Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive
The Central Powers main offensive on the Eastern Front in 1915
2 May - 22 June 1915
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
During the Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive the German and Austro-Hungarian armies managed to inflict a severe defeat upon the Russians, breaking their lines and plunging them into retreat.
During World War One the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive was initially conceived as a local offensive on the Eastern Front with the goal of relieving pressure on the Austro-Hungarians in the southern part of the front. Due to its success the offensive transformed into the Central Powers’ main offensive for 1915, causing the Russian lines to collapse. Because of the collapse, the Russian Army had to retreat far into Russian territory.

The offensive had the advantage of placing Austrian troops under German command, which created a force of some 300,000. General August von Mackensen also had the inestimable advantage of having a huge concentration of artillery, all served with plentiful ammunition supplies. For the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, there was the additional political consideration that Mackensen was not operating under the aegis of the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team. The stresses that had fractured German High Command over the question of an East versus West grand strategy were beginning to take effect.

Gorlice-Tarnów was to be a second Limanowa-Lapanow, the battle that had saved Austria-Hungary from disaster in December 1914, but on a larger scale and with far more dramatic consequences. Like Limanowa, Gorlice was launched on a narrow front, in the gap between the River Vistula and the Carpathian Mountains; unlike Limanowa, it was to be a German rather than an Austrian victory for, although the Austrians contributed sizeable numbers to the striking force, its cutting edge was German and so was its direction.

The preparatory bombardment devastated the Russian front line. The attacking German infantry stormed forward to meet little resistance. Soon waves of Russian infantrymen were stumbling rearward, casting away their weapons and equipment and abandoning not only the first but also the second and third lines of trenches.

Mackensen planned to use his guns to blast aside the thin defenses between Gorlice and Tarnów, allowing his three armies then to burst through the Russian lines, with the German Twelfth Army driving onwards at the front, while the Austrian Third and Fourth Armies advanced in echelon on either side, protecting the flanks.

The Germans now had to concentrate more on the east, because Austria-Hungary's reverses prompted Italian and Romanian hints that only territorial concessions could prevent their declaring war. Germany opted to overawe them by crippling Russia's offensive power. They planned a surprise attack on the Russian Third Army over a 78 mile (125 km) front between Tarnów in the north and the Lupka pass in the south. Its focal point was the city of Gorlice, and it went into history as Gorlice-Tarnów.

Falkenhayn took his decision, and after discussion with Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian Chief of Staff, eight German divisions received orders to move secretly from the Western to the Eastern Front, to form a new Eleventh Army under Mackensen, deployed west of Gorlice.

Conrad gave Mackensen control over the Austrian Fourth Army, on the Tarnów sector to his north, and the Third to his south, covering the Dukla and Lupka passes. 'Army Group Mackensen', with one cavalry and 22 infantry divisions, faced 19 Russian divisions, all under strength and short of artillery.

On the whole attack front, the Germans and Austrians had a superiority of over three to two in men and a very large superiority in guns. The Russian entrenchments were sketchy and the No Man's Land separating them from the enemy was wide, enabling the Germans and Austrians to push their outposts forward and dig new positions close to the Russian wire in the days before the attack, without being detected.

The Austro-Hungarian army had always been supranational, and professional officers made an effort to learn the languages of their men. Conrad himself, for instance, spoke seven languages. 1914 changed this. The professional officers were speedily wiped out. The new officers were men of a different stamp who had neither the will nor the opportunity to learn their men’s languages. Desertion began. By spring 1915, the Austrian army seemed to be on the verge of disintegration, and the process could seemingly only be halted if the Germans intervened.

The language problem became ungovernable in time; there was even a Slovak regiment commanded in English, since the men—with a view to emigration—had learned it, and the officers spoke it from their high school days. Behind the Carpathian disasters, there was a real collapse of the structure of the Austro-Hungarian army.

Men froze, resented injustices at home, did not know what their officers were saying, did not have much artillery to help them in the field, and sometimes understood Russian better than any other language.

It would no doubt be wrong to conclude that this was a consequence of initial disloyalty on the part of the Slavs, although this was subsequently asserted by both sides—by military leaders, to show that desertion was a consequence of politicians’ blundering, and by Czech apologists, to explain that the Habsburg Monarchy was a tyrannical place, and that revolt was just round the corner. In reality, the people’s enthusiasm for the Monarchy, when war broke out, took the authorities themselves by surprise.

