At the outbreak of the Great War, Polish territory was divided between Russia, Austria and the German Empires. Poles who did not want to live under Russian authority often fled to Galicia, which was under Austrian rule. War between these powers seemed the only way for the Poles to regain their independence. When the Germans invaded Russian Poland they defeated part of the Tsar's armies and captured a portion of Polish territory by the end of the year, including the city of Łódź.
After Eastern Prussia and Galicia, the Germans had their own problems to contend with, namely that their Austrian allies had already suffered the loss of some 325,000 men, while having inflicted only around 225,000 losses on the Russians. Such an exchange rate was hardly a problem for the Russians, but it certainly was for the Austrians. Grudgingly, the Germans took action to bolster their faltering allies by swiftly creating a new Ninth Army in German Silesia to be commanded by the now much acclaimed Hindenburg-Ludendorff team.
The Russian plans characterize a distinctively Russian style of warmaking, that of using space rather than force as a medium of strategy. No French general would have proposed surrendering the cherished soil of his country to gain military advantage; the German generals in East Prussia had taken the defense of its frontier to be a sacred duty. To the Russians, however, as inhabitants of an empire that stretched nearly 6,000 miles from the ploughland of western Poland to the ice of the Bering Straits, a hundred miles here or there was a trifle of military maneuver.
Unlike the war in the west, the war in eastern Europe continued to be one of maneuver. One essential reason for this was, paradoxically, that communications were more primitive than in the west, and so reserves could not be rushed in to fill a gap as quickly as in France. The eastern front was more sparsely filled with infantry divisions than the western one, despite the obviously greater resources of manpower of Russia and even of the Habsburg Monarchy. Conscription was a more haphazard business than in France. There were severe limits to the supply-capacity of the Russian army.
The Ninth Army linked up with its Austrian neighbors and began to advance into Russian Poland, reaching as far as the line of the Vistula by early October. The Germans swiftly transferred troops in time to protect the vulnerable left flank of the Ninth Army. But it had been a close run thing and, as the Russian forces built up around them, the Germans were eventually forced to fall right back, from their furthest point of penetration just seven miles west of Warsaw, to their start lines.
The question remained for the Russians: what to do next? The Stavka was not in doubt. It would resume its planned offensive, delayed by the German Ninth Army's thrust towards Warsaw. The continuing arrival of reinforcements from the Siberian, Central Asian and Caucasian military districts supplied the necessary force. As soon as dispositions had been made, the central mass, consisting of the Second and Fifth Armies, would press forward through Breslau and Posen towards Berlin.
The Russians were ready to implement their long-planned and, due to poor wireless secrecy, much-advertised lunge into German Silesia. But the Germans were more than ready for them. Indeed, the Germans managed to attack first with devastating force. Russian dreams of a Silesian offensive had to be put aside, as they fell back to the supply centre of Łódź, where their Second and Fifth Russian Armies concentrated to to block August von Mackensen’s further advance. In the end the German Ninth Army fought its way out of trouble, successfully pulling back from Łódź. The Russians entrenched, hacking away at the rock-solid frozen ground to carve out a front line west of the Vistula.
While the Russians dug themselves in for the winter, the Germans pondered their next move at a conference in Posen attended by Erich Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff, the Kaiser, the recently promoted Field Marshal Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Falkenhayn found himself bombarded with demands for more reinforcements with the twin objectives of bolstering the faltering Austrians and knocking Russia out of the war. This was a philosophy utterly rejected by Falkenhayn, who firmly believed that the war could only be won in the west, not on the endless plains of the east facing the inexhaustible manpower of Russia.
Ludendorff was planning a winter frontal assault, lacking even a pretence of subtlety, on the Russian lines in Poland. The Ninth Army began its assault well, capturing Łódź, only to crash into the Russian trench lines. The German guns raged and both sides attacked again and again, small tactical objectives taking on an importance that existed only in the minds of obsessed local commanders. The Russians proved to be tough defensive fighters and the Germans could make little progress, unable to breach the river line.
Throughout, the Siege of Przemyśl was progressing with only occasional outbreaks of mild excitement. By this time there were some 127,000 Austrian troops trapped in the city. They were lucky, in that it had been a former storehouse for munitions, supplies and food, but even so they could not hold out forever. Attempts were made to break out, but each had failed dismally. A localized Christmas Truce temporarily raised the spirits of the troops on all sides, but the underlying situation of the besieged Austrians did not change.
The Russian armies under Ivanov were also making considerable progress in a drive on Krakow, the city widely held to be the gateway to both Silesia and Hungary. Sadly for Russian ambitions, the Germans dispatched reinforcements, which stiffened the Austrians’ resistance and managed to force the Russians back.
The traditional break enforced in previous campaigns by the awesome power of ‘General Winter’ was simply ignored. The troops stayed out in the field, stoically manning their trenches: indeed not just in the fields, but deep in the dark forests, high in the mountains and on barricades winding across frozen lakes. As the temperature plummeted and the snow fell, living conditions became indescribably bad. Communication lines faltered and basic food rations were often scarce or non-existent in the front lines. Overall, the troops of both sides showed tremendous resilience: they knew there would be no going home for Christmas in 1914.