Why did the Germans win the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914?

Luddendorf and Von Hindenburg

In 1914, the Battle of Tannenberg was fought between Imperial Germany and Russia. It was an extraordinary victory for the Germany. Germany benefitted from poor Russian coordination and the superior artillery. Ultimately, the Battle of Tannenberg secured eastern Germany from further Russian incursions.

Background

On the 15th of August 1914, two huge Russian Armies, number over three quarters of a million men began their advance into East Prussia, part of the German Reich. The Russian Tsar had previously agreed that in the event of a German invasion of France, that his armies would invade German territory.[1] The Tsar would send his armies deep into eastern Germany in order to relieve pressure on France. It was believed that this would give the western allies, the opportunity to beat back any German invasion of France, by forcing Berlin to fight a war on two fronts.

A war in the east and the west had long been the nightmare of the German High Command. The strategy adopted by the Germans was to invade France and undertake a defensive strategy in the east in 1914. The German High Command under Von Moltke the younger, order the 8th army to defend East Prussia from any Russian attack.[2] However, the Germans are taken by surprise by the Russian invasion. They invaded much quicker that Von Moltke had expected, even though the Russians advance was slow. The Russian 1st Army and the 2nd Army moved across the border into Prussia. The two armies were separated by the Masurian Lakes, and their progress was slowed by the terrain.

The two armies intended to meet and then advance to meet the German army and to destroy it in a pincer movement. However, the German 8th army opted to advance to meet the 1st Russian army before it could link up with the 2nd army. By August the 19th, the Russian 1st Army had advanced to the town of Gumbinnen, and here they waited for battle.[3] The commander of the 8th army panicked and he ordered a general retreat and this left East Prussia open to the Russians. The Russian 1st army was now free to move deep into Prussia and threatened its capital Konigsberg (modern Kaliningrad). The German army was pressing further into France and yet the position in the east was fast deteriorating.

Prelude to Battle

Helmuth von Moltke, had ordered the 8th army to go on the offensive before the two Russian armies could meet up and was furious with its withdrawal. Von Moltke fired the commander of the 8th army and he never served in the army again. His best generals were all engaged in the west. He then made an eccentric but inspired choice. He named General Paul von Hindenburg, a 67-year-old retired general as commander of the 8th army. To assist him Moltke named Erich Ludendorff, as his chief of staff, he had become a national hero when he seized the fortresses at Liege. The younger man was supposed to help the older man in the defence of eastern Germany. They formed a unique partnership and one that was to prove very effective.[4]

The German High Command decided to divert divisions from the west to the east. They were quickly transported by rail and they only took a week to travel from Belgium to East Prussia. Hindenburg and Ludendorff immediately began to reorganise the demoralised 8th army. The old general was able to restore the morale of the army. Ludendorff was a brilliant organiser and he was able to restore some order to the army, but this was very challenging as the roads were thronged with frightened Prussian refugees fleeing the advancing Russians.[5] The Germans knew that the two Russian armies could not be allowed to join up. If the two armies met they would outnumber the Germans by approximately three to one. Von Hindenburg decided to attack the Russian 2nd army under General Samsunov. This was deemed to be the most dangerous by the Germans, for if it was not stopped it could capture the capital of Prussia. The German High Command hoped that after the Russian 1st army was stopped that the German 8th army could go on to defeat the 2nd army.[6]

The Battle

Von Hindenburg at the Battle of Tannenberg

The Germans planning was very much helped by their intelligence services. On August the 26, the Germans intercepted wireless communications between the Russian First and Second Army. This allowed them to know the positions and intentions of the two Russian armies commanders, they also had aerial recognisance photographs. Based on the intelligence reports the Germans decided to launch a surprise attack. The German army moved forward to meet the Russians near Allenstein. The Russian army was huge and slow moving and the commander was overconfident and arrogant.[7] Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff ordered the German Divisions to move forward. The forward units of the Russian army were soon sighted but it was such a huge army that it would take some time for it to be in a position to attack the Germans. The German commanders then ordered a three-day artillery bombardment, which inflicted appalling casualties on the Russian Divisions. However, they continued to press forward. On the 26th of August, the Germans launched their attack. They placed their best divisions on the flanks and they easily drove back the Russian flanks.

Ludendorff and Von Hindenberg ordered the centre of the German army to give way before the Russian centre, where the bulk of the enemy’s forces had been concentrated. In the words of Ludendorff ‘’In the first place, we opposed a thin centre to Samsonov's solid mass. I say thin, not weak. For it was composed of men with hearts and wills of steel. Behind them were their homes, wives and children, parents and relatives and everything they had. It was the 10th Corps, brave East and West Prussians.’’ [8]

The Russians were unaware that they were entering into a trap until it was too late. The German artillery pounded the Russians and they smashed the advance, the divisions of the Tsar were soon in disarray. The commander of the 2nd army ordered his men to retreat but it was too late. The Germans had outflanked the Imperial Russian units and they had effectively trapped them. The Russian army disintegrated and suffered appalling casualties and it was every man for himself.[9] Many Russians escaped through the marshes and woods of East Prussia, but even more were killed or captured. Samsonov knew that his army was surrounded and that he was no longer in control, he resigned his command and went into a nearby forest and he shot himself. The Germans had secured a remarkable victory.

