Polish Campaign
The German and Russian empires fight for control over Russian Poland
29 September 1914 - 15 December 1914
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
During the campaign in Russian occupied Poland the Germans tried to conquer the province from the Russians. After a series of failed attacks in the summer and early autumn the Germans managed to capture the city of Łódź, a major Polish city. As winter came offensive operations were suspended until new defenses could be built and new plans made.
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.

Stavka knew that German forces were in Galicia, and Grand Duke Nicholas laid a trap, switching all but the Eighth and Third Armies to the German front. The Second and Fifth were sent north to the Vistula between Sandomierz and Warsaw, the First south from the Niemen to Warsaw, and the Tenth prepared a diversion on the Niemen. The Germans would be allowed to advance to the Vistula, then the First Army, plus most of the Second and Fifth, would attack their left flank south of Warsaw. The Germans did not discover the moves, assumed the Russians would attack the Austrians, and diverted three corps to meet the expected threat.

The Russians had plans of their own. The Stavka wanted the bulk of the Russian force on the Eastern Front to disengage, concentrate around Warsaw and the great fortress of Ivangorod upstream on the Vistula, and then launch a concerted offensive towards Silesia, with the purpose of taking the war directly into Germany.

The Austrian collapse on the Carpathian front precipitated one of the first great strategic crises of the war. The Hungarian half of the Austrian empire, beyond the mountain chain, was threatened with invasion – the Russian generals were even jauntily discussing among themselves the capture of Budapest, Hungary's capital. At the same time, the territory of heartland Germany suddenly lay under threat of a Russian drive into Silesia, towards the great cities of Breslau and Posen.

By the end of October the Russians had outrun their supplies, and the Battle of the Vistula River ended. The Germans had lost all their initial gains, the Austrians rather more, and Przemyśl was again isolated. General August von Mackensen had evaded the Grand Duke's trap, but on the whole the Russians had had the better of it.

The Battle of Łódź was hard fought and fraught with miscalculations on both sides. The Germans attacked, expecting an easy win, but the weather suddenly turned cold and snowy, favoring the far more numerous defenders. Nevertheless, General Scheffer's group advanced eastwards south of the city, threatening to encircle it and the Russian Second Army. However, the defenders forced it out. Scheffer's boldness, Russian lack of coordination and Paul von Rennenkampf's inactivity combined to save Scheffer's group.

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.

Already, the phlegmatic Hindenburg had proved to be the ideal foil for Ludendorff, who, though brilliant, was prone to panic under pressure. On several occasions during the tense build-up to the Tannenberg encirclement, Hindenburg had exerted his calming influence on Ludendorff to prevent him from switching plans unnecessarily when faced with relatively trivial obstacles.

By mid-September, the pattern of the war had been set up. The Russians had been defeated by the Germans; the Austro-Hungarians by the Russians. Thereafter, the Germans continually had to help their ally, and the Russians sought to reverse the verdict of Tannenberg.

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.

In their wars with the Turks, the Swedes, and above all with Napoleon, whole provinces had been lost, only to be regained when distance and the durability of the peasant soldier defeated the invader. As in 1812, so in 1914: to give ground now would be to repossess it later, and all to the enemy's disadvantage.

There had always been difficulty in combining the requirements of the two separate ‘fronts’, against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The staff of the Warsaw Military District had naturally wished to devote as much as possible against Germany, while that of the Kiev Military District was focussed on Austria-Hungary. Because the General Staff’s own position had been so vulnerable before 1914, there was no way it could impose its view on these separate planning agencies. The two agencies were allowed to plan virtually independently, and two separate commands were set up in wartime. They fought, virtually, separate wars.

The high command, Stavka, was botched together at the last moment, and was regarded with suspicion in so far as it was regarded at all. In reality Stavka existed mainly to coordinate the army’s movements with the French; and for the first weeks of war it lacked even proper communications with the separate fronts.

In theory, of course, Stavka could control things because it controlled reserves: it could determine where newly-arrived units should go. But by early October, virtually all of the divisions had arrived at the front, and what remained did not give the high command very much influence. The two ‘fronts’ were independent in all but name, and controlled huge areas of Russia, in their rear-areas, as well as large quantities of rolling-stock and railway line.

