Episode 18:

Revenge of the Northern Crusades

         Last week, we took some time to introduce a few of the Russian military and political leaders that will play a key role in the opening campaigns of the First World War’s Eastern Front. Today, we will see how these leaders will attempt to lead the gargantuan forces at their command and, hopefully, defeat the relatively tiny German Army opposing them. Now, this arc is going to focus entirely on the battles between the Russian and German Armies, but just know that even larger battles are occurring simultaneously between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Armies to the south of these battles we are covering now. In a later arc, we will double back and see how Austria-Hungary fares in its fight with Russia. So, keep all of that in the back of your mind, as it is important to understand that none of these battles are happening in a vacuum. This will, in fact, be important to remember throughout the remainder of this show. As we make our way through the battles and political and social developments of the war, we will mostly discuss these events in discreet units in order to keep the story straight in our heads. However, all of these events will be influenced by action occurring on other fronts.

Now, on paper, the Russian Armies moving against Germany looked like they had a relatively easy task before them. By about August 12 or so, something on the order of 500,000 Russian soldiers had assembled along the Russo-German border, and by the end of that day a combined force of Russian infantry and cavalry had seized the German Marggrabowa about five miles on the German side of the border. Within a few days, the Russian invasion of Germany had begun in earnest. This seemingly easy task the Russians were undertaking was further aided by the fact that no one on either side of the conflict had expected the Russians to be able to assemble this large of a force this quickly. Remember, Germany and Russia had only declared war on one another on August 1, so in the space of about two weeks Russian soldiers were already marching into Germany. The general assumption on all sides was that the Russian Army would need about six weeks to get enough soldiers assembled and ready to march and fight, as not only was the Russian Army numerically larger than any other army in Europe (and indeed the rest of the world), but Russia’s landmass was orders of magnitude more vast than the other belligerents, and its internal infrastructure was far less developed. The entire German war plan, the famous Schlieffen Plan, was predicated on the assumption that Russia would need far more time to mobilize its forces than anyone else, which is why the German high command felt comfortable with sending something like 7/8 of its Army west to fight against Britain and France. Thus, these 500,000 Russian soldiers marching into Germany would be opposed by a mere 150,000 or so German soldiers.

It’s worth briefly exploring how the Russians were able to bring their army to bear against Germany so much faster than anyone had expected. The first and most obvious answer to this question was that those massive loans France had been sending to Russia for the better part of two decades had really started to pay off, no pun intended. These loans, provided not only by the French government but also numerous wealth French banks given financial incentives to loan money to the Russian government, were primarily meant to be spent on improving the Russian Army to enable them to purchase more and better weapons and equipment, but more importantly to improve Russia’s internal infrastructure. Thousands of kilometers of canals, roads, and railroads had been built in Russia thanks to this French money, and while Russia’s infrastructure was not yet on par with the other European countries to the west, it was vastly improved compared to where it had been prior to the signing of the Franco-Russian alliance back in 1891. It seems as though this investment had paid off more than even the French had dared to hope.

This is a big part of the reason the German government in particular had failed to properly account for the possibility of the Russians mobilizing their army, or at least enough of their army to threaten Germany, in the space of just a few weeks. You see, though Germany’s theoretical war plans were of course updated and refined every year leading up to the outbreak of the war in 1914, many fundamental assumptions had not been sufficiently updated for the last decade or so. Back in 1905, when the Schlieffen Plan had first been adopted, the German calculation that Russia would need at least six weeks to mobilize its forces to the front was probably accurate, if not even a bit generous. But the Russian state and Army in 1914 was far better organized and far more formidable than it had been back in 1905. At that time, Russia was still mired in an ongoing war with Japan, and losing pretty spectacularly. The entire country was being consumed by a massive revolution, including demonstrations in every city, violent clashes with the police, dozens of mutinies within both the Army and Navy, and numerous general strikes wherein virtually the entire Russian economy was essentially ground to a halt. It did not at all seem implausible that the entire government might be overthrown, and supposedly the Czar had seriously considered abdicating the throne, perhaps even writing an official letter to that effect that was never sent out.

