- from the War Illustrated Deluxe volume III page 912
- 'Prasnysch and
- the Battles of the Masurian Lakes'
The Great Episodes of the War
For the second time Field-Marshal von Hindenburg profited by the fact that he used to spend his holidays every year in the wild, watery waste of Masurenland. It is said that he came to know the depth of every lake and almost every bog in the primeval wilderness that stretches between the River Pregel in East Prussia and the Niemen, Bohr, and Narew Rivers in Russia. For years the old, neglected warrior, retired from the active list, passed his time in a cafe in Hanover over his railway map of Prussia, or moved to the border lakes and marshes, where he plodded about, calculating how deeply a gun would sink into the morasses.
Hindenburg: The Kaiser's only Hope
He undoubtedly became a specialist in warlike operations in the Masurian Lake country, and when the fashionable German courtier-generals of the new school were defeated and routed in East Prussia by Rennenkampf and his Cossacks, old Hindenburg remained the only hope of his country. Twice he partly justified that hope when fighting in his favourite wilderness. On the first occasion he trapped, towards the end of August, 1914, a Russian army under General Samsonoff, and captured a large number of Russian troops, with their guns.
On the second occasion he did not himself conduct the operations, but merely planned them. Their execution was entrusted to a younger German commander, General von Eichhorn, on February 7th, 1915, just after the grand German frontal attack in the neighbourhood of Warsaw had failed. This attack had naturally resulted in the Russian Commander-in-Chief concentrating all available forces round his menaced position. On his distant northern wing, amid the Masurian Lakes, he had left only four war-worn army corps. It was this situation that tempted Hindenburg to try again the coup with which he had stricken Samsonoff. He collected about half a million troops at Thorn and Graudenz, and launched them, by the two parallel systems of East Prussian railways against the 140,000 Russian troops who had again invaded German territory.
Hindenburg at the time was thinking of the future. All the lake and marsh districts in Prussia and Russia were then frozen and covered with snow. The transport of heavy artillery was easier than at any other time of the year. In about a month the snow would begin to melt, and would overflow the lakes and turn the marshes into immense stretches of water, extending for a hundred and thirty miles from the Niemen almost to the Vistula. This tremendous waste of flood-water in early spring would be an impassible barrier to a modern army. Consequently, the Russians would be able to rely on it for the protection of their northern flank. Their main line of railway communication between Warsaw and Petrograd, running at one point barely ten miles from the marshes, would be safe from attack, and the four Russian army corps operating in Prussia as an advanced guard for the Warsaw railway could be withdrawn to strengthen the main Russian armies on the Vistula.
These were the reasons which induced Field-Marshal von Hindenburg to throw half a million men northward to the Masurian Lakes. The movement was obvious, but he redeemed its obviousness by the force and swiftness with which he struck. Before he apparently ceased trying to break through the main Russian front south of Warsaw, his new army, under Eichhorn, was thrusting its way furiously into the lakes ol Masurenland. The position of the smaller Russian forces in this district then became critical. There was a Russian army corps near Insterburg; struck suddenly and heavily, it reeled back towards Kovno. The Russian front was then broken. Eichhorn threw three of his army corps into the gap. In the Augustovo Forest, in the middle of February, they got behind the Twentieth Russian Army corps, commanded by General Bulgakoff, and at the same time three other German army corps closed round the front of this Russian force. Farther south were two other Russian armv corps. They began to fight their way back to safety, one retiring on the Russian frontier fortress of Osoviec; the other making lor the high ground round Prasnysch.
