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East Front Summary
with illustrated maps

Troops of the Eastern Front
soldier's photo gallery

East Front Summary
In the late summer of 1914, the ancient monarchies of Austria, Russia and Germany plunged their countries into a world war which engulfed Europe in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. The Eastern Front of that great war had a profound impact on the remainder of the 20th century, even though the Western Front with its British, French and American combatants achieved somewhat greater fame. The statistics for the Eastern war are grim. More than three-million men died in the fighting, more than nine-million men were wounded, and every major country which participated lost its form of government. One of them, Russia, collapsed so completely and catastrophically that the ensuing consequences still resonate in today's world. It was into this conflict that the soldiers of 1914 marched, with an eagerness and confidence which has not since been repeated.

"When [such a] mass suffers enormous losses ; when they feel, as they will feel, that other and less costly means of achieving the same end might have been adopted, what will become of their morale?"

The Russian Army of World War One has become notorious for its reputation as a large, ill-equipped force, yet in 1914, Russia's Imperial Troops were actually well trained and equipped. The real problem with the Russian Army lay in its inadequate transportation infrastructure, which was not able to supply and maintain Russian field formations at wartime establishments. As far as equipment was concerned, the average Russian soldier in the 1st and 2nd Line had sidearms, rifles and machine guns equal to his German counterparts, and probably superior to the Austrians. The standard Russian Field Guns, the 76.2 mm and 122 mm, were robust enough to be used in World War Two and still be in reserve units in the 1980's.

Because of the many logistical disadvantages under which they labored, the Russian Army High Command had maintained a lively pre-war debate over what action would be taken in case of war with Germany. By 1910 it was decided to launch major offensive operations immediately upon the outbreak of any war. This decision clearly catered to the "spirit of the offensive" which then pervaded European military thought, and in pursuit of this doctrine, most Russian fortress units were deactivated. The age-old Russian strategy of defense-in-depth supported by counteroffensives was cast aside in favor of the latest trends. This was to exact a brutal toll in Russian lives, which in turn helped to spur later unrest.

The Austro-Hungarian Army of 1914 had been starved of proper equipment and resources throughout the pre-war period. It was also composed of an increasingly nationalistic soldiery, three-quarters of whom were from Slavic recruiting districts. The reluctance of these troops to follow Austrian officers into combat against their Russian brethren became a major liability, especially after the enormous losses suffered during the first year of war. The main German armies in the East operated with characteristic Teutonic efficiency. Indeed it was here that their troops enjoyed the luxury of fighting the battles of maneuver for which they had been trained. The Russian front also saw the rise of the great German "artillery virtuosos" of the war, men such as Lieutenant Colonel Georg Bruchmüller. Lieutenant Colonel Bruchmüller was capable of orchestrating artillery firepower with ferocious efficiency, but more importantly he undertook aggressive training measures to assure near perfect coordination between the artillery and infantry branches of the army.

Click to display mapThe Start of War
The Eastern half of the Great War began on August 17, 1914, when Russian General Pavel Rennenkampf's First Army invaded Eastern Prussia in a full scale offensive (marked 1 on the map). Two days later, General Alexander Samsonov's Second Army attacked around the right flank of the German Eighth Army commanded by General Friedrich von Prittwitz (marked 2). This was achieved despite the fact that Second Army was fighting at two-thirds strength due to the slow Russian mobilization. Prittwitz, who was certain that he could not hold against the two armies facing him, informed high command that he intended to withdraw to the Vistula River, abandoning most of East Prussia including Königsberg. He was immediately relieved of duty and replaced by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his new Chief-of-Staff, Erich Ludendorf. Along with the staff at East Prussian Army Headquarters, they planned a counteroffensive against the Russians. By August 27 they had already laid the plans and fallen on Samsonov's weak Army, taking it in both flanks in a near perfect double envelopment (marked 3). The Battle of Tannenberg ended by August 30 when Samsonov's entire command disintegrated at a cost of 92,000 captured and tens of thousands of other casualties. Within a week, German forces under General August Mackensen defeated Rennenkampf at the Battle of Masurian Lakes, where the Russians lost another 100,000 casualties (also marked 3). As in previous wars, inadequate logistic support hampered Russian movement and supply. Now, against an industrialized opponent, these shortcomings quickly assumed catastrophic proportions.

In the south of Poland, Austrian Chief-of-Staff Conrad von Hoetzendorf launched his own attack northward toward Warsaw (marked 4). The Russians however, had concentrated four fully supplied armies opposite the 39 Divisions of Austrian troops, and on August 30 they opened their offensive (marked 5). By the third week in September, Hoetzendorf ordered a general retreat. and the province of Galicia was abandoned by the Austrians at a cost of over 130,000 casualties! The year ended with limited attacks toward Warsaw by Mackensen and Russian probing assaults into the Carpathian passes.

Click to display mapWhile the winter of 1914-15 still had its grip on Europe, von Hoetzendorf appealed to the Germans to support an offensive which he hoped would force the Russians away from the crests of the Carpathian Mountains. After some debate, the German senior command agreed on a thrust deep into Russian lines out of East Prussia. The resulting "winter war" inflicted another 190,000 casualties on the Russians, but petered out when the Austrian forces to the south utterly failed to dislodged the Russians. They instead suffered another embarrassing defeat, and even lost control of Dukla Pass, a prime route onto the Hungarian plains. Only severe weather and their unfortunate supply situation prevented the Russians from cracking into the core of the Dual Monarchy's empire.

