So we’ve spent the past two episodes setting up what would be one of the most climactic and consequential battles of the entire First World War, at least on the Eastern Front. Now this coming showdown will not really be decisive in the sense that it decided the outcome of the war in this theater. Rather, the ultimate result of this battle was that it became one half of a critical dynamic that would ensure that this war would not be ended by a lightning hammer stroke over the course of a few weeks, but would rather transform into a brutal, attritional slugfest that will essentially barely move for four years. Essentially, the war could have been won relatively quickly had either of the two major offensives we’ve discussed been successful. Those two offensives being the German invasion of Belgium and France, and the Russian counter-invasion of Germany. At this point, the end of August 1914, the German Armies on the Western Front have soundly defeated the French and British Armies in every significant battle, are advancing along the entire front, and German soldiers at the very front of the advance are merely 30 or 40 kilometers away from Paris. However at this same time, Russia has shocked everyone by cobbling together an army half a million strong in just a few weeks, launching an invasion of Germany and sending the comparatively miniscule forces opposing them retreating for hundreds of kilometers to avoid being completely surrounded and destroyed. So far, these two offensives – the one launched by Germany in the west and the other by Russia in the East – have been mostly successful. But today we will see how this Russian advance will be essentially forced to halt by a smashing German victory under the leadership of Generals von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Quick sidenote here: I have to make a correction as to how I have been referring to General Ludendorff up until this point. While a relatively small mistake, I have been incorrectly referring to Ludendorff with the particle “von,” as in “von Ludendorff.” Now, in German, having one’s surname preceded by the word “von” indicates that you are a member of the nobility (or at least it did back then), but in fact Erich Ludendorff had no such aristocratic ancestry. I have no other excuse for this small yet sloppy mistake (one I have embarrassingly made in every previous episode that I have mentioned Ludendorff) besides insufficient proofreading, and basically just assuming that Ludendorff came from an aristocratic family as did most other German generals especially in the early stages of the war. Anyway, while this fantastic victory achieved by Hindenburg and Ludendorff will not ultimately lead to a German victory in the war, it will lay the groundwork for their eventual rise to power over the entire German Empire.
So recall that last week we ended by discussing how German commander-in-chief General von Moltke had attempted to salvage the crumbling situation on the Eastern Front by replacing General von Prittwitz as commander of the German Eighth Army with General Paul von Hindenburg and his new Chief of Staff, General Erich Ludendorff. This was done after Prittwitz had revealed himself to be a pretty awful commander by overseeing a sloppy, disorganized, and completely uncoordinated attack on the Russian First Army, and then essentially ceding all of East Prussia to the Russians by withdrawing his entire Army more than 300 kilometers to the west. While it could be argued that this retreat ordered by Prittwitz was perhaps the prudent move, as after all by far the most important objective for the Germans at this point was to make sure that the Eighth Army, literally the only organized armed force they had in the east facing the Russians, was not completely surrounded and destroyed. Temporarily giving up some territory in East Prussia was a relatively small price to pay in exchange for keeping this army intact. Yet not only was this retreat damaging to Germany’s morale, but the land that Prittwitz had abandoned wasn’t just important to Germany because, as we discussed last week, it was the ancestral homeland of the Prussian aristocracy (including the Imperial family).
I may have given you the impression when discussing that aspect of the war that East Prussia’s only real value to Germany was its historical significance, but in fact East Prussia was home to some of Germany’s most lucrative and most important agricultural lands, and so losing that land to the Russians would be a significant financial blow, to say nothing of it severely handicapping the ability of the Germans to feed themselves. So although Prittwitz may have had a point in theory that retreating and temporarily losing this land to the Russians was better than seeing his whole army wiped out and leaving Berlin undefended, the fact that he retreated so far after only suffering a fairly minor defeat made his name mud among the German high command. And besides, Prittwitz’s defeat at the Battle of Gumbinnen was due at least as much to the totally disorganized and haphazard nature of the German attack there as it was to Russian numerical strength or superior generalship. So Prittwitz had to go, and in his place would be elevated perhaps the most famous duo in military history: Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
Now, before we get to what Hindenburg and Ludendorff did upon assuming their new commands, let us very briefly take a look at the backgrounds, skills, and weaknesses these two generals brought to the table. For while both Hindenburg and Ludendorff were quite able military strategists in their own right, what would make them so successful in the fighting on the Eastern Front was how they complimented one another’s attributes.