This was the state of the Russian Empire when the Schlieffen Plan was first drawn up in 1905. And it seems as though the German Army did not adequately adjust their assumptions for Russia’s military preparedness over the next decade. Now, the Russian government did not by any means have a solid and stable foundation, nor were its people all happy to still be living under the despotism of the Czar – as evidenced by the fact that the regime ultimately did fall in 1917. However, in 1914 Russia had largely recovered from the disasters of 1905; they were not engaged in any far away military conflicts (let alone one that they were losing), the people were not actively participating in revolutionary action, and the military was not dealing with an epidemic of mutiny. And beyond all that, all those French loans for improving Russia’s military and infrastructure made her far more powerful than she had been even before the 1905 revolution.

But there was more to the Russian Army’s astonishingly quick mobilization in 1914. Not only was it a far more formidable opponent than it had been in 1905, but in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war on August 1, the Russian military had been quietly preparing things behind the scenes. If you’ll recall, though this is going back a ways, Czar Nicholas II had ordered the full mobilization of the Russian Army on July 30, 1914, which led to Germany declaring war on Russia two days later. However, a few days before this official mobilization began, back on July 25, the Russian government had secretly begun to deploy a large part of their standing army, who would need less time to fully mobilize, in four military districts in “Russian Poland,” roughly centered around Warsaw. The idea behind this was to give the Russian Army something of a head start in terms of bringing soldiers to their borders with Germany and Austria-Hungary before general mobilization was declared. Since there was no way to keep something like general mobilization secret, as that would involve sending out orders to all soldiers and reservists throughout the empire, it was understood by the Russian government that this move would almost certainly provoke Germany into a more confrontational stance, as indeed it had. But they were able to secretly deploy a great number of their already active duty soldiers to what would be the jumping off point for an invasion of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and this further aided Russia in her ability to, seemingly miraculously, be ready to invade her neighbors to the west nearly a month before most everyone else expected they would be able to do so.

Despite these incredibly massive advantages the Russian Army had against their German opponents, this Russian invasion force was plagued with massive difficulties and shortcomings of all kinds up and down the chain of command. On the most basic level, this Russian invasion was divided up into two armies as we discussed last week: First Army under General von Rennenkampf, and Second Army under General Samsonov. In a fun and somewhat annoying bit of symmetry to the confusion around the British commander-in-chief at this time being named “Sir John French,” yes, I know that it is confusing that one of the two principal Russian generals in this story has a German last name, that being General von Rennenkampf. I’m sorry, if this was a fictional account of a fictional war I would not have given so many important characters such confusing names, but unfortunately for all of us, history rarely indulges its students in trying to make things simple.

Now, as I touched on last week, Generals Rennenkampf and Samsonov had held a mutually sustained grudge dating back to a public spat the two had had during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and by 1914 the two pretty much despised one another. The hope on the part of the Russian high command, I suppose, was that the professionalism and expertise of these two men would outweigh any personal differences they had. And while it’s true that neither went so far as to actively hinder the efforts of the other once they led their respective armies into the field, it’s also pretty clear that neither had much interest in coming to the aid of their rival should they find themselves in some trouble. This would be petty enough if it were simply two mid-level employees at an insurance company or something competing for a promotion, but both of these men had under their command hundreds of thousands of men, men whose very lives depended on the success of their commanders, and indeed with hindsight we can see that, in many ways, how this war would play out – that is would it be decided in a few weeks or several years – would be largely determined by the actions of Rennenkampf and Samsonov.

