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Recommended Reading


The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918


A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution

In Defense of the Russian Revolutionary Soldier, The Kerensky Offensive, July 1917
The Great Retreat, Eastern Front 1915
by Michael Kihntopf

By 23 August 1915 the Russian positions on their fronts with the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary and Germany were crumbling like mud walls in a rainstorm. Since April, the combined armies had slowly and methodically destroyed one Russian corps after another as they marched across the Polish salient and through the Carpathian Mountains. The strong fortresses of the Vistula River had succumbed. Voices from the trenches to the desks of the Russian General Staff or Stavka whispered innuendos of betrayal and incompetence and called for something to be done before the German hordes gobbled up any more of holy mother Russia. Tsar Nicholas II, encouraged by his wife, finally gave in to the allegations and sacked the commander in chief, his uncle, Nicholas Nikolovich, and took up the reigns of command himself. This assumption of command on Nicholas's part was one of the contributing factors toward the Russian Revolution which followed a year and a half later. Was the relief of Nicholas Nikolovich a prudent measure or had he been the most competent leader of the time?

Nicholas II had appointed his uncle Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolovich as the commander in chief of Russian forces at the beginning of the war in August 1914. In accordance with the Russian tradition that dated back to Alexander Nevsky, the Grand Duke had reluctantly accepted the appointment after numerous turn downs and wrenching self examinations. Nevertheless, shunning his self professed incompetence, he had launched the vast Russian army against both enemies nearly simultaneously in accordance with plans drawn up between 1910 and 1913 [1] of which he had no prior knowledge. By September, the best laid plans had yielded disaster against the Germans but ripe fruit from the Austro-Hungarians.


Tsar Nicholas II takes a salute from one of his field commanders. Nicholas Nikolovich is the tall man standing in the car.

Throughout 1914 and the winter months of 1915 the Russian army had fought stubbornly against the Germans maintaining their hold on the Polish salient that jutted like a knife at the throat of Germany. Three times the Germans had attempted to seize the fortress line along the Vistula, and three times the tsarist soldiers had defeated them. Three times the Grand Duke had attempted to invade Germany and each had failed. However, in Galicia, Russian General Alexei Brusilov had pushed his soldiers ever forward to take Lemberg, invest the fortress at Przemysl, and threaten the ancient Polish capital of Krakow and the coal rich German Silesia. His soldiers stood on the summits of the Carpathian Mountains and looked down into the Hungarian plains. The Austro-Hungarian army was hemorrhaging at an alarming rate. One year's casualties rose to nearly 1,500,000 men of which one third were prisoners of war.[2] But the euphoria of victories and successful defenses came to a screeching stop in April 1915.

The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had asked the German chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, for help in repelling Russian advances since the first month of the war. Falkenhayn had provided a division here and a brigade there to bolster the dual monarchy's failing lines and even formed two armies to secure its right flank in southern Poland and center in Galicia. Conrad's two attempts in late 1914 and winter 1915 at counter offenses had failed miserably and in March, the besieged men of the fortress of Przemysl had finally given up sending 130,000 men to the Russian prisoner of war camps.[3] His requests for help to the Germans became more insistent. Falkenhayn answered the pleas by planning an offensive along the Galician front between the villages of Gorlice and Tarnow which German units would carry out exclusive of Austro-Hungarian control.

To carry out the offensive, Falkenhayn's staff created the Eleventh Army with 2½ corps released from both fronts and placed it under the command of General August von Mackensen. These were the Guard, X, and XI corps (22 Infantry Division only). These divisions were supported by an unprecedented concentration of artillery. There were 302 light pieces, 146 heavy guns, and 96 trench mortars of varying calibers. The units began moving into the assault preparation area, between the Austro-Hungarian Third and Fourth Armies in late April at approximately the same time Falkenhayn decided to let Conrad know about the operation. Falkenhayn had kept him in the dark because of a lack in confidence in Conrad's staff's security. Conrad, initially surprised at the plan, supported it but raised objections about its command line. Since it was clearly in the dual


Green indicates Austro-Hungarian units, Purple are German units, and Red are Russian units.

monarchy's war zone, he felt command should go to his staff. Falkenhayn uncategorically denied his request and further asked him to turn over control of the Fourth Austro-Hungarian Army to Mackensen. This added an additional two corps and 408 additional cannons. Conrad gave in because of his need to keep the Russians out of the Hungarian plains.

