|The Victories and
Defeats of the Russian Army: 1914
by Patrick Murphy
During the last days of the Tzarist Empire, the Russian soldier had, in many
cases, given up on fighting and wanted only to return home. The common Russian,
like the nation, was crippled from years of destructive war. Russia was damaged
most by Germans, whom they were forced to sign a separate peace treaty with at
Brest-Litovsk in 1918. Leading up to the treaty were a string of major losses,
shattering the last foundations of the Tzar's government. One can see in the
early stages of the First World War the impending collapse of the army's
command authority and fighting potential.
During the first six months of World War One, the effectiveness of the Russian
Army was primarily dependant on which of the Allied countries it was facing.
When facing Germany in East Prussia, the inadequacy of Russian industry to
effectively modernize the army and the Russian General Staff's inability to
adapt to industrialised warfare on the battlefield, was made apparent in a
dramatic fashion. Austro-Hungary on the other hand, had suffered similar
industrial and administrative woes as Russia, but had an even more inept
General Staff led by General Franz Baron Conrad von Hotzendorf, who commanded
an army divisive to its very core.
The French gave money to build railways in western Russia so as to allow a
rapid deployment of troops, troops that German planners did not believe
available until much later. Pre-war Russian military doctrine emphasised
artillery was to be fired in short bursts and therefore were accordingly
stockpiled in small amounts. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War were
ignored, as Russia still preferred bayonet rushes to skirmishing and the
cavalry lancer to the dismounted rifleman. Most corps did not have working
telephones due to lack of wire and consequently received orders hours too late.
Most of Russia's early aircraft were plagued by mechanical problems, limiting
their effective number to an insignificant handful. Russian Generals were
used to losing in Manchuria and even the Russian field officers believed the
General Staff "did not know how to wage modern war." In the new war,
"courage had to make way for trigonometry."
The Tzarist General Staff's first plan was to have a single army against
Germany, while taking to the offensive against Austro-Hungary. The First Army
assembled in the north against Germany. The Third, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth
Armies deployed in the south against Austro-Hungary. The Ninth army was kept
for the defence of Petrograd against naval landings. The Second army was to be
held in reserve if either front required reinforcements. Under pressure from
her main ally France, who was being attacked by the Germans via the Schlieffen
Plan, Russia attached the Second Army commanded by Samsonov to coordinate with
Rennenkampf's First Army in the encirclement of the German Eighth army. The
General Staff officer in charge of the two armies in the Northwestern front was
General Zhilinsky. Defending against the "Russian Steamroller" was only the
German Eighth Army, under General Prittwitz.
The Russians were still disorganized from mobilization and were advancing
without reconnaissance either in the form of aircraft or cavalry. To further
the German advantage, Russian communications lacked encryption codes;
consequently, their transmissions were easily intercepted and read by the
Germans. The inefficiencies of the administrative system can be seen in the
communications between the Second Army's headquarters and its Corps. Messages
between the two required the mail system to travel the 200-mile distance to
Warsaw and back.
On 17 August 1914 near the town of Stalluponen, the German Eighth Army and the
Russian First Army clashed in the first major engagement in the eastern
campaign. Stalluponen-Insterburg was seen as a key route to the interior of
western Germany. Consequently, the First army was ordered into the critical
zone without many of its supplies. Aircraft saw their first use in battlefield
reconnaissance. The Russians were very new to airplanes; consequently soldiers
could not distinguish friend or foe, shooting down friendly aircraft. Upon
entering Germany, Rennenkampf used his Guards Cavalry and Cavalry of the Line
to scout his main force of three corps before engaging the German I Corps at
Stalluponen. There, the First Army suffered 3000 casualties, but caused the I
Corps to initiate a scorched-earth retreat to Gumbinnen, where the next stage
of the campaign would unfold.
When the Russian army advanced three days later, Germany's doctrine of
aggressive skirmishing would gain them a Pyrrhic victory at Gumbinnen.
