Great Russian Retreat of 1915
Russian Army retreat from Poland and Galicia
July - September 1915
author Paul Boșcu, November 2016
After the defeat at Gorlice–Tarnów the Russian Army abandoned its positions in Galicia and Russian Poland and retreated further in Russian territory in order to shore up its defenses and shorten its supply lines.
The Great Retreat was a strategic retreat conducted by the Russian Army on the Eastern Front of World War One. After the Central Powers victory during the Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive, the Russian lines in Galicia and Poland collapsed. During the summer, offensives conducted by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies caused the Russians to suffer heavy losses. This led the STAVKA, the Russian High Command, to order a withdrawal in order to shorten supply lines and to avoid a massive encirclement of Russian troops. Although the retreat itself was conducted well enough, it was a severe blow to the Russian morale.

Even during these triumphs, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were still suffering casualties at an unacceptable rate. The two bugbears of fighting the Russians –the immense distances and their inexhaustible manpower – remained to haunt them.

In the end the Russian Army was crippled but not defeated. Its reserves of manpower still amounted to tens of millions. Four million men would be called up in 1916-17, against the eleven million already in the ranks, or lost by death, wounds and capture, but the real reserve, reckoning 10 percent of the population as available for military service, approached eighteen million. Russia would be able to fight on. What it needed was a breathing space, while its armies reorganized and re-equipped.

By mid-June the situation was desperate for the Russians. The German-led assault had destabilized their whole line. Russian Poland was looking particularly vulnerable to being pinched out by the German forces running rampant in East Prussia and Galicia. In the end the Grand Duke Nicholas and the Stavka sanctioned the Russian withdrawal from Galicia, while resolving to cling on to Warsaw and their Polish possessions. For the Germans, with the Austrians acting firmly under their directions, there seemed to be only opportunities: attacks were being prepared in Galicia, Poland and in Lithuania to the north.

The Russian army now had to take on strategic difficulties going far beyond its leaders’ comprehension. It was not only that Galicia had been lost. A substantial German threat had also developed in the Baltic, which threw planning into confusion.

General Erich von Falkenhayn was still in overall control and he put aside Erich Ludendorff’s plans for a gigantic battle of encirclement, preferring instead to chew up the Russian forces in tightly controlled battles, using his artillery as a battering ram. Most of all he was determined not to repeat Napoleon’s mistake and venture too far into the Russian interior. It was summer then; but winter never seems far away in Russia.

As part of the series of offensives, huge forces were concentrated on both the north and south frontiers of Russian Poland, with the intent of smashing through to take Warsaw. If the Russians sought to retain the city then they would risk another disaster like Tannenberg. In the end they had little choice but to fall back, finally surrendering control of Warsaw, and with it Russian Poland.

By the end of August the Russians had lost all of Russian Poland, but as they fell back they relied on a scorched earth policy, destroying and burning everything of possible value to the Germans.

In Warsaw the entire population was told to leave by the Russians, on the grounds that the Poles were supportive of Austria-Hungary.

Ludendorff achieved a final success of his own in September, when he took Vilna in Lithuania; but he did so at heavy cost. As the autumn rasputitsa set in, the liquefying of the surface under seasonal rain, the advance came to a halt on a line that ran almost perpendicularly north-south from the Gulf of Riga on the Baltic to Czernowitz in the Carpathians.

Poland was placed under civilian control. However, that did not stop the army spelling out what they felt should happen to it. They wanted to tap its manpower by creating a Polish legion. A Polish army implied the promise of political independence. But Poland had the potential to create a rift between Germany and Austria-Hungary. The latter regarded Poland, or at least its southern part, as an extension of its own lands in Galicia. Germany agreed to support an Austro-Polish solution, a self-governing state under the Habsburg crown.

Worries about exacerbating the nationality problem within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fostered particularly by the Magyars, held it back from the idea of a full takeover, but equally powerful concerns about its overbearing ally prevented it from endorsing a German solution to the Polish question.

