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East Prussian Campaign
Part of the Eastern Front during World War I
BattleOfTannenberg1.jpg
Eastern Front, August 17–23, 1914.
Date August 17 - September 14, 1914
Location East Prussia
Result German victory
Belligerents
 Russian Empire  German Empire
Commanders
Paul von Rennenkampf
Alexander Samsonov
Paul von Hindenburg
Erich Ludendorff
Maximilian von Prittwitz
Strength
I Army
II Army
VIII Army
Casualties and losses
369,000 67,000

The Russian invasion of East Prussia occurred during the First World War, lasting from August to September 1914. As well as being the natural course for the Russians to take upon the declaration of war with Germany, it was also an attempt to focus German military eyes on the Eastern Front, as opposed to the Western Front, where France was increasingly under the strain of her own German invasion.

Plans

The Germans initially planned to have only a 8th army to act as a bulkwark against any Russian incursion. However, the 9th Army was stationed in central Germany to reinforce the 8th if needed. It was expected that the Russians would be slow to mobilise, leaving Germany to beat France in a few weeks, and allowing the victorious, battle-hardened German troops to transfer along Germany's superior transport network to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. This was the basis of the Schlieffen Plan.

Battle

However, quite unexpectedly, Russia was able to mobilise an invasion into East Prussia (Prussia being one of the integral states of the German union, and thus her invasion was a blow to the German morale, and her general state). As said, the Germans only had 10 divisions of the German Eighth Army under General Maximilian von Prittwitz. The Russians had been able to mobilise the First Army, under General Paul von Rennenkampf, and the Second Army, under General Alexander Samsonov. They entered East Prussia on 7-9 August.

The Battle of Stallupönen, fought between Russian and German armies on August 17, 1914, was the opening battle of World War I on the Eastern Front. It was a minor German success, but did little to upset the Russian timetables.

The Battle of Gumbinnen, started by the Germans on August 20, 1914 was the first major offense in the Eastern Front during the First World War. Due to the hastiness of the German attack, the Russian army emerged victorious. Germans were forced to retreat, perhaps with the intention of performing holding actions in Mazuria, or perhaps even retreating to the River Vistula, which would have meant abandoning the salient of East Prussia. This would have fit in with the plans made before the start of the First World War that these were the positions the Germans would retreat if they put up a much stronger fight than they had anticipated. Regardless of whatever preparations had been made, it still remained that the Germans could not let the Prussian capital, Königsberg, to fall into Russian hands. The moral, symbolic and military (since it was a major military hub) value of the city meant to lose it was to invite disaster of the home, as well as the army and front. Also, it was very likely that the Russians would have used the upper hand they had now gained, gain more men for an attack, to overwhelm the static German defenses. In short, the Germans had to fight back immediately and force the Russians from East Prussia.

Moltke, who was Chief of the German General Staff from 1906 to 1914, on the 22nd August replaced Prittwitz with Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg along with his Chief of Staff, the formidable Ludendorff, would approach the crisis in East Prussia very differently from Prittwitz, who panicked when the Russian onslaught entered East Prussia, and planned to take the offensive. Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided to encircle one of the opposing armies. They chose to send eight divisions against Samsonov in the Battle of Tannenberg, resulting in over 30,000 captured and 18,000 killed. The Second Army had been defeated, Samsonov had shot himself.

In the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, the Germans forced the First Army to retreat out of East Prussia.

The invasion had been a ghastly failure for the Russians. However, the crisis they caused in the German High Command forced them to send the German 9th Army to attack the Russians. They didn't arrive in time for the twin battles; had they entered France, they could have been tremendously helpful to the precarious situation in the West. In Head of French Intelligence Colonel Dupont's words, "their debacle was one of the elements of our victory."

References

  • The Eastern Front, Osprey Publishing.
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