This week in history: Germany proved victorious in the WWI Battle of Tannenberg
To command, Moltke selected the retired 66-year-old general Paul von Hindenburg, who had been waiting eagerly for an appointment since the outbreak of war. In her epic history of the outbreak of World War I, “The Guns of August,” historian Barbara Tuchman wrote:
“(Hindenburg) was waiting at the station in Hanover when the train drew in at 4 in the morning. General Ludendorff, whom he had never met, 'stepped briskly' to the platform to report himself. On the way east he explained the situation and the orders he had already issued. Hindenburg listened and approved. When sometime later he was made a field marshal, Hindenburg earned the nickname 'Marshal Was-sagst-du' because of his habit, whenever asked for an opinion, of turning to Ludendorff and asking, 'Was sagst du?' (What do you say?)”
Upon arriving at Eighth Army headquarters on Aug. 23, Hindenburg and Ludendorff found that the operations officer, Max Hoffmann, had already authorized many tactical movements that synced perfectly with what Hindenburg and Ludendorff had planned. This illustrates the training and tactical doctrine of the German general staff, which could lead to different officers, separated by hundreds of miles and not in communication, to arrive at the same conclusions simply by looking at the same maps.
Also aiding the Germans was the rivalry that existed between the two Russian commanders, Rennenkampf and Samsonov. One story stated that these two men had commanded adjacent sectors of the line in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, and their disagreements on the battlefield had led to a fist fight in a train station not long after. Whatever their motives, the two commanders were not working in concert, and the Germans saw an opportunity.
East Prussia, in what is today northern Poland, offers largely a flat plain with little in the way of defensive geography. The major exception is the system of lakes that an invading army must maneuver around. In his book “Tannenberg 1914: Clash of Empires,” Showalter wrote:
“Schlieffen had consistently emphasized that the only way to defend East Prussia was to take advantage of the division of the enemy's forces caused by the Masurian Lakes, to strike and destroy whichever enemy first came within reach. And while the Russian Second Army might advance toward the Vistula while the battle against Rennenkampf was in progress, it would increasingly expose its right flank and lines of communication to a German attack from the north.”
Whether out of a desire to deliver the crushing blow to the Eighth Army after it had already joined battle with the Second, or whether it was simply so as not to outpace his supply lines, Rennenkampf moved forward slowly. Additionally, maneuvering between the lakes ensured that the two Russian armies could not easily communicate. Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided to gamble. Withdrawing virtually all of their forces facing Rennenkampf except a small cavalry screen, the Germans moved south to hit Samsonov as hard as they could. The hope was that a knockout blow against the Russian Second Army to the south would then free up all of their manpower to take on the Russian First to their east.
Beginning on Aug. 26, the Germans rained a series of blows upon Samsonov's forces that the Russian commander, believing that the Eighth Army was going to hold in place further north to defend Köningsberg, was ill prepared for. Even as Rennenkampf stepped up his advance, it was too little, too late. The Eighth Army tore the heart out of Samsonov's Second Army in a series of bloody engagements and, by Aug. 30, it was completely destroyed as a functioning military unit.
Rennenkampf attempted to send relief to Samsonov, but the German cavalry screens prevented the First Army from coming to the aid of the Second. Instead, Rennenkampf only succeeded in dangerously extending his own line, and quickly retreated before the Germans could emulate their earlier performance against his force.
In his book “History of the German General Staff,” historian Walter Goerlitz wrote, “Samsonov shot himself when he realized the position was hopeless; 92,000 men and 350 guns fell into German hands. Ludendorff gave the battle the name of Tannenberg, after the village behind the German lines where in 1410 King Jagiello of Poland and Grand Duke Witowt of Lithuania had inflicted such a crushing defeat on the German order.”
The 1914 Battle of Tannenberg is significant in many ways. First of all, the dramatic German victory ensured that never again in World War I would a Russian army enter German territory. Also, in a war known for its stalemates and inconclusive engagements, Tannenberg was one of the few decisive victories by one side over another, though ultimately it brought the Germans no closer to victory, only preventing an early defeat.
In the years since the war, many have criticized Czar Nicholas II and his military staff for appointing Rennenkampf and Samsonov, two officers with a history of hostility toward one another, in such important positions where cooperation was essential. Yet only 30 years later, Joseph Stalin, a very different Russian leader, would effectively exploit the rivalry between his two best commanders, Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev, in their 1945 race for Berlin. Unlike the 1914 Russian offensive, Stalin's competing generals took the German capital relatively swiftly.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: email@example.com
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