Germany’s enthusiasm for the Austro-Polish solution became conditional on the understanding that the Dual Monarchy would itself be subordinated to Berlin. The mechanism for this control would be a central European customs union dominated by Germany. These ideas, and their attendant appetites, became firmer as the chances of a compromise settlement with Russia receded: Russia would not negotiate on the basis of Poland’s independence and the Baltic states’ incorporation in a greater Germany.

The front-line troops' retreat from Poland was orderly. But ahead of them were over two and a half million refugees, forced to leave by having their towns and villages burned under the Grand Duke's 'scorched earth' policy. The refugees were being dumped from trains in towns as far away as central Asia or Siberia, places that were already gripped by shortages of food, fuel and accommodation and thus unable to provide adequately for them. The impression this left on rear-service troops and the population was far worse than the purely military situation warranted.

Apparently believing the army had cracked, Nicholas decreed draconian punishments for surrender, including cessation of allowances to families, and post-war exile to Siberia. These decrees merely reinforced the public's impression of disaster. The new War Minister, General Polivanov, told the Council of Ministers on 30 July, 'demoralization, surrender and desertion are assuming huge proportions', and the Minister of Agriculture, Krivoshein, warned that 'the second great migration of peoples, staged by Stavka, will bring Russia to the abyss, revolution and ruin'.

Public demonstrations of enthusiasm were urban phenomena, and of all the major armies of 1914 Russia’s was overwhelmingly made up of peasants. Their loyalties were regional rather than national. ‘What would be the feelings of these people for their Little Father [the Tsar],’ Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador, wondered, ‘were the war to be unduly prolonged?’ As the army expanded, its cadres shrank. It had lost 60,000 officers by late summer 1915. The surprise, as Britain’s military attaché observed, was not that the retreat had been so great but that the army was intact at all.

Russia’s population profile is also revealing of the morale of the Russian Army. Before the war the incidence of strikes peaked in July 1914, and conservatives had warned against war for its ability to stoke revolution. The actual experience of mobilization suggested that such fears had been misplaced: ‘As if by magic the revolutionary disorders had died down at the announcement of war’. In Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed), ‘patriotic military fervor had gripped the workmen... They cheered us enthusiastically as we marched by their factories.’

Officer and man began to draw apart, almost as soon as the initial patriotic euphoria had vanished. Revolutionary urges began to affect the men: not yet in the form of mutiny, but certainly in the form of malingering, passive resistance, dumb insolence, overstaying of leave. To measure such things is of course difficult. There are several collections, in print, of soldiers’ letters home in this period. But both they and the censors’ comments on them present the historian with a well-known trap, since much depends on the methods of sampling.

The principal thought in the mind of the Chief of the General Staff, the Grand Duke, was to scorch the earth, to leave the invaders nothing but wilderness. The effects were not only dire for industry; they were also dire for the civilian population. ‘We were forced to burn our homes and crops, we weren’t allowed to take our cattle with us, we weren’t even allowed to return to our homes to get some money.’ By the end of 1915 there were about 3.3 million refugees in Russia. Propertied families had been impoverished; industrialized cities had been stripped of their workforce.

There was a widespread demoralization of the army, which had inevitable effects on the commanders’ strategy. In some ways, ‘shell-shortage’ was a mere technical translation of the great social convulsion within Russia. The difficulties were blamed on ‘agitators’, and at the generals’ conference in Cholm, just before the evacuation of Lwów, arrangements were made for construction of barracks in provincial towns, ‘so that reserve-battalions can be kept away from the populace’.

The soldiers’ contact with the populace, particularly in Petrograd, and particularly with the women, who were more uncompromising revolutionaries than the men, caused trouble for officers. Still, at this time the soldiers were still overwhelmingly ‘patriotic’ in their orientation, and though they resented their officers’ behavior, they shrank from full-scale mutiny. There were riots, drunken outbreaks; there was some desertion. But, just as in this period there were not many strikes, so these outbreaks were confined to a sort of continual revolutionary murmur.

