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WW1 Battles - Battle of Tannenberg August 26th-30th, 1914

Updated on March 21, 2017
Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili is a student of history and of WWI. She has researched BEF and Canadian battles and has visited WWI battle sites, including Gallipoli.


The name alone evoked memories for Prussia (Germany) of the defeat of its Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the hands of the Polish and Lithuanian armies.

This time, Prussia would prevail.

Russia's Great Strength in Numbers

Russia had huge numbers of troops that could be called up in any armed conflict. Her sheer size gave comfort to her allies, Britain and France. Germany – to the extent that Germany feared anything – feared Russia.

Despite her defeat by the British and French forces in the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Ottoman Turks being able to hold their own against her numbers in 1877, and her defeat by Japan in 1904-1905, Russia was still viewed as this mass, a "steamroller" that would somehow prevail through force of will and overwhelming numbers of men. Her peacetime army numbered 1.4 million men plus an additional 3.1 million that would be called up upon mobilization. She also had 2 million reserves, giving her approximately 6.5 million men who would answer her call.

Five Facts About the Battle of Tannenberg

1. During mobilization, Russian soldiers on average had to travel roughly 700 miles – four times farther than their German counterparts – to get to Army embarkation points.

2. The actual battle was fought near Allenstein; Tannenberg was 30 kilometers to the west.

3. The railway lines inside Prussia (Germany) allowed the German Eighth Army to move its men into position against the Russian Second Army.

4. The ratio of Russian to German troops was 29:16

5. It took 60 trains to get Russian equipment captured in the battle back to Germany

Russia's Csar with Grand Duke Nicolas

The Tsar with Grand Duke Nicolas, whose brilliant generalship has crushed the Austrian field forces.
The Tsar with Grand Duke Nicolas, whose brilliant generalship has crushed the Austrian field forces. | Source

War Plans in Action

Since her defeat at the hands of Japan, Russia had made a concerted effort to beef up the armed forces and bring discipline to the ranks. Their progress was halted in 1908 when the Russian General Staff was made to report to Minister of War Sukhomlinov, a man who cared more about seeking the comforts his rank could provide. He cared nothing for the new sort of warfare being touted by other powers, and still believed that men in the field with bayonets were all that was required.

France’s Plan XVII depended on Russia engaging Germany on the Eastern Front on the 15th day of mobilization, while France – and the British Expeditionary Force – engaged Germany on the Western Front. In 1911, France had secured an agreement from the Russians that they would move toward the eastern border of Prussia (Germany) at the same time France engaged the Germans in the west.

The German Schlieffen Plan called for Germany to sweep through Belgium, flank the French armies within weeks, and then turn their attention to the Eastern Front. They believed it would take Russia a long time to mobilize because of her poor transportation infrastructure, and so planned for only their Eighth Army to man the Prussian border.

Russia too had a war plan, calling for the bulk of her forces to come to the aid of Serbia against Austria, and another two complete armies facing the Prussian border.

Germany was not about to give up Prussia without a fight.

German Reinforcements

How many German corps were diverted from the Western Front to help at Tannenberg?

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Russia's Many Challenges

Russia’s challenges included her wider gauge railways. These railways had been built with a wider gauge deliberately. From a defensive perspective, the wider gauge meant that German trains could not travel into Russia. However, it also meant that Russia could only transport her own troops by rail as far as the border with Germany. Her men had to move on foot beyond that.

Russia’s sheer size presented a significant challenge in her ability to mobilize men and equipment quickly. Her troops had to travel hundreds of miles just to get to embarkation points to be sent to the front.

Finally, Minister of War Sukhomlinov had made no effort to build new munitions factories or invest in training and supplies. The lack of sufficient munitions was to become a cause of untold numbers of Russian dead going forward.

One Small Cog of Russia's "Steam roller"

A Russian infantry regiment entraining at a wayside station for its journey to the enemy's frontier.
A Russian infantry regiment entraining at a wayside station for its journey to the enemy's frontier. | Source

Telegraph Messages Give Away Russia's Battle Plans

With the quick mobilization, detailed plans for communications between the two Russian armies had suffered. Hence, the Commander of the Second Army was unaware that the First Army had halted their westward movement to wait for supplies.

What was worse, equipment for encrypting telegraph messages had lagged the army’s front, so Germany was able to intercept Russian plans from unencoded telegraph messages.

The Battle of Tannenberg Begins

The battle opened as the plans had directed, with the German Eighth Army facing the Russian First and Second Armies. The First Army, commanded by Pavel von Rennenkampf , was to go north while the Second Army, commanded by Alexander Samsonov, was to go south two days later. If the Russian plan came together, the Second Army would circle around the Masurian Lakes to the south and flank the Germans while they were engaged against the First Army to the north.

Though the Germans scored a small early victory in the days leading up to the main battle, their General von Prittwitz ordered his troops to withdraw towards Gumbinnen, where the Russians attacked them and caused them to retreat southward, primarily by rail.

The Russian Second Army is Surrounded

Despite what seemed like the beginnings of a Russian victory, there was more trouble ahead.

The Russian Commanders disliked each other so much that the Commander of the First Army was not going to come to the other’s aid unless he absolutely had to. And with ongoing supply problems – the Russians had actually been able to meet mobilization targets, but this meant that not all of the supply details had been worked out in time – the Commander of the Russian First Army decided to slow his advance into Prussia while he waited for supplies to catch up.

WW1 Russian Officers Off To Battle

Russian Officers - descendants of Scottish mercenaries - including Colonel Robertson on the right.
Russian Officers - descendants of Scottish mercenaries - including Colonel Robertson on the right. | Source

The End of The Battle

It was an intercepted telegraph message that led to the bloodshed that followed. Instead of heading south to meet the Second Army, the Commander of the Russian First Army gave orders to continue moving west, now that supplies had been replenished. The Germans intercepted this message; they knew help would not come for Russia’s Second Army.

By late on August 28th, the Germans were able to turn both left and right flanks of the Russian Second Army, and had them in retreat. They then focused their attention on the center of the Second Army, that was now cut off. Too late, the Russians realized they were in trouble, and began a retreat. By the 29th, completely surrounded, they were bombarded by German heavy artillery.

The Russian First Army could not save them.

In the end, the Russian Second Army suffered more than 30,000 killed or wounded, and over 90,000 taken prisoner. Only about 10,000 escaped. Their XIIIth and XVth corps were literally wiped out through capture or death.

After the battle, General Samsonov kept repeating "The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?" Later that night, he made his way into the woods and took his own life.

The tremendous loss of life at Tannenberg had but one good outcome; two German corps were diverted from the Western Front to help at Tannenberg, meaning that the Germans had two fewer corps present at the coming Battle of The Marne.

Battle of Tannenberg August 26-30, 1914

Red: Germans     Blue: Russians
Red: Germans Blue: Russians | Source

The War Illustrated Vol. 1 No. 4, week ending September 12, 1914

Whether or not the truth was known at the time, here is how the War Illustrated reported the outcome at Tannenberg:

"By way of relieving some of the pressure on the Franco-British battle-line in Western Europe, the Russian Army in Prussia pushed ahead on the road to Berlin...The speed and dash of this gallant, adventurous relieving army were, however, obtained by a sacrifice of artillery power and of heavy infantry fighting force.

Well aware of this, the German Military Staff...brought up reinforcements by rail. This fresh army, with an overpowering quantity of heavy artillery, surprised two Russian Army corps near Osterode, about September 1st, killing the Russian Commander, General Samsonov, and inflicting grave losses on his troops."

© 2014 Kaili Bisson


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