Two-thirds of the officers were German, most of the rest Hungarian; and a Ruthene who became an officer almost ceased, by definition, to be a Ruthene. Furthermore, the army was not ruthlessly tyrannical, in the Prussian style. The Austrians did not have the Prussian knack of making anybody and everybody fight for Prussia, by virtue of a ruthless authoritarianism. By the spring of 1915, tales of Czech desertion had become quite frequent, and although many of them were without substance there could be no doubt that Czechs were unwilling soldiers, and that Romanians and Ruthenes were not far behind them.

On the home front, the Kriegsüberwachungsamt (war monitoring office) was established to control ‘disloyal’ elements, and there followed a uniquely Austrian combination of tyranny and comedy. Czech washerwomen were imprisoned because they threw notes over the barbed-wire of Russian prisoner-of-war camps, ‘for the purposes of initiating a carnal relationship’; shopkeepers were molested because they had failed to put up enough flags to celebrate the re-capture of Przemyśl; schoolboys were arrested for hiding their patriotic double-eagle badge behind their lapel.

The threat of Italian intervention against the Habsburg Monarchy made German help all the more urgent. When war began, Italy had declared neutrality, but as Austrian defeat succeeded Austrian defeat, the temptation for Italy to come into the war and seize Austrian territory was very strong. The matter was dragged out, partly to increase the terms Italy would get from the Entente, partly from domestic disputes, since the socialists and clericals were, on the whole, against joining in the war. But a coup d’état finally prompted Italian intervention.

If Italy had stayed out, the Russians and their south Slav allies might remake Central Europe without reference to an Italy that coveted much of the Adriatic coast.

Falkenhayn had always been reluctant to help the Austrians. Both he and Conrad thought that Italian intervention, especially if it came together with Romanian intervention (as both felt likely), would mean the end of the war. They disagreed altogether as to what should be done. Conrad wanted the Germans to send troops to brow-beat the Italians. Falkenhayn thought that he could not spare them, and that Austria should concede bits of land the Italians coveted—they could, after all, be taken back at the end of a victorious war.

Falkenhayn’s position was difficult. If he sent help to the Austrians, they might turn round and refuse to concede anything to Italy; if he failed to send help, they would disintegrate. Gradually, as the Carpathian disasters went ahead, he came round to Conrad’s plan of limited attack on the Russian front.

Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg would have preferred not to prepare a breakthrough in the center but to launch a double envelopment of the Russians from the Baltic and Carpathian fronts. They disfavored ‘ordinary victories’, which led only to Russian withdrawal to lines further east, and argued for cutting off the enemy from the great spaces of the Tsar's empire by a maneuver of encirclement. Though exercising command in the east, they were, however, subordinate to Falkenhayn and he overruled them.

Falkenhayn’s fear was that their encirclement plans would require withdrawals of troops from the west on a scale which would dangerously weaken the German front there, and so he overruled them. Moreover, the Ludendorff-Hindenburg plan placed a reliance upon Austrian participation, which Falkenhayn believed was unrealistic due to the continuing decline in quality of the Austrian forces.

Mackensen's operation order stressed the importance of a break-in which was rapid and deep enough to prevent the Russians bringing forward reserves to stem the flow. ‘The attack of Eleventh Army must, if its mission is to be fulfilled, be pushed forward fast... only through rapidity will the danger of the enemy renewing his resistance in the rearward positions be averted... Two methods are essential: deep penetration by the infantry and a rapid follow-up by the artillery.’ These orders anticipated the tactics which would be employed with such success against the British and French in 1918.

The Germans were as yet insufficiently skilled to make these tactics work against the densely defended trench fronts in the west. Against the Russians in Poland, where barbed-wire barriers were thin, entrenched zones shallow and supporting artillery short of shell, they were to prove decisive.

The Russian Army, for all its superiority of numbers, was in severe material difficulty. Between January and April, its divisions on the Eastern Front, except for the small number in the Caucasus, received only two million shells from the factories, at a time when preparatory bombardments with several hundred thousand shells were becoming the norm; worse, the output of the Russian arsenals was insufficient to provide soldiers with the most essential tool of warfare, a personal weapon. About 200,000 rifles were needed each month, to equip the new intakes of recruits, but only 50.000 were being produced.

The stories of Russian infantrymen waiting unarmed to inherit a rifle from a killed or wounded soldier were not tittle-tattle; they were nothing less than the truth.

Shell shortages, admittedly, were the common experience of all armies in 1914-15. All had short-sightedly underestimated shell expenditure in intensive fighting, despite the evidence from the Russo-Japanese War that daily rates consistently exceeded factory output, with the result that production often lagged behind use by a factor of ten or more.

