This Day In History: Russia Invaded East Prussia (1914)

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On this day in history in 1914, two  Russian  Armies begin their advance into East Prussia. This was part of the allied strategy agreed upon before the war. Russia was to attack Germany from the east in order to relieve pressure on France.  It was hoped that a Russian attack in the east would stop the German advance in the west as they diverted troops to the east to fight the massive Russian army.

The Russian 1st Army and the 2nd Army advanced in a two-pronged formation.The two armies were separated by the Masurian Lakes. They intended to link up and then to pin the German army down and to destroy it in a pincer movement.  The Russian invasion of Prussia had taken Germany by surprise. By August 19th, the Russian 1st Army had advanced to Gumbinnen, and here they hoped to engage with the German 8th army. The commander of the 8th army panicked and he ordered a general retreat and this left East Prussia open to the Russians.

Helmuth von Moltke, who had ordered the 8th army to go on the attack if the Russian invaded was furious. From his headquarters at Koblenz, Moltke  dismissed the general, who seems to have simply lost his nerve. He replaced him with Paul von Hindenburg, a 67-year-old retired general. To assist him Moltke named Erich Ludendorff, as his chief of staff, he had become a national hero during the siege of Liege.

Tannenbergschlacht
Hindenberg at the Battle fo Tannenberg (1914)

Under this new leadership, the Germans were to go on the attack. The two men instilled discipline in the German 8th Army as they prepared to go into battle against the Russians in East Prussia. The 8th army also received some reinforcements but not as many as was required. The Russian advance was in disarray. The two armies could not coordinate their activities and there was a measure of confusion in the chain of command. This meant that they could not take advantage of their superior numbers.

This lack of communication would prove costly in the last week of August. Luddendorf and Von Hindenburg adopted tactics from Hannibal. They enveloped the Russian 2nd army using a pincer movement and a series of feints. In the battle of Tannenberg the Germans enveloped and devastated the 2nd Army, This was to be one of Germany’s greatest victories on the Eastern Front.  The battle elevated Hindenburg and Ludendorff to the status of national heroes in Germany. They formed a unique partnership that was to last until the end of the war. In the weeks following Tannenberg they also smashed the remaining Russian army in the Battle of Masurian Lake. The Germans cleared East Prussia of Russians and soon they attacked the Russian Empire. For the rest of the war, East Prussia was not threatened by the Russians.

Eventually, Luddendorf and Von Hindenberg became the leaders of the German army and de-facto military dictators of Germany.

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