HAUNTED BY THE KNOWLEDGE of Rennenkampf at his rear, Ludendorff was in a hurry to come to grips with Samsonov. He gave orders for the first stage of the battle to begin on August 25. It was to be an attack on Usdau by General von François Ist Corps with intent to envelop Samsonov’s left wing. François refused. His heavy artillery and some of his infantry were still detraining from the journey that had brought them the long way around from the Gumbinnen front and had not yet come up. To attack without full artillery support and a full supply of ammunition, he argued, would be to risk failure; if Samsonov’s path of retreat were left open he would escape the destruction planned for him. He was privately upheld by Hoffmann and by General Scholtz of the XXth Corps who, although he had been in battle against the Russians on the previous day, assured François over the field telephone that he could hold his ground without immediate support.
Confronted by insubordination on the second day of his new command, Ludendorff in a high temper drove down by car to François’ headquarters, bringing Hindenburg and Hoffmann with him. In reply to his insistence François said, “If the order is given, of course I shall attack but my troops will be obliged to fight with the bayonet.” To show who was in command Ludendorff brushed aside François’ reasons and reissued his orders unchanged. Hindenburg said nothing during the interview and when it was over dutifully drove off with Ludendorff. Hoffmann in another car stopped at the railroad station at Montovo, the nearest place in telephone and telegraph communication with Headquarters. Here a signal corps officer handed him two intercepted Russian wireless messages, both sent in clear, one by Rennenkampf at 5:30 that morning and one by Samsonov at 6:00 A.M. Rennenkampf’s orders, giving marching distances for the First Army, revealed that his objective line for the next day would not bring him far enough to threaten the German Army from the rear. Samsonov’s orders, following the previous day’s battle against General Scholtz, revealed that he had misinterpreted Scholtz’s backward wheel as full retreat and gave exact directions and times of movement for the pursuit of what he believed was a defeated foe.
No such boon had been granted a commander since a Greek traitor guided the Persians around the pass at Thermopylae. The very completeness of the messages made Major General Grünert, Hoffmann’s immediate superior, suspicious. As Hoffmann tells it, “He kept asking me anxiously over and over if we should believe them? Why shouldn’t we? … I myself believed every word of them on principle.” Hoffmann claimed to have personal knowledge of a private quarrel between Rennenkampf and Samsonov dating from the Russo-Japanese War, in which he had been Germany’s observer. He said that Samsonov’s Siberian Cossacks, after a brave fight, had been obliged to yield the Yentai coal mines because Rennenkampf’s cavalry division had remained inactive despite repeated orders and that Samsonov had then knocked Rennenkampf down in a heated quarrel on the platform of the Mukden railway station. Obviously, he demonstrated triumphantly, Rennenkampf would be in no hurry to come to Samsonov’s aid. As it was less a question of aiding Samsonov than of winning—or losing—the campaign, it is arguable whether Hoffmann believed his own tale or only pretended to; he always remained fond of telling the story.
Grasping the intercepted messages, he and Grünert hurried to their car, sped after Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and on overtaking them within a few miles, Hoffmann ordered the chauffeur to draw level and handed over the messages while the cars were in motion. All came to a stop while the four officers studied the situation. It showed that the attack planned for next day in which Mackensen’s and Below’s corps were to attack Samsonov’s right wing could proceed without interference from Rennenkampf. According to differing interpretations by the disputants, it either did or did not show that François could afford to postpone his attack until all his men and material were up. Unwilling to yield an inch of authority, Ludendorff, on returning to Headquarters, reiterated his orders.
At the same time orders were given to carry out the general plan for double envelopment next day, August 26. On the German left Mackensen’s corps, supported by Below’s, was to attack Samsonov’s extreme right wing which had reached a position—at Bischofsburg with cavalry at Sensburg—in front of the lakes where it could have joined fronts with Rennenkampf if he had been there. His absence left open the flank which the Germans hoped to envelop. In the center Scholtz’s XXth Corps, now supported by a Landwehr division and General von Morgen’s 3rd Reserve Division, was to renew its battle of the day before. On the German right François as ordered was to open the attack that would envelop Samsonov’s left wing.
All orders went out before midnight of August 25. Next morning, the opening day of general battle, Ludendorff was attacked by a fit of nerves when a reconnaissance aviator reported movements by Rennenkampf in his direction. Although Hindenburg felt assured that the Eighth Army “need not have the least hesitation” in leaving only a screen against Rennenkampf, all Ludendorff’s anxiety returned. Rennenkampf’s “formidable host hung like a threatening thunder cloud to the northeast,” he wrote. “He need only have closed with us and we should have been beaten.” He began to feel the same fears that had assailed Prittwitz and to hesitate whether to commit all his forces against Samsonov or to abandon the offensive against the Russian Second Army and turn back against the First. The hero of Liège “seems to have lost his nerve a little,” happily recorded Hoffmann, who of all military writers is the most prodigal in attributing this weakness to his colleagues. Even Hindenburg acknowledges that “grave doubts” afflicted his companion and at this moment, as he claims, it was he who stiffened his Chief of Staff. In his words, “We overcame the inward crisis.”