So first, let’s talk about the nominal head of this dynamic duo. Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, or more simply Paul von Hindenburg, was born in the city of Posen in the Grand Duchy of Posen on October 2, 1847. Now if that place, Posen, rings a bell, it’s because I have very briefly mentioned it once or twice before. The Grand Duchy of Posen was a component part of the larger Kingdom of Prussia, just a bit south of East Prussia, and its traditional capital was the city of Posen, birthplace of Hindenburg. Now if you today try to look up where this city of Posen is, you’ll instead find references to the modern Polish city of Poznań, which is simply the Polish name for the same place. I point all this out just to reinforce some of what we talked about last week: that this general area, the eastern part of the German Empire, had been a traditional territory of Polish people long before it had come under the control of German powers, and following the two world wars this land would mostly be ceded to Poland, which is why the region of Hindenburg’s birth is today known as Poznań, rather than Posen.
Anyway, Paul von Hindenburg was born into a family of Prussian Junkers, that is the old military aristocracy of Prussia, that had prominent roots in central European history back to the thirteenth century. The Hindenburgs had, in fact, once upon a time been prominent members of the old Order of Teutonic Knights that had conquered East Prussia and Posen from the native Slavic peoples of the area during the Northern Crusades. Nor did the military record of the House of Hindenburg stop with the holy wars of the Middle Ages: men of the Hindenburg family had served in prominent roles in the Prussian military during virtually every significant military conflict from their emergence in the thirteenth century all the way up to our man Paul’s birth in 1847. So, it’s fair to say that the young Paul von Hindenburg was born with some of the bluest blood in the Kingdom of Prussia, specifically that of the aristocratic warrior caste, and he was all but destined from birth to serve Prussia as an army officer.
Despite being born into considerable wealth and privilege, Hindenburg was raised in a very strict household with few if any lavish distractions at his disposal. This was very much in the tradition of the Prussian Junker caste, as it was expected that all sons of these aristocratic families would one day assume leadership roles in the Prussian Army, an Army that was defined by incredibly harsh discipline, and so instilling a sense of duty and obedience into these future warriors from a young age would hopefully make them better disciplinarians upon reaching adulthood.
If the young Paul von Hindenburg had ambitions to establish a reputation for himself as one of Prussia’s great military heroes, he was born at the perfect time to do so. Hindenburg’s adolescence and young adulthood would be defined by the great wars of German unification, which saw Prussia absorb the other surrounding German states into a single German Empire. Great wars launched by Prussia marked by titanic battles that would decide the fate of whole nations were a pretty regular occurrence as Hindenburg grew up, so there was plenty of opportunity to win fame and glory on the battlefield.
Hindenburg joined the Prussian Cadet Corps at age eleven, and for the next seven years was trained to become an army officer. Finally, in 1866 at the age of eighteen, the young Hindenburg received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Third Regiment of Foot Guards, a highly prestigious unit of elite Prussian infantry. Lieutenant Hindenburg’s first military action occurred during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, during which he was decorated for valor for leading his men to capture an Austrian artillery battery at the climactic Battle of Königgrätz, and getting wounded in the process. He stayed in the army and subsequently fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, receiving the Iron Cross Second Class and being chosen to personally attend the official ceremony at Versailles wherein King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany.
Having garnered a respectable (if hardly famous) military reputation, Hindenburg decided to make a career in the army, an army that was for basically the first time since he joined now a peacetime force. Given no more opportunities to display gallantry and heroism under fire, Hindenburg slowly, methodically rose up the ranks of the military hierarchy, until by 1904 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. There is some evidence to suggest that Kaiser Wilhelm II did not care for General Hindenburg, though it’s not exactly clear why nor is there much evidence about the Kaiser’s opinion of Hindenburg before 1914 one way or the other. In 1911, at the age of 64, Hindenburg officially retired from the Army, having had a long, successful, though ultimately pretty unremarkable military career.
