Episode 20:

Masurian Lakes

         Last week we discussed one of the most climactic, decisive, and ultimately one-sided battles of the First World War: The Battle of Tannenberg. Over the course of five days, August 26 through August 30, 1914, the German Eighth Army under Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff launched a surprise attack on the Russian Second Army under General Samsonov, over a front of fifty miles centered roughly around the town of Tannenberg. This battle not only resulted in a German victory, but the virtual destruction of the entire Russian Second Army. When that force had invaded Germany in the second week of August, it had stood at more than 200,000 strong; after Tannenberg, a mere 10,000 survivors still able to bear arms managed to limp back into Russia. The Germans, meanwhile, had suffered only a few thousand killed and wounded despite the fact that the Russians outnumbered them by a significant margin. And not only had tens of thousands of Russian soldiers been killed or wounded during the battle, and fully 90,000 had been taken as prisoners of war, but General Samsonov had committed suicide following the disaster, too ashamed to endure the thought of returning back to Russia in humiliation and disgrace. Though there was of course another Russian Army in the region of East Prussia, that being the First Army under General von Rennenkampf, after learning about the destruction of Samsonov’s Second Army, it became clear to Rennenkampf that he had little other choice than to fall back and regroup, rather than continue the advance on Berlin. Today, we will see how Rennenkampf will attempt to salvage the disastrous Russian situation on the Eastern Front, while Hindenburg and Ludendorff attempt to drive the Russians out of German territory permanently.

         To start today, let’s talk about something I very briefly mentioned two episodes back, when we were setting the stage for the Battle of Tannenberg. As we know, on August 23 General von Hindenburg was roused from his retirement and appointed the commander of the German Eight Army on the Eastern Front, and General Ludendorff had been promoted to be Hindenburg’s Chief of Staff. The hope was that these two men, far more competent than the original commander of this Army, the hapless General von Prittwitz, would be able to reverse the German Eighth Army’s retreat and defeat the two Russian Armies in the area. Clearly, this decision had paid off, probably more than German Commander-in-Chief General Helmuth von Moltke dared to hope, with one of those two Russian Armies completely destroyed and the other one falling back in panic.

But this change in leadership was not enough to soothe Moltke’s concerns about the situation on the Eastern Front. Remember, when Moltke had appointed Hindenburg and Ludendorff to take command over the Eastern Front, the German Eighth Army was composed of but 150,000 men, while the two Russian Armies in the area had a combined strength of fully half a million. At the same time, things on the Western Front appeared to be going just swimmingly for the Germans. The British and French Armies had been soundly defeated in all of the major battles there thus far, with the French in particular having suffered appalling levels of casualties in just a few weeks, and the Germans were thus able to advance across the entire front virtually unopposed, and by the end of August were within spitting distance of Paris. So on August 26, the day that the Battle of Tannenberg began in earnest, Moltke ordered two infantry Corps and one cavalry division be detached from the armies on the Western Front and sent by rail east to reinforce Hindenburg and Ludendorff. (Quick correction here, when I mentioned that detail two episodes back I said that Moltke sent three Corps east, which was his original plan, but in fact he eventually decided that two Corps would be sufficient to reinforce the Eastern Front. Sorry about that).

When that day, August 26, Moltke telephoned Ludendorff at Marienburg informing him of the reinforcements being sent to him, Ludendorff was appalled. Remember, the majority of Ludendorff’s military career up until that point was as a senior member of the Army’s General Staff. It was his job to draw up and organize the minute details of the Schlieffen Plan, a plan that he ascribed to wholeheartedly. In his memoirs published after the war, Ludendorff went so far as to refer to Alfred von Schlieffen, the man for whom this war plan was named, as quote, “one of the greatest soldiers who ever lived.” And so not only was Ludendorff an expert on how this plan was to be carried out, but he endorsed its overall outlook and the details on how it would work on a day by day basis. Indeed, many of those details had been devised by Ludendorff himself.

