Shortly after the war had begun, in August, the British government was contacted by the government of its South African colonies, The Union of South Africa. The Union wished to assure London that British South Africa could and would defend itself, and that London should feel free to call its garrison to France. Instead, London directed them to focus on German South Africa (a region on South Africa’s West coast), and the invasion began on September 16, 1914.
Events would continue to unfold in this region up through July 1915, again punctuating the nature of the larger conflict as war on a global scale.
. . .
Following the Battle of Tannenberg, a great disaster for the Russians and an astounding success for the Germans, there remained only one Russian army in German East Prussia: The First Army, commanded by Paul von Rennenkampf.
It’s worth noting that German victory at Tannenberg had only been possibly because of the personal enmity between Rennenkampf and Alexander Samsonov (commander of the Russian Second Army). Some years earlier, Samsonov had publicly criticized Rennenkampf, and the two had allegedly come to blows over the matter. Thus, when the German’s threatened Samsonov’s army at Tannenberg, Rennenkampf did not move to aid him as quickly as he might have. Indeed, by the time the German’s had completed their destruction of Samsonov, Rennenkampf was still over 45 miles away.
By that point, Rennekampf knew that the situation had changed: he was no longer looking to join up with another Russian army in order to turn the tables on a German ambush, but rather looking to re-deploy his army: the movement towards Samsonov had left his army in an exposed and stretched out position. Rennenkampf ordered a withdrawal to a series of defensive works between Königsberg and the Masurian Lakes.
The Germans did not turn their attention to Rennenkampf until September 2, being occupied up to that time with mopping up the disordered and extensive remains of Samsonov’s Second army. Then, the German brain trust, Paul von Hindenburg, Erich Ludendorf, and Max Hoffmann, went to work on how to defeat Rennenkampf.
They decided on an advance towards the Southern two-thirds of Rennenkampf’s line. The Germans arranged their most inexperienced troops furthest to the North, opposite Muldszen, and directed their more hardened troops against more Southerly elements of Rennenkampf’s line. Much like Tannenberg, the Germans allowed a large section of their line (the North) to remain weak in the face of opposition, and yet directed great strength against the Russian left flank, to the South.
Attacks began on September 7, and the Germans advanced everywhere. Part of this was due to excellent planning by the Germans: even in the North, their inexperienced troops were arranged to overwhelm the specific section against which they advanced, forcing an orderly withdrawal by the Russians. In the South, however, multiple holes and weak points in Rennenkampf’s line allowed the Germans to break through and manuever against entire Russian divisions; though the Russians threatened to flank and encircle the German XVII corps on September 8, the next day saw the arrival of an additional German corps in that area to in turn flank the Russians.
A portion of the Russian line managed to hold firm, and even direct its own successful attacks, but the advance of the Germans to their right and left soon isolated this pocket of victorious Russians.
By September 11, the repeated German attacks had severely bent Rennenkampf’s lines, forcing extensive withdrawals. The unevenness of these maneuvers, however, allowed the Germans an opportunity for encirclement. Rennenkampf ordered a fast, general withdrawal back into Russia, and false rumors of a Russian counterattack delayed the Germans long enough to allow the Russians to escape.
Although Rennenkampf’s First Army had not been destroyed, Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffmann had again won a significant victory, especially with respect to the numbers:
-The Germans had begun the battle with about 215,000 troops in the area, and lost about 10,000 as casualties.
-The Russian had begun with about 490,000, and lost about 170,000, including 45,000 taken prisoner.
It’s worth noting that the Russian Tenth Army under Vasily Flug had been several dozen miles to the South of the battle, and so his troops were included in the Russian numbers, even though they were not at all engaged. Once again, the German had risked much and attacked boldly and swiftly, procuring their desired results before too many Russians could arrive to turn the tables. Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffmann found themselves to be well in control of the Eastern Front . . . or at least its Northern theater.