'The Fall of Warsaw'
by Stanley Washburn, American journalist
from his book ‘Victory in Defeat’ 1916

The German Advance in Poland

German troops on parade in Warsaw


In this modest series of the operations on the eastern front I have not intruded personal experiences except in such degree as to indicate my sources of information at various times. At this stage in the war descriptive matter is largely stale, as the world is long since satiated with accounts of the atmosphere of war. I have already described within my capacity the military movements leading up to the evacuation, but to understand the situation at this time and after it does seem worth while to give a little picture of the army and of Warsaw on the last day it remained in Russian hands. I had spent the night of August 2d in the Bristol Hotel, but the constant alarms and announcements that the bridges were about to be blown up had not been conducive of either rest or serenity.

I have never known a place where rumors based on nothing spread with such thoroughness in so short a time. The last night I slept in the Bristol just as I was getting into bed about 2:00 in the morning two excited Poles burst in to inform me that the bridges were to be blown up in two hours and that all rail communication had been cut that afternoon. I did not believe it, and after turning them out went to bed. I was awakened at 6:00 by a friend in his pajamas who broke into the room with the inspiring information that the bridges were being blown up.

As my motor was the only means of transportation on which we could depend to keep us out of the clutches of the enemy, and as it was standing in a garage on the Warsaw side of the Vistula, I felt that I must get up. The alarm, however, was premature, for the noise was not the blowing up of the bridges at all, but only a couple of "early-bird" German Taubes out dropping a little morning hate on Warsaw in the shape of bombs which were bursting about town while the sky was filled with the smoke from Russian shrapnel breaking above us in the blue. Thus I finally left Warsaw as a sleeping base because, though war is enlivening, it is still necessary to get some rest. We had been living in a palace at Novaminsk and so decided to sleep there in the future, but failed in this anticipation because the staff of the Second Army, which left the same day, took over our palace and left us only a room in a small house.


German territorials crossing the Weichsel on a raft


It was on the same day that we learned from the staff that the game was up as far as Warsaw was concerned. Even if one had not been told verbally, the roads needed no interpretation. Mile after mile in unbroken column, plodding through the dust that rose above the road in clouds, was the endless column of caissons, transport carts, field kitchens, and the thousand and other odds and ends that belong to an army. But in this retreat, as in the many, many others that I have accompanied or rather preceded in Russia, there was nothing in the faces of the men to indicate whether they were retiring or advancing.

Wednesday, August 4th, Warsaw's last day, we left early in my motor and ran down to the position where the Thirty-sixth Corps, now reinforced by the Thirty-fifth, was standing between the Germans and the line of retreat. It was a perfectly still day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. Save for the dull booming of the guns over on the river there was absolute peace everywhere. During the morning there was scarcely any movement on the Lublin-Warsaw Road, which was the line of communication of the Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Corps. The world outside that was waiting eagerly for news from Warsaw no doubt imagined scenes of chaos and confusion.

Every mile or two on the road one met a few belated refugees plodding quietly along, but otherwise there was nothing to indicate that the last great drama of Warsaw was being enacted under our very noses. By noon there was more sign of life, for guns began to come back from the front, each marred and soiled by hard usage with the accompanying caissons, alas, now quite empty. Battery after battery I passed on the road — coming back at a time when each was worth its weight in gold. Why? No shells.

The Germans say the lack of shells was exaggerated by the Russians as an excuse for defeat. The Germans are mistaken in thinking this. I am sure of this, because I was there and saw it myself. We lunched that day with the general commanding the Thirty- sixth Corps. Not far away the boom of guns and occasional roll of rifle and machine-gun fire told the story. Yet the war was hardly mentioned at all by any of us during the lunch.

From this one can gather some idea as to the amount of confusion that prevailed. The general had suggested that we go forward toward the positions that afternoon, and horses were actually saddled and in readiness for the trip when some intuition resolved us to alter our program and return to Warsaw, for something told me that the end was nearer than the scenes of quiet on the Lublin-Warsaw Road indicated.

