The Unstable Nature of the Eastern Front at the Start of the Great War

Alex Browne

3 mins

20 Nov 2018

Although the Western Front had descended into a freezing stalemate, as the Great War entered the final months of 1914 the Eastern Front continued to change rapidly in its nature. Significant armies continued to advance and retreat; resources continued to be preoccupied in several theatres of war.

Austrian advance in Serbia

The Austro-Hungarian preoccupation with Serbia was beginning to pay off by November 1914. An offensive under Oskar Potiorek, who had earlier been defeated in Serbia, was making progress in Serbia thanks to its artillery and superior numbers.

The Serbs offered some resistance but for the most part responded to the invasion with an orderly retreat to the Kolubara River.

Defences had previously been prepared there and on 16 November 1914 the Serbians held back an attack. This success was short lived and by 19 November the Austrians were beginning to push them back from the river.

Serbian artillery was captured by Austro-Hungarian forces upon the Serbs’ retreat.

Despite heavy losses the Serbian morale was relatively good and they were able retaliate later on. Although the initial success of Potiorek’s campaign was a reversal of Austrian fortunes in the war so far, Serbia was not key to the more significant Eastern Front campaign against Russia.

The heavy losses incurred by the Austrians in Serbia did not, therefore, represent an effective use of manpower within the wider strategic context of the War.

Ludendorff’s offensive divides Russians

On 18 November 1914 Germans reached Łódź, where the Russians, retreating from a failed offensive, had fortified themselves. When the Russian commander at Łódź realised that there were 250,000 Germans against only 150,000 Russians he attempted to order a retreat.

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The retreat was countermanded by Grand Duke Nicholas, Uncle of the Tsar and commander-in-chief of the Russian forces. To counter Ludendorff’s push toward Łódź the Russians therefore had to divert a huge number of men from their planned invasion of Germany. It was not long after these reinforcements arrived that the Battle of Łódź began.

The casualties of the ensuing battle were as many as 90,000 among the Russians alone with a further 35,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured. These figures were exacerbated by appalling winter conditions.

The battle proved inconclusive. German commander Paul von Hindenburg later summed up the bizarre nature of the fight:

In its rapid changes from attack to defence, enveloping to being enveloped, breaking through to being broken through, this struggle reveals a most confusing picture on both sides. A picture which in its mounting ferocity exceeded all the battles that had previously been fought on the Eastern front.

Subsequently the Russians did retreat to another defensive position closer to Warsaw.

German soldiers in Łódź, December 1914. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

Divisions in German High Command

The Battle of Łódź also resulted in Paul von Hindenburg being promoted to Field Marshall – a reward for his role in preventing the Russian invasion of Germany.

This promotion was part of a web of  political agendas and personal vendettas at the highest levels of the German army.

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Commander-in-chief von Falkenhayn had told Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg on 18 November that the war could not be won and that the Eastern Front had to be closed to ensure victory in the West. Bethmann-Hollweg however insisted that a victory where Russia remained a major power was no victory at all.

Ludendorff was sympathetic to Bethman-Hollweg’s argument and suggested ending the Western Front war instead and replacing Falkenhayn.

The Chancellor did not have the authority to replace the commander-in-chief by himself though, that power lay with the Kaiser who refused to go with the plan as he did not trust Ludendorff.

Paul von Hinderburg (left), Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Erich Ludendorff (right). Towards the end of the war, the Kaiser became increasingly removed from military affairs, yet still retaining ultimate authority within German high command.

This was so frustrating that Grand Admiral von Tirpitz and Prince von Bülow considered declaring the Kaiser insane in which case control would pass to von Hindenburg as the most senior figure in the army. This never went ahead of course and the war on two fronts continued.