There, German XVII Corps engaged the Russian First Army in a frontal assault
which resulted in 14 607 casualties, a full third of their effective fighting
force. Despite these casualties, the Germans almost won the engagement but
for Rennenkampf's determined push in the centre of his lines. Nine charges
against the Russian guns were led, hand-to-hand combat occurred in six of those
When faced with these losses the XVII corps began to retreat. In a panic,
Prittwitz ordered the Eighth Army to fall back behind the Vistula; this would
be his last order as commander of the Eighth Army. Helmuth von Moltke (the
Younger) sacked him on 21 August 1914. There was no room for loosing East
Prussia in the plans of the German General Staff. A day after sacking
Prittwitz, Moltke appointed newly un-retired General Paul von Hindenburg as new
commander of the Eighth Army, the recently distinguished General Erich
Ludendorff was to be his Chief of Staff. These two generals would prove to
control the eastern front and would plague the Russians for years.
Indeed, it would only take six days for their pairing to be known for one of
the greatest tactical successes of the war. Hindenburg and Ludendorff ordered
the Eighth Army to shift its front towards Samsonov since Rennenkampf had
failed to follow up on his success at the battles of Stalluponen and Gumbinnen.
Meanwhile, the Second Army was advancing along the Allenstein-Hohenstein route
westward into Germany. General Zhilinsky remarked that all Samsonov had to do
was, "show a little more courage, and everything will be alright." Even
before completing assembly, Samsonov ordered his armies forward against the
Germans with the intent to match Rennenkampf's victories in the northwest.
On 26 August 1914, the Second Army's left wing came into contact with General
Francois' I Corps at Usadu, sending the Russian I Corps into general disarray.
Samsonov expected the attack, but his army was nonetheless overwhelmed. Before
the Second army could organize a defence, Francois pushed on to Neidenburg,
trying to cut off the Russian retreat. In the north a similar battle occurred
between the German XVII and I Reserve Corps and the Russian VI Corps. The
Russians, completely surprised, took 5300 casualties before retreating nearly
20 miles. The stage was now set for the double envelopment of the Second
Recognizing his predicament, Samsonov attacked the German centre with his own.
The Germans, already advancing, quickly defeated the attack and soon attacked
both Russian flanks. Disorganized, demoralized, and exhausted, the Russian
soldier wandered aimlessly in the deep German forest until surrendering on 30
and 31 August. Only 2000 men escaped from both the XII and the XV Corps,
leaving only VI Corps left. Samsonov, an old-style cavalry officer who led from
the saddle, left to take personal command if the VI Corps but got lost in the
dense forest near Willenberg.
With his army devastated and now lost, Samsonov shot himself with his service
revolver, deep in the Prussian forest. His staff remained ignorant of his fate
over thirty hours after his death, which compounded the confusion. Samsonov
had led the Second Army to a defeat that caused 50 000 men to be killed or
wounded, with 92 000 prisoners. Two entire Corps were annihilated, while the
remaining two suffered crippling losses. The German losses, on the other hand,
did not exceed 15 000 men. They also captured 500 guns, which the Russian Army
could hardly afford to loose. These figures ranked the victory at Tannenberg,
its name chosen for Tannenberg's historic significance as a sight of major
Teutonic Knights defeat by the Slavs, higher than Sedan, previously considered
the greatest encirclement in military history.
Overall, the Russian General Staff "altogether underestimated the German
quickness of movement and initiative." The Germans, although outnumbered,
utilized their extensive railway system to quickly move troops and supplies
close to the front lines. This resulted in rested, well-equipped, German troops
engaging tired and hungry Russian troops. Once given an opening, the German
high command pressed the attack and surrounded the disorganized army. Russian
rail networks were inferior to their German counterparts, even with French
help. This was in part intentional, as Samsonov's chief of staff remarked that
this area was kept devoid of roads to slow the German advance.
Rennenkampf's snail's pace north of Samsonov, caused in part by his hatred of
the Second Army's commander, allowed the smaller German Eighth Army to first
divide, then encircle the disorganized Second Army.
The battle of Tannenberg effectively ended the Russian push in eastern Prussia.
Momentum now favoured the Germans, specifically Hindenburg and Ludendorff. They
would use this momentum to attack the remaining Russian forces in the
northeast, Rennenkampf's First Army. Having moved slowly westward, the First
Army was located on either side of the natural defensive line at the Masurian
Lakes. The German Eighth Army, reinforced with two infantry corps, was deployed
along the line of Ortelsburg-Bischofsburg-Heilsburg, with the intention of
another encirclement of a Tzarist army.
