The Tannenberg Obsession – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Epilogue)

Obsessions can lead to places you would never imagine. The urges that give rise to obsessions are unexplainable and undeniable, they have a magnetic allure that is as seductive as it is sinister. Obsession leads to compulsion and compulsion to uncontrollable impulses. Self-help gurus and life coaches will advise moderation as a necessary antidote to obsession, offering moderation as the key to a happy life filled with contentment. That may well be true, but an obsessive ignores this advice. They must take their passions to the greatest extremes. The journey may be fraught with danger, but the destination is worth the risk. Perhaps that is because the pursuit of an obsession is a portal to another world, one that allows the obsessive to supersede the world in which they have been confined for far too long. Obsessions can lead to the most extraordinary of emotions and the strangest of places. The obsessive may be at a loss to explain why they continue pursuing their passion well beyond the limits of reason, but they will continue that course no matter the cost in time, money, and energy. The obsession overrides all concerns.

On the Eastern Front – Inn at Usdau on fire during the Battle of Tannenberg

Time of Troubles – On the Eastern Front
My obsession with World War I on the Eastern Front began during one of the worst periods of my life. That time period can be summed up in two words, high school. Rather than enjoy it, I endured those three years of frustration and humiliation by seething mostly in silence. High school altered the course of my life to such an extent that I can scarcely think about it without feeling complete contempt for the experience. Much of my life since then has been informed by an urge to overcome people’s preconceived notions and the invisible hierarchies that govern both our personal and professional lives. High school provided me an education in class systems. My high school had its own aristocracy (football players and cheerleaders), the bureaucracy (administrators and teachers), plutocracy (rich kids), autocracy (the bullies), and meritocracy (academic achievers). There was not much for the rest of us to do other than engage in the illicit consumption of booze, absurd acts of delinquency, and mini rebellions against anyone trying to exercise authority.

And yet from that time of troubles came one of the great obsessions of my life, the Eastern Front of World War I and specifically the Battle of Tannenberg. It is not without irony that one of the most catastrophic conflicts in human history came to me in a school library located thousands of kilometers and an ocean away from battlefields seventy-years after the fact. I was sitting safely sequestered among the school library’s modest stacks gaining an intense interest about a front that Winston Churchill deemed “The Unknown War: The Eastern Front.” The future British Prime Minister felt compelled to author an entire volume with that title about the front in his magisterial multi-volume history of the First World War. The Eastern Front may have been forgotten by the west, but that was yet another reason I found it so intriguing.

Into oblivion – Russian soldiers charge forward at the Battle of Tannenberg

Nightmares & Dreams – Battle Lines Are Drawn
I discovered the Eastern Front in the voluminous Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I. In what I still consider to be the greatest reference work ever created, I found thousands of pages on every aspect of the war. This was one of my first true loves and as such I can still recall it with misty eyed nostalgia. Somehow among the unending succession of nightmares found on those pages, I began to formulate a fascination. This fascination then turned into a dream. That dream had a name, Tannenberg. It was a titanic battle, with clear winners and losers. The Somme and Verdun may be more famous, but trying to grasp those seemingly never-ending battles which raged for weeks or months on end is extremely difficult. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed and wounded with no decisive result. The futility of war defined those battles and many similar ones on the western front. Tannenberg could not have been more different.   

I first came to understand Tannenberg as a glorious German victory and crushing Russian defeat. This made it easy to grasp. Only later would I learn that the battle did not play a decisive role in the war’s outcome. This realization did not deter my interest. Tannenberg had lodges itself in my memory to such an extent that I have never been able to let it go. Mentally, Tannenberg was my way of escaping from frustration. It had nothing to do with popularity contests or peer pressure. No one else at my school would have found it of interest. Tannenberg became a secret that I only shared with myself.
The battle became an inspiration and aspiration to learn more with the ultimate goal of possibly visiting the battlefield one day. I could always dream. And like the most powerful dreams, this had the potential of becoming reality.

Looking back – Memorial stone at Usdau for fighting during Battle of Tannenberg (Credit; Bauernfreund)

Boots On The Ground – Digging Graves & Saving Grace
Learning about the battle started in that high school library. It continues to this very day and will probably never end. For that I am grateful. My curiosity for Tannenberg has manifested itself to the point that I now feel an overwhelming urge to finally visit the battlefield in person. The circumstances are such that I can find my way there. A strange sort of affinity for the battle has been buried deep within me for decades. From time to time, it comes back as an all-consuming obsession. One that must be satisfied. This idea possesses me, turns my thoughts to the blistering heat and choking dust in the final days of August 1914. The earth transformed into a haze by horses’ hooves and the boots of hundreds of thousands of men taking their first footsteps towards the darkest of destinies. They are headed for a reckoning and so am I. The time has come to visit Tannenberg. To see the place where General Samsonov effectively brought the battle to an end and his life along with it. To see the battle that destroyed so many lives and provided me with an escape during one of the most difficult times of my life. To see the battlefield where two empires began to dig their graves and paradoxically became my saving grace.

To be continued…

Return To Tannenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Four)

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that the spot of General Samsonov’s suicide was memorialized in the dense woods of the Masurian Lakes region of Poland. Though Samsonov was a Russian general, one that Tsarist Russia soon forgot about among the reoccurring military disasters that consumed the empire after Tannenberg, Samsonov’s suicide was as symbolic of the stunning success of the 8th German Army in that battle, as it was catastrophic for the Russian 2nd Army. It is worth noting that while Tannenberg was only the third battle on the Eastern Front (The Battles of Stalluponen and Gumbinnen were the first two), it would be the German’s most decisive victory of the war, one they could never repeat in the next four years of combat on any front. For this reason, the Germans were eager to commemorate the battle.

A reminder – Monument on the spot where General Samsonov committed suicide at the Battle of Tannenberg

Superiority Complex – Self-Glorification
While the Germans lost the war, the Battle of Tannenberg came to represent the greatness of the German Army. Glorifying the battle and any site associated with it was one way to heal the wounded pride from the terms imposed upon the Germans by the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans could always look to the Eastern Front with pride. They won that part of the war and imposed their own Versailles on Russia in the form of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. After the German collapse on the Western Front in the autumn of 1918, none of that mattered. At least not to anyone other than the Germans. The postwar period was marked by the glorification of Tannenberg by German nationalists. Most famously, this manifested itself in the enormous Tannenberg Memorial which could hold up to 100,000 visitors at a time.
The Tannenberg Memorial’s size and symbolic stature would have made it an easy target for the Red Army’s destruction if the Germans had not blown up the Memorial (located in Hohenstein, present-day Olsztynek, Poland) while retreating through the area in 1945. There were many other memorial plaques, historical markers, and small cemeteries in villages or deep in the woods that were not destroyed. These were too small for anyone to bother defacing or removing them. The obelisk marking the spot where Samsonov was believed to have committed suicide is located on a secondary road in the woods. The obelisk was off the beaten path enough to be overlooked. This makes it one of the most noticeable remnants of the interwar German commemoration of the battle.

