon back in East Prussia again. It is not true that German troops were withdrawn from France to fight at Tannenberg. Units were moved to the eastern front directly afterwards, but in the main the Germans preserved their pressure on the western front.

Tannenberg injured the allied cause, because it was the first of many signs that the Russians were outmatched in generalship and in resources; but its chief importance was that no other battle did so much to strengthen German confidence and determination,

 

from a German serial history of the war - a battle scene during Tannenberg

 

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