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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.