Naturally, Stavka might determine strategic priorities, and decide that this action of this front was to be preferred to that action, proposed by the other front. In this case, resources would have to be transferred to the main front. But, for a variety of reasons, transfer of these resources was difficult, or even impossible. Since the fronts controlled their own transport and reserves, their commands could obstruct Stavka easily enough.

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 Russian field army was not more than a fraction of the available manpower, and was indeed, for most of the time in the first year and a half of war, only marginally superior to the field armies of the Central Powers. It was only in mid-1916 that the Russians built up a comfortable superiority in manpower, with 150 infantry divisions to the Central Powers’ 100.

Differences in tactics and handling of troops overall also counted. But the essential reasons for the Eastern Front’s remaining for so long a place of maneuver were the lower level of defensive fire-power and the lesser mobility of reserves than in the west. The Germans’ more rapid overcoming of problems of rifle and shell-supply put the Russians at a disadvantage in defensive warfare, which was to prove particularly important in the early summer of 1915.

The Russian army was at a great disadvantage in a war of maneuver because of the structure of command in the army: its division into often hostile ‘fronts’ or army groups. Hence, maneuvering on the Russian side consisted of a series of blundering and ill-coordinated responses to misunderstood crises.

The movement of Russian reserves was slow; and there was certainly no transfer of troops from East Prussia to Galicia or vice-versa to match the shuttling of German troops between west and east. This was subsequently blamed on railways; but strategic disagreements had at least as much to do with it.

The only way by which a front could be made to cooperate was to give it responsibility for the operation, even where that front’s command had opposed the operation in the first instance. In other words, the only way to get anything done was for Stavka to cease functioning. Inflexibility of reserves and confusions of command therefore marked the first few months of the war on the Russian side; nor was this problem ever successfully overcome. Ancient truths of Russian administration were thereby illustrated: centralization brought inefficiency, while de-centralization brought anarchy.

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.

Grand Duke Nicholas and the Stavka used a rare intelligence coup in their favor to rejig their plans and allow the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies to attack the new German Ninth Army frontally across the Vistula, while the First Army would move on their right to strike at the German left flank.

A copy of the Russian plan found on a dead officer showed Ludendorff that not only was the Ninth Army's left flank threatened from the Warsaw area, its right was also imperilled by the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies, from bridgeheads on the west bank of the Vistula. He ordered Mackensen to prepare for retreat.

This was war on a titanic scale, as large in numbers committed as in the west and larger by far in terms of space and depth of movement than in any of the operations in that comparatively constricted theater.

The drama of a true war of movement, greater than any seen in Europe since the campaign of Austerlitz, was unfolding. Two complementary outflanking offensives were in motion: the German Ninth Army was marching down the west bank of the Vistula, Hindenburg and Ludendorff believing that the Russians were not in strength near Warsaw and could be encircled from the north. At the same time, the Russians were preparing to cross the Vistula from the east below Ivangorod, to which the Austrians had imprudently advanced, and to march up above Warsaw, there to launch their own outflanking movement against Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

The Russians were now very strongly placed, with the Second Army west of Warsaw, and the Fifth in the city, preparing to pounce on Mackensen. He began withdrawing, and a week later Ludendorff ordered a full-speed retreat of about 60 miles to a line between Kielce and Radom, to avoid being encircled. Preserving German forces now took precedence over helping allies, so the Austrians were left to their own devices, and their First Army also had to withdraw hastily, to prevent encirclement.

The battle was an undoubted Russian victory. Though it had not resulted in the encirclement the Stavka sought, it demonstrated the Russians' superiority in the warfare of maneuver and even in the.strategy of deception. Despite an alleged German advantage in radio interception, it was Ludendorff who had been surprised by the Russian redeployment along the Vistula from Ivangorod to Warsaw.

Ludendorff had sent a strong group against Warsaw. It did not have much difficulty in following the Russians’ advanced-groups’ retreat into the city, and by mid-October there was talk of a German occupation of Warsaw. But Ludendorff appreciated that his flank on the Vistula was weak, and he was also told that there were about nine Russian divisions in Warsaw to his five. Prudently he decided not to risk anything, and secretly ordered retreat.

