Scenario Preview, Part Six
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The 1914 Battle of Tannenberg (and the battles for East Prussia that came just before and just after) is one of the more-studied battles of the First World War, and that made August 1914 if not easier, than at least less difficult to research than some clashes of the period. In between the first and second editions, a flurry of new scholarship appeared to mark the war’s centennial, and I eagerly read all I could find. I actually like doing this stuff.
I decided to hold at 40 scenarios, though I could have added a great many more. But I did tweak them a lot, particularly as I gained a better grasp on the use of artillery in the Great War and changed the series rules to reflect that.
So let’s look at Chapter Six of Infantry Attacks: August 1914, which represents the climax of the great battle:
Tannenberg: The Third Day
By the morning of the 28th, Second Army headquarters had lost control of its formations. Samsonov ordered his VI Corps to commit another cavalry division to the battle on his right flank and hold firm in the gaps between the lakes. The Russian army commander was still unaware that VI Corps had been crushed two days earlier and remained unable to carry out his orders.
With the Russian I Corps on the Russian left flank shattered, the German I Corps and its attached formations threatened to roll up the Russians even as the German I Reserve Corps did the same to the Russian XIII Corps. That left Gen. Nikolai Nikolaevich Martos’ XV Corps exposed to attacks on both flanks. Samsonov decided to shutter his headquarters and, requisitioning horses from his Cossack personal guard, ride to join Martos and take personal command of his corps.
It was already too late. Even as he ordered XV Corps to fall back, Samsonov sent Martos to organize a rear-guard defense along a line already in German hands. Second Army was dying.
28 August 1914
The German XX Corps’ attack plan called for 41st Division to strike into the Russian rear, and only after their success would the 3rd Reserve Division with two attached Landwehr brigades make a frontal assault to crush the Russian XIII Corps between them. When 41st Division’s advance failed miserably, Lt. Gen. Kurt von Morgen sent his reservists forward anyway, without reconnaissance or artillery support.
Third Reserve Division’s 6th Reserve Brigade plunged into the Jablonken Forest with little preparation, not waiting for artillery support or for reconnaissance. Once among the trees they met the massed Russian Narva Infantry Regiment, in a furious close-quarters fight described in some detail in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's August 1914. After hours of close-quarters combat, in which the massed German machine-gun companies provided a “wall” of fire support, the Germans finally pressed forward to capture the village of Hohenstein.
That description in Solzhenitsyn is what made me study military history and design wargames. It’s been more than four decades now, but I still remember sitting and reading it under my grandmother’s willow tree.
28 August 1914
With troops of both sides reeling from exhaustion and short of food and ammunition, the Germans pressed forward in hopes of finishing off the Russian Second Army. The 41st Division, unable to advance as ordered, put together battle groups as best it could and pushed them into the darkness. At the small town of Waplitz, a shallow stream held up the German advance.
The Germans got across the bridge, and then their advance faltered. Combat engineers tried to widen the bridgehead, but failed to break through. The Russians squeezed the Germans into the town of Waplitz, where 300 of them surrendered. The 41st Division began to break up, and fell back rapidly to its starting lines. Several of the division’s batteries deployed in the open to cover the retreat, holding off Russian infantry with shrapnel fired over open sights before they were obliterated by Russian artillery fire.
This is an odd little scenario, built around the struggle of a small German force to get across a river and hang onto the territory on the other side with the help of engineers. There are actually a lot of troops in play considering the size of the battlefield.
28 August 1914
Stationed in Warsaw during peacetime and thus spared most of the court ceremonial assigned to the Guard Corps, yet drawing on the pick of the officer corps and draft pool, the Russian 3rd Guards Division considered itself the best fighting division in the Imperial Army. Sent forward to shore up Second Army's crumbling left flank, the Keksgolmski Guards Regiment faced an entire German division by itself. The Guardsmen dug rifle pits and fox holes behind a thick cavalry screen, and awaited the Germans with professional indifference.
For once, the Russian cavalry did its job, making it difficult for the Germans to approach the main line of resistance in an orderly fashion. When they did, they met a wall of rifle and machine-gun fire that inflicted massive casualties at little loss to the Guardsmen. The Russian officers, using all the lessons won in 1904 and 1905 at such great cost, had laid out interlocking fields of fire and instilled strict fire discipline in their men.
Now we get to use those Guards pieces! The Russian Guards are tough, and they’re well positioned. There aren’t many of them, but the Germans are going to have a hard time ejecting them.
“Just Like a Wargame”
28 August 1914
With the Russians falling back after the morning actions, the Germans marched after them in pursuit. German troops faced no resistance when they entered Allenstein with no resistance, while the Russian XIII Corps retreated to the south. Otto von Below of I Reserve Corps received orders to pursue them after army command had already sent his divisions south without his approval. “Just like a wargame,” he muttered to his staff.
Flushed with an easy victory, the Germans passed through Allenstein in parade formation and pressed southward after the Russian XIII Corps. The corps rear guard turned and fought with suicidal abandon, resisting until its ammunition was exhausted and then charging the Germans with bayonets. The sacrifice bought time for their divisions to rally, but time was running out for Second Army.
It’s a race game, with the Germans trying to stop the Russians from retreating off the map. I designed the scenario as an excuse to use that title, but it’s a pretty good one anyway.
28 August 1914
Georg Freiherr von der Goltz’s North German Landwehr division began the war guarding the Danish frontier, but soon found itself facing Russian regulars in the front lines. Ordered into action east of Tannenberg, von der Goltz expected to push toward the south to increase pressure on the Russian Second Army. Instead he found his motley division under attack from the north, as the Russian XIII Corps attempted to rejoin its fellows.
The German Landwehr, middle-aged men who’d passed out of the reserve, had no machine guns, M1871 rifles firing black-powder cartridges, and little refresher training. Yet they put up surprisingly stiff resistance, holding back the Russians and helping to set the trap for Second Army. In the swirling smoke of the burning Kämmereiwald forest and their own black powder, they located one another by swapping the old Hamburg greeting of “Hummel! Hummel!” and the traditional Plattdeutsch response of “Mors! Mors!” (“kiss my ass!”).
The burden of the attack is on the Russians, who have numbers, firepower and morale on their side. They have to accomplish a lot in order to win, so the Germans have a chance to disrupt their advance and score a win for the home team.
And that’s Chapter Six. Next time, it’s Chapter Seven.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published eleventy-million books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.