One hundred years ago on the Eastern Front, doom in a forgotten battle
May 16, 2015 7:08 PM   Subscribe

"She was outclassed in everything except bravery" In April 1915 the Russian empire was on the verge of entering Hungary, having taken the great fortress of Przemyśl. But in May a German-led surprise offensive cracked Russian lines, shattering entire armies and causing a 300-mile retreat in what was probably "the greatest victory of World War I by the Central Powers". Nearly one million prisoners were taken. Moscow lost the ruins of Przemyśl and all of Poland. For the next two years Russia will struggle but ultimately lose, tsardom falling to revolutions and the rise of the Soviet state. posted by doctornemo (12 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
If you haven't already, look up Dan Carlin's Hard Core History podcast on WWI - Blueprint for Armageddon. They're currently free to stream.

He goes into what the French and British and Americans and Austro-Hungarians were thinking, kinda but not really, and really dives deep into what the hell was going on on the German and Russian side of things. It's not pretty. The Germans were inches away from winning the whole damn thing, and their soldiers never surrendered on German soil. (Short of it - Canadians and Australians and Americans were fucking insanely good soldiers who were not just brave and good shots, but learned real quick how not to die right away, something the elite German troops never figured out. Also, the British won at sea, and could feed the Western armies with their immense merchant fleet, also American freighters, which got us into that hot mess to begin with. Also, the Communists that the Germans sent gleefully into Russia came back their way with a vengeance.)

He goes into the scale of it in an intense and personal way. This isn't dry dates and names history, though names are named and dates declared. It's the most insane horror story you can think of, immense beyond comprehension. There's a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach from beginning to end.

He relates an anecdote from the front, where miles from the front lines, soldiers couldn't light their cigarettes because the shockwaves caused by heavy artillery blew out their matches as quick as they could light them... and on the battle lines, after the artillery got done turning the pleasant forests, meadows and fields of Europe into the moon, only poisonous, there were surviving units who could still fight... with fucking machine guns.

Picture a professional football stadium in a big NFL market. Packed, standing room only. They're all dead in less than an hour. There's months where everyday there's a battle like that.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:09 PM on May 16, 2015 [13 favorites]

Agreed. Carlin's doing a terrific job w/WWI so far.
I've been appreciating _Now It Can Be Told_, an account he relies on, that was new to me.
posted by doctornemo at 8:21 PM on May 16, 2015

In "The Codebreakers", David Kahn talks about this campaign. One of the big reasons Russia got slaughtered so badly was because the Russians were having so much trouble with their codes talking to each other, that they eventually stopped using them and began sending their messages to each other in clear. The Germans intercepted all of this, and once scouting confirmed that it was genuine, they were able to take advantage of the opportunity to crush one of the Russian armies, and push the other back.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:27 PM on May 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Chocolate Pickle, was Kahn referring to Tannenberg (1914)?
posted by doctornemo at 8:46 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great post! I see none of the shorter links (I don't have time to look at the books now) goes into the reasons for Russia's catastrophic lack of men and materiel on the Austrian front and in general; the reason for the first is an eternal problem with armies, the second is specific to tsarist Russia.

The reason Gen. Ivanov was undersupplied in the south is that Gen. Alekseev, facing the Germans in the north, fought a successful bureaucratic battle to keep from having men and guns taken away from his sector to supply the advancing troops in the south. That is, of course, standard practice for generals (and any other managerial types—"Yes, I have 2,000 boxes of Xerox paper that may look excessive to you, but I may need them all by the end of the fiscal year, and you'll just have to buy your own... It's true I can't stand that section head and am making her life miserable, but no, you can't have her for your department, where her skills are needed and everybody likes her, because that would mean diminishing my area of control and increasing yours"), but Stavka [the General Staff], in charge of the whole operation, should have knocked heads and done what was needed; instead, in the words of W. Bruce Lincoln (from Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918, essential reading for anyone interested in the Eastern Front):
Too easily swayed by [Alekseev's] urging, Stavka left hordes of troops in the northwest to guard against a possible German attack, and forced Ivanov to weaken his line all across Galicia in order to assemble a scant thirty divisions — hardly more than the number of Austrians he faced — for his Carpathian offensive.
Lincoln is also excellent on the general problem of manpower:
Numerous and capricious exemptions from military service, bureaucratic bungling, and the government's inability to marshal its citizens in defense of their nation, meant that Russia's military authorities were not able to tap those vast reserves of manpower that had loomed so large in the expectations of Allied planners before the war. Russia's military administration entangled everyone so thoroughly in trivial bureaucratic routines that no one had time to think about what really needed to be done or to deal with the responsibilities of real command. Even company and battery on the distant Central Asian frontier had to prepare between fifteen and twenty letters and reports each weekday, while their counterparts, who commanded nearer the center, had to send on as many as eight thousand such documents in a single year. So completely did such men lose sight of the forest as they tended each individual tree that one officer in the Artillery Department actually returned a letter in which a factory owner offered to donate his factory for war work because it did not bear the proper government stamp! [...]