A different crisis erupted when Headquarters discovered that François, who was still waiting for his artillery, had not begun battle as ordered. Ludendorff imperatively demanded that the attack begin at noon. François replied that the preliminary ground which Headquarters supposed had been taken that morning had not been gained, provoking an explosion and what Hoffmann describes as a “probably unfriendly” reply from Ludendorff. Throughout the day François managed to balk and procrastinate and wait for his own moment.
Suddenly an extraordinary telephone call all the way from OHL in Coblenz broke in upon the argument with François. Worried enough, without trouble from Supreme Headquarters, Ludendorff picked up the receiver and ordered Hoffmann to listen in on another receiver to “what they want.” To his astonishment he heard Colonel Tappen, Chief of Operations at OHL, propose to send him reinforcements of three corps and a cavalry division. Fresh from the Western Front, Ludendorff, who had worked on the mobilization plans and knew to the last decimal the required density of manpower per mile of offensive, could hardly believe what he heard. Schlieffen’s plan depended on using every last man to strengthen the right wing. What could have persuaded OHL to weaken its line by three whole corps at the height of the offensive? Appalled, he told Tappen that the reinforcements were not “positively” needed in the East and would in any event arrive too late for the battle that was already beginning. Tappen said they could be spared.
The origin of this crucial decision was the panic at OHL when the Russians launched their offensive two weeks after mobilization instead of the six weeks on which the German plan was predicated. The saving factor, as Tappen reports it, was the “great victory” on the French frontiers which “aroused in OHL the belief that the decisive battle in the West had been fought and won.” Under this impression Moltke decided, on August 25, “in spite of objections put to him,” to send reinforcements to save East Prussia from the Russians. The woes of the refugees, the Junker estates left to marauding Cossacks, the tearful pleas of well-born ladies to the Kaiserin to save family lands and fortunes were having their effect. In order to arouse feeling against the Russians, the German government had deliberately distributed the refugees in various cities and succeeded in frightening itself. The President of the East Prussian Bundesrat came to OHL to beg for aid to his homeland. A director of Krupp’s wrote in his diary on August 25: “People said on all sides, ‘Bah! the Russians will never come to the end of their mobilization .… We can remain on the defensive for a long time.’ But today everyone thinks quite differently and the talk is all of abandoning East Prussia.” The Kaiser was deeply affected. Moltke himself had always worried about the light defense in the East, for, as he wrote before the war, “all the success on the Western Front will be unavailing if the Russians arrive in Berlin.”
Two of the corps he now withdrew from the Western Front had been in the fighting for Namur at the junction between the German Second and Third Armies and now, upon the fall of the Belgian fortress, were declared disposable by General von Bülow. With the 8th Cavalry Division they were detached on August 26 and marched—because of the destruction of Belgian railroads—to stations in Germany for transport “as quickly as possible” to the Eastern Front. Another corps had got as far as the railroad station in Thionville when cautionary voices at OHL persuaded Moltke to cancel its orders.
Eight hundred miles to the east General Samsonov was preparing for renewed battle on August 26. On his extreme right his VIth Corps under General Blagovestchensky had duly reached the planned rendezvous area in front of the lakes, but Samsonov had left this corps isolated and detached while he pushed the main body of his army in a more westerly direction. Although this drew it away from Rennenkampf, or from the place where Rennenkampf was supposed to be, it was the right direction, Samsonov thought, to bring him between the Vistula and the Germans supposedly retreating to the west. Samsonov’s objective was the line Allenstein-Osterode where he could get astride the main German railway and from where, as he informed Jilinsky on August 23, “it would be easier to advance into the heart of Germany.”
It was already apparent that his exhausted and semistarved troops who had barely managed to stumble to the frontier were hardly fit for battle much less for the heart of Germany. Rations were not coming up, the soldiers had eaten up their reserve rations, villages were deserted, hay and oats in the fields were not yet cut, and little could be scraped off the land for men or horses. All the corps commanders were calling for a halt. A General Staff officer reported to Jilinsky’s Headquarters the “miserable” provisioning of the troops. “I don’t know how the men bear it any longer. It is essential to organize a proper requisitioning service.” At Volkovisk, 180 miles east of the battlefront as the crow flies and even farther by roundabout railway connections, Jilinsky was too remote to be disturbed by these reports. He insisted upon Samsonov continuing the offensive “to meet the enemy retreating in front of General Rennenkampf and cut off his retreat to the Vistula.”