Beyond personal rivalries in the Russian chain of command were tactical, strategic, logistical, and organizational shortcomings that all but handicapped this massive invasion force. In a one on one fight, a campaign fought between half a million soldiers on the one side and a mere 150,000 soldiers on the other seems like it would be an easy win for the Russians, even if their commanders publicly feuded with one another. But those raw troop counts are deceptive. As we explored a bit in our supplemental episode on the state of the armies in 1914, the Russian Army of this period was plagued by an inadequate supply of virtually everything their armies required to march and fight – food and water and the wagons and carts to supply them, boots, uniforms, artillery pieces, machine guns, ammunition, even just standard issue rifles often had to be rationed out among these hundreds of thousands of men. Even the nominal distribution of weapons and supplies was, in general, far sparser on the Russian side than the German one, before you take into account the manifest shortages the Russians had to deal with. And by that I mean things like the number of machine guns or artillery pieces that units of equivalent size were supposed to be outfitted with.

Compounding these supply issues was a seemingly banal and even unrelated decision about Russia’s infrastructure that had been made in decades past. You see, at this time basically every country in Europe had crisscrossed their land with thousands of kilometers of railroad tracks, with which Russia was in the process of catching up. But also, most of those other European countries had settled on a standard railroad gauge shared by most everyone else, however Russia had deviated from this standard back when it first began laying down its own railroads and adopted a slightly wider gauge. This might sound totally inconsequential, but it meant that Russian trains were unable to operate on German tracks, so once the troop and supply trains transporting the Russian Army reached the German border, the entire rest of the invasion would have to be carried out on foot. This not only of course massively slowed down the speed of the Russian advance, but it also meant that the German forces in the area would be able to maneuver their armies from hotspot to hotspot far more rapidly.

And as if all of this – feuding generals, massive supply problems, and an inability to transport men and materiel via railroad – wasn’t bad enough, but the entire Russian Army up and down the chain of command was woefully unprepared for the job that lay ahead of them compared to their German opponents. Starting with our poor common enlisted soldier, at this point Germany had a policy of universal, compulsory education for all of its citizens for decades, meaning that essentially every single soldier in the German Army was literate, and beyond that had at least some fundamental understanding of both practical and abstract concepts relevant to their jobs as soldiers – be that in reading maps, deciphering basic codes, mathematics, and basic geography. By contrast, the majority of Russian soldiers at this time were not only totally uneducated, but almost all of them were illiterate. So not only could these soldiers not be trained to use maps or convey written orders to one another, but they might not even be able to discern whether a supply box carried bread or bullets without first opening it up.

The Russian officer corps, from lieutenants and captains leading small units on the ground all the way up to the commanders of whole armies, were also generally far less effective than their German counterparts. This was of course not due to a difference in basic intellect, but in how these officers had been raised and trained. Although Russian Army officers of course almost always came from much richer families than the enlisted troops, and thus would be able to afford at least some education, the Russian education system as a whole not only reached a far smaller proportion of the population than the German one, but was considered to be not nearly as rigorous nor as up to date on modern theories and educational techniques. The most obvious contrast to drawn here was between the artillery officers of the two armies. The power and range of artillery at this point in history had progressed to a point where that in order to shell the enemy with as much accuracy as possible, mathematical, physical, even meteorological calculations were required to properly sight artillery. And due to Germany’s far better education system – both in terms of primary schools and officer candidate schools – not only would the Germans have far more artillery than their Russian opponents, but that artillery was far more accurate and effective.

Further, the Russian Army’s whole tactical doctrine, expected to form the core assumptions for all strategic and tactical situations, was woefully behind the times. Infantry were expected to launch to the attack with the bayonet after brief artillery bombardments, with little to no coordination between them and the artillery and machine guns, and cavalry officers still imagined themselves riding down fleeing enemy troops with saber and lance. Now, this was not necessarily quite as big a disadvantage relative to the Germans as many of the other problems we’ve discussed, as though German tactics were more advanced and the officers who carried them out usually better trained, none of the armies in 1914 had yet truly grasped that 20th century warfare was going to be an entirely different animal than 19th century warfare. But combined with all of these other shortcomings, it further compounded the serious gulf between the fighting abilities of the Russian and German armies.

