As World War I quickly enveloped Europe, the German army pressed east and west to overwhelm the Allies. In August 1914, the German Eighth Army clashed with the Russian Second Army near Allenstein, East Prussia, in the Battle of Tannenberg. The modern battle took place nearly 20 miles from the original Battle of Tannenberg (1410), but would share the original title as a way to avenge the Teutonic defeat from centuries before. The battle would be an important turning point for Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, as his prestige would rise substantially following the victory.
East Prussia was left vulnerable when the war began. The Russian’s planned a two-prong assault into East Prussia, with the Second Army pushing into the southwest corner of the enclave, while the First Army would attack the northeastern corner. On 17 August 1914, the First Army defeated the German Eighth Army in the Battle of Gumbinnen. Fearing encirclement, the Eighth Army retreated to the Vistula River. Unhappy with the outcome, the German Army Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, ordered Gen. Maximilian von Prittwitz back to Berlin, and replaced him with Field Marshal von Hindenburg.
After receiving intelligence, the Germans learned the Russian First Army was to march toward the Masurian Lakes. The Second Army was left open to attack, and Hindenburg began preparations to launch an assault. Despite reports the Germans were marching on the Second Army, the commander of the Russian First Army, Gen. Paul von Rennenkampf, continued his march toward Konigsberg (the capital of East Prussia). On 26 August, the Germans struck the Second Army. After three days of fighting, it became apparent to Gen. Alexander Samsonov the Second Army would be unable to counter the German onslaught. After ordering his remaining troops to withdraw from the battlefield, Samsonov committed suicide on 30 August.
The defeat bore a heavy toll on Russia’s forces in the west. The Second Army lost over 30,000 soldiers killed and wounded in the battle, with another 95,000 captured by the Germans. For the Germans, casualties were much lower, having lost 20,000 killed and wounded in the battle. With the destruction of the Second Army, the Germans were able to counter the First Army advance in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The two victories propelled Hindenburg into the national spotlight. He would later be appointed Chief of Staff in Berlin, bringing with him Erich Ludendorff, who had served as his chief of staff in the two pinnacle battles.
Look for more information regarding the German campaign on the Eastern Front in World War I in the upcoming Strategy & Tactics issue #301 article “Ober Ost: World War I on the Eastern Front” and join the conversation on Facebook!