Sunday is supposed to be a day of peace. On Sunday April 30, 2023, my thoughts turned to war. It was exactly 108 years and 8 months since the Battle of Tannenberg’s final day. Time passes statistically, but mentally it is an entirely different matter. We might not be able to repeat the past, but we can reimagine it. While time travel has yet to be invented, imagination and an intimate knowledge of history can bring us as close to the past as we will ever be. In this sense, the past is not only a time and place, but also a feeling. Our minds are the only time machine available to humans. As such, I planned to use mine while making the final journey to the spot where Russian General Alexander Samsonov committed suicide.
I awoke an hour after dawn from a deep sleep. It was already daylight in Olsztyn (Allenstein). Since it was Sunday, the rest of Olsztyn was still asleep. The sky was blue and cloudless, the air crisp and cold. There was not a hint of wind. Springtime had come to northern Poland. The trees were beginning to bloom and greenery added splashes of colors to the ground. The weather could not have been better. The sky was also clear and cloudless on August 30, 1914, the final day for the Battle of Tannenberg. The heat was infernal. Bedraggled, lusting for water, and at the point of complete exhaustion, thousands of confused Russian soldiers tried to fight their way out of an ever-tightening German vice. They could not look to their commander for leadership, he was as beaten as the soldiers. General Alexander Samsonov was feeling the fear, heat, and confusion as the German 8th Army rendered the final devastating blows to the Russian 2nd Army.
Narrow corridor – The road to war
Into The Cauldron – Entering The Fringes
I assumed the drive to the Samsonov Monument would be easy, so I planned a few stops along the way. They offered portents of difficulties to come despite cooperation from the weather. The first was a military cemetery supposedly on the edge of Olsztynek. It was right beside the highway coming into town from the north. I thought this would be an easy find, but it proved otherwise. Stopping by the roadside and wandering around in scrub brush did not reveal anything. After a few minutes of staring cluelessly at a spot-on Google Maps where the cemetery was supposedly located, me and my travel companion drove on into Olsztynek. Passing through the town we made our way to where the Tannenberg Memorial stood from 1927 – 1945. There were traces in the area where this once gigantic symbol of uber-German nationalism stood. The visit proved stimulating. (*More on visiting the Tannenberg Memorial site in a later post).
Now we drove eastward towards Jedwabno. In a field located on the fringes of this small village were what looked like a series of man-made earthworks. A possible defensive position left from the battle. Following the highway southward we were entering what I surmised was the cauldron. A map of battle movements on the final day showed a circle where remnants of the Russian 2nd Army were surrounded by German forces on all sides. There was no way out. Russian forces in this cauldron had only two choices, either surrender or risk being killed or wounded. Most took the first option as statistics show. Of an estimated 150,000 Russian troops, 92,000 ended up prisoners of war. Alexander Samsonov would not be one of them.
The cauldron – Detail of troop position on the final day at Tannenberg
Needles & Haystacks – A Polish Ghost Town
While planning this trip to the Samsonov monument, I spent the night before scrutinizing Google Maps in the cauldron area. I hoped to find any military sites from the battle that I may have overlooked. This needle in a haystack search took in the most rural roads. I soon came across a place called Malga. Translations of some reviews from Polish to English yielded a few details. Malga did not have any connection to Tannenberg, but there was a tangential connection to military history. Malga’s end came in the 1950s when the Polish military decided to use the area for a base and associated exercises. The village was transformed into a ghost town. Now there was nothing left other than the foundations of buildings that had long since vanished except for a lone church tower rising above the surrounding fields. I convinced myself that Malga was worth a detour.
My travel companion found the idea of visiting Malga just as intriguing as I did. His life has been dedicated to marking the Overland Trails in the Great Plain and western states, most prominently in Wyoming and Nebraska. He is no stranger to ghost towns. The opportunity to visit one in northern Poland was too good to pass up. An additional benefit of a side trip to Malga was that we could view the terrain that Samsonov and countless Russian soldiers stumbled through in the heat, smoke and darkness on that fatal, final day of battle.
Lost history – Piece of the Tannenberg Memorial
No Outlet – Dust to Dust
A few kilometers south of Jedwabno, we took a paved road that soon turned to dirt. Dry weather made the road dusty. This provided a very rough approximation of the same conditions in which Tannenberg was fought. Dust and smoke made it difficult for Russian troops to find their way. The Germans had a huge advantage over the Russians because they intercepted Russian orders sent unencrypted. While the Russians stumbled through the area, the Germans were sure of the Russian troop’s locations. They exploited this advantage to a devastating effect.
The woods closed in on the dirt road. Trees grew within a foot or two of one another. I imagined this landscape had not changed much since the battle. It was easy to see how soldiers might get lost along narrow roadways flanked by impenetrable forests. Moving thousands of soldiers around the area on dirt roads would have been a logistical nightmare. We soon found out just how impenetrable parts of this land still are today.
Google Maps showed the road crossing a small stream as we closed in on Malga. The road abruptly came to an end at the stream’s edge. The stream turned out to be much larger than shown on the map. The stream was more like a canal that was too deep to cross on either car or foot. I would later learn this was a branch of the Omulew River. We parked the car and walked beside the stream for a couple hundred meters in either direction. There was nowhere we could cross. Our journey to Malga ended along an anonymous streambank. The end of one journey meant our final one to the Samsonov Monument had finally begun.
Click here for: Admitting Defeat – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Eight)