Primary Documents - British Military Observer's Account of the German Attack on Warsaw, 1914

Erich Ludendorff Reproduced below is an account of the German campaign against Warsaw in the closing months of 1914 written by the British military observer assigned to the Russian forces, Granville Fortescue.

Although the German attacks ultimately failed Fortescue was clearly struck by the bravery and ingenuity of German strategy overseen by Paul von Hindenburg (and Erich Ludendorff).

Click here to read Hindenburg's summary of the Warsaw campaign.

Account of the German Attack on Warsaw by Granville Fortescue, British Military Observer with the Russian Army

In the study of this campaign we must always bear in mind that the Germans lay great stress on what I can only describe as sensational coups.  Their point of view is that the capture of a point such as Paris or Calais has a distinct psychological effect, in addition to the actual strategical results obtained.  For this reason Von Hindenburg now suddenly became obsessed with a longing to capture Warsaw.  There were also political reasons to influence this decision.

According to the Kaiser's proclamation a new King was promised to the Poles, and it is conceivable that if the Germans were in occupation of Warsaw and held nine-tenths of Polish territory they would install one of their satellites as the successor of the ancient line.  This, therefore, brings us to the audacious counter-offensive planned by Von Hindenburg, and it must be conceded that the old warrior conceived and executed the manoeuvre in a highly effective way.

He had already by his sudden retreat to the Silesian frontier committed the bulk of the Russian forces to an attack on Cracow, and having more or less denuded central and northern Poland of the enemy, he prepared his dramatic counter-stroke.  He knew what advantages he held in having the network of railroads in Silesia at his disposal, and he took full advantage of his superior mobility.

The transference of numerous army corps from Southern Silesia to Thorn and the adjacent cities was of a piece with the German methods of railway organization.  Undoubtedly Von Hindenburg was correctly informed of the weakness of the Russians in Central Poland.  He also knew he would have to pay but little attention to his flanks if he marched his army boldly down the tongue of land between the Vistula and the Warta.

Simultaneously with the main movement from Thorn the Germans commenced an extraordinary counter-offensive from Vielun.  The adventures of these two corps under the command of General Francois, a German Huguenot, form one of the most remarkable incidents of the campaign.

He fought his way directly eastwards through the Russian army which was now being brought rapidly back to Warsaw to check Von Hindenburg's disclosed offensive between the Vistula and the Warta.

South of Lodz General Francois's two corps, reduced by hard fighting to a corps and a half, was practically surrounded.  It will be remembered at the time how the official communiqués from Petrograd announced the surrounding and capture of an entire German army corps.  This desirable consummation was, however, not brought about, to the great annoyance of the Russian General Staff.

I know from a German officer who served with this little army that they wandered round for six days in a circle, finding themselves everywhere blocked by superior Russian forces.  Fortunately for them, at the last moment a gap was discovered.

This gap was supposed to have been stopped by General Rennenkampf, who had a corps and a half at his disposal.  This old Manchurian veteran went forward at forced marches with half a corps, leaving the task of bringing up the main body to his second in command.  He seized a position which closed the gap, but unfortunately his second in command failed him.  The reinforcements did not come up in time, and the Germans, driven desperate by their terrible position, cut their way through Rennenkampf's slender force, made good their escape after suffering heavy losses in men and material, and eventually joined hands with Von Hindenburg.

Rennenkampf was in consequence relieved of his command, as well as his second in command, but it would seem as if the fates had dealt unkindly with the old veteran.

During all this time Ruzsky was trying to make a half-wheel to throw his army across the line defending Warsaw, which he had now grasped was Von Hindenburg's real objective.  An isolated Russian division which held Plock was eaten up by the Germans, and it was only extraordinary exertions on the part of the Russians that enabled Ruzsky finally to occupy and entrench the line of the Bzura and Rawka.

There was a very sharp encounter at the junction of the railroads east of Lodz.  Lodz itself was probably one of the most stupendous battles in the history of the world.  The Germans had six corps engaged and the Russians eight, but not all the eight were present at the early fighting.

It would be idle to try to give a detailed account of the movements of both armies, the front covered being so enormous.  The compilation of the orders given during the battle would alone be a stupendous task.  As a net result of the fighting and the terrific slaughter, the Russians were obliged to evacuate the city of Lodz and to fall back on Warsaw and the line of the Bzura.

Before the main army took up this position there was a heavy rearguard action in Lovitz.  In speaking of rearguard actions, it must be remembered that the term is no longer used in its former sense.  In modern warfare whole corps cover the retirement of an army, and engage in actions which, as far as numbers of men and guns are concerned, equal some of the greatest battles of the Napoleonic era.

After the evacuation of Lodz we find the Russians safely entrenched along the line of the Bzura, which is the natural defence of Warsaw.  In the general retirement, however, one division had been left in an advanced position to the west of Sochaczew.  The Germans launched twelve separate assaults on this isolated corps, which was endeavouring to retire over ground of exceeding difficulty.

A great portion of the division fell into the hands of the enemy, and the Germans claim to have captured over 20,000 prisoners.

