3 Crucial Battles at the Beginning of World War One

Peter Curry

4 mins

11 Sep 2014

Image credit: Imperial War Museum

The early skirmishes and battles of the First World War set the tone for much of the rest of the War.

These battles help us to understand how the Western Front became bogged down with years of trench warfare, and why the later battles of the Eastern front took place the way that they did.

Command and conquer

It is difficult to understand these battles without understanding the systems of control that both sides relied on. Both sides faced the issue of exercising effective command over a large area with fairly primitive methods of communication.

Morse code, some telephone communications and all variety of messengers, from human, to dog, to pigeon, were used.

Dan Snow takes an emotional journey through the key battlefields of the Western Front, from the memorial parks at the Somme to the formidable defences around Ypres.Watch Now

The Allies relied on a system of centralised planning and execution, done at the highest levels of the command hierarchy. This meant subordinate commanders had little agency, and could not exploit tactical opportunities quickly when they opened up. The Germans operated on a general plan, but pushed the way that it was executed down the ranks as far as was possible.

The Germans gave their junior commanders almost free reign in how they chose to execute orders. This system of centralised planning but decentralised execution developed into what is known today as Auftragstaktik, or mission-oriented tactics in English.

French soldiers anticipating an assault in a ditch. Credit: National Library of French / Commons.

1. Marne

On the Western Front the Germans had driven the French and British back into their own territory, almost as far as Paris.

As the Germans pressed forward, their communications came under strain, as their commander Moltke, was 500 kilometres behind the front line in Koblenz. The frontline commanders Karl von Bülow and Alexander von Kluck manoeuvred independently of one another, a problem created in the Auftragstaktik system, and a gap emerged in the German line, about 30 kilometres long.

The British force pressed into the gap, forcing the Germans to retreat, falling back some hundred kilometres to the Aisne River where they dug in to protect themselves from the pursuing enemy. This marked the beginnings of trench warfare. 

2. Tannenberg

On the Eastern Front Russia saw one of its greatest defeats and one of its greatest victories only days apart.

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought in late August of 1914, and resulted in the almost total destruction of the Russian Second Army. Its commanding general, Alexander Samsonov, committed suicide after the defeat.

Russian prisoners and guns captured at Tannenberg. Credit: Photos of the Great War / Commons.

At the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, the Germans proceeded to destroy much of the Russian First Army, and the Russians would take almost half a year to recover from the defeat. The Germans used the railways to move quickly, which allowed them to concentrate their forces against each of the Russian armies, and since the Russians were not encoding their radio messages at that time, they were easy to locate.

Once they were crushed by the Germans, the entire Russian army was saved only by their remarkably swift retreat, at a speed of about 40 kilometres a day, which took them off German soil and reversed their early gains, but importantly meant that the line did not collapse.

In this episode, Dan visits Bristol's newest attraction: an innovative museum celebrating the history of flight.Watch Now

The Battle of Tannenberg did not actually take place in Tannenberg, which was some 30 kilometres to the west. The German commander, Paul von Hindenburg, ensured that it was named Tannenberg in order to avenge the defeat of the Teutonic Knights by the Slavs 500 years earlier.

The battle brought considerable acclaim to both Hindenburg and his staff officer Erich von Ludendorff.

3. Galicia

The blow to Russian morale inflicted by Tannenberg was only weathered by the defeats inflicted by the Russians on the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia.

The Battle of Galicia, also known as the Battle of Lemberg, was a major battle between Russia and Austria-Hungary during the early stages of World War I in 1914. In the course of the battle, the Austro-Hungarian armies were severely defeated and forced out of Galicia, while the Russians captured Lemberg and held Eastern Galicia for about nine months.

Map of the tactical movements of troops on the Eastern Front, up until September 26, 1914. Credit: US Military Academy / Commons.

As the Austrians retreated many Slavic soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army simply surrendered and some even offered to fight for the Russians. One historian estimates Austro-Hungarian losses of 100,000 dead, 220,000 wounded and 100,000 captured, while the Russians lost 225,000 men, of which 40,000 were captured.

The Russians completely surrounded the Austrian fortress of Przemyśl and initiated a Siege of Przemyśl, which lasted for over a hundred days, with over 120,000 soldiers trapped inside. The battle severely damaged the Austro-Hungarian Army, saw many of its trained officers die, and crippled Austrian fighting power.

Though the Russians had been utterly crushed at the Battle of Tannenberg, their victory at Lemberg prevented that defeat from fully taking its toll on Russian public opinion.