10 things you (probably) didn't know about the bloody eastern front in 1914

The fighting that raged in the east during the First World War was just as fierce as that on the western front, but – according to historian Dr Prit Buttar – the battles between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany do not hold the same recognition. Now, Buttar is to redress this balance with his account of the chaos and destruction that ensued when the three powers collided

Russian troops in the battle of Tannenberg, 1914 (Mary Evans/SZ Photo/Scherl)
Russian troops in the battle of Tannenberg, 1914 (Mary Evans/SZ Photo/Scherl)

The first in a trilogy covering the entirety of the war in the east, Collision of Empires recalls the events of the first year of the war – from the battles of Tannenberg [an engagement between the Russian and German empires that resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Russian 2nd Army] and the Masurian Lakes in East Prussia [a German offensive that pushed the Russian 1st Army back across its entire front], to the vicious fighting in the Carpathian Mountains and Serbia.

The eastern front encompassed the entire frontier between the Russian Empire and Romania on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria and Germany on the other. It stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

Here, writing for History Extra, Buttar reveals 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the eastern front in 1914:

 

1) Casualties on the eastern front were every bit as heavy as on the western front

The Russian 2nd Army was destroyed before the end of the first month [August] at Tannenberg, with more than 100,000 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner. By the end of the year, the Austro-Hungarian forces had lost more than 1.2m men. No nation was prepared for casualties on this scale, resulting in huge numbers of wounded men being left days or weeks without any medical care.

 

2) Unlike the west, the war in the east was one of great movements

In the first five months alone, German troops marched from the eastern border to the outskirts of Warsaw and back on two occasions. One Polish exile later estimated that more than half of Poland had been devastated by the armies that moved back and forth across its terrain.

In Serbia, the invading Austro-Hungarian forces reached and captured Belgrade before being forced to retreat all the way to the border.

 

3) Fighting raged from the Baltic coast to the northern border of Romania, across hugely varied terrain

The hilly farmland of East Prussia and the more open, often swampy terrain of Lithuania saw extensive fighting in the north: in the centre, the great armies marched back and forth across the plains of Poland, first in the heat of late summer, then in driving rain and through roads that turned to mud in the autumn, and finally through deep snow during the fighting around Łódź in the winter.

In the south, there was heavy fighting in the passes of the Carpathian Mountains as the Russians attempted to force their way onto the Great Hungarian Plain.

 

4) Railway lines played a critical role, and no army was able to operate far from its railheads [where military supplies were unloaded]

The Germans exploited this by devastating railways across Poland when they withdrew to the border in autumn 1914, calculating that the Russians would be forced to halt once they had marched more than 120km from their railheads.

Matters were compounded by the different railway gauge used by the Russians, forcing railway lines to be laboriously re-pinned when territory changed hands. The huge consumption of ammunition, particularly by artillery, placed additional burdens on overstrained logistic services. The Russians had deliberately left the roads and railways of Russian-occupied Poland in a comparatively poor state, fearing that the Germans might exploit them in a war. Ultimately, the Russians themselves found their army hamstrung by these deficiencies.

 

5) The armies of the Austro-Hungarian empire were deeply committed to the doctrine of offensive operations, and repeatedly launched attack after attack on the Russians, even when it was clear that defensive firepower had huge advantages

The Austro-Hungarian chief of general staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, was hugely influential, having written many of the army's operating manuals. He believed in the necessity of attacking the enemy as long as it was physically possible, and persistently treated his armies as if they were fresh and at full strength, making no allowances for fatigue, casualties or difficult terrain.

The officers of his army were deeply imbued with his doctrines, and even after the disasters of 1914 many still wrote in their memoirs that their superior's doctrine was correct, and that the troops and junior officers had lacked the necessary will to carry it out.