Tannenberg was celebrated by German nationalists as a victory over what they believed to be racially inferior Slavs. General Alexander Samsonov’s suicide spot would seem to be a strange spot to glorify, but it spoke volumes about the devastating defeat the Germans inflicted on the Russians. A defeated general blowing his brains out was not off-limits for Germans looking to boost national and racial pride. Placing a prominent marker on the spot ensured Germans would come to see for themselves one of the most meaningful end results of the battle.

Self-Glorification – Tannenberg Memorial

Lost & Found – One Last Shot
General Samsonov’s suicide spot was not only of interest to Germans. Samsonov’s widow, Katarzyna Alexandrovna, enlisted the assistance of the Red Cross during the war to locate his grave. Samsonov had been buried in the same place where he committed suicide. Katarzyna had his remains exhumed and taken back to a village near the city of Kherson (now located in Ukraine) for reburial. Without Samsonov original grave, the suicide spot might have been lost to history. The grave was marked with field stones and a plaque that provided Samsonov’s basic biographical information. It was far enough away from the main road and railway to get overlooked without anything more prominent on the site. The Germans marked the spot with a stone obelisk, the same one that stands today.

From what I have been able to ascertain from photos, the obelisk is located amid a serene setting in the woods. This is a striking contrast from the violent act commemorated there. Those woods were anything but serene during the final days of August as the Battle of Tannenberg unfolded. Shots rang out, artillery thundered in the distance, armies groped their way through choking dust during the day and the depths of darkness during the night. The only illumination was the fire of guns, or the fires set by skirmishes. Then sometime after midnight on August 30th, one of the most significant shots rang out. Tannenberg claimed its most famous victim when Samsonov shot himself. His body was soon discovered. Those events eventually led to the obelisk which stands there today. It is one of the most important monuments on a battlefield that has very few.

Pointing the way – German officer in front of a sign to the Samsonov Monument

Last Legacy – Undertakers & Caretakers
Marking sites associated with Tannenberg was always going to be a challenge since the battle raged over a wide area. The monument at Samsonov’s suicide spot offers a tangible point in which to reflect upon the battle. Monuments and historical markers offer a closer connection to the past. Other sites associated with the battle are not as explicit. Suicide while tragic, is something most people can comprehend. Defensive lines dug into the earth also offer a tangible connection, but the soldiers who fought in them remain anonymous. Their deaths, no matter how heroic or tragic are hard to conceptualize. The average soldier that fought at Tannenberg is anonymous except to those who know their names or may have an ancestral connection. To everyone else they are a blur. This is a sad fact, one that is almost impossible to rectify unless they left diaries or memoirs.

The upshot is that the monument at Samsonov’s suicide spot is the stand in for all the death and destruction that occurred at Tannenberg. It is a singular tragedy which represents a much larger one. The battle has long since passed, but its legacy has reshaped the region in which the monument is located. East Prussia no longer exists, nor does the Russian Empire. Poland has risen again and has become the caretaker for Tannenberg’s legacy. Obscure and remote as the battlefield may be, its relevance is beyond question. All the more reason for a return to Tannenberg.

Coming soon: The Tannenberg Obsession – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Epilogue)

The Final Verdict – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Three)

Another language, another world. For those of us who speak only English, a journey into a foreign land where a different language is spoken presents certain barriers that we find confounding. Basic communication becomes difficult and trying to talk with one’s hands will not suffice. Yet this is not as big a problem as it might seem since so much of the world speaks English. Ever since the Iron Curtain collapsed English has been making great strides across Eastern Europe. This is as true in Poland as anywhere else. In my experience, younger Poles in cities such as Warsaw and Krakow have a command of English as good or better than many native speakers.

In the countryside it is a different matter altogether. The middle aged and pensioners have little reason to learn English. They are wedded to a specific location and surrounded by their fellow Poles. Communicating with them can be difficult since the chance of someone at my age learning anything more than a smattering of Polish is slim. It can make communicating with words close to impossible. This is not going to be an ideal situation when I am in the Polish countryside trying to locate the suicide spot of General Alexander Samsonov, the commander of the Russian 2nd Army in the Battle of Tannenberg.

Marking the spot – General Samsonov Monument (Credit: Mieczysla Kalski)

Speaking In Tongues – A Matter Of Translation
The area in which Samsonov took his own life is now populated exclusively with ethnic Poles. There is nothing left of the multicultural world that existed when Samsonov’s Army invaded the region. The ethnic German population was expelled after the Second World War, the Jewish population murdered in the Holocaust. Many of the current Polish inhabitant’s ancestors were relocated to the area region parts of eastern Poland that were annexed by the Soviet Union and are now located in western Ukraine. Old Europe ceased to exist in the region in which the Battle of Tannenberg was fought. Many of those now rooted to this land only planted their feet here in the late 1940’s. Tannenberg was not their battle, nor will it ever be. The best thing that happened at the battle for Poland was that two of the three powers that had partitioned it in the late 18th century were fighting a war that would eventually lead to their destruction. This allowed an independent Polish state to remerge.

The real victors of Tannenberg were the Polish people who had few soldiers fighting in the battle. For those seeking out sites associated with the battle, such as the spot where Samsonov committed suicide, this makes finding them more difficult. The Poles do not have any reason to preserve these places except for tourism. They might get German visitors whose ancestors once lived in the region or hardcore military history enthusiasts. Because the region had so radically changed hands, finding monuments associated with the battle is not easy. Even with the trove of information that might be found on the internet, language is still a barrier. Google translate is useful, but not a foolproof tool. The language barrier made my search more difficult.

