- from the War Illustrated Deluxe vol. I page 222
- 'The Great Russian Raid into East Prussia'
The Great Episodes of the War
from a French newspaper - the ruins of an East Prussian village
About the second week in August, General Rennenkampf, a brilliant Russian cavalry leader, was given the command of a large mounted force, and ordered to drive as fast and as far as he could into Prussia.
It was not an invasion; it was a raid, but a raid on a scale hitherto unknown in modern warfare. The Russian general took with him the larger part of the Cossack lancers and the finest regiments of Russian cavalry.
All the chivalry of the Tsar rode out to an unequal encounter with 160,000 German troops, who possessed every advantage in equipment and balanceheavy guns, a superabundance of light artillery and Maxims, and that superiority in musketry that belongs to the infantryman.
The thing seemed a vast and terrible mistakea Charge of the Light Brigade magnified some thousands of times. It looked as though Russia were opening her campaign against her strongest foe by something that was magnificent but was not war.
East Prussia, a region of gloomy forests and stagnant waters, is an extremely difficult country to invade. Nature has protected it from an easterly attack by a frontier of low-lying marshes and bogs, with a string of great lakes running to the south. Safe paths are wide apart, and each was fortified at the critical point. There in the marshes were entanglements, rifle-pits, and block-houses with machine-guns, so built that one might have held back an army along the road that bridged the swamps and lakes.
A Frontier of Bog and Morass
The German Military Staff had good grounds for supposing that this frontier could only be gradually won by siege operations from the Russian side. This was why they felt themselves free to swing all their best armies westwards in a swift, smashing movement on France.
In the meantime, they kept Russia occupied in two directions. A million Austrian troops advanced and menaced Warsaw from the south, while a German army moved in a northerly direction towards the same city. It was a concerted movement by the two Teutonic Powers to conquer Russian Poland, and then raise and arm the Poles.
Such was the awkward position of the Russians. They had enough to do, it seemed, to hold Poland; the Cossacks were urgently needed to form cavalry screens in front of their armies of defence. Yet this was the moment the Grand Duke Nicholas chose for the wildest raid in the annals of war!
General Rennenkampf had at least the advantage of surprise. The movement he was undertaking was so extraordinary that the German Staff was not pre pared for it. They thought the three army corps they loft by the marshes could delay a hostile force of any size. But by an unexpected mobility of movement, the mounted Cossacks brought on an action at the frontier town of Gumbinnen on Saturday, August 22nd, and won at a blow the whole of the swamp lines of defence.
The battle was fierce, stubborn, terrible. Except for the light horse artillery that accompanies a cavalry division, the raiders were lacking in gun power. They could not reply to the enemy's batteries. They had either to ride down the guns, across open country, with case-shot playing on them all the way, or dismount and creep in open formation to the point at which a rush might carry the position.
The Fighting Value of the Dreaded Cossack
The trenches were filled with more than a hundred thousand German riflemen, and the fire of innumerable Maxims had to be met. Only the incomparable versatility of the Cossack, who shoots as well as he rides, hitting a distant mark with his horse at full gallop, enabled General Rennenkampf to break the German centre. On the Russian Guard, officered by the pick of the nobility, fell the heaviest fighting.
The enemy held a village of scattered farmhouses, set in low, level land. Each farmhouse was full of riflemen; behind was ranged the German lines, from which several batteries poured shrapnel into the advancing Russians.
Clearing villages is infantry work, but there were no Russian foot soldiers available. Some Russian Guards were near the spot. They dismounted, and fixed bayonets every Russian cavalryman carries a bayonet outside his sabre-sheathand skirmished round the outlying houses. Slowly they worked their way to the village, clearing the farms of sharpshooters as they went.
Meanwhile, a couple of German guns were firing on them at short range, and an overwhelming number of entrenched infantrymen were raining bullets on them. When the Guards cleared the village and advanced on the German lines, there was barely a third of them left standing. Yet they pressed on within a hundred yards of the German position. Their leader, who already had a bullet through his thigh, now fell with a shattered shoulder. But the Guards went on, their bayonets ready to strike.
They could see the eves of their foes, and along the German front there were signs of wavering. So a mounted squadron of the Russian Guards was sent full-tilt on the Prussians, and crashing on the flickering line of the enemy, captured the guns, and then harried the soldiers.