Perhaps the example that best encapsulates the total disfunction of the Russian Army was in their communication. Throughout the campaign, the two Russian Armies had basically no way of quickly communicating with one another and with their own scattered units, as one of the first things the Germans did when Russian forces began crossing the border was to send men out to cut every telegraph wire in all of Eastern Germany. And so, the Russians began sending out messages and orders via a relatively new-fangled invention –radio. Except this situation had apparently never been accounted for, and thus no established code for radio transmissions had ever been established. Therefore, all orders given to Russian units larger than a division were sent over the airwaves, uncoded, in spoken Russian, making it absurdly easy for the Germans to pick up these messages. As German Lt. Colonel Max Hoffman, a man whom we will have more dealings with over the next few episodes, reflected later, quote, “We had an ally [in] the enemy. We knew all the enemy’s plans.”

The basic plan for the Russian invasion of Germany, devised years before the war began, was to invade the region known as East Prussia, roughly the northeastern province of Germany (feel free to look at some of the maps for this week’s episode). This spot was chose as the main focal point of the invasion for two main reasons: 1) this area was near enough to the main concentration points for the Russian Army to allow the invasion to begin that much sooner, and 2) because this area was home to the best road and railroad networks from which to move on the German capital, Berlin. Yet this location was also laced with deep historical meaning for a great military campaign to be launched. East Prussia, as you might have guessed from the name, was once upon a time the eastern half of the old Kingdom of Prussia, before it had unified the other German states into the German Empire. More than that, this region was the ancestral homeland of most of Prussia’s old aristocracy, including the family of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Indeed, the most important port city in this region was Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad), which is probably most famous today for being the home town of the famed enlightenment era philosopher Immanuel Kant, but more importantly it had served as the site for the official coronation of every Prussian King, and subsequently German Emperor, since the 16th century. So this region was not only fantastically important on a strategic level, as it effectively defended Berlin from the Russian Empire, but also on a more emotional and psychological level.

But beyond even that, I think it’s worth discussing how this territory even became the ancestral homeland of the Prussian (and in a larger sense German) aristocracy, and also why this episode is named “Revenge of the Northern Crusades.” You see, in the long long ago of Medieval Feudalism, this land now roughly corresponding with East Prussia was mostly made up of ethnic Poles and Lithuanians, something I very briefly touched on way back in Episode 2: The Concert of Europe. Now, back then, roughly the 13th century, ideas of “ethnicity” were not really understood in the same way we would describe them today, but it certainly was true that this region was culturally Slavic, the people living within these lands spoke Slavic languages, and perhaps most importantly of all (at the time) was the fact that, in the 13th century, many if not most of the people living in these lands were either Orthodox Christians or even pagans. So, from around the 13th to 15th centuries a series of military campaigns were launched by an order of Medieval knights known today as the Teutonic Knights, in what are collectively known as the Northern Crusades. As the name suggests, these were holy wars sanctioned by the Catholic Papacy to root out paganism and spread Catholicism to the dark corners of Europe, and these Teutonic Knights – made up mostly of German speaking warriors – soon established an independent principality that was eventually absorbed by the rising Kingdom of Prussia and ultimately the German Empire.

Now I obviously don’t want you all to worry about the details of any of the that stuff. The point I’m trying to make here is that this land in north central Europe, known at the time as East Prussia, had been home to ethnic and religious wars between Slavic and Germanic peoples for centuries, and viewing the early campaigns of the First World War on the Eastern Front through this lens, I think, provides some interesting context. With the rise of nationalism in the previous century, wherein ethnic and cultural identity and heritage became more and more important to people across Europe, this war between Germany and Russia could be seen as yet another clash between the Teutonic and Slavic peoples, and there were perhaps many in the Russian Empire who saw this war as a chance to avenge the Slavic defeats of the Middle Ages and reclaim this territory from the Germans.

