Battle of Tannenberg: A Stunning German Victory in WWI

The Battle of Tannenberg marked a stunning start to the German campaign in the east during the First World War.

Jul 31, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
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In the first month of World War I, the Schlieffen Plan was enacted. Germany launched a massive invasion of France, hoping to quickly knock the Western Allies out of the war so that it could reinforce its eastern front and concentrate the war effort there. What happened was the complete opposite.

 

In the west, the German advance was stopped in its tracks as Britain joined the war effort. A weak point in the German offensive was exploited east of Paris, and the Germans called a general retreat to new lines of defense, which remained largely static for the rest of the war.

 

In the east, an outnumbered German army was expected to simply hold out against the Russians, but before the Western Front could even settle into its immobile positions, the Germans in the east had pulled off a stunning victory that surprised everyone.

 

The Battle of Tannenberg was a victory so decisive that its like would not be replicated for the rest of the war.

 

Prelude to the Battle of Tannenberg

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Paul von Hindenburg, who led the German 8th Army, from Mary Evans Picture Library / age fotostock, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

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At the very outset of the First World War, Germany found itself fighting on two fronts. The country was well prepared, but things were not going exactly to plan. With the developments on the Western Front, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the Germans would be able to reinforce their army in the east.

 

By August – barely two months into the war – the situation in the east was precarious. The German 8th Army was heavily outnumbered. Under the command of General Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff, the Germans fielded roughly 200,000 men. Facing them were the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies under the command of General  Paul von Rennenkampf and General Alexander Samsonov, respectively. Combined, these armies totaled over 500,000 men.

 

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The Russians flee in chaos, from Carl Simon / United Archives / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

 

Before the appointment of Hindenburg to the command of the 8th Army, the Germans had already suffered a defeat at Gumbinnen on August 20 in a hasty assault to catch the Russians off guard. Hindenburg and Ludendorff replaced General Maximilian von Prittwitz and Field Marshal August von Mackensen two days later. Despite the defeat, the Germans had inflicted significant casualties on the Russians and had discovered Russian battle plans on a dead officer.

 

Despite the opportunity to advance on Königsberg (now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad), the situation for the Russians was far from perfect. Poor logistics slowed the Russian advance to a crawl, while the difference in railway gauges between Russian and German territories exacerbated the situation even further.

 

Despite the obvious advantage of having numerical superiority, the Russians were also not as well-trained as the Germans and were armed with inferior equipment. The Russians also had limited ammunition, which would be a significant factor in the ability of the infantry to fight effectively. They had twice as many artillery pieces as the Germans but were of inferior caliber and design.

 

Opportunity Arises

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Map of Europe showing the location of the Battle of Tannenberg, via Students of History

 

Hindenburg had planned to defend Königsberg, and defenses were prepared. But when reports came in that the two Russian armies had separated due to the 1st Army needing to stop and resupply, it gave Hindenburg a perfect opportunity to attempt to take on the Russian armies one at a time. He decided to focus on the Russian 2nd Army under Samsonov, as it was closer to Königsberg and a bigger threat.

 

Hindenburg sent the bulk of his forces under General Hermann von François to deal with the Russian 2nd Army while sending a smaller force to assess the situation with the Russian 1st Army. The two Russian armies were separated even more when Samsonov was given permission to advance further into German territory while the 1st Army stayed in place, plundering the areas east of Königsberg. The distance between the two armies would be crucial to the (in)ability to reinforce one another, and the Germans intended to exploit this distance.

 

The Battle Begins

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Alexander Samsonov, commander of the Russian 2nd Army, via History

 

From August 23 to August 27, the Russian 2nd Army under Samsonov pushed westwards, driving into the German defenses commanded by von François. They succeeded in forcing the Germans back in several areas. Von François allowed the Russians to be drawn in and avoided counterattacking due to the fact that the full complement of troops and ordnance necessary had not arrived yet. Ludendorff and Hindenburg arrived at von François’ positions whereby Ludendorff insisted that the Germans attack. Von François responded that it would have to be done with bayonets.

 

Nevertheless, news arrived that the Russian 1st Army under von Rennenkampf was progressing slowly westwards towards well-prepared German defenses. Satisfied that the two Russian armies were not attempting to link up, Hindenburg’s fears were allayed. Everything was going according to plan.

