- from the War Illustrated Deluxe volume II page 524
- 'The Tremendous Battles of the Vistula'
The Great Episodes of the War
Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front
A few years ago the famous German cavalry leader, General von Bernhardi, proved to the satisfaction of the German War Staff that Russia was a second-rate military power, which could never put into the field more than three million men. On this estimate was arranged the German-Austrian invasion of Russia in October, 1914.
Knowing that Russia had detached large forces to guard the Caucasus from the Turks, and to hold other positions on the frontier where trouble might occur, the Crown Prince and his adviser, General Hindenberg, reckoned that by deploying two million men from the Niemen River in the north to the great bend of the Vistula in the centre, and to the San River in the south, they would have a marked advantage in numbers.
The Teutonic host was divided into five main armies. The first army operated round the East Prussian frontier and menaced Warsaw from the north. The second army marched across Poland to within seven and a half miles of Warsaw. The third army also marched across Poland to the fortress town of Ivangorod, farther up the Vistula. Then a fourth army worked up from Cracow, intending to cross the river and attack Lublin, while the fifth armv, coming over the passes of the Carpathians, swept towards Lemberg.
The problem for the Russian commander-in-chief, the Grand Duke Nicholas, was to divine which of these five armies was the grand attacking force. His spies and scouts informed him of the composition of the invading armies, but this was not sufficient to go on. The two chief German armiesthat attacking Warsaw and that attacking Ivangorodwere so linked together that a very large number of troops could be transferred from one to the other. Which army would strike to create a diversion? Which army would suddenly increase its force for the blow meant to shatter Russia?
The Russian commander decided rightly that the attack on Warsaw from north and west was a feint, and that Ivangorod was the real objective of the enemy. By forcing the passage of the Vistula at or near Ivangorod, the Germans would divide the Russian forces, and get in a position to encircle a million Russians in the country to the south, with the help of the Austrians and Hungarians.
In the meantime, however, our allies had got themselves in a position of some difficulty. As originally concentrated, before the plan of the enemy was divined, they were weaker at Ivangorodthe critical pointthan they were at Warsaw. Some of the Warsaw troops at once set out on a long, rapid, arduous march to strengthen the Russian centre at Ivangorod, and while this preparatory movement was going forward, the Grand Duke Nicholas had a happy, daring, brilliant idea.
He desired to attract the Germans in great force to Warsaw, where his own army was strongest. Giving orders that all German spies should be allowed every facility to ply their craft, he withdrew most of his troops, and telegraphed for the main Warsaw army behind the town to retire some ten miles away into the forests. A panic arose in Warsaw; the officials left and people began to flee in, great multitudes. Informed of all this, the German commander, Hindenberg, communicated with the Kaiser. Naturally, the prospect of the easy capture of Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was calculated to please the theatrical mind of Wilhelm II. His neurotic temperament was so strangely excited by the bait dangled before him that so he proclaimed to the Poles? he had a vision in which the mother of Christ appeared to him and acclaimed him the saviour of Poland.
On a small scale the Russian ruse at Warsaw would not have been remarkable. An ambush of a few thousand men is easy to arrange. But to hide six hundred thousand men in a flat, populous, agricultural country, infested with spies, was an extraordinary piece of work. For the spies had to be encouraged instead of being suppressed, and cradled in their tragic delusions. So it will be understood that the Secret Service police of Russia played an important role in the organisation of the great victory of the Slav over the Teuton. They also kept from the enemy the knowledge of the enormous forces of Russian troops collected on the eastern bank of the Vistula. Vast as the Teutonic hosts were, they were outnumbered, but they did not know it. Misled, outmanoeuvred, and clean outplayed, they confidently went forward to suffer a most tremendous defeat.
The battle opened, as the Russian commander had arranged, round Warsaw on Thursday, October 15th. The German cavalry was then almost within sight of the Polish capital, and the advancing infantry pushed the Russian advanced posts back with alluring ease. But the next day the terrible Russian counter-stroke fell. Through the half-empty streets of Warsaw there poured Russian troops of all arms, and wild, warlike tribesmen from the Caucasian Highlands, who had insisted on serving tne Great White Tsar. The Caucasians were Mohammedan warriors, resembling the Afridis of our Khyber country. The Russian gunners blew a path for' them, and formed a shrapnel cover in front of their advance, as they swept down on the right wing of the German army. They drove this wing back twenty-five miles.
Then, in the night, like our Gurkhas, they crawled into the German camp and knifed the sentries, and thus prepared the way for a general surprise attack in the darkness. In the meantime the Russian regular troops, brought up on the doctrine that " the bullet is a fool and the bayonet is a hero," delivered a frontal attack on the centre of the German army before Warsaw. The thing was done in spurts, after an artillery duel in which the Russian guns won the mastery. All arms were pushed forward to support the grey masses of foot soldiers, who advanced in extended order, creeping from cover to cover. Then suddenly they closed, gave a rapid fire, and charged with the bayonet, while their gunners "watered" the ground in front of them with concentrated shrapnel gusts.
Breaking the German Lines
The entrenched Germans stood their ground for a while, but shot wildly, and when the Russians were fifty yards away they broke and flew. The victorious infantrymen got among them, while the Cossack horsemen rode ahead at the German guns. For more than a week the pursuit continued. At one placeGombinabout half way to the German frontier, the Cossacks rode along the north bank of the Vistula, and, getting ahead of the Germans on the south bank, swam the stream and got full on their rear. One Cossack squadron then rode to the frontier, destroying the stores, the railway, and the bridges in front of the retreating Germans. By this daring feat by a handful of horsemen the strong line of entrenchments prepared by the Germans on the River Warta was turned, and the path to Berlin opened, between Thorn and Posen.
