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

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 7:07 a.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) 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)

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).”

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: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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