The Eastern Front describes the theatre of war to Germany’s east. Most of the fighting on the Eastern Front took place between German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces. The frontline ran from the Baltic states to the Black Sea, a distance of more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres).
Russia’s 1914 offensive
The Eastern Front began to take shape in the first weeks of the war – in particular, following a Russian offensive against eastern Germany in August 1914.
Germany’s Schlieffen Plan was predicated on the assumption that Russia, a gigantic country with insufficient railways and industries, would take weeks or even months to mobilise its forces. Even so, at the outbreak of war, Russia had a standing army of around 1.3 million soldiers.
Just a fortnight after the war, the Russian Tsar and his generals were planning a double-pronged offensive against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. The first assault was launched against East Prussia, a German salient largely surrounded by Russian territory.
Two Russian armies, each comprised of more than 200,000 men, would be hurled against Prussia salient from the east and south-east. The objective was to overrun East Prussia, capture its capital Konigsberg and draw German reinforcements away from Belgium and France.
Germany caught by surprise
The Germans had anticipated this Russian offensive but not the speed at which it was organised. Berlin left the initial defence of East Prussia to an ageing general, Maximilian von Prittwitz, and an army of 170,000 men, mostly fresh recruits from East Prussia itself.
The Russians launched their first offensive at Stalluponen on August 17th, three weeks after the declaration of war. Within days, the numerically superior Russian force was moving into East Prussian territory, prompting von Prittwitz to order a mass retreat to the coast.
Caught by surprise, Berlin rushed reinforcements into East Prussia and replaced von Prittwitz with a more talented commander, Paul von Hindenburg.
Disaster at Tannenberg
The struggle for East Prussia now hinged on talent, tactics and leadership. Hindenburg was a career soldier, highly trained and experienced at forming strategy. The two Russian armies were led by generals Alexander Samsonov and Paul von Rennenkampf. Not only were they much less experienced but each despised the other, so much that they refused to meet or even speak (a fact that was known to the Germans). Both were also prone to carelessness – like circulating uncoded battle plans over radios a day in advance, signals that were easily intercepted by the enemy.
Samsonov and von Rennenkampf’s inability to communicate and coordinate their forces undermined whatever numerical advantage they had. Armed with intercepted Russian battle plans, Hindenberg and his officers were able to isolate and outflank Samsonov’s army to the east of Tannenberg. The Germans surrounded and bombarded them with heavy artillery for several days. Meanwhile, von Rennenkampf’s army was prevented from coming to their aid.
On August 29th, General Samsonov shot himself rather than sign a humiliating surrender – but his men surrendered the following day regardless, the Germans taking almost 100,000 Russian prisoners.
Defeat at the Masurian Lakes
Ten days later, Hindenberg’s forces – bolstered by 50,000 reinforcements – engaged von Rennenkampf’s army to the north.
Now outnumbered and short of supplies, the Russians were defeated again near the Masurian Lakes. Another 45,000 Russian soldiers became German prisoners-of-war, while the rest fled back across the border. Russian soldiers would not occupy German territory again until World War II.
The defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes were disastrous for Russia – but they assisted the Allied war effort by drawing German troops away from the Schlieffen offensive on the Western Front.
Russian success in Galicia
The Russians had more success further east. In late August, the Austro-Hungarians sent a northbound invasion force into Russian-held Poland, advancing as far as Lublin. Unlike the Germans, the Austro-Hungarian army was no better trained or equipped than the Russian army. By the first week of September, St Petersburg was able to send more than 500,000 reinforcements into the area.
After some of the deadliest fighting of the war, the Austro-Hungarians were soon pushed back into Galicia. The Russians eventually crossed the border but were halted by the natural defences of the Carpathian mountains. More than 120,000 Austro-Hungarians were taken prisoner while a sizeable number defected to fight for Russia.
The Russian victory in Galicia was of marginal importance to the course of the war but it helped offset Russia’s shameful defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes.
The Eastern Front takes shape
The Eastern Front took shape through 1915. By the end of the year, it spanned more than 1,000 miles, running from the Baltic Sea coast near Riga to the Ukranian shores of the Black Sea. Because it was longer, less fortified and more thinly manned than the Western Front, the Eastern Front was more fluid and changeable.
As the stalemate on the Western Front intensified in 1915, German military commanders compensated by launching eastern offensives to drive back the Russians. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians also worked to coordinate their efforts. By the end of 1915, they had pushed the Russians out of Poland and Galicia.
The Russians responded with a massive counter-offensive, dubbed the Brusilov Offensive, in June 1916. Though it had early successes, it eventually failed because of massive casualties, inadequate equipment and falling morale in the Russian army. The economic costs and failure of this Offensive contributed to the problems of the tsarist government, which was overthrown in February-March 1917.
Despite the collapse of tsarism, Russia maintained its defence of the Eastern Front, which remained in place until early 1918. In October 1917, Russia was taken over by communist revolutionaries. They immediately sought peace negotiations with German generals.
In March 1918, the Russians and Germans signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended fighting on the Eastern Front. The treaty gave Russia a long-awaited peace – but it was a significant victory for Germany, which gained control of large amounts of territory in the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine.
The three-and-a-half years of fighting on the Eastern Front claimed the lives of between three and four million men.
A historian’s view:
“While the Western Front experience appeared as a confrontation with modernity, the primitiveness of the East and its anachronisms sent the occupiers hurtling back through time. This sense of the primitive was heightened by the fact that in the East’s open warfare, their own advanced equipment seemed insufficient, leading to a process of ‘demodernisation’ of the Eastern Front, as technology receded in importance.”
1. The Eastern Front saw fighting and struggles for territory between the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies.
2. This front was initiated early in the war when Russian forces attacked the German state of East Prussia.
3. By 1915 the Eastern front ran 1,000 miles, from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea, much longer than the Western Front.
4. The Eastern Front was less static: forces were more mobile and thinly spread, while trenches were used much less.
5. Fighting on the Eastern Front eventually resulted in the collapse of the tsarist government in Russia (February 1917), the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (October 1917) and Russia’s withdrawal from the war (March 1918).