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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.