The First Winter on the Eastern Front
Combat during the first winter on the Eastern Front
23 January - 10 April 1915
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
During the winter of 1915 a series of battles ensued on the Eastern Front of World War One. These battles had mixed results: while the Germans managed to inflict yet another defeat on the Russian Army at the Masurian Lakes the Austro-Hungarian offensive in the Carpathians was nothing short of a disaster with the Empire's armies suffering heavy casualties.

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The Eastern Front would move to center stage in 1915. Although the German Chief of Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, was convinced of the primacy of the Western Front, he had been pressured by forces within the German military and political hierarchy to amend his plans and send reinforcements to the east where the twin stars of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff were firmly in the ascendant.

The weather was atrocious, varying from blizzards to daytime thaws, freezing again at night, so that even though both sides' troops had winter clothing, casualties from frostbite far outnumbered those of battle.

The conditions favored the defence because closing the trap required the Germans to move faster than the Russians. Movement of any kind was difficult through snowdrifts and mud, fast movement was impossible, and bringing supplies from railheads took up to 12 horses per cartload. But here, too, superior German organization prevailed.

Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian Chief of Staff, began the offensive with the twin aims of relieving pressure on the surrounded Przemyśl garrison and of winning a success that might deter Italy, increasingly emboldened by Austrian setbacks, from entering the war on the Entente’s side. The terrain and the weather in the Carpathians inflicted setbacks and terrible suffering on Conrad's soldiers, who froze and starved amid the steep valleys and forests. The Russian formations, which included a corps of Finns, perhaps the hardiest soldiers in Europe, were less affected.

By the beginning of April, the Russians dominated the Carpathian front and, despite losses throughout their army totalling nearly two million since the war's outbreak, they were again contemplating a breakthrough over the crests to the Hungarian plains, with decisive results for the whole eastern campaign, as soon as better weather came. The Austrians were at their last gasp. Without massive German help, whatever price would be paid for that by way of political dependency and national prestige, the Empire faced a culminating crisis.

The Eastern Front had been frozen during the depths of winter and, although the fighting had slowed in pace, the minds of the staff officers were racing as they planned their next moves. Ludendorff, working in cooperation with the Austrian Chief of Staff, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, agreed a program for offensives by the Austrians in Galicia and the Germans in East Prussia. These were planned to take place almost simultaneously in order to maximize their impact, and had the ambitious overall intention of forcing the Russians to evacuate central Poland or run the risk of being cut off.

The Germans had reorganized their forces and managed to construct a new Tenth Army in East Prussia, capitalizing on the divisions so grudgingly extracted from Falkenhayn. Germany had formed four new army corps, and Ludendorff wanted them for the eastern front. Falkenhayn had failed to supply victory in France, and politicians felt that his policies should be abandoned. Conrad made out, early in January, that his Carpathian position was going wrong, so Ludendorff offered him some troops. Conrad then announced that he would use these for an offensive. Falkenhayn could do nothing against this, since the movement of reserves in the east was a matter for Ludendorff.

On New Year’s Day, Falkenhayn met Conrad and Ludendorff in Berlin. A week later, under pressure from the Kaiser and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, he reluctantly agreed to send a few Eastern Front divisions to support Austria-Hungary in the Carpathians. He went to Hindenburg's headquarters at Posen (Poznan) to discuss his plans. He agreed to give Hindenburg three newly raised corps that he would rather have sent west, and one transferred from the west because it was raised mostly in Lorraine, and not thought reliable for fighting the French.

Three of the new German corps would form a new Tenth Army, take over the northern part of the front, from Gumbinnen to the Niemen river, and form the northern jaw of a pincer aimed at encircling the Russian Tenth Army. The Eighth Army, reinforced by the fourth new corps, would form the southern jaw of what was hoped would be a second Tannenberg.

The plan was to attack in the lower Beskid range, where the German formations were to break through and then wheel outwards in both directions, assisted by Austrian divisions on the flanks. Conditions did not favor success. The Beskids rise to 8,000 feet, had few roads at that time and are covered by deep snow in winter. The Germans, moreover, were ill-equipped for mountain operations.

