Most of the Russian generals did not learn much from their catastrophic defeats in the Russo-Japanese War [1904 CE – 1905 CE]. Their failure to do so became obvious to all in the opening weeks of World War I [August – September 1914].
Russia’s leaders had pledged to assist France with attacks on the Eastern Front to divert Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire should France request aid for its struggles on the Western Front.
French strategic and tactical shortcomings guaranteed such requests would come early and often: during the Battle of the Frontiers [August 14 – 24, 1914], Germany inflicted more casualties on the French in a single day than the French had suffered on any other day in French history. The Russian leadership honored their pledge to help France by attacking the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires repeatedly during the war, ever ready to sacrifice Russian blood to honor pre-war diplomatic agreements of dubious worth.
Invading Germany from Russia looked relatively straightforward in 1914. The two countries shared a long border on the southern and eastern sides of Prussia, since Poland was suffering one of its periodic disappearances from the map of Europe as World War I began.
The fact that the Russian invasion routes ran through geography used by Germany for summer military training maneuvers, and that the terrain was highly suited to defensive traps and ambushes, did not give the Russian command significant pause.
Even the notorious bad blood between the Russian generals Samsonov, heading up the invasion of Prussia from the south, and Rennenkampf, heading up the Russian invasion of Prussia from the east, was not held to be an insuperable problem. The two generals had come to blows at the railway station in Mukden [now Shenyang] during the Russo-Japanese war. The generals could not agree on how to help each other as the Japanese attacked the city.
Russian generals not supporting one another was not a problem limited to the opening campaign of WWI. The Russian General Brusilov, who had come up with effective tactics against entrenched troops by the summer of 1916, saw his offensive grind to a halt when Russian generals bordering his section of the front refused to reinforce his attack. They also declined to learn Brusilov’s techniques for success.
The Germans learned everything they could from Brusilov’s attacks, which were based on briefer but more carefully aimed artillery barrages than normally used, specially trained shock troops, and broad rather than deep breakthroughs. The broad breakthroughs did not leave bulges in the line surrounded by enemy territory: such bulges were vulnerable to encirclement and destruction by the defenders. The Allied troops on the Western Front soon had to deal with successful German infiltration units using Brusilov’s tactics.
Gross negligence and incompetence in Russian communications during the Tannenberg campaign ranged from use of trivial cyphers easily decoded by the Germans to codes that could not be understood by the Russian recipients of the messages. Most notorious were the uncrypted radio transmissions of Russian battle plans shortly prior to the main fighting.
The Russian strategy was to crush the German defenders between the Russian southern and eastern pincers, which between them had roughly twice as many men as the Germans.
The Germans, benefiting from the slow pace of the invading forces, interior lines of communication, radio intercepts, and intelligent use of railroads, withdrew most of the defending forces in the east in order to surround and annihilate the Russian army attacking from the south before returning north to chase Rennenkampf’s troops back across the border. The Germans suffered between 10,000 and 15,000 casualties. The Russians lost around 170,000 men, including about 78,000 killed or wounded, and 92,000 prisoners of war. The Czar’s forces also lost a huge amount of equipment and war materials, including hundreds of artillery pieces.
Samsonov’s suicide during the retreat of his shattered forces did not appreciably affect the battle. The Russians quickly built up another army to attack Prussia from the east.
It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the overwhelming German victory in the Tannenberg campaign owed more to Russian mismanagement than German military brilliance. Hindenburg and Ludendorff would doubtless disagree. This was, after all, the battle that brought them to prominence and made their later careers possible.
As a result of their victory in the Tannenberg campaign of 1914, the Germans learned that not even Russian bravery or sheer numbers could overcome the breathtaking incompetence of Russian leadership.
The Germans developed a contempt for the Russian military that was reinforced by the poor performance of Soviet forces in the Russo-Finnish War of 1939 – 1940. This contempt was a crucial factor leading to Germany’s overconfident overextension during the invasion of Russia in the Second World War, and ultimately to crushing defeat and occupation of Germany by the Allied Powers.
- Barbara Tuchman provides a useful and generally accurate overview of the outbreak of World War I in The Guns of August. Regarding the German intercept of Samsonov’s uncrypted radio transmission of Russian battle plans, she enthuses “No such boon had been granted a commander since a Greek traitor guided the Persians around the pass at Thermopylae.” Perhaps, but McClellan’s receipt of Lee’s detailed orders for the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia as it invaded Maryland in the American Civil War [September 1862] comes close [Special Order 191, also known as the Lost Order, or the Lost Dispatch]. McClellan mismanaged the Battle of Antietam despite having received details of Lee’s plans. McClellan simply could not coordinate his attacks. The victory he won at Antietam was far less complete than it should have been, though it did provide occasion for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 usefully summarizes the First World War in the East from its inception to the Russian Revolution.
- The Tannenberg campaign has been the subject of a number of monographs. John Sweetman’s Tannenberg 1914 provides a clear narrative, numerous maps, contemporary photographs and illustrations, and useful indices.