Primary Documents - The Battle of Tannenberg by Vasily Gurko, August 1914

Russian prisoners and guns captured at Tannenberg Reproduced below is a brief summary of the Battle of Tannenberg by Vasily Gurko.  Gurko, who served as commander of the Russian 1st Cavalry Division under Paul von Rennenkampf when war began in August 1914, served for a brief period as Russian Army Commander-in-Chief immediately prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

Gurko's summary of the catastrophic (for the Russians) action at Tannenberg formed part of his memoirs, published in English in 1918 as Memories & Impressions of War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1917.  By the time of publication Gurko had been forced into exile by the Bolsheviks.

Click here to read German commander Paul von Hindenburg's own view of the action at Tannenberg.

Summary of the Battle of Tannenberg by General Vasily Gurko

Tannenberg took its name from a large wood behind the battlefield into which the two central corps were driven and surrounded by the Germans, the entire forces, with all their remaining officers, being captured.

The plans which had been made, owing to tactical errors on the part of the corps commanders on the flanks, were never carried out, and the two corps in the centre, left entirely without support and surrounded by the living wall of the enemy, had no option but to lay down their arms after a heavy fight.

Fighting began on the morning of September 28th, and from the beginning the corps on the flanks met with some resistance, the Germans threatening an attack on their exterior, which was but poorly protected with cavalry.

Probably this resistance was unexpected, for both corps, without half their troops having come into action, began to retire at the moment the two central corps were heavily engaged.  On the front the battle had been going well for the Russian troops; a few thousand prisoners had been taken, and there was every possibility of a great victory.

Things moved normally for some time afterwards and heavy losses had been incurred by both sides, when suddenly fresh German columns made their appearance, marching to strike a blow at both flanks of the Russian troops attacking in the northerly direction.  It was reported at the same time that these enemy columns could turn both flanks of our forces, which, of course, would mean that both army corps would be encircled.

Headquarters of the central corps were entirely without information as to what had happened to the corps on the flanks.  They were supposed to be holding in check any turning movement attempted by the Germans.  In reality they were retreating and had altogether lost touch with the enemy.

Probably it is quite natural to ask why General Samsonof did not give orders to compel the flanking corps to stop their retreat, to re-attack and by a single frontal blow strike hard at the flank and rear of the German columns which were then beginning to surround the two corps in the centre.

Failing this in any case he could have given orders in due time to withdraw from a fight that was fast threatening to become unequal.

General Samsonof and his Staff were at an observation post in company with General Martson, the commander of the 15th Corps, watching, within the limits of their visibility, the attack which was successfully developing before them.

It was subsequently reported by eye-witnesses that during the battle Samsonof several times inquired from General Martson if any information had been received from the corps on the flanks.  Each time the answer was in the negative.

The absence of news was due to the difficulty of maintaining connection in such open fighting and also to the fact that both the flanking corps were moving, and had the utmost difficulty in maintaining any kind of communication with the other commanders.

Destitute of any information concerning the other troops under his control, Samsonof lost all power of directing operations and thus infringed one of the elementary rules of military strategy, that which provides that the commander of an army shall choose as his headquarters some spot where information can readily be brought to him and whence he can communicate with all the forces under his command.

The worse the organization of communication, the more an army commander is disinclined to come close to the actual scene of the fighting and by personal supervision counterbalance the failure to maintain communication between himself and the unit under his command.

Again the tendency to generalize, which nearly every man possesses, will inevitably lead an army commander to imagine that an operation happening before his eyes must be similar to that of the other areas where fighting is taking place, which he cannot see.  The defeat or success of a unit under the immediate observation of the army commander may result in such orders being given to the whole army as would certainly meet the situation immediately within vision but might prove disastrous taking the battle altogether.

In the Battle of Tannenberg the preliminary success enjoyed by the troops under General Samsonof's immediate observation was such an encouraging picture that final victory appeared a matter of certainty.  Unfortunately, just at this time the retreat of the two flanking corps, of which Samsonof was totally unaware, was leading from hour to hour towards the catastrophe which was ultimately to overtake the corps in the centre.

Every hour that passed brought confirmation of the fact that the 13th and 15th Corps were being more and more completely surrounded by the Germans.  General Martson set out for the scene of the frontal attack to issue orders for a gradual retirement, for the divisions to withdraw one by one.  Simultaneously, Samsonof set off in a different direction, presumably to get in touch with the other army corps of his army.  But these measures were taken too late.

Disaster had already overtaken the 13th and 15th Corps; German turning columns had already penetrated their flanks and rear so deeply that only a portion of the transport and a comparatively insignificant number of infantrymen managed to escape from the ring of German masses which every minute became more contracted.

The two army corps fell back slowly into the shades of Tannenberg Wood, absolutely helpless and unable to use their artillery.  The result of this disaster was that the Germans captured, almost in full strength, two army corps with all their officers, and recovered possession of their own troops who had been captured earlier during the battle.

Caught in the ring, although the Germans did not know it, was General Samsonof and his personal staff.

Night fell.  Samsonof, accompanied by five other staff officers, was guiding himself through the thick forest towards the Russian frontier.  Their motor-cars had been abandoned, for it was too risky to use the roads.  The little party mounted on horseback, passing out of the forest, despite the darkness were seen by a party of German infantry armed with machine guns.

Amidst a hail of bullets the party dismounted and continued their way on foot, into another belt of forest.  Utter darkness surrounded them.  The sounds of fighting died away, and all that could be heard was the trampling of the undergrowth and an occasional voice as members of the little party called out to each other in order to keep together.

From time to time a halt was called and all drew closer to make sure that nobody was missing.

General Samsonof, who suffered from heart trouble, and found his breathing more and more difficult, lagged behind.  There came a time when everybody had been called and all had answered but Samsonof.  General Postovski, the Chief of his Staff, immediately called a halt and in the thick darkness led a search for the missing general.  It was fruitless.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, 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.

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