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The Eastern Front, 1914-17

The Eastern Front, 1914-17

 

Russia's decision to embark prematurely on military operations on the Eastern Front in mid-August 1914 bought its Western allies welcome breathing space in Belgium and France. But it produced mixed results on the battlefield.

 

Tannenberg

In Eastern Prussia, the northern Russian armies were crushed by German forces at the Battles of GlossaryTannenberg and the GlossaryMasurian Lakes in late August and early September. Tannenberg, in particular, became an early symbol of Great War carnage: almost 70,000 Russian soldiers were killed and wounded during the five days of fighting, with a further 100,000 taken prisoner.

Further south, in the Habsburg province of GlossaryGalicia, Russian forces fared much better, winning an important victory at the GlossaryBattle of Lemberg (23 August-1 September 1914) and forcing Germany to send reinforcements to support its stumbling Austrian ally.

 

A war of movement

By late 1914, the war on the Western Front had settled into a grinding pattern of trench warfare. In the East, where fighting took place on a much longer front line, a war of movement continued throughout 1915. On 22 March, the Russians captured the Habsburg garrison of GlossaryPrzemysl, resulting in the surrender of 120,000 soldiers and forcing the Germans to bail out the Habsburg army again.

German troops under GlossaryGeneral Mackensen launched a counter-offensive at the nearby Galician towns of GlossaryGorlice and GlossaryTarnow in May. This local attack triggered the collapse of the entire southern flank of the Russian line. Przemysl was retaken in early June, by which time hundreds of thousands of Russian troops had been killed, wounded or captured. Further north, German troops also forced back their Russian counterparts, seizing Warsaw in early August, GlossaryBrest-Litovsk on 25 August and GlossaryVilna on 19 September.

The heavy losses sustained in this 'great retreat' destroyed the pre-war Russian army, forcing military commanders to rely more heavily on inexperienced and uncommitted conscripts. On 22 August,GlossaryTsar Nicholas II, a man with little military experience and few leadership skills, appointed himself the new supreme commander of the Russian army in place of his uncle, the GlossaryGrand Duke Nicholas.

Eyewitness account,Galicia - opens in a new window
Soldiers and civilians
in Galicia (150k)
Transcript


Fighting in Galicia - opens new window
Galicia: despatch on fighting (273k)
Transcript

Fall of Przemysl - opens new window

Fall of Przemysl: despatch and photographs
Transcript

Nicholas II as commander-in-chief - opens new window
Tsar appoints himself commander-in-chief
Transcript

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Russian troops  - opens new window
 
Nicholas II as commander-in-chief - opens new window
Listen to description of Russian soldier: Gustav Lachman
Loudspeaker - opens a new window
German troops in
East Prussia
 
Germans advance
towards Russia
 

The Brusilov offensive
 

In 1916 Germany turned its military focus westwards, pouring men and resources into the GlossaryVerdun and GlossarySomme campaigns. The Habsburg army, too, was distracted from the conflict with Russia by war with Italy in the south. Indeed, it was in response to Italian pleas for help that Russian forces under GlossaryGeneral Aleksei Brusilov launched a new attack on the southern part of the Eastern Front in June. Thanks to a combination of tactical innovation and Austro-Hungarian incompetence, the surprise Glossary'Brusilov offensive' was the most successful Russian operation of the entire war.

On reaching the edge of the GlossaryCarpathians in mid-August 1916, however, Brusilov's exhausted troops ran out of steam. German reinforcements from the Western Front provided a sterner test than their demoralised and under-manned Austro-Hungarian counterparts.

Encouraged by the Russian successes, Romania declared war on the Central Powers in late August. But German forces under Mackensen and GlossaryFalkenhayn quickly routed its under-prepared army. Bucharest was occupied on 6 December 1916, leaving Germany in control of Romania's valuable oil and grain resources.

Russia exits the war

After the abdication of Nicholas II in March 1917, the new GlossaryProvisional Government pledged to continue the Russian war effort. But the Russian army was no longer a viable fighting force. Two million men deserted in March and April. Bolshevik agitators - including GlossaryLenin, who had returned to Russia from exile on 3 April - spread effective anti-war propaganda. A major new Russian offensive in Galicia in July 1917 failed, and by September, the northern Russian army had collapsed.

After the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917, Russia's continued participation in the First World War was doomed. An armistice signed by Germany and Soviet Russia on 15 December 1917 ended hostilities on the Eastern Front. In March 1918, the GlossaryTreaty of Brest-Litovsk - a 'shameful peace' in the eyes of many Russian patriots - confirmed the extent of the German victory in the East.

USSR war poster - opens a new window
Russian war-loan
poster

 

Photo of Kuhlman - opens new window
Germany signs Treaty of
Brest-Litovsk (169k)

 

Trotsky speech - opens new window
Trotsky's speech at
Brest-Litovsk(169k)
Translation

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It was a victory achieved despite the weaknesses of the Habsburg army and despite the fact that the German military leadership generally prioritised men and resources for the Western Front. In the spring of 1918, the German army was finally free to concentrate its efforts solely on defeating Russia's former allies, Britain and France.

By the end of the year, however, none of the three great empires that had fought the war on the Eastern Front - German, Habsburg and Russian - existed any longer. The bloody struggle in the East played a decisive role in this dramatic reshaping of the European political map.

Discipline in Russian army - opens new window
Discipline in the
Russian army
Transcript

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

Reference
Document
FO 371/2741-2752: Russia and war, 1916.
FO 371/2994-3020: Russia and war, 1917.
FO 899/16-19: Foreign press summaries from countries including Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia, Feb 1915-Mar 1916.
FO 925/30099, 37023: Maps showing western Russia and surrounding areas according to Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Mar 1918.
GFM 33/3398-3401: German Foreign Ministry files on peace negotiations with Romania, 1917-18.
WO 106/1055-1056: Reports on German and Russian armies in northern Poland, Mar-Apr 1915.
WO 106/1065: Report on military situation in southern Poland, Jul 1915.
WO 106/1070, 1124-1125, 1133, 1137: Various reports on Russian army, 1914-16.

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