Memoirs & Diaries - The Fall of Warsaw and Kovno

Prince Leopold of Bavaria (center), with troops in Warsaw, August 1915 The loss of Kovno, strange as it may appear, produced in Petrograd a far deeper impression than the fall of Warsaw.

Important as the latter undoubtedly was from the political point of view, it lay far more within the limits of probability to see the Polish capital taken by the enemy, who, ever since the beginning of the war, had lain almost at its doors, than to admit the possibility of one of the greatest and strongest Russian fortresses being stormed by the German troops.

Besides, Kovno was in Russia, and its possession by the Kaiser meant a good deal more to every Russian patriot than any Polish territory.  Apart from sentimental reasons, Kovno represented an immense quantity of war material, guns, ammunition, and provisions of every kind, which had accumulated within its walls from the beginning of the campaign.

It was bitter to see all this captured, and even more so to find that we had not been given a chance to defend it.  The evacuation of the fortress began late in June, when, by order of the Grand Duke, a certain quantity of guns had been withdrawn.

In July some of the advance forts which defended the entrance to the stronghold had fallen into the hands of the Germans, but it was only on the 6th of August that a serious attack was started, and on the 8th heavy siege artillery opened a murderous fire against our positions.

Eight forts in succession were stormed between that date and the 15th of August, and the cannonade surpassed in intensity anything ever experienced before.  The firing was heard farther than Vilna, and carried terror into the hearts of the unfortunate inhabitants of the country surrounding the besieged town.

On the 16th of August the German infantry had been able to advance as far as the line of the permanent fortifications which defended the immediate approach to the fortress, taking by assault trenches and positions which, when not held by a small number of men - many of them wounded - were already abandoned.

Grand Duke Nikolai, Russian Army Commander-in-ChiefThe whole day of the 17th of August passed in one attack on the eastern side of the Niemen; the bridge was destroyed by German shells, the forts on the north flank were burned down, and in the evening the entire southern side fell into the hands of the enemy.  The town itself, with its last line of fortifications, then had to capitulate, together with the 20,000 men still left of its once strong garrison.

It was this capitulation which was so bitterly resented by Russian society.  It produced a disastrous impression in Petrograd, and shook the last remnants of the Grand Duke's former popularity.  A letter received from the Russian capital, which bore the date August 10th, expressed itself in the following terms upon this subject:

I do not know what impression the fall of Kovno may have produced abroad.

Here the consternation surpasses everything I have ever seen before, and even after the disasters of Mukden and Tsu Shima, at the time of the Japanese war, there was not such a general depression as now pervades the whole atmosphere of Petrograd.

The pessimists, who prophesied that no good could ever result from the Grand Duke being in supreme military command, rejoice to see their prognostications verified, but even they forbear from indulging in the usual 'I told you so' dear to the human heart.  The situation is felt to be far too serious for vain boasting.

The one thing which dominates is the knowledge that not only we have been beaten, but also that we did not defend ourselves as we ought to have done.

It is most difficult to persuade a whole nation as bitterly disappointed as Russia has been that strategical reasons require us to retire and avoid the chance of an encounter face to face with our enemy.

One must be a soldier to judge of such things, and laymen can only feel the disgrace of this surrender of our positions.  One cannot understand how it happens that our army, which, according to what we have been told, was plentifully supplied with all that it required, found itself suddenly without the means of defence.

The nation does not differentiate between a retreat executed in perfect order, as ours has been, and a flight.  It easily mistakes the one for the other, and its intelligence fails to grasp how it comes about that, after we have been assured all along that our territory was secured against any invasion of the enemy by a line of fortresses so strong that no army in the world could possibly take them, this line, the erection of which had cost so much money, was suddenly pronounced to be worth nothing at all - to constitute, indeed, a danger for our troops had they remained.

The impression that lies have been told is possessing the mind of the public, which begins to say definitely that somebody has been guilty of systematic deceit.  It is a thousand pities, because once the confidence of the nation in its leaders is shaken it will not respond with the one-time readiness to future appeals to its spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion.

The great danger of such a frame of mind is too serious not to engross the attention of all those who look farther than the present day.

It is now that the mistake made from the very beginning of confiding the supreme command to a member of the Imperial family becomes apparent in all its nakedness.

It would have been easy to punish any Commander-in-Chief of lesser birth, but with a Grand Duke this could not be thought of.  A certain portion of Petrograd society is clamouring for the dismissal of the Grand Duke Nicholas, and curious stories are related concerning his growing unpopularity among the army, his tyrannical character and general recklessness; but either these stories do not reach Tsarskoye Selo, or the Sovereign is afraid of deposing a relative quite capable of resisting his authority.