Hindenburg settled in a small town in Hanover in central Germany with his beloved wife Gertrud, and I really hope I’ll be able to find a good place to talk more about Gertrud von Hindenburg in a future episode, as she not only had been at her husband’s side throughout his military career and would remain so during the First World War, but she is actually a super interesting character in her own right. The couple had three living children, two daughters and a son, the latter of whom had recently begun his own military career, and Paul and Gertrud von Hindenburg seemed destined to spend their twilight years living the relaxed, peaceful life of the landowning gentry.
This future of a peaceful, obscure retirement of course came to a tire screeching halt upon the outbreak of the First World War in the first few days of August, 1914. We are fortunate enough to have access to Hindenburg’s personal memoirs, published in 1920, reflecting on his life up until that point and in particular his role in the First World War. Unfortunately for me…I have been unable to find a translation of this text in English, so I’m forced to try to suss out what I can from this memoir based on my very rudimentary German. As Hindenburg tells it, on August 22 at about 3 p.m., he received a telegram from the German War Ministry asking if he would be able to take up a command on the Eastern Front. He answered simply, quote, “I am ready.” And with that, Paul von Hindenburg once again became a Lieutenant General in the German Imperial Army, and by the end of that day, he was on a train that would take him east to assume command of the Eighth Army.
His chief assistant and most able partner in this coming campaign, and indeed throughout the rest of the war, was of course General Erich Ludendorff. Born in 1865, and thus merely a child when the German states were unified into the German Empire, Ludendorff had no real opportunities to display physical courage or tactical cunning on the battlefield. But being a fairly brilliant and clearly quite intelligent young man, after joining the Army as a second lieutenant of infantry in 1885, Ludendorff quickly established a reputation for himself as an extremely intelligent, quick witted, and hardworking peacetime officer. In 1893 he secured a highly prestigious admission in the War Academy, and after a year or so of study he secured an even more prestigious appointment within the General Staff, where he became well known as an extremely talented and extremely ambitious member of the organization that would develop theoretical wartime strategies.
This appointment roughly coincided with the rise of Alfred von Schlieffen as Chief of the General Staff, and Ludendorff became a devoted ally of Schlieffen and acolyte of the famous “Schlieffen Plan.” Indeed, much of Ludendorff’s day to day work as a member of the General Staff was in drawing up the minute, nitty gritty details of the broad plans proposed by his superiors, particularly Schlieffen. This experience not only convinced Ludendorff that the Schlieffen Plan was the best and, frankly, only way to win a two-front war against France and Russia, but also made him an expert in the smallest details of how the plan was to be carried out. He was, perhaps, the most knowledgeable expert on the details of the Schlieffen Plan in the entire German Army.
Now along with this reputation for being a supremely talented military technocrat, Ludendorff had also acquired a reputation for being a fairly humorless buzzkill, and this was probably the most obvious difference between him and his superior Hindenburg. Though Hindenburg was hardly jovial, he did exude a sort of disarming, grandfatherly charm. Ludendorff, by contrast, was cold, curt, often rude, and rarely if ever smiled. Or, as Barbara Tuchman describes, quote, “Deliberately friendless and forbidding, [Ludendorff] remained little known or liked. None of the usual reminiscences of friends or family or personal stories or sayings accumulated around him; even as he grew in eminence he moved without attendant anecdotes, a man without a shadow.”
Whatever Ludendorff’s shortcomings in personal disposition, he had a well-earned reputation as an excellent administrator, and had somewhat surprisingly displayed personal courage and initiative when he captured the citadel of the city of Liége with but a single brigade back on August 6. So, on August 22, Ludendorff received orders that he should immediately leave Namur in Belgium, where he was then stationed, and travel to Koblenz in Germany as quickly as possible. There, he met with both General von Moltke and Kaiser Wilhelm II himself, was briefed on the collapsing situation in the east, and by the next day, August 23, he was onboard a train bound for Marienburg, a town some 50 kilometers or 30 miles southeast of the port city of Danzig in East Prussia. For the record, the German cities of Marienburg and Danzig are today located in Poland, and are known as Malbork and Gdansk respectively.