On 2 May the Central Powers' artillery opened fire on the soldiers in the juncture of the Russian IX and X Corps of the Third Army, a front that was approximately 50 kilometers long. The bombardment lasted a bare four hours but was of such a devastating nature that few survived it. Observers reported that from 240,000 to 700,000 shells fell on the Russian lines.[4] In the last 30 minutes of the cannonade, elements of the 1st and 2nd Guard Divisions moved to their jumping off points within a few meters of the enemy's trenches. When the last shell fell, the Germans pounced expecting to catch the Russians as they emerged from underground shelters. Instead they found that the Russian trenches were barely deep enough to hide a man and were not furnished with the life saving shelters. The carnage was horrific. Russian officers had posted the majority of their men in the line to repel any attacks. There were few communication trenches and reserves were within a few meters of the front line.[5] The barrage had wiped out entire units. Within the first four hours the Central Powers' soldiers captured 4000 and were operating in open ground areas.[6] Resistance came from areas that were on reverse slopes or wooded areas. General Hans von Seeckt, Mackensen's chief of staff, had devised the successful plan which called for a short intensive artillery barrage followed by a head on assault in overwhelming numbers. This concept was contrary to the encirclement methods espoused by the German army since the Franco-Prussian War and Seeckt continued with the concept.

The Eleventh Army moved forward by bludgeoning its way through. The Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army followed on its left to guard that flank while the Austro-Hungarian Third Army moved ahead on its right. The idea was that when the Eleventh ran into strong resistance, it simply repeated the actions of the initial attack. The artillery was concentrated and its fire devastated what was in front of it. Then the infantry moved in to secure another 20 kilometers. Movement by either the Austro-Hungarian Third or Fourth Armies on the flanks kept the Russians from concentrating their reserves on any one advance. As a result, Russian units simply dissolved into the dust of explosions. By 4 May, the X Corps had only 5000 soldiers left and XI Corps had degenerated into a milling mob.[7] The following day the III Caucasus Corps attempted a stand at the Wisloka River. For a short time, small arms fire augmented by machine guns kept the Germans from crossing the river but in a short time the Germans brought up their heavy artillery, capable of staying outside of the Russian field batteries range, and opened fire. Within a few days, they crossed the river having inflicted nearly 32,000 casualties on the III Caucasus.[8]

Normally, defensive lines under such an attack would bulge inwards creating a salient which defenders could rack with assorted weapons from three sides. This was what had occurred many times along the Western Front. However, Stavka reacted differently. As the Russian Third Army fell back under the onslaught of the German heavy artillery so did its neighbors to the right and left. The general staff had a real fear of encirclement. Its members reasoned that the inward thrust on the Third Army was about to lead to either a push to the south to cut off Brusilov's Eighth Army that stood poised on the summits of the Carpathians or to turn north against the Ninth Army and the Vistula fortress line. But there were other reasons also for this decision.