This version of what the enemy was doing was based on Rennenkampf’s reports, and as Rennenkampf had kept no contact with the Germans after the Battle of Gumbinnen his reports of their movements were an amiable fantasy. By now, however, Samsonov realized from evidence of railroad movements and other bits of intelligence that he was facing not an army in full retreat but an army which had reorganized and was advancing toward him. Reports of the concentration of a new enemy force—this was François’ Corps—opposite his left flank were coming in. Recognizing the danger to his left, he sent an officer to urge upon Jilinsky the necessity of shifting his army westward instead of continuing north. With a rear commander’s contempt for a front commander’s caution, Jilinsky took this to be a desire to go on the defensive, and “rudely” replied to the officer: “To see the enemy where he does not exist is cowardice. I will not allow General Samsonov to play the coward. I insist that he continue the offensive.” His strategy, according to a colleague, seemed designed for Poddavki, a Russian form of checkers in which the object is to lose all one’s men.
On the night of August 25 at the same time as Ludendorff was issuing his orders, Samsonov disposed his forces. In the center the XVth and XIIth Corps under General Martos and General Kliouev with one division of the XXIIIrd Corps under General Kondratovitch were to carry the main advance to the line Allenstein-Osterode. The army’s left flank was to be held by General Artomonov’s Ist Corps supported by the other division of the XXIIIrd Corps. Fifty miles away the isolated VIth Corps held the right flank. The reconnaissance techniques of Russian cavalry being less than competent, Samsonov did not know that Mackensen’s Corps, last seen streaming in panic from the field of Gumbinnen, had reorganized and in forced marches, together with Below’s Corps, had reached his front and was now advancing upon his right. At first he ordered the VIth Corps to hold its position “with the object of protecting the right flank of the army,” and then changed his mind and told them to come down “with all speed” to support the advance of the center upon Allenstein. At the last minute on the morning of the 26th the order was changed to the original duty of remaining in position to protect the right flank. By that time the VIth Corps was already on the march toward the center.
Far to the rear a sense of disaster pervaded the Russian High Command. As early as August 24 Sukhomlinov, the War Minister who had not bothered to build arms factories because he did not believe in firepower, wrote General Yanushkevitch, the beardless Chief of Staff: “In God’s name, issue orders for gathering up the rifles. We have sent 150,000 to the Serbs, our reserves are nearly used up and factory production is feeble.” Despite the fervor of such gallant officers as the general who cantered to war shouting “William to St. Helena!” the mood of the army chiefs from the beginning was one of gloom. They entered the war without confidence and remained in it without faith. Gossip of the pessimism at Headquarters reached the inevitable ear of the French ambassador in St. Petersburg. On August 26 he was told by Sazonov that Jilinsky “considers that an offensive in East Prussia is doomed to defeat.” Yanushkevitch was said to agree and to be protesting strongly against the offensive. General Danilov, Deputy Chief of the Staff, was insisting, however, that Russia could not disappoint France and would have to attack despite “indubitable risks.”
Danilov was stationed with the Grand Duke at Stavka, the General Staff Headquarters at Baranovichi. A quiet place in the woods where Stavka was to remain for a year, Baranovichi was chosen because it was the junction of a north-south railway line with the main line between Moscow and Warsaw. Both fronts, the German and Austrian, were superintended from here. The Grand Duke with his personal suite, the chief officers of the General Staff, and the Allied military attachés lived and ate in the railroad cars because it was discovered that the house intended for the Commander in Chief was too far from the stationmaster’s house used by the Operations and Intelligence staffs. Roofs were built over the cars to protect them from sun and rain, wooden sidewalks were laid out, and a marquee was erected in the station garden where meals were taken in summer. Pomp was absent and physical shortcomings ignored except for the low doorways against which the Grand Duke had an unfortunate tendency to bump his head. Fringes of white paper had to be fixed over all entrances to catch the Grand Duke’s eye and remind him to duck.
