Winter Battle in Masuria
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
By the end of 1914, it had become clear to the German high command that their offensive in the West – the centerpiece of German pre-war planning – had failed. The German offensive on the Yser River ended on 31 October, and the attack on Ypres on 22 November, both of them bloody defeats. German armies took massive casualties to gain miniscule bits of ground.
Even before the Battle of Ypres concluded, German chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn admitted that Germany could no longer win an outright military victory. “If Russia, France and England hold together,” he told Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg, “we cannot defeat them in such a way as to achieve acceptable peace terms. We are more likely to be slowly exhausted.”
Falkenhayn urged the Chancellor to make a separate peace with the Russians, which would allow German and even Austro-Hungarian divisions to shift to the Western Front. There, he claimed, the Central Powers could then achieve military victory even if the Allies brought in, as expected, additional large-scale British and Japanese reinforcements.
A rather fanciful German postcard; the German cavalry proved useless in the snow.
Bethman acknowledged the possibility, but countered that Russia would not make peace until she had suffered a series of military defeats including the loss of Poland. Then the Central Powers might have a useful bargaining chip. That would require transfer of troops from the West, where the Chief of Staff had admitted that victory could not be won, to the East, where it might be. Falkenhayn, devoted to achieving victory in France, had talked himself into a trap. His nightmare, the transfer of large-scale bodies of troops (four corps, as it turned out, three of them newly-established from recalled reservists and experienced cadres and the fourth of Alsatian regulars suddenly distrusted to fight in France) from West to East would take place at his own suggestion.
With this unexpected bounty, the German commanders in the East, Paul von Hindenburg, and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff quickly planned a series of four offensives. The largest of these would launch in East Prussia, where the Russians still clung to a sliver of German territory seized during their August 1914 invasion. Ludendorff hoped to re-create the victory of Tannenberg by encircling and destroying the Russian Tenth Army.
Having learned from the command and control difficulties that the Germans experienced in August 1914, Ludendorff’s plan involved two German armies. The newly-established German Tenth Army would press around the weak northern flank of the Russian Tenth Army, while the German Eighth Army, augmented by one more corps from the German Ninth Army, would do the same on the south flank. In both cases, the attacking German columns would seek out and exploit the weak places in the Russian line the Germans expected to find and press through them rather than fighting the Russians in place.
In what would become the hallmark of German offensives for the remainder of the war, Ludendorff also asked for more artillery, especially heavy artillery. Falkenhayn supplied four batteries each of German 210mm heavy howitzers and 100mm long-range cannon, and prevailed on his Austro-Hungarian allies for two batteries of 305mm siege mortars.
German intelligence estimates put the Russian Tenth Army at six corps; it actually had just four, though one of them was double the usual size (four rather than two infantry divisions). The Germans did accurately report that the Russians had weak and vulnerable flanks. Thadeus Sievers, the Russian army commander, expected to conduct an offensive into East Prussia soon and neither he nor his superior, North-West front commander Nikolai Ruszky, wished to pull back to the far more defensible line of the Nieman River, anchored by the fortresses at Kovno and Grodno. A new Twelfth Army had begun forming on the left of Tenth Army, to invade East Prussia from the south, along the same route of the doomed Second Army six months previously, and Ruszky did not wish a gap to develop between the two armies.
Starting positions, 7 February 1915.
That put the Russians in a vulnerable position, but whichever side opened its offensive first would have to deal with appalling weather conditions: snow-covered ground, wind and cold. The Germans prepared for their offensive by fitting wagons and even cannon with sledge runners, but these still would have to be pulled by horses. German soldiers looted restaurants and hotels across East Prussia for white tablecloths and bedsheets that they turned into improvised snow-smocks.
The German offensive opened on 7 February in the south, with Eighth Army advancing around the Russian Tenth Army’s exposed left (southern) flank. Otto von Below, the Army commander, placed some Landsturm detachments in front of the assault troops to prevent their discovery by Russian patrols.