After the battle – Village of Tannenberg (Stebark) in 1915

Worthy of Commemoration – A Soldier’s Death
Once I learned that Samsonov’s suicide spot was located somewhere between Neidenburg and Willenberg I then located those two towns on an online map using their current Polish place names, Nidzica and Wielbark. These were the best clues that my research managed to uncover. Now it was a matter of scouring the map to see if any reference to Samsonov’s suicide might be found. Usually, this type of search turns up very little the first time around. They often require scrutinizing the same area several times. I started by working my way westward from Wielbark on Highway 604. Before long I came across a blue castle icon on the map with the words Pomik Gen. Samsonowa. The icon denoted a historic site and the Polonized name “Samsonowa” was a startling clue. When I clicked on the icon, a photo of a monument in the woods appeared. I then searched Pomik Gen. Samsonowa in my web browser. This brought up multiple sites in Polish. Translating one of the most promising brought me to a nifty tourist website chock full of fascinating information about different sites throughout the Masurian Lakes region in northern Poland where the monument is located.

I was startled that the Samsonov monument still existed and equally startled that a monument had been erected in the first place. It is not often a losing general that commanded a foreign invading army gets a monument dedicated to his memory. I cannot recall another monument to an opposing commander that took his own life. Samsonov died a soldier’s death, but one that few would see fit to memorialize for the sake of posterity. Something so strangely significant was only found worthy of commemoration because the Germans had so few decisive victories to celebrate after the war. In this they were not alone. Tannenberg was one of the few decisive battles of the war. A throwback to earlier battles such as Waterloo or Austerlitz in the Napoleonic Wars. The lines between victory and defeat at Tannenberg were clearly drawn. There was no question who won the battle. The fact that Samsonov felt compelled to shoot himself rendered the final verdict.

Mythmaking – German commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff waging the Battle of Tannenberg (Credit: Hugo Vogel)

Wounded Pride – A Sinister Memory
Tannenberg not only served as the greatest German victory of the war, but also the most decisive victory of the war among any of the combatants. The battles on the western front were months long slogs in the trenches. Those on the Eastern Front after Tannenberg were either inconclusive affairs or victories that occurred outside of German territory. There was little to celebrate from the German’s ultimate defeat of the Russian Tsarist Army. Victories only meant being sucked further into the vast void of the eastern front where the German Army risked being lost in space. Tannenberg was a clearcut victory, one that was easy to grasp and important to commemorate for Germans who felt the sting of losing the war. The fact that the battle occurred on what was German territory during the war and after proved to be of great benefit. The homeland had been defended and the invading force destroyed. This appealed to wounded German pride. Thus, Samsonov’s suicide spot was marked. How that came about is a story worth further exploring.

Click here for: Return To Tannenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Four)

A Critical Mass of Confusion – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Two)

Willenberg is now Wielbark, Ostpreussen is now Poland, and Alexander Samsonov’s suicide during the Battle of Tannenberg is now history. My goal is to find and visit the location where Samsonov spent his final moment. Locating the exact spot means looking for clues in books and digital sources. Whatever results my searches may yield will hopefully allow me to pinpoint the location of the place where a shot rang out in the darkness sometime after midnight on August 30, 1914, amid the thick forests of present day north-central Poland.

Seeking out a suicide spot is diabolical detective work, something that only makes sense as part of criminal investigation, friends or family trying to find closure or in the service of history. The result of this search will be to find and explore one of the darker recesses of the First World War. This is a potential trip down a path pockmarked with the residue of death and despair. One that leads to an obscure spot on a forgotten front. A place to contemplate the moment where fate dealt a decisive blow to the Russian Army, General Samsonov’s life, and set Russia on a wayward course that continues right down to the present day. The case could be made that Russia’s recent unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is along that same trajectory. Tannenberg is not as distant as one might imagine.

Lost in space – Battle of Tannenberg from August 27th – 30th

Switching Sides – A Geopolitical Puzzle
At first, I was not optimistic that the location where General Samsonov took his life could be located. There were complicating factors that would make the search more difficult. While the battle only occurred a little over a century ago, the area in which it took place suffered massive geopolitical upheavals, Tannenberg was the first of these. There was much worse to come. These upheavals led to the collapse of empires and the rise of nations in their place. This made the geography of Tannenberg difficult to mentally navigate. For instance, the land on which the battle took place did not belong to a nation-state in 1914. Instead, it was in the German Empire. During the interwar period, the sprawling battlefield would become part of two nations, Poland and Weimar Germany. During World War II, the area was occupied by the Germans. After the war ended, it became part of Poland.

The battle then existed in a sort of strange historical netherworld. As part of Poland, the battlefield was severed from the two main combatants, the Germans and Russians who spilt so much blood fighting the battle. The area’s German population had been expelled. Monuments to the battle which commemorated it were destroyed. The most prominent of these, the massive Tannenberg Memorial was where the body of Paul von Hindenburg, the German commander glorified for his role in the battle was reburied. Hitler ordered the monument destroyed during the German retreat in 1945. Hindenburg’s body was removed and reburied once again, this time in western Germany. The Soviet Red Army was majority Russian and as such wanted no reminders of any German victory even if it did render a blow to the Tsarist Army.

August 1914 – Russian aircraft shot down in Neidenburg

Survival Instinct – Inheritors of the Earth
Even when monuments to the Battle of Tannenberg were not targeted they could still be caught in the crossfire of the many conflicts that consumed the area. Towns in the region were heavily damaged during the final campaign of World War II. This was the end of a thirty-one-year process that had proved apocalyptic. Tannenberg was the starting gun for decades of destruction, reconstruction and still more destruction over land contested by Germans, Russians, and Poles. The latter ended up being the lone survivors in the area. Ironically, Poles played hardly any role in the 1914 battle. Poland ended up being the inheritor of the territory on which the battle was fought. They were already living in the area, but their role was as detached observers watching everyone else commit suicide. That included Alexander Samsonov.

Poland offers a complicating factor for anyone trying to orient themselves on the battlefield because the names of nearby places to where Samsonov’s suicide might have occurred were changed from German to Polish ones. Fortunately, finding the Polish place names and matching them with German ones would not prove as difficult as I first imagined. Another complicating factor concerns Samsonov’s role as part of an invading army that lost the battle. Though his suicide spot is worth marking for historical interest, that would have taken place under either the Germans or Poles. Commemorating where an enemy general shot himself was probably not high on the priority list for the German regime which occupied the area after the battle. On the other hand, the battle was a great achievement for the Germans both during and after the war. Plenty of commemoration would later take place. For instance, the Germans constructed the Tannenberg Memorial and moved the body of Paul von Hindenburg, one of the commanding generals at Tannenberg there. Of course, Germans extolling the glories of a fellow German made sense. I assumed that marking the spot of Samsonov’s suicide did not fall high on their postwar priority list.