Although awash in ink and enmeshed in red tape, none of Russia's staff officers ever thought to compile accurate lists of all men liable for military service [...], for they, like their counterparts in the West, had convinced themselves that any major war would be brief [...]. Certainly, the manpower for the much-vaunted "Russian steamroller" was available in the countryside, but without even lists of the men supposed to serve in the opolchenie [the territorial militia], General Staff planners could mobilize only a comparative handful. If Russia had been able to assemble her reserves of manpower in the same fashion as had France, she could have mobilized upward of sixty million men between August 1914 and the end of 1917, although it is another question altogether whether the Allies could have supplied them with the weapons, ammunition, and supplies that Russian industries could not produce. As it was, Russia never managed to mobilize even a quarter of that number.
That book, by the way, is the second in a trilogy that begins with In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War and ends with Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, and anyone interested in that period of Russia's history should read them all.
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on May 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

> Chocolate Pickle, was Kahn referring to Tannenberg (1914)?

Yes, and that "sent in clear" business is an easy oversimplification that makes for a fun sound bite but doesn't explain as much as it's cracked up to.
posted by languagehat at 9:15 AM on May 17, 2015

A hundred years on, it's still so hard to imagine the scale and ferocity of that war, and how deeply it scarred societies. I had a clutch of elderly maiden great-aunts who'd lost their fiancées, as did most families I knew; an entire shadow army of doting spinsters called Ethel and Flo and Joan and May, but it took a little while, as I grew up, to realise why. And how that matched all the Edwardian memorials and pre-Raphelite-style stained glass windows in the church, and where "I vow to thee, my country" came from. So much of it was masked by the far more accessible follow-up war... and that in itself is bewildering. Thirty years later, we did it again.

With work, I can absorb the military and logistical stories and get some sense of the scale of the enormity. I'm a long way from having a grasp of the cultural devastation, even just in Europe.

Dulce et decorum est.
posted by Devonian at 11:23 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

My favorite passage among all those I have ever read is from Tuchman, describing the Russian buildup to their invasion of Prussia (including the difficulty posed by the fact that they'd regauged their railways to prevent the reverse):
To send an army into modern battle on enemy territory, especially under the disadvantage of different railway gauges, is a hazardous and complicated undertaking requiring prodigies of careful organization. Systematic attention to detail was not a notable characteristic of the Russian Army.
posted by 7segment at 1:17 PM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Interesting that this victory over Russia was to help fuel the rise of the Nationalists later in Germany, who were fed the easily digested line that the whole war would have been won except for being "stabbed in the back" by Jewish bankers. Probably also led to their downfall, as they thought that Russia (later Soviet Union) had proven itself to be a pushover.
posted by telstar at 3:14 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

John Schindler's posts on the The Fall of Fortress Przemyśl to the Russians, and the subsequent Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive.

Given Schindler's background in the intelligence community, it's not surprising he highlights the effect of intelligence gathering into his telling of events of the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive:
Intelligence played a decisive role here. Guided by excellent Austro-Hungarian signals intelligence, code-breaking being one of the few areas where Vienna had a big lead over Berlin, the attackers knew the enemy’s order of battle in detail, as well as how tired and depleted many Russian units were. Supplemented by aerial reconnaissance that located enemy batteries and command posts, Prussians gunners assembled a fire plan that would defeat the Russians with precise artillery barrages, delivered quickly, before the attacking infantry went “over the top.”
He also notes the devastating side-effect that the offensive had on Italy, who had been convinced by the Allies, just a bit earlier in the year, to join in the war against an apparently severely weakened Hapsburg Empire:
The Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive kicked off a few days later, however, and the situation changed completely almost overnight. By the time Rome officially declared war on Vienna on May 23, Austria-Hungary was still quite alive and its forces were advancing deep into Russian territory alongside the Prussians. On the heels of victory in Galicia, Vienna was able to scrape together just enough forces to hold its border against Italy. Instead of a victory march, the Italians met a bloodbath on the Isonzo river that formed the mountainous border with Austria, and eleven major offensives there failed to crack the Habsburg defensive line, though they did result in the Great War’s biggest bloodbath. War, as life, is filled with unintended consequences.
posted by Kabanos at 7:43 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Awesome stuff, languagehat. Thank you for the Lincoln pointer. There's isn't much on the eastern front in English. Norman Stone introduces his classic book by complaining that nobody followed up on his work. There's some new material this year, which I look forward to.

Stavka... what a disastrous squandering of enormous resources.
posted by doctornemo at 7:36 AM on May 20, 2015

Thanks for that pointer, Kabanos.
posted by doctornemo at 8:06 AM on May 20, 2015

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