Having both arrived at their new command post in Marienburg by the end of August 23, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were faced with the problem of how best to redeploy the Eighth Army to counter the Russian two-pronged invasion. Upon their arrival, the Eighth Army was somewhat stretched out and was still recovering from the Battle of Gumbinnen from a few days before. There were essentially two options before Hindenburg and Ludendorff as they sized up the situation. Their first option would be to mostly keep the Army where it was in an effort to once again attack and try to halt the Russian First Army under Rennenkampf. As most of the Eighth Army was still relatively close to this Russian First Army, with whom they had clashed at the Battle of Gumbinnen, they would be able to launch a renewed offensive there relatively quickly. But having received field reports from the Eighth Army’s Chief of Operations, Lt. Colonel Max Hoffmann, Ludendorff in particular did not like this plan. Hoffmann pointed out that when the German Eighth Army began its retreat towards the Vistula river, before General Prittwitz had been fired, the Russian First Army under Rennenkampf had not lifted a finger to pursue them. Hoffmann thus proposed that the German Eighth Army shoul essentially swing around to attack the Russian Second Army under General Samsonov, who had pushed farther west than Rennenkampf, allowing the Germans to pounce on Samsonov’s scattered and undersupplied army on their right flank, too far away for the Russian First Army to come to the rescue of the Second.
This proposal was strengthened by two key advantages the Germans had access to. First, they would be able to use the magnificent German railroad system to move the Eighth Army to the south before the Russians even realized what was happening, as due to the fact that Russian trains could not operate on German tracks, transporting troops via railroad was not a luxury the Russians had. The second major advantage was that, as we touched on last week, the Germans had intercepted virtually all communications sent between and within the Russian Armies, as the Russians were sending all messages over the radio waves without using any code. Thus, Hoffmann knew both the location and disposition of Samsonov’s Second Army at all times, and was assured in his assumption that the First Army under Rennenkampf was not preparing to pursue the Germans as they pulled back. Armed with this knowledge, Hoffmann and Ludendorff were able to conclude that a redeployment of the Eighth Army south for an attack on Samsonov would be the best strategy to defeat the Russians. While on their train ride to Marienburg in East Prussia, Ludendorff laid out the information Hoffmann had sent him to his new commander, General von Hindenburg, and explained the proposed strategy for a redeployment of the Army south to attack Samsonov. Hindenburg listened quietly and carefully, and concurred with Ludendorff’s assessment of the situation. This dynamic of Ludendorff proposing a strategy and Hindenburg immediately agreeing to it would persist throughout the rest of their partnership, which led to Hindenburg eventually being saddled with the nickname Field Marshall “Was Sagst Du?,” for his habit of turning to Ludendorff whenever a question of military deployment came up and asking “Was sagst du?” or “What do you say?” Orders were soon on the way to the various German corps on the Eastern Front to prepare to board troop trains down south, with instructions on how they would deploy once they reached their destination. Famously, these orders were signed with the monogram HL for “Hindenburg and Ludendorff,” a symbol which would be found on virtually every official document issued by the two men.
As Samsonov’s Second Army continued its advance through the southern part of East Prussia, still separated from his colleague to the north by the impenetrable marshlands in the middle of the region, it was becoming more and more apparent that this march was turning into a disaster before ever coming into contact with the enemy. The communication problems had become so acute that even radioing messages, uncoded, over the airwaves proved insufficient to relay orders to and reports from Samsonov’s thirteen divisions. There were simply not enough radios nor radio operators to adequately send all messages to the various army commanders. At one point a staff officer in Warsaw, which served as the sort of de facto hub from which the Russian invasion began, found a pile of telegrams meant to be delivered to Samsonov that had never been sent over the past several weeks. The officer was forced to rush to Samsonov in a requisitioned car and personally deliver the messages by hand.
