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Second Battle of Masurian Lakes

Another very short post, but it is the second of two battles.

The Second Battle of Masurian Lakes began during a blizzard. Because of this, it is also known as the Winter Battle of Masurian Lakes. It was, like the first battle, fought between Russia and the Germans (who had Austria-Hungarian aid). The battle was part of Paul von Hindenburg’s plan to push the Russians back and bring about an end to the battle on the Eastern Front. “Specifically, Hindenburg intended to outflank Russian positions in central Poland, pushing them back beyond the Vistula River” (Source). The Germans were still desperate to throw the Russians out of the war, thus closing the eastern front and allowing them to focus on the British and the French in the west. Furthermore, despite their previous defeats, the four Russian divisions still held German land – the III, XX, XXVI, as well as the Siberian III Corps.

Thus, Hindenburg deployed the German 8th and the German 10th armies to East Prussia. There, they would fight against the Russian 10th Army, under the command of General Thadeus von Sievers. While the Russians would attack from East Prussia, the Austro-Hungarians would attack in Galicia, moving towards Lemberg.

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On the 7th of February, during a terrible snowstorm, General Fritz von Below, commanding the German 8th Army, attacked the Russians, “easily advancing against the enemy position from the south” (Source). Despite the German’s easy victory on the first day, the second day saw the German 10th Army, under General Hermann von Eichhorn, joining the fray. Attacking from the north, they easily outnumbered and surrounded the Russians.

“By February 10, the Russians had been forced back most of the way towards [Lyck]” (Source). Nevertheless, they would put up a good fight. It would take four more days for the Germans capture the town. In fact, in a mere week, the Germans had managed to capture 70 miles of land. During this time, the Russian III Corps managed to escape, heading towards fortresses on the Niemen River, Kovno and Olita. Following this, the III Siberian corps also managed to escape. By the 15th, the Russian XXVI Corps also managed to escape to safety. This left the Russian XX Corps. They fought in the Forest of Augustow, where on the 14th, the German XXI Corps attacked. By the 18th, the Russian XX Corps were trapped. On the 21st, 30,000 survivors surrendered.

In all, the Russians lost 200,000 men, half of them prisoners. German losses were relatively low, though many did suffer from exposure to extreme cold as well as from exhaustion.

General Fritz von Below was awarded the Pour le Merite, the highest military medal in Germany. Despite what seemed like a major Germany victory, they did not accomplish much on the Eastern Front; it was still open.

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First Battle of Masurian Lakes

A very short article about an early WWI battle, but since there is a 2nd Battle of Masurian Lakes, it seemed important to include the first.

After their victory over the Russian 2nd Army at Tannenberg, the German 8th Army, under the command of Paul von Hindenburg, turned their attention to defeating the Russian 1st, under the command of Paul von Rennenkampf.

Their plan was to completely surround the Russians. The Russians lines went “from the Baltic Sea coast on the north to the Russian/German border on the south. The southern half of the line fell along the Masurian Lakes, where the Russian line ended on the north side of a large lake, and continued on the south side with two reserve divisions. Further south, an isolated army corps held the line near the border” (Source). Hindenburg – with the aid of Erich Ludendorff – would attack the two isolated armies.

To start off with, the Hindenburg ordered his troops to advance through a gap between Konigsberg and the Masurian Lakes. However, the Russian 2nd Army received word of their advance, and Rennenkampf ordered his men to retreat to a better position. Following this, a preliminary attack began on January 7th, launched from either side of the two lakes. They hoped to push the Russians back towards the coast, likely making it easier on the Germans. Unfortunately, they outnumbered by 3-to-1.

The official offensive started two days later, on September 9th, with the Germans attacking these two armies. In response, Rennenkampf ordered his men to retreat all while preparing for a counterattack.

“The Germans, despite, now outnumbering the Russians, were unable to encircle them in the broken terrain of the Masurian Lake lands, and Rennenkampf was able to extract his army intact, and even launch his own counterattack on 25 September which regained much of the land lost during the battle” – during the Battle of Niemen (Source). While this may have been true, the Russians did, in fact, lose the battle of Masurian Lakes – and this after their loss at Tannenburg.

Worse yet, the Russians had lost any footing they yet had in East Prussia. With all these losses, the Russian army group commander, Yakov Zhilinski, was dismissed. Hindenburg, meanwhile, was hailed a hero back in Germany after back-to-back victories against the Russians.

It may seem like a relatively small battle, yet casualties were high. The Russians suffered 125,000 losses and the Germans 40,000. Additionally, some 5,000 Russian soldiers were taken as German POW’s.

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The Battle of Tannenberg

On August 26, 1914, the Battle of Tannenberg began in East Prussia in the city of Allenstein – the first battle of WWI to take place on the Eastern Front. The German 8th Army, commanded by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, encircled the Russian 2nd and 1st Armies, under the command of Generals Aleksandr Samsonov and P.K. Rennenkampf, respectively.

Previously, Russia had entered into German territory by splitting up. Gen. Samsonov led the 2nd Army around the Southwestern corner of Prussia, while Gen. Rennenkampf led the 1st Army into Northeast Prussia. Their plan was to join forces again in an attack against General Prittwitz’s 8th Germany army. According to their intel, the bulk of Germany’s armies were currently busy fighting in France; the two Russian armies should have no trouble taking out the outnumbered German army.

But, it was a minor Russian victory at the Battle of Gumbinnen six days earlier, that was Rennenkampf’s undoing.

After his victory, Rennenkampf decided to take a moment to regroup his troops. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, The German chief of general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, had replaced the commanders of the 8th army with two generals of some stature.

And now, the Russian generals were “separated by the great Masurian Lakes” with no effective way to “communicate with each other as to their movements” (Source). And, the Germans were planning a phenomenal attack, prepared by Colonel Maximilian Hoffman.

His plan was, firstly, to confuse Gen. Rennenkampf by sending cavalry troops “as a screen to Vistula” (Source). Then, he would send Gen. Hermann von Francois’s I Corps to Southwest Prussia to head off General Samsonov on his left wing, while two more corps would move into the right. Finally, a fourth corps would wait in Vistula to meet Gen. Samsonov head on.

Admittedly, “Ludendorff succumbed to his nerves initially, delaying the start of the German attack by one day,” (Source). But, then, on the 26th, Hoffman was given two intelligence reports. They gave him everything he needed to know. Most importantly, that the Germans need not fear a combined attack from the Russians.

[Below: German intelligence]

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It was with this information that “the Germans were able to take Samsonov’s army by surprise with the force of their attack near the village of Tannenberg” (Source).

The one day delay on the German side had allowed Samsonov’s army enough time to advance deeply into the German lines. But he underestimated the true strength of the German armies. Samsonov’s own armies had been overstrung; in great need of food and sleep.

This worked out to the German’s advantage. The Russian 1st Army, under Samsonov, had “blundered into an ambush” (Source). They were surrounded by Germans.

“After three days of battering by German artillery, Samsonov’s troops began their retreat; more German forces cut off their path and a massive slaughter ensued” (Source).

In all, some 92,000 Russians were captured at Tannenberg and another 50,000 were killed. Only about 10,000 of Samsonov’s men were able to escape. The Germans, meanwhile, “suffered fewer than 20,000 casualties and, in addition to prisoners, captured over 500 guns. Sixty trains were required to transport captured equipment to Germany” (Source).

Humiliated about reporting the disaster to the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, Samsonov shot himself in the forest. His body was found by German search parties and he was given a military burial.

[Below: Allenstein]

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