The fundamental assumption of the Schlieffen Plan, throughout all its various revisions from its adoption in 1905 to its implementation in 1914, was that the Armies of France and (if necessary) Britain must be defeated on the Western Front as quickly as possible. That the German forces on the Eastern Front need only hold off the Russians, in concert with their ally to the south Austria-Hungary (whose campaigns at this time I promise I will cover later), for as long as possible while the war in the west was won. It was therefore imperative that as many German units as possible be thrown against France and Britain to ensure victory there, and only sending forces East once that victory had been secured or, at least, mostly secured. Though the campaigns on the Western Front were going well for the Germans at this point, the war was far from won, and the Armies their needed as many men as could be spared to leave nothing to chance. Sending so many forces from the Western Front to the Eastern Front, something on the order of 100,000 men, could very well prove fatal to the German plan to take Paris and crush the French once and for all.

This situation is actually fairly remarkable and unusual in military history. Though I’m obviously speaking broadly here, but Generals leading troops on the ground generally aren’t opposed to receiving reinforcements, and in fact often complain about not receiving as many soldiers as they would like from the government. And it’s also worth keeping in mind that when Ludendorff found out about these reinforcements being sent his way, and furiously insisted that they should not be sent, the Battle of Tannenberg had not yet begun in earnest. His and Hindenburg’s fantastic victory there had not yet been achieved, and they were both still quite nervous about their ability to pull this thing off. But Ludendorff in particular was looking at the big picture here; none of his work with Ludendorff in trying to halt the Russian advance would matter if the war could not be won in the west as quickly as possible. Not that Germany was in any danger of being completely conquered by France and Britain in the near future, rather the danger was in the momentum of the German advance grinding to a halt, with both sides digging into to initiate a long-term war of attrition. That was a war that would be extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible to win, for Germany.

So when Ludendorff received this call informing him that he was to receive two Corps from the Western Front to reinforce the Eighth Army, he strenuously objected. According to Lt. Colonel Max Hoffmann, Chief of Operations and serving essentially as the head intelligence officer of the Eighth Army, Ludendorff replied to news of his being reinforced by saying that these forces were not needed, and that if this redeployment should in any way weaken the offensive on the Western Front, to please not send them. His apprehension was made all the worse by the fact that the units being sent his way were mostly being pulled from the right wing of the German armies on the Western Front, that is those forces attacking through Belgium to hit the French and British left flank, which was by far the most important aspect of the Schlieffen plan. Yet Ludendorff was assured that the troops could be spared and would not be needed to finish off France and Britain. Ludendorff would, of course, ultimately be proven correct.

Quick aside about Hoffmann, the officer who was so instrumental in helping Hindenburg and Ludendorff draw up the battle plans for Tannenberg and who related the above story. Ostensibly, Hoffmann’s job pretty much began and ended with organizing and disseminating orders to the various units of the Eighth Army, as well as having assumed the responsibility of analyzing all of the intelligence acquired from the Russians. But he ended up playing a much larger leading role in the formation and execution of strategy than his relatively low rank, Lt. Colonel, would imply. As I touched on last week, Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s whole strategy to move the Eighth Army south in an effort to encircle and destroy the Russian Second Army, a strategy that worked flawlessly, could never have come to fruition without the intelligence acquired and analysis provided by Hoffmann, and during the next few months he would regularly sit in on and have input over meetings of the Generals to develop Germany’s strategy for fighting Russia. Also, Hoffmann would later display a great deal of resentment for what he believed was Hindenburg and Ludendorff getting all the credit for the victory at Tannenberg, when he believed much if not most of the credit rightfully belonged to him. Later, as the war in the East began to wind down, he would often give tours of the battlefield of Tannenberg to functionaries and other VIPs. During these tours he would take the groups to different locations and say, quote, “This is where the Field Marshall slept before the battle; here is where he slept after the battle; here is where he slept during the battle.”

Anyway, though Ludendorff and Hoffmann were uncomfortable with the fact that they were receiving so many reinforcements from the Armies on the Western Front, especially since their prediction that these forces would not arrive in time to participate in the Battle of Tannenberg had proved correct, these reinforcements would be of assistance in the coming attack against Rennenkampf’s First Army. Although, as an interesting side-note, having gone through Hindenburg’s memoirs, when discussing this aspect of the campaign he does not really criticize this decision to send him reinforcements, and rather merely comments on his apprehension about launching an attack against Rennenkampf at all. Whether this is evidence of Hindenburg’s less dogmatic perspective on the virtues of the Schlieffen Plan, or a simple omission due to either forgetfulness or a desire not to criticize the German high command, I cannot say.