Further, the amazing speed with which the Russians had completed the mobilization of their First and Second Armies had concealed just how haphazard and rushed this mobilization process was. Virtually all divisions in the Second Army in particular did not have nearly enough officers to properly lead their various units. Beyond that, the reservists of the army that had been called up and put into uniform at the end of July and beginning of August had been so rushed that they had been dispersed to different units, leading to some units being either overstaffed or understaffed with enlisted men, and few of those enlisted men having ever met their officers before. There were not enough supply carts nor draft horses to haul enough food and supplies to the Army, leading to frequent delays in the Army’s advance, or when they weren’t delayed by a lack of food, the men were often forced to march twelve hours per day, non-stop, over fields and sand dunes laced with dirt goat paths that could only charitably be described as “roads.” Even when supply carts arrived at the army they usually carried far too little food for the men, and thus these grueling twelve hour marches were mostly done on empty stomachs. And because Rennenkampf in the north and Samsonov in the south had done such an abysmal job of communicating with one another, Samsonov had no idea that he had pushed farther west than Rennenkampf and that Rennenkampf had in fact halted his own advance on August 20 following the Battle of Gumbinnen. Samsonov was under the impression that Rennenkampf was still engaged with the Germans, and that he, that is Samsonov, would be free to continue his advance and swing around behind the Germans without himself being attacked beforehand.
That said, Samsonov was aware that one of the German Corps, the XXth under General Scholtz, was in the vicinity of the towns of Soldau and Neidenburg, and on August 19 sent one of his own Russian Corps, the XVth under General Martos, to attack this exposed German force and capture the two towns. This was accomplished quickly and with minimal Russian casualties. This was just the day before the Battle of Gumbinnen was fought between the main German force and Rennenkampf’s First Army and, content that Rennenkampf was keeping the Germans occupied, Samsonov continued his advance. On the evening of August 23, still believing that the bulk of German forces in East Prussia were retreating from Rennenkampf who must surely be hot on their heels, Samsonov again ordered an attack by his XVth Corps on the German XXth Corps that had been pushed out of Neidenburg four days previously. In a somewhat surprisingly adept maneuver General Martos, commander of this Russian force, managed to silently sneak his men to within 700 meters of the German position under cover of darkness completely undetected. Once the Germans did notice the Russians advancing upon them, they opened up with rifle and machine gun fire that cut down hundreds of their Russian attackers. Shortly thereafter, German artillery began to open up, blasting massive gaps in the Russian ranks. The speed and surprise of this attack did catch the Germans by surprise, and they eventually fell back leaving behind much of their supplies and many of their machine guns and artillery pieces. However this attack had cost the Russian XVth Corps 4,000 casualties, while the Germans suffered just a few hundred, and had managed to regroup and reorganize very quickly after having been forced back.
Despite the heavier casualties his forces had suffered in the last few days, Samsonov was nonetheless assured in his assumption that he vastly outnumbered the Germans in the area, as he had thus far only encountered a single German Corps, fewer than 30,000 men, and he believed that his flanks were completely safe from a German attack. So again and again the Second Army pushed forward, in pursuit of the single German Corps opposing them.
While all this was going on though, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had begun the process of shifting their entire Eighth Army to the south to launch a surprise attack on Samsonov. Ludendorff’s chief concern at this point was that this move would leave his rear vulnerable to attack by Rennenkampf, should the latter be roused from his lethargy. Thus, he was eager to begin the attack on Samsonov as quickly as possible. The plan was for the XXth Corps under General Scholtz to continue to hold the center of the line against Samsonov, while the XVIIth Corps under von Mackensen moved in on Samsonov’s right flank, and the Ist Corps under von François swept all the way around to attack Samsonov’s left flank. As always, it would probably be helpful to take a look at the maps for today’s episode, but basically this would mean that about half of the German forces would march directly to the south to attack Samsonov, while von François’ Ist Corps came in from behind in a long arc, first moving southwest and then moving to the East to close the trap on Samsonov. I realize it’s hard to grasp stuff like this just from listening to descriptions of it, and trust me the maps will help, but the impression I’m trying to give is one of a secret encirclement of Samsonov’s Second Army before the Russians even realized that they were under attack.
