AUGUST 30 1914 – ONE (RELATIVELY) LITTLE THING, ONE VERY BIG THING

Another action which seemed more opportunistic than strategically important, August 30 marked the day when New Zealand occupied German-held Samoa. One wonders whether the Germans even cared in light of what was happening on the other side of the world . . . Eastern Prussia, their own back yard.

. . .

Around mid-August, the Russians had surprised the Germans not only by mobilizing their forces much sooner than expected, but even by using the first of these forces to invade East Prussia, a region many Germans considered sacred soil as the home to their most esteemed aristocratic family, the Junkers. East Prussia protruded into the Russian Empire like a large peninsula. Russia chose, therefore, to invade it not only from the east, but from its southern border as well.

Russian invasion

The Russian First Army invaded from the East, and it was commanded by Paul von Rennenkampf. The Russian Second Army invaded from the South, commanded by Alexander Samsonov. The Germans had but a single army in the area, commanded by Maximilian von Prittwitz.

 

all commanders
From left to right: Rennenkampf, Samsonov, and Prittwitz

Though competent, Prittwitz had no combat experience before assuming responsibility for defeating the Russians in East Prussia. He soon lost his nerve after a minor defeat at Gumbinnen, radioing to the supreme German military commander, Helmuth von Moltke, that East Prussia may have to be abandoned. One of Prittwitz’s new staff members, however, changed his mind.

This staff officer, Colonel Max Hoffmann, explained to Prittwitz that the two Russian armies (Rennenkampf’s First and Samsonov’s Second) were still widely separated. Though each individual army outnumbered the single German army, they might yet be surprised and defeated in turn. At all costs, however, they must not be allowed to unite. Prittwitz liked the plan that Hoffman drew up but he never got a chance to put it into action, for the panicky radio message that he had sent to Moltke had caused some changes.

Moltke understandably believed form this radio message that Prittwitz was the wrong man for such an important task as throwing the numerically superior Russians out of East Prussia. He therefore assembled a new command team to replace Prittwitz: German legend Paul von Beckendorff und von Hindenburg was called out of retirement to be the new commander; Erich Ludendorff, the hero of the siege of Liège, would be his first staff officer; Max Hoffmann would stay on the command staff in order to get Hindenburg and Ludendorff up to speed.

all commanders 2
From left to right: Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Hoffmann

Hindenburg and Ludendorff listened while Hoffmann not only explained the situation, but also outlined his plan for defeating Rennenkampf and Samsonov. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were very talented in their own rite, but they weren’t so pompous as to reject brilliance when it wasn’t their own. They quickly adopted Hoffman’s plan.

Military axioms teach that when you face two separate forces, it is best to concentrate against one of them, if you can, and smash it before turning to meet the other threat. Because such principles were taught in nearly every military school, the Russians should not have allowed the Germans to do this. The Russians, however, had two huge disadvantages:

-First, Rennenkampf and Samsonov had no intention of uniting their forces, or helping each other in any way. In fact, Hoffmann had personal knowledge that “Rennenkampf and Samsonov belonged to rival factions of the Russian general staff and disliked each other intensely. . . . One of the war’s minor legends is that, by an astonishing coincidence, Hoffmann had been present when the two Russian generals literally came to blows at a train station in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese war. . . . [Hoffmann] was convinced that neither General would exert himself to help the other.”

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delacorte Press, 2006), 148-149.

-Second, in remarkable similarity to Rober E. Lee’s lost order of 1962, leading to Confederate defeat at Antietam, a Russian officer was killed in a skirmish who possessed the plans for both Russian armies. Even further, these plans were corroborated by un-coded radio message which the Germans intercepted.

According to this intelligence, Rennenkampf intended to halt his main advance far to the East of Konigsberg, hoping that the Germans would be foolish enough to lock themselves up inside. Meanwhile, Samsonov had observed a German division re-deploy and interpreted it as a General retreat. He therefore ordered a general advance.

BattleOfTannenberg2[1]

Hindenburg and Ludendorff could hardly believe their luck. The situation was a virtual invitation to abandon Rennenkampf and lay an ambush for Samsonov. If Rennenkampf moved, however, in dissonance with the intelligence they had received on him, it was the Germans who could be ambushed . . . Rennenkampf could simply march around behind the German army and crush them. If they abandoned Rennenkampf, they would be risking it all.

