Part Two, First Battles
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Pavel von Rennenkampf’s First Army barely made good the Russian promise to invade Germany on the fifteenth day of mobilization, marching out of its concentration areas on 14 August 1914. With Second Army still some days from crossing the frontier, First Army moved forward on a broad front to find the Germans and bring them to battle.
Cavalry probes had already begun on 6 August, leading to a few minor clashes, but the bulk of First Army crossed the border on 17 August. Almost immediately they ran into strong German resistance.
At Eight Army headquarters, Prittwitz and his staff had a good idea of Russian intentions, and knew that First Army would likely enter German territory some days ahead of its sister formation. That gave the Germans a brief window to attack First Army, defeat it, and turn on Second Army. It would be a risky move; if the Germans were defeated, or simply tied up with First Army too long, Second Army would have the opportunity to trap them. Prittwitz decided to avoid the risk and ordered his front-line forces to fall back.
And now the German “mission tactics” brought Eighth Army close to disaster. I Corps commander Hermann von François decided to fight the six Russian division plus on rifle brigade that had crossed the border with his two German divisions. The Germans attacked the Russian III Corps in the center of Rennenkampf’s line, inflicting heavy casualties and driving it back. François got good service out of his corps’ heavy howitzers, while the Russian artillery support - the dozen 122mm howitzers attached to III Corps - does not appear to have fired at all during the day’s events. But the key moment came when Adalbert von Falk of the German 2nd Division marched to the sound of the guns and outflanked the Russian 27th Division, which collapsed amid widespread panic.
Stallupönen after the battle.
Improbably, this Battle of Stallupönen resulted in a German victory, stalling the Russian advance for several days as Rennenkampf re-ordered his divisions. Russian casualties topped 6,000 against roughly 1,000 for the Germans.
François finally withdrew, but the Russians did not resume their advance until late on the 18th. The Russians had a huge edge in cavalry, but almost all of it was stationed on the flanks of First Army, doing little to assist the advance, while very few horsemen scouted the ground in front of the advancing infantry. What reports did come from the cavalry had to be sent first to First Army headquarters and then back to the corps staffs.
The Russians moved forward on the 19th, but supply delays and continued disorganization caused Rennenkampf to order a halt for the 20th. Prittwitz had no intention of allowing the Russians to rest and had ordered an attack by I Corps along with XVII Corps, I Reserve Corps and several smaller independent units. The other two German corps could not arrive in time to join I Corps’ dawn attack, and so Prittwitz ordered them to attack piecemeal as they reached the battlefield. And so the German Eighth Army courted disaster by undertaking to fight three separate battles against the Russians. XVII and I Reserve Corps arrived even later than anticipated thanks to the need to navigate roads choked by fleeing German civilian refugees.
François (right) and Richard von Conta of 1st Division (left), spring 1914.
I Corps found the Russian right flank open, as the Russian cavalry corps that should have been screening the infantry had wandered off on the previous day. The Germans opened their attack before dawn, with a heavy artillery bombardment followed by a frontal assault that broke the Russian 28th Infantry Division. Its neighboring 28th Infantry Division quickly refused its own flank, however, and stabilized the Russian position. The German XVIII Corps, having marched through the night and conducted no reconnaissance, attacked in the center two and a half hours after I Corps. Here the Russian III Corps reacted quickly, giving ground in the center but holding firm on the flanks to draw the Germans into a salient.
By 3 p.m. both divisions of August von Mackensen’s XVII Corps had been defeated and forced to retreat; by 5 p.m. the retreat had become a rout and even the 65-year-old Mackensen was swept along when he tried to personally rally his fleeing troops.
On the German right flank, Otto von Below’s I Reserve Corps, aided by the separate 3rd Reserve Division, was to support Mackensen’s attack. Its cavalry found no opposition before them - missing two Russian corps marching to the battlefield - and Below ordered his troops forward. They finally contacted the enemy shortly after noon, when the Russian IV Corps attacked them. A close-quarters fight ensued for the rest of the afternoon: a German reserve division or corps had no howitzer batteries, relying exclusively on its allotment of flat-trajectory field guns, and only half as many of those as a regular division. Despite the lack of firepower, I Reserve Corps ended the day in control of the battlefield, but with all three divisions widely separated.
The Battle of Gumbinnen would be reckoned a Russian victory, but it cost the Russian First Army over 18,000 casualties, compared to 14,000 Germans. With his cavalry having wandered away, Rennenkampf had no means to pursue the shattered German divisions, and his own infantry had been hurt at least as badly as Prittwitz’s.
That night, all three German corps commanders pressed Prittwitz to continue the attack on the following morning. But word from aircraft attached to XX Corps, facing the advancing Russian Second Army, convinced Prittwitz that he was in danger of being trapped between the two Russian forces. With the Russians moving farther to the west than the Germans had foreseen, they might reach the line of the Vistula River first and cut off Eighth Army from the rest of Germany.
The Battle of Gumbinnen, and German retreat options.
Waldersee, the army’s chief of staff, and Maj. Gen. Paul Grünert, its quartermaster, tried to convince Prittwitz to instead shift Eighth Army to attack the advancing Second Army and began to draft orders to that effect. The army’s Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Max Hoffman, would later claim credit for this idea - a staple of pre-war German planning - and for drafting the orders, but other staff officers would recall him instead alternatively weeping, screaming with rage and dramatically yanking his medals off his uniform.
Prittwitz apparently was in little better condition. Even a few years previously his despair might have passed without any great effect. But Prittwitz would be the first of many commanders chained to a telephone leading to a superior bearing authority but not responsibility. From Koblenz, Moltke berated the Eighth Army commander, and suggested that he pull himself and his forces together and attack Second Army. Prittwitz insisted that his troops were too badly shaken, and he had to withdraw into West Prussia and needed reinforcements to cover the retreat.
During the next day, the Russians remained in place, hinting to the German staff that they suffered far worse damage than had been assumed. That allowed the Germans to break contact, and Prittwitz ordered I Corps and 3rd Reserve Division to move by rail to join XX Corps on its right flank, while I Reserve Corps remained facing the Russians and XVII Corps became the army’s reserve. Those dispositions loosely followed those that led to the Battle of Tannenberg, but when Prittwitz spoke again with Moltke on the evening of the 21st he repeated the need to abandon East Prussia. Moltke had apparently already made up his mind before their conversation, and on the next morning he fired Prittwitz and Waldersee and gave their jobs to the retired Paul von Hindenburg and the newly-minted hero of Liège, Erich Ludendorff.
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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.
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