The Opening Months of World War I in the East and Elsewhere

The opening months of World War I on the Eastern Front did not proceed at as the German General Staff thought they would.  When General Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1912) was drawing up the German war plan that would subsequently bear his name, he made several assumptions about the Russian army that would prove to be false.

The most glaring incorrect assumption was the Germans estimate of the time it would take the Russian army to take the offensive.  The German General Staff assumed it would the take the Russians at least forty days to complete mobilization and begin their offensive.  This was the amount of time they had to beat France and transfer troops east to confront the Russians.  The Germans did not expect what happened, which was the Russians to go on the offensive in East Prussia with their mobilization only partly complete.

The German army had only left one field army totaling four Corps and one cavalry division in East Prussia to defend the traditional homeland of the German officer corps while the bulk of the army invaded France.  The German Eighth Army commander General Max von Prittwitz had never commanded men in combat before and it was unknown how he would react.  The Russians, for their part, had assembled two field armies, First and Second, consisting of nine Corps with seven cavalry divisions for their invasion of East Prussia.[1] The Russian commanders Samsonov and Rennenkampf were both veterans of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War.

Terrain in East Prussia favored the German defenders.  The region near the Russian border is separated into northern and southern sections by the Masurian lakes, which forced the Russians to advance in to columns separated by about fifty miles of inhospitable and broken terrain.  To add to the terrain difficulties the Russian advance was disjointed from the start of the offensive with the northern First Army about three days march ahead of the Second Army.

The Russians began their advance into East Prussia on 15 August but did not encounter significant resistance until they reached Gumbinnen inside East Prussia where they engaged the German I Corps in a stiff fight.  The Russian’s, who fought from previously prepared positions, held off the German assault, but suffered heavy casualties in doing so.  The Germans had the bulk of Eighth Army north of the lakes with only a weak covering force south of them.  Samsonov with Second Army continued his advance in the south, this combined with the apparent German defeat at Gumbinnen, and lack of forces to oppose the Russian advance caused the German commander, Prittwitz to suffer a crisis of confidence.  Prittwitz wired Moltke the chief of the Great General Staff on 22 August that he intended to retire to the line of the Vistula and mount his defense there.

On 22 August, Moltke relieved Prittwitz of command and appointed Paul von Hindenburg to command Eighth Army with General Erich Ludendorff, the hero of Liege to serve as his chief of staff.  They arrived in the east on August 24 and discovered that the Eighth Army was already making dispositions to shift south and envelop the Russian Second Army.  Moltke also shifted two Corps from the Western Front to the East to shore up the defenses of East Prussia but they arrived too late to affect the coming battle.

The German Eighth Army achieved the only true envelopment of World War I against the Russian Second Army, capturing some 90,000 Russian prisoners while Samsonov their commander committed suicide.  The envelopment of Second Army was complete on August 29 and the next day the Eighth Army began to shift north of the lakes to entrap the First Army as well.  Rennenkampf recognized the trap and narrowly escaped across the frontier where he went on the defensive.  The disastrous opening campaign had cost the Russians over 200,000 casualties in dead, wounded, and prisoners.

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, the Russians were doing better against the Austro-Hungarian Army.  The Austrian and Russian armies faced each other in Galicia where the Austrians delude themselves that they could go on the offensive.  The Austrians were outnumbered by the Russians almost two to one and faulty intelligence led them to attack in the wrong direction.  The Russians also began an advance intending a double envelopment of the Austrians.  What eventually happened was that the Austrian army collided with the right wing of the advancing Russian army and was forced to retreat into Galicia.  The Austrians narrowly escaped envelopment and regrouped before attempting another ill-conceived offensive and being defeated yet again.  After their first defeat, the Germans formed a new Ninth Army, which advanced into Russian Poland from Silesia to take some pressure off their Austrian allies.