Anyway, back to the story at hand, the Russian strategy for this invasion of East Prussia was to have their two principal Armies launch a pincer move on the German forces in the area. The Russian First Army under General von Rennenkampf would invade the northern part of East Prussia, while the Second Army under General Samsonov would invade the southern part. The two would march through this region, seizing what towns and supplies they could along the way, before ultimately converging on the German forces in the reason, hopefully crushing them between their own two armies from both sides. However, while this would be a fairly sound strategy in theory, in practice the two armies would be separated from one another for more than a hundred miles (or about 160 kilometers) by a dense series of marsh lands that were all but impenetrable. Which meant that should either of the two Russian Armies come under serious attack before they were able to rendezvous with one another, they would be forced to face the German forces all alone. Hopefully, these Russian Armies would be able to maneuver quickly enough and coordinate their movements in such a way as to pounce on the German forces in the region without being separated from one another for too long. But given the fact that the Russian supply and communication systems were a total disaster, the commanders of the two armies openly despised one another, and the fact that the Germans had intercepted all Russian radio communications…well, good luck guys.

The first significant engagement of the war between Russia and Germany on the Eastern Front began on the early morning of August 20, when elements of Rennenkampf’s First Army were attacked near the town of Gumbinnen (modern day Gusev) by the German I Corps under General von François (yes, I know, yet another General with a misleading name), who opened up with a brief artillery barrage before sending his infantry forward at about 4 a.m. This I Corps was merely one component part of the German Eighth Army, the only German force in the area defending East Prussia against the Russian invasion. The commander of this Eighth Army was General von Prittwitz, who a few days before had ordered his army to form a defensive line behind the river Angerapp, about 120 kilometers or 70 miles east of Königsberg. This would allow the German Eighth Army to halt the advance of the Russian First Army, which had made faster progress in its advance than the Russian Second Army to the south, allowing the Germans to then wheel around and attack that Second Army. However General von François, commander of the German I Corps, had advanced all the way to the town of Gumbinnen against direct orders from Prittwitz, threatening to open up a gap in the German lines.

Prittwitz was furious when he learned of this move by François, and sent multiple orders to his subordinate that he immediately fall back to the main defensive line behind the Angerapp River, which François simply ignored. François, you see, was not only a far more aggressive commander than his superior Prittwitz, but he further believed that it was imperative that the Russians not be allowed to march any further into East Prussia. Prittwitz countered that giving up some territory to the Russians was unavoidable, and that the far more important objective was to defeat or at least delay the Russian Armies and, far more importantly, make sure the Eight Army was not completely surrounded and destroyed, as that would leave Germany’s entire eastern flank completely undefended. François on the other hand had nothing but disdain for his nominal commander Prittwitz, who owed his command far more to his ability to charm the Kaiser than his military skill or experience. And not only was Prittwitz loath to maneuver his Army forward, but he was in fact loath to himself move at all. He was known by many in the German military leadership as “Der Dicke,” literally “fatty.” And so we can see that disagreements and open hostility between army commanders was just as much a problem in the German forces as it was in the Russian forces.

François’ initial assault on the Russian forces opposing him at Gumbinnen on August 20 went poorly, as the initial German artillery bombardment had done little damage to the Russian forces in front of them, and as the German infantry advanced they were cut to pieces by Russian artillery. This was actually a pretty rare occurrence on the Eastern Front, as in the vast majority of engagements to follow this Battle of Gumbinnen, it was the Germans who wielded complete artillery dominance over the Russians. In fact, so many waves of German infantry threw themselves at the Russian lines that the Russian artillery literally ran out of its ammunition after an hour or two. Thus, though the Germans under General von François had suffered atrocious casualties in their initial assault, once the Russian artillery fell silent the Germans were able to swarm the Russian 28th division, inflicting upon it more than 60% casualties and sending the rest fleeing in panic. Further, as the Russians blasted away at the infantry attack on their front, François had managed to swing some of his cavalry and light artillery around the Russian right flank, inflicting yet more carnage.