Battle lines – German infantry during the Battle of Tannenberg (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R36715)

Uncharted Territory – Off The Map
My first clue in locating the suicide spot was found online with a short description stating, “in the woods south of Willenberg.” This was nowhere near exact enough, but it did give me a good starting point, I then found another source that mentioned the location as between (Nidizica) and Willenberg (Wielbark). This information was more promising as it gave me an area to focus on. A train line ran between the two locations, which might also mean a road could be running between the two towns. A road was vital because the best-case scenario would be for the location to be near one. I did not relish the thought of walking far off the road and deep into the woods scouring for a marker amid leafy foliage and thick ground cover. 

It is easy to get lost in these woods. That is one of the things that happened to the Russians during the battle. This created a critical mass of confusion which the Germans exploited. The area is known for its lakes, forests, and sandy soil, each of which presents problems for anyone searching for a specific place in the area. Getting lost is nothing new. Samsonov and the staff officers who were with him on the last night of his life were also lost. They tried to reconnect with what was left of the 2nd Army. Realizing that they had little chance of this they stumbled along in the darkness. Then Samsonov separated himself from the rest of the group. At that moment he knew exactly where he was headed. To a place could not be found on any map.

Click here for: The Final Verdict – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Three)

In The Woods South of Willenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part One)

I buy way too many books, books that I will never have the time to read from cover to cover. As I get older and the list of unread books on my shelves grows, I have learned to read specific chapters of a book to find what intrigues me the most. This works rather well, except for the fact that I find myself skipping from one subject to the next without any logical plan. Curiosity often gets the better of me as I bound from the medieval to the modern, from the Balkans to the Black Sea, from eastern Germany to eastern Ukraine, from Byzantium or the Baltic. This is the kind of curiosity that easily goes off-kilter. The power of perusal provides a window into disparate regions, subjects, and time periods. Working my way into books with this method comes at the expense of thoroughness. It is the only way I can manage to keep from being overwhelmed. Surrounding myself with stacks of books means I am something of a bibliophile, an obsession defined by the title of an excellent book about the subject, “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion For Books” by Nicholas Basbanes. It may be gentle, but it is madness all the same.

Dark destiny – In the woods near Willenberg (Credit: Albert Jankowski)

A Single Shot – The Final Moment
I do not own my books as much as they own me. Besieged by books would be an apt description of my current status. Sometimes I will stare at specific books packed on the shelves and wonder when I will finally get around to reading at least a page or two of each one. The best chance for cracking a neglected books is to use it as a reference work. To be completely honest, this was the reason I bought most of these books. I realized this invaluable aspect once again when I went in search of books to answer a specific question about the Battle of Tannenberg on the Eastern Front at the beginning of World War I. The book I grabbed, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires by Dennis Showalter, has a well-deserved reputation for density. It certainly does not disappoint in that regard. There are over 400 pages filled with an infinite number of details that interpret the battle. Showalter does a fine job of explaining the strategy, tactics, and outcome of Tannenberg. The book would prove useful for me since I needed to find out more details concerning the suicide of General Alexander Samsonov, the commander of the Russian 2nd Army which was destroyed in the battle.

Samsonov went to battle with 180,000 men, by the time it was done, over 90% of them had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Only an estimated 10,000 Russian soldiers escaped, Samsonov was not one of them. Showalter provided a succinct description of the suicide. Once Samsonov knew the battle was lost, he along with his other staff officers scrambled through the woods on foot in the darkness. Sometime after midnight on August 30th, “Weight and asthma slowed the general’s movement and further lamed his spirit. Again and again, Samsonov repeated that the disgrace was more than he could bear: ‘The Emperor trusted me.’ Finally, he slipped aside in the dark. Minutes later a single pistol shot crashed out of the underbrush. Samsonov would never be called upon to explain the fate of his army.” I remember this story well. Showalter’s footnote to the narrative shows that he used Major General Sir Alfred Knox, the British Military Attache who was with the Russians during the campaign as his source.

A shocking defeat – Bodies of dead Russian soldiers from the Battle of Tannenberg

Further Misfortune – From Bad To Worse
Samsonov’s suicide story was not really what I was looking for when I referenced Showalter’s book, instead I wanted to find the spot where it occurred. Finding clues to the exact location where Samsonov took his life would be the first step to possibly visiting the place on a trip to Poland I have planned for later this spring. I do not know why the Samsonov suicide fascinates me, but this has been the case for me going all the way back to high school. My fascination with the First World War began in Mr. Johnson’s freshman Western Civilization class in high school. I can still see him madly drawing a diagram of the street layout in Sarajevo as he laid out the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This led me to the school library where I found the ultimate reference work for the war, the Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I. In the encyclopedia I first learned about the Battle of Tannenberg. Then through the years there were further narratives of the battle that lodged in my memory. These included Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and an even more bracing description in one of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s least known works, August 1914.

Perhaps Samsonov’s suicide feeds into my obsession with decisive moments in history. Those points of no return where reality can no longer be avoided. It is not often in history that a leader will openly admit they are responsible for a disaster. Of course, there was a lot more to the Russian defeat at Tannenberg than Samsonov’s command decisions. The Germans were better organized, their commanders had a clear plan of action, Russian communications were compromised, and the 1st Russian Army failed to provide the expected support. This does not absolve Samsonov of responsibility, but he took it upon himself to shoulder the blame and it broke him. Tannenberg was the start of an endless succession of disasters for the Russian Army in the war, the cumulative weight of which would lead to the Bolshevik revolution and further misfortune. Russia has never been the same.

On to Tannenberg – Alexander Samsonov at the start of World War I

End Result – A Soldier’s Death
Perhaps Samsonov saw what was coming, for himself and the empire he represented. Perhaps Samsonov could not see beyond himself or beyond the Tsar’s disappointment. Perhaps Samsonov felt just as trapped as his army had been. He saw no other way out except to die a soldier’s death deep in the woods of East Prussia. There was just a single shot and then the blood rushing out of the hole in his head staining the sandy soil in the forest. No one will ever know what Samsonov’s thoughts were just before the suicide. That moment is lost in time. The place is not. You cannot go back in time, but you can go back to the same spot and imagine what it was like. The beginning of that process started for me with books followed by internet searches. The first clue I came across said the suicide happened “in the woods south of Willenberg.”

