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

Monday, October 24, 2022

Stallupönen: First Battle on the Eastern Front

Key Commander of the Battle
General Hermann von François

The Battle of Stallupönen was the first military action on the Eastern Front during the First World War. The First Russian Army, led by General Paul von Rennenkampf, met on the battlefield the First Corps of the Eighth German Army, led by Hermann von Francois.

It was fought on 17 August 1914 shortly after hostilities had  been declared. The Russian Imperial Army did not wait too long and advanced on Eastern Prussia. At the border between the Russian Empire and Germany, the Russian general of German origin, von Rennenkampf, led the first offensive, with the goal of conquering the capital of Eastern Prussia, the city of Konigsberg. What the Russians did not know was  that the Germans had prepared a defensive front in the east while concentrating most of the troops in the west to force France out of the war as soon as possible.

Opening Moves of the East Prussia Campaign

Much of Germany's Eighth Army was organized in a defensive line south of Gumbinnen, 32 km west of the Russian border. Small units were however sent to protect railroads and fortifications. They were ordered to withdraw if they came into contact with the enemy, re-establishing with their main force at Gumbinnen. In the first five days of war, there were only minor clashes with Rennenkampf’s cavalry, which carried out reconnaissance missions along the border.

The invasion of East Prussia began in earnest on 17 August, when Rennenkampf led his troops westward toward enemy lines. Without any orders from his superiors, German General  Hermann von François, commander of  I Corps of the Eighth Army  decided to take his forces to Stallupönen, where a Russian division was resting. General Maximilian von Prittwitz, nervously eying the advance of the Russian left wing far to the south, ordered von François to retreat .

François, reluctant to surrender any of his beloved Prussia, and naturally pugnacious, also felt breaking off while engaged would be deadly, so he ignored Prittwitz's order, responding with the famous reply "General von François will withdraw when he has defeated the Russians!"

German Artillery Firing During the Battle

The frontal attack ripped through the Russian division, which retreated eastward, leaving behind 5.000 dead and wounded and 3.000 prisoners, almost the entire 105 Russian regiment.  As the Russians retreated to the border to heal the wounded, von Francois eventually complied with Prittwitz’s order and withdrew 20 km westward, occupying a position around Gumbinnen.

Von Prittwitz then had to make a decision as to whether he would remain in his position between Angerbmg and Kraupischken or whether he would advance to attack the enemy and so give up the advantages of his prepared position. . . If he remained in his position he would have to order his I Corps back from the vicinity of Gumbinnen or to move the remainder of his Eighth Army up into line with it. Von Francois, urged the Army Commander to carry out the latter course, and von Prittwitz acquiesced. Von Francois then issued orders for an attack on 20 August. The ensuing Battle of Gumbinnen. would be mismanaged by the German senior command and almost accidentally deliver a strategical success to the Russians, their first victory of the war. 

Von Prittwitz evidently considered that his position on  the evening of 20 August was hopeless. He appears to have been overwhelmed by the information that the Second Russian Army was advancing from the south. He did not sufficiently realise that the Russians had had heavy casualties and. that on his northern flank his I Corps was doing well. There was no justification for his order at the end of the battle of Gumbinnen for a general retirement behind the River Vistula. This contemplated withdrawal of 150 miles would have had a most demoralising effect on the German nation as well as on the Eighth German Army. On 21 August von Prittwitz was dismissed from his command.  On 22 August Ludendorff became Chief of the Staff to Hindenburg, who was appointed commander-in-chief in East Prussia.  Tannenberg lay just ahead.

Sources: Euronews; Europe Centenary, 30 October 2018; A Study of the Strategy and Tactics of the East Prussian Campaign, 1914, Lt. Col. A. Kearsey, DSO, OBE

1 comment:

  1. Always good to see detailed and thoughtful commentary about the eastern front.