The reinforcements sent East to Hindenburg and Ludendorff had mostly arrived and were ready to advance and fight by about September 1, 1914. As these reinforcements were disembarking from their troop trains, the rest of the German Eighth Army was completing the job of mopping up what resistance was left from the mostly destroyed Russian Second Army, and had begun to shift their lines north and east for a move against Rennenkampf. For his part, Rennenkampf was horrified and not a little bit panicked when he learned of disaster at Tannenberg, and made preparations not for a further advance on Berlin but rather to fall back and set up a formidable defensive position. Specifically, he deployed his troops in a line of about 180 kilometers or 110 miles in length, stretching from the port city of Königsberg in the north to the town of Lyck in the south. The northern end of this line forming Rennenkampf’s right wing was bounded by the Baltic Sea, while southern end forming his left wing was bounded by a series of more than 2,000 lakes known as the Masurian Lakes. This region made up a core part of that dense series of impenetrable marshlands that separated the Russian First and Second Armies from one another from the beginning of the campaign. Once deciding on this defensive line at which he would deploy his Army, Rennenkampf ordered his soldiers to begin digging in trenches and other defensive works to strengthen this position as much as possible before he was attacked by the Germans. So, already, Rennenkampf is constructing a far more formidable obstacle for Hindenburg and Ludendorff to break through, as at Tannenberg the Germans had the luxury of surrounding and destroying scattered Russian units at their leisure, before Samsonov had even realized what was happening. Hindenburg and Ludendorff would be given no such easy advantages here. However, given the fact that they had received reinforcements that increased the manpower of the Eighth Army by something like 40%, Hindenburg and Ludendorff would for the first time have the advantage of slightly outnumbering the Russians.

What has become known as the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes (which yeah, spoiler alert, there’s going to be another one), began with several opening skirmishes on September 3rd and 4th, as, German units began to probe the Russian defenses. Of course, “skirmish” is a relative term, and in fact these actions involved entire divisions, with combined forces in the tens of thousands, launching attacks on entrenched Russian positions manned by infantry with machine gun and light artillery support. But compared to the true opening of battle a few days later, with perhaps as many as 350,000 to 400,000 soldiers combined fighting one another to the death, brief battles costing a few hundred casualties a piece look like skirmishes in comparison.

Anyway, with Rennenkampf having clearly decided to maintain a defensive position and hold onto what he had already conquered in East Prussia, Hindenburg and Ludendorff came up with a strategy that involved dividing up their Eighth Army into three distinct parts. The first force, composed of the Guards Reserve Corps, First Reserve Corps, XI Corps and XX Corps, would launch a frontal attack on the right wing of the Russian Army, guarding the vital city of Königsberg on the Baltic Sea. As this was the strongest part of the Russian line, it would require the greatest part of the German Army to have any hopes of breaking through, though really the plan was mostly just to keep the large number of Russian forces here engaged so that they could not move to reinforce other areas of the front. The second part of the German Army, composed of the XVII Corps, would attack the center of the Russian line, using the town of Lötzen as the base from which to launch this attack. The real key to this strategy was the third part of the German Army, composed of General von François’ I Corps aided by a separate division peeled off from another Corps, launching an attack to the south at the Russian left wing at the town of Lyck, which was itself surrounded by many of the lakes which made up the Masurian Lakes region. As always, maps are attached to this week’s episode to get a better sense of this.

Now this strategy, while not exactly the most inventive or creative in the world, makes perfect sense. Not only was the left wing of the Russian Army the weakest part of the line, but it was guarded only by the marshlands of the Masurian Lakes, which though obviously a significant obstacle to marching troops through, was far less of an obstacle than the Baltic Sea which guarded the Russian right flank which, you know, obviously can’t be traversed by ground troops no matter how hard you try. Further, launching the largest part of the attack on the Russian right wing is a smart way of making sure that the Russian forces there remain engaged and unable to redeploy their troops while the Germans tried to turn the Russian left flank, hopefully rolling up their entire line and perhaps even destroying the entire Army.

