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First Battle of the Masurian Lakes
Part of the Eastern Front during World War I
EasternFront1914a.jpg
Eastern Front to 26 September 1914.
Date 9 - 14 September 1914
Location East Prussia, present-day Poland
Result German victory
Belligerents
 German Empire  Russian Empire
Commanders
Paul von Hindenburg Paul von Rennenkampf
Strength
German Eighth Army Russian First Army
Casualties and losses
40,000[1] killed or wounded 125.000[1] killed and wounded, 45.000 captured

The First Battle of the Masurian Lakes was a German offensive in the Eastern Front during the early stages of World War I. It pushed the Russian First Army back across its entire front, eventually ejecting it from Germany in disarray. Further progress was hampered by the arrival of the Russian Tenth Army on the German's left flank. Although not as devastating as the Battle of Tannenberg that took place a week earlier, the battle nevertheless upset the Russian plans into the spring of 1915.

Contents

Background

The Russian offensive in the east had started well enough, with General Rennenkampf's 1st Army (Army of the Neman) forcing the Germans westward from the border towards Königsberg. Meanwhile the Russian Second Army approached from the south, hoping to cut the Germans off in the area around the city. Instead, Colonel Max Hoffmann developed a plan to attack the Second while it attempted to move north over some particularly hilly terrain, culminating in the complete destruction of the Second Army between 26 and 30 August, 1914.

The offensive was only possible due to the personal animosity between the Russian Generals; the commander of the Second, Alexander Samsonov, had publicly criticized Rennenkampf some years earlier (about the Battle of Mukden in 1905), and it is said that the two had come to blows over the matter. When Samsonov became aware of the German movements he requested that the gap between the two armies be closed up, but Rennenkampf was in no hurry to close the gap between the two armies, leaving Samsonov isolated miles to the southwest. When the nature of the German counteroffensive became clear, Rennenkampf had his troops move as quickly as possible to help, but they were simply too far to be of any use.

By the time the battle proper ended on the 30 August (Samsonov committed suicide on 29 August), the closest of Rennenkampf's units, his II Corps, was still over 45 miles (70 km) from the pocket. In order to get even this close his units had to rush southward, and were now spread out over a long line running southward from just east of Königsberg. An attack by the German Eighth Army from the west would flank the entire army. Of course the Germans were also very far away, but unlike the Russians, the Germans could easily close the distance using their extensive rail network in the area.

On 31 August, with Tannenberg lost, Rennenkampf had been ordered to stand his ground in case of a German attack, which was expected. Realizing his forces were too spread out to be effective, he ordered a withdrawal to a line running from Königsberg's defensive works in the north, to the Masurian Lakes near Angerburg in the south, anchored on the Omer River. Bolstering his forces were the newly-formed XXVI Corp, which he placed in front of Königsberg, moving his more experienced troops south into the main lines. His forces also included two infantry divisions held in reserve. All in all, he appeared to be in an excellent position to wait the arrival of the Russian Tenth Army, forming up to his south.

Battle

German efforts at mopping up the remains of the Second Army were essentially complete by 2 September, and Paul von Hindenburg immediately started moving his units to meet the southern end of Rennenkampf's line. He was able to safely ignore the Russian right (in the north), which was in front of the extensive defensive works outside of Königsberg. Adding to his force were two newly arrived Corps from the Western Front, the Gd.R and the XI. For the first time since the opening of the war, the Germans now had numerical superiority.

Like Rennenkampf, Hindenburg fed his newest troops into the northern end of the line, and planned an offensive against the south. But unlike Rennenkampf, Hindenburg had enough forces not only to cover the entire front in the Insterburg Gap, but had additional forces "left over". He sent his most capable units, the I and XVII Corps, far to the south of the lines near the middle of the Lakes, and send the 3rd Reserve Division even further south to Lyck, about 30 miles from the southern end of Rennenkampf's line.

Hindenburg's southern units started their advance on 5 September, initially meeting no resistance. It was not until the 7th that the forces met in any sort of battle, and the battle proper not opening until the next day. Throughout the 8th the German forces in the north hammered at the Russian forces facing them, who were forced to make an orderly withdrawal eastward. In the south, however, things were not going so well. The German XVII Corps had met their counterpart, the Russian II, but were at this point outnumbered. The II maneuvered well, and by the end of the day had managed to get their left flank into position for a flanking attack on the Germans, potentially encircling them.

All hopes of a victory vanished the next day on September 9 when the German I Corps arrived beside the XVII, now on the Russian's own flank. Meanwhile the 3 Reserve Division had met the XXII even further south, and after a fierce battle forced them to fall back southeastward; its commander wired Rennenkampf he had been attacked and defeated near Lych, and could do nothing but withdraw. Rennenkampf ordered a counteroffensive in the north to buy time to reform his lines, managing to push the German XX Corp back a number of miles. However the Germans did not stop to reform their own lines, and instead continued their advances in the south and north. This left the victorious Russian troops badly isolated, but they were nevertheless able to retreat to the new lines being set up to the east.

Now the battle turned decisively in the Germans' favor. By 11 September the Russians had been pushed back to a line running from Insterburg to Angerburg in the north, with a huge flanking maneuver developing to the south. It was at this point that the threat of encirclement appeared possible. Rennenkampf ordered a general retreat toward the Russian border, which happened rapidly under the protection of a strong rear guard. It was this speed that allowed the Russian troops to prevent Hindenburg's snare from closing on them. The German commander had ordered his wings to quicken their march as much as possible, but a trivial accident, rumors of a supposed Russian attack, made his men lose about half a day, and thus the Russians managed to escape. The Russians reached Gumbinnen the next day, and Stallupönen on the 13th. With no end in sight, the Russians retreated over the border to the safety of the guns of their border forts. The Russian Tenth Army was also forced to retreat eastward to continue forming up in safety.

Outcome

The Eighth Army had now completed one of the most astounding victories in history, completely destroying the Second Army, badly damaging the First, and ejecting all Russian troops from German soil. Meanwhile, new German corps (under von der Goltz) were able to use this movement to safely move into position to harass the scattered remains of the Second Army, while far to the southwest the new German Ninth was forming up. It would not be long before they were able to face the Russians in a position of numerical superiority. However, this advantage was bought at a cost: the newly arrived corps had been sent from the Western front and their absence would be felt in the upcoming Battle of the Marne. Although strategically significant, the "main" battles of the Eastern Front were actually taking place between Austria-Hungary and Russia far to the south. Like the Germans, the Austro-Hungarians collapsed the Russian lines, and appeared to be in a good position to push them out of Poland entirely. This battle would soon be reversed, however, and the initial victories in the east would bog down.

References

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