- James Houser
August 29, 1914 - The Battle of Tannenberg
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
August 29, 1914. In the swamps and forests of East Prussia, one of the decisive battles of World War I's opening month is coming to a close. The German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff have surrounded an entire Russian army, and by the next day will have totally destroyed it. The victory will be known as Tannenberg, one of the most important battles of the 20th Century – the clash and demise of two empires.
Today is another “Guns of August” post about the outbreak and first weeks of World War I. If you’ve been reading my posts more or less regularly, you know my screed. It’s August 1914, only a few days after the first declarations of war, and Germany has committed most of its military to a dramatic drive on Paris in what is called “The Schlieffen Plan.” The Schlieffen Plan allocated a staggering 90% of Germany’s war effort to knocking out France as quickly as possible, so that the army could pivot 180 degrees and come fight the Russians in the East. In at least three posts this month, we’ve talked about how exactly that plan worked out in Belgium and France, with the Germans experiencing countless delays but inflicting heavy loss on the Allied powers. Today, we’re going to see how it went in the East.
The German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm II was frankly terrified of Russia. The colossus of the east seemed to grow stronger every year, with new armies, new infrastructure, and more artillery under its belt. The German military was seriously concerned that if things went on like this, by 1920 Russia would be impossible to defeat. The entirety of the Schlieffen Plan, after all, counted on the Russians taking a long time to mobilize once war broke out; this was the critical window of time that allowed the German armies to defeat France before Russia fell on them like a brick wall. If Russia improved its infrastructure year after year, the Schlieffen Plan got tougher to pull off at the same rate. Some German generals actually advocated for war NOW while they could still win, since it might be impossible by 1920.
The war plans for 1914 pitted seven German field armies, numbered 1 to 7, for the attack on France, with almost 3 million men allocated for the attack. In contrast, the remaining army – 8th Army – would have only a twelfth of that number: 250,000 men to fend off whatever Russian attack took place while the rest of the German army defeated France as fast as possible. This was a tiny force, but it was a calculated risk to keep Germany from fighting a two-front war. As we know, of course, that dream would never come true. The 8th Army was under the command of General Maximilian von Prittwitz, an elderly, traditional officer.
Having spent every other post this month introducing a World War I army, it is now time for me to bring the Russians onto the board. For all the Germans feared the vast Russian horde, the Russian Army was a decidedly weak and outdated instrument, and this was mainly a product of its government and leadership. Whereas the Austro-Hungarian military was broken at every level, especially the morale of the common soldier, the Russian military actually benefited from relatively high morale (at first), a solid junior officer corps, and an excellent artillery arm. What it lacked was organization, supply, communications, and good leadership.
The Russian Army was rent by factionalism and politics, with various officers of different cliques who straight up refused to work together. The War Minister and the Chief of Staff despised each other, and Tsar Nicholas II was the worst kind of autocrat: an incompetent and hesitant one. Nobody imposed order on this corrupt and divided system, and this caused enormous problems in supply, coordination, command and control. The Battle of Tannenberg would not be lost because the Russian troops were not brave enough, their officers not taught enough, or their equipment modern enough. It would be the higher leadership that truly failed.
The Russians had not planned to attack Germany if war broke out; instead, they wanted to concentrate on the much weaker and more vulnerable Austria. Their smashing victory in August and September over the Austrians in Galicia would bear this out. However, France made a formal request that the Russians mount an attack on Germany to divert German resources from the inevitable attack on France. The Russians, therefore, planned an attack on the exposed German province of East Prussia as soon as war broke out. The 1st Army under General Pavel Rennenkampf would attack from the east (from Lithuania), while 2nd Army under General Alexander Samsonov would come up from the south (the region of Warsaw). Altogether, this force of 800,000 men would squeeze the German 8th Army like a pimple and destroy them.
There were, of course, problems with this plan. The first was that Rennenkampf and Samsonov were from different political factions within the army and utterly detested one another. Rumor had it that during the Russo-Japanese War they had gotten into a literal fistfight. Even worse, their Chiefs of Staff were each from the opposing faction, to the point that Rennenkampf refused to be in the same room as his primary staff officer. Finally, the broken Russian supply system, crippled by corruption and incompetence by supply officers, meant that the rapid Russian mobilization would leave the average Ivan barely clothed, barely fed, and barely armed on his way into Germany. The Russians had pushed their mobilization schedule to the limit – but in so doing, neglected supply.