The refugees carried and spread disease, particularly cholera and typhus, and as they fled they resorted to looting and pillaging to survive, further jeopardising the authority of the state. The fact that as a result the army compounded the difficulties of its own retreat, clogging an already inadequate transport system, suggests that in some cases its response was more ideological than strategic. It took the opportunity to ‘cleanse’ certain areas of what it saw as unreliable elements, particularly German settlers, although many of them had relatives serving in the Russian army, and Jews.

The pogrom against Jews was not surprising. Several thousand Jews had been killed in pogroms in 1881 and 1905, and many more had been forced by state supported persecution to emigrate. However, General Nikolai Yanushkevich’s anti-Semitism was so extreme as to outrage even Russian opinion, particularly those circles anxious to woo the country’s liberal allies, France and Britain.

The great exodus liberated the Jews from the Pale of the Settlement, the area to the west and southwest to which they had been restricted. The Pale was formally abolished in August 1915, and Jews were free not only to move further east but also to settle in the countryside as well as in the towns. For the Jews of Russia, the war opened doors rather than closed them.

The Russians were losing ground elsewhere too, falling back in the area of the Baltic provinces to a German thrust that threatened the important port of Riga. For Falkenhayn it was a strange time: while rejoicing at the successes achieved, his underlying conviction remained that ultimate victory over Russia was impossible. What Falkenhayn still really wanted was a separate peace with Russia, but his compatriots were blinded by their successes and could not envisage making the kind of territorial surrenders that might tempt Russia to desert her allies. Worse still, feelers put out to the Russians were brusquely rejected.

Falkenhayn was determined to control the more ambitious activities of Hindenburg and Ludendorff; indeed, having already created the Mackensen army group to operate independently with the Austrians, he now created a new central German army group under the independent command of Prince Leopold of Bavaria, thus further diluting Hindenburg’s power.

Falkenhayn would have to settle for the long-term military damage to Russia that would shore up the position of Austria-Hungary. That, by his judgement, had been achieved by the late summer of 1915.

At the end of September, a combination of increasing Russian resistance and Falkenhayn’s insistence that troops would have to be diverted back to the Western Front forced the Germans to come to a halt. As they dug in it was evident that the war was not yet over in the east, for the Russians had not given up. They had lost a depth of up to 300 miles of territory, and had suffered over 2 million casualties, but if anything their army was still growing.

Tactically the new defense line had considerable merits in that it was safer than the ungainly Polish Salient. The new line ran from close to Riga in the north all the way down to the Dniester River and the border with Romania. This had the effect of shortening its overall length from 1,100 miles to 650 miles, a saving which allowed the creation of reserves behind the new defensive positions.

A further advantage in the new Russian lines lay in the superior defensive terrain they were now occupying. A combination of lakes, rivers, forests and the vast expanses of the Pripyat Marshes helped to buttress the line, making it less vulnerable to sudden breakthroughs. In essence the Russian position had been strengthened.

By the end of September, the German advance had reached its logistic limits. The sandy roads turned to mud as the autumn rains began. Russian railways, built on a broader gauge, had to be converted to German specifications. A total of 434 bridges were constructed in the Bialystok-Grodno area alone. The line stabilized as Falkenhayn expected.

The great retreat compounded Russia’s munitions difficulties in two ways. First, the army abandoned massive quantities of equipment. Shortages of equipment in turn affected morale. Second, areas of production were themselves lost. Efforts were made to evacuate businesses, but they were frenzied and haphazard. In Riga, firms had fourteen days to dismantle machinery. Once it was loaded on wagons and sent off to the interior, it stayed there, on sidings or even going in circles round the country, rusting in the Russian winter. All the areas subject to invasion or confronting its threat came under military administration.

At Kovno, the Germans captured 1,300 guns, 53,000 rounds of heavy-artillery shell and 800,000 rounds of field-artillery shell. With the army falling back, the rifles of the dead and wounded could not be collected from the battlefield. ‘The further we went’, one Russian army commander recalled, ‘the greater became the number of weaponless men, and now we no longer knew how to set about training them.’ As winter drew in, Prince A. Lobanov-Rostovsky ‘saw infantry companies being formed of four platoons, of which two were armed and two were not. In case of battle the two unarmed platoons were to pick up rifles and ammunition from those who had fallen in front of them.’