So we left at once and started back for the town. But now the scene was quite changed from that we had witnessed in the morning: the evacuation was well under way and everywhere one met the troops that were coming over the river. At one point in the road I stopped the motor to talk with the soldiers of the Thirty-fifth Corps, the last unit of which had just crossed the river that morning and had been badly dusted. The colonel of the regiment was sitting on his horse in the middle of a field with notebook in hand checking up his losses. The soldiers of his command were lying along the grassy bank by the roadside, many of them falling asleep the moment they sat down. A field kitchen was halted in the road and the few soldiers that were not asleep were lining up to get what was perhaps their first ration since the night before. Many were in bloody bandages and all worn and haggard.

"Here," I thought, "one will find the morale of the Russians at its lowest ebb. These men have been fighting for days and have lost." So I called up a great strapping private soldier. Wearily he got to his feet and came over to the side of the motor. His face was gray with fatigue and his eyes glassy for want of rest. "How do you feel now about the war?" I asked him. "Do you want peace?"

He looked at me in a dazed kind of way and replied as he shuffled his feet uneasily: "We are all very tired."

"But still, what do you want to do about the war?" I persisted.

The Russians are not quick to reply to questions under any circumstances. For a long time the tired soldier looked at me and then for the second time he said: "I am very tired. We are all very tired."

"Well, then," I said, "do you want to make peace and leave the Germans in possession of Warsaw?"

For a long time he stood in the hot afternoon sun looking at the dust in the road and then replied: "I am very tired. So are we all. The Germans are taking Warsaw to-day. This is not as it should be. I think I am a better soldier than the German. With rifles and shells we can always beat him. It is not right that we should give up Warsaw." He paused for a moment and then looked up with his eyes flashing as he finished in one quick burst: "Never! I am tired, but I want to go back and fight some more. We cannot leave the Germans in Warsaw."


a Russian hospital train


I cannot, of course, speak for the psychology of the Russians who fell into the hands of the enemy this day and later. Naturally I had no chance to talk to them. Of the ones that I did see and talk with, this man I have quoted was a type.

When we turned into the main road from Sedlice to Warsaw the evacuation was under full head. I suppose that during the entire retreat, this afternoon was the nearest to confusion; how little this was, I think, is made clear from the fact that though I was going back to town and the tide was flowing the other way there was never such density as to stop my motor or cause me to reduce speed under fifteen miles an hour. This, then, was the "rout" of the Russians at its high tide! It was after six when we came over the hills and looked down on Warsaw that so many, many times before had greeted us from the returns of scores of trips. But now a glance showed that the city, which we who had followed its destinies for a year had come to love, was doomed.

At the end of the beautiful new bridge hung one of our observation balloons, while a couple of miles up the river the big German shells were bursting with terrific detonations, literally spurting buildings into the air. Our own batteries down to their last shots replied only occasionally, or, as in many places, not at all. Warsaw was passing from us and passing rapidly, and as I stood on the new bridge watching the bursting shells through my glasses my mind ran back over the past eight months. I thought of the tens of thousands of our heroic troops that lay buried on the Bzura line. I recalled the sacrifices of the Siberians in October to save the war. And as it all passed through my mind my heart grew heavy. It was as though something near and dear to me were dying before my eyes. But the German shells were moving slowly nearer. Evidently some of their batteries were being advanced. One of those big ten-inch shells on the highway and we might not get our car out. It was no time for sentiment. The bridges were mined and guards stood around the electric connections. I dared not take the car into town lest a premature explosion leave us stranded with it on the west side.

