How Did Russia Strike Back after Initial Defeats in the Great War?

Alex Browne

3 mins

19 Mar 2019

Following their disastrous defeats at the Battle of Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, the first few months of the First World War had proved catastrophic for the Russians and the Allied campaign on the Eastern Front.

Buoyed by their recent successes, the German and Austro-Hungarian high-commands believed their foe’s military to be incapable of combating their own forces. They believed continued success on the Eastern Front would soon follow.

Yet in October 1914 the Russians started to prove that they were not as incapable as their enemy believed.

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1. Hindenburg repelled at Warsaw

Having observed disorganised Russian forces on the march, German Eighth Army commander Paul von Hindenburg had been led to the conclusion that the area around Warsaw was weak. This was true until 15 October but did not account for the way in which the Russians organised their forces.

The Russian troops moved in sections and the constant stream of reinforcements – hailing from places as far away as central Asia and Siberia – made a swift victory impossible for the Germans.

As more of these reinforcements reached the Eastern Front, the Russians prepared to go on the offensive once more and planned an invasion of Germany. This invasion would, in turn, be preempted by German general Ludendorff, culminating in the indecisive and confusing Battle of Łódź in November.

2. A chaotic Austrian attempt to relieve Przemyśl

Croatian military leader Svetozar Boroëvić von Bojna (1856-1920).

At the same time as Hindenburg discovered there would be no quick decisive victory on the Eastern Front, to the south General Svetozar Boroevic, Austro-Hungarian commander of the Third Army, made progress for the Austrians around the San River.

Yet he was then ordered by commander-in-chief Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf to join up with the besieged forces at the Przemyśl fortress and attack the Russians.

The assault, centred around a poorly-planned river crossing, proved chaotic and failed to decisively break the siege. Although it provided temporary relief to the Austrian garrison, the Russians soon returned and, by November, had resumed the siege.

3. Russians cede land strategically

By this point in the war, Russia had settled into a strategy with which it was familiar. The empire’s vastness meant it could cede land to Germany and Austria only to retake it when the enemy became overstretched and lacked supplies.

This tactic is in evidence in many wars in Russia and parallels are often drawn to 1812 where despite taking Moscow Napoleon was forced to retreat. It was during his retreat that the French Emperor’s Grand Armée was almost-completely destroyed.  By the time the remnants of Napoleon’s Grand Armeé reached the Berezina river in late November it numbered just 27,000 effective men. 100,000 had given up and surrendered to the enemy, while 380,000 lay dead on the Russian steppes.

Napoleon’s exhausted army struggle to cross the Berezina River during their retreat from Moscow.

The Russian tactic of temporarily giving up land had thus proven an effective one in the past. Other nations tended to protect their land zealously so did not grasp this mentality.

German commanders, who believed that ceding any of East Prussia to their foe would be a national humiliation, found it very difficult to find a response to this Russian strategy.

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As the lines of the Eastern Front continued to shift, towns and their citizens found themselves being constantly transferred between Russian and German control. German officers had a little training in civil administration, but this was more than the Russians, who had none.

Nonetheless the constant switching between the two powers allowed a flourishing black market to spring up trading clothes, food and military equipment. In traditionally Russian-controlled Poland, citizens of towns conquered by the Germans reacted by attacking the Jewish population (they believed the Jews were German-sympathisers).

This antisemitism persisted, despite a large Jewish presence in the Russian army – 250,000 Russian soldiers were Jewish.