On 7 September 1914, the first of two battles around the Masurian Lakes
unfolded at Goldap and Lotzen. Francois and Mackensen attacked their respective
targets, with 5000 prisoners and sixty guns captured within three days. It was
beginning to look like the Eighth Army would be able to eliminate another
Russian Army at the Masurian Lakes. Rennenkampf however, had other designs.
Determined to escape Samsonov's fate, Rennenkampf ordered the First Army to
retreat from enemy territory. "Withdrawing as far as twenty-five miles a day,
the Russians literally ran faster than the Germans could chase them." By 13
September, all Russian forces were out of German lands. Rennenkampf had
successfully avoided encirclement but sustained the loss of 100 000 men and 150
artillery pieces. The combined defeats of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes,
along with the general retreat, toppled General Zhilinsky as commander of the
In spite of the seemingly decisive victories of Tannengberg and Masurian Lakes,
the North Eastern front was but a sideshow in the war. In the southwest lay the
bulk of Russian Forces, with intentions to destroy the Austro-Hungarian Army.
Austro-Hungarian aims were split along two lines, the lines of Conrad's hatred
of Serbs and Slavs. Politically, there was a need to punish Serbia for the
murder of the Archduke, and then there was the desire to destroy the Russian
Army on the way to acquiring of large parts of Poland. Moreover, both sides
were being pressured by their respective allies to ease the pressures of the
Austro-Hungarian war plans called for a three way split. Two front line groups,
A-Staffel and Minimalgruppe Balkan were to be used against
Russia and Serbia respectfully. The third group was to be the floating reserve B-Staffel,
but was hastily transferred to the Russian front when the Russian army
mobilized faster than expected. Problems in Austro-Hungarian mobilization
caused B-Staffel to be moved by rail to the Serbian front only to
immediately turn around with orders to deploy in Galicia. Due to this flaw in
organization, the Russian troops equalled or exceeded the Austro-Hungarian Army
in machine guns, light and heavy artillery, divisions and battalions. The
Russians were also facing an opponent that had just marched upwards of one
hundred miles to reach its enemy. When it came to fighting the Austro-Hungarian
army, Russia was now the dominant party.
In this case it was the Austro-Hungarians who had atrocious intelligence and
reconnaissance capabilities. For instance, General Brusilov was informed by a
captured soldier of the surprise of the Russian advance. Consequently, the
Russians were in the exact reverse situation of the events of
Tannenberg/Masurian Lakes. The Russians, as well as having superior General
Staff, were also well supplied and equipped compared to the Austro-Hungarians.
Another way the Austro-Hungarian Army was comparably similar to the defeated
Russian First and Second Armies, was their reconnaissance ability.
Eventually the two empires would engage heavily in Galicia, near the Pripet
Marshes. There, the Russian Third, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Armies would
conduct their own double envelopment of Austro-Hungarian forces. The
Austro-Hungarian troops fought so poorly that the Germans were concerned about
the quality of training regarding the officers and men. During 23 and 24
August, Austro-Hungarian troops accomplished minor gains at the cost of half of
their effective strength in the battles of Krasnik and Lublin. This number of
casualties can be attributed to the frontal charges favoured by the
Austro-Hungarian General Staff and its field officers. In early September,
General Brusilov was alerted by aircraft of an upcoming assault. Rushing in
reinforcements, Brusilov soundly defeated the Austro-Hungarians, shattering
their drive into Galicia. The Austro-Hungarian Armies ran into similar troubles
retreating as the Russian First and Second Armies had. Extremely poor roads and
an army still disorganized from mobilization lead to horrendous losses of both
men and equipment.
