The Battle of Tannenberg in World War 1
The Battle of Tannenberg was fought between Russia and Germany between 26 and 30 August 1914, the first month of World War I.
The battle resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Russian Second Army and the suicide of its commanding general, Alexander Samsonov.
A series of follow-up battles (First Masurian Lakes) destroyed most of the First Army as well and kept the Russians off balance until the spring of 1915.
The battle is particularly notable for fast rail movements by the Germans, enabling them to concentrate against each of the two Russian armies in turn, and also for the failure of the Russians to encode their radio messages.
It brought considerable prestige to Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his rising staff-officer Erich Ludendorff. Although the battle actually took place near Allenstein (Olsztyn), Hindenburg named it after Tannenberg, 30 km (19 mi) to the west, in order to avenge the defeat of the Teutonic Knights 500 years earlier at the Battle of Grunwald by Poland-Lithuania (which was also known as the Battle of Tannenberg in German).
Contents 1 Background 2 Prelude: 17–22 August 3 Battle 3.1 Consolidation of the German Eighth Army 3.2 Early phases of battle: 23–26 August 3.3 Main battle: 26–30 August 4 Aftermath 5 Post-war legacy 6 Footnotes 7 Further reading Background Germany entered World War I largely following the Schlieffen Plan.
Devised a decade earlier in response to concerns about fighting a two-front war with Russia and France, the Plan depended on differences in the speed with which the different nations could mobilize their armies for war.
The basic idea was for Germany to use its speed advantage to mobilize before the French could, invade and defeat France before it mobilized, and then turn the German army around, send it east, and defeat Russia, which was seen as being slower to mobilize than France. In short, Germany could deliver a devastating one-two punch before either of its adversaries was ready.
Put another way, the Plan depended on Russia’s slow entry into the war.
The French army’s Plan XVII at the outbreak of the war involved swift mobilization followed by an immediate attack to drive the Germans from Alsace and Lorraine. If the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) joined in accordance with their Allied treaty, they would fill the left flank.
Their Russian allies in the East would have a massive army, more than 95 divisions, but their mobilization would inevitably be slower.
Getting their men to the front would itself take time because of their relatively sparse and unreliable railway network (for example, three-quarters of the Russian railways were still single-tracked).
Russia intended to have 27 divisions at the front by day 15 and 52 by day 23, but it would take 60 days before 90 divisions were in action.
Despite their difficulties, the Russians promised the French that they would promptly engage the armies of Austria-Hungary in the south and on day 15 would invade German East Prussia.
East Prussia was a vulnerable salient thrust into Russian territory, extending from the Vistula River in the west to the border with (at the time, Russian) Lithuania in the east, a distance of roughly 190 km (120 mi).
On the north was the Baltic and on the south was the border with (at the time, Russian) Poland; it was about 130 km (81 mi) wide.
Somewhat east of the center of the province was the heavily fortified peninsula on which its capital Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad, Russia) was located. The Russians would rely on two of their three railways that ran up to the border; each would provision an army.
The railways ended at the border, as Russian trains operated on a different rail gauge from Western Europe. Consequently, its armies could be transported by rail only as far as the German border and could use Prussian railways only with captured locomotives and rolling stock.
The First Army would use the line that ran from Vilnius, Lithuania, to the border 136 km (85 mi) southeast of Königsberg.
The Second Army railway ran from Warsaw, Poland, to the border 165 km (103 mi) southwest of Königsberg. The two armies would take the Germans in a pincer.
The Russian supply chains would be ungainly because—for defense—on their side of the border there were only a few sandy tracks rather than proper macadamized roads.
Adding to their supply problems, the Russians deployed large numbers of cavalry and Cossacks; every day each horse needed ten times the resources that a man required.
The First Army commander was Gen.
Paul von Rennenkampf, who in the Russo-Japanese War had earned a reputation for “exceptional energy, determination, courage, and military capability.”
The Second Army, coming north from Warsaw, was under Gen. Alexander Samsonov, who was “… possessed of a brilliant mind, reinforced by an excellent military education”.
Since commanding a division in the war with Japan he had been governor of Turkestan.
The two armies were directed by the military governor of Warsaw, who in wartime commanded the Northwest Military District, Gen. Yakov Zhilinsky. His duties in Manchuria had been more diplomatic than military. Before moving to Warsaw he had been Chief of the Russian General Staff for two years.
He set up his headquarters in Volkovysk. (Vawkavysk, Belarus), about 410 km (250 mi) from Königsberg. Communications would be a daunting challenge.
The Russian supply of cable was insufficient to run telephone or telegraph connections from the rear; all they had was needed for field communications.
Therefore, they relied on mobile wireless stations, which would link Zhilinskiy to his two army commanders and with all corps commanders.
The Russians were aware that the Germans had broken their ciphers, but they continued to use them until war broke out. A new code was ready but they were still very short of the code books.
