by Robert Forczyk
Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2015
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.
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 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.
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