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.

There were two impediments to this plan, particularly as they affected the central offensive. The first was the doubtful ability of the Russians to move their troops at the required speed to the point of encounter with the enemy. During the maneuver which had brought the Russian mass so skillfully to Warsaw and Ivangorod, the Stavka had been able to utilize the comparatively extensive rail network of central Poland. Western Poland, however, had deliberately been deprived of railways as a defensive measure; there were only four east-west lines and only two rail crossings over the Vistula. Moreover, during their retreat from Warsaw the previous month, the Germans had destroyed the rail network behind them for a depth of a hundred miles.

The second impediment was positive rather than negative. Ludendorff was himself planning a resumption of the offensive, this time from bases further to the rear than in October, but with the same object: to take the Russians in flank in the plains of western Poland and cut them off from their Warsaw base.

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.

By this time the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, had been inveigled into appointing Hindenburg as Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Armies, with Ludendorff as his Chief of Staff, while General August von Mackensen was promoted to command of the Ninth Army. Ludendorff used information provided by Russian intelligence gaffes to carry out a maneuver which would have been logistically unthinkable for his opponents. The German Ninth Army was spirited away as if by magic and moved by rail to the north, from which position it could attack the right flanks of the Russian invading armies.

Both sides came close to disaster, evading it by the narrowest of margins. To make matters worse the weather broke – hardly a surprise for late autumn and early winter – and it began to snow heavily. Again the fighting had a strange fluctuating quality as both sides attempted to encircle their opponents and the Germans pushed hard to capture Warsaw.

At Włocławek the Germans pushed a Siberian Corps aside, but failed to destroy it. The Battle of Kutno was more decisive: there the Russians were badly mauled, a 40-mile gap opened between the First and Second Armies, and three German infantry and one cavalry corps poured south, beginning the Battle of Łódź.

It was only on the fourth day of the offensive that the Stavka realized it had a crisis on its hands. It recognized almost simultaneously that the situation could be saved only by hasty retreat. It ordered a disengagement, which was carried out with great efficiency. In two days of forced march, the Russian Second Army fell back on the great cotton weaving town of Łódź, a railway center stuffed with supplies.

Łódź was surrounded on all but the south side. By forced marches the Russian Second Army brought up 500,000 troops in three days, outnumbering the Germans by about two to one, but arriving exhausted. For the moment Łódź was saved, but it desperately needed support. The nearest supporter was the First Army, north of the city; but Paul von Rennenkampf helped the Second Army there as little as he had at Tannenberg.

The fact that Russia narrowly avoided another Tannenberg was due mostly to a broken promise by Falkenhayn. A few days before Hindenburg attacked, Falkenhayn, expecting to win the First Battle of Ypres quickly, promised to reinforce, and Hindenburg planned his offensive accordingly. But First Ypres was lost, Falkenhayn had no troops to spare, and Mackensen's Kutno victory had improved Germany's position in the east. Falkenhayn told Hindenburg he would get no reinforcements; he was so convinced of the Western Front's primacy that he was pressuring Prime Minister Bethmann Hollweg to seek peace with Russia.

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.

Falkenhayn believed that the strategic situation was such that the best option was to secure a significant victory and then to negotiate a political settlement, which in turn meant scaled-down war aims. Neither side would concede the case, and a grudging agreement to differ was hardly a positive step forward. All that Hindenburg would get were the three corps that Falkenhayn had already grudgingly agreed to dispatch from the Western Front.

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.

German casualties mounted wildly, reaching up to 100,000 in the last six weeks of the year. Finally Ludendorff had to give in. He was running out of troops and it was unlikely that Falkenhayn would countenance their replenishment for such an ill-conceived operation.

On the Russian side, not much could be done initially. In Łódź the defenders were held along the city perimeter. Further north, First Army command was still sorting out the troops hit first at Włocławek and then at Kutno on 14th-15th November; a thin German cordon sufficed, for the moment, to contain most of the First Army and even to drive it back.