By May of 1915, the Germans took over command of the Eastern Front and used many of their units to support the increasingly fragmented Austrian formations. Their next offensive came on May 1, with a sharp attack on the Russian lines at Gorlice. This offensive penetrated more than two-hundred miles in two weeks (marked 1 on the map) and triggered the collapse of the entire Russian Southern Front. German and Austrian formations pushed northward in another thrust toward Warsaw (marked 2), capturing it in August. In September, General Max von Gallwitz' new Twelfth Army attacked into the Courland (marked 3) toward Riga. As the entire Russian front line fell apart, the Russian strongholds of Novo-Georgiesk and Brest-Litovsk both fell to the Germans. Only at the end of September did Russian resolve harden enough to allow a new line to form. Shortly after this, Russian Tsar Nicholas intervened and assumed personal command of the army, a decision which would have grave consequences. The territory captured by the Central Powers to date (shaded light yellow) included all of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Two million Russian troops were lost during the course of the year, half of them prisoners. The Central powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary lost a total of nearly one-million, another grim highlight of this theater's impact on the war.

Above: Austrian Chief-of-Staff Conrad von Hoetzendorf. The increasing alienation between the Austrian and German high commands caused some German officers to cynically state "we are shackled to a corpse."

Click to display mapThe next major offensive was undertaken by Russian General Alexi Brusilov. His preparations were far superior to those undertaken by previous senior officers, and for the first time during the war Russian units were trained to employ shock troops followed up by mutually supporting open order formations. Western Allied aid and Russian production had also replaced all of the equipment losses from the previous year, although the competing egos of fellow commanders and the still inefficient supply system placed a dead hand on any spectacular successes. By June of 1916, Brusilov's four armies, the Eighth, Eleventh, Seventh and Ninth, were poised along the Galician border facing the Austrian Army. On the 4th the Russians attacked and immediately penetrated deep into Austrian positions, capturing 13,000 prisoners on the first day (marked 1 on the map). By the time the offensive was two months old, the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire was in danger of falling. Romania then entered the war on the side of the allies, but greedily invaded Transylvania instead of preparing an adequate defense. This mistake gave the Germans the opening they needed, and the ensuing counter-offensive achieved the total collapse of Romania to the Central Powers. Germany and Austria gained control of vast coal and wheat fields, although they also added over 200 miles of front to their lines.

Brusilov was urged by St. Petersburg to continue his summer gains even though the Russians had suffered horrible casualties in the process of attaining their goals. In September the offensive was continued, but without the same elegance as earlier, causing casualties to again climb toward the one-million mark. The offensive finally wound down after the seizure of Bukovina and Galicia (shaded in yellow). These accomplishments brought Russia just as many casualties as their defeats of the previous year, and discipline began to slide downward. To make matters worse, Russian industry proved unable to continue manufacturing new equipment in sufficient quantities to replace such staggering losses, especially in small arms and ammunition. All of this may have been inevitable given the trend of the war at that point. In late 1916, several nations across Europe began to suffer from mutinies and revolts as troops became disillusioned with the profligate loss of life. As the bad news at home mounted, Russia slowly edged toward open revolt and the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary edged toward complete dissolution.

By 1917, the Russian Army's officer corps was increasingly demoralized by the poor progress of the fighting. Though grossly outnumbered, the Germans had proven to be dangerous and cunning opponents, and the Russian royal family's unfortunate intervention in affairs did not improve anything. The repeated catastrophes suffered by Russian field armies squelched what patriotism had existed three years earlier, slowly allowing the entire governing system to fall apart. By March of that year, some Army units began ignoring their orders, a situation made worse as growing Communist rebel groups exaggerated reports of minor events such as the revolt of a Russian Guard depot formation at Petrograd (this famous mutiny was carried out by trainees and depot troops, not by fully trained Imperial Guardsmen). After the Tsar abdicated his throne that same month, a provisional government was formed with Alexander Kerensky at its head. He made a short-lived attempt to uphold Allied obligations by putting General Brusilov in command of another offensive against the German Southern Army in Galicia. But despite his best efforts, Brusilov's 1917 offensive only cleared a few mutinous Austrian formations out of the way before running into the brick wall of German general's Hoffman and Hutier, who first held off, then counter-attacked the hesitant Russian troops. This was the last straw for the Imperial Russian Army, which virtually disintegrated as open civil war swept like a wave across Russia.

As the Communist revolt accelerated, both sides of the civil war continued sporadic negotiations with Germany. The Germans, who continued making territorial gains (marked 2), eventually began aiding the pro-Tsarist White Russian forces, attempting to stem the very revolt they had helped to foster. However the damage to the Russian infrastructure was too great, and the "White" Russians were eventually forced from power by the "Red" Communists. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk was finally concluded with the new Bolshevik government on March 3, 1918, stripping their country of all provinces west of the Ukraine. That treaty was annulled by the Armistice of November 11, and the new government in Moscow eventually re-established its presence in all of the previously held lands. Ironically, one of the lasting actions by the Bolsheviks was the attempted indoctrination of German prisoners-of-war. Many of these troops were eventually transferred to the Western Front which was still raging in 1918, but some of them were virtually useless as soldiers. When the war ended, they returned to Germany, where many threw themselves into the post-war revolution then tearing at Germany's social fabric. The opposing fascists eventually gained control of the country and added further tragic chapters to the history of Russia and Eastern Europe.

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