And yet Hindenburg, Ludendorff and the rest of German command believed Hoffmann when he argued that Rennenkampf would never move urgently in order to assist Samsonov. So the Germans truly risked it all: they moved almost their entire army by train away from Rennenkampf. They left only a single cavalry division in front of him . . . a force with the sole objective of screening from the Russians the fact that they had no troops in front of them.

Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffman arrayed the German Eighth army in a large arc, with a weak center but very strong right and left wings. Samsonov would advance into the center, and finding that he could attack it successfully, would move even deeper into the German trap.

Notably, events only unfolded this way because Samsonov’s commander, General Yakov Zhilinski, ordered would not allow Samsonov to halt his army to face some phantom German troops on his left: “I will not allow General Samsonov to play the coward . . . I insist that he continue the offensive.”

Almost as soon as Samsonov made contact with the German center, on August 26th, Ludendorff wanted to spring the trap, and ordered the German I Corps, under General Hermann von François, to attack the Russian left wing.

800px-Hermann-von-francois[1]

The normally aggressive François, however, refused: some of his troops were still de-training, and did not even have their ammunition yet. Ludendorff repeated the order, but François, understanding the foolish impetuosity and nervousness of Ludendorff, restricted his advance to an already unoccupied ridge. Meanwhile, Samsonov kept advancing with his center. His right flank was being horribly bloodied, but he knew little of it because of poor communications.

At 4am on the 27th, François was finally ready for his attack, devastating Samsonov’s left wing with an artillery barrage. The Russian troops, exhausted from a week of marching ten and twelve hours a day, were sent reeling in complete and total disarray when François opened his advance. Amazingly, Samsonov continued his advance on the center so aggressively that Ludendorff worried that he might break through, escaping from the trap. Hindenburg proved the steady hand as he pointed out that Samsonov was merely allowing his troops into tighter and tighter quarters, making them increasingly open to encirclement.

Tannenberg3008[1]

Indeed, when François attacked again the 28th, he found that the Russian left had disintegrated. He thus did as much as he could to ensure that the Russians had no avenue of escape: he formed his troops into a thin, long, thirty-five mile line to the south of Samsonov’s main body and awaited the wreckage from the Germans’ attacks on the opposite end of the Russian army. For Samsonov, these attacks came from everywhere: the West, the North, and even behind him, to the Northeast. Samsonov had begun his appeals to Rennenkampf for help on the 27th, but he never even received a reply.

The trap was complete: Samsonov said that he had failed the Tsar and could not go home. He walked into the woods solitarily, and shot himself. Over the course of August 29-30, the Germans mopped up after their victory. The long thin net that François had deployed now proved an exceptionally brilliant move: by itself, it netted over 60,000 prisoners. In total, over 92,000 troops and 350 guns were captured from the Russians. They composed part of over 170,000 Russian casualties from this battle from an army originally made up of about 230,000 troops. So though small elements had escaped, Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hofmann had effectively destroyed the Russian Second Army.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW A VINTAGE VIDEO OF RUSSIAN PRISONERS FROM THIS BATTLE

What made this battle even more astonishing was that the Germans had only begun with about 150,000 troops, and counted less than 14,000 casualties for themselves. Part of this battle’s outcome could certainly be credited to the combined brilliance of Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Hofmann, François, and other German commanders, but the troops of the Eighth army, too, proved a decisive factor. Many of them had homes in the very region in which they found themselves fighting the Russians, and one even found himself directing artillery fire at his own house.

About a hundred years previous, a nearby town had been the site of a horrible defeat of the Germans at the hands of the Poles. And so now, the Germans decided to call their victory after that same battle, that same town: The Battle of Tannenberg.

#100yearssinceWWI

Advertisements

AUGUST 29 1914 – AUSTRIANS IN THE EAST, GERMANS IN THE WEST, AND WOMEN IN BRITAIN

On the Eastern Front, August 29 formed part of the action of the Battle of Gnila Lipa, fought August 26-30 between the Austrians and Russians. Germany had pleaded Austria to throw some of their forces at the Russians in an attempt to avoid the full power of the combined Russian armies, and so Austria consented to invade Russian Poland across the Galician border. Austrian military leaders knew that they should intend merely to check the Russians, not destroy them . . . the Austrian armies were simply far too small in proportion to Russia’s to hope for anything more. Yet even this goal was based on two erroneous assumptions by the Austrians.

