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.

The Strain of Success – Alexei Kaledin & Nervous Breakdown on the Eastern Front

During World War One many commanders were driven to the limits of sanity by the stress of battle. Campaigns would last for months on end and result in little to no success. Even a commander as accomplished as Erich Ludendorff, who had led the German Army to some magnificent victories earlier in the war, cracked under the collective strain caused from managing a war seemingly without end. Famously, on September 28th Ludendorff collapsed as he came to the shocking realization that the Germans were going to lose the war. Witnesses said that he fell to the floor and began frothing at the mouth. Ludendorff had suffered a nervous breakdown at the supreme moment of crisis for Germany. The unyielding stress of constant campaigning destroyed men both physically and psychologically. In Ludendorff’s case the latter led to the former. He was reduced to a blathering shell of his once supremely confident (or arrogant) self. It is understandable how a commander of the defeated side could end up in such a mental state. More revealing as to the nature of the war was the rarer instance when a commander cracked under the strain of success. During World War I, the brutal nature of the fighting so conditioned field commanders to an unceasing war of attrition that after a couple of years many of them no longer believed a resounding victory was even possible.

Russian troops on the attack during the Brusilov Offensive

Russian troops on the attack during the Brusilov Offensive

Inventing Victory – Brusilov’s Offensive
Nowhere was this truer than in the Russian Army. In 1915 the Russians were involved in what came to be known as The Great Retreat. Between June and September of that year they were forced into a retreat hundreds of miles eastward due to a devastating offensive by the German led Central Powers. Russian losses during this time totaled over two million men. Yet if there was one thing the Russians had it was men. By the middle of 1916, the Russian Army had lost a mind boggling five and half million soldiers, yet they could still summon armies with hundreds of thousands of new recruits. At this point in the war, the Russians were hoping the weight of numbers would eventually defeat their enemies. They were no longer looking for a brilliant tactical victory. Their strategy was to just hold on in the belief that the weight of Russian numbers would eventually force the Germans and Austro-Hungarians to sue for peace. The idea of success had changed dramatically since the beginning of the war. Victory had a much different meaning after only two years of fighting.

Such was the thinking up until the shockingly successful Brusilov Offensive in June 1916. The Russian army was used to incurring casualties at a horrifying rate. This was due to a tactical doctrine which valued mass human wave attacks on narrow sectors in the hope of a breakthrough. The brave Russian peasant soldiers were mowed down by machine gun and artillery fire. Russia’s military leadership planned on continuing these lethal tactics. Troop levels were boosted to the extent where the Russian forces would soon outnumber the enemy by almost a million soldiers. Nevertheless, many of their generals did not believe that this would be enough to break through the enemy lines. One who believed otherwise was Alexei Brusilov. He commanded Russian forces on the southwestern sector of the Eastern Front. His forces did not have the numerical superiority that other Russian commanders enjoyed further north. Brusilov was forced by necessity to innovate new tactics based on detailed advance preparation, precision artillery bombardments and the use of assault troops to exploit breakthroughs. This tactical doctrine worked wonders as it led to the most successful Russian offensive of the entire war.

Map showing the initial advance of Kaledin's 8th Army - It could have been so much more

Map showing the initial advance of Kaledin’s 8th Army – It could have been so much more

Enemies of Imagination – Kaledin & The Psychology of Defeat
On June 4th the Russian Eighth Army commanded by Alexei Kaledin – a subordinate of Brusilov – surged forward after a sensationally precise bombardment against the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army. The bombardment cut over fifty gaps in the barbed wire. Through these exposed gaps poured the assault troops which quickly overran the Austro-Hungarian front line. Soon they were upon the second line of trenches, which had been thrown into chaos by the sudden swiftness of the Russian attack. The defense was no more successful. By the time, the Russians reached the third line the Austro-Hungarian soldiers were in full flight, proceeded only by their officers. The Austro-Hungarian leadership was in shock, they had never experienced such a finely executed attack by Russian forces. Within a matter of days, the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army was either, dead, wounded or had been taken prisoner. At the start of the battle, the Fourth Army had numbered 150,000, after just four days there were only 27,000 men left in its ranks. It was an incredible breakthrough, but strangely enough the Austro-Hungarians were not the only ones in shock. Kaledin was just as stunned by the victory. He had counseled against attack in the first place. Now that he was staring victory in the face, his nerves were totally frayed. As the historian Norman Stone relates, “Kaledin practically had a nervous breakdown at the extent of his own victory, suspecting that there must be a trap somewhere….A combination of real and imagined weakness stopped Kaledin’s offensive just when it was on the threshold of a gigantic victory.” This was remarkable. Kaledin’s Army had finally found success, now an even greater victory was there for the taking. All he had to do was push onward, yet he found this impossible.

