One hundred years ago today, the greatest German victory of the First World War was won in the East, against vastly superior numbers of Russian forces, at the Battle of Tannenberg.
In mid-August 1914, the two large Russian armies in the East had made incursion on German soil, and threatened to subsume much of the German countryside. In the weeks leading up to the massive action, the German 8th Army was roughly handled at Gumbinnen, and its commander, General Maximilian von Prittwitz, ordered a withdrawal behind the Vistula. German Chief of General Staff von Moltke (the Younger) dismissed Prittwitz, replacing him with General Paul von Hindenburg, who had been called out of retirement (He had retired in 1911, and had first seen action almost a half century before, at Königgratz in 1866.). Barbara Tuchman’s description of the elderly Hindenburg waiting at a siding in a Prussian railroad station in his sky-blue Prussian General’s uniform is a striking one. Hindenburg’s Chief of Staff was to be General Erich Ludendorff. Hindenburg was most fortunate to retain Prittwitz’s Chief of Operations, the brilliant Colonel Max Hoffman, who would be the true architect of the great victory at Tannenberg, though contemporary opinion gave nearly all the credit to Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
The battle, which began on 26 August, featured some of the first instances of what is now called signals intelligence. The Russians, inexplicably, transmitted orders and messages over wireless communications sets entirely in the clear, giving Hindenburg and Ludendorff the Russian plans and intentions from the two Russian commanders, Samsonov and Rennenkampf (whose full name, Paul von Rennenkampf, seems far more suited for German than Russian high command), and from the Russian Army Chief of Staff Zhilinski.
Hoffman’s plan reversed the withdrawal over the Vistula for the German 8th Army, and instead set a series of traps for the widely-separated and badly coordinated Russian armies. On the narrow end of a 1:3.5 force ratio (The Russians with almost 800,000 combined between Samsonov and Rennenkampf, and the Germans with about 210,000), Hindenburg gambled with an economy of force action that a thinly held line could halt the Russians long enough for the trap to be sprung on Samsonov. Rennenkampf, who personally despised Samsonov (the feeling was mutual), did little to come to his aid. Near Konigsberg, Samsonov’s army was surrounded, and between 29 and 30 August was annihilated. The numbers staggered the imagination.
Samsonov’s 150,000 engaged troops lost nearly 30,000 killed and 90,000 captured. More than 500 guns and mountains of supplies and ammunition were captured by the Germans or abandoned by the fleeing Russians. It is estimated that the ordnance and equipment required sixty trains to be transported to Germany. Samsonov, for his part, famously killed himself as he and his staff wandered in the German woods. Rennenkampf withdrew from the battle largely intact, but would be ejected for good from German soil at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes in the second week of September. Russian forces would not set foot on German soil again until January of 1945.
Hindenburg, with a strong grasp of history, insisted that this decisive battle of encirclement be named for one of the villages which had been the scene of a Teutonic defeat five centuries earlier. His written summary of the great battle included the following:
On August 24 I motored with my small Staff to the Headquarters of the 10th Corps, and thus entered the village which was to give its name to the battle so soon to blaze up.
Tannenberg! A word pregnant with painful recollections for German chivalry, a Slav cry of triumph, a name that is fresh in our memories after more than five hundred years of history.
Before this day I had never seen the battlefield which proved so fateful to German culture in the East. A simple monument there bore silent witness to the deeds and deaths of heroes. On one of the following days we stood near this monument while Samsonof’s Russian Army was going to its doom of sheer annihilation.
The Battle of Tannenberg featured another interesting situation, which is an object lesson in the high quality of German military leadership. Ludendorff had ordered I Corps commander General von Francois to attack Sazonov’s flank on 25 August. Francois, desperately short of artillery ammunition, abjectly refused. He informed Ludendorff that he would not attack without sufficient artillery support, and was due an ammunition delivery on 27 August, and that the tactical situation allowed him to afford the wait. Interestingly, intercepts of Russian messages showed Francois to be correct, and he was neither relieved nor punished. He was instead allowed to begin his attack on the date he stated, when the supply of artillery ammunition would be adequate.
On 31 August, Hindenburg was able to dispatch the following message to the Kaiser:
I beg most humbly to report to Your Majesty that the ring round the larger part of the Russian Army was closed yesterday. The 13th. 15th and 18th Army Corps have been destroyed. We have already taken more than 60,000 prisoners, among them the Corps Commanders of the 13th and 15th Corps.
The guns are still in the forests and are now being brought in. The booty is immense though it cannot yet be assessed in detail. The Corps outside our ring, the 1st and 6th, have also suffered severely and are now retreating in hot haste through Mlawa and Myszaniec.
The Russian threat in the East, so ominous in those August days, was shattered. It would be eliminated for good at Masurian Lakes in September. Hindenburg, for his part, was largely complimentary of the Russian soldier, of his toughness and bravery. His descriptions of the magnanimity of the German soldier toward the Russian prisoners, while accurate in 1914, stands in stark contrast to the events of the next war.