Coming soon: A Critical Mass of Confusion – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Two)

Getting Closer To The Truth – The Attack on Makiivka Barracks #2 (The Ukraine-Russia War #285)

Communication is integral to success on the battlefield. Without it, a military force marches blindly into battle. The consequences of which can be terrifying at best, and deadly at worst. It is a given that military communications should always be secure. Otherwise, an enemy might become privy to their opponent’s plans. This can lead to devastating consequences. The Russian Army should know this from experience. One of the most famous instances of an enemy force gaining knowledge of their battle plans occurred in August 1914. During the Battle of Tannenberg on the Eastern Front, the Russian Imperial Army used unencrypted radio communications. This allowed the German Army to know exactly what the Russian forces were going to do in advance. The Germans adjusted their plans accordingly. The consequences were devastating. The Russian Army lost most of its First and Second Armies as 120,000 – 170,000 Russian soldiers were killed or taken as prisoners of war. The Russian Imperial Army would fight on for three more years, but the Battle of Tannenberg was an ominous sign of further catastrophes to come.

Getting closer to the truth – Makiivka Barracks after missile strikes

Deadly Indiscipline – Fatal Impulses
Many things have changed militarily since the First World War, but the Russian failure to use secure communications on the battlefield is not one of them. For some strange reason, the Russian military believes in learning lessons the hard way or not learning them at all. The latest example of this trend occurred at a soldier’s barracks in the town of Makiivka in Donetsk Province. Anyone who has closely followed the conflict will recall how at the Battle of Kyiv during the first weeks of the war, Russian soldiers made themselves easy targets by using civilian networks to make calls with their cell phone. Ukrainian forces tracked their signals and then attacked those positions. This caused great loss of life for Russian forces and halted their offensive. Eventually, the Russians were so shredded by stealth, hit and run attacks that they were left with little choice other than to retreat.

For a military that was regarded as the world’s second most powerful this was both alarming and embarrassing. Alarming, because such amateur mistakes showed an appalling lack of organization and discipline. Embarrassing, because the Russian military was exposed for its poor quality. The most worrying aspect for the Russians was that this happened with a force made up mostly of professional soldiers. These problems were bound to get worse if they were forced to mobilize conscripts. That is exactly what happened. This was predictable because either the Russian military refused to learn from their mistakes or those in command have little regard for the lives of common soldiers. It is likely a combination of both.  

Opening fire – HIMARS launch

Precision Strike – New Year’s Detonation
On New Year’s Day, hundreds of Russian soldiers were in a barracks at Makiivka. These were conscripts who were not well versed in military protocol. They had been rushed to Ukraine in order to alleviate the Russian Army’s manpower shortage. It is doubtful they had been given much training. Many of them were prone to using their cell phones for calls. This allowed Ukrainian forces to know exactly where they were located. Unlike earlier in the war when the Ukrainians often relied on drones to attack enemy positions, they now have American HIMARS which are extremely extreme precise. Two rockets hit the barracks. This would have been bad enough to cause a high number of casualties. What made the strikes much more lethal was ammunition also being stored in the barracks. This led to multiple explosions. The Ukrainians reported that at least 400 Russian soldiers were killed in the attack. Russian military bloggers soon laid the blame for the attack on the commanders.

The Russian Ministry of Defense felt compelled to issue a statement because they feared losing control of the narrative. They cast blame on the conscripts for using their cell phones. The statement also gave a casualty figure less than a quarter of the Ukrainian estimate. There is plenty of blame to go around. The moment HIMARS rockets hit those barracks the truth was laid bare. This was a failure on multiple levels that went all the way up to the Kremlin. The fact is that those soldiers would not even have been in those barracks at Makiivka if not for the shoddy partial mobilization ordered in the autumn by Vladimir Putin. Furthermore, the ramifications of rushing soldiers to the front likely had something to do with soldiers sleeping atop a powder keg of ammunition. A spark was the only thing needed to set the barracks and those inside it ablaze.

Vision of war – Image of the aftermath from a Ukrainian missile strike

Stuck on Repeat – An Unchanging Situation
The attack at Makiivka was followed by the usual attempt by the Kremlin and military command at damage control. As smoke was rising from the ruined barracks and bodies of four hundred ruined lives, the Kremlin and military command were creating their own smoke screen to obscure the truth about their continued mismanagement of the war. This mismanagement has manifested itself in the deaths of 110,000 soldiers and counting. The situation does not change because the same leadership is still running the war. Sure, a few commanders have been replaced, but this is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. If the same thing keeps happening again and again, then the blame lies with the one constant throughout the conflict. That is the Putin regime which has its fingerprints all over the war effort. The regime is rotten to the core. And that core still resides in the Kremlin.

Until Russian troops leave Ukraine, they will continue to incur thousands of casualties while engaged in dubious actions that create the conditions for disaster. This is inevitable because failures in leadership and command run throughout all levels of the Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin. No amount of distractions or obfuscations of the truth from Russian officials can keep the same calamities from happening again. By now it should be obvious even to Russians who willfully ignore the dire performance of their forces in Ukraine, that quality leadership is lacking at all levels of the regime. The Russian military is headed for ever more failures. This is not a question of if, but when.

Click here for: Half-Truths – Russia’s Most Serious Defeats in Ukraine (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #286)

The Kiss Of Death – Bela Kiss: Austro-Hungarian Soldier, Ladies Man & Serial Killer

Many a man who went off to the battlefields and trenches in World War I was never the same again. Some were radicalized, others brutalized and all had seared into their consciousness the ultra-violent nature of modern warfare. Those who survived the war came back home transformed, nothing about life was ever the same again. Coming into contact with such forces of violence altered their lives forever. Yet in one soldier’s extreme and exceptional case going off to war was an escape from home. The battlefront was the perfect place to hide from the dark deeds he had committed in the years leading up to the outbreak of war. It may have also given him a chance to use the war as an outlet for his violent tendencies. One thing is for certain, no army ever had to train the Hungarian soldier Bela Kiss on how to kill. He already had plenty of experience by the time he joined the Austro-Hungarian army.

Bela Kiss - Sketch of a deranged killer

Bela Kiss – Sketch of a deranged killer

Looks That Kill With Hands That Strangle
There is a picture, not quite a photo, but a detailed sketch of the man thought to be Bela Kiss. The picture portrays a man from his shoulders up. He is dressed in an army uniform and sports a soldier’s cap. On the left is the upper half of a rifle barrel, which he must be clutching in his right hand. He has a broad face, solid chin and a dark mustache, waxed to perfection, sharply pointed on both ends. This is a good looking man, except for one very disconcerting feature. The look in his eyes is deranged with a dark, piercing quality to his stare. An intense, fanatical amusement can be detected in his expression. This is the look of a man who kills for pleasure. The artist who put together this depiction may have infused it with what was already known about Kiss.