Enemies began to appear in his imagination, all the more powerful since they were not real. He believed the Germans would strike the Eighth army’s northern flank, roll it up and possibly destroy his army. After all, a similar thing had happened to him the year before. Conversely, a dramatic breakthrough was not something Kaledin had experienced. How could this be possible? It must be a trick or a trap. An entire German army was somewhere hidden in the vast spaces of the Eastern Front waiting to strike. Kaledin was wrong, but the enemies in his mind proved tougher to overcome than those in the field. As the Eighth Army’s forward movement stalled in order to bring up reserves, Kaledin convinced Brusilov that another success was impossible. In Kaledin’s mind it certainly was, even though the success of his own army had put the lie to his worries. Brusilov tried to get Russian troops further north of Kaledin’s Eighth Army to go on the attack. Their commander, Alexei Evert did not have an attack of nerves, instead he believed that victory was impossible despite commanding a massive army that outnumbered the opposition by 800,000 on his end of the front.  Success proved impossible because Evert stalled, came up with a litany of excuses and finally had his force make a half-hearted attack which inevitably failed. An incredible opportunity to put the Austro-Hungarian Army out of the war on the Eastern Front had been lost. The Germans reinforced the front with stouter resistance. Brusilov shifted his attack further south. Kaledin’s nerves calmed, he would no longer have to deal with success or imagined defeat. A historic opportunity had vanished.

General Alexei Kaledin - success caused his nerves to fail him

General Alexei Kaledin – success caused his nerves to fail him

Moment of Surrender – Kaledin’s Nerves
For all of its initial success, the Brusilov Offensive ground down into a quagmire over the next several months. The Russians had gained thousands of square miles in territory, but this was not much of a victory for an empire that had plenty of land to spare. They had been on the verge of destroying the Austro-Hungarian Army. Such an outcome would have transformed the Eastern Front. Instead they ended up only gaining some of what they had lost the year before and these gains would soon be lost again. The Russian war effort was characterized by waste and futility, but the Brusilov offensive was much more than this. It was the one moment during the war where they could have dealt the Austro-Hungarians a mortal blow and at the same time grievously wounded the German war effort. It was not failure that undid this offensive, it was success. Alexei Kaledin’s nerves were shattered by just the opposite of what he had expected. Success was staring him right in the face and the best he could do was turn away.

Death Knell for the Central Powers – The Battle of Dobro Pole

Serbia was at the heart of the troubled Balkan region during the 20th century. Its influence in political and military affairs was pervasive in the area and ended up having an effect far beyond its own borders. It is hardly surprising to find Serbian involvement in two of the most important events of World War One. The one at the beginning is famously well-known, while the other which helped lead to the war’s conclusion is almost entirely forgotten today. The first event which sparked the war is world famous. A Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.

This set off what has become known as the July Crisis, where diplomatic efforts failed and the Great Powers ended up on opposing sides based largely on treaty commitments. By the end of that month, artillery shells were falling on Belgrade, as Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. What flowed from there was a war that expanded across much of Europe, the Middle East, Asia Minor and the High Seas. The blood of millions was spilled on fields of battle that are still recalled with horror today. Such battles as Tannenburg, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme and Paschendaele evoke memories of massive clashes over weeks or months. All of these were indecisive in either a tactical or strategic sense. Yet they have helped define the war, though none of them decided it.

The Way To Skopje & Victory

The Way To Skopje & Victory

Lost to Memory – The Defining Moment of Victory & Defeat
It is difficult to recall one battle that brought the war to an end or even the beginning of the end. Battles were subsumed within campaigns. The Allied offensive that finally was able to roll the Germans inexorably backward during the late summer of 1918 seems to be more a prolonged push rather than a rout. The Allied blockade that slowly squeezed the life out of Imperial Germany is symptomatic of the lack of a singular, triumphant event. Neither quick nor tidy, its success was based upon duration. As for the armistice of November 11, 1918, this final defeat of the Central Powers was more an agreement, than an infliction.

It as though World War I lacks that one defining moment where triumph is finally crystallized. Perhaps that is a proper coda to a war which caused such widespread destruction of men and material. Because such a moment is so hard to define, it also means looking in less obvious places.  Searching beyond the Western Front also means looking at other theaters of the war. Was there a forgotten battle of historical significance that has been overlooked?

The name Dobro Pole scarcely comes to mind when memorable battles of World War I are discussed.  The name sounds cryptic. It could be almost anywhere or anything. Actually it means “Good Field”  just the opposite of what it actually was for the Bulgars defending it. Conversely, it was a very good field for the Allied “Army of the Orient.” An unforgettable scene would unfold high up in the Moglenitsa Mountains stretching across central Macedonia. A scene which no one could have predicted based upon what had occurred on this part of the Balkan Front over the eighteen months prior to the battle.

Soldiers waiting in their trenches on the Macedonia Front

Soldiers waiting in their trenches on the Macedonia Front

Southeastern Approaches – Appearances of Deadly Deception
The much maligned Army of the Orient consisted of a polyglot force of Serbs, French, British, Greeks and Italians. Their most notable hallmarks were complacency and mismanagement. Only through slow and haphazard efforts had they gained a bit of ground from their original base at the Aegean coastal port of Salonika. Attempts to dislodge the Bulgarians from the position in foothills and mountains had made only tepid progress. Four attacks by the Allies over the past eighteen months had been miserable failures. The rest of the time, the Army of the Orient tried with little success to fend off the dual scourges of malaria and boredom. Meanwhile, the Bulgars were also plagued with morale issues and limited food rations. Their front line was stout, but beyond these troops was an armed rabble of starving reservists. Nonetheless, the high ground was well fortified and the Bulgarians were still the one major European Army that had avoided defeat in the war. It record was unblemished and looked as though it would stay that way.

Appearances in this case were not just deceiving, but in the Bulgarian case turned out to be deadly. During the summer of 1918 the Allies began to prepare for what would