East Prussia represented sacred ground for many Germans. Not only had it been deeply German before the German empire even existed, it remained the home of the Junkers, the most powerful and prestigious aristocracy in Germany. When Russia invaded this region, some took up the desperate call to evict the Russians as soon as possible, whatever the cost. Maximilian von Prittwitz, the German commander, felt these pressures in formulating an attack on the Russians at Gumbinnen.
These attacks of August 20 showed little imagination, tactical cleverness, or attention to strategy. The Russians easily repelled them, and sent the Germans retreating with their counter attacks. Von Prittwitz began to panic, and he conveyed his pessimistic assessment of the situation to the German military commander, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke.
Unsurprisingly, Moltke decided that he needed to replace von Prittwitz, and soon constructed a command team that delivered immense successes throughout the war: Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was brought out of retirement to be the eastern field marshal. Erich Ludendorff, he who had boldly drove up to the Liège citadel and demanded its surrender, was brought from the western front and made Hindenburg’s chief of staff. Finally, Max Hoffman remained on the eastern command staff in order to bring Hindenburg and Ludendorff up to speed, but he quickly showed his aptitude for military planning.
It was Hoffman who drew up the initial plans which resulted in the Battle of Tannenburg . . . a major conflict less than a week away.
. . .
On the Western front, August 20 marked another milestone in the tidal wave of the German right wing as it raced through Belgium: the Germans occupied Brussels. For many who learned of the war only through newspapers, they began to understand that Germany had been very clever, steamrolling a neutral country (Belgium) in order to attack France from the North where she was generally unprotected.
French General Charles Lanrezac, commanding the Fifth army (and therefore the only French military force anywhere near the German right wing) saw the danger sooner than most. He began to wire Joseph Joffre, the French military leader, almost daily, pleading with him to recognize the danger that the Germans might wheel around not only his army, but perhaps Paris and even the entirety of France.
Joffre, however, would take much longer to understand the crisis. He remained focused on his (unsuccessful) attacks in Lorraine and felt that Lanrezac was whining on account of being left out. To avoid disaster, the French merely needed to prevent the German right wing from traveling around their left wing . . . in other words, the French needed to avoid being flanked. To do this, however, required Joffre to understand the Gravity of the situation in Belgium and northern France.
Would Joffre recognize and respond in time?