The one aspect of this plan that I find particularly interesting is the fact that the most important part of this plan, the attack on the Russian left flank on the south of the battle line, was left to General von François. I know it’s probably hard to keep all these names straight in your heads, but as a refresher François was the guy who initiated the attack at the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20 against direct orders from General von Prittwitz, and then disobeyed direct orders from Hindenburg and Ludendorff during the Battle of Tannenberg, choosing to march due east to cut off the Russian line of retreat rather than northeast to assist with a floundering attack on the Russian center. Not only is it surprising to me that Hindenburg and Ludendorff trusted François with this all-important job of trying to turn and destroy the Russian left flank, it’s kind of surprising to me that he hasn’t even been removed from command yet due to flagrant and overt insubordination.

This is just speculation on my part, but my guess for why François wasn’t fired, and was indeed given the most important job of the battle, is that despite his obvious disinclination to being told what to do, he had proven to be by far the most aggressive and, arguably, most successful German Corps commanders on the entire Eastern Front so far. Plus, in both of the two major engagements he had played a role in up until this point, François displayed an impressive ability to consistently turn the flanks of his opponents, and so in that context I think it makes more sense why Hindenburg and Ludendorff tasked him with turning the Russian left flank at the Masurian Lakes.

One last thing I’ll mention before getting back to the narrative, but for the rest of the episode there are going to be a lot of Polish words, both place names and the names of people, that will come up. As I’ve said before, I am going to do my damndest to pronounce these words as best I can, but as I do not speak a lick of Polish I am very likely going to mangle this beautiful language. I hope I can at least get halfway close to the mark, and that any Polish speakers out there excuse my mispronunciation of their language. I mean no offense, I am simply an Anglophone American for whom foreign langauges are very difficult to grasp.

Anyway, as mentioned before the first engagements of the Battle of the Masurian Lakes began on September 3rd, when the German XX Corps under General von Scholtz attacked the town of Mlawa (Muwava), successfully driving the Russian forces there out of the town and capturing it the next day. Meanwhile on the northern part of the front, fully four German Corps began a frontal assault on the Russian Corps opposing them, with the really serious fighting beginning around September 6. In marked contrast to the smashing and relatively easy success the Germans had at Tannenberg, where for the most part they had been able to launch surprise attacks against isolated Russian units ill-prepared for such attacks, in the opening days of this battle the Russians had managed to dig in strong defensive positions which allowed them to pour heavy doses of rifle and machine gun fire upon their German attackers. Indeed on the northern part of the front the Russian III and IV Corps not only fend off their German attackers, but even managed to launch counter attacks that drove the Germans back several miles. An interesting point to note on this engagement on the far north of the battle, was that the Russians had forewarning of this attack after having intercepted German radio messages that had been sent uncoded, a mistake that the Russians had routinely made and which the Germans had taken advantage of.

There is a great quote from a Russian divisional commander, Vasily Gurko, that sums up the differences between the German and Russian Armies in this early stage of the war. Quote, “[The Germans] showed a certain impetuosity, and one could notice the personal initiative, not only of the smaller units, but even of small bodies of infantry, even when they were without officers. On the other hand, in defensive open fighting they did not distinguish themselves by any extraordinary tenacity of purpose, and when they began to retire after a battle their power of resistance dwindled to vanishing point.”

As Rennenkampf’s attention was drawn to these heavy German attacks on his center and right wing, General von François led his I Corps to attack and hopefully turn the Russian left flank based out of the city of Johannisburg. François’ movements against the Russian southern flank were aided by the dense woods and numerous lakes strewn across the field, which though they often slowed down the Germans moving forward and forced units to disperse, it also hid their movements from Russian scouts, and so upon beginning his assault in earnest on September 7, his I Corps was able to take the town of Biala suffering only minimal casualties. This attack had also netted the Germans eight captured artillery pieces and several hundred prisoners. Upon interrogating these prisoners, it was discovered that most of the units the I Corps had engaged on that day were Finnish in origin. This was good information to have, though it was also potentially disconcerting as there had been no significant number of Finnish soldiers in Rennenkampf’s First Army when it had first crossed into Germany about 4 weeks prior. Which meant that the Russians were in the process of receiving at least some reinforcements, though exactly how many was unclear.

