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This week in history: Germany proved victorious in the WWI Battle of Tannenberg

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28 2013 5:02 p.m. MDT

German soldiers march in formation of fours carrying the 430-year-old flags, which the German Order of Knights lost in the battle of Tannenberg July 15, 1410, against a twice as large Slav force. The flags had been hanging in the Wawel Castle in Cracow, Poland, since then and are returned now to the Hall of Pillars in the Master's building of Marienburg Castle located 20 kms south of Hanover, Germany, in a festive ceremony, May 19, 1940.

Associated Press

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The forces of Imperial Germany defeated the armies of Czarist Russia at the Battle of Tannenberg, World War I's first major battle on the eastern front and one of the war's only decisive victories. Raging for a week, the battle was won on Aug. 30, 1914.

In late 1905, the German chief of the general staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, created a war plan that subsequently bore his name. This plan recognized the perilous strategic position that Germany held in Europe. Though allied with Austria-Hungary to its south, a hostile France and Russia flanked Germany to the west and east, while most believed that, should war break out, England would join her list of enemies.

Schlieffen's plan was simple: In the event of war, the bulk of the German army, constituting four-fifths of its strength, would attack France in an attempt to capture Paris. The remaining one-fifth of the army would be positioned in East Prussia, which shared a border with Russian Poland, in order to cover Berlin. Most Germans, however, believed that Russia could not marshal its strength before France was knocked out of the war in the west.

Conventional logic held that though Russia had immense manpower reserves to draw upon, it could not easily mobilize its strength and did not possess enough weapons for its soldiers. Additionally, Russia's few railroads ensured that it could not get its armies to the front quickly.

In the years following the creation of the plan, Schlieffen's successor, Count Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (to distinguish him from his famous uncle, who was responsible for the Prussian victory over France in 1871), revised it significantly. Ultimately, fearing that the Russians may be able to muster more men than originally thought, Moltke tinkered with the formula. By the time World War I broke out, only two-thirds of the German army faced France, while one-third faced Russia.

When war broke out in late July of 1914, the modified Schlieffen Plan went into effect. The German army mobilized, swelling with reservists, and the Eight Army numbering around 160,000 men was formed in East Prussia. Its commander, the veteran general Maximilian von Prittwitz, soon showed signs of timidity, however, as Russian armies invaded East Prussia a few weeks after war was declared.

Shortly after the declaration of war, Russia fielded two massive armies, perhaps numbering around 200,000 men each. The Russian First Army was commanded by the ethnically Baltic German Paul von Rennenkampf, while the Russian Second Army was commanded by Alexander Samsonov. With the Eighth Army covering the East Prussian city of Köningsberg, the First attacked from the east while the Second attacked from the south. The Russian hope was to pin the Eighth Army with either the First or the Second, then destroy it with the other.

After several tactical victories by Russian armies over small constituent elements of the Eighth Army, von Prittwitz panicked and requested permission from the general staff to retreat behind the Vistula River, effectively handing East Prussia over to the Russians. Fearing the Eighth Army's commander had lost his nerve, von Moltke relieved him. He now had to make a decision about who would command Eighth Army. Before selecting a commander, however, Moltke selected the Eighth Army's new chief of staff, essentially its second-in-command.

In their book “Hindenburg, Icon of German Militarism,” William J. Astore and Dennis E. Showalter wrote, “Moltke's selection of Erich Ludendorff as the new chief of staff of the Eighth Army was easily made. Ludendorff had overseen the general staff's prewar blueprint for mobilization. … When war came, he distinguished himself within days. Attached as deputy chief of staff to the (German) Second Army, Ludendorff assumed command of a leaderless brigade, stormed the Belgian fortress of Liège, and boldly demanded its surrender by hammering on the citadel's door with the hilt of his sword. For this act the kaiser decorated the 'hero of Liège with the Pour le Mérité (the coveted Blue Max).”

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