One reason why Stavka ordered a withdrawal was the condition of the armies' armaments and munitions. The Russian army had started the war with many deficits in this area. In artillery, bending to the concepts espoused by their French ally for a mobile war effort, the war ministry had decided to concentrate on producing light field pieces which soldiers could move forward quickly in a war of mobility. Larger calibers were seen as defensive weapons. As a result the Russian Third Army had no heavy artillery or were there any heavy pieces in the flanking armies.[9] German heavy artillery, with a longer range than the Russian field pieces, took up position out of their range and pounded them into slag heaps. But the problem was not solely in a lack of cannon. It also resided in a lack of ammunition. Russian ordinance officers had used a standard set by the 1905 Russo-Japanese War to arrive at acceptable levels for shell stores. During that war Russian cannon had used an average of 87,000 rounds per month.[10] This quota was translated to 1914 where Russian arsenals contained 12 million rounds. When manufacturers had reached this peak, they had stopped producing except to replace rounds that were considered no longer potent. Russian administrators and army officers had failed to see that rapid fire artillery, which had made a much bolder appearance in the Balkan War of 1912, had increased the rapidity with which shells were used. In that war Bulgarian bombardiers had consumed 254,000 rounds per month.[11] Although there are no available records to chart Russian usage in the first months of the war, French records show that their army used nearly 900,000 rounds a month in 1914. Scarcity showed itself by early 1915. Division commanders limited their batteries to using five to ten rounds per day per gun. This lack of ammunition had also reduced battery size from eight guns to six. Russian soldiers took note that the German cannonades were met with silence on the part of their supporting guns. Battery commanders were cautioned to open fire only when the infantry appeared. By then many batteries lay in ruin and the fire from the surviving cannons amounted to only a few salvos followed again by silence as they were either blown up by the heavier, longer range German cannons or because they left the field as useless pieces of war equipment. This shortage went deeper than just the artillery branch.

Another reason to consider an entire front withdrawal was the strength of the army. Casualties had topped the million mark during the early months of 1915. Officer losses by the end of 1914 exceeded the war's beginning strength plus 50 percent more and competent replacements were not coming.[12] Those who had the necessary education avoided service through deferments and promotion from the ranks would have been counterproductive since over 50 percent of the soldiers were illiterate. Noncommissioned officers were in even shorter supply. Third Army's paper strength showed 232, 000 but those who bore the brunt of the Mackensen hammer only amounted to 92,800.[13] Many of the regiments had fewer than 250 bayonets. The constant pleas for replacements from home depots led to recruits arriving in the trenches with as little as three weeks training and weaponless.[14] Although the Russian army had started the war with enough rifles to arm its active and reserve units, there were few replacements. The large number of


Because of the terrain, Russian commanders put as many soldiers as possible into the front line to stop advances. This created large numbers of casualties when shells advanced instead of soldiers.

casualties also meant that an almost equal amount of equipment was lost to the enemy. It was not until April 1915 that Stavka told the corps to organize salvage units that would clean battlefields and trenches of abandon equipment.[15] Many of the tsar's soldiers who had survived the whirlwind bombardments faced the Central Powers' infantry with only a bayonet or a club. Strong rearguards held the Central Powers' soldiers at every river crossing but the enemy's mobile artillery soon rolled up and eliminated the resistance. One Russian general lamented that the Germans used shells to advance while the Russians used men to defend.[16]

Nicholas Nikolovich's staff, nevertheless, did not allow their armies to be encircled. Instead, they ordered them to withdraw into Russia. This brought additional problems. In an effort to deny the enemy of any useable stores, corps commanders ordered a scorched earth policy. This included the evacuation of the population. Not only did the Grand Duke have to worry about feeding his armies but he had the additional responsibility of feeding over a million uprooted non-combatants.

Mackensen's Eleventh Army, supported by the Austro-Hungarian Fourth and Third Army continued their drive across Galicia to retake the fortress at Przemysl. Under the Austrians, the fortress had held out from October 1914 to March 1915. Russian defense lasted a scant few days.[17] This was attributed not to a lack of courage on the part of the Russian defenders but to Stavka who issued conflicting orders. One set of instructions said that the corps commander was to treat Przemysl as part of the front with no significance. Under those instructions, the emplacement was ordered to evacuate its artillery. That order was countermanded half way through the relocation of the cannons. The new instructions called for a spirited defense of the fortress. By that time Przemysl was primarily manned with militia who had limited artillery. They give up the outer works with little opposition after the 100mm and larger caliber shells began to fall on them. In the eleventh hour Stavka sent the XXII and II Caucasus Corps to bolster the defenses but they arrived too late. The militia had evacuated the fortress and the two corps became more fodder for the advancing artillery barrage as it conducted a frontal attack on the nearly secured works.

In early June, the German General Staff changed the direction of the advance. Mackensen's command, with the addition of three and a half corps, was redesigned the Bug Army and its advance turned north between the Bug and Vistula with an objective of Brest-Litovsk.[18] At the same time, further to the north, the German Twelfth Army launched an attack across the Narew River in a southeasterly direction. Von Falkenhayn saw an opportunity to have the Twelfth meet the Bug Army at Brest-Litovsk and encircle the Russian First, Second, and Fourth Armies. The Grand Duke's worst nightmare was coming to pass.

The Twelfth consisted of seven divisions supported by 860 cannons. It fell on the juncture of the Russian First and Twelfth Armies as Mackensen had done. The bombardment was horrific. The 11 Siberian Division bore the brunt of the attack losing half its strength in 30 minutes.[19] Despite the losses, the first infantry assault was repulsed by survivors who were often without rifles or bullets. Russian artillery with barely 4 rounds per gun available concentrated their fire to support the ill trained and badly equipped soldiers. It was not until nightfall of the first day that the defenders finally gave way and the German drive continued eastward isolating the Vistula River fortresses but not the armies that had been around them.

Stavka had striven to maintain the railroad lines from Warsaw to Bialystok to Vilna. Second and Fourth Armies were successfully evacuated over the link before the German Twelfth Army cut it on 15 August. They also managed to maintain the line running from Warsaw to Brest-Litovsk and Baranovichi which aided the evacuation. The fortress at Ivanogorod was evacuated and destroyed before its capture; however, the garrison and stores at Novo Georgievsk, just outside of Warsaw, fell to the Central Powers. Within those walls German soldiers found vast stores of field artillery shells that Stavka had overlooked in its effort to find munitions for its silent cannons. Nevertheless, the general staff had managed to extricate three armies from the German encirclement. The cost was 1.4 million killed or wounded and 976,000 in prisoners of war camps.[20]

Although the Central Powers' drive continued for another month, the fall of the Vistula fortress line along with the loss of the Polish salient by the end of August prompted many critics to call for someone's head. Open letters appeared in newspapers which insinuated that the leadership of Nicholas Nikolovich left much to be desired. Based on this uproar Nicholas II decided that the Grand Duke had to go. On 23 August an ukase announced that the Grand Duke would henceforth command the Russian armies in the Caucasus and the tsar would assume command on the western front. The critics were shocked. They had expected that the tsar would purge the Stavka but not sack its commander. Hurriedly they attempt to try and change the tsar's mind but he refused. Many attribute this steadfastness of the tsar on his wife who was displeased with Nicholas Nikolovich's disparaging remarks toward the tsarina's court favorite monk Rasputin. The conduct of the war had become the sole responsibility of the tsar. The people would blame all future failures on his leadership instead of advisers. This opened the door to the revolution that followed a year and a half later.

* * *

Show Footnotes and Sources

* * *

Copyright © 2007 Michael Kihntopf.

Written by Michael Kihntopf. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael Kihntopf at:
kihnt@swbell.net.

About the author:
Michael P. Kihntopf is a 23 year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. His last position was as Chief, War Planning-Contingency Operations Division, Personnel Directorate, Strategic Air Command. During that tour he was directly involved in the planning and execution of the personnel portions of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. His assignments included being a Contingency and War Planning Officer for the Military Airlift Command from 1983-1986, in which he served on the battle staff for the Grenada and Panama invasions. He is currently a world history teacher in the San Antonio, Texas area. His specialization is World War I's Eastern Front. He is the author of Victory in the East, the Rise and Fall of the Imperial German Army and Handcuffed to a Corpse, German Intervention in the Balkans, 1914-1917. Both are available through White Mane Publishers, Shippensburg, PA.

Published online: 08/26/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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