To be fair, the Russians neglected supply almost as a rule before 1914. The wargames and general staff exercises before 1914 had deliberately excluded questions of logistics so as not to “embarrass” the old Russian generals, who still dreamed of glorious victories and saber charges. Having trained for years to assume that supply questions would handle themselves, the Russian generals would be lost at sea when those questions…did not handle themselves.
It was due to these supply questions, the lack of coordination, and the rushed planning of the operation that the great Russian invasion of East Prussia got off to such a shaky start. Within only 10 days after the declaration of war, Rennenkampf’s 1st Army came boiling over the eastern border, its Cossack cavalry divisions raiding German farming villages like something out of a medieval Mongol invasion. From the south, Samsonov’s 2nd Army began its much longer trek through the unimproved roads, dense forests, and quiet swamps of northern Poland, crossing the southern border of German-ruled Prussia on August 10.
Prittwitz’s Germans were surprised by the sudden onset of the Russian advance; they were confronted with not one but TWO Russian armies, each larger than their own, moving in from two different directions. Prittwitz seemed paralyzed, but one of his subordinates took the bit in his teeth and launched an aggressive attack on Rennenkampf’s northern attack at Stalluponen on August 17. This clash, minor by later standards, ended up being the first battle of World War I on the Eastern Front. With the 8th Army committed to fighting, Prittwitz went all in, and the German 8th and Russian 1st Armies collided in a head-on battle at Gumbinnen on August 20, 1914.
Gumbinnen can be called “first blood in the east,” for it was a shocking battle both sides that can be equated to the early clashes on the Borders or at Mons for the Germans, British, and French. Men attacked over open ground in the August heat to be blown apart by artillery and ravaged by machine guns. The Germans moved quicker, reacted faster, and fought more professionally, but the solid Russian soldiery and their expert artillery blasted the German attacks to pieces. By night on August 20, the Germans were retreating. The 8th Army had lost the first round.
The defeat at Gumbinnen sent shockwaves into the German high command, especially Prittwitz. Prittwitz telegraphed to Berlin that he was planning to retreat from East Prussia and abandon the province altogether, since he stood a good chance of being destroyed between the two Russian armies. This news hit Kaiser Wilhelm’s headquarters like a thunderbolt. This was the exact scenario they had feared: the Russian steamroller crashing into Germany while the vast, vast majority of the German Army was still tied up in the invasion of France. If the 8th Army was beaten, or even destroyed, there was not a single man between the Russians and Berlin. The high command could send troops, and they did send a number of units, but they would take too long to arrive – too long to affect the outcome of the battle. What was needed was not more men, but different men. And the Germans had a couple of men at hand.
A young staff officer named Erich Ludendorff, a harsh, energetic, brilliant soldier, had distinguished himself in the capture of Fortress Liege during the invasion of Belgium. The high command put him on a fast train to East Prussia. On the way he picked up his new commander, Prittwitz’s soon-to-be-replacement: the aged, solid, unshakeable General Paul von Hindenburg. It would be one of the most productive partnerships in military history, one Hindenburg would describe as a “happy marriage.” On that fast train to East Prussia, they began planning out how to save Germany from complete disaster.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived in East Prussia on August 22, and immediately the 8th Army came to life. With Hindenburg’s steady calm and Ludendorff’s maniacal energy, they set to work – not to retreat, but to counterattack. They adopted the plan of Colonel Max Hoffmann, Prittwitz’s operations officer, to pull off the great military maneuver that would bring victory at the Battle of Tannenberg.
The 8th Army would leave a miniscule force in front of Rennenkampf’s 1st Army to keep them occupied; meanwhile, the bulk of the German forces would march and/or hop on a railroad down south and defeat Samsonov’s 2nd Army, which had been slowly grinding north like a glacier of impending doom. This would require expert planning and coordination, with several divisions taking a train to block Samsonov’s path while other units marched southwest at top speed to slam into his flank. Divide and conquer was the word; hit and defeat one enemy before they can join and destroy you.