First, the Austrians believed that even in late August, the Russians would not have mobilized the majority of their troops. In fact, the Russians had mostly finished their mobilization, and the majority of their forces were either ready for movement orders, or already engaged against an enemy army.

Second, the Austrians believed that the Russians would attack Austria-Hungary from the North, and that there forces would have concentrated far behind the Polish borders. In reality, the Russian armies were much closer than they had expected, and were ready for an invasion from the West and Northwest.

Near Gnila Lipa, a Northern tributary of the Dniester River, Eight Russian army corps would fight against only three corps of Austrians.

GolovinBattlemap[1]

The confrontation began on August 26, when the Austrians attacked what their reports had said was a small number of Russians who had crossed the Easter border, headed towards Tarnopol. The Austrians were shocked by the amount of resistance they encountered, and retreated in chaos, only stopping to form another line of defense much farther back, behind the Gnila Lipa.

The Russians followed them cautiously, slowly, and did not make significant contact with them again until August 30. The Russians attacked and again overwhelmed the greatly outnumbered Austrians, forcing them back into Lemberg, where they were soon besieged.

. . .

On the Western Front, the German right wing, led by German armies under Bülow and Kluck, were running wild through northern France. Supreme French commander Joseph Joffre needed time to throw together some forces, any forces capable of halting their advance. The British Expeditionary force was in retreat, and the French Fifth army was detached from any other army, and could therefore be easily flanked. Nevertheless, he ordered the French fifth army, under Lanrezac, to put up a fight near St. Quentin.

Joffre directed Lanrezac to move northwest, hoping that the ensuing conflict with the Germans would tie up enough of their troops long enough for the French Sixth army to finish its formation to the southwest, near Paris. Douglas Haig, commander of the British I Corps, even offered assistance to Lanrezac.

What hope this plan had, however, was soon dashed: Haig’s offer was countermanded by his superior, Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. Worse, the French plans fell into German hands, with the result that Bülow was expecting and fully prepared for the French attack when it came.

Guise

On August 29th, the French made some gains near the center of their lines, taking ground close to Guise and the Oise River. Unfortunately, Lanrezac’s army had taken a beating, and the strength of the German counterattacks convinced him that his position was untenable. Joffre authorized him to withdraw, and Lanrezac took care to destroy the Oise bridges as he pulled out the next morning.

Tactically another defeat, Lanrezac did succeed in forcing Bülow to deploy his troops and fight them for at least a day and a half, buying time which Joffre sorely needing in order to prepare some way of ultimately stopping the Germans.

. . .

August 29, 1914, was also the day when the Women’s Defense Relief Corps was formed in Britain. It was made up of two divisions, one which intended to place women into jobs which men had vacated when they left for war, and another which drilled and trained women to fight in the event that Britain was invaded.

p03[1]

#100yearssinceWWI

AUGUST 29 1914 – NAVAL BATTLE AT HELIGOLAND BIGHT

According to some historians, Britain’s stance in WWI can be mostly explained by the German navy. The line of thinking goes like this:

Britain basically only feared one thing: a single nation or alliance powerful enough to threaten British security. Britain’s foreign policy, therefore, mostly hinged on trying to maintain a balance of power in Europe.

For centuries, France’s status as the most powerful nation in Europe had therefore made it Britain’s enemy automatically.

After the fall of Napoleon, Russia became the natural enemy for a time, as Britain allied with France against Russia in the Crimean war of the 1850s.

So when Prussia/Germany emerged as a continental power in the 1870s, some may have looked on with concern, and yet Britain and Germany maintained a healthy alliance, even Queen Elizabeth’s daughter was married to the first Kaiser’s son.
The tipping point came in the late 1890s when Kaiser Wilhelm II declared that his goal was to construct a High Seas Fleet large enough and modern enough to challenge the British Royal Navy. Being an island nation, this would be a direct threat to the security of the British nation. Amazingly, Kaiser Wilhelm II was simply too immature to see this:

“At once jealous and admiring of a United Kingdom ruled in succession by his grandmother, his uncle, and his cousin, he entertained fantasies in which Britain would embrace Germany as its equal on a world stage that the two would govern to the benefit of everyone, including the ‘natives’ of backward and faraway lands.”