Aftermath

The Russian 2nd army was effectively finished as a fighting force and the German army was able to effectively remove the Russians from the area to the north of the Masurian Lake. It is estimated that over 42,000 Russian soldiers were killed up to 100,000 taken as prisoners at the Battle of Tannenberg. The German losses were far less. The Russian defeat shocked the west and one British Field Marshall declared it to be the greatest defeat suffered by any army in the world. However, many historians have taken a more nuanced approach to the battle it was "a major victory but far from decisive." [10] That was because the Russian 2nd army was still in East Prussia. Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg moved the 8th army, which was reinforced by divisions from the west.

At the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes a week after Tannenberg, German Eighth Army attacked the Russian First Army. The 8th army once more battered the Russians with their artillery and attacked them on the flanks. The Russian commander left East Prussia to avoid being encircled and annihilated. The battle was no actually fought at the village of Tannenberg but Von Hindenburg had named the battle after the German defeat in the battle of that name in the middle ages. It was his attempt to portray his and Ludendorff’s victory as avenging this defeat. The German defense of East Prussia was remarkable given the disparity in the two armies, according to Hindenburg. ‘‘’Russia brought up no fewer than 800,000 men and 1,700 guns against East Prussia, for the defence of which we had only 210,000 German soldiers and 600 guns at our disposal.’’ [11]

The Battle and its impact on the war

The Battle of Tannenberg allowed the Germans to sweep the Russians out of East Prussia. However, Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg did not have enough men to go on the offensive. However, the Russian army was never again to threaten German territory. Tannenberg allowed the Germans to concentrate their forces in the west.[12] Once East Prussian was secure the German High Command was able to concentrate all its efforts on the western front.[13] Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg used the victory to establish their reputation in Germany, they are widely seen as the saviors of the nation. Their victory and later successes allowed them to eventually to become the commanders of the German Army and the de-facto military dictators of the Reich by 1918. On the face of it, the Battle of Tannenberg was a great victory. However, this German victory may have come at a cost. Not long after the great victory at Tannenberg and as the Germans were sweeping the Russians from all over East Prussia, they suffered a defeat in the west. At the Battle of the Marne, the French and British defeated the Germans and halted their advance on Paris.[14] The troops that are diverted by Von Moltke to the east could have titled the balance in the west and allowed the Germans to capture Paris and end the war. As a result, many historians have questioned if the Battle was such a great victory for the Germans.[15]

Reasons for the German Victory

Unveiling of the monument to the Battle of Tannenberg

The battle was a strategic victory for the Germans in the east. This was despite the fact that they were outnumbered. One of the main reasons for the victory was the undoubted superiority of the German guns and especially their heavy artillery. Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg had access to cannons made by Krupp’s and Skoda and they were able to fire shells at a faster rate than the Russians.[16] These guns could also fire heavier shells.

The Germans were able to obliterate entire units and caused near panic in the ranks of the Russians. Another factor for the success of the German was the leadership of Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. They retrieved a near disastrous situation and they developed an effective strategy that exploited their strengths and the weaknesses of the Russians, especially their relative lack of mobility. They German generals adopted a classic military tactic first used by Hannibal, that of weakening the centre and strengthen the flanks to encircle the enemy. [17]

By contrast, the Russians are poorly lead and there was a great deal of confusion in the command structure. The Russian at the battle were poorly supplied as their supply lines came under strain and could not supply the army with the supplies that it needed. This hampered their ability to fight the Germans at the battle of Tannenberg.<Hastings, p. 118</ref> Another factor in the German victory was the Russian decision to split their forces. It is usually deemed inadvisable to split an army at any time, but especially in enemy territory. The Russians split their forces when they should have concentrated their forces either north or south of the Masurian Lake. Then there was the role of intelligence in the battle. The Russians had little or no intelligence on the German army and its movements. Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg knew exactly what the Russians were planning and their aims.[18] This made it easy for the German command to devise a plan to trap the Russian 2nd army.

Conclusion

The Battle of Tannenberg was one of the greatest victories of the First World War. It ensured that Russia would never again to menace German territory and it allowed the Germans to concentrate their forces on the western front. It was also important as it was the beginning of the rise of Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg, who eventually came to control the Germany army. They had been able to defeat the Russians because of their superior tactics and strategy. The superior German guns and intelligence were also a factor. However, the failings of the Russian army also contributed to its defeat. The Russian 1st army was poorly led and poorly coordinated and was also very immobile and very slow to take the initiative. Perhaps the greatest single reason for the success of the German 8th army at Tannenberg despite being outnumbered was the leadership and vision of Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg.

References

  1. Hastings, Max. Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914 (London, William Collins, 2013) p. 281
  2. Hastings, p. 282
  3. Strachan, H. " The First World War: Vol. I: To Arms (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001) p.298
  4. Stone, David. The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2015), p. 116
  5. Stone, p. 89
  6. Stone, p. 117
  7. Harrison, Richard W., "Samsonov and the Battle of Tannenberg, 1914", in Bond, Brian, Fallen Stars. Eleven Studies of Twentieth Century Military Disaster, London: Brassey's, pp. 13–31
  8. Paul Von Hindenberg, "A summary of the Battle of Tannenberg." Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne (National Alumni, London, 1923)
  9. Strachan, p. 113
  10. Strachan, p. 117
  11. Von Hindenburg, p. 2
  12. Hastings, p. 113
  13. Strachan, p. 114
  14. Harrison, p. 29
  15. Strachan, p. 118
  16. Harrison, p. 29
  17. Strachan, p. 120
  18. Von Hindenburg, p. 3