This was the last incident in Von Hindenburg's second great offensive against Warsaw.  By this time that offensive had spent its force, and in the interval of comparative quiet which followed, the Russians seized the opportunity of regrouping their armies along the line which they held until they finally evacuated Poland.

While the operations slackened in North Poland, hostilities were continued without interruption in North Galicia.  The Russian offensive had advanced so close to Cracow that it became imperative to relieve the pressure.  The Germans, apparently having at their disposal an inexhaustible supply of reserves, sent forward an army to threaten Pietrokow.  At the same time the Austrians made their counterattack across the southern passes of the Carpathians.

This move was extremely important, because the advance guard of the Russian army had entered Hungary by one of the passes further west.  The Austrian counter-offensive was carried out with great skill, and compelled a change of front on the part of the Russians.

It was at this time that the investment of Przemysl was first raised.  The cordon of steel was withdrawn from the Galician city, and the Austrians were not slow to take advantage of their opportunity.  The civil population was practically expelled, and reinforcements, as well as immense supplies of food and ammunition, were brought in.

Not only did Von Hindenburg's offensive alter the complexion of the military situation in Galicia, it also had a distinct bearing upon the operations in East Prussia.  The Russian operations against the Masurian Lakes were completely disorganized.  It was, therefore, decided to abandon the proposed offensive in East Prussia, and to make a strong line in front of Warsaw.

All the Russian armies were drawn upon to cooperate in this new distribution.  The line of defence decided upon formed a half circle from Novo Georgevitch to Radom.  Roughly, the Russian line was bounded on two sides by the Vistula, with the Bzura, Rawka, and Pilitza also serving as formidable obstacles.

Now the Germans began another of their incomprehensible frontal offensives.  The battles of the Bzura - the plural is used advisedly, because they extended over a period of two months - can be in a way likened to the campaigning along the Yser.  I first visited the actual scene of conflict on December 22, 1914.  At that time the Germans were directing their main offensive against Sochaczew and Bolimow.

At the latter point they achieved certain local successes.  I read afterwards in American papers that the Germans claimed a tremendous victory, going so far as to grant the school children a holiday in honour of their success.  It certainly did the school children no more harm than it did the Russians.

In justice to the enemy, however, it must be admitted that they showed the sternest courage in face of most appalling conditions.  Time and time again whole battalions would wade through the freezing waters of the Rawka to struggle out on the opposite bank, where the snow covered entrenchments poured forth immediate destruction on those who survived the passage of the river.

Daylight fighting ceased very early in these operations, and most of the attacks were carried through at night.  Of course, both sides kept up intermittent artillery and rifle fire during the day, but it was only under cover of darkness that troops could be formed for the notorious mass attacks.  Often the Russians would allow large bodies of the Germans to reach their side of the river, only to close in on them from three sides and either annihilate or capture them.

Throughout this period the Germans were unable to bring up the heavy artillery, owing to the awful state of the roads.  Most of these heavy guns were not German, but Austrian.  Finally, Von Morgan, who commanded at Bolimow, managed to get up two of the famous 30.5 centimetre Austrian guns and commenced the bitter contest for the possession of Mogely farm.

At first the great shells disconcerted the Russians, but after a time they paid as little attention to them as they did to the smaller projectiles.  The 30.5 centimetre shells would often make a crater eleven feet deep and forty paces in circumference.  When they actually hit a trench, which fortunately was seldom, it ceased to exist, and the occupants disappeared, completely covered with earth, but after being dug out were often found but little hurt.  Sometimes, however, they would suffer from concussion, which it often took two months to cure, although there would be no visible wound.

The Germans suffered severely from the cold.  Forty prisoners captured in a counter-assault were brought into Guzow.  A cart carrying two machine guns followed.  But it was not the trophies of war but the men who interested me.  Only about half had overcoats.  And these were made of a thin, shoddy material that is about as much protection as paper against the Russian wind.

When you know that the prison camps are all in distant, cold Siberia, try and think of the lot of prisoners.  Yet for the moment the Germans were content.  They were allowed to sleep.  This is the boon that the man fresh from the trenches asks above all things.  His days and nights have been one constant strain of alertness.  His brain has been racked with the roar of cannon and his nerves frayed by the irregular bursting of shell.  His mind is chaos.

One thing he knows, he must fire and fire and fire.  It does not matter if the gun barrel blister his fingers with its heat, never must it stop.  That is the only way to hold back the line of wicked bayonets.  When the bayonets come it is death or a Siberian prison camp.  But when a soldier is once captured he feels that this responsibility of holding back the enemy is no longer his.  He has failed.  Well, he can sleep in peace now.

The fighting for the Bzura was a desperate, endless struggle.  Days of see-saw battle found the Germans pressing the major part of their military might against the angle made by the Bzura and Rawka with the Pilitza River.  Charge and counter-charge were the order of the day and night.  Supermen, indeed, are these soldiers of the first line who stagger forward and back with repulse and attack.

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

A respirator was a gas mask in which air was inhaled through a metal box of chemicals.

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