Continuing with the WWI themed posts, this is another focussed on one of the earlier battles of the Eastern front. The Battle of Tannenberg was an engagement between the Russian and the German Empires in the first days of the war. It was fought by the Russian Second Army against the German Eighth Army between 26 August and 30 August 1914. Perhaps the most spectacular and complete German victory of the First World War, the encirclement and destruction of the Russian Second Army in late August 1914 and the suicide of its commanding general, Alexander Samsonov virtually ended Russia’s invasion of East Prussia before it had really started. A series of follow-up battles destroyed the majority of the First Army as well, and kept the Russians off-balance until the spring of 1915.
The Allied battle plan prior to the war had been based on France and the United Kingdom halting the German armies in the West while the huge Russian armies could be organized and brought to the Eastern front. In perhaps as little as a month, the Russians could field around ten complete armies, more men than the Germans could muster on both fronts put together. At Tannenberg the actual ratio of Russian to German troops was 29 to 16. However, there were some issues that worked against this plan, such as the Russians’ lack of a good quality railroad network and Russian trains being operated on a different rail gauge to Germany, meaning that their armies could only be transported by rail as far as the German border. Additionally, the presence of the armies of Austria-Hungary to the south limited Russia’s involvement in the beginning of the war.
The Germans however, only considered the Russians to be a secondary threat. The entire Schlieffen Plan was based on the idea of defeating France as quickly as possible, and then transporting their armies by train to the eastern front. This allowed the Germans to garrison Prussia fairly lightly with a single army, the Eighth, while the German Ninth Army was stationed in central Germany to reinforce either front. There was little allowance for anything other than a delaying action while the outcome in the west was decided. This gave the Russians a great opportunity to attack if they were quick enough.
Russia’s incursion into German territory was two-pronged. Two armies planned to combine in assaulting General Prittwitz’s German Eighth Army, Rennenkampf in a frontal attack while Samsonov engulfed Prittwitz from the rear. General Rennenkampf advanced to north-east with the First Army while General Samsonov had begun to take his Second Army into the south-western corner of East Prussia to move westward around the Masurian Lakes and then swing north over a hilly area to cut off the Germans, who would by this point be forced into defending the area around Königsberg. If executed correctly, the Germans would be surrounded
Such was the Russians’ initial plan. But Rennenkampf brought about a modification following a scrappy victory against The German Eighth Army at the Battle of Gumbinnen, after which he paused to consolidate his forces. Samsonov meanwhile, due to severe supply and communication problems, was entirely unaware that Rennenkampf had chosen to pause and lick his wounds at Gumbinnen, instead assuming that his forces were continuing their movement south-west.
Meanwhile, a trap was being set by the German leadership. They planned to deploy cavalry as a distraction to Rennenkampf’s forces, meaning that he could not continue forward or support Samsonov. German troops were simultaneously being transported by rail to the far southwest to meet the left-wing of Samsonov’s Second Army. Others were to await orders to move south by foot so as to confront Samsonov’s opposite right-wing. And a fourth corps was ordered to remain at Vistula to meet Samsonov as his army moved north. Samsonov was entirely unaware of the German plan or of its execution. Assured that his Second Army was en route to pursue and destroy the supposedly retreating German Army
Just prior to the German attack, the Germans intercepted Russian communications that revealed the distance between the two Russian armies, and detailed The First Army’s imminent marching plans, which were not towards Samsonov’s Second Army. Another message told the Germans that Samsonov had assumed that there would be a general German withdrawal to Tannenberg and beyond. Consequently, his message provided detailed plans for his intended route of pursuit of the German forces. These messages reassured the Germans that their plan would work, and they would not need to fear intervention from the Russian First Army during their assault upon Samsonov’s forces.
Over the next few days, the resulting confrontation had Samsonov’s Army completely surrounded by German forces. There was no support from the Russian First Army, as Rennenkampf held a deep personal vendetta with Samsonov. Finally, Samsonov became aware of the peril he faced. Critically short of supplies and with his communications system in tatters, his forces were dispersed, and many were defeated. He ordered a general withdrawal on the evening of 28 August. However, It was too late for the Russians. As they scattered, many throwing down their weapons and running, directly into the encircling German forces. Support from the Russian border in the form of counter-attacks were weak and insufficient.
95,000 Russians troops were captured in the battle, while an estimated 30,000 were killed or wounded, and of his original 150,000, only around 10,000 of Samsonov’s men escaped. The Germans suffered fewer than 20,000 casualties and captured over 500 guns. Samsonov ended up lost in the surrounding forests with his aides, and shot himself, unable to face reporting the scale of the disaster to the Tsar. His body was later found by German search parties and was given a military burial.
The scale of the Russian defeat shocked Russia’s allies, who wondered whether it signalled the defeat of the Russian army entirely. This was not the case, as was demonstrated by the lesser German victories shortly after. And as always, the sheer mass of the Russian army ensured its survival. Even so, no Russian army set foot on German territory again until the end of the Second World War, in 1945.