There was more to the German plan, however, than a hope of local success. It had two larger objects. The first was an encirclement of the Russian Tenth Army between Masuria and the forest of Augustow, the last of Europe's primeval wildernesses; the second was a wider encirclement of the whole Russian position in Poland, in concert with the Austrians' offensive in the Carpathians. Falkenhayn had wanted neither operation, since both required reinforcements he preferred to husband for his continued effort in the west, but he was overborne by Hindenburg who, though his subordinate, enjoyed direct access to the Kaiser since his Tannenberg triumph.

Conrad’s Carpathian offensive did not make much sense on its own; it would have to be supported by a parallel offensive, taking the other Russian flank in East Prussia. Yet that could not be staged without the four new corps. Falkenhayn gave way, his internal position being too unstable for much resistance to be made. In this way, the Central Powers were to be engaged in two offensives, for which they did not have the required strength.

Conrad planned to use the German troops — joined with an equal number of Austrians — in the middle Carpathians, with Austro-Hungarian armies to the left and right, to re-take Przemyśl.

The Russians were also still engaged in an increasingly bitter debate between those who considered they should concentrate on the Germans in East Prussia or Silesia and those who advocated a renewed offensive in Galicia and the Carpathians in an attempt to knock the struggling Austro-Hungarians right out of the war. It was no coincidence that one of the main advocates of the former approach should be General Nikolai Ruzsky, commanding the Northwest Front, while the other faction was led by General Nikolai Ivanov, who commanded the Southwest Front. However, the Russian plans would be rendered redundant when the Germans struck first.

This tension led to a failure to cooperate or concentrate resources for a joint course of action as each of the two front commanders clung to his own plans. In the event, Ruzsky decided to launch a new offensive in East Prussia in mid-February, in anticipation of which he slowly built up his new Twelfth Army around the Narew River sector on the southern frontier of East Prussia.

Ivanov cited the failures against the Germans as reasons for concentrating on Austria-Hungary, arguing that a convincing defeat would prompt Italy and Romania to invade it; it would then collapse, leaving Germany isolated. Ruzsky argued that Germany was the main enemy, and force used against Austria-Hungary was wasted. The Grand Duke saw a flank attack from East Prussia as the greatest threat to his planned drive on Berlin, and came down on Ruzsky's side, giving Ivanov only one extra corps and telling him not to attack.

The bulk of reinforcements went to form a new Twelfth Army, under General Plehve, deployed south of the Tenth, to invade East Prussia from the south, bypassing the Masurian Lakes, while the Tenth invaded from the east.

Which side would be ready first depended on the railways. Here the Germans won hands down. Documents found on a dead German officer told the Russians that East Prussia had been reinforced, but they had no time to act on the information. Their offensive could not begin until 23 February, but the German Eighth Army attacked on the 7th.

Ivanov and Alexeyev made out, as before, that decisive action on their front could produce a collapse of Austria, particularly of Hungary — ‘she is ready to make a separate peace’. The Balkan states and Italy would be impressed; Przemyśl would fall. Nikolai Ruzski and Stavka disagreed with this. In mid-January, Yuri Danilov and Ruzski between them, in secret, concocted a memorandum, arguing that the only place for an offensive was East Prussia.

Ruzski and Danilov pointed out that it was the Germans’ flanking position in East Prussia that had made invasion of Germany impossible late in 1914 — an analysis to which there was much foundation — and ‘You get the idea that energetic pressure here could throw the Germans back’. An attack on the southern border of East Prussia ought to be made, by a new Army (XII); troops could be drawn into this from other parts of the front.

There was certainly no sense in attacking again in central Poland, with what the Grand Duke described as ‘toutes les horreurs’ of German fortifications. An attack in the Carpathians would meet obstacles of climate and terrain. East Prussia was therefore indicated by Ruzski and Danilov. This was not an analysis that the southwestern command accepted. They first wanted troops for an offensive; then, as German troops arrived in the Carpathians, for a defensive action. They would not give up a man, insisting instead that they should be given troops.

For the Germans the campaign of 1915 opened with a characteristic episode. Ludendorff decided that there should be another attempt in the central plains of the Vistula, so at the end of January, IX Army attacked near Bolimów, using gas: its first appearance in the war. The attack went wrong: gas blew back on the Germans, and the cold weather ensured that it would in any case be ineffective. The Germans were sensible enough to break off their attack when it failed. The Russians counterattacked. Command failed to keep in touch with troops; there was no coherent plan, little training, only a mad persistence. 40,000 men were knocked out in three days.