Swift and overwhelming as was the defeat of the German left-centre before Warsaw, it did not bring about the retirement of the whole German front. The stronger army massed against Ivangorod still hoped to retrieve the situation by forcing the passage of the Vistula and wedging itself between the Russian lines.
General Russky, the victor of Lemberg, commanded the Russian troops in this part of the field. His army held more than one hundred and fifty miles of the winding course of the Vistula, from the point where the Pilica falls into it, half way to Warsaw, to the point where the Kimienna flows into the great river. These geographical details are of vital importance. For the distance from Russky's right to the battlefield of Warsaw was equal to a week's hard marching. That is to say, the German General Hindenberg had a week's grace in which to force the Vistula, with no fear of any attack on his rear from the conquering Russians at Warsaw.
If Hindenberg won, the withdrawal of his left-centre would be an affair of no importance. He would be the master of the whole of Russian Poland, Warsaw being his to take when he liked to concentrate on it. And the Russians between the Vistula and San Rivers would be at his mercy.
With no opposition, beyond that of the usual cavalry screen of Cossacks, the Germans advanced in large force to the boggy banks of the Vistula. With the exception of a small Russian force entrenched a few miles in front of Ivangorod, the Russians were on the other side of the river. The Prussian Guards tried to take the small advanced force, but failed. For the Russians were holding a site chosen by General Russky for throwing her army across the river. They had sworn to die to the last man rather than yield.
Germans in an Artillery Trap
In larger and larger numbers the Germans attacked, and, as their columns deployed, the guns of Ivangorod, the artillery hidden on the islands and opposite shores of the river, caught them in both flanks. For seven hours this slaughter went on, the German guns being placed at a disadvantage, as the ground by the river was too marshy for them to be brought near enough to the Russian lines. Keen was Russky's eye for a good defensive position to fight on, and keener his vision for the possibilities of attacking his foes.
Under cover of the Russian guns, pontoon bridges were flung across the Vistula at the point held by the heroic little advanced guard, and also farther up the stream. Including Ivangorod bridge, Russky then had three crossing
points, and towards evening his infantry attacked in front and on both flanks, driving the Germans from the trenches at the bayonet point. Meanwhile, a strong reinforcing column, sent from Warsaw towards Ivangorod some days before, got into touch with Russky's Staff. So close had the Germans advanced, that the Russian column was marching in their rear. Naturally, it was at once deployed and flung against the staggering enemy. It toppled him over, and on Thursday, October 22nd, the Battle of Ivangorod was practically won.
It was then a race for life to the fortified line of the Warta, fifty miles from the Vistula. South of Ivangorod, however, was a great stretch of rough, wooded country, and here the Germans and Austrians made a rearguard stand, while the Crown Prince fled by train to his own land. The forest fighting was slow and terrible. It was mainly sniping and bayonet rushes, with machine-guns as support. One wood, however, the Russians fired, finding it full of entrenched Austrians.
A Harassed German Retreat
The curious thing about the whole affair was that the Austrians were always found fighting the rearguard actions. The German Military Staff would not sacrifice anv of its own men. The Austrians and Hungarians were left behind, and the German troops were marched awav to the incessant order of " Quicker! Quicker! " Town after town was taken by the Russians at the point of the bayonet, while the Cossacks swerved from these strongly-held places and kept harassing the marching Germans. By the beginning of November it looked as though the Germans were not moving quick enough to save their frontier from attack. Part of their line of defences on the Warta, in Russian territory, was turned at Kolo, and Russian scouts entered Germany. Cavalry had hurriedly to be railwayed from Belgium to Posen to fill the gap between that city and Thorn. As full half of this cavalry had been put out of action by British, Indian, and French horsemen, there was not much of it left to trouble the daring, skilful Cossack. So the great frontier battle opened under happy prospects for the Russians.
Meanwhile, the extreme left wing of the Teuton host in Prussia and its extreme left wing of Austrian troops in Galicia were suffering from the defeat of the centre. In Prussia, General Rennenkampf, with extraordinary coolness, repeated his old trick- attack against his old enemy. With one force he held the Prussians on their own Eastern frontier, while with another force he struck first westward and then northward, and got behind the Masurian Lake defences in the rear of the Prussians. How it was that the German Military Staff allowed him to repeat this simple and terribly effective method of outflanking is a mystery. It seemed as though so many Germans were wanted in the West to continue the attempt to force a path to Calais that none could be spared to defend Prussia itself.
Certainly no German troops could be sent to the help of the Austrian left wing. Cut off from the support of their broken centre, the Austrians fought with the desperation of brave troops that have already been beaten by their attackers. For a short period they flamed out in the madness of despair, and the Russians were hard put to it to maintain themselves on the Upper Vistula and the San. In both bayonet work and steady firing the Austrian showed himselfaccording to the experience of the Russian soldiera better man than the German. But when refugees began to arrive from the broken, scattered centre, the Austrian's fierce, desperate courage gave way to fatalistic apathy, and at Kielce on Tuesday, November 3rd, the great battle, beginning over a front of four hundred miles, ended in a complete Russian victory at every point.
Far-Reaching Effect of the Victory
It was the most important event in the great conflict of nations. It at once relieved the pressure against the British, French, and Belgian troops on the Western front of war, and at the same time it made the Germans desperate, and led them again to fling themselves vainly in hundreds of thousands against our trenches round Ypres. Thus it increased the process of rapid attrition on both fronts. and inspired such fear in the Kaiser himself that he opened negotiations for peace with Russia, but was refused a hearing,
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