The Russians now engaged in a thorough reorganization of their High Command. At the top, Grand Duke Nicholas was dismissed and replaced as titular head by Tsar Nicholas. As Chief of Staff of the Stavka he appointed General Mikhail Alekseyev, who would be the man actually responsible for the direction of the Russian armies.

The Russian armies were now to be divided up into three fronts: the North Front, with General Nikolai Ruzsky restored to its command; the West Front, commanded by General Alexei Evert; and the South-West Front, commanded by General Nikolai Ivanov.

The Council of Ministers was aghast, believing that Tsar Nicholas' action would now focus the nation's anger on himself. The generals were less upset, seeing him as a figurehead, with a professional Chief of Staff making the important decisions. Nicholas' appointee, General Mikhail Vasilyevich Alexeyev, was highly respected by his colleagues. The British and French governments heaved sighs of relief, taking Nicholas' action as evidence that Russia meant to stay in the war.

The new Russian High Command began to turn its collective mind to the possibilities for 1916. Indeed at another Entente conference held at Chantilly in December 1915, they were enthusiastic about coordinating their offensives to hit the Germans on both main fronts simultaneously so that the Germans would be unable to switch divisions from one front to the other. Thus, while the British and French attacked on the Somme, the Russians would launch a major new offensive on the Eastern Front in June 1916. They also agreed that, should one of them be attacked, they would all act in concert to try to alleviate the situation by launching their own attacks.

Austria-Hungary was in little better state than Russia. It, too, had suffered supply shortages and immense casualties. Only massive German reinforcement had saved the Austrian front from collapse, and the Habsburgs had become satellites of the Hohenzollerns, with German generals such as Linsingen, Bothmer and Mackensen commanding Austrian forces, and German priorities taking the forefront.

The home front faced a food crisis nearly as bad as Russia's, for the same reason - the blockade added to unmechanized agriculture's difficulty in maintaining production when most of the able-bodied peasants had been conscripted.

The Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf’s last attempt at independent military action was an offensive in the Rovno area in September 1915, and it failed. So an energetic assault might break Austria-Hungary.

The end of 1915 had not brought a decisive victory for the Central Powers on the Eastern Front. Falkenhayn had never thought it would; for him it would always be a sideshow. He could not envisage any circumstances under which the Russians had enough of their men destroyed to force surrender; nor could he imagine which tactical objectives or cities would have to be captured to make the Russians give up. His troops had captured Warsaw without a flicker of defeatism from the Russians.

As a student of military history, the German Chief of General Staff knew enough not to push on toward Moscow; that way lay only madness and defeat. Falkenhayn had only ever turned to the Eastern Front in order to bolster the Austrians. With the Russians momentarily cowed, the Bulgarians on the side of the Central Powers and the Serbs seemingly defeated, his mind turned to the Western Front. Once again the troop trains began to move the German divisions, this time from east to west.

The plan to cripple Russia seemed to have succeeded, and as the autumn rains began, Falkenhayn started returning troops to the west.

Most of Russian Poland had been lost, but the territory of historic Russia remained intact and so, too, did the substance of the Tsar's army. It had suffered great losses, nearly a million dead, wounded and missing, while three-quarters of a million prisoners had been captured by the enemy.

The Russian Army had unwisely defended the fortresses of Novogeorgevisk west of Warsaw, where huge quantities of equipment passed into German hands, and it had also lost the fortresses of Ivangorod on the Vistula, Brest-Litovsk on the Bug and Grodno and Kovno on the Niemen, all defending crossings over river lines that formed traditional lines of resistance in the otherwise featureless Polish plain. Generals had been sacked by the score, some imprisoned for dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.

The hope that Russia might seek terms had proved illusory. All three Entente powers had pledged themselves not to make a separate peace under a pact signed in London, and the Western allies had promised Russia the long-sought prize of Constantinople and control of the straits if the Entente won the war.