On August 25, two days into Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s command over the German forces in the East, two crucial pieces of information fell into their laps once again due to the Russians broadcasting messages via radio uncoded. The first was a message sent by Rennenkampf up north at about 5:30 a.m., which outlined the march orders for his army that day. As was becoming standard for Rennenkampf, he set his forces to move just a few miles forward before halting, meaning that they would be far too far away to come to Samsonov’s rescue. Second, and perhaps even more crucially, was a message intercepted from Samsonov just 30 minutes later. Samsonov said in this message that they would continue their pursuit of the German XXth Corps, whom they believed to be routing in disarray, and that there were no reports of any other German forces in the area. In fact, the XXth Corps was not fleeing in panic but rather executing a carefully coordinated and organized tactical retreat to draw Samsonov in, and most of the rest of the German Eighth Army had reached their intended positions to begin the attack on Samsonov. Further, in his radio message Samsonov detailed the march path, timetables, and deployment of every single one of his 13 divisions for the next few days. Which meant that Hindenburg and Ludendorff now knew that they did not have to worry about Rennenkampf attacking them from behind, that Samsonov had no idea the rest of the German Eighth Army was right on top of him, and had handed the Germans the location and strength of his entire army on a silver platter. Though the decisive battle of August 1914 on the Eastern Front had yet to begin, Samsonov had all but sealed the fate of his entire army.
The Battle of Tannenberg, as it has been named by history, began on the morning of August 26, 1914. Samsonov’s Second Army was spread out across a front of approximately 50 to 60 miles, or 80 to 95 kilometers, stretching in a line running southwest to northeast from Usdau to Bischofsburg. His VIth Corps, under General Blagovestchensky, formed the far-right wing of the Russian Second Army near the town of Bischofsburg. The two divisions making up this unit had become separated from one another when one of the two, receiving reports that a small German detachment had been spotted six miles behind them, turned around to attack what was presumed to be a small and isolated unit. In fact, this force was the German XVIIth Corps under General von Mackensen, which had maneuvered behind the Russian right flank completely undetected. The lone Russian division, which had no idea that this unit was anywhere near them, suddenly found themselves in vicious combat with an organized enemy force that vastly outnumbered them. In panic, the commander of this Russian division sent an urgent plea for aid from the other division nearby him. Except this other division had been marching in the complete opposite direction, west instead of north, and had to abruptly turn around and race to the aid of their comrades. After marching all day for nearly 20 miles or 32 kilometers, this second division suddenly found itself attacked by yet another full German Corps, this one being the First Reserve Corps under General von Below. Exhausted, battered, separated from one another and finding themselves under brutal assault by a vastly larger German force, the Russian VI Corps collapsed into a panicked rout after suffering more than 5,000 casualties. For all intents and purposes, Samsonov’s entire right flank had been completely driven from the field.
While all this was going on, the Russian center led by General Martos was pushing forward towards the town of Tanneberg itself. However, a division on Martos’ left was driven back in disarray by a suddenly stiff resistance from the German XXth Corps, whom Martos had believed to be all but scattered to the four winds. He was thus forced to rejigger his lines to prevent becoming completely surrounded. Meanwhile the Russian XIIIth Corps under General Kliouev had managed to seize the town of Allenstein slightly northeast of Martos’ attack, but upon learning that Martos was facing far stiffer resistance than expected, Kliouev wheeled his forces around, pointing them southwest to reinforce Martos leaving his recently won prize of Allenstein completely undefended. He assumed that the VI Corps to his right would soon be on the way to hold onto this prize, but of course the VI Corps had already been devasted by a surprise attack to their north, and had been essentially knocked out of the fight for the time being.
