- from the War Illustrated Deluxe vol. IV page 1253
- 'The Fall of Warsaw'
- the Eclipse of Russian Poland
- The Great Episodes of the War
The fall of Warsaw was the most dramatic point in the greatest campaign ever known in the history of war. The German triumph was due to one cause superiority in artillery and an overwhelming supply of shells. This superiority had been increased by the German strength in aircraft, which enabled the attackers to keep in full touch with Russian movements, and to direct their guns, firing from a long distance away, with an accuracy hitherto impossible.
The Paris of Eastern Europe
Warsaw is the "Paris" of Eastern Europe. For eighty years and more it has been a city of tears and of tragedy; and yet, with seeming contradiction, it has been the city of beauty and gaiety. The Pole is the most charming, the most unpractical, and the most lovable of men. He has the virtues and failings of the Irishman to an exaggerated degree. His whole manner is that of the aristocrat. Abnormally sensitive, brave to quixoticism, literary, musical, ready to throw away life and fortune for an ideal or even for a whim, he wins the heart and affections of all who know him.
Warsaw itself, with its nine hundred thousand people, is, in times of peace, a remarkable combination of modernity and mediaeval times. There is the twentieth- century city, the fine hotels, the shops worthy of Regent Street or the Rue de la Paix, the splendidly equipped modern factories, and the sumptuous buildings of flats. But everywhere we come across the ancient edifices that take us back to the Middle Ages, and a people with a history reaching back very many centuries. Warsaw has never forgotten her dreamPoland a kingdom again. For this she has submitted, year after year since the early part of the last century, to the knout and the executioner's rope. Her people have rebelled continually. Kindness and severity alike failed year after year to conquer her. My most vivid recollections of the city are of savage mobs burning Russian liquor shops and sacking Russian shops, of troops holding streets by bullet and bayonet, of schoolboy conspirators planning with amazing seriousness terrible things, of whisperings in cafes of doings which would bring Siberia for those found out, and of endless strife. To me, an independent and impartial spectator, it was impossible to miss the tragedy of it all, or not to feel regrets for the Russian officers and administrators I knew, often worthy and able men, blown to pieces by assassin bombs, as well as for young people of the city caught by their idealism to extreme action, whose results they scarce at first realised.
Germany's Colossal Battering-Ram
Happily the beginning of the war marked the close of that stage. The declaration by the Tsar of the formation of an autonomous and united Poland turned Polish idealism and courage wholly and devotedly to the service of Russia and of the allied nations.
Early in 1915 Russia apparently held the winning cards in the eastern campaign. Time after time the German armies advancing on Warsaw and to the north had been driven back. To the south, the Russians had forced their way through Galicia and into the passes of the Carpathians. We looked to see a summer campaign fought in the plains of Hungary, with an advance on Budapest.
Then came the German reply. I use the name German to cover the three nations of the Central Alliance. Fresh armies were brought eastwards, and a force of heavy artillery accumulated such as was never known before in war. The German plan of campaign had one central idea. That was to advance on the main point of each Russian position, to bombard it with hundreds of great guns sometimes over seven hundred guns were employedand to wipe out the opposing forces by long- distance fire. The guns, brought into position by very powerful motor-tractors, battered everything before them. Turrets of forts were shattered with a single 42 cm. shell. Earthworks were wiped out. Whole regiments were practically annihilated. Then, after a period of continuous shelling, the infantry would advance to finish the work with the bayonet.
Guns the Vital Factor
The Russians resisted stubbornly. They were tremendously handicapped. They had not the guns. Their motor transport was less efficient than the German, and they lacked a sufficient supply of skilled men to use with advantage what they had. Hence even the short supplies of shells that were available could not always reach the front in time. They had not enough aeroplanes to direct their artillery fire. Worst of all, some of their shells and ammunition were defective, and failed at the most critical moments. The vital factor was the guns.
