Scenario Preview, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I entered graduate school with the internet still in its infancy, and research still required a visit to dusty archives. You pulled out cartons of letters, telegrams, reports and such, and sifted your way through them sheet by sheet.
That’s still often required, but more and more material has been digitized and, if you know where to look for it, you can call it up right in the privacy of your own office. You still need to read the source language (Google Translate still won’t handle what’s essentially a photograph), but you can look through a massive amount of data in a few hours when you would have needed weeks in the old days.
There’s not a lot of secondary material (that is, books) on the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes/Winter Battle in Masuria. But there is an enormous amount of archival material: regimental war diaries, corps- and division-level reports, and first-hand accounts written and published in the years just after the event. It took some work to bring it all together, but I’m pleasantly surprised at how complete a story came together.
Infantry Attacks: Winter’s Battle tells that story. It’s just a small book, most of it taken up by scenarios for Infantry Attacks: August 1914. But I had enough to write a full-sized book just on this battle. I doubt I’ll do that, but it satisfied my obsessive need to find things out.
"The Fight of the
Heroic XX Corps." It didn't really happen this way.
The Northern Flank: Tenth Army
The German Tenth Army, on the left (northern) flank of the German deployment, kicked off its own part in the offensive a day after the neighboring Eighth Army. Hermann von Eichhorn’s force had been augmented with extra artillery, but it still faced a demanding task. The Russians had left themselves vulnerable to a double envelopment as at Tannenberg, but in that battle six months previously the Germans had been able to use the (relatively) dense East Prussian railway network to move their troops around the advancing Russian Second Army. In this operation, the Germans would have to march through the much-less-developed lands of Russian-ruled Lithuania, trying to outpace the Russians on foot.
The Kaiser’s Cavalry
7 February 1915
Both the German Tenth Army and Russian Tenth Army stationed their cavalry on the northern end of their line to guard their open flank. On the morning of 8 February, Evgeny A. Leontovich, commanding the Russian cavalry, ordered them forward to probe the German flank. The Germans had attacked the Tenth Army’s southern flank; were they planning to do the same here? Yes, they were.
The Russian advance met German cavalry advancing toward them, resulting in a confused meeting engagement. German-language accounts don’t mention this fight; neither side pressed their advance and the Russians returned to their lines alerted to German activity. But they had no idea of the scale of the German onslaught to come.
We start the chapter with a cavalry meeting engagement, a slow-speed affair in the deep snow. That makes for a pretty odd engagement, and in turn makes for some fun game play.
The Tsar’s Cavalry
9 February 1915
Leontovich, given most of Tenth Army’s cavalry plus some infantry to reinforce his own 3rd Cavalry Division, had no Russian formation to his right – the horsemen stood alone at the end of the Russian line. With a heavy layer of snow on the ground, and more coming down by the hour, the horsemen had lost their mobility advantage and presented no more of an obstacle than lightly-armed infantry. The German Tenth Army therefore threw four infantry divisions at the Russian flank guard.
The Germans had more trouble with the blizzard than with the Russians, despite the intervention of infantry reserves that the Russian Tenth Army’s command had stationed behind the cavalry in case of just such an attack. The German attack slowed, allowing the Russian cavalry division to retreat directly westward.
Russian dismounted cavalry tries to stem the tidal wave of German infantry, all while a massive bombardment (by the standards of February 1915) falls on them. This is a tough one for the Russians.
9 February 1915
To the left of the Russian cavalry, Nikolai Epanchin’s III Corps had three divisions, one regular and two reserve. They had been in these positions since the front had settled down here in September and perhaps become somewhat complacent. The German plan mostly tried to avoid direct assault on prepared positions, but III Corps would have to be pushed out of its lines.
Unlike similar Russian formations, the newly-raised German reserve divisions had cadres of combat-experienced officers and NCO’s, and this made an enormous difference on the battlefield. The two divisions of XXXVIII Reserve Corps, backed by additional artillery, struck the Russians hard and swarmed over their positions. Epanchin ordered a retreat directly eastwards towards the fortress of Kovno, neglecting to inform the corps command to his left or Tenth Army where he had sent his troops. Both assumed III Corps to still be defending Tenth Army’s northern flank. The German Tenth Army poured through the gap unopposed.
This is one of the larger scenarios in the set, a set-piece assault by a German Reserve formation backed by plenty of artillery, against a Russian reserve division that’s not all that happy to be here. The Germans have plenty of advantages, but as usual in Infantry Attacks, plenty of advantages mean plenty of achievements are expected.
Roadblock at Kazlu Ruda
15 February 1915
The Russian Tenth Army had only limited reserves: half of the 68th Infantry Division (the other half guarded the Russian naval base of Libau on the Baltic coast). Army commander Thadeus Sievers committed his reserve as soon as the German attack became evident, sending them to shore up the collapsing III Corps. They reached the battlefield in time to cover the corps’ retreat.
The 5th Guards Infantry Brigade had the task of guarding the vulnerable left flank of the German Tenth Army’s encirclement move. That meant pushing the Russian III Corps back toward Kovno. The Germans failed to capture the railroad station at Kazlu Ruda, which would have made it harder for the Russian to mount a counter-offensive, and settled into a blocking position instead.
This time the German player gets to use those Guard pieces from August 1914, against a decidedly second-line Russian brigade that’s just trying to hold on. It’s not a large scenario, but it does ask a lot of the Germans given their abilities.
15 February 1915
On the back side of the German encirclement effort, even the Landwehr divisions that had helped hold the center of the German line during the pincer movement now joined the attack. Tenth Army commander Hermann von Eichhorn had hoped to keep these older, poorly-armed troops out of heavy fighting. But rather than trail along behind the retreating Russians, they attacked.
Pressing the Russians out of the cauldron probably wasn’t in the best interest of the overall German plan, but Lt. Gen. Herman Clausius of 10th Landwehr Division hadn’t returned from retirement to stay out of the fighting. His over-aged reservists had seen action since the first weeks of the war, and they pushed the Russians back through the snowy forest with considerable spirit.
It’s not a very large scenario; the Germans aren’t very good but they are very eager, while the Russians are already fading. It’s not easy to take objectives with third-rate infantry, but that’s the German player’s task here.
Night Action at Frantski
17 February 1915
The Russian XX Corps marched south-east toward the fortress of Grodno and safety, while the German Tenth Army force-marched around it to cut off the Russian escape. The Germans had more ground to cover, but the Russians moved through heavily-forested ground. The Germans won the race, but the Russians had no choice but to try to break through before the encirclement became complete.
Newly-promoted Lt. General Herbert Johnson had just taken command of 27th Infantry Division on the morning of the German offensive. He held his positions when the two other divisions of III Corps retreated eastwards, and Tenth Army transferred the division to XX Corps. His troops cleared the road through the village of Frantski in an early-morning bayonet attack, but it would not be enough to free the division.
It’s a night attack, which was still unusual at this point in the war. That makes the scenario play out differently; the Russians must break through here in a relatively small scenario, against Germans who have many advantages but have been caught by surprise.
And that is the story of Winter’s Battle.
You can order Winter’s Battle right here.
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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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