The Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg went down in history as Russia’s worst defeat in World War One. In fact, historians argue that Russia never actually recovered from the battle and the contribution of the army to the Russian Revolution has been covered by many.

At the beginning of the war, Alexander Samsonov was appointed commander of the Russian Second Army. He was told to invade East Prussia in August 1914 along with General Rennenkampf’s First Army, and the start of the campaign went well.

Soon after it began, the German commander facing Samsonov - Maximilian Prittwitz - was sacked by Helmuth von Moltke - Germany’s Chief of Staff - for ordering his Eighth Army to retreat while Samsonov’s Second Army advanced. Prittwitz was replaced by Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, who believed that they should attack with the Eighth Army in order to best defend themselves

By 22nd August, the Eastern Front was tabled and the Germans started to surround Samsonov’s army. Ludendorff and Hindenburg were both credited for the events at Tannenberg but it was actually Colonel Maximilian Hoffman who had detailed how they should surround Russia’s Second Army.

Struggling with lack of communications, Samsonov was unaware of what Hoffman had planned and he also didn’t that the Russian First Army had halted its advances - he assumed Rennenkampf was moving through East Russia as planned.

The Germans, on the other hand, were finding it easy to intercept Russian messages, including one informing Samsonov of Rennenkampf’s marching plan - stating outright that Samsonov would not receive help from the First Army - and another stating the routes Samsonov planned to use to attack the Germans.

The German’s attack on Samsonov’s Second Army took place on 27th August and was very successful. General Francois, who commanded the 1 Corps, captured Soldau and further weakened the Russian lines of communication. The 1 Corps were then moved into a position that would prevent the Second Army from retreating to Russia, which effectively trapped Samsonov. Other German units were also moved to the Tannenberg region and the Germans surrounded the Russian Second Army.

Samsonov had realised the severity of his situation on 28th August, but his attempts to breakout near Tannenburg ended in disaster. In fact, many Russian soldiers threw their rifles away and surrendered.

Of the 150,000 men in the Russian Second Army, just 10,000 managed to escape, with 30,000 becoming casualties and more than 95,000 taken prisoner. The defeat was so catastrophic that Samsonov committed suicide.

The defeat was so great that Britain decided to keep it from the public. However, the Grand Duke Nicholai, commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, stated that it was “an honour to make such a sacrifice”.

This was correct in many ways, as the defeat of the Russians had resulted in a significant reduction in forces on the Western Front. This had even had an impact on the outcome of the First Battle of the Marne.

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Battle of Tannenberg". 2023. Web.