There were two epic battles at the place known as Tannenberg. The first, in 1410, saw the defeat of a German religious order called the Teutonic Knights at the hands of the Slavs and Lithuanians.
Five hundred years later, Germany took revenge in one of the first battles of World War I when a single German army destroyed two much larger Russian invading forces in August 1914. Even though the victory German World War I took place miles from the 1410 battle, the Kaiser, unable to resist the historical significance, named him Tannenberg.
Russians invade East Prussia to divide German forces
When World War I broke out in 1914, Russia and Britain allied with France against the central powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Germany’s attack strategy, known as the Schlieffen Plan, was to muster its superior forces in the west and invade France through the neutral state of Belgium. Then the triumphant German armies would take the rails eastward to push back the Russians. At least that was the plan.
But the German military machine miscalculated how easy it would be to waltz through Belgium. The neutral nation fought valiantly against an all-out German assault in the 10-day Battle of Liege, the first official battle of World War I, which allowed British and French troops to strengthen their lines of defense.
Meanwhile, Germany had committed seven of its eight armies in the West, estimating that it would take at least six weeks for the apathetic Russian army to mobilize its forces and attack in the East. The only German army sent to the Russian border region known as East Prussia was the 8th Army led by General Maximilian von Prittwitz.
“What happened is that the Russians mobilized much faster than the Germans expected,” said Jay Lockenour, military historian at Temple University. “In addition, the 8th Army was the weakest of the German armies. It was a lot of reservists and garrison troops, people normally assigned to the defense of fixed positions.
When the Germans learned that the Russians were invading East Prussia with two armies, one in the north and one in the south, they ordered Prittwitz to attack the Russian 1st Army from the north in what became the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, 1914 Both sides suffered heavy losses and Prittwitz, envisioning a second Russian army on the way, lost his temper.
“Prittwitz was not outdone,” says Lockenour, “but he had suffered a defeat at the Battle of Gumbinnen and decided that retreat was the only option in the face of these two armies coming from Russia.”
The German brass removed Prittwitz from command and replaced him with the legendary Paul von Hindenberg (recently retired) and a military mastermind named Erich Ludendorff, fresh out of a German victory at the Battle of Liege. Retirement was not an option.
Germany intercepts Russian orders
The Russian military was not as experienced and well trained as its German foe, and this led to some critical errors. The biggest Russian mistake was to broadcast their orders over open radio frequencies, resulting in confusion over the encoded messages. By intercepting these messages, the Germans learned that the Russian 1st Army was not pursuing the German 8th Army as intended, but was instead looking north towards the Prussian town of Königsberg.
Ludendorff, the brilliant German strategist, saw an opportunity. The two Russian armies were separated by difficult terrain known as the Masurian Lakes which slowed their progress. Knowing that the Russian 1st Army was heading north towards Königsberg, Ludendorff and Hindenberg decided to engage most of the German 8th Army to strike the Russian 2nd Army south of the lakes.
“I contend that Ludendorff is the mastermind of the operation,” says Lockenour, who wrote a book titled Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Erich Ludendorff in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. “He was an incredibly experienced staff officer and had already won the For Merit cross, similar to the Congress Medal of Honor, for his leadership in Liège.
Russian commanders were no amateurs, but they were hampered by poor communications, slow supply routes, and the frustrations of moving a large army (plus heavy artillery) on foot and on horseback over difficult terrain. General Alexander Samsonov, in charge of the Russian 2nd Army in the South, falls straight into Ludendorff’s trap and lets his men be completely surrounded.
“Then the Germans launched two flank attacks,” Lockenour explains. “Imagine this Russian army as a bulge pressing into Germany and the Germans hitting at a point where the bulge begins and cuts the vast majority of Russian forces in the middle. Due to communication issues, Russian commanders were unaware that a major attack on their flank was underway until half a day too late.
Russian general Samsonov commits suicide after his defeat
Samsonov commanded 150,000 men in the Russian 2nd Army and less than 10,000 returned to Russia, Lockenour says. An estimated 50,000 Russian soldiers were killed in panic fighting and another 92,000 were taken by Germany as prisoners of war.
Unable to confront the Tsar and explain Tannenberg’s horribly unbalanced defeat, Samsonov walked alone through the woods and killed himself with his officer’s pistol.
“It was not uncommon, even during World War II, for commanders to take personal responsibility for major defeats,” Lockenour explains.
But the problems for Russia were not yet over. Fresh out of Tannenberg’s victory, the 8th German Army marches north and routs the 1st Russian Army at the Battle of the Mazurian Lakes. The Russian army retreated in disarray, losing tens of thousands of prisoners of war.
“The 1st and 2nd Russian armies effectively ceased to exist after these two battles,” Lockenour explains. “It was a devastating defeat. The Russians faced the Germans with a higher number and got nothing, worse than nothing.
Germany glorifies the site of the battle
Hindenburg and Ludendorff, now national heroes in Germany, asked the Kaiser to name the initial victory the Battle of Tannenberg simply for the “mythical benefit” of German retribution for the 1410 defeat, Lockenour says. After Germany finally lost World War I, Tannenberg took on even greater symbolic significance.
“Because the battle was fought on German soil, it fueled Germany’s completely fallacious argument that war was forced on them,” says Lockenour, “that the Russian colossus invaded and it was a defensive war ”.
In the 1920s, an increasingly bitter Germany built a massive memorial structure at Tannenberg, and Hindenberg’s body was eventually buried there (against his family’s wishes, Lockenour says). Adolf Hitler renamed it Reichsehrenmal “Reich Memorial”, but had destroyed it in 1945 before the invading Russian army could burn it themselves.