There was an extensive amount of diversionary activity undertaken prior to Mackensen’s offensive, with attacks made by the Germans in the north and by the Austrians in the south in order to deflect Russian attention from the crucial sector. In any case the Russians ignored a series of intelligence reports drawing attention to the German build-up in the Krakow area, distracted as they were by their own plans for a Carpathian offensive. The Russians were also hampered by the continuing failure of the commanders of the South-West Front and the North-West Front to cooperate in any meaningful way.

The lack of Russian cooperation had the result that the Third Army, commanded by General Radko Dimitriev, was left facing vastly superior forces. Yet through over-confidence Dimitriev had failed to ensure that his men had dug themselves in properly on a front which stretched from the Vistula, all along the Dunajec and Biala Rivers and across into the Carpathians.

When the guns blazed out, everything went according to plan as the heavy German and Austrian shells smashed through the Russians’ simple linear trench lines, killing and burying many. Those who ran for their lives were massacred by the shrapnel fire of the German field guns. By the time the infantry attacked it was a procession, as they smashed through the Dunajec and Biala line. The minimal Russian reserves were thrown into the bonfire and merely added to the flames.

The attack achieved almost complete surprise. By the next day Gorlice had been taken, and a 12 mile (19 km) hole ripped in Dmitriev's line. Three of his divisions broke and fled, the rest were down to an average of only 1,000 men by evening on the second day of the attack, and his only option was withdrawal behind the Vistula. Destruction of his center uncovered the northern flanks of two of his corps in the Carpathians, but if they withdrew General Aleksei Brusilov would also have to pull back, aborting the invasion of Hungary yet again.

On 5 May the Grand Duke Nicholas vetoed withdrawal, but that same day further thrusts by the Austrians towards Lupka and by the Germans towards Sanok forced the Third Army into an unstoppable retreat. Dmitriev reported it had 'bled to death', and General Nikolay Ivanov ordered withdrawal from the Carpathians. The Grand Duke asked the British and French to attack urgently to draw off German forces, and to nudge Italy into the war, to draw off the Austrians.

A local success by the Russian Ninth Army, pushing Austrian General Karl von Pflanzer-Baltin back from the Dniestr to the Prut, was the only bright spot for Russia. But it was too remote to affect matters in Galicia, where both the Third and Eighth Armies lost heavily in the Battle of Sanok.

Falkenhayn saw the victory of Gorlice-Tarnów as important enough to transfer the Supreme Command from the west to Silesia, and to plan a joint Austro-German effort to cripple Russia permanently.

The Russian Third Army – or what was left of it – tumbled back in confusion all the way to the San River, the armies on either side of it being forced to conform or themselves be destroyed. Then the San River line was also breached, with the Germans pouring through, and it looked like Przemyśl would fall. The fortress was again under siege, this time by the Germans, who entered the city victorious. The Russians began in effect a ‘fighting retreat’.

The San positions had not been prepared at all by the Russians. On the contrary, Austrian wire, trenching-tools, timber-props and the like, captured in the previous autumn or in Przemyśl, had been sold off to the local populace. Przemyśl itself was still something of an obstacle, but there was nothing much from there to the north. The German Army reached the San, and forced a crossing in the five-day Battle of Jaroslaw. An attempted Russian counter-offensive was unsuccessful.

By now Russian losses were soaring. In May alone, the South-West Front lost 412,000 killed, wounded or captured. Mackensen resumed his offensive and advanced to the Rava Russkaya-Zolkiew line, while the Austrian Army was closing on Lemberg.

Even the news that the Italians had finally decided to join the Entente could do nothing to save the Russians. The Germans and Austrians emphatically did have the heavy – and super-heavy – artillery that the Russians had so conspicuously lacked in their siege of the fortress. Discretion was the better part of valor and Przemyśl fell.

The Vistula line, already threatened with outflanking from the north, was now also vulnerable from the south. There were insufficient guns, small arms and ammunition for a counter-offensive. Galicia would have to be abandoned, to shorten the line and free troops for a strategic reserve, so the Grand Duke ordered a fighting retreat. It was 'to be deferred as long as possible', but events were moving fast. The loss of the Rava Russkaya-Zolkiew line bared Brusilov's right flank, so he ordered war stores evacuated from Lemberg and all forces in Galicia prepared to withdraw.

The Central Powers advance continued and the city of Lemberg, today known as Lviv, was captured. All the Russian gains of 1914 had been swept away.

The Battle of Lemberg began that day, with two of Brusilov's corps facing the numerically superior and fresher German and Austro-Hungarian troops. The Austrians broke into the outskirts, and Brusilov avoided entrapment only by abandoning the city.