Simultaneously with the offensives in Galicia, the Austrians invaded Serbia twice and were twice defeated.  The war had not started auspiciously for Austria-Hungary; she had been defeated on two fronts and only saved in Galicia with the intervention of German troops.  At the end of 1914, the Austrians had suffered 400,000 casualties and the great fortress of Premysl was besieged with 150,000 Austrian troops inside.[2]

As 1914 drew to a close, the allies had staved off defeat in both theaters but the fighting fronts had stabilized and a war of attrition had begun.  On the Western Front, the British and French had not given up hope of a breakthrough returning mobility to the battlefield.  In the east, the Russians had gained heart from their victories over Austria in the fall and winter but the Germans were continually getting stronger in the east and threatened a breakthrough in Poland.

On the Western Front, 1915 was to be a year of consolidation with limited offensives to maintain pressure on the Germans.  The British army was still in a building phase while they trained the New Armies for combat in France and elsewhere.  The British launched two main offensives during the year, the battle of Neuve-Chapelle and the Second Battle of Ypres both were failures.  In the fall, it was France’s turn to go on the offensive with attacks at Artois and Champagne as well as a British attack at Loos.

The Germans remained on the defensive in the west during 1915 as they sought a decision in the eats against Russia that would free up troops for a resumption of the offensive in the west.  They made limited attacks but only to secure local advantages.  The true story of strategy for the Germans was on the Eastern Front.

None of the Allied offensives in 1915 produced great gains and a decisive breakthrough was as elusive as ever.  The Allies had achieved none of their objectives in their offensives on the Western Front during the year but and suffered massive casualties while doing so.  At Loos alone the British lost 41,000 casualties in two weeks of fighting while the French suffered even worse in their Champagne Offensive, which opened the same day; by the end of October the French had lost almost 144,000 men as casualties.[3]

The British suffered their first naval defeat in one hundred years at the naval Battle of Coronel when several obsolete British battleships were defeated by the German South pacific Squadron under Admiral Graf von Spee.  The British, in reaction released two modern battlecruisers from the Home Fleet and destroyed the Germans at the battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914 after von Spee foolishly chose to attack the Falklands, unaware of the presence of the British fleet, which was refueling when the Germans appeared off Port Stanley.  While the allies were unsuccessful in breaking the stalemate in France, they did have success in other theaters in the first year of the war.

In Africa, the allies quickly overran all the German possessions except for German East Africa where the German commander Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck took to the jungle and waged a successful guerilla campaign against the British throughout the war.  The exception to allied overseas success was in the Middle East where the British and French engaged Turkey after their entry into the war at the end of October 1914.[4] The British rapidly invaded Mesopotamia in order to secure the supplies of oil required by their navy.  The Turks for their part attacked Russia along their shared border in the Caucasus and attempted to invade Egypt across the Suez Canal.  Both operations were unsuccessful the raid in Suez being a particular disaster with only one platoon managing to place their pontoons into the canal.  The invasion in the Caucasus bogged down into another stalemate similar to that on the Western Front.

All the belligerents had sought decision on the battlefield in 1915 and none had found it.  The casualties in all armies were horrendous numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and for all the blood spilled and effort expended the allies had very little to show.  They had gained a few thousand yards of territory on the Western Front and largely ejected Germany from the high seas and the continent of Africa.

The Allied strategy of 1915 was not completely futile but can perhaps best be seen as an expensive learning process in which the allied commanders tried to find methods of breaking the deadlock.  The French and British generals cannot be wholly blamed for failing to find a solution to the problems of trench warfare as its conditions were totally out of their experience.  The Allied leadership were good men in difficult times trying to do their best for their countries as they saw fit.  It remained to be seen whether the deadlock would be broken on the Western front in 1916, England would be approaching the fullness of her strength as the New Armies took the field in place of the Regulars and Territorials who fought the battles of 1915.


[1] Keegan, The First World War, p. 140

[2] Ibid. pp. 160-161

[3] Ibid. pp. 201-203

[4] Ibid. p. 191