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delacorte Press, 2006), 248.

Though the German navy expanded exponentially in the pre-war years, it still remained markedly inferior to the British in its numbers of capital ships. The Germans would have to be careful with their navy, a feeling made even more prominent after a Battle at Heligoland Bight (in the southeastern corner of the North Sea).

Map23NorthSea[1]

The British plan of action was simple: sail into Heligoland Bight in order to tempt the Germans out of their naval bases there, then lure them out into the open where a larger section of the British navy could rush in and crush them . . . if it worked properly, the plan would function simply as bait and trap.

The “bait,” commanded by Reginald Tyrwhitt, included the two light cruisers Fearless and Arethusa. Though they began the day by sinking three German torpedo boats, they soon found themselves outgunned by six German cruisers partially concealed in a nearby mist. Tyrwhitt quickly began a withdrawal and called upon the “trap,” commanded by Sir David Beatty, for assistance.

asdffghjk[1]

At the end of the day, the Germans had lost three cruisers, with three more heavily damaged, and the British had only suffered one cruiser heavily damaged.

A clear victory for the British, the Kaiser was furious, and demanded that the German navy be used more conservatively.

#100yearssinceWWI

AUGUST 27 1914 – SMITH-DORRIEN FIGHTS TWICE, BUT THE BRITISH KEEPS RETREATING

Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had successfully inflicted some wounds upon the advancing Germans at the Battle of Mons on August 23rd. Though forced to retreat by the number of Germans threatening his flanks, his forces had first inflicted over 5,000 German casualties against only about 1,500 of his own.

Both British and German forces moved at impressive speeds, routinely marching over 20 miles a day. The British were trying to avoid contact, and the Germans were trying to force a fight. As the withdrawal neared the area of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, in Northern France, one of Sir John’s commanders, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, reported that German troops were too close on his heels to avoid them anymore. He stopped his 4 divisions (3 infantry, 1 cavalry) and prepared to defend against an assault by 6 German divisions (3 infantry, 3 cavalry).

800px-Horace_Smith-Dorrien_LOC[1])

At first it was the same story as at Mons: the British troops’ excellent rifle training and practice proved a deadly weapon. But then more German infantry divisions arrived to threaten the British flanks. Worse, the Germans had hidden their artillery well, and their air-bursting shells took a dreadful toll on the British troops.

lecateauM[1]

Forced to retreat, the British also incurred about 7,800 casualties and had to abandon over 30 artillery pieces, while the Germans lost about 5,000 troops.

. . .

The fighting at Le Cateau had finished by mid-morning on the 27th, but the German First and Second Armies (led by Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bülow respectively) were determined to overtake the British withdrawal and smash their opponents. Thus, another British reargaurd actions was necessary at Étreux, beginning at about mid-day on the 27th.

Smith-Dorrien knew that he had to do something decisive, else the losses of Battle of Le Cateau would simply be repeated over and over as his British troops tried to continue their withdrawal to the southwest. Thus, he ordered the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers to hold their ground at all costs while the rest of the British force continued their retreat.

battle-of-etreux-1-map-1200[1]

The Munsters, consisting of only about 800 men and 2 field guns, found themselves facing an increasingly large number of German troops. They held their ground, however, until they became surrounded and their ammunition was nearly exhausted. When their survivors (about 240 men) surrendered late on the 27th, they found that they had resisted about 5,000 German troops. Even the Germans had been impressed with their courage, and congratulated the British on their bravery. The Germans had lost perhaps 1,500 troops in trying to destroy the Munsters.

battle-of-etreux-2-map-1200[1]

The sacrifice of the Musters had gained the rest of the British Expeditionary force some breathing room as it continued its retreat to the southwest, but the biggest question of all still remained: how were the French and British going to stop the Germans from racing through France, if at all?

#100yearssinceWWI

AUGUST 26 1914 – TOGOLAND AND LONGWY

Anyone looking for evidence that the European powers merely saw WWI as a national opportunity surely would have to included the fighting in far off places such as Togoland, in West Africa. On August 26, British and French forces conquered this German protectorate, taking it for themselves.

While the effects of this action upon the actual course of the war could be considered marginal at best, possession of it offered two interesting possibilities:

1) If the Entente won the war, they could divide the spoils among themselves

2) If the Central Powers won the war, the Entente could use Togoland as a bargaining chip during the process of forming a peace treaty.