Mackensen’s offensive brought the Austro-Germans towards this city. Stavka now believed retreat must begin. The Grand Duke told the Tsar that two-thirds of Ivanov’s men had dropped out; but ‘the quality of replacements, as regards their training, is beneath criticism. Their training has been very hurried, and because rifles are short, they do not even know how to fire.’

The Central Powers’ offensive attained much greater results than Ludendorff’s and Conrad’s enterprises in February of that year, although the forces allotted were not greatly different. It was partly a matter of weather: when Mackensen’s attack began, the roads were passable everywhere, which had not been the case in February, partly a matter of Russian weakness in matériel. The factor that lent Falkenhayn’s May offensive such dimensions of success was above all strategic.

The Russian III Army, defending the front south of Krakow and in the western Carpathians, was strategically isolated and lacked reserves, because of the quarrelling which was seemingly endemic to Stavka and the two front commands.

It was later said that German material superiority had been so crushing that even the most stoutly-led army could not have withstood it; that the only way for the Russian army to make its weight tell was for it to get some of the shell and artillery that the western Powers had begun to manufacture in such quantities. On the other hand, simple strategy and tactics could do a great deal to make up for material shortages. These possibilities were, on the whole, ignored by senior Russian commanders.

The disaster in Galicia provoked an immediate outcry within Russia. The army was said to have been defeated because of a crippling shell shortage, complemented by a severe shortage of rifles. It was, as English historian Bernard Pares called it, faithfully echoing respectable opinion in Russia: ‘a war of men against metal’, in which even the stoutest soldiers and the ablest strategists would have been at a loss—an opinion naturally shared by Stavka.

Constant talk of shell-shortage, and the blaming of everything upon it, concealed a much more important factor: the increasing crisis of authority in the Russian army. Shell-shortage, lack of officers, and the increasing restiveness of the men were the three factors that most influenced the shape of affairs in 1915. It is not surprising that Stavka, with respectable public opinion in general, concentrated its attention on shell-shortage which at least had an obvious, material remedy, and one moreover that could profit respectable public opinion.

Gorlice-Tarnów and Lemberg were cumulatively even more disastrous for Russia than Tannenberg. The Russians had to withdraw from Poland and Galicia in order to shorten their supply lines and consolidate new defensive positions. This was a severe blow to Russian morale.

Falkenhayn, concerned as ever for the security of the Western Front, disagreed with Ludendorff, demanding a net withdrawal of divisions from Poland to France. Conrad, who was incensed by Italy's entry into the war, wanted to send troops to the Isonzo front. Mackensen was for persisting in his demonstrably successful offensive in the center. He, with Falkenhayn's consent, got his way.

As the advance continued, Ludendorff returned to the issue of attacking on a wide front. Meeting the Kaiser and Falkenhayn again, at Posen, he outlined an even more ambitious plan. This would carry the German armies in the north from the mouth of the River Niemen on the Baltic as far as the Pripet Marshes in the center of the Eastern Front, in a maneuver designed to cut the Russians off from their heartland and force a capitulation. Once again he was overruled, and although he was permitted to stage an offensive in the Baltic sector, it was to take a frontal form as a subsidiary effort to Mackensen's continuing push eastward.

The scale of the Austro-German victory had encouraged Ludendorff during June to press for a favorable reconsideration of his two-pronged plan by Falkenhayn and the Kaiser. At a meeting under the Kaiser's chairmanship, with Falkenhayn, Mackensen and Conrad, at Pless, he requested reinforcements that would enable him to mount a wide sweeping movement from the Baltic coast southwards, cutting off the Russian armies as they retreated eastward and so, he argued, bringing the war in the east to an end.

Outraged though Ludendorff was by what he saw as the supreme command's timid refusal to embrace the grand solution, Falkenhayn was reading the strategic situation more accurately than he. The Russians had been hard hit at Gorlice-Tarnów and had surrendered more ground than they would have freely chosen to do. By late July, however, they had accepted that the state of their army and its shortage of weapons and ammunition left them no recourse but retreat. The Germans had the impression of breasting forward against an undefended front. Meanwhile the Russians prepared new defenses, while shortening their supply lines.

The Russians knew that they were deliberately retreating, shortening their front by withdrawal from the great bulge in central Poland and consequently lengthening the enemy lines of communication. The Germans struggled to follow, across country deficient in railways and roads, particularly all-weather roads. The heavy vehicles of the German supply columns were rattled to pieces by the rutted surface of the Polish farmers' byways, and units got forward only by requisitioning the rattle-trap Panje waggons of the rural population.