He was handsome, charming and suave, a ladies man through and through. These qualities must have been useful in helping him procure his first and only known wife. The marriage did not last, which seems a bit unlikely. After all, they had a stable income, from Kiss’ work as a prosperous tinsmith in the village of Czinkota close to Budapest. They rented a nice cottage in a quiet area, surrounded by neighbor’s who suspected nothing. Perhaps it was their age difference which made their marriage difficult, than again maybe it was his madness. Kiss was 15 years older than his wife. The young wife soon found a new love and then they disappeared together. Only later would they be found dead.

The bodies of Kiss’ wife and her lover were discovered in 1916, two years after Kiss went off to fight in the First World War. While he was away at the front a deadly secret Kiss had been hiding was discovered in a cache of metal barrels he had been using, ostensibly to store gasoline. At least that is what his landlord had been told a few years before. One day the landlord grew curious and decided to see for himself. When he made a small opening in one barrel, the landlord recoiled at the horrible odor which emanated forth. Soon the police were called. Barrel after barrel contained human remains, twenty-four bodies in all, only one of which was a male, the lover of Kiss’ wife. Each of the bodies had been pickled in wood alcohol. The women were naked with ropes still fastened around their necks. Puncture wounds were also found on the bodies which had been entirely drained of blood. No one would ever figure out what had been done with the blood.

Sinister Secrets Of Deadly Intent – Demented Pleasures
Twenty-three of the dead were females, other than his wife Kiss had lured love seeking women in search of a husband to his home. Before being murdered, the women had been talked into turning over any money or valuables to Kiss. He then strangled them to death. For over a decade prior to the war he had been storing one body after another in the barrels at the cottage. One can only speculate as to why he kept the bodies pickled. Perhaps Kiss gained some kind of demented pleasure by having his victims close to him. Or maybe he did not want to chance taking them off-site where they might be discovered. His cover-up worked long enough. When the war arrived Kiss disappeared into the maelstrom of the Eastern Front. All he left behind was the grisly remains and destroyed lives of the naïve women he had seduced with deadly intent.

The only person who might have shared Kiss’ sinister secret was a hired housekeeper who had spent years working for him. She pled ignorance to the police, but Kiss had left her money in his will. She could receive the compensation if he was killed in the war. Her main contribution to the resulting investigation was showing police a locked, secret room that Kiss had forbade her to enter. Inside the police found thick files with letters from 175 women who had responded to an advertisement for a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.” Those unfortunates who answered the call in person received a date with death.

Missing Person – In Search Of A Fatal Kiss
After the discovery, police in Budapest put out a call for Kiss to be arrested. He was thought either to be in a military hospital convalescing in Serbia or to have been killed in battle on the Eastern Front. When the authorities went to arrest him in Serbia they found another soldier’s dead body in the bed where Kiss was said to recovering. This was just the kind of ghoulish ruse that had all the hallmarks of Kiss. Not only had Kiss stolen away, but he also may have stolen the dead man’s identity. He would use this identity to evade law enforcement or so it was said. No one really one if Kiss was dead or alive.

Over the next decade and a half there were various reports from people claiming to have seen Kiss, including in Budapest. One of the more chilling post-war claims came from a French Foreign Legion soldier who told of a fellow legionnaire named “Hoffman” – an alias that had often been used by Kiss – who bragged about his skill strangling with a garrote. The last purported sighting of Kiss was just as improbable as his crimes. In 1932, a homicide detective in New York City swore that he had seen a man fitting the exact description of Kiss exiting the subway at Times Square. Unfortunately, the potential suspect was never apprehended. This was the last time anyone may or may not have seen Bela Kiss. He disappeared just like his victims. The only difference was that no one knew how, when or where he died.

Rescued From Obscurity – The Bulgarian Naval Officer’s Tunic at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City

This past week I was finally able to visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. All the acclaim I had heard about the museum turned out to be true. The two short films I watched, including one entitled “Europe Before the War” were excellent. The exhibits were first class, especially the replicas of French, British and German trenches. Characteristic German thoroughness was on display in their replica trench. Even in the mud of northern France and Flanders, the German Army managed to be neat, clean and uber-organized. The same could not be said for the French, whose trenches looked ramshackle at best. As for the British ones, they were pragmatic and functional. One could learn a great deal about the warring nations just by studying their trench systems.

Liberty Memorial in Kansas City

Liberty Memorial in Kansas City – the National World War I Museum is beneath the memorial

The Forgotten Fronts & A Memorable Artifact
My lone disappointment was with the museum’s treatment of the Eastern and Southern Fronts during the war or should I say the lack of a treatment. There was a small section within one exhibit that gave a broad overview of the front. This oversight is quite remarkable considering the Eastern and Southern Front’s dramatic influence on the Western one during the war. Consider that the German Army committed millions in men and material to these fronts during the war. Not to mention the fact that at critical junctures the Russian Army launched offensives in the east that drew German forces away from the western theater.

The outcome of the Marne and Verdun campaigns would have been very different if not for Russian offensives which benefited their western allies.  I have to admit I was not surprised that the Eastern and Southern Fronts were given short shrift. This was the National World War I museum of the United States after all. American forces only fought on the Western Front. Their experience was similar to that of the other Western Allies. The First World War has been seen in America through the prism of the Western Front and trench warfare, overcoming this bias was a bit too much for the museum. That being said, it is quite astonishing that my most lasting impression of the museum concerns an artifact from an obscure netherworld of the war. Behind a glass case in the exhibit area dedicated to the naval aspects of the war was a blue tunic. The text for this piece of clothing stated:

Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic

In 1915 the Bulgarian navy had six torpedo boats, a royal yacht, and several smaller vessels. Its largest vessel was a torpedo gunboat, the Nadiejda

The blue tunic looked to be in fine condition, with all of the brass buttons still attached. There were no signs of wear or tear.  I could almost imagine the owner, exactly a century ago, standing on deck as his boat patrolled close to the shoreline. The Black Sea calm, under a clear blue sky, the sunlight glittering on the water, war never looked so beautiful or benign. My imagination took me back to that distant sea for a moment before I came to my senses. Then I realized just how bizarre this tunic actually was. No imagination was required for such a unique artifact.

