Primary Documents - British Military Observer's Account of the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnow, 2 May 1915

Field Marshal August von Mackensen Reproduced below is an account of the successful Austro-German campaign against the Russian Army at Gorlice-Tarnow at the start of May 1915, written by the British military observer assigned to the Russian forces, Stanley Washburn.

The Austro-German offensive was led by General August von Mackensen.  Mackensen's success in command of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive led to his promotion to Field Marshal by Kaiser Wilhelm II in June 1915.  Click here to read his own account of the opening of the offensive.

Click here to read the reaction of Austro-Hungarian Minister of War Alexander von Krobatin Click here to read the view of Russian Army Commander-in-Chief Grand Duke Nikolai Click here to read the German press statement issued in the wake of the offensive.

With the Russian Forces during the Austro-German Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive by British Military Observer with the Russian Army Stanley Washburn

The world's history records nothing that has even approximated to this German drive which fell on one Russian Army, the bulk of which remained at its post and perished.

The total number of German army corps sent down to do this job is uncertain.  I have heard from many in high authority estimates differing so widely that I can supply no statement as absolutely correct.  Perhaps sixteen is not far from the actual number, though probably reinforcements and extra divisions sent in pretty steadily to fill losses, brought up the total to a larger number than the full strength of sixteen corps.

However, the details at this time are immaterial.  The main point is that the Russians were entirely outnumbered in men, guns and ammunition.  The statements about the German massed guns also vary as widely as from 2,000 to 4,000.  Certainly they had not less than 200 guns equal to or exceeding 8-inch types.  These were concentrated on the front which was held by three or four corps of the devoted Dunajec army.

Men who know have told me that what followed was indescribable.  I have not heard that there was any panic, or attempt to retreat on the part of the troops.  In characteristic Russian fashion they remained and took their gruelling.

For whole versts behind the line, I am told that the terrain was a hash of earth, mangled bodies, and fragments of exploded shell.  If the statement that the Germans fired 700,000 shells in three hours is true, and it is accepted in the Russian Army, one can readily realize what must have been the condition of the army occupying that line of works.

Much criticism has been brought against the General commanding because he had no well-prepared second line of trenches.  No doubt he ought to have had it, but it would have made little difference beyond delaying the advance a few days.  The German machine had been preparing for two months, and everything was running as smooth as a well-oiled engine, with troops, munitions and supplies being fed in with precision and regularity.

Russia is not an industrial nation, and cannot turn her resources into war material overnight as the Germans have been able to do.  She was outclassed in everything except bravery, and neither the Germans nor any other army can claim superiority to her in that respect.  With the centre literally cut away, the keystone of the Russian line had been pulled out, and nothing remained but to retire.  In this retirement five Russian armies were involved.

The unfortunate army of the Dunajec, whose commander and number are as well known in England as here, began then to fall back with what there was left of it on the San, tearing up railroads and fighting a rearguard action with what strength it could command.

In the meantime the army of Brusilov, which up to this time had never been defeated, was well through the Carpathians and going strong.  The crumbling of their right neighbour left them in a terrible plight, and only skilful and rapid manoeuvring got them back out of the passes in time to get in touch with the fragments of the retreating centre, which by the time it reached the San had got reinforcements and some ammunition.

Brusilov's right tried to hold Przemysl, but as the commander assured me, there was nothing left of the fortifications.  Besides, as I gather from officers in that part of his army, further retirements of the next army kept exposing their flank, and made it imperative for the whole army to commence its retreat toward the Russian frontier.

I have good reason for believing that the Russian plan to retire to their own frontier was decided on when they lost Przemysl, and that the battles on the Grodek line, around Lvow, were merely rearguard actions.

In any case, I do know that while the fighting was still in progress on the San, and just as Przemysl was taken, work was commenced on a permanent line of defence south of Lublin and Cholm, the line in fact which is at this moment being held by the Russians.

My belief, then, is that everything that took place between the San and the present line must be considered inevitable in the higher interests of Russian strategy.  The interim between leaving the San and taking up what is now approximately the line on which they will probably make a definite stand, will make a very fine page in Russian history.

I cannot at this time go into any details, but the Allies will open their eyes when they know exactly how little the Russians had in the way of ammunition to hold off this mass of Germans and Austrians whose supply of shell poured in steadily week after week.

Next to the army of Brusilov is that army which had been assaulting and making excellent headway in the Eastern Carpathians.  They, too, were attacked with terrible energy, but taken independently could probably have held on indefinitely.  As it was they never moved until the retirement of all the other armies west of them rendered their position untenable.

The German and Austrian communiqués have constantly discussed the defeat of this army.  The world can judge whether it was demoralized when it learns that in six weeks, from Stryj to the Zota Lipa, it captured 53,000 prisoners.  During this same period, the army of Bukovina in the far left was actually advancing, and only came back to preserve the symmetry of the whole line.

The problem of falling back over this extremely long front with five great armies, after the centre was completely broken, was as difficult an one as could well be presented.  In the face of an alert enemy there were here and there local disasters and bags of Russian prisoners, but with all their skill, and with all their railroads, and superiority in both men and ammunition, the Germans and the Austrians have not been able to destroy the Russian force, which stands before them to-day on a new and stronger line.

The further the Russians have retired, the slower has been their retreat and the more difficult has it been for the enemy to follow up their strokes with anything like the same strength and energy.  In other words, the Russians are pretty nearly beyond the reach of enemy blows which can hurt them fatally.

The Austrians have followed up the Eastern armies and claim enormous victories, but it must be pretty clear now, even to the Austrians and Germans, that these victories, which are costing them twice what they are costing the Russians, are merely rearguard actions.

In any case, the Austrian enthusiasm is rapidly ebbing away.  After two months of fighting the Germans have finally swung their main strength back toward the line of Cholm-Lublin, with the probable intent of finishing tip the movement by threatening Warsaw and thus closing up successfully the whole Galician campaign, which, as many believe, had this end in view.

But now they find a recuperated and much stronger Russian Army complacently awaiting them on a selected position which is in every way the best they have ever had.

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

In preparation for the Battle of the Somme, the British launched a seven-day artillery bombardment in which 1,500 guns fired 1.6 million rounds.

- Did you know?

Primary Docs