The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

008 Alexander Samsonov and the silence of the pine wood

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Germans push back Russians in East Prussia

It is Sunday 16 August 1914. It is the eighth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans give battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau to the Turkish fleet, two warships that escaped the British in the Mediterranean.

The Turks certainly appreciate this present.

Austria-Hungary is defeated by the Serbs in the Battle of the Jadar near Belgrade.

The Germans move their Oberste Heeresleitung, their headquarters, from Berlin to Koblenz, which is closer to the western front.

The Belgians are forced to surrender their capital Brussels and withdraw to Antwerp.

War crimes are committed by the Germans in the small town of Aarschot, 168 civilians are rounded up and executed.

In Lorraine the First Army of the French receives blows, but also the Fifth Army has to retreat near the river Sambre.

John Parr, the first of a long row of British soldiers, is killed near the Belgian town of Mons.

 The Russian government prohibits the sale of alcohol during the war by imperial decree.

And two Russian armies try to liaise in East Prussia, one of them under the command of Alexander Samsonov.

In times of war it will be very useful when commanders get on well together on the battlefield. Well, during the first weeks of the Great War the Russians have a serious problem of incompatible characters at the top.

Two of their armies, consisting of five corpses, aim their arrows at East Prussia along different routes. It is their intention to join forces later. The first army is commanded by Paul von Rennenkampf,  the Russian general with the German name. Commander of the second army is Alexander Samsonov, veteran of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Samsonov is an old hoodlum who considers the Slavic race superior to the Teutonic Germans.

Rennenkampf and Samsonov share a history. Both fought in the Russo-Japanese war in which the czar was so disgracefully defeated. The white race getting licked by the yellow race was quite a surprise in the western world at the beginning of the century.

After the decisive Battle of Mukden in Manchuria Samsonov had seriously blamed Rennenkampf. He felt let down. At Mukden railway station Samsonov is said to have hit Rennenkampf to the ground. At least that is what a military observer who was on the scene maintained. This German officer we will meet again on the batlefields of East Prussia in 1914.

It is certain that Samsonov and Rennenkampf have not settled their dispute when the czar orders them to advance together in East Prussia. They leave separately. Once past the Masurian lakes they are supposed to join forces near Allenstein. Then it is onwards towards Berlin.

There are plenty of opportunities for the Russians on the Eastern Front, because the Germans put almost all their cards on a surprise attack in the west. This is laid down in the Schlieffen Plan. Count Alfred von Schlieffen himself has gone to meet his maker, but his strategy has been kept in store with the Germans for years. Von Schlieffen has worked it out in great detail. First roll up France in the west in a mighty sweep through Belgium and then go for the slowly mobilizing Russians in the east.

When the war starts, the Eighth army, commanded by 65-year-old Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, is the only army the Germans have on the east side. Von Prittwitz also has to deal with one or two difficult comrades in arms. General Hermann von François for example likes to back out of Von Prittwitz’s orders. To the despair of his superior officer he follows his own plans of attack.

Immediately after the Russian attack the situation does not look too good for the Germans. They seem forced to give up East Prussia. This prospect is starting to frighten the Oberste Heeresleitung in far away Koblenz. East Prussia is of historic importance to the empire. In the 21st century it is divided between Poland, Russia and Lithuania, but its past belongs to Old Prussia and the Teutonic knights of the German Order. When the cradle of the empire crumbles, Berlin might easily be next. Here and there panic breaks out. ‘The Cossacks are coming!’

Von Prittwitz does not seem to be up to his job. After the lost Battle of Gumbinnen, Ausgust 20 1914, he wants to withdraw behind the river Vistula (Weichsel in German). In Koblenz the decision is then made to fortify the eastern front. Men will be moved by train from the west to the east. This means a weakening of the Von Schlieffen plan which according to some military historians would eventually lead to the Germans losing the war.

Von Prittwitz and his chief of staff are discharged. Three years later he is to die of the results of a heart attack. In August 1914 Paul von Hindenburg, Von Prittwitz’s senior by one year, takes over command at the eastern front. This is remarkable as Hindenburg, a pupil of Von Schlieffen, had already taken early retirement in 1911. Hindenburg is assisted by Erich Ludendorff, ‘the hero of Liège’. On the train on their way to the east it clicked immediately between the two. It will be like this for the rest of the war.

Now is the moment to mention the name Max Hoffmann, the German military observer at Mukden nine years earlier. This shrewd and equally cynical officer comes up with the plan which both Ludendorff and Hindenburg gratefully accept after they have arrived. Hoffmann realizes that it will be disastrous for the Germans if the two Russian armies manage to make the connection. If, however, they can deal with Samsonov first and then with Rennenkampf, there may be chances for Germany. This could easily be considered a small scale Von Schlieffen plan.