The attack began in cold temperatures (a high of -9 Celsius/16 degrees Fahrenheit) with about a half-meter of snow on the ground. Initially the Germans made good progress against the Russian 57th Infantry Division holding the left flank of Tenth Army. Karl Litzmann’s XL Reserve Corps, one of the new formations, spearheaded the advance with its two reserve divisions, the veteran 2nd Infantry Division and a cavalry brigade attached as well, plus most of the extra artillery.
A rather fanciful Russian postcard; Russian propaganda declared the battle a victory.
Litzmann continued the advance on the 8th, brushing aside scattered counter-attacks from the shattered 57th Infantry Division and running into the now-exposed left flank of III Siberian Corps. The Germans moved more slowly than their commander wished, hampered by heavy snow, but defeated a detachment from the two Siberian divisions to take the rail junction at Johannisburg.
The northern arm of the pincer attack set out a day after Litzmann’s corps. Hermann Eichhorn’s German Tenth Army left the 10th and 16th Landwehr Infantry Divisions to hold most of his front, with 1st Cavalry Division and 5th Guard Infantry Brigade guarding his left flank, facing Russian Lithuania. Eichhorn struck with six divisions in three corps, also well-supported by artillery. They attempted to turn the right flank of the Russian III Corps on the right end of the Russian Tenth Army’s line, but amid a heavy snowfall one corps never reached the start line and the other two made limited progress.
On the 9th, the German I Corps came out of its positions in front of III Siberian Corps, pressing between the Siberians and the Russian XXVI Corps to its right. The Germans sought to encircle III Siberian Corps, but another meter of snow poured down during the night of the 9th and 10th. The snow hampered the Russian retreat as much as it did the German advance, but the Russians did not have as far to go to escape. Even so, the Siberians left behind 8,000 prisoners and 23 guns.
Despite the heavy snow, the northern wing began to make progress on the 10th, inflicting repeated blows on the Russian III Corps and sending it retreating toward the fortress of Kovno (Kaunus, Lithuania) to the north-east. But the corps commander, Nikolai Epanchin, informed neither his boss, Sievers, or his neighbor, Pavel Bulgakov of the Russian XX Corps.
Sievers ordered a general retreat, but XX Corps reacted more slowly than III Corps to its north and the two corps (XXVI and III Siberian) to its south. The low-speed German advance became even slower when a sudden thaw struck on the 15th, turning the ground into mud and changing rivers and streams from solid highways into impassable barriers. That lasted about 36 hours; by the night of 16 February snow fell heavily again and temperatures plunged.
Russian prisoners line up to board rail cars in Augustowo.
As the snow fell, the German northern and southern pincers linked up at Augustowo. The rapid retreat of the other three Russian corps had aided the advance, both removing resistance and leaving behind depots stuffed with food at a time when German supply columns could not force their way to the front through snow, then mud, then snow again.
Steadily, the Germans pressed the trapped Russians into the Augustowo Forest, while the Russian North-West Front brought up two fresh corps and hurled them into vain attempts to break the encirclement. The Russian attacks failed to achieve a penetration, and by 22 February resistance had ceased into the Augustowo pocket. Russian casualties came to about 150,000 men, including 92,000 prisoners; the Germans listed their own losses at 1,385 killed in action, 938 missing, 9,560 wounded and 10,627 sick.
The Battle of the Second Masurian Lakes, as it’s become known in English (the Germans called it the Winter Battle in Masuria and the Russians the Battle of Augustowo), would be the last major battle fought on German soil during the First World War. That alone made it another achievement for the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team. They had proven that significant victories could still be won on the Eastern Front, but had inadvertently proven Falkenhayn’s point as well: the Russians had lost 150,000 men and nearly 300 guns, yet their ability to make war had been hardly impaired. The war would continue, with no immediate hope of a separate peace.
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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 a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold.
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