Nevertheless the next day, September 8, the I Corps continued its advance by moving on the town of Arys (modern day Orzysz [Orzhzh]). This was perhaps the ideal place for the Germans to launch an attack, and even more so for the particular unit selected to lead this attack, the 1st Infantry Division (which was a component part of François I Corps). You see, this unit was largely based out of East Prussia, and the region around Arys was frequently used by this unit as a place to train and practice maneuvers. So the soldiers of this division knew practically every tree, bush, hill, and stream by heart, and were able to easily maneuver around the town without being spotted by the Russian soldiers occupying the town itself. At this point, the German plan to turn the Russian left flank in the southern part of the battle had nearly come to fruition. When the German 1st Infantry Division had captured Biala on September 7, they had effectively maneuvered farther south than any other Russian force in the area. So their attack on Arys the next day was carried out by a march from south to north, a move that was coordinated by an attack by the 2nd Division attacking from the west. With this maneuver, the Russians in Arys were driven from the field in disarray having lost hundreds killed and wounded and more than a thousand taken prisoner. For all intents and purposes, the Russian left flank had been turned, and François’ I Corps was ready to begin a push north to roll up the entire Russian First Army.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff had, in executing this plan, shown an adept ability to dictate the rhythm of the battle, despite the fact that many of their attacks had been driven back in disarray by a strong Russian defense, particularly on the northern sector of the front. By committing the bulk of their forces in a frontal assault on that northern part of the Russian line, right next to the port city of Königsberg, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been able to draw Rennenkampf’s attention there, assuming that this must be where the Germans were planning to break through his lines. However, while this was going on General von François had been able to deftly surround and then drive off what few Russian forces had been stationed on the southern part of their line near the Masurian Lakes. Rennenkampf probably had no idea that his entire left flank was now all but driven on the field, and he was in real danger of having his whole army rolled up from south to north.

That said, by the end of September 9 Rennenkampf had become aware of the incredible danger his army suddenly found himself in. On that day, Rennenkampf had ordered one of his cavalry divisions to head south towards the town of Grodno to join a new force that was assembling. You see, while this Battle of the Masurian Lakes was slowly unfolding, the Russian high command had begun to cobble together an entire new Army, known as the tenth. By reorganizing what little remained of the destroyed Second Army joined by reinforcements from Finland and Siberia, the Russians were building a force that would hopefully be able to replace the Second Army and assist in the invasion of Germany. That said, this new Tenth Army was still in the process of being formed and was in no position to help Rennenkampf in the first week of September. Rennenkampf hoped that by sending one of his cavalry divisions south to bolster this new force, they would be able to form up and come to his aid sooner. But this cavalry division was forced to launch a hasty attack on François’ German I Corps when they realized that this German force had driven off the scant Russian units on the southern end of the battle, and were preparing to flank and perhaps completely cut off Rennenkampf’s entire army.

So now the German plan to destroy the Russian First Army by rolling up its left flank had been revealed, however its progress was barely slowed down at all. François was able to hold off this lone Russian cavalry division with a small screen of cavalry and light infantry, while the bulk of his forces turned to march north on the now totally exposed Russian left flank. Rennenkampf sent frantic orders that his reserves should be sent south to block this move, as well as urgent requests that the Tenth Army forming up south of the Masurian Lakes come to his rescue at once. However he was confronted with the cold reality of the situation that his reserves would need at least two days to march south and try to halt François’ I Corps, and the Tenth Army was nowhere near finished assembling and was in no position to join the battle. So on the evening of September 9, Rennenkampf dejectedly ordered his entire Army to fall back and regroup at a new line some 40 to 50 miles (or 65-80 kilometers) east. The first phase of the Battle of the Masurian Lakes had drawn to a close, and though neither side had been shattered, the Germans emerged as the clear victors.

Now the very fact that the retreat of the Russian First Army, beginning in earnest the next morning of September 10, did not mark the end of the entire battle but rather merely the end of its first distinct phase, was the result of somewhat confused orders coming out of Eighth Army General Headquarters spurred on by a sudden Russian counter-attack. You see, when Hindenburg and Ludendorff learned that the Russians were falling back to the east, they sent orders to General von François that he should race north and east to try to cut off the Russian retreat, which would hopefully result in some or all of their forces being surrounded. However as those orders were going out, a report arrived stating that the Russian IV Corps had launched a surprise attack on the German center, knocking the forces holding that part of the line back on their heels after suffering significant casualties. Hindenburg thus immediately sent orders to François that he should march due north to relieve the forces being driven back in the German center. For once, François decided that he would actually follow orders and duly turned his men around, however as it turned out the reports of a massive Russian counterattack, while not untrue, were somewhat exaggerated. Though the Russian IV had indeed launched a counterattack upon the German XI Corps, however this attack had been called off almost as soon as it had begun, and the Russian IV Corps had soon enough joined the retreat of the rest of the Russian Army. Ludendorff then immediately sent orders to François that he should resume his attempt to cut off the Russian line of retreat. However all of these contradictory orders, sending François’ I Corps this way, then that, then back the original direction, had cost them invaluable time to catch up to the retreating Russians. By September 12, the Russian First Army had managed to turn around and set up along the new defensive line outlined by Rennenkampf, approximately 40 miles east of the original Russian position.