Characteristically, failure was ascribed to the wrong reasons. The inappropriateness of the season, the lack of planning, the crazy overloading of a single corps command — none of these were noted. Instead, Ruzski told Ivan Smirnov, the aged commander of II Army: ‘Victory on your front cannot fail, as you have eleven divisions on a front of only ten kilometres’. This was, in a sense, the very reason for failure: German artillery could concentrate on a very small area, enfilading it on one side.

Ruzski blamed the soldiers for a ‘lack of resolution’, and Russian troops were driven again and again into much the same pattern of attack, with failures being blamed, first on cowardice, and then on lack of shell.

Ludendorff launched the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes with a two-pronged attack by the Tenth Army in the north and the Eighth Army in the south, both driving in on the flanks of the Russian Tenth Army which was occupying defensive lines in East Prussia, wedged neatly between the sea and the Masurian Lakes. Initially the Russians were taken by surprise. The German forces massed on both flanks, then drove forward seeking to choke off escape routes and achieve another battle of annihilation. They were at least partially successful, but the Russians soon began to fall back, and it was difficult for the Germans to maintain their momentum in such awful conditions.

As on the Western Front, at this stage of the war the Russian trench defences were hardly sophisticated, often amounting to little more than deep ditches, usually with no support lines or communication trenches. The Tenth Army was also in poor shape, suffering from low morale, with many units considered to be of only second line status. Shortages of rifles and ammunition meant reinforcements often arrived at the front unarmed, reliant on pillaging the bodies of the dead for weapons. The weather was dreadful, with howling blizzards reducing visibility almost to nothing.

The Germans attacked from north and south of the lake belt, broke through in terrible weather — snow, fog and bitter cold — and quickly threatened the Russians with encirclement. The Russian infantry, as was common practice, was badly supported by artillery commanders more concerned with saving their guns than standing by the soldiers at the front. They fought back but were progressively encircled.

Russian intelligence was poor, consistently underestimating the strength of the Germans. The High Command, which had provided the isolated Tenth Army with no reserves, complacently assured Sievers, its commander, that the Twelfth Army, far to its south, would solve its problems. He had warned, before the storm broke, that ‘nothing can prevent [my army] from being exposed to the same fate as [Rennenkampf's] in September.’ No notice was taken by his superiors, so that another Tannenberg did indeed threaten.

Both sides suffered problems of command and control, but the bulk of the Russian Tenth Army managed to evade the net as it retreated back into Russia, although the fate of the XX Corps – cut off and captured in the dark depths of the Augustów Forest – showed what might have been.

Following an unsuccessful siege of the Osowiec Fortress, the German attacks pressed east into Russia to try to create a buffer zone. However, in March the Germans withdrew to their own borders under heavy pressure from the Russian Tenth and Twelfth Armies. The grander aim of forcing Russia to abandon the Vistula line had not been achieved, and the accompanying Austro-Hungarian offensive failed.

Osowiec was well-defended, and enjoyed a position of some strength, commanding the few routes across the marshes of the Bobr. It provided an object lesson in the proper role of fortresses in the First World War: its various works were not strong and the defenders could not, therefore, have many illusions — they were almost forced to a flexible defence based on field positions. The Germans, despite an expenditure of shell calculated to be as much as 250,000, failed to make progress. Afterward Hindenburg and Ludendorff claimed a great victory, pointing out that they had liberated the last slice of occupied German mainland territory. Falkenhayn was less sanguine, considering it a meaningless success which had cost the lives of far too many highly trained reinforcements while it had cost the Russians only manpower, of which they had a near-endless supply.

The Germans were now nearing exhaustion, and Russian counterattacks in the last days of February prompted Hindenburg to end the offensive and pull back from the most exposed positions. By the end of March another 40,000 Russians had been captured, and the front was stable just east of the frontier.

The Russian public did not know Hindenburg's aim, or that he fell short of achieving it. They knew only that another army had been wiped out, and that soldiers' letters spoke of overwhelming German artillery bombardments, Russian guns silent for lack of shells, and infantry mown down or captured by the tens of thousands.

The Austrian contribution to the winter offensives had actually begun earlier when Conrad ordered forward his troops, assisted by a joint Austrian-German Südarmee group. It was a bold, some might say suicidal scheme, launching a series of attacks to secure control of the passes of the western and central Carpathian Mountains in the freezing cold of January. It was also intended to push deep into Galicia and relieve the besieged fortress town of Przemyśl. A further flanking attack was to be made to the east into Bukovina.