 

In total, the battle would encompass 150,000 men of the German 8th Army and the 230,000-man strong Russian 2nd Army.

 

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German and Russian troops engaged in street fighting in Hohenstein, via Warfare History Network

 

From Samsonov’s perspective, he thought he had the upper hand. Poor reconnaissance, however, was the reason for this belief. Samsonov thought his flanks were unopposed, and he prepared to encircle the Germans. Meanwhile, he was completely unaware of von François’ heavy buildup on Samsonov’s left flank. The Germans were going to encircle the Russians instead.

 

On August 25, the Germans started making counterattacks along the Russian lines. The attacks were slow and measured. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Russians in several sections, but some German elements took a very careful approach, refusing to take risks in attacking or following up attacks out of fear of being outflanked.

 

The German command became concerned that if the Russian Second Army survived for too long, the 1st Army would come to its aid. The quick destruction of Samsonov’s army was imperative. Deputy Chief of Staff of the 8th Army, Carl Hoffmann, however, was confident that this would not happen on account of his experiences with both Russian commanders. Hoffmann had served in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 as an observer and was very much aware of the fact that Samsonov and von Rennenkampf utterly despised each other. Samsonov had publicly shamed von Rennenkampf in the aftermath of the war and blamed him for the Russian defeat at the Battle of Mukden.

 

Von François Strikes!

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A monument marking the site of Samsonov’s suicide, via Europe Between East and West

 

On August 27, von François launched his attack. The artillery barrage was overwhelming, and Samsonov’s left flank suffered considerable casualties and was pushed back. The right flank was also subject to a powerful German attack, and it too was pushed back. Meanwhile, the Russians continued the attack on the German center, with Samsonov being completely unaware of what was happening on his flanks.

 

The next day, the situation became urgent for the Germans on a strategic level. Von Rennenkampf’s 1st Army was marching towards Königsberg, and although Russian progress was slow, the 2nd Army needed to be defeated quickly. For the German soldiers, however, things were going well. German attacks achieved moderate to excellent results across the entire line, seizing several towns and forcing Samsonov to retreat even further. Half of the encirclement was completed.

 

The following day, the Russian 2nd Army was completely encircled. Retreating Russian troops ran into German defensive lines and were met with withering gunfire. Casualties were enormous on the Russian side as elements of the army attempted to break through the German lines to escape. But it was to no avail. Samsonov, utterly defeated, walked into the woods and shot himself.

 

The Aftermath of the Battle of Tannenberg

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Russian artillery and prisoners captured at Tannenberg, via Western Michigan University

 

The Battle of Tannenberg was a complete victory for the Germans. The Russians were defeated in every aspect of the struggle. The Russian Second Army had almost been completely annihilated. Seventy-eight thousand men had been killed or wounded. Ninety thousand were captured. Less than 10,000 soldiers managed to escape. Three hundred fifty heavy artillery pieces had been captured. Sixty trains were required to transport all the captured Russian equipment back to Germany.

 

On the German side, the casualties had been relatively light by comparison. Of the 150,000 soldiers who took part in the battle, only 12,000 were killed or wounded.

 

The Germans built a monument to the Battle at Hohenstein, but it was blown up by advancing Russians in 1945. The Battle of Tannenberg would also feature as the central theme of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914.

 

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Russian prisoners at Tannenberg. Image via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

The Battle of Tannenberg stands out as a quick and decisive battle in a war known for its long, drawn-out battles of attrition.

 

Credit for the tactical masterpiece has been debated in academia, but there were four figures that stood out and deserved special mention. Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff are the most recognized figures, but it is also clear that Carl Hoffmann and von François played crucial parts in the battle and deserve as much credit as their superiors. Von Hindenburg would subsequently attain the rank of Field Marshal and then become the president of the German Weimar Republic.

 

The Battle of Tannenberg is remembered in German memory as one of the greatest victories the nation has ever achieved, while for the Russians, it is a matter best forgotten. Of the entirety of the war, it was the greatest defeat suffered by any Allied army. It was a defeat from which Russia never really recovered. The Russians spent the rest of the war in a very precarious situation until Lenin’s revolution in 1917 pulled Russia out of the conflict.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.