Destroyed Russian ammunition at the battle of Tannenberg, 1914 (INTERFOTO/Alamy)

 

6) Despite its huge size and excellent artillery, the Russian army was greatly hindered by its inadequate logistic support, and its internal politics

Its officer corps was largely divided into two factions, who often behaved as if establishing their own faction's superiority was more important than fighting the enemy. On the one hand, the tsar [Nicholas II] was surrounded by an inner circle of conservative loyalists – many of them the descendants of Baltic German families – who had helped him suppress the 1905 revolution; on the other hand was the minister of war, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, who struggled to assert his own will upon the army.

Neither faction was in a dominant position, but one of the catastrophic consequences of the internal feud was that command was divided at almost every level. Rennenkampf, the commander of the Russian 1st Army, was a conservative, while his chief of staff was a Sukhomlinov ally, and the two men would only communicate in writing.

The commander of the neighbouring 2nd Army, Samsonov, was a Sukhomlinovite, while his chief of staff, Postovsky, was a conservative. Similar conflicts occurred throughout the army.

 

7) Although Hindenburg and Ludendorff claimed credit for the great German victory at Tannenberg, most of the important movement orders had already been written before they arrived to take command

Plus, the destruction of the Russian 2nd Army was largely due to errors made by the Russians and the stubborn refusal of some German generals to follow Ludendorff's orders.

Max Hoffmann, a staff officer in the German 8th Army, later claimed credit for penning the critical orders, though it is likely that he did so in response to instructions from his superiors.

Hermann von Francois, who commanded the southern wing of the German forces at Tannenberg, repeatedly delayed his attack until his I Corps was fully assembled, to the clear exasperation of Ludendorff. As a result the Russians moved ever further north, and when he did attack, the bulk of the Russian 2nd Army was too far north to respond in time.

 

8) Elsewhere in eastern Europe, the Austro-Hungarian empire attempted to crush Serbia

The first invasion ended in a humiliating retreat within weeks, and the second eventually reached and captured Belgrade before it too was turned back. To make matters worse, the first invasion was carried out across the Drina Valley – probably the most difficult invasion route imaginable.

After the Austro-Hungarian commander, Oskar Potiorek, was forced into a humiliating withdrawal, he reorganised his forces and attacked again across precisely the same terrain. His army suffered appalling losses as it struggled through the mountains and forests to the east of the Drina, before finally being defeated south of Belgrade in the early winter.

Much of northern Serbia was devastated in the fighting, resulting in widespread disease outbreaks in the winter, killing tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. The Serbs were left triumphant, but utterly exhausted.

 

9) Despite all sides believing fervently in the importance of offensive operations, huge sums of money were spent on 'fortresses'

The Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemyśl was encircled by the Russians in September, and although the siege was briefly lifted in the autumn, it was besieged again within weeks.

Attempts by the Austro-Hungarian forces to lift the siege during early 1915 would cost the lives of more than 700,000 men – many times the number of troops besieged in the city. The Russians, too, spent lavishly on a chain of huge fortresses, from Kaunas in the north to Ivangorod on the Vistula. These were intended to hold up a German invasion, and were stockpiled with fixed artillery and military supplies of all kinds.

The ammunition held in the fortresses was a very large proportion of the overall Russian stockpile, at a time when the field armies were desperate for shells for their artillery. Although there was some fighting around the Russian fortresses, particularly in 1915, only one – at Osowiec – was able to repel repeated attacks.

Even this owed more to the marshy terrain that prevented the Germans from deploying heavy artillery than to the defences of the fortress.

 

10) As on the western front, there was a general belief among the combatants in the east that the war would be over by Christmas

Instead, by the end of the year, perhaps two million men had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. In addition, despite the huge movements, the gains and losses of territory were relatively modest: the Russians had occupied most of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, and were threatening to invade Hungary across the Carpathians. They also controlled the eastern parts of East Prussia.

The Germans had occupied the western parts of Russian Poland. The intention of the Russians had been to crush the Germans by sheer weight of numbers, but even when the fabled 'Russian steamroller' began to move in October 1914, it rapidly ground to a halt as the retreating Germans devastated the Polish countryside and left it almost impossible for the Russians to bring forward supplies.

To find out more about Collision of Empires, click here.

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