So Sherman Miles and I went over the bridge on foot and took a cab to the old Bristol Hotel, where we had been living for months. It was utterly deserted but for the staff of the hotel. All guests, we were told, had been cleared out early in the afternoon by the orders of the military. The employees of the hotel, mostly Poles, stood about like mourners at a funeral. The great lobby which we had known of yore filled with officers and well-dressed women was silent and empty but for the reverberation of the German-made thunder that sounded ever on our ears. We went up on the roof and took the last look. In the west columns of smoke were rolling up. The traffic in the street was about as usual, though there was a peculiar depression everywhere. After snatching a few sandwiches we left the hotel and drove to the end of the new bridge.

This was literally the eleventh hour in Warsaw yet there was less of a crush on the bridge in this moment than there had been ten days before, when the civil government had left. While we were crossing the bridge four bombs were dropped from aeroplanes.

Many of the Taubes were speeding about in the gray dome of the early evening, and hardly a minute passed that a high explosive dropped from above did not shake the windows with its report. A taube flew over the bridge as we crossed and dropped a bomb which fortunately fell in Praga and not on us. Russian batteries outside the town were pouring shrapnel up into the sky. I saw one German aeroplane skim out of a cloud of fleecy white smoke wherein I counted the bursts of fourteen Russian shrapnel at the same time.

At the end of the bridge I found my motor. My chauffeur's sister-in-law, so he told me, had had her arm blown off at the shoulder by a bomb dropped from an aeroplane the night before. She died shortly after.

A bomb which fell at the intersection of two of the main streets killed or wounded twenty- five civilians. Thus did the flyers make merry over the city which within forty-eight hours was to be theirs. Why do they do it? I have never heard any adequate explanation. As it began to grow dark we moved eastward, and as the grays of twilight began to fade I stood on the hill at Verstpost 13 (mile 7) on the Moscow Road and watched the quick zigzag bursts of the German shrapnel now breaking on the outskirts of the town. In the road plodded the long line of transport now mingled with infantry. Tired and disappointed, no doubt, but never demoralized.

As darkness came on we turned eastward and saw the crest of the hill shut out from our sight the golden dome of the Greek church in Warsaw. A few hours later the bridges were blown up and Warsaw was no longer Russian.


one of the blown bridges near Warsaw


Warsaw, the German Zenith

The blowing up of the Vistula bridges marked the end of a distinct phase in the war, a phase which I believe history will ultimately judge as the zenith of the German strength in this war, for viewed from a wider perspective the movements of the Teutons from that time, regardless of changes of lines on the map, have been a good deal of an anti- climax, but of this I will treat later on. When Warsaw fell I had been with the Russian armies for exactly ten months, and I trust that my friendliness and growing affection for the Russians was not such as to blind me to the merits and virtues of the enemy during this period.

Obviously my sympathies were with the Allies, otherwise I should not have gone with the Russians at all but with the Central Powers, with whom at the beginning of the war it was much easier to make a connection than with the armies of the Grand Duke Nicholas. My own opinion at the fall of Warsaw was that it was the wind up of one of the most remarkable campaigns in history. From May until August 5th, or for approximately three unbroken months, the Germans, with a fortitude and capacity for sacrifice which has not been exceeded in history, had been conducting what was practically a continuous battle. The endurance and bravery of their troops is not to be questioned, and up to that time I had never seen a sign of depression or weakening in morale among the German prisoners with whom I talked on every occasion possible. I have seen them on practically every Russian front during this campaign (save East Prussia), and though I was never in sympathy with their campaign I never failed in admiration of their spirit and independence even as prisoners.

I remember in Tarnopol seeing two hundred captured the day before. These men had arrived from France at noon the preceding day and were prisoners at 3:00 in the afternoon. All were worn and haggard, several without shirts and many without helmets or caps. I have never seen men in a worse state of physical exhaustion, yet they marched through town with eyes to the front and a pride of themselves and an independence which could not have been surpassed even by troops returning from a victorious field of battle.

