russians

20 August 1914 – Hunger Games

Three days ago, the first clash of Russian and German arms at the border town of Stallupönen in East Prussia marked the beginning of Germany’s war on the Eastern Front. Though outnumbered five to one, an unexpected German victory resulted in a war of nerves between General Maximilian von Prittwitz, who wants to remain on the defensive, and General Hermann von François, who dislikes remaining passive in the face of an enemy as helpful and unimaginative as his Russian counterparts.

Today, the Battle of Gumbinnen — situated less than 20 miles west of Stallupönen — will be Germany’s first defeat in the new war, and a near rout, resulting in Prittwitz’s sacking. It is also a demonstration of why the Russian Imperial Army will suffer higher rates of combat loss than any of the Tsar’s allies. Today’s battle has effects far beyond the range of their guns.

General

General Paul von Rennenkampf missed an early opportunity to hurt Germany very badly

Russian artillery and machine gun crews are very well-trained, but they lack ammunition for days of sustained battle. By the end of the day today at Gumbinnen, they have fired 800,000 rounds, and Rennenkampf will await resupply and reinforcement rather than exploit his success by pursuing the Germans immediately. This tantalizing missed opportunity is the reason why wargame enthusiasts and war nerds love these early battles, which are collectively known as the First Masurian Lakes campaign. But it isn’t clear how Rennenkampf was supposed to make such fantasies come to life without any bullets.

Within months, those supply issues will become humiliatingly obvious when troops are sent to the front without any weapons at all, and instructed instead to pick up those of the fallen. Food rations are particularly short, for the Russian juggernaut depends on a poor road system and insufficient railroads.

Meanwhile, the panic in Germany has begun with Prittwitz falling back when his center collapses today, but it will extend into middle Prussia. There, plans to meet Russian invasion by damming rivers and inundating farmlands are briefly considered, but rejected because they will only make the refugee problem worse: tens of thousands of German families are leaving East Prussia for fear of the rapine and destruction that the Russians have already visited on Eastern Galicia. Along with the retreating army that Prittwitz has ordered to form a new defensive line, they run headlong into reinforcements headed the other way, resulting in a chaotic forty-eight hour traffic jam.

Devastation from the war in East Prussia

Devastation from the war in East Prussia

In Berlin, the General Staff reacts by calling Erich von Ludendorff away from his successful offensive in Belgium to the Eastern front. Helmuth von Moltke also recalls Paul von Hindenburg to active duty, but the most significant change he makes will affect the Schlieffen Plan: two corps on their way to France for the great northern flanking movement are instead dispatched to the east, helping render the planned encirclement of Paris too difficult for exhausted German regiments to execute and opening a gap in their lines.

In a very real way, the Western front is created today on the Eastern Front. The dire possibility of a two-front war, which drove Moltke to distraction at the outbreak of hostilities, now becomes a fact on the ground that will drive him into a nervous breakdown.

Though it is often forgotten, the Russian campaign against the Central Powers is larger, bloodier, and much worse for humanity in many ways than the Western Front. Perhaps because the trenches in France and Belgium have a certain romantic appeal to us in the west, the trenches in Poland have largely been relegated to a lesser, more ghastly status. Indeed, the fighting in the east is savage, and winters prove particularly awful for soldier and civilian.

An East Prussian farm woman feeds German troops in 1914

An East Prussian farm woman feeds German troops in 1914

Famine looms, for the men have turned away from farming to fighting. Everyone knew that the Great War would be bloody, but very few understood how long it would last. Germany has planned for a short, victorious war of movement in the west, with a mere holding action in the east until they have knocked France out of the war. Austria has planned rapid, simultaneous offensives against Russia in the north and Serbia in the south. Neither England nor France expects a war lasting longer than a year. Everyone plans to win quickly, yet nobody does.

And in a very real way, all of these timetables for mobilization and victory are driven by the very urgent fact that large portions of the combatants’ citizenry are still living on farms, and the industrialization of agriculture has not arrived on the scale that will allow the levels of urbanization we take for granted in the 21st Century. The men who march to war are needed back soon to plant and reap.

Dated ca. 1910. The transition to labor-saving industrial farming was uneven and far from complete in Germany

Dated ca. 1910. The German farmer’s transition to labor-saving machinery was uneven and far from complete

Because it does not end quickly, the war interrupts the annual migration of up to a million migratory farmworkers from Russian Poland to the breadbasket of Germany, which is also dependent on Chilean nitrates and foreign feedstocks that will be cut off by the British blockade. East Prussian industry and farm modernization has been slowed by its ruling class, who are suspicious of the social movements that accompany them. Food prices are dramatically higher everywhere in Europe than they were just a month ago, and now they are highest in Germany right here.

In short order, food insecurity will become a problem for all sides in the conflict, but for Germany, which imports a quarter of its grain, dairy products, and eggs, the shadow of famine starts to grow upon the land today. The state is slow to respond, clumsily letting farmers game an unregulated environment of local price controls. After allowing too many pigs to eat grain for several months, the Kaiser’s bean-counters suddenly order the slaughter of nine million swine, whose manure is just as suddenly removed from the soil fertilization cycle with dire long-term effects for productivity. In the end, hunger — and not any tactical, strategic, or logistical decision made by the allies — is what breaks both nations.

  • dbtheonly

    Hey Matt,

    Catching up on the older posts I missed. Can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate the work you put in here.

    In addition to, “Famine looms, for the men have turned away from farming to fighting.”, consider the drain of the war on horses. Much agriculture was horse drives & the armies, except maybe the British, were essentially horse driven too. Women could replace the men working in the field. How do you replace the horses?

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk
    • Wobblie42

      I, too, am catching up with this excellent blog. I am doing the same, but limited to how people in Oregon apprehended the war. I wrote a blog post that will be published in April that describes how the British came here to buy replacement horses. Here is what I have written:

      The Capital Journal reported good news for farmers, though bad news possibly for some of their livestock:

      WILL BUY HORSES IN SALEM FOR BRITISH

      The British government wants 2000 horses and mules from the Willamette Valley. They are for the English army in France and that is one of the reasons they will not accept a gray or spotted horse. The horse may be of any color except gray or spotted, and must weigh 1100 to 1500 pounds and measure from 15 to 16 hands high and be anywhere from 5 to 10 years old.

      Holland Brothers of Kansas City have a contract to furnish the English government with 20,000 horses and have established Salem as one of their buying headquarters for the Willamette Valley.

      The Salem Horse Exchange, Clearwater Bros., proprietors are the local agents for the purchase of these horses, and have already bought almost a carload. But ordinarily shipments will not be made until a trainload can be made up for shipment to Portland, where they will be loaded on ships for Liverpool.

      Holland Brothers are the first army purchasers in the valley who pay spot cash for every horse they buy. They are experienced horsemen, and during their buying here for the past few days, according to Mr. Clearwater, they decide on the value of a horse for army purposes in about two minutes, state the price they can pay and the trade is made at once or not at all. Holland Brothers inspect their own horses. They will establish 29 agencies in the valley, and expect to buy within few weeks over 2000 horses. The average prices paid so far for army horses has been about $100, and this will be the cash price paid here. Three buyers representing Holland Brothers will make their headquarters this week at the Salem Horse Exchange.

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