Danilov was disquieted by Rennenkampf’s obvious loss of contact with the enemy and by failing communications as a result of which Jilinsky appeared not to know where the armies were nor the armies each other. When news reached Stavka that Samsonov had engaged the enemy on August 24–25 and was about to renew the battle, anxiety about Rennenkampf’s failure to bring up the other arm of the pincers became acute. On August 26 the Grand Duke visited Jilinsky’s headquarters at Volkovisk to insist upon Rennenkampf being urged forward. In his leisurely pursuit begun on August 23, Rennenkampf had passed through the former German positions on the Angerapp which the Eighth Army had abandoned in its great transfer to the south. Evidences of hurried departure confirmed his picture of a beaten enemy. According to the notes of one of his Staff officers, he believed it would be a mistake to push the Germans too rapidly. They might then fall back to the Vistula before they could be cut off by Samsonov. Rennenkampf made no effort to follow closely enough to confirm conjecture by eyesight nor did this omission appear to worry Jilinsky, who accepted Rennenkampf’s version without question.
The orders Jilinsky issued to Rennenkampf on the day after the Grand Duke’s visit were to pursue an enemy he still assumed to be retreating and to guard against a possible German sortie from the fortress of Königsberg upon his flank. It had been intended to mask Königsberg with six reserve divisions, but these had not yet come up. Now Jilinsky instructed Rennenkampf to blockade Königsberg with two corps until the reserve divisions arrived and with his other two corps to pursue “those enemy troops which do not take refuge in Königsberg and may be supposed to be retreating to the Vistula.” “Supposing” the enemy to be retreating, he did not conceive of him threatening Samsonov and did not urge Rennenkampf to hurry to close the junction with Samsonov’s right wing as originally planned. He merely told him that the “combined operations” of the First and Second Armies must aim at pressing the retreating Germans toward the sea and away from the Vistula. As the two Russian Armies were neither in contact nor moving toward each other, the word “combined” was hardly applicable.
When morning broke on August 26 Samsonov’s VIth Corps began its march toward the center in obedience to orders it did not know had been canceled. One division was under way when the other division received news that enemy forces had been sighted some six miles behind it to the north. Assuming these were troops retreating from Rennenkampf, the Russian divisional commander decided to turn around and attack them. The force was in fact Mackensen’s Corps, itself moving forward to attack. It fell upon the Russians, and while they were fighting to save themselves, their fellow division, which had already marched eight miles, was desperately summoned. It marched back again and after covering nineteen miles came up at the end of the day against a second enemy corps, Below’s. Contact between the two Russian divisions was lost. The corps commander, General Blagovestchensky “lost his head” (in this case the formula is applied by a British military critic); the divisional commander, whose group had been in battle all day, suffering 5,000 casualties and the loss of sixteen field guns, ordered retreat on his own initiative. During the night orders and counterorders added to the confusion, units became mixed up on the roads, and by morning the VIth Corps was in a disorganized shambles and continuing to fall back. Samsonov’s right wing had been turned.
While this was happening, his center of two and a half corps took the offensive. General Martos was in the middle, heavily engaged. His neighbor on the left, a division of the XXIIIrd Corps, was repulsed and thrown back, exposing his flank. On his right General Kliouev’s XIIIth Corps took Allenstein but learning that Martos was in trouble moved to his support, leaving Allenstein to be occupied by the VIth Corps which Kliouev supposed to be on its way. The VIth of course never came, and a gap was left at Allenstein.
A few miles behind the front, at Second Army Headquarters in Neidenburg, General Samsonov was at dinner with his Chief of Staff, General Potovsky, and the British military attaché, Major Knox, when the beaten division of the XXIIIrd Corps poured into the streets. In the mood of fear any sound made them think themselves pursued; an ambulance wagon clattering up raised cries of “Uhlans coming!” Hearing the commotion Samsonov and Potovsky, a nervous individual who wore pince-nez and was known, for some now obscure reason, as the “Mad Mullah,” buckled on their swords and hurried out. They saw at firsthand the condition of the troops. The men were “terribly exhausted … they had been three days without bread or sugar.” “For two days my men received no rations and none of the supplies came up,” one regimental commander told them.
Although he had not yet received full news of the disaster to the VIth Corps on the right, Samsonov realized by the end of the day that it was no longer a question of enveloping the enemy but of saving himself from envelopment. He nevertheless decided not to break off battle but to renew it next day with his center corps in an effort to hold the Germans until Rennenkampf should come up to deal them the decisive blow. He sent orders to General Artomonov, commander of the Ist Corps holding the front opposite François on the Russians’ extreme left, “to protect the flank of the Army … at all costs.” He felt sure that “not even a greatly superior enemy can break the resistance of the famous Ist Corps,” and added that success of the battle depended on their holding firm.