Despite not having been able to completely surround and destroy Rennenkampf’s First Army, as they had been able to do with Samsonov’s Second, the German attacks at the Masurian Lakes had been well coordinated and largely successful. Rennenkampf’s First Army was still intact, but it had taken heavy casualties, lost a great deal of its supplies, artillery, and machine guns, and on the whole was severely demoralized and disorganized. Indeed, though the battle would rage on for the next few days as the German Eighth Army continued to launch attacks upon the Russian First Army, at this point all Rennenkampf could hope for was to delay the German advance to give his own army enough time to retreat from German territory entirely. For all intents and purposes, the Germans had won the battle, all that was left to be decided was whether or not Rennenkampf could extract what was left of his Army in one piece.

In a similar dynamic to the last few days of the Battle of Tannenberg, the last few days of the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes were mostly defined by German units pushing on scattered and disorganized Russian units, taking prisoners by the thousands. General von François’ I Corps on the southern end of the front managed to push the farthest out of any German unit, ultimately reaching the town of Wyłkowyszki (Viwkoviski) some ten miles on the Russian side of the border. As François later recorded, quote, “According to the local population, the great retreat began during the night of 9-10 September. In Stallupönen, the Russian columns were at first in good order, but after the rush of men from the south, chaos broke out. The main road was no longer sufficient for the masses. Everyone pressed on, foot soldiers, riders, and columns of wagons rolling along and beside the road to Wyłkowyszki (Viwkoviski) in disorderd crowds. The local clergy in Wyłkowyszki (Viwkoviski) explained that crowds had moved through the town for three days and nights, hungry and exhausted, without discipline. The road was a picture of the wildest flight. Where small streams crossed the field next to the road, there were hundreds of stranded vehicles, some plundered, others still loaded. Food, munitions, aircraft, medical supplies, weapons, and baggage of all kinds in huge quantities littered the field.”

         In this description of thousands of starving and exhausted Russian soldiers fleeing in utter panic from the German advance, it is worth noting that the civilians in the area were also forced to flee alongside the Russian soldiers, carrying what food and supplies they could. An interesting account capturing this flight of civilians was provided by a woman named Laura de Gozdawa Turczynowicz (Gozdava Turchinoveech). Born in Canada with the name Laura Blackwell, she had married an ethnically Polish functionary in the town of Suwalki, a Polish town inside the Russian Empire. When the war broke out, Turczynowicz (Turchinoveech) volunteered as a nurse where she briefly treated wounded Russian soldiers as well as wounded German POWs, until around September 10 the trickle of wounded soldiers that had been slowly arriving in Suwalki suddenly became a torrent of thousands, not just wounded soldiers brought in ambulance carts but whole regiments fleeing in panic from the German attacks at the Masurian Lakes. Realizing that the German Army would soon be marching through Suwalki, which lay just a few miles from the German border, Turczynowicz (Turchinoveech) bundled up her three children and fled to the local train station desperately hoping to escape east, unsure of the fate of her husband who was then in Warsaw. Now letting Turczynowicz (Turchinoveech) tell her own story, quote, “We found our train---a cattle train, with evidences of its former occupants! There were already a few wounded, but we managed, with the aid of an old coat and a pail of water, to make one car more habitable…Presently the wounded came---many of them not bandaged and thirty-two of the especially bad cases, were allotted to my car. One, who had lost his hand, had no covering on the raw stump. He had just been prepared for the doctor when all were turned out of the hospital. These poor fellows took my mind off my own troubles---the worst news they had was that the Germans had captured the railroad to Warsaw! A picture of my husband being caught flashed through my mind!