Conrad however, remained undaunted, envisioning his own double envelopment of
the Russian forces around Lemberg. Instead, General Ivanov pressed the
advantage, leading the Russians to a gain of 150 miles. Adding to Conrad's
worries, Austro-Hungarian reserve troops were caught up in the logistical mess
of the retreating Austro-Hungarian armies, furthering the difficultly of
retreat. The advancing Russians were also inhibited by the breakdown in the
lines of communication. Railroad congestion at Lemberg forced Brusilov to
attach railway coordination to his command in order to keep his army
operating. The Russian armies were helped by Polish and Ukrainian citizens
who guided them through dense forests and provided intelligence such as the
location of machine-gun nests in church towers. Further, because of the mixed
ethnicity of the Austro-Hungarian force, many of their armies, when faced
with incompetent leadership and a distinct lack of food, readily switched
The Austro-Hungarian defeat at Lemberg was so complete that numerous generals
suffered nervous breakdowns in an attempt to lead their troops in an orderly
retreat. Conrad, remarked that, if Archduke Ferdinand were still alive he,
"would have had me shot." The Austro-Hungarian army had suffered 330 000
casualties, lost 100 000 more as prisoners and reduced their number of
available artillery by 300. This was equivalent to one third of the army's
combat effectiveness. With virtually no defences left against the Russians, the
Austro-Hungarians considered moving parts of their government to a safer part
of the empire.
Still, the Austro-Hungarians were fortunate that the very same reasons for
their poor retreat hindered the pursuing Russians. A lack of road and rail
access in Galicia slowed the Russian advance; stressed supply routes furthered
the diminishing power of the Russian attack. In addition to logistic problems,
the Russian army was as exhausted as the retreating Austro-Hungarians. General
Ivanov therefore decided to consolidate his rather massive gains.
The reasons for the Russian success in the opening stages of World War One,
have less to do with the efficiency of the Russian Army than with the
inefficiency of the Austro-Hungarian forces. Here, the blame must be placed
squarely on Conrad as his personal hatred of the Serbs caused him to assign
insufficient troops to battle the much larger forces of the Russians. Further,
his prewar plans called for a supporting force from Germany. Moltke however,
facing the First and Second Armies in the northeast and the unravelling of the
Schlieffen plan in the west, decided against aiding the Austro-Hungarians.
Conrad, who also despised the Russians, decided to go ahead with the plan
anyway. He would then blame the resulting defeat not on himself or the
incompetence of his General Staff, but on lack of German reinforcement. The
defeat in Galicia, coupled with the defeat in Serbia, caused Conrad to lose his
ability to mount major military operations. From now on, Austro-Hungarian war
plans would be at the mercy of the Germans and the support of their army.
After the German failure at the Marne, the illusion of a short war was
shattered for good. This coupled with the near collapse of the Austro-Hungarian
army and caused the new German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn
to pay more attention to the eastern front. It was decided to preempt the
inevitable Russian attack out of Silesia with the formation of a new Ninth
army, composed of reinforcements from the west and parts of the Eighth army,
under Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Conrad, oblivious to the utter
incompetence of his army and loathful to let the Germans take all the glory,
assembled all the troops he could muster for an offensive against Russian
forces in Austro-Hungary. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians, on 28
September and 1 October respectively, attacked in conjunction across the
eastern front. By 9 October the Germans had reached the Vistula, south of
Warsaw, where a Russian counter-attack, combined with horrible weather, caused
the scorched-earth retreat of the Eighth Army to Cracow.
In the days after Germany reached its 1914 zenith, Austro-Hungary similarly
made initial gains only to be checked by the Russians. By 10 October, siege was
lifted from the fortress at Przemysl, at the cost of 10 000 Russian soldiers.
Conrad's forces continued on to the San River where they were then checked by
superior Russian forces with the advantage of terrain. There they would be
forced to retreat back the way they came, making it difficult to live off the
land to alleviate supply problems. After General's Dankl's First army received
40 000 to 50 000 casualties, the fortress at Przemysl was back in the same
situation as before.
Now it was up to Hindenburg and Ludendorff to counter-attack the Russians.
Without waiting for reinforcements from the western front they attacked Grand
Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich's forces in the direction of Lodz with the intention
of eventually capturing Warsaw. From 11 to 25 November the German Ninth Army
under General von Mackensen attacked Nikolaevich's right flank held by the
Russian First Army under Rennenkampf and a revamped Second Army. A pitched
battle occurred, with both sides gaining momentum. At one point Russian Staff
officers were so confidant of the imminent capture of three German Reserve
divisions, they allocated railcars of the prisoners in Lvov. Eventually the
Germans divided two Russian armies, again using superior mobility, resulting in
one destroyed and the other badly mauled.