This at least is what one hears from all sides, though, personally, I do not believe any of these stories.  Ruthless as the Grand Duke may be, he would not dream of opposing the Emperor or failing in the performance of any Royal command.

I am satisfied that the story of his refusal to defend Kovno has been invented by busy-bodies anxious to appear to know everything.  The retreat was a necessity in consequence of the lack of ammunition.  Had we stopped to meet the Prussians and their big guns, we should simply have sacrificed the bulk of our army to no purpose.

Besides, the conditions of modern warfare have quite done away with the old tradition of strong fortresses.  It is too little realized that not one of them can resist the murderous fire of the fat and lean Berthas with which the Prussians are provided.

And so mankind is bound to be impressed by events of such magnitude as the loss of Ivangorod and of Kovno, which most probably will be followed by the fall of the other fortresses on the Vistula and beyond it.

In military circles they are quite convinced that Brest-Litovsk, too, will fall, after which arises the question whether the Germans will be able to cope with the difficulty of the Pinsk Marshes and to cross that most dangerous region.

My private opinion is that they will not succeed in this part of their devilish program.  It is August already, and in another three weeks the autumn rains will start, which, even in the best of cases, must considerably delay them, and turn their attention to their winter quarters in preference to everything else.

I also fail to see the reason for the panic which seems to have got hold of the population of Petrograd; in these days of aircraft and railways one is apt to forget the distances which make our country such a wonderful place.

It is easy for newspaper reporters to say that within a few days the enemy will be at the gates of our capital.  In reality, such a thing is out of the range of human possibility if we take into account the difficulty of moving a whole army, with its baggage and artillery, in an unknown country, where the roads are full of obstacles of a nature this enemy does not even suspect.

Certainly the situation is serious, but not desperate.  The Germans are far from having won the war, which will turn out to be a question of patience and endurance.  Strong as they are, their number will diminish sooner than that of the Allies, and this day twelve months we shall see whether they stand as well as they do at the present moment.

If only we remain quiet in regard to matters of home politics, I quite believe that we shall teach the Germans a lesson they will be compelled to take to heart, whether they wish it or not.

German artillery advancing on WarsawMy correspondent saw perhaps clearer than most people the unfortunate turn which the campaign had taken during that summer of 1915.

If one had been assured that ammunition would be forthcoming in the near future, one might have looked at things with more equanimity.

Unfortunately, such was far from being the case.  On the contrary, one dreaded that, despite the promises of the Government, the indifference of officials would allow the important matter of the armaments to remain in a condition of shocking and culpable neglect.

People clamoured for the day when the Duma would meet again, and all kinds of things were foreseen in connection with that impending event.  Rumours of a revolution went about, which were further strengthened by unrestrained gossip.

On the 21st of August the railway line of Wlodawa-Brest-Litovsk was in the hands of the Germans, who began with their usual thoroughness to mass their armies around Brest-Litovsk, the most important point of defence upon which the Grand Duke had reckoned in his continual retreat.

It must not be forgotten, when reviewing the events of that memorable month of August, 1915, that the principal aim of the German Staff was to cut the communications between the different Russian armies, especially of the groups which were still gathered about the Niemen, and which constituted, even without sufficient ammunition, a formidable source of danger to the enemy, who advanced toward Vilna as hurriedly as circumstances allowed, hoping to enter this town even before they had captured Brest-Litovsk, and thus cut off our troops from their base.

But all their efforts to surround us, or to oblige us to accept the battle which they hoped would end in our defeat, were useless.  The Grand Duke began to reproach himself for not having insisted that he must have ammunition enough to cope with the enterprising adversary.

With great courage he accepted blame which was not his alone, and determined to save the army at all costs.  A retreat, painful though it might be, would not rob the troops of their courage and affect their morale in a dangerous manner, as would a lost battle.  No matter at what cost, the army had to be saved.

This point established, the Grand Duke acted in accordance with it, and so, in spite of a storm of indignation, and even of ridicule, he brought the Russian army beyond the reach of the German artillery, there to entrench and prepare itself for the day when once more it would take the offensive.

Siberian infantry in WarsawThe Austrians, who were sent forward to attack the advance works of the fortification that guarded the entrance to Brest-Litovsk, were commanded nominally by their own officers, in reality by Germans.

They started a desperate assault during the early hours of the 25th of August against the line of forts which stretched from the village of Wyssokie-Litovsk, where stood the splendid castle of the Countess Potocka, up to the town of Brest itself.

For a whole day they fought without intermission, and thousands of men perished in trenches that had to be carried with the bayonet.  The Russians retired towards the Bug, defending their ground inch by inch, burning the town, blowing up the railway station, the post-office (buildings that might prove of some utility to the enemy), and the barracks which had been occupied by their troops.