The conditions in the Carpathians made military operations almost impossible. The soldiers found that their rifle bolts froze solid and could not be fired; the advance through the passes slowed to a crawl. Frozen corpses littered the ground, for burial was impossible. Some progress was made but only at a terrible cost. Soon it became evident that nothing of substance could be achieved, while relieving Przemyśl was out of the question.

The Austro-Hungarian front offered Russia more cheer. Since mid-September it had the fortress of Przemyśl, with over 100,000 defenders, under siege — though the length of siege reflected Russia's lack of heavy artillery. Ivanov stuck to his plan to invade Hungary through the Carpathians, while Conrad saw an attack from them as Austria-Hungary's contribution to forcing the Russians off the Vistula line. So both planned winter offensives in the Eastern Carpathians.

Terrain less suited to a winter campaign is hard to imagine. The mountains, though not very high, are steep, intersected by few passes and even fewer passable roads, and blocked by snow on most days, and by mud during the occasional thaws. Thousands of troops on both sides died of exposure that winter.

The Austrians moved first. Twenty divisions attacked at the Dukla, Lupka and Uzhok passes. Simultaneously the new 'German South Army' (mostly Austrian, but under a German general) attacked the eastern Verecke and Wyszkow passes. The Eighth Army, with approximately equal strength, held the attacks, and they were called off. General Aleksei Brusilov then attacked at the Dukla and Lupka passes, sowing havoc among the Austro-Hungarian Third Army, which in three weeks lost over 65,000 of its 100,000-plus manpower to battle or frostbite.

By mid-February the Russians had captured the important railway junction of Mezolaborcz, and were prevented from exploiting their success only by having to divert resources to counter General Pflanzer-Baltin's advance towards the Dniestr river at the eastern end of the front. A second Austrian offensive achieved only limited success in the Carpathians, but succeeded by mid-March in forcing the Russians back across the Dniestr.

The Russians counterattacked, and for the Austrians the situation deteriorated still further, although the Russians too would be stymied by the horrendous conditions, with the casualty figures on both sides ballooning through the multiple effects of exposure and rampant frostbite. By March, the fate of Przemyśl was beginning to dominate Austrian thoughts. The garrison had launched occasional attempts to break out, which had been easily fended off by the Russians. But at last the stores began to run out and, with no hope of relief, the garrison finally surrendered.

With the failure of the winter offensives in the Carpathians, the morale of the enormous Austrian garrison of Przemyśl collapsed. Its relief had been a primary object of the January operation. When that and its renewal in February failed, the commander of the fortress, after attempting a sortie that a British officer attached to the Russians described as a ‘burlesque’, demolished as much of the fortifications as had survived Russian bombardment, blew up his artillery and munitions, burned his supplies and surrendered.

The officers, whom the British observer described as having ‘a prosperous and well-fed look’, at first suffered little thereby; an artist of the Illustrated London News depicted them sharing the cafes of the city with the conquerors, sitting at separate tables but exchanging salutes on entry and departure as if by the protocols of eighteenth century warfare.

These were desperate times for the Austrians, with a multi-national army which, when placed under this kind of pressure, began to fray at the edges. Throughout the war there had been speculation that various nationalities – Czechs, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians and various Slav groupings – were surrendering far too easily or, worse still, were going over voluntarily to the other side. These rumors had a corrosive effect on morale and would do much to undermine the Austrian Army’s performance for the rest of the war.

Nothing, now, could save Przemyśl. Conrad’s adjutant confessed: ‘There is nothing more the troops can do.’ Falkenhayn would not send reinforcements — merely remarking that he had always predicted failure. Ludendorff had nothing to spare. The way was now open for a full-scale Russian offensive in the Carpathians.

With the fall of Przemyśl, Ivanov was finally allowed to launch a major offensive on the Southwest Front designed to capture the Carpathian passes and finally defeat the Austrians. The offensive was not without its problems, with the Russian Generals in disagreement on how to proceed. A further problem was the spring thaw, which brought flooding and rendered impassable many of the mountain passes. The Russian Carpathian Offensive was eventually suspended in early April.