What should have happened
In the ordinary way, three-fourths of the Russian forces, suddenly caught amid the lake country, should have been annihilated or captured. The German blow was so swift and overwhelming that only the army corps retiring on Kovno should have escaped, considerably damaged. Before the Russians could have brought up another army the passage of the Niemen would have been won, and the railway feeding Warsaw and a million Russian troops would have been cut off. The main Russian army, starving and ammunitionless, would then have to retire with extreme haste across the Vistula to its second main railway head at Brest Litovsk Nearly all Russian Poland would have been conqueredwithout even attacking the main Russian army It will thus be seen that Hindenburg was no mean strategist.- But, on the other hand, General Bulgakoff, with about twenty thousand bayonets, was no mean fighting man. Though closed in a ring of guns and steel, and attacked with cross-fire bombardments by enemies more than six times their number, the commander and men of the heroic Twentieth Army Corps fought on for days. Then, as no help came, they fought on for weeks. No unwounded Russian was captured until he had fired his last cartridge. The corps lost about half of its guns, but one division, after one of the most magnificent struggles in all the annals of warfare, got its artillery away. Apparently not many of the infantrymen escaped, though some companies cut their way into the Russian lines at last, after having held the paths and blockhouses in the bogs for more than three weeks.
An Immortal Band of Heroes
But, though most of the corps perished, it did not die in vain. For it held the main forces of the enemy so long that the Russian Chief of Staff was able to line the natural river frontier with strong reinforcements. By the end of February only one point remained in extreme danger. This was the village of Prasnysch, lying amid the hills, between the Prussian frontier and the marshlands of the River Narew. Forty miles southwards, across firm, dry land, was the great Russian fortress of Novo Georgievsk, defending the Vistula and Warsaw.
The capture of Prasnysch would thus give Hindenburg a new and easy line of attack against Warsaw, with opportunities for a cutting movement against the Warsaw railway. So he ordered Eichhorn to make good Prasnysch and the country southwards, and on Thursday, February 18th, two German army corps moved over the frontier to attack. By Saturday, February 20th, the six thousand Russian troops holding Prasnysch were partly forced back. The Germans did not attack them, but swept in two strong columns on either side of the village in an encircling movement. A third German column swept still more southward to encircle a ridge in the endless snow-covered fiat waste. But some of the six thousand Russian troops held this ridge for four days, with one German column attacking them on the west and another German column assailing them on the east. The columns closed and held the Russians encircled, by eight men to one, from February 20th to the 24th.
It was a repetition, on a smaller but just as important a scale, of the struggle that was still going on farther to the north-east between the Russian Twentieth Army Corps and six German army corps. At Prasnysch, however, the odds were still heavier against the Russian troops. It was six thousand men against . forty-eight thousand, reckoning the actual fighting forces in bayonets. Half the brigade held the village, and half held the ridge below. About dawn on "Wednesday morning the Germans captured the village and most of its heroic defenders, the ridge being still held by some one thousand Russians, with their dead and wounded around them.
But this was the last forward movement of the Germans. For the Russian Chief of Staff had thrown a strong army along the Narew, about twenty miles away on the southeast. He had merely left Prasnysch and its ridge and lessening band of immortal heroes as a bait to the enemy. And he timed exactly the hour at which the bait would be taken. For, on Thursday evening, February 25th, the Russian relieving army crossed the river, and marched up in the darkness over the wilderness of snow. Then at daybreak, as the Germans attacked Prasnysch, an overpowering force of Russians fell on their flank, and at the moment when the Germans won their little victory, they were taken by surprise.
The Russians Turn the Tables The encirclers were encircled. The foremost German army corps broke and fled. Half of it was captured, and most of the other half fell on the reddened snow. The second German army corps got away by using the first as a rearguard, but its losses in dead and wounded were almost as great as those of the first corps, for the fighting was as long as it was furious. From Wednesday, February 24th, to Sunday, February 28th, the Russians gripped their trapped and overmastered foes, and fought them all along the line from the Orzec River to the hills of Prasnysch. By Monday morning, March 1st, the victory was fully achieved.
The general German offensive movement had failed; and at the springtime flood Russia could look forward to possessing an immense stretch of impassable country to protect her northern flank. It is worthy of remark that Hindenburg failed also on the first occasion when he reached the rivers beyond his favourite lakes and marshes. Only on one spot, seemingly, could he win a battle, and this battle he could never follow up.
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