However, though the German attack now seemed to be going well, it led to a chain reaction which would simply chew up more of the Eighth Army inflicting casualties upon it which the Germans simply could not afford. You see, when François had essentially ignored direct orders to fall back and instead launched a fairly reckless attack on the Russian First Army, several other German Corps had essentially been forced to rush forward to François’ aid. Specifically, the German XVII Corps under General von Mackensen arrived at the battle at around 8 a.m., while the First Reserve Corps under General von Below arrived at around noon. These uncoordinated and rushed attacks allowed the Russians to pour yet more artillery on their German attackers, and before long both of these German Corps who had rushed to François’ aid were driven back in a general retreat. Thus, despite the moderate success of François in the early part of the fight, the Battle of Gumbinnen ultimately resulted in a Russian victory.

General von Prittwitz seems to have all but lost his nerve after receiving news of the defeat at Gumbinnen. Though in the grand scheme of things this was hardly a decisive defeat, he saw that the Russian First Army had not been driven backwards, his own German forces had suffered casualties that could not be immediately replaced, and Samsonov’s Second Army to the south was still marching forward completely unopposed. It was not at all impossible that if the Eighth Army remained in the region near Königsberg bogged down by the Russian First Army, the Second Army might be able to swing around behind him and totally surround all the German forces in the area. So on the evening of the 20th of August, as the Battle of Gumbinnen was winding down, Prittwitz ordered his entire Army to retreat behind the Vistula River, some 300 kilometers or about 180 miles to the west, all but ceding the vast majority of East Prussia to the Russians. General von François was aghast at this order, and protested furiously that if he was allowed to continue his attack into the next day he would be able to drive the Russian First Army out of Germany altogether. But Prittwitz had seen enough, and the next day the German Eighth Army began its general retreat. General von Rennenkampf, commander of the Russian First Army, was delighted when he learned that the Germans were falling back, and allegedly told one of his staff officers that he could go to sleep if he wished, and that there was no need to pursue the Germans.

So this opening fight in the war between Germany and Russia revealed some pretty amateurish mistakes on all sides. German Eighth Army commander General von Prittwitz had planned a cautious defense against Rennenkampf’s Russian First Army, but was unable to stop one of his sub commanders from launching a highly aggressive and probably ill-advised attack on the Russians completely unsupported. This forced Prittwitz to hurriedly send more of his forces forward in order to assist François, resulting in these forces being driven back in disarray. But rather than try to reorganize his troops and try again to halt the Russian advance, Prittwitz panicked and ordered a general retreat of more than 300 kilometers. Meanwhile the Russians had been caught completely by surprise by the attack at Gumbinnen, and were only able to pull off a tactical victory due to the disorganized and poorly coordinated nature of this German attack. And then, after learning that the entire German Army was in general retreat, Russian General von Rennenkampf ordered his army to halt their advance, all without coordinating his movements with Samsonov to the south by the way, rather than pursue the Germans to keep the pressure on them. All in all, this battle resembled a sloppy and improvised brawl rather than a carefully coordinated set piece battle. Nevertheless, the upshot of all of this was that the sole German Army defending against the Russian onslaught was now falling back having given up nearly all of East Prussia to the Russians.

This haphazard and disorganized action overseen by General von Prittwitz, overall commander of the Eighth Army, caused a near panic among the German high command in Berlin. General von Moltke, commander-in-chief of all German forces, was apoplectic when he learned that Prittwitz had so poorly directed such a sloppy attack, and was then dumbfounded when he learned soon thereafter that all the German forces defending against the Russians had begun to retreat for hundreds of kilometers. Over the next few days Moltke spoke via telephone with every one of the German Corps commanders on the Eastern Front in an effort to discern what in the hell had gone so catastrophically wrong. After these interviews, and with further field reports and investigation by his staff officers, Moltke concluded that Prittwitz was totally unqualified for his command over the Eighth Army, and was now in the process of leading his forces to complete annihilation. Moltke had in fact never been comfortable with Prittwitz’s appointment as the Eighth Army commander, believing him to be, in Barbara Tuchman’s words, nothing more than a quote “fat idiot.” This all led Moltke to make two crucial decisions that would, for good or ill, set the stage for how the entire rest of the war would be carried out.