After nearly twenty-four hours of uninterrupted struggle, and as the last line of fortifications was about to be stormed, the Prussians, who up to that time had remained passive spectators of the battle which had been raging, sent one of their reserve corps to the assistance of the Austrians, and it was this corps which was the first to enter the still burning ruins of what had once been the flourishing town of Brest-Litovsk.

The railway line had already been occupied by the Germans a few days, and they started at once to repair it, so as to assure their line of communication with Warsaw and with Eastern Prussia in the north and west, and with Kowal in the south.

In spite of their clamorous joy at this new success, it remains to be proved whether later on it turns out to be of real advantage to them.  The whole population of Brest, which was mostly Jewish, did not take kindly to the invaders, or to the new regulations which the latter introduced into the happy-go-lucky Lithuanian town.

In Warsaw they had received some sympathy of a kind, but in Brest it was different.  First of all, most of the inhabitants had fled, and those who remained were utterly ruined, and could not be of much use to their conquerors.

Provisions also were lacking.  The factories were devoid of machinery, and the whole place presented an aspect of desolation.  The Germans were in possession of the fortress which they had coveted for such a long time; they found nothing but ruin.  This is the plain and unvarnished truth.

Russian mass graveThe great successes of the Prussians were only obtained because they met with absolutely no resistance.

Had the Russians possessed as much ammunition as their enemies, it is a question whether the Germans could have advanced into the interior of Poland and Lithuania as easily as they did.  This was a fact to which they were very careful not to draw the attention of the world.

On the contrary, they hastened to issue a notice which they hoped would excite German enthusiasm, so as to prepare the nation for the further sacrifices which its Government perfectly well knew it would have to ask from it within a very short time.  This notice is so typical of German lies that it deserves to be reproduced here, if only to point out the numerous inaccuracies with which it abounds:

"The strength of the Russian armies which opposed us," begins this extraordinary official communiqué, "cannot be estimated as less than 1,400,000 men.  Of this number, 1,100,000 have fallen into our hands and are prisoners, whilst at least 300,000 men have been killed or are completely disabled.  Probably the numbers are even higher than stated, if we take into account that, in order to save what was left of their artillery, the Russians covered the retreat of the latter with their infantry, which must, in consequence, have suffered enormously."

"We can therefore assume with absolute certainty that once for all our enemy has been entirely annihilated, and if he can still bring into the field some troops to oppose us, this can only be explained by the fact that a few divisions were left in the south of Russia, against the possibility of an attack from Turkey.  But these are composed of only half-trained men, gathered together from all parts of Russia, who are absolutely incapable of holding the field against us.  We have driven our enemy out of Galicia, Poland, Courland, and Lithuania; we have broken through his lines, and no fewer than twelve fortresses, of which four are large and modern, have been captured by us; with them has fallen the last line of defence which Russia possessed against us."

It is amusing to enter into the details of this document, and to ask those who had composed it how they could explain the fact that, according to their own account, they had killed and taken prisoners more men than the number which they had indicated themselves as having opposed them.  Among the many wonderful things which the Germans have performed, this is surely one of the most remarkable achievements.

We would also ask the Germans how it happened that this destroyed Russian army revived suddenly from the dead, and succeeded in preventing the famous Marshal von Hindenburg himself from taking Riga, which he had declared he could capture whenever he liked.

Prince Leopold of BavariaWhy, too, was the important fortress of Dunaburg - or Dwinsk, to give it its Russian name - at Christmas, 1915, still in possession of the Czar, in spite of the repeated assurances of the German military authorities that its capture was but a matter of a few hours.  The Prussian Staff is no longer so eager to talk to us about the annihilation of the Russian armies as it was in August, 1915.

It was fondly expected at Berlin, and among the native German population, that the capture of Brest-Litovsk would open the way to Southern Russia, and that Kiev would be the next town to fall into the hands of Von Mackensen and of Prince Leopold of Bavaria, who suddenly had been entrusted with the leadership of the German vanguard.

In reality, the conquest of the old Lithuanian town had no such results, and proved rather a source of embarrassment than anything else to the further successes of the Kaiser's soldiers.  It must not be forgotten that the aim of the Germans was to strike terror into the hearts of their adversaries, and that a good deal of their triumphs lay in the rapidity of their march forward.

To capture Petrograd, Kiev, Odessa, the territories surrounding the Black Sea, the Germans would have to be very much more advanced before the winter interfered with further progress.  And winter, or rather autumn with its rains, was almost at hand.

As far as Brest-Litovsk the road had been relatively easy to follow, owing to the absence of serious resistance on the part of the Russians; but after Brest matters would prove very different, because this town lies on the confines of the Pripet Marshes - far more formidably enemies than an army of soldiers.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

"Suicide Ditch" was a term used by British soldiers to refer to the front-line trench.

- Did you know?


On This Day