Next morning, the 27th, the impatiently awaited moment for François’ offensive had come. His artillery had arrived. At 4:00 A.M., before it was light, a hurricane bombardment of tremendous impact broke upon positions of the Russian Ist Corps at Usdau. The German High Command, with Hindenburg ponderously calm, Ludendorff grim and tense, and Hoffmann behind them, a mocking shadow, left their temporary headquarters at Löbau, twenty miles away, to take up a position on a hill from which Ludendorff intended to “superintend on the spot” the coordination of François’ and Scholtz’s corps. Before they could even reach the hill news was brought that Usdau was taken. In the midst of rejoicing the report was almost immediately followed by another denying the first. The roar of the artillery barrage continued. In the Russian trenches the men of the “famous Ist Corps,” unfed like their fellows of the XXIIIrd and drained of the will to fight, fled from under the torrent of shells, leaving behind them as many dead as those who got away. By 11:00 A.M. the Russian Ist Corps had abandoned the field, the battle had been won by artillery alone, and Ludendorff, whose premature orders might have lost it, felt that the Russian Second Army was now “broken through.”
But it was not beaten, and he found that “in contrast to other wars” the battle had not been won in a day. François’ advance was still being held east of Usdau; the two Russian corps in the center, a formidable body of men, were still attacking; the threat of Rennenkampf still hung over his rear. Roads were clogged with refugees and livestock; whole villages were fleeing. German soldiers, too, were exhausted and they too conjured pursuit out of the clatter of hoofs and cried, “They’re coming!” which, as it passed down a column, became “The Cossacks are coming!” On returning to Löbau the High Command heard with horrified disbelief a report that François’ Corps was fleeing and that “relics” of its units were coming into Montovo. A frantic telephone call ascertained that retreating troops of the Ist Corps could indeed be seen in dispirited groups in front of the railroad station. If François’ flank had somehow been turned the battle might be lost, and for one awful moment the prospect of a lost campaign, retreat behind the Vistula, abandonment of East Prussia, rose up as it had before Prittwitz. Then it was discovered that the troops in Montovo belonged to one battalion only that in the fighting beyond Usdau had given way.
Late that day the truth that the Germans were not after all “retreating to the Vistula” but advancing against Samsonov finally penetrated Jilinsky’s Headquarters. At last he telegraphed to Rennenkampf that the Second Army was under heavy attack and he should cooperate “by moving your left flank as far forward as possible,” but the objectives given were too westerly and not far enough advanced and no mention was made of haste or forced marches.
The battle was in its third day. Two armies, now totally committed, surged and gripped and broke apart and clashed again in confused and separate combats over a front of forty miles. A regiment advanced, its neighbor was thrown back, gaps appeared, the enemy thrust through or, unaccountably, did not. Artillery roared, cavalry squadrons, infantry units, heavy horse-drawn field-gun batteries moved and floundered through villages and forests, between lakes, across fields and roads. Shells smashed into farmhouses and village streets. A battalion advancing under cover of shellfire disappeared behind a curtain of smoke and mist to some unknown fate. Columns of prisoners herded to the rear blocked the advancing troops. Brigades took ground or yielded it, crossed each other’s lines of communication, became tangled up with the wrong division. Field commanders lost track of their units, staff cars sped about, German scout planes flew overhead trying to gather information, army commanders struggled to find out what was happening, and issued orders which might not be received or carried out or conform to realities by the time they reached the front. Three hundred thousand men flailed at each other, marched and tiredly countermarched, fired their guns, got drunk if they were lucky enough to occupy a village or sat on the ground in the forest with a few companions while night came; and the next day the struggle went on and the great battle of the Eastern Front was fought out.
General von François opened battle at dawn on the 28th with another great artillery barrage. Ludendorff ordered him to veer left to relieve the pressure upon Scholtz’s Corps, which he believed to be “greatly exhausted.” Ignoring him, François held to a straight eastward advance, determined to complete envelopment of Samsonov’s flank and cut off his retreat. After his successful disobedience of the day before, Ludendorff now almost pleaded with François to obey orders. The Ist Corps would “render the greatest possible service to the army by carrying out these instructions,” he said. Paying no attention, François drove eastward, posting detachments along the roads as he moved to keep the enemy from breaking out.
In anxiety for the center, Ludendorff and Hindenburg waited out the battle at Scholtz’s field headquarters in the village of Frögenau, about two miles from an even smaller village, Tannenberg. Orders were date-lined from Frögenau. Ludendorff was again tortured by apprehension about Rennenkampf. Worried about Scholtz’s Corps, angered at François, harassed by the “very ineffective field telephone” connecting him with that insubordinate commander and by the absence of any telephone communication at all with Mackensen and Below on his left wing, he was “far from satisfied.” Mackensen and Below, confused by conflicting orders to take first this direction and then that, sent a Staff officer by airplane to Headquarters to straighten matters out. He received a “far from friendly reception” because neither corps was in the location it was supposed to be. Toward afternoon, however, both were moving satisfactorily, Mackensen pushing after the broken Russian right wing and Below heading for the gap at Allenstein to attack the Russian center. Now François’ progress appeared more justified, and Ludendorff issued revised orders to him to pursue the direction he was already taking.
