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The Victories and Defeats of the Russian Army: 1914
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.[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] In the new war, "courage had to make way for trigonometry."[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

When the Russian army advanced three days later, Germany's doctrine of aggressive skirmishing would gain them a Pyrrhic victory at Gumbinnen.[11] 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.[12] 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 charges.[13]

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.[14]

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."[15] Even before completing assembly, Samsonov ordered his armies forward against the Germans with the intent to match Rennenkampf's victories in the northwest.[16]

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 Army.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19]

Overall, the Russian General Staff "altogether underestimated the German quickness of movement and initiative."[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]

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."[23] 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 northwest front.[24]

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 other fronts.[25]

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.[26]

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.[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] 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.[30]

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.[31] 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,[32] many of their armies, when faced with incompetent leadership and a distinct lack of food, readily switched sides.

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."[33] The Austro-Hungarian army had suffered 330 000 casualties, lost 100 000 more as prisoners and reduced their number of available artillery by 300.[34] 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.[35]

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.[36]

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.[37]

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.[38] 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.[39]

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.[40]

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.[41] 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.[42]

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 occupied territories.[43]

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 birthplace.

* * *


[1]. H.H. Herwig, The First World War . (London: Arnold Press, 1997) p. 64.

[2]. G. Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe . (London: Routledge, 2000.) p. 221.

[3]. Alfred Knox, With The Russian Army . (London: Hutchinson, 1923.) p. 85.

[4]. Norman Stone, The Eastern Front 1914-17 . (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978.) p. 19.

[5]. Op cit, p. 47.

[6]. Knox, p. 84.

[7]. Wawro, p. 221.

[8]. Op cit, p. 55.

[9]. Sir Geoffrey Evans, Tannenberg 1410:1914 . (London: Hamilton, 1970.) p. 87.

[10]. Herwig, pp. 82-3.

[11]. Dennis E. Showalter, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires . (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1991.) p. 181.

[12]. Op cit, pp. 82-3.

[13]. Knox, p. 88.

[14]. Stone, p. 61.

[15]. Herwig, p. 84.

[16]. ibid, p. 83-7.

[17]. ibid, pp. 83-4; Knox, p. 68.

[18]. Knox, p. 77.

[19]. Herwig, pp. 84-6.

[20]. Op cit, p. 87.

[21]. ibid, p. 60.

[22]. Stone, pp. 66-8.

[23]. Showalter, p. 362.

[24]. Herwig, pp. 86-7.

[25]. John Keegan. The First World War . (Toronto: Vintage Canada 1998.) pp. 51; 151-2.

[26]. Op cit, pp. 88-90.

[27]. Aleksei Brusilov. A Soldier’s Notebook 1914-1918 . (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1930.) p. 47.

[28]. Herwig, pp. 52-6.

[29]. ibid, pp. 89-91.

[30]. Brusilov, pp. 64-8.

[31]. ibid, pp. 77-8.

[32]. 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.)

[33]. Herwig, p. 94.

[34]. ibid, p. 94.

[35]. Wawro, p. 222.

[36]. Op cit, pp. 92-4

[37]. ibid, p. 96.

[38]. Keegan, p, 159.

[39]. Op cit, pp. 107-8.

[40]. Herwig, pp. 107-8.

[41]. Keegan, pp. 165-6.

[42]. ibid, pp. 168-9.

[43]. Herwig, pp. 108-9.

Primary Sources

Brusilov, Aleksei. A Soldier’s Notebook 1914-1918 . Macmillan & Co. Ltd. London: 1930.

Knox, Alfred. With The Russian Army: 1914-1917 . Hutchinson. London: 1923.

Secondary Sources

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. London: 1978.

Wawro, G. Warfare and Society in Europe: 1792-1914 . Routledge. London: 2000.

* * *

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.
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