A wedge was driven clean through the German army. Three army corps fled northwesterly towards Koenigsberg; the fourth corps ran south-west towards Osterodc. All four flung away their arms and ammunition, and even their food, in their haste to save themselves. The intricate system of defences in the swamp country was unused. Even a fortified position on the River Angerapp was abandoned without a fight, and the paths by which the beaten men ran were easily followed by their pursuers. For it was like a paper-chase, with cartridges, knapsacks, hand-grenades marking the way the hares had taken.
This panic evacuation of a great tract of fortressed country was somewhat of a surprise even to the Cossacks. There seemed nothing in their victory that should have led to so far-reaching and astounding a disaster to Prussia. But General Rennenkampf understood what had happened.
His raid was only one part of an enveloping movement. While his gallant men held the German army at the frontier, and then broke it, another Russian force from Poland, under General Samsonoff, was striking up to the west of the marsh country, taking the beaten German troops in the rear. That was why most of them turned again, and fled towards the coast of the Baltic Sea and the fortress town of Koenigsberg. Caught between two powerful Russian forces, their entrenchments and blockhouses round the Masuran Lakes had become traps, and not defences. An almost impregnable system of frontier defence, developed by a century of labour and expense, was thus overthrown in a day by cavalry raiders supported by a distant second army.
Victorious Russian Advance on Koenigsberg
By Wednesday, August 26th, all the difficulties that Nature, assisted by military engineers, had placed in the way of the Cossack advance in East Prussia, were behind the battle front of the Russian armies. General Samsonoff, in the south, moved towards the railway centre at Osterode; in the north, General Rennenkampf rode in pursuit of the main body of 120,000 German troops.
So swift were the Cossacks that they almost arrived at Koenigsberg with their fleeing foes. Advance guards of the garrison had to take the field and fight a rearguard action to save their comrades.
When, however, Koenigsberg was sighted the great raid practically came to an end. For this city is reckoned the strongest fortress in the German Empire. It is the coronation capital of the Prussian race, their sacred city from which they rose to a dominion over the Teutonic peoples that enables them to shadow Europe with their menace and rock Christendom to its foundations.
Being without heavy guns, siege engineers, and infantry force, Rennenkampf could not endanger Koenigsberg. Yet he would not leave it. He drew his army across its eastern lines of communication, and made what preparations he could for a masking operation. In the meantime swarms of his Cossacks went about the serious business of this extraordinary campaign. From the fields of Eastern Prussia the people of Berlin obtained the larger part of their food supplies. The region was one of the four great granaries of Germany, and the crops were ripening for the harvest on which Berlin expected to live for another twelve months, in spite of the blockade of the British fleet.
The Far-reaching Effect of the Great Raid
But the Cossacks destroyed the crops, captured Tilsit with its immense stores and emptied it. Then the admirably-calculated effect of Rennenkampf's raid began to tell. It told on France, and helped to save Paris. It told on Vienna, and helped to ruin Austria-Hungary; but especially it told on Berlin. There hungry Prussian peasants began to arrive, trainload after trainload, in the city that was looking to them for food. In thousands they came, and then in tens of thousands. The populace of Berlin became alarmed. The spectre of famine appeared in the capital which had for weeks been celebrating the daily victories of the invincible hosts of the Kaiser.
What the German Military Staff thought of the matter we do not yet know. If they were true to the Moltke traditions they might have shrugged their shoulders and pursued, without a moment's hesitation, the task on which their entire energies were bent. For their armies of a million and a quarter men were sweeping through France in the swiftest, mightiest movement of attack known in modern warfare.
But as the Russian commander-in-chief had foreseen, with incomparable insight, the Kaiser could not take this impassible view of the effect of Rennenkampf's raid. Being a man of excitable, impressionable temperament, with a theatrical view of his dignity, the menace to the coronation city of his family, and to the food supplies of his capital, upset his balance.
German Forces in Other Fields Depleted
To content him, some two hundred thousand of his best troops in France had to be rapidly conveyed across Germany and flung against the audacious raiders. More militiamen were ordered out, the fortresses on the Vistula were deprived of many of their guns, and the garrisons sent to the battle front in the sacred soil of Eastern Prussia.
Rennenkampf retired, fighting stubbornly and resisting every attempt to envelop him. The Germans forced him at last over the frontier and invaded Russia. Rennenkampf continued to retire. The work, for the present, was done. He had saved France and overthrown Austria. For the German reinforcements, needed at Lemberg and then on the Dneiper, had been sent against the raider; those afterwards sent to help Austria came too late.
The Cossack raid on Prussia is the most astonishing bluff known to man.
Russian general Rennenkampf
Back to Index