February 22, 1915: The Second Battle of Masurian Lakes

The German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, remained convinced that if the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary et. al.) were to win the war, they would have to defeat the Entente forces on the Western Front. Nevertheless, Germany also fielded significant armies on the Eastern front in order to combat the Russian forces. The main commander of these German armies, Paul von Hindenburg, pressed Falkenhayn for both permission and the reinforcements to launch another offensive against the Russians. Though he refused for some time, Falkenhayn eventually gave in, reasoning that German aggression on the Eastern front was necessary in order to win over potential allies in the Balkans.

Hindenburg mounted his offensive near the site of the previous year’s victory, near the Masurian Lakes. In essence, he intended to flood the Russian northern flank, and surround and/or roll up as much of the Russian line as he could. The main objective, however, remained the creation of a genuine breakthrough which would allow the German forces as much room as they liked to maneuver through Russia and force their surrender.

Attacks began on February 7 in the midst of a snowstorm. Caught completely by surprise, the Russians quickly fell back up and down the line, desperate to avoid capture. Within a week, elements of the German army had advanced more than 70 miles.


The Russians had a huge supply of men from which to draw, however, and the Germans were eventually stopped short of their goal of total victory. Nevertheless, Hindenburg had accomplished a great deal: with an attacking force of around 100,000 men, he had attacked Russian forces totaling over 220,000 and had inflicted more than 200,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured). Hindenburg’s losses had been very light (just over 16,000), in comparison.

At this point, the Germans had clearly demonstrated that they were more than a match for the Russians. The Entente could only hope that the Russian armies would at least be able to tie up large numbers of the German troops, for clearly, the Russians had a long way to go before they could hope to launch successful attacks on the Germans.


In France and England, military leaders faced the depressing reality of a fortified battle line running from Nieuport, Belgium (in the coast of the English Channel) all the way down to Switzerland. Over and over again, certain sections of the line had been designated for a breakthrough, with fresh new troops allocated to new attacks in those areas. Little, more than mass slaughter, ever came of these attacks. G.J. Meye, in A World Undone, devotes an entire chapter to “The Search for Elsewhere:” the desperate attempt to find someplace, anyplace, where something new and more promising might be tried.

The result was the Gallipoli Campaign.

After the Germans had persuaded the Ottomans to join the war as allies (or painted them into a corner, depending upon one’s interpretation . . . see also my post of November 1), the Mediterranean route to Russia became effectively closed to the Allies, cutting off an important line of exchange between these allies. In “the search for elsewhere,” the allies found themselves drawn to the idea of re-opening this line.

They settled on a land-sea campaign in which the British navy would sail up the Dardanelles, blasting away all opposition in its path, while at the same time a contingent of troops would land in Galipoli and fight their way to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The idea proved attractive enough that the British 29th division, long the subject of intense debate for its future (it had not yet been allocated to any specific campaign or battle-front), found itself sailing for Galipoli.

They would not land until late April, but in the meantime, the navy began their part of the campaign . . . or rather, they pretended to. Again, I defer to the eloquence of Meyer:

“Naval commanders, however, are not easily persuaded to risk ships and their crews. On his first foray, commander [Vice Admiral Sackville] Carden never seriously tested the strength of the defenses. A cautious man with no experience commanding large forces, he made no effort to move his ships into or even near the two-and-a-half-mile-wide entry to the strait [of the Dardanelles]. Instead, he stood off in the distance, shelling the forts from three miles away, and at sunset he brought the attack to an end.”
~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone (New York: Delta, 2006), 268-269.

The campaign was off to an unpromising start.



On the Eastern front, the Germans found themselves facing masses of hundreds of thousands of enemy troops. True, Field Marshall Hindenburg (with the close assistance of Ludendorf and Hoffmann) had proven that he could defeat the Russians handily, it would take time to bloody the Russians to such a degree as to force their withdrawal from the war.

So the Germans sought out other means of quickly dispensing with the Russians, and on January 31, at the Battle of Bolimov (a part of the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes), they used poison gas for the first time in First World War.
It was an unconditional failure: the wind switched directions shortly after its release, often blowing the gas right back towards the Germans, and at any rate, the cold temperatures generally prevented the gas from vaporizing.

Poison gas would make a re-entrance later in the year, with more notable results at Ypres.

. . . . .

As another part of the German understanding that they had to win and try to win as quickly as possible, they unleashed their submarines, allowing the boats’ commanders fire, without warning, on any ship flying the flag of one of their enemies.

While we in modernity, who are aware of stealth drones being able to eliminate anyone on earth in the blink of eye, don’t really bat an eye at the idea of “unrestricted submarine warfare,” the idea made many people of 1915 blanch in horror: seamen were supposed to have warning, at least a shot across the bow and an opportunity to surrender their ship.

The world, however, was still adjusting to the emergence of the submarine: a slow and fragile seacraft, submarines of WWI had the advantage of stealth, but little else. In a large sense, submarines faced the choice of a sneak attack, or none at all.

Finally, we may look back at these innovations and curse Germany, but the reality is that the Allies were just as guilty of “dirty” tactics and strategies in war. Indeed, it would not take long before the they themselves began to employ chemical weapons, and one could make an argument that Britain herself had provoked Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare: by enforcing a blockade of Germany with her surface warships, Britain shifted the emphasis of the war very clearly into a conflict of attrition, rather than as a contest of military forces. Germany had little choice but to retaliate in the only way she could: an attempted blockade of Britian, using the only ships that could evade the British blockade, submarines.