This time, a reversal of Tannenberg/Masurian Lakes, Rennenkampf's First Army
was totally destroyed, with the Second just managing to escape to Warsaw. In
total, seventy percent of the Russian right flank was destroyed or captured.
This caused Rennenkampf to be sacked and Nikolaevich to cancel his plans to
further his gains at the expense of the central powers. The Grand Duke was so
apprehensive of the German attack that he ordered all Russian troops out of
The end of 1914 brought a mixed bag for the Russian General Staff. There had
been victories, some impressive. However the losses to the Hindenburg and
Ludendorff could only categorize the campaign as a dismal failure. Massive
amounts of men had been lost, and while the Tzar had equally massive human
reserves to call upon, he could not call upon the nonexistent materiel reserves
needed in industrial warfare. The Russian General Staff, its administrative
command hierarchy and the Tzar's own input drove the Russian army down the
inevitable path to destruction that culminated in 1917-8. It was then the
people's will to fight died, the government fell, and the Soviet Union had its
. H.H. Herwig, The First World War . (London: Arnold Press, 1997)
. G. Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe . (London: Routledge,
2000.) p. 221.
. Alfred Knox, With The Russian Army . (London: Hutchinson, 1923.)
. Norman Stone, The Eastern Front 1914-17 . (London: Hodder &
Stoughton, 1978.) p. 19.
. Op cit, p. 47.
. Knox, p. 84.
. Wawro, p. 221.
. Op cit, p. 55.
. Sir Geoffrey Evans, Tannenberg 1410:1914 . (London: Hamilton,
1970.) p. 87.
. Herwig, pp. 82-3.
. Dennis E. Showalter, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires . (Hamden,
Conn.: Archon Books, 1991.) p. 181.
. Op cit, pp. 82-3.
. Knox, p. 88.
. Stone, p. 61.
. Herwig, p. 84.
. ibid, p. 83-7.
. ibid, pp. 83-4; Knox, p. 68.
. Knox, p. 77.
. Herwig, pp. 84-6.
. Op cit, p. 87.
. ibid, p. 60.
. Stone, pp. 66-8.
. Showalter, p. 362.
. Herwig, pp. 86-7.
. John Keegan. The First World War . (Toronto: Vintage Canada
1998.) pp. 51; 151-2.
. Op cit, pp. 88-90.
. Aleksei Brusilov. A Soldier’s Notebook 1914-1918 . (London:
Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1930.) p. 47.
. Herwig, pp. 52-6.
. ibid, pp. 89-91.
. Brusilov, pp. 64-8.
. ibid, pp. 77-8.
. In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian army was comprised of 44% Slavs, 28%
Germans, 18% Hungarians, 8% Romanians and the remaining 2% of Italian origin.
(Keegan, p. 156.)
. Herwig, p. 94.
. ibid, p. 94.
. Wawro, p. 222.
. Op cit, pp. 92-4
. ibid, p. 96.
. Keegan, p, 159.
. Op cit, pp. 107-8.
. Herwig, pp. 107-8.
. Keegan, pp. 165-6.
. ibid, pp. 168-9.
. Herwig, pp. 108-9.
Brusilov, Aleksei. A Soldier’s Notebook 1914-1918 . Macmillan &
Co. Ltd. London: 1930.
Knox, Alfred. With The Russian Army: 1914-1917 . Hutchinson. London:
Evans, Sir Geoffrey. Tannenberg 1410:1914 . Hamilton. London:1970.
Herwig, H.H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918
. Arnold Press. London: 1997.
Keegan, John. The First World War . Vintage Canada. Toronto: 1998.
Showalter, Dennis E. Tannenberg: Clash of Empires . Archon Books,
Hamden, Conn.: 1991.
Stone, Norman. The Eastern Front 1914-17 . Hodder & Stoughton.
Wawro, G. Warfare and Society in Europe: 1792-1914 . Routledge.
Copyright © 2006 Patrick Murphy.
Written by Patrick Murphy. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Patrick Murphy at:
About the author:
Patrick Murphy is an honors student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada
studying International History with a concentration in Military History.
Published online: 06/03/2006.