17 October 1914 – Vistula River

Above: an artistic portrayal of Russians repulsing a German night attack during the Battle of the Vistula River with spotlights. 

Today, General Paul von Hindenburg orders a retreat of Erich von Ludendorff’s 9th Army from the northern approaches to Warsaw. His right-hand man has been attacking a superior force of sixty divisions with just eighteen German and Austrian divisions for the last two weeks, an offensive that continued even after captured documents showed them the true size of the Russian force in Poland.

Whereas their near-destruction of Russia’s 2nd Army at Tannenberg was made possible due to superior intelligence, the failure of their October offensive has been made inevitable by Russian radio deception, overconfidence, and a lack of good maps that has severely retarded the advance of German reserves to exploit victories along the Polish frontier.

Hindenburg at center, Ludendorff on his right, with their staff

Hindenburg at center, Ludendorff on his right, with their staff

We can hardly credit the Russians with superior performance, however. Miscommunication and clashing egos led to an unsupported solo offensive by General Nikolai Ruzsky that diverted strength from the defense of Warsaw. General Nikolay Ivanov’s 3rd Army marched forty miles a day to reach the Vistula River from Galicia, leaving thousands of horses dead along the roadside, only to discover that he had forgotten to provide for bridging operations.

Fearing for their lives, Russian officials have evacuated the border zones for Warsaw; donning civilian clothes, police have allowed their bailiwicks to lapse into anarchy. Russian officers are not trained for civil administration, so when they retake towns along the frontier, the improvised police-forces that were scratched together under the brief German occupation stay in place.

But the most corrosive problem is the rampant black market, which undermines discipline. With the Tsar’s order of alcohol prohibition in military districts, soldiers constantly steal booze or sell their food, equipment, and even their uniforms to get it. It is getting cold, and the Autumn rains leave men soaked to the bone; the fighting is as miserable here as anywhere in the war, especially for men who have sold their overcoats for vodka.

"Catching it hot" -- a British cartoon depicts Mother Russia spanking the Central Powers, reflecting Russian reports of the Battle of the Vistula

“Catching it hot” — a British cartoon dated November 20, 1914 depicts Mother Russia spanking the Central Powers, reflecting Russia’s inflated reports of victory in the Battle of the Vistula

Although the result of the Battle of the Vistula is undoubtedly a Russian victory, it is hardly a decisive one. Their estimates of German casualties are repeated uncritically in the British and French press, overstating the true number by half. Undeterred, Hindenburg and Ludendorff organize a retreat in good order over two weeks, then return for another offensive in November. While this second offensive still fails to take Warsaw, this has been the last great victory that the imperial Russian army will ever see in Poland — and it is not nearly as great as the Stavka (General Staff) wants to believe.

Tsar Nicholas II (left) meeting Kaiser Wilhelm weeks prior to the war

Tsar Nicholas II (left) meeting his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm weeks prior to the war