Bulgarian naval officer's tunic

Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic on display at the National World War I museum in Kansas City

What Little Is Left Of Nothing – The Bulgarian Navy In World War One
Start with the fact that the tunic was a product of the Bulgarian Navy. As the exhibit text made quite clear Bulgaria’s naval fleet was miniscule. Its force of sailors would not have been much more substantial. Officers would have made up a tiny proportion of the force. This was a very rare find and research I did over the next several days confirmed the obscurity of artifacts related to the Bulgarian Navy. Searches on the internet and through my own personal library brought up only a couple of references to the Bulgarian navy during the war. The topic proved that even Google has its limitations. The only information available was a paragraph in a Wikipedia article on Bulgaria during World War One. It said, Bulgaria possessed a small naval force of torpedo gunboats and patrol boats that were restricted to operating only in the coastal areas of the Black Sea and along the river Danube. Following the Second Balkan War the country acquired an outlet on the Aegean Sea and in January 1915 the “Aegean” Section of the Bulgarian Navy was created by a royal decree. Initially only 78 soldiers were assigned to the small force and were given a task to observe and defend the coastline by laying naval mines. These activities were centered on the ports of Porto Lagos and Dedeagach but the true development of the facilities there was hampered by financial difficulties”

My beloved 12 volume Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, unsurpassed in breadth and thoroughness when it comes to coverage of the Great War, dismissed the Bulgarian Navy with a single sentence, “The negligible Bulgarian fleet, as we shall see, played no role at all in the First World War.” For all intents and purposes the fleet was a non-starter during the war. As for the sailors there was virtually nothing to go on, at least as far as a cursory search of English language sources goes. It is safe to assume that the Bulgarian Navy was essentially useless during the war with the result that it had become anonymous to history.  At least that is a logical explanation, but it still does not account for the fact that a world class museum in the heartland of America had rescued the tunic from obscurity.

A World Gone Mad
The most fascinating aspect of the tunic are the questions it has raised in my mind. Who gave it to the museum? How was it acquired? Was the donor a collector of obscure artifacts or a Bulgarian war veteran? Of the thousands of potential artifacts for display why did the museum decide to showcase a Bulgarian naval Officer’s tunic? The questions were many, but how and where to begin finding the answers? The most fascinating question for me is what does the Bulgarian naval officer’s tunic really represent? Does it somehow communicate the scope and scale of a far flung world war? How the war was fought not just in the trenches, but also on the high seas? Or how one hundred years ago in a world gone mad with militarism, in the process of committing suicide, small nations as well as large ones built military forces just to have them, no matter their usefulness or uselessness.




The Power of Propaganda – Tannenberg: More Than A Battle

Several years ago while planning a trip to Poland I looked into visiting the site of the famous World War I Battle of Tannenberg. This was a seminal event in the opening months of the war. In what is today northeastern Poland, the Germans surrounded and destroyed an entire Russian Army. It was one of the few tactically decisive battles of the war. Tannenberg has become the only well-known Eastern Front battle among those with even a cursory interest in the war. Surely, I thought for such an important event there would be a battlefield with historical markers or a visitor center to educate the curious. I soon discovered this not to be the case.

Map of the Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought over an area of hundreds of square kilometers

Lost In Space & Time – Finding Tannenberg
The problem with locating the Battle of Tannenberg is mostly one of space and time. The battle was fought across a sprawling expanse of countryside consisting of lakes and forests. It took a total of five days from start to finish. Trying to pin down a specific place and date for the decisive events is all but impossible. On the Russian side, there was more surrender than actual combat. The Russian forces ended up with 92,000 soldiers taken prisoner versus 78,000 killed and wounded. Not exactly the type of activity that gets a history buff’s heart racing. On the German side, tactical brilliance consisted of setting a trap and allowing the Russians to fall into it. There was nothing inherently dramatic about that. This was not a Napoleonic set piece battle, with two armies staring each other down. Instead it was a blundering, confused mess marked by chaos and confusion. In other words, it was mobile warfare distilled to its essence.

Since there was no dedicated visitor center or x marks the spot historic site, I surmised that the battle’s location would be at or near the village it was named for. That idea turned out to be problematic. First of all, the village of Tannenberg no longer exists on maps, since it is now located in Poland. The Polish name for the village is Stębark. Once I knew that, it was easy enough to locate the village on a map, but then it got really tricky. After a bit of research I discovered that the heaviest fighting and focal points of the battle did not take place near the village. Instead, they occurred about 20 miles (30 miles) further to the northwest, in the vicinity of the small city of Olsztyn (Allenstein). So why was the battle named for a town on the periphery of where it actually occurred? The reasons had to do with national and racial identity.

General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

Slaying the demons of Prussia’s past – a naked General Hindenburg fighting the Russian Bear on a commemorative medallion

What’s In A Name: Uses & Abuses
After the battle was won, the German high command sent their victorious dispatch from Tannenberg. It was around this time that it was decided that the battle should be named after the village. This was done to avenge a historic defeat the German’s forebears had suffered in the area over 500 years before. At the Battle of Grunwald (German name Battle of Tannenberg) in 1410 the Teutonic Knights were defeated by a Polish-Lithuanian force. It was a critical moment in the history of northeastern Europe, as it stopped the Knights’ expansion. With the rise of nationalism in the decades prior to World War I historic battles between Teuton and Slav were no longer just about the past. They were also used to influence the present. A policy of Germanization throughout Prussia brought about resistance from the Polish population. The Poles did not have the ability to fight the Germans militarily, so they held onto the next best thing, victories from many centuries before. German nationalists certainly noticed this. The victory of the German Army at Tannenberg avenged the Teutonic Knights loss. Even though it came against the Russians, they were also Slavs. No matter what nationality, Slavic peoples were seen as the common enemy of the German people.

Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934

The Power of Propaganda – Funeral of Paul Von Hindenburg at the Tannenberg Memorial in 1934 (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2006-0429-502)

The victory, presented the Germans with a golden opportunity to showcase their superiority. Henceforth, they referred to it as the Second Battle of Tannenberg. Never mind where the battle was actually fought, Tannenberg was close enough. This was just the beginning of the name’s usage for German propaganda purposes. After the First World War ended, a defeated Germany looked to victories in battle for solace. Tannenberg resonated with much of the populace and especially the far right. Thus, one of the two victorious German commanders from the battle, Erich Ludendorff used it as the name for his extreme right wing society, the Tannenbergbund. An even greater propaganda coup was the huge Tannenberg Memorial erected by Germany in 1924 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their glorious victory. Interestingly enough, the Memorial was not located at the village of Tannenberg. Instead it was placed at Olsztynek (in German Hohenstein) 5 kilometers away. It eventually housed the tomb of Paul Von Hindenburg, Ludendorff’s fellow victorious commander from the battle. Like everything else in this once solidly Prussian territory it was transformed by World War II. Hindenburg’s remains were evacuated to western Germany in order to avoid looting by the Red Army. The Nazi’s then set off charges to demolish parts of the memorial. Later the Soviets and Poles finished its destruction.