To facilitate this plan, the Northwest Front was put on a defensive basis, which promptly triggered the resignation of Ruzsky. His replacement would be General Mikhail Alekseyev, who had been Ivanov’s Chief of Staff, and whom the Stavka expected to form a more harmonious liaison with his old chief. They would be sadly disappointed, for as soon as Alekseyev arrived at the Northwest Front headquarters he immediately adopted all the old Ruzsky arguments as his own with the passion of a convert. This led to a continuing failure to release sufficient troops to allow Ivanov to capitalize on his initial successes against the Austro-Hungarian Army.

It has been estimated that by this time, in 1915, the Austrians had already suffered some 750,000 casualties. As Ivanov amassed such forces as he could for the next stage of the fighting, it appeared that Austria-Hungary was finished, especially as her old adversary, Italy, was considering joining the war on the side of the Entente in an attempt to make territorial gains at Austria’s expense.

The Russian assault through the Carpathians began, and by mid-April the Austrians were fortifying the Danube line between Vienna and Budapest, anticipating a Russian exodus onto the plain. But by then the Eighth Army had again run out of artillery ammunition, and German reinforcements helped stabilize the line.

Most of Austria's regular officer cadre had by now been lost, and though the Russians were in no better state, their 'soft underbelly' advocates seemed triumphant.

The Russians counterattacked whenever opportunity offered, against an enemy worn down by the harshness of the elements and the fruitlessness of its own efforts. General von Kralowitz, Chief of Staff of the Austrian X Corps, reported ‘men already cut to pieces and defenceless... Every day hundreds froze to death; the wounded who could not drag themselves off were bound to die ... there was no combating the apathy and indifference that gripped the men.’

In the end, Falkenhayn had been right: the winter offensives had been foolhardy. The Russian offensives had also failed to produce results. Grand Duke Nicholas opposed any further attack on East Prussia ‘where we should simply be exposed to the East Prussian railway network’. After the Carpathian campaign, it became clear that the Austro-Hungarian army could only survive with German help.

In January 1915 Ludendorff had told Falkenhayn, ‘Austria’s emergency is our great incalculable’; and by spring, with the fall of Przemyśl, the Habsburg Monarchy appeared to have reached the limit of its endurance. The Austro-Hungarian army was small, badly-armed, and badly-led; the Carpathian front brought an uninterrupted tale of woe.

Before the war, not more than one-fifth of the liable young men in Austria-Hungary were ever conscripted. Less than one-fifth received full training, because there was no money to keep more than that, and because the army leaders shrank from the creative effort of turning hundreds of thousands of peasant youths, with fifteen different languages, into serious soldiers.

The weakness of Austria-Hungary was no great surprise to anyone, but it ought not to have reached such dimensions: Austria-Hungary contained over fifty million inhabitants, and her war-industry, with Skoda and Steyr, should have been able to produce a more respectable war-effort. But the Habsburg Monarchy had become incapable of harnessing its peoples’ energies. A hopeless muddle was made of conscription.

In matters of war-economy, too, there was a crisis, owing mainly to slipshod pre-war arrangements. No provision had been made for a war lasting more than a few weeks, and manufacture of munitions was woefully low. When the Entente set up their blockade, the foreign trade on which the authorities had calculated naturally came to an end. But the Austrian authorities had little idea as to what might take its place, and went on counting on the Germans’ sending them what they needed — although of course the Germans needed every scrap of shell they produced. Austrian production had even been cut back, because of cartel-agreements with German firms.

The imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary left Falkenhayn with no choice but to accede to the piteous demands for reinforcements emanating from the Eastern Front. This was entirely against his own inclinations to concentrate on the Western Front. However, he was determined to retain some strategic control of what was going on, resisting the idea of simply passing the divisions to Hindenburg. The next German offensive, in the Gorlice-Tarnów sector, was intended to be a local limited offensive but it became the Central Powers’ main offensive effort for 1915. In the end the Russian Army, defeated, had to withdraw far into Russia.

Falkenhayn adopted a plan that originated, at least in part, with Conrad, to send eight divisions from the Western Front to form a new Eleventh Army. This would be combined with the Austrian Third and Fourth Armies as an army group under the overall independent command of General August von Mackensen and deployed in the Krakow area for an offensive on the Russian Third Army in the Gorlice-Tarnów sector, with the intention of achieving a local superiority of numbers.