The first German victory of the First World War (August 17, 1914) - History Key

The first German victory of the First World War (August 17, 1914)

The Eastern Front of WWI began with the Russian attack against Eastern Prussia in August 1914. It was a strategic territory in order to occupy Berlin. The confrontation also involved the largest armies of the world at that time: the German army and the Russian army. If the Russians managed to win the battle it was an important victory, but not vital. As for the Germans, if they had lost the battle, this confrontation would have meant a complete disaster. That is why the German victory at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes became legendary, being probably the clearest victories of the Germans in the First World War.

East Prussia, August 17 – 23, 1914
East Prussia, August 17 – 23, 1914 © westpoint.edu/ Image Source: Wikipedia

German Army

The Army of the German Empire was composed from the armies of 26 states: 4 kingdoms, 5 great dukes, 12 dukes, 3 free cities, Alsace and Lorraine. These armies were under a single command, receiving orders only from the Emperor.

In 1914, the German army numbered 840,000 soldiers. By the end of the war, Germany sent more than 6,000,000 soldiers to the front. The military service in the Empire lasted for 29 years, from the age of 17 until 45. During this time, the German soldier went through five categories of military service.

World War I mobilization, 1 August 1914
World War I mobilization, 1 August 1914 © Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1974-118-18 / CC-BY-SA 3.0/ Image Source: Wikipedia

The defense in case of a general invasion was assured by 34 fortified cities, the most important located at the borders with France and Russia. The imperial command was considered the most efficient in the world, and the German army was a basic institution of the society, very popular among the citizens. It was a duty and honor to serve under the imperial armies.

Russian Army

Russia had to deal with two big fronts: toward east, against Germany and Austro-Hungary and in the Caucasus, against the Ottoman Empire. One particular feature of the Eastern Front was that the campaigns could only be carried out in good weather conditions, between May and October.

Russian troops going to the front: Support for the imperial guard being hurried into the fighting line
Russian troops going to the front: Support for the imperial guard being hurried into the fighting line © George H. Mewes/ Image Source: Wikipedia

In 1914 the Russian army had approximately 1,400,000 soldiers. After the mobilization, Russia could gather 5,000,000 soldiers and a few more millions during a war. The volunteers were respected and enjoyed privileged conditions. The annual losses could be easily replaced, although the losses between 1914 and 1917 were huge: about 1,700,000 dead, over 3,000,000 wounded and over 3,000,000 prisoners. The only problem for the Russians was the lack of equipment and the training program of the new recruits.

The instruction of the army was inferior compared with the Germans. Most of the soldiers that joined the army in 1914 had no experience or previous military training. Also the army wasn’t very popular among the citizens, it was rather considered a form of humiliation.

German efficiency

Oriental Prussia, the province where the Russian Grand Commandment decided to attack, was a partially wild territory, much of the land was surrounded by forests, lakes, swamps and the Masurian Lakes. However, between the lakes was a clearer way to advance, but the Germans built small fortifications among the way which blocked the access of the Russians.

Hindenburg at Tannenberg, by Hugo Vogel
Hindenburg at Tannenberg, by Hugo Vogel © Image Source: Wikipedia

This day in history, on August 17, 1914, the Russians entered in Eastern Prussia. The Russian army was completely shattered by the Germans and they took about 3,000 prisoners. However, on August 20, the Germans started to withdraw from those areas, but by the end of the month, the Germans crushed once again the Russian army.

Russian prisoners and guns captured at Tannenberg
Russian prisoners and guns captured at Tannenberg © Ray Mentzer / Image Source: Wikipedia

By the end of the campaign, the Russian lost more than 300,000 soldiers while the Germans lost only 37,000.

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