How were the Russians handling all this? Badly. Samsonov and Rennenkampf refused to communicate with each other, transmitting orders through a headquarters in the rear. The haste and lack of planning put into their mutual attack meant that the radios had no codes or security measures, which meant that all their orders were broadcast “in the clear” – that is, where any old person could tune in and hear what the Russian troops were doing. The undersupplied and underfed soldiers of Samsonov’s 2nd Army had been marching quickly for days in the humid August of swampy East Prussia, and were already at the limits of human endurance. Samsonov was under the impression that Rennenkampf had the Germans on the run. Rennenkampf, for his part, sat inexplicably on the battlefield at Gumbinnen, oblivious to the fact that almost the whole German force in his front was making tracks south to destroy his rival.
On August 26, Samsonov made contact with the Germans, and the great battle was joined. The Russian infantry collided with Prussian and Pomeranian grenadiers with their usual vigor, and soon hundreds of thousands of men were embroiled in day-long fights through the great pine forests, farming villages, and swampy lowlands of Prussia. As the Russians hammered at the Germans before them, Samsonov gave contradictory and confusing orders, even as Hindenburg and Ludendorff were pulling the noose tight around him. The key difference in this battle was that the German commanders always knew where and what their units were doing – and Samsonov didn’t. There have been whole books written on the set of events over the next few days, so I won’t trouble you with them here. By August 28, though, two German corps linked up behind the Russian lines, and the 2nd Army was encircled.
On August 29, 1914, the Germans began to lance the boil. The 2nd Army, almost 300,000 men, began to make their mad dash for freedom and the border they had so recently crossed. Through the night, fire from burning villages lit their way as German infantry in their spiked hats drove the fleeing Russians into the swamps. Many Russians surrendered en masse, but just as many fought to the death or drowned in the great bogs. Samsonov himself and a small group of officers tried to escape, first on horseback, then on foot over the marshy wetlands. Samsonov lamented, “The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” Slipping away from his party, the 2nd Army commander shot himself on August 30. His body was found by the Germans and returned to Russia via the Red Cross in 1916.
Hindenburg officially named the victory the Battle of Tannenberg, even though it was not very close to that town, as a symbolic gesture; the 1410 Battle of Tannenberg had seen the German Teutonic Knights defeated by the Poles. The Battle of Tannenberg, though, is how it is known today. Within a week, the German 8th Army had wheeled back north to face Rennenkampf, and in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes sent the Russian 1st Army scurrying back over the border – though they failed to inflict on it the catastrophe they had dealt to the 2nd. All that mattered, though, was that the Russians had been expelled from German soil.
The Battle of Tannenberg immediately sent the German people into celebration, and soon assumed a borderline mythical status. It was perceived as a brilliant military victory, a battle of encirclement of the type that Hannibal had pulled off at Cannae. Hindenburg and Ludendorff achieved the status of military heroes for saving Germany from the terrifying invader, and their triumph was the only real bright spot for Germany in the conga line of disappointment that was the beginning of World War I. It was the only really decisive battle of World War I period, too, the only great victory won through traditional German maneuver rather than dull, lifeless attrition. After the war, German officers would point to Tannenberg as their ideal battle. The Western Front was an anomaly; Tannenberg, now, THAT was real war! The German army would look at war through the lens of Tannenberg well into the age of World War II: brilliant German generals triumphing over stupid Russian hordes. It wouldn’t work out so well in 1941.
Tannenberg imprinted the Germans so completely that it came to dominate the political scene. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were not just Germany’s military future but its political future. They would become virtual military dictators of Germany after 1916, with Ludendorff in particular running the war from that point on; Ludendorff would also back the rising fascist movement in the 1920s. Hindenburg, as President of Germany in the late 20s and early 30s, would allow Hitler to rise to power and appoint him Chancellor. It was Hitler who gave Hindenburg’s funeral eulogy in 1937, as the great general was interred in the nearly Pharaoh-like monument constructed on the battlefield of Tannenberg.
Tannenberg also changed the course of the military action in the war, obviously. The Russian defeat – a humiliating one, given their overwhelming numerical strength – showed how things were going to be on the Eastern Front. A string of military disasters for the corrupt, inept Russian leadership that started at Tannenberg would culminate in the breakdown of the Russian state and its descent into Revolution. Just as Tannenberg spawned the two German generals who would drive the German Empire to its demolition, so too did it reveal the Russian weakness that would destroy the Tsar and his empire.
Tannenberg: clash of two empires, the nemesis of both.