Just as the conviction of coming victory began to settle warmly over German Headquarters, news came in that Rennenkampf’s army was unmistakably on the march. But the day’s progress by now gave assurance that he would be too late. In fact, at that night’s bivouac, Rennenkampf’s nearest corps was still twenty miles from Bischofsburg where Samsonov’s VIth Corps had been defeated two days before. Making slow progress in hostile territory, Rennenkampf’s furthest advance by the end of the next day, August 29, was some ten miles farther west but no farther south and he had made no contact with Samsonov. None was ever to be made.
The collapse of the “famous Ist Corps” in whose resistance he had put such faith, on top of the collapse of the VIth Corps on his other wing, presaged the end to General Samsonov. Both his flanks were turned; his cavalry, the only arm in which he outnumbered the Germans, having been deployed too wide of the flanks, had played no useful part in the battle and was now isolated; supplies and communications were in complete chaos; only the steadfast XVth and XIIIth Corps were still fighting. At his headquarters in Neidenburg he could hear the sound of François’ approaching guns. There seemed to him to be only one thing to do. He telegraphed Jilinsky that he was leaving for the battlefront and then, ordering baggage and wireless apparatus to be sent back to Russia, cut his communications with the rear. The reasons for his decision, it has been said, “he took with him to his grave,” but they are not hard to understand. The army that had been given him to command was crumbling under him. He became again a cavalry officer and divisional general and did the thing he knew best. With seven of his Staff on horses commandeered from some Cossacks, he rode off to take personal command under fire, in the saddle where he felt at home.
Outside Neidenburg on August 28 he took farewell of Major Knox. Samsonov was sitting on the ground surrounded by his staff, studying some maps. He stood up, took Knox aside, and told him the situation was “critical.” He said his own place and duty were with the army, but as Knox’s duty was to report to his government he advised him to return “while there was time.” He mounted, turned in the saddle and said with a wistful smile, “The enemy has luck one day, we will have luck another,” as he rode away.
Later, General Martos, who was conducting the battle in his sector from a hilltop, had just ordered a column of German prisoners to be led out of the fighting line when to his astonishment the General of the Army came up on horseback with his Staff. Samsonov asked about the retiring column, and on being told they were prisoners he reined his horse close to Martos, leaned over to embrace him and said sadly, “You alone will save us.” But he knew better, and that night gave the order for a general retreat of what was left of the Second Army.
The retreat during the next two days, August 29 and 30, was a mounting and inexorable disaster. The two center corps which had fought longest and best, and had advanced the farthest and retreated last, had the least chance to escape and were the most completely netted in the German envelopment. General Kliouev’s Corps was still on the offensive when Below broke through the gap on his right at Allenstein and completed the cordon around the Russian center. His corps and that of General Martos thrashed about helplessly in the forests and marshes in futile marches and wrong turnings and vain attempts to regroup and make a stand as the cordon was drawn tighter. In the swampy area where the roads were causeways the Germans posted guards with machine guns at every crossing. The men of Martos’ Corps in their last four days were literally starving. Kliouev’s Corps covered forty-two miles in their last forty hours without rations of any kind; horses were unfed and unwatered.
On August 29 General Martos and a few of his Staff were attempting to find a way through the forest with an escort of five Cossacks. The enemy was firing all around. Major General Machagovsky, Martos’ Chief of Staff, was killed by machine-gun fire. Others in the group were picked off one by one until only one Staff officer and two of his escort remained with the general. Having left his haversack with an aide who was now missing, Martos had had nothing to eat, drink, or smoke since morning. One exhausted horse lay down and died; the men dismounted and led the others. Darkness fell. They tried to guide themselves by the stars but the skies clouded over. Troops were heard approaching and were thought to be friends because the horses pulled toward them. Suddenly a German searchlight blazed through the woods and swung back and forth, searching for them. Martos tried to mount and gallop off but his horse was hit. He fell and was seized by German soldiers.
Later, in a “dirty little hotel” in Osterode where Martos was taken as a prisoner, Ludendorff came into the room and, speaking perfect Russian, taunted him with defeat and boasted that the Russian frontier was now open to German invasion. Hindenburg followed and “seeing me disturbed he held my hands for a long time begging me to calm myself.” In awkward Russian with a heavy accent he promised to return Martos’ sword, and took his leave with a bow saying, “I wish you happier days.”