The Russian advance changed into a retirement. Galicia had to be abandoned. Soon the Germans were in Russian Poland to the south, making an advance on the Lublin-Cholm railway. Then a masterly German plan of campaign developed. The Russians found themselves attacked all along their front. Now the real dangers of their position became apparent.
Poland is surrounded on three sides by German and Austrian territory. The Russian front ran out like a triangle. The apex was Warsaw, with its allied fortress of Novo Georgievsk. One side of the triangle, to the northeast, was the River Narew, with a strong series of fortified positions along its banks. The second side, to the south- east.
was the River Vistula, with the fortress of Ivangorod. The Vistula, a broad and powerful stream, has always been regarded as one of the most formidable military barriers in Europe. The Russian line of retreat, should these two sides of their triangle be forced, was on to a second line of defence, from Brest Litovsk, on the frontiers of Russia proper, to Kovno northwards. The Russians were hampered here, however, by the fact that behind the guns of Brest Litovsk there is an enormous area of marsh and forest land, about 33,000 miles in area, through which the passage of a big army would be almost impossible.
The German plan of campaign was simple. It was to get behind the defences of the Vistula and the Narew, to attack the Russians in their rear, and to cut off their line of retreat by a bold movement in the north. All of this had long been anticipated. The Germans went beyond expectation, pushing a very large force of cavalry and artillery rapidly to the norh-east, turning the line of Brest Litovsk-Kovno.
Splendid Courage Against Terrible Odds
Outnumbered, hampered at every turn by lack of artillery and ammunition, and threatened on three sides, the Russians fought with a courage so splendid that even their enemies bore witness to it. To the south, the picked army corps long held the Lublin-Cholm line against all attacks. On the Narew fighting proceeded day by day. From the west and from the north the Germans pressed forward, their guns clearing a way for them. Fresh reinforcements arrived in ever-growing numbers. The German lines in Flanders and the Argonne were made dangerously thin, and their men flung on the Russian lines. The Russians lost 171,000 killedaccording to Swedish reportsin July. What the Germans lost it would be difficult to imagine.
Meanwhile the deadly move to the north-east continued. The Grand Duke Nicholas found himself confronted by a terrible dilemma. If he held on to Warsaw he ran grave risks of having his armies entirely cut off. If he abandoned Warsaw he abandoned also the most effective line of defence in Europe, the Vistula-Narew.
The Offensive that Never Came
Is it to be wondered that the Russians waited eagerly for news of a strong offensive by the Allies in the west which might compel the Germans to divert some of their forces? This offensive never came, doubtless for good military reasons. Then began the slow, steady retreat. Warsaw was stripped and abandoned, after a rearguard action. It is impossible, of course, to take all that is valuable from a city of its size. The description by eager correspondents of Russia leaving behind only an empty shell is simply a form of speech. The Russians did, however, take all they possibly could of military value.
The occupation of Warsaw benefited the Germans politically, and as a fighting unit it gave them command of the chief line of military defence between east and west. It removed the menace of a Russian advance towards Berlin.
Politically, it meant a gain in prestige, especially perhaps with some neutral States. It heartened the German people, and doubtless helped to weaken the growing Socialist opposition to the war. It placed the whole of Poland under Austro-German control, and gave Germany the opportunity of creating a suzerain Polish State, such as Russia planned to do. If, however, the Kaiser hoped to gain the goodwill of the Poles by this, he probably found himself checked by the undying hatred caused by the long and systematic policy of cruelty and oppression employed by Germany for many years in her Polish province.
Beyond the immediate occupation of Poland lay the much graver issue of the German movement to the northeast, in the direction of Petrograd. How far had that gone? How far was it possible for the Germans to cut off the retreat of the Russian armies? The answer to these questions was soon known. So long as the retreating Russian armies remained unbroken, and held their lines of communication, the main purpose of the German eastern campaign had not been accomplished.
F. A. M.
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