Ludendorff as often before and later imagined he had won a great strategic success, instead of a good tactical one. He thought the Russian armies were now retreating to the Vistula, and sent his men against Łódź in the hope of cutting the Russians off before they could accomplish their retreat. In practice, he was running into a trap. The Second and Fifth Armies were not only defending Łódź, they were better able to do so than the Germans to attack it, for it was their supply-centre.

During December, the German reinforcements that had arrived were committed to a series of frontal assaults which achieved the fall of Łódź but then petered out after an advance of some thirty miles to the rivers Rawka and Bzura, little tributaries of the Vistula southwest of Warsaw. There the terrain is well-suited to defence, if troops will dig, and the Russians were excellent at digging. Confronted by their trenches, the Germans dug also, so that the coming of winter found the central sector of the Eastern Front completely immobilized. It would remain frozen, militarily as well as physically, until the following summer.

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.

Conrad was seriously alarmed for Przemyśl, the great fortress on the San, now blockaded by a Russian army. Its garrison of 120,000 men could not hold out longer than spring, as their supplies would not last longer: they had even been depleted in October to maintain the troops that had relieved the fortress.

Conrad thought that the fall of Przemyśl must be averted, and an offensive must therefore be made from the Carpathians during the next winter. Falkenhayn disliked this scheme.

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 see-saw nature of the fighting in the east – two steps forward, three steps back, one step forward – was becoming increasingly apparent all along the line. In the north, for all their efforts the Russians only managed to hold on to a token sliver of East Prussia. In contrast, they had lost much of Russian Poland to the German advance, but the strategic drawback of occupying this territory was such that this was not a particular disadvantage in the broader scheme of things. It was in the south, against the Austrians, that the Russians had made their biggest gains as they had overrun nearly all of Austrian Galicia.

The Austrians had rallied, despite their earlier setbacks and the terrible losses those entailed, and had staged a series of counterattacks around Krakow. Joined by the right wing of the German Ninth Army they succeeded, in confused fighting and at great cost, in gaining ground north of the Vistula between Krakow and Czestochowa. After ten days of fighting Conrad had to accept defeat and draw his troops back to positions closer to the German border than those from which he had started.

The Grand Duke Nicholas summoned the two Front commanders to the Stavka's headquarters at Siedlce to discuss future operations. Conrad struck while these circumstances prevailed. He had perceived a weak point at the junction of the Russian Third Army, south of Krakow, with Brusilov's Eighth Army in the Carpathians where, between the towns of Limanowa and Lapanow, a gap of nearly twenty miles yawned. Opposite he assembled the best of the troops available to him. In four days of fighting the Russians were pushed back forty miles.

Enemy reinforcements began to appear and Conrad's drive was halted. As a result, the Battle of Limanowa-Lapanow not only blocked Ivanov's plan to thrust past Krakow towards Germany but also punctured the Russian dream of an advance on Budapest. It was therefore in effect a double victory, nullifying the strategies both of a direct invasion of German territory and an indirect victory over Germany through the defeat of Austria-Hungary.

Yet, though a victory, Limanowa-Lapanow was also a last gasp. Never again would the Imperial and Royal Army unilaterally initiate a decisive operation or deliver a conclusion an Austrian commander could claim as his own. Thereafter, whether in the conflict with Russia or in the coming war with Italy, its victories would be won only because of German help and under German supervision. As it was, the army's victory at Limanowa owed much to the loan of German troops. Henceforward it would always fight as the German army's junior and increasingly failing partner.

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.

Trees were hacked down by soldiers desperate for firewood to try and get a glimmer of warmth, but many men froze to death at their posts. Conditions were bad enough on the Western Front, but they were far worse in the depths of a continental winter on the Eastern Front which approached the limits of human endurance.

Already, there were alarms that neutral states would intervene — Romania, Bulgaria and above all, Italy. The diplomatic belief was that the intervention of small states mattered — thus, for instance, George Clerk of the British Foreign Office: ‘If Bulgaria and Romania can be got in now it is the beginning of the end of the war’, as if, in this battle of the Great Powers, a few ill-armed peasant divisions would make much difference either way.