Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Combat: German Infantryman vs Russian Infantryman
Reviewed by Terrence Finnegan

Combat: German Infantryman vs Russian Infantryman: 1914–15

by Robert Forczyk
Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2015

Russian Infantry

Robert Forczyk's book on combat in East Prussia in the opening months of the war is a thorough and illuminating work on a subject commonly misinterpreted or ignored. For example, public awareness on the significance of the battle of Gumbinnen is virtually nil. However, the war on the Eastern Front in the first weeks of 1914 in many ways decided the outcome of the entire war. This book describes in as much detail available on the open market the tactical role of forces in combat in this theater. The sources for the descriptions from the author and contacts through Osprey reveal never-before-seen photos, detailed battlefield maps very professionally portrayed, and artist renditions for the casual reader to see what the combatants looked like in the battlefield.

Forczyk provides a superb analysis of tactics and combat performance of both sides fighting three battles: at Gumbinnen (20 August 1914), Göritten (7 November 1914) and Mahartse (16 February 1915). He examines execution and results which helps the reader better understand the evolving nature of infantry warfare on the Eastern Front during World War I. Of interest and central to the tactical portrayal of the battles fought is access to Konstantin Pahalyuk's The 27th Division in the Battles in East Prussia, 1914–15. The fact that this book is Russian and published in Kaliningrad shows attention to detail very rarely seen in the West. The accounts on the battle of Gumbinnen alone make reading the book worthwhile.

Published works to date, including Winston Churchill's The Unknown War, mostly provide the strategic view. Forczyk provides further elaboration on how Gumbinnen was fought tactically. Gumbinnen set in motion several chains of causation, violently and even decisively affecting the whole course of the Great War. Russian artillery proved accurate and the German's attack dissolved, some even panicking and retreating. German commanders held the line, but the first major engagement appeared a Russian victory. The Germans readied for another attack but were called off by Generaloberst von Prittwitz, 8th Armee commander, who assessed the situation to be so dangerous as to warrant withdrawal, yielding to the belief that East Prussia must be abandoned. He then took steps to retreat to the safety of the other western shore of the Vistula River.

Gumbinnen aroused personal anxieties for the Prussian military aristocracy whose families residing in the region were threatened. This conviction seems to have dominated Generaloberst von Moltke's (Chef der Grosser Generalstab der Armee) mind during the five- or six-day convulsion which followed in France, and he made two decisive actions. First, Moltke ordered General der Infanterie von Hindenburg and his new chief of staff Generalmajor Ludendorff to proceed to the Eastern Front. Their presence in the coming days shaped Germany's military leadership for the remainder of the war. Second, Moltke's Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) made the critical decision to remove two German Armee-Korps and a kavalerie division already advancing on Paris through the Schlieffen Plan and have them quickly transported via rail to the Eastern Front. The ongoing victorious German army fighting on the Western Front raised no objectives against the parting of the two Armee-Korps; ironically, those very forces could have filled the fatal gap at the Marne.

Gumbinnen imparted to the Russian command a confidence which was in no way justified. It gave them an utterly false conception of the character, condition, and intentions of the German enemy. It lured General ot kavalerii Zhilinsky, Northwest Front commander, to spur on General ot kavalerii Samsonov's Russian Second Army. The battle's results lured Samsonov to deflect his advance more to the west and less to the north, farther away from General ot kavalerii Rennenkampf's Russian First Army, who in turn dawdled for nearly three days on the battlefield to let Samsonov's more ambitious movement gain its greatest effect. In many ways Gumbinnen was one of the most critical battles fought in the First World War.

German Infantry

Forczyk's approach to describing both Russian and German ranks and units in the original text adds to the credibility of his work. At the beginning of the book, ranks are spelled out and provided equivalency in translation. A footnote needs to be applied regarding the Generalleutnant (German)–general-leytenant (Russian)–lieutenant general (U.S.) and Generalmajor (German)–general-mayor (Russian)–major general (U.S.). Generalleutnant is the equivalent of a U.S. major general (despite the Generalleutnant spelling) and Generalmajor is a U.S. brigadier general (despite the Generalmajor spelling) equivalent. That understanding lends credibility to the discussion on the level of seniority being applied to the ongoing battle.

Osprey has done a favor to military historians who try to make sense of the contribution of the Eastern Front to the total picture of the Great War by publishing Forczyk's Combat: German Infantryman vs Russian Infantryman and providing a snapshot of what occurred at this critical time.

Terrence Finnegan

Terrence Finnegan is the author of two fine works on the First World War:

  • Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War, and

  • Delicate Affair on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches

Visit the author's website to purchase an autographed copy of his works.


  1. That sounds excellent for an eastern front obsessive like myself.
    Interesting argument about Gumbinnen.

  2. And then there was Tannenberg. Where I heard the Russian bodies were stacked like cord wood before the German positions. Undoubtedly brave but foolish tactics and still worse use of human assets.