I found, of course, that I had no cotton or bandages---but I was able to get a small supply of such things from the Director. It was a pitiful picture which my little children saw---the poor man, who had lost his hand suffering agonies from the contact of the air with the raw flesh. How it hurt, and how patient the man was---the big tears just rolling down his cheeks! I couldn't keep the children away-there was no place to send them. It was sweet to see how they tried to comfort the big soldier, little Wanda drying his eyes, the boys holding his hand. It was a help to the man---if a sad one---he had children of his own somewhere. After doing what I could to bring a tiny bit of comfort into the circumstances, I wished to go to the other cars, but found that the doctors and nurses had arrived, and that it was not necessary, besides we were forbidden to leave the car. Three more people attached themselves to me, and we made room for them.”

         Laura Turczynowicz (Turchinoveech) would ultimately return to Suwalki, only to be captured by the Germans and forced to live in Germany for several months before being able to arrange passage to the United States for her and her children. Her account of the toll of the opening battles on the Eastern Front was soon published in the United States, which brought the stories of the suffering of the people there to an American audience. Used to stories of the hardships suffered by people on the Western Front, this account proved to be an invaluable source showing that the pain inflicted upon soldier and civilian alike was not confined to France and Belgium, but extended across all of Europe, soon to spread to much of the rest of the world.

         By about September 13, the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes had come to a close as Rennenkampf led what remained of his Army back across the border into Russia. Of course this was not the end of the fighting in the autumn of 1914 on the Eastern Front, not by a longshot, and in fact the German Eighth Army would be forced to fight in numerous battles to the south in order to relieve their Austro-Hungarian allies, who had been mangled in several huge defeats while suffering atrocious casualties that they simply could not afford. But although the fighting on the Eastern Front was really just starting to heat up, the threat posed by a Russian Army invading Germany in an attempt to march on Berlin had, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated. General von Rennenkampf’s First Army had not been completely destroyed as had Samsonov’s Second Army during the Battle of Tannenberg, but had nonetheless been forced entirely out of German territory after losing a huge portion of his army, with much of the rest of it being all but scattered to the four winds. And while the Germans had emerged victorious, they too had lost a huge number of their soldiers during this vicious battle. The casualty totals for this First Battle of the Masurian Lakes are of course just estimates, but the generally agreed upon numbers are that Rennenkampf’s First Army had lost at least 100,000 men as battle casualties, perhaps significantly more, with about 70,000 of those being killed or wounded with another 30,000 or so being taken prisoner. Whatever credit Rennenkampf might be able to claim for having extracted at least some of his Army in one piece from total encirclement and destruction, the Russian high command had lost all faith in him, especially when it was revealed that soon after ordering a general retreat, Rennenkampf himself had fled the battlefield in a car to avoid being captured himself, rather than stay with the army to ensure its safe withdrawal. Meanwhile the German Eighth Army had suffered around 40,000 total casualties, the vast majority of those being killed and wounded with only a very small number having been taken prisoner.

         Again, the Germans had emerged victorious, and any lingering hopes that Russia might be able to knock Germany out of the war by taking the capital of Berlin had completely vanished. The Russians had lost most of their invasion force as casualties and been completely pushed out of Germany. Though the battle lines along the Eastern Front would shift back and forth over the next three years, the Russians would never again seriously threaten the German capital. The glorious reputations of Hindenburg and Ludendorff as the saviors of East Prussia had now come to full fruition, and they were now well on their way to becoming the most popular and accomplished generals in the entire German Army.

         Yet while the Germans had accomplished a great deal of success in the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, the situation on the Western Front, which had up until this point gone uniformly in the Germans favor, was about to turn wildly against them. As Hindenburg and Ludendorff began their offensive to drive Rennenkampf’s Russian First Army out of Germany at the beginning of September, the French and British on the Western Front would launch a desperate last ditch effort to halt the German march on Paris. Next week, we will see whether or not the allies on the Western Front can pull a rabbit out of their hat, and save France from total conquest by the German Army.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

  • Buttar, Pritt. Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914. Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2014.

  • Gozdawa Turczynowicz, Laura de. When the Prussians Came to Poland: The Experiences of an American Woman during the German Invasion. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1916.

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

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