In the woods north of Neidenburg the debris of Martos’ Corps were slaughtered or surrendered. Only one officer of the XVth Corps escaped to return to Russia. About ten miles east of Neidenburg the last of the XIIIth Corps, whose commander, General Kliouev, had also been captured, entrenched themselves in a circle. With four guns captured from a German battery in the woods they held off the enemy all through the night of August 30 until they had no more ammunition left and most of them were dead. The remainder were taken prisoner.
A last Russian attack was made that day, mounted with great vigor by General Sirelius, successor to General Artomonov of the Ist Corps who had been dismissed. Collecting various scattered and still fresh regiments and artillery units which had not been in battle and aggregated about a division, he launched an offensive that broke through François’ lines and succeeded in retaking Neidenburg. It came too late and could not be sustained. This last act of the Russian Second Army had not been ordered by General Samsonov, for he was dead.
On the night of August 29 he too, like General Martos, was caught in the net, in a different part of the forest. Riding through the woods that fringed the railroad, he and his companions reached Willenburg, only seven miles from the Russian frontier, but the Germans had arrived there before them. The General and his group waited in the forest until nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his Chief of Staff: “The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?” After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 A.M. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew instantly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide but Potovsky thought he had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead. The Staff officers tried to find the body in the darkness but failed. They decided to wait until dawn, but as the sky began to lighten, German troops were heard approaching. Forsaking their task, the Russians were forced to move on toward the frontier, where they fell in with a Cossack patrol and eventually made their way to safety. Samsonov’s body was found by the Germans, who buried it at Willenburg where in 1916, with the help of the Red Cross, his widow was able to retrieve it and bring it back for burial in Russia.
Silence had enveloped the Second Army. At Jilinsky’s Headquarters wireless contact was dead; nothing had been heard from Samsonov for two days. Now that it was too late, Jilinsky ordered Rennenkampf’s cavalry to break through the German lines at Allenstein and find out what had happened to the Second Army. The mission was never to be accomplished, for already the German Eighth Army, having destroyed one arm of the pincers that was to have crushed them, was turning to deal with the other.
Almost with awe they realized the extent of their victory. The haul of enemy dead and prisoners and captured guns was enormous: 92,000 prisoners were taken, and according to some claims the count was higher. Sixty trains were required to bring them to the rear during the week after the battle. Captured guns were counted variously between 300 and 500 out of the Second Army’s total of some 600. Captured horses were driven in herds to corrals hurriedly built to hold them. Although no agreed casualty figure for the dead and missing exists, it was estimated at over 30,000. The XVth and XIIIth Corps by capture or death were wiped out of existence; 50 officers and 2,100 men of these two corps were all that escaped. Survivors of the two flank corps, the VIth and Ist, which retreated earliest, amounted to about a division each, and of the XXIIIrd Corps, to about a brigade.
The victors, too, suffered heavily; after the fatigue and suspense of a six-day battle their nerves were raw. When Neidenberg, which changed hands four times, was retaken by the Germans on August 31, a nervous military policeman shouted “Halt!” at a car driving at high speed across the main square. When the car, which contained General von Morgen, ignored his order, he yelled “Stop! Russians!” and fired. Instantly a volley of fire covered the car, killing the chauffeur and wounding an officer sitting beside the General. The same night, after barely escaping being shot by his own men, von Morgen was awakened by his valet who, crying “The Russians have come back!” ran off clutching the General’s clothes. To his “extreme vexation” von Morgen was forced to emerge in the street strapping his revolver over his underclothes.
For all but a few officers it had been their first experience under fire, and out of the excited fancy produced by the fears and exhaustion and panic and violence of a great battle a legend grew—a legend of thousands of Russians drowning in the swamps or sinking up to their necks in bogs and quicksands, men whom the Germans were forced to slaughter with machine guns. “I will hear their cries to my dying day,” one officer told an awestruck audience of friends in Germany. “The widely circulated report of Russians driven into the marshes and perishing there is a myth,” Ludendorff wrote; “no marsh was to be found anywhere near.”
As the extent of the enemy’s defeat became clear, the German commanders began to consider that they had won, as Hoffmann wrote in his diary, “one of the great victories in history.” It was decided—according to Hoffmann at his suggestion, according to Ludendorff at “my suggestion”—to name the battle Tannenberg in delayed compensation for the ancient defeat suffered there by the Teutonic Knights at the hands of the Poles and Lithuanians. In spite of this second triumph even greater than Liège, Ludendorff could not rejoice “because the strain imposed on my nerves by the uncertainty about Rennenkampf’s Army had been too great.” He was now able, however, to turn with greater confidence against Rennenkampf with the addition of the two new corps that Moltke was sending from the West.