The blow which fell in Galicia was apparently perfectly planned from every point of view, and backed by the superb German railroad systems, there never was a falter in three months for the want of either men or ammunition. As far as one on the Russian side could see there was never a mistake in strategy or a serious " bull" in tactics. Everything had been foreseen and planned save one item, and that the capacity of the Russians to absorb defeat and pull themselves together. This I think the Germans never foresaw and have despaired of from the middle of May until the present time with a constantly increasing exasperation and annoyance. As one German said after the Galician drive: "It is hopeless fighting against men who do not play the game and admit their defeat. The Russians were utterly beaten on the Dunajec, and any people but fools would have recognized it, but instead of accepting their defeat like men they apparently ignore it and in two weeks have apparently forgotten the German superiority and are ready to fight all over again."


neutral observers in Warsaw

left - the American military attaché
center with hat - Sven Hedin, Swedish traveller and explorer


From talks with innumerable prisoners there is no question in my mind that every German soldier believed from May 1st that the capture of Warsaw represented peace with Russia. Warsaw had come to represent the prize of the campaign, and from the German point of view its capture must represent to Russia the final failure of her armies.

The rest of the war would be relatively simple: an independent peace with Russia, with trade agreements which would mean limitless resources to draw on for the war with France, against whom the entire strength in the east could be sent and Paris taken in a month. Then the long and slow preparation which every German hoped would mean the annihilation of England.

From this point of view the outcome of the World War looked bright indeed to the troops who at last heard that the great prize was within their grasp. It seems, therefore, that while one cannot minimize the triumph of the Germans in actually taking Warsaw after so many months, one can but condemn the Germans for their failure to know beforehand that the capture of the city for which they made such endless sacrifices did not spell peace at all but only what, has proven to be the beginning of what is in reality an entirely new war against Russia under conditions which have been increasingly disadvantageous to the Germans and improving from the point of view of the Russians.

The armies of the Warsaw front were at this time under the command of Alexieff, whose keen mind had foreseen every contingency — a man who for weeks had realized the possibility of the loss of the Polish salient and the necessity of withdrawal to a line in the heart of Russia itself. Positions had been prepared at many places behind Warsaw which might be defended as checks to the German advance, which would enable strong rear guards to hold back the Teutons while the bulk of the armies were getting out of Poland. To one who had studied the country and who knew the weakness of the Russian Army at this time what followed was no surprise. Warsaw, even as the Dunajec line in Galicia, was the keystone of a front nearly a thousand miles long. The loss of this salient meant the starting in motion of the entire front. It meant that the line as a whole could not come to a standstill until every unit therein could rest on some position which would afford the chance of making a successful defense.

The weak point, as I was well aware, was in the centre. It was certain that the army coming out of Warsaw could not find an advantageous position short of the Bug and the fortress of Brest-Litowsk. The latter point I had visited many times before, and having seen its antiquated defenses I was sure that if the Germans really wanted it that it could not resist forty-eight hours after the heavy guns got to work on its old-fashioned fortifications. With the centre falling back to or beyond the Bug it was clear that all the hundred and one places lying west of Brest would go as a by-product of the collapse of Warsaw itself.

The world at large seemed to experience a new shock every time the Germans captured a new town, a shock which I may say was never felt in the army of the Russians, for everybody knew that the retreat once started would not terminate for weeks. Alexieff had planned every detail of the retreat in person and there was only one point in the whole program which caused the slightest anxiety to the friends of Russia at the front, and that was whether or not the morale of the army after three consecutive months of reverses due to lack of ammunition and of rifles could stand the strain of a retreat that might last for several months.

Having been with the Japanese in Manchuria and there becoming familiar with the extraordinary power of recuperation of the Russians, I felt reasonably confident that the men would not break and the critical period would be weathered and that the army would eventually get back onto a line where it could settle down for a sustained period of replenishment. Personally I thought that this line would be as far east as the Dwina, Berizina, and Dneiper rivers and was agreeably surprised when the German initiative spent itself far west of this river, line, which would have given the Teutons an admirable point to have stopped for the winter.


Germans in the city center of Warsaw

one the destroyed Warsaw forts

see also : The Russian Advance
by Stanley Washburn


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