. . .

Of much greater importance was fortified Longwy, just inside the French border near Luxembourg, of which the Germans had been attempting to gain control since the early days of the war. After a brief siege, Longwy’s defenders surrendered, widening another avenue of advance for the German armies into France.

#100yearssinceWWI

AUGUST 25 1914 – A DECLARATION, A SHORT BATTLE AND A LONGER BATTLE

August 25 marked three key events: Japan’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, Austria-Hungary’s three day battle with the Russians near modern-day Poland, and the end of a large battle on the Western front. While Japan’s declaration of war can be described as a natural result of their previous declaration of war against Germany, the other two events require a bit more narrative.

. . .

Germany called upon its ally, Austria-Hungary, to attack the Russians in order to divert some of the Russian troops away from their invasion of Germany. As a result, Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf ordered several armies into Galicia. As they pushed farther east, these armies separated from each other, but the Austro-Hungarian First Army, led by General Viktor Graf Dankl, nevertheless outnumbered the Russian army with which he made contact by a ratio of about 3-1.

A three day battle of fast fluid action, neither side dug trenches, and the cavalry of both sides even played a part in the battle. Ultimately, however, Dankl successfully deployed his troops so as to take advantage of his numerical superiority, enveloping the flanks of his opponent’s force. The majority of the fighting ended on August 25. The Russians lost over 20,000 men, compared to about 15,000 for the Austro-Hungarians.

4810-300-dpi-Poland-map-1914-08-26[1]

Image text of this period postcard:
“Austrian victories, 26 8th 1914

“The Austrian war press bureau reports: West of the Vistula our forces were increased by the addition of our German allies in fighting yesterday at the section of the Komionka River between Kielce and Radom. East of the Vistula our victorious forces advanced on 23 August at Krasnik, and drove a strong group of two Russian corps back to Lublin. About 1,000 Russians, including many officers, fell uninjured into our hands. A number of flags, rifles and machine guns were captured.”

. . .

On the Western front, Joffre’s French armies had been assaulting the Germans near the Franco-German border in the Alsace-Lorraine region. With a “devil may care” attitude towards defensive measures and the use of artillery, the French simply found themselves outmatched by the Germans . . . marginally, but consistently.

August 25 marked the approximate end of the counter-offensives with which the Germans had immediately followed the French attack’s upon Lorraine. Most significantly, the French First and Second armies had to retreat some distance in order to avoid being cut off from each other.

Lorraine

German losses had been around 66,000, but French casualties were probably far larger . . . at this point in the war, the French believed very strongly that the best tactic was simply attacks with nothing held back. (You can read more about this in my post of August 8- France’s subscription to the Cult of the Offensive). As a result, the French lost so many men that it is still unknown just how many died . . . even the officers responsible for reporting their section’s losses were among the missing.

#100yearssinceWWI

AUGUST 24 1914 – TWO ACTIONS, ONE MINOR, ONE INCONCLUSIVE

After the Battle of Mons, the British Expeditionary Force sought to get away to the southwest as the Germans rapidly advanced towards them. Though their morale was good, standing their ground was out of the question: the Germans were too many, and would have quickly surrounded them.

Needing to gain some separation from the Germans before of his units could focus on the withdrawal, British commander Sir John French fought a delaying action at Elouges.

map-elouges-560

With neither the British nor the Germans willing to commit their forces to a full-on battle in the area, Elouges developed into a very fluid conflict, much as a significant skirmish. Both sides, in fact, endangered their opponent’s artillery, for example, usually safe far behind the lines.

Though the Germans surrounded a solitary battalion of British troops, the delaying action was otherwise successful, as Sir John continued to move his force to the south and west.

. . .

Farther to the south, the supreme German commander Helmuth von Moltke had decided to gamble an attack in the Lorraine region (near the Franco-German border). To this point, the German armies in that area had successfully resisted all of the French attacks, and Moltke allowed his commanders to attack in that area with the goal of driving a wedge between the French First and Second armies. While the attack was unsuccessful, there was a more significant effect: Moltke had drawn troops away from his all-important right-wing in order to give his forces on the left-wing more strength for the attack.

Though technically Moltke knew that he had to keep his right-wing strong, for it was the key to victory, his actions deviated from this doctrine.

#100yearssinceWWI