That evening, August 26, Second Army commander Samsonov was enjoying a fine dinner with his staff and a military attaché from the United Kingdom in the town of Neidenberg behind the frontlines, when this dinner was interrupted by thousands of bedraggled Russian soldiers from the failed attack at Tannenberg in the Russian center pouring into the town in absolute panic and disorder. It is also worth keeping in mind that these panicked Russian soldiers had not eaten anything for the past two days. Though he did not yet realize that he was already being encircled on both sides, Samsonov realized in a flash that he was no longer in a position to casually and easily surround a tiny and isolated German force, but that he was now facing the brunt of the German Eighth Army all on his lonesome. However, rather than ordering a retreat so his Army could regroup and prepare a better coordinated attack, he decided that he would try to force the issue here so that Rennenkampf, who should be on his way, you know, any minute now, would be able to come in from behind the Germans and crush them. So he ordered his Ist Corps under General Artomonov, which formed the far-left wing of his Army near the town of Usdau, to prepare to defend against any German attacks there while the center of the Army would once again push forward towards Tannenberg the next day. Samsonov believed that so long as this unit held firm, his planned attack on the German center would be successful, and so he told Artomonov that he must, quote, “protect the flank of the Army…at all costs,” and bolstered Artomonov’s confidence by saying that, quote, “not even a greatly superior enemy can break the resistance of the famous Ist Corps.” Within a few hours, Artomonov would be given the opportunity to justify Samsonov’s faith in him.
At 4 a.m. the next morning, August 27, General von François’ German Ist Corps, which had taken the longest to get into position, began its assault on the Russian left wing. François proceeded his attack on the Russian Ist Corps with a massive artillery bombardment that killed and wounded thousands of Russian soldiers. François had planned to launch his infantry to the assault after having shelled the enemy for awhile, but before the German artillery barrage had even lifted, the Russian Ist Corps, which the night before Samsonov had confidently pronounced could hold off any attack, broke in panic, and by 11 a.m. they had completely fled the field. Now both flanks of the Russian Army had been turned, and the German Eighth Army was in measurable distance of completely surrounding them.
As the battle entered its third day, August 28, what careful order and coordination Hindenburg and Ludendorff had imposed upon their plan had begun to break down. Along a front of some fifty miles, Russian and German units now flung themselves at one another in chaotic and frenzied combat, now less a single coordinated action but rather dozens or even hundreds of battles in miniature. Where once the rhythm of the battle had been dictated by Corps commanders in charge of 30,000 soldiers or more, now the initiative of the battle was left to commanders of individual regiments or battalions made up of a thousand men or fewer. One unit would advance while their neighbor fell back, gaps would open up in the lines but uncoordinated assaults through these gaps would be driven back, friendly units bumped into each other and men became so scattered that they wound up in the wrong regiment, the wrong division, the wrong Corps.
Probably the most vicious and most prolonged fighting occurred in the center of the battle line, where General Martos’ Russian XVth Corps continued its struggle with General Scholtz’s German XXth Corps, a fight that had been going on virtually non-stop for five days and nights. As this was the sector of the battlefield that remained the most precarious for the Germans, it was here at the village of Frögenau that Hindenburg and Ludendorff placed themselves at Scholtz’s temporary headquarters to oversee the battle. General von François, leading the attack on the Russian left flank, continued his habit of ignoring direct orders from his superiors by pushing due east to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat rather than marching northeast to assist General Scholtz in the center. Meanwhile the German XVIIth Corps and First Reserve Corps which had routed the Russian right flank had become disorganized and weren’t able to continue their advance until late afternoon on August 28. Despite this confusion and delay, the XVIIth Corps was soon able to chase what remained of the Russian right wing off the battlefield permanently, while the First Reserve Corps seized the town of Allenstein, seized by the Russians two days before and were able to come in from behind the Russian center. And as it turned out, while Ludendorff had initially been apoplectic at François disobeying direct orders to assist with the attack on the Russian center, by the end of the day he had countermanded those orders and told François to push east behind the Russian lines, which he was already doing, to cut off their line of retreat. Soon, the two Russian Corps which made up the center of their battle line had been almost completely surrounded. That evening, August 28, General Samsonov ordered a general retreat of what was left of his Army. But it was already too late.