Monumental Remains – A Hidden Legacy
After several weeks’ worth of research I decided to skip visiting the Tannenberg battlefield. My problem was also one of space and time. It would have taken days to cover the areas where fighting occurred. There was little possibility of finding any tangible evidence of the battle. The only sites I could find were not associated with the battle, but instead the memorial. Its former location can be roughly discerned by rubble strewn about in a vacant field that outlines the site. There is also a bit of the old memorial’s stone and granite standing in the town square of Olsztynek today. It was used in the Soviet World War II memorial, a subliminal, hidden legacy of German militarism.

Settling Affairs Past & Present – Lemberg 1914, Lviv 2014

In the early hours of a chill winter morning last December I made my way by taxi to the train station in Lviv, Ukraine. I was bleary eyed, with a dull headache from a restless night’s sleep. It is always this way when I have an early departure. In this case my train, headed non-stop towards Budapest, was to leave the station at 5:45 a.m. I could not miss this train since it was the lone non-stop express into Hungary that day. My taxi surged through empty streets. The city was in a deep sleep, with dawn still hours away. Arriving at the station, I exited the cab. My attention was suddenly taken by all the activity in and around the station. Glancing about, I noticed groups of soldiers in fatigues, walking slowly towards the station. They were toting packed duffel bags. These soldiers were headed to the Ukraine’s far eastern reaches, to the war zone of the Donbas.

Lviv's Famous Railway Station

Lviv’s Famous Railway Station – since 1991 the flag of Ukraine has flown atop its dome (Credit: Benhaburg)

The War At Home
The fact that these soldiers were disembarking from the most “Ukrainian city in the Ukraine” to points east should not have been that surprising. Here in the most nationalistic part of Ukraine soldiers were heading off to combat, fighting to save a distant part of their country. The war was on the other side of the country, but if a separatist onslaught was not stopped in the Donbas Region now, it might conceivably reach the doorsteps of Kiev or Lviv in due course. I looked at these men, wondering to myself, how many had seen combat before? Were they conscripts, professionals or volunteers? How many would come back alive? How could they look so calm and nonchalant? Surely they must have known the same things as I did.

The war against Russian backed separatists was a terrible mess. Ukrainian forces were barely holding on to Donetsk. Men were wounded or dying every day. I looked at these soldiers and thought will courage and luck be with them. They were stocky, well built, but otherwise regular men. I wanted to reach out and touch them. Just to see if they were real, because their presence made the war real for me. The war was suddenly no longer lines on a map, news stories from the Kyiv Post or International New York Times or grainy YouTube videos with muffled explosions and shouts of Slavic words. No these were real men, leaving a real place, heading off to a real war. I would travel back to Hungary on that day and a little later fly home. These soldiers might never come home. This could be the last time they would see their hometown. Here I was walking only a few yards apart from men who a month from now might no longer exist, be badly wounded or left with psychological scars for life. Suddenly the war felt very close.

Hours before dawn - the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

Hours before dawn – the Hours before dawn – the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

A Russian Front – Unsettling Affairs
Lviv has a majestic, eclectically elegant domed train station. It is so grand and imperial that it is hard to believe that the building would ever have anything to do with war, especially in 21st century Europe. The station looks more like the type of place eternally waiting to greet the ghost of Franz Josef or some other important administrator, arriving to survey the far flung reaches of empires lost long ago. If such a dignitary were to have somehow traveled forward in time to that chilly December morning, they might not have been so shocked by the sight of soldiers at the station speaking in a Slavic tongue. After all, a century before exactly this same situation had occurred. There had even been an American witness. The only difference was that the soldiers were not Ukrainians going to fight Russians, but Russians occupying what was to eventually become part of Ukraine.

The surreal symmetry of this history came home to me when I stumbled across “Field Notes From The Russian Front” by Stanley Washburn, an American journalist working as a correspondent for the London Times on the Eastern Front during the First World War. One of the chapters deals with his experiences in Lemberg (as Lviv was then known). Following the Russian takeover of the city after the Austro-Hungarian retreat, Washburn arrives at the train station to find soldiers everywhere.  “We arrived at three in the morning. The great waiting-room was packed with sleeping soldiers, while the dim light revealed the various baggage-rooms crammed with scores of coated figures sleeping beside their stacked rifles. The first-class dining-room is a hospital, and filled to the doors with stretchers and cots on which the wounded are waiting to be transferred from one train to another, or else to be removed to one of the local hospitals in the town. From the second-class waiting-room all benches have been removed, and there only remains one big table, used for hurried operations that cannot be delayed. At every door and in every passage sentries stand with fixed bayonets.”

Obviously what I saw was very different from the scene Washburn witnessed. There were no sick or wounded. The Ukrainian soldiers were not occupying the station, they were leaving it. Yet the fact that the station was once again crowded with soldiers, shows that war still casts a long shadow over this region, as do Russian actions. The fact that men gathering at Lviv’s train station were heading off to face forces backed by Russia, shows that the Great War fought a century ago did not manage to settle, but rather unsettle affairs in Ukraine. If anything, the Battle of Galicia in 1914 inaugurated an era that threw the region into a chaotic upheaval which is still playing out today. Russian occupation was temporary at that time and later Soviet occupation lasted less than fifty years. The Russians see Ukraine as their backyard, but they are far from getting near Lviv or anywhere else in the western half of the country.

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914 (Credit: Ihor Kotlobulatov)

Turning Enemies Into Enemies
The Russian occupation of Galicia in 1914 was heavy handed. They managed to alienate a Ukrainian populace that spoke a relatively similar language. As Alexander Watson shows in Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I The People’s War, “The Tsarist army’s attempt to retake Galicia as a Russian land was a disaster. People who had once sympathized with the Tsar’s pan-Slavic aims were alienated by his army’s brutality and religious intolerance.”  A hundred years later, the Russians have managed once again to turn the overriding majority of ethnic Ukrainians against them. Russia sees Ukraine, even the western portion as part of its sphere of influence. Yet it is hard to see any Russia influence here that has not been a bad one. Not so long ago Galicia and Lemberg were crawling with Russian soldiers. Now that region and the city at its heart are sending soldiers to fight against Russia. There are parallels with the not so distant past here, but there are also irreconcilable differences. Ukrainian men were leaving their homes behind before dawn on a dark December day to try and settle such differences. I saw it for myself that chill winter morning.