His triumph owed much to others: to Hoffmann who, though right for the wrong reasons, had been firm in the conviction that Rennenkampf would not pursue and had conceived the plan and drawn up the orders for bringing the Eighth Army down to face Samsonov; to François who by defying Ludendorff’s orders ensured the envelopment of Samsonov’s left wing; to Hindenburg who steadied Ludendorff’s nerves at a critical moment; finally and above all to a factor that never figured in the careful German planning—the Russian wireless. Ludendorff came to depend on the intercepts which his staff regularly collected during the day, decoded or translated and sent to him every night at 11:00 P.M. If by chance they were late, he would worry and appear personally in the signal corps room to inquire what was the matter. Hoffmann acknowledged the intercepts as the real victor of Tannenberg. “We had an ally,” he said, “the enemy. We knew all the enemy’s plans.”
To the public the savior of East Prussia was the nominal commander, Hindenburg. The elderly general dragged from retirement in his old blue uniform was transformed into a titan by the victory. The triumph in East Prussia, lauded and heralded even beyond its true proportions, fastened the Hindenburg myth upon Germany. Not even Hoffmann’s sly malice could penetrate it. When, as Chief of Staff on the Eastern Front later in the war, he would take visitors over the field of Tannenberg, Hoffmann would tell them, “This is where the Field Marshal slept before the battle; here is where he slept after the battle; here is where he slept during the battle.”
In Russia the disaster did not penetrate the public mind at once, being blotted out by a great victory won at the same time over the Austrians on the Galician front. In numbers an even greater victory than the Germans won at Tannenberg, it had equal effect on the enemy. In a series of engagements fought from August 26 to September 10 and culminating in the Battle of Lemberg, the Russians inflicted 250,000 casualties, took 100,000 prisoners, forced the Austrians into a retreat lasting eighteen days and covering 150 miles, and accomplished a mutilation of the Austro-Hungarian Army, especially in trained officers, from which it was never to recover. It crippled Austria but could not restore the losses or heal the effects of Tannenberg. The Russian Second Army had ceased to exist, General Samsonov was dead, and of his five corps commanders two were captured and three cashiered for incompetence. General Rennenkampf in the ensuing battle of the Masurian Lakes was chased out of East Prussia, “lost his nerve”—in this case the customary formula was applied by Jilinsky—deserted his army, and drove back across the frontier in a motorcar, thus completing the ruin of his reputation and bringing about his discharge in disgrace and incidentally that of Jilinsky. In a telegram to the Grand Duke, Jilinsky accused Rennenkampf of having decamped in panic. This infuriated the Grand Duke, who considered the primary failure to have been Jilinsky’s. He thereupon reported to the Czar that it was Jilinsky “who has lost his head and is incapable of controlling operations,” with the result that another actor in the Battle of Tannenberg became a casualty.
The inadequacy of training and materials, the incompetence of generals, the inefficiency of organization were laid bare by the battle. Alexander Guchkov, a subsequent Minister of War, testified that he “reached the firm conviction that the war was lost” after Tannenberg. The defeat gave new vigor to the pro-German groups who began openly to agitate for withdrawal from the war. Count Witte was convinced the war would ruin Russia, Rasputin that it would destroy the regime. The Ministers of Justice and of Interior drew up a Memorandum for the Czar urging peace with Germany as soon as possible on the ground that continuing alliance with democracies would be fatal. The opportunity was offered. German proposals to Russia for a separate peace began shortly afterward and continued through 1915 and 1916. Whether out of loyalty to the Allies and the Pact of London or fear of making terms with the Germans, or insensibility to the lapping tide of Revolution or simple paralysis of authority, the Russians never accepted them. In mounting chaos and dwindling ammunition their war effort went on.
At the time of the disaster General Marquis de Laguiche, the French military attaché, came to express his condolences to the Commander in Chief. “We are happy to have made such sacrifices for our Allies,” the Grand Duke replied gallantly. Equanimity in the face of catastrophe was his code, and Russians, in the knowledge of inexhaustible supplies of manpower, are accustomed to accepting gigantic fatalities with comparative calm. The Russian steam roller in which the Western Allies placed such hopes, which after their debacle on the Western Front was awaited even more anxiously, had fallen apart on the road as if it had been put together with pins. In its premature start and early demise it had been, just as the Grand Duke said, a sacrifice for an ally. Whatever it cost the Russians, the sacrifice accomplished what the French wanted: withdrawal of German strength from the Western Front. The two corps that came too late for Tannenberg were to be absent from the Marne.