Zhilinskiy and Rennenkampf each had one; Samsonov did not.
Hence, many messages were sent in the clear, hoping that they would not be intercepted.
The German Schlieffen Plan proposed to defeat France swiftly while the Russians were mobilizing. Then Germany’s armies would shift by train to the Eastern Front. Therefore, East Prussia was garrisoned by a single army, the Eighth, commanded by Gen.
Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, which was to hold back the Russians while the outcome in the West was decided. A tangle of lakes, marshes and dense woods characterized the province, which would help defenders.
When the war began the bulk of the German Eighth Army was southwest of Königsberg, ready to defend either the Western or the Southern frontier: 485,000 Russians were facing 173,000 Germans. More than half of the men in both armies had just been mobilized, so many were not yet fighting fit.
Prelude: 17–22 August Rennenkampf’s First Army crossed the frontier on 17 August 1914, moving westward slowly. This was sooner than the Germans anticipated, because the Russian mobilization, including the Baltic and Warsaw districts, had begun secretly on 25 July, not with the Tsar’s proclamation on 30 July.
They were attacked at Stallupönen by a division of the German I Corps under Lt. Gen. Hermann von François. The Russians were driven back and lost 3,000 men as prisoners, but I Corps was ordered by Prittwitz, who had not authorized the attack, to pull back to Gumbinnen to concentrate his forces. The Russian advance continued on the afternoon of 18 August and on the following day.
Prittwitz attacked near Gumbinnen on 20 August, when he knew from intercepted wireless messages that Rennenkampf’s infantry was resting.
German I Corps was on their left, XVII Corps commanded by Lt. Gen.
August von Mackensen in the center and I Reserve Corps led by Gen. Otto von Below on the right. A night march enabled one of François’ divisions to hit the Russian XX Corps’ right flank at 04:00. Rennenkampf’s men rallied to stoutly resist the attack.
Their artillery was devastating until they ran out of ammunition, then the Russians retired. I Corps attacks were halted at 16:00 to rest men sapped by the torrid summer heat.
François was sure they could win the next day. On his left, Mackensen’s XVII Corps launched a vigorous frontal attack but the Russian infantry held firm. That afternoon the Russian heavy artillery struck back—the German infantry fled in panic, their artillery limbered up and joined the stampede. Prittwitz ordered I Corps and I Reserve Corps to break off the action and retreat also.
At noon he had telephoned Field Marshal von Moltke at OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung, Supreme Headquarters) to report that all was going well; that evening he telephoned again to report disaster.
His problems were compounded because an intercepted wireless message disclosed that the Russian II Army included five Corps and a cavalry division, and aerial scouts saw their columns marching across the frontier.
They were opposed by a single reinforced German Corps, the XX, commanded by Lt. Gen. Friedrich von Scholtz. Prittwitz excitedly but inconclusively and repeatedly discussed the dreadful news with Moltke that evening on the telephone, shouting back and forth.
At 20:23 Eighth Army telegraphed OHL that they would withdraw to West Prussia.
An old photograph of a man with a mustache in military uniform.
Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg However, by the next morning, 21 August, Eighth Army staff realized that because Samsonov’s II Army was closer to the Vistula crossings they must relocate most of their forces to join with XX Corps to block Samsonov before they could withdraw further.
Now Moltke was told that they would only retreat a short way; François protested directly to the Kaiser about his panicking superiors.
That evening Prittwitz reported that the German 1st Cavalry Division had disappeared.
His next call disclosed that they had ridden in with 500 prisoners. Probably Moltke had already decided to replace both Prittwitz and his highly regarded chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Alfred von Waldersee.
On the morning of 22 August their replacements, Col. Gen. Paul von Hindenburg and Maj. Gen. Erich Ludendorff was notified of their new assignments.
The Eighth Army issued orders to move toward Samsonov’s Second Army. I Corps was closest to the railway, so it would move by train to support the right of XX Corps, while the other two German corps would march the shorter distance to XX Corps’ left.
The First Cavalry Division with some older garrison troops would remain to screen Rennenkampf.
On the afternoon of 22 August, the head of the Eighth Army field railways was informed by telegraph that new commanders were coming by special train.
The telegram relieving their former commanders came later. I Corps was moving over more than 150 km (93 miles) of rail, day and night, one train every 30 minutes, with 25 minutes to unload instead of the customary hour or two.
After the battle at Gumbinnen, Rennenkampf decided to keep his First Army in position to resupply and to be in good positions if the Germans attacked again.
Both Russian armies were having serious supply problems; everything had to be carted up from the railheads because they could not use the East Prussian railway track, and many units were hampered by lack of field bakeries, ammunition carts, and the like.
The Second Army also was hampered by incompetent staff work and poor communications.
Poor staff work not only exacerbated supply problems but, more importantly, caused Samsonov during the fighting to lose operational control over all but the two corps in his immediate vicinity (XIII & XV Corps).