Official history reports that The Battle of Tannenberg began on August 26 and ended on August 30, 1914. But, in reality, the last two days of the battle – August 29 and 30 – were less a titanic clash between two massive armies, but rather a mop up operation by the German Eighth Army of small, dispersed, exhausted, and starving Russian soldiers. A few Russian units did try to hold out as long as possible, and one cobbled together unit of around 10-15,000 men did even launch an attack on an utterly bewildered General von François and his Ist Corps, somehow managing to briefly break through the German lines and retake the town of Neidenburg. But for the most part, those Russian soldiers who had not been killed or wounded in the last few days, or had not managed to escape to the East, timidly surrendered to the first German units that came across them. And the final destruction of the Russian Second Army was not even overseen by General Samsonov.
On the evening of August 29, Alexander Samsonov was reduced to riding on horseback through a forest just a few miles away from the Russian border with but a few companions and staff officers. He had no idea where the rest of his army was, and this small company of travelers only goal now was to make it back to Russia alive. Upon encountering a swamp that could not be traversed on horseback, the group continued their journey on foot. Throughout this pitiable and humiliating trek, Samsonov repeated again and again to his Chief of Staff, “The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” At about 1 a.m. the group stopped for a brief rest. Samsonov then wandered off away from the rest of the group further into the woods. As his companions began to look around for where he had gone off to, they heard a single pistol shot crack across the woods. The rest of the group knew instantly what had happened. They attempted to look for Samsonov for the next few hours but, unable to find him before dawn, they were forced to move on and complete their journey back to Russia before daylight revealed them to the Germans. The next morning, August 30, a group of German soldiers stumbled across the body of a Russian officer with a bullet hole through his skull. General Alexander Samsonov, who just a week before had been the commander of an entire Russian Army, and seemingly poised to destroy the German Army of the East, march on Berlin, and end the war right then and there, had committed suicide in a small German forest all alone.
Over the next few days, Hindenburg and Ludendorff took stock of their forces, their casualties, the prisoners they had taken and the bodies of Russian dead strewn across the battlefield. The figures that came back to them must have been beyond their wildest expectations. Over the course of four days between August 26 and August 30, The Russian Second Army had lost 78,000 men killed or wounded, with more than 90,000 taken prisoner. Virtually all of the Russians’ artillery and machine guns were captured, and it took more than a week for fully sixty trains to transport the prisoners and spoils the Germans had taken. Of the more than 200,000 soldiers that had made up the Russian Second Army at the beginning of the month, only 10,000 had escaped still able to bear arms. The Germans, by contrast, had suffered fewer than 13,000 total casualties, killed, wounded, and captured.
As the German high command began to comprehend the stunning success they had just achieved, one of the questions considered was what to name this titanic battle. With a battle this size, stretching over fifty miles and lasting for more than four days, it was difficult to decide which if any of the dozens of towns in the region should bear the name of the battle. Though Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Hoffmann have all been credited with the suggestion that would stick, whoever’s idea it was the Germans soon dubbed their smashing victory “The Battle of Tannenberg,” in honor of a defeat the Teutonic Knights had suffered at the same place in 1410.
What makes the Battle of Tannenberg one of the most important and decisive battles of the entire First World War was not that it spelled ultimate defeat for the Russians, nor ultimate victory for the Germans. What Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s victory at Tannenberg had accomplished was to shatter any hopes the Entente Powers had that the war could be won in a matter of weeks by the Russians capturing Berlin. Though Rennenkampf’s Russian First Army was still in the field, when he learned of the disaster at Tannenberg it became clear to him that his objective was no longer to destroy the Germans and take Berlin, but to extract his own Army from Germany before it too was completely destroyed.
Next week, we will take a look at how Rennenkampf attempted to escape the same fate that had befallen his late colleague Samsonov, as the Germans swing around to push the Russians out of Germany once and for all.
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.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1962.
Wheeler-Bennet, John W. Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan. Edinburgh: MacMillan and Co., 1936.
Hindenburg, Paul von. Aus Meinem Leben. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1920. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30695/30695-h/30695-h.html
Simkin, John. Erich Ludendorff. Spartacus Educational. https://spartacus-educational.com/FWWludendorff.htm