The first of his decisions, made around August 26, was to order that three Corps and one cavalry division, somewhere around 100-130,000 men, be sent from the Western Front to the Eastern Front to assist the German Eighth Army in its precarious position. This decision has been almost universally criticized by military historians after the war, and indeed many of the commanders on the Eastern Front believed this decision was folly at the time. In order for the Schlieffen Plan to work, France and Britain needed to be completely defeated as quickly as possible on the Western Front, and peeling off so many troops from that campaign could perhaps fatally weaken those Armies. The German forces in the East need only hold out as long as possible until victory was secured in the West, and once that had been completed the Germans would be able to send all of their forces east to defeat the Russians. Worse yet was that it would take at least several days, perhaps even several weeks, to complete this redeployment, which many at the time believed would be too late to even participate in the coming battles. Thus this move would only serve to weaken the German forces on the Western Front without providing any real assistance on the Eastern Front in exchange. Now this prediction would turn out to be correct, and with hindsight we can see that this move of Moltke’s was indeed a crucial mistake. In just a few days those German forces sent East to reinforce the Eighth Army would be sorely needed on the Western Front as the French and British Armies there began their planned counterattack, and indeed the coming battle of Tannenberg, which we will discuss next week, would be fought before these reinforcements arrived to participate in the battle.

But, personally, I am sympathetic to Moltke’s decision here. From his perspective, he could see that the campaign on the Western Front was proceeding quite smoothly: the entire German Army was advancing across the entire Western Front while their French and British opponents were engaged in a general retreat after suffering hideous casualties after fantastic German victories. Meanwhile the situation on the Eastern Front looked incredibly dire, with the Russian Army having mobilized and invaded Germany far quicker than expected, and the miniscule German forces in the region having been forced backwards after suffering a relatively minor but still quite clear defeat. Had I been in Moltke’s position, I think I may have made the same decision. It is only with hindsight that we can see that this move was indeed a huge mistake.

The second of Moltke’s decisions made following the Battle of Gumbinnen was to sack General von Prittwitz and replace him with a far more aggressive and competent commander. And the two men sent to replace Prittwitz would come to play perhaps the most crucial role in the war on the German side. First, in overall command of the Eighth Army would be elevated General Paul von Hindenburg, an old veteran of the Franco-Prussian War who had retired from active service back in 1911. Hindenburg had a stellar military record and commanded a great deal of respect in the German high command, and though he had retired from the Army three years previously, he was perhaps the most obvious choice to try to salvage the crumbling situation on the Eastern Front.

But Hindenburg was not the only man sent to the East to reorganize and lead the defense against the Russians. Though a well-respected general with decades of experience under his belt, Hindenburg was at this point nearly 67 years old and not necessarily up to the job of keeping track of every minute detail of the deployment of his new command. No, Hindenburg would need some help dealing with those minute details while he developed the overall strategy to defeat the Russians. So Moltke promoted an officer fighting on the Western Front to be Hindenburg’s Chief of Staff. That man was someone I mentioned and told you all to remember back in Episode 13: Baptism of Fire. Do you remember his name? That’s right, it’s none other than General Erich von Ludendorff, the man who had so boldly seized the citadel of the fortress city of Liége. Ludendorff’s appointment as Chief of Staff for the German Armies on the Eastern Front will turn out to be pretty fantastically important, as in this role he will help lead his forces to smashing success against the Russians, garnering him a reputation that will eventually, as I said when I first introduced him, lead him to become the dictator of Germany in all but name by about 1918.

We are going to leave things off there for this week. The German and Russian Armies on the Eastern Front have whetted their appetite with a relatively small battle, but the Russian forces so greatly outnumbered the German forces in the region that they had forced the Germans to retreat hundreds of kilometers to the west. Next week, we will see how the rising team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff will attempt to salvage the German position on the Eastern Front.




  • Cartwright, Mark. Northern Crusades. https://www.ancient.eu/Northern_Crusades/

  • Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

  • Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.

  • Otte, Thomas G. The July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

  • Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1962.