In an enormous frontal sweep, enabled by their excellent railway network, the Germans aim their entire battle force at Samsonov in the south. Ludendorff must have been scared out of his wits the day before. He realizes that now Rennenkampf has an open battlefield in front of him. But Hindenburg, calm as ever, decides that this risk is all part of the game.

It turns out perfectly for the Germans. With permission from above Rennenkampf focuses his attention on conquering Köningsberg, which is now Kaliningrad. In this way Samsonov will not get any backing. Communication between the two Russian armies is extremely lousy anyway. The Germans effortlessly intercept and decipher messages (if at all coded). Besides, Rennenkampf’s army is far ahead of Samsonov’s schedule. Samsonov has had to cope with far worse battleground conditions. Provisioning the troops of the advance guard has proved a logistic nightmare.

Poor Samsonov. Stubborn Von François also disregards Ludendorff’s instructions by choosing his own route of attack. So Samsonov in all his optimism seizes the opportunity to have his troops advance in the middle towards the Vistula. In doing so he enlarges the distance to both flanks. He has to pay dearly for Von François’  stubbornness. Slowly it is beginning to dawn on Samsonov that he is not chasing a retreating army, but actually about to face a concentration of troops.

Samsonov now hesitates, which is considered cowardice by Yakov Zhilinski, commander of the front in East Prussia. Zhilinski himself is not exactly a model of decisiveness. Samsonov is ordered to continue his offensive in East Prussia with unflagging zeal. After all Russia is committed to its ally France, however bad the supply lines and production of ammunition are in the country of the czar. Plenty of men, but especially their artillery loses out to the Germans. The optimism of the Russian army command in East Prussia is reflected in that of the Austrians in the south of Poland. They, too, assume to be on the heels of a defeated enemy, but they are in for a rude awakening.

Just as Hannibal had the Romans by the short hairs at Cannae, Samsonov’s army will share an equal fate in the Kesselschlacht at Tannenberg. A clash of hundreds of thousands takes place in the last days of August. Samsonov also gets involved in the battle. He witnesses how on both sides his army is rendered powerless. He is insufficiently familiar with the battlefield in order to bring about a change for the better. Samsonov is trapped. Rennenkampf will make an attempt to help his cursed colleague out, but he does not get any closer than 72 kilometers to the latter’s surrounded army.

Forced by the deadly artillery fire of the Germans, Samsonov gives the order to a full retreat on 28 August. He then gets on his horse, apparently to try to escape the trap he is in. The total number of casualties on the side of the Russians is over thirty thousand. Another ninety thousand are made prisoners of war. Samsonov is defeated. With the help of 400 seized guns the Germans have their hands free to engage in battle with Rennenkampf near the Masurian lakes from 9 September onwards. There, too, the Russians will have to bow their heads in a disorderly exodus from East Prussia, though this fiasco is not as catastrophic as that of Tannenberg. This absolutely spectacular victory has assumed mythical proportions in Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff owe their status of tactical genii to it. Max Hoffmann knew better. ‘Here general-field marshal Hindenburg slept before the Battle of Tannenberg, after the battle of Tannenberg, and between you and me, also during the battle of Tannenberg’, he said to a couple of friends he was showing around his  headquarters.

Samsonov’s tragedy was described by Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn in his novel August 1914. Barbara Tuchman also tells of Samsonov’s fate in The Guns of August, after he reached the small town of Willenberg near the Russian border. ‘The general and his group waited in the forest until nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his Chief of Staff: ‘The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?’ After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 a.m.. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew instantly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide but Potovsky thought he had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead.’

Tuchman also writes that the Germans buried Samsonov’s body. His widow got permission to have the body transported to Russia in 1916 with the help of the Red Cross.

Paul von Rennenkampf led his First Army in the undecided Battle of Lodz, November 1914, but afterwards the general with the most luxuriant moustache of the entire eastern front was sent packing. When after the February Revolution a Provisional Government takes office, Rennenkampf is yet put in prison because of his inferior leadership in the beginning of the war. Under the Bolsheviks he is set free. He goes into hiding on the Azov Sea coast, where he passes off as a Greek. The Bolsheviks, however, manage to find him. They want him to join the Red Army as a commanding officer and fight in the Civil War. Rennenkampf refuses. He gets shot on 1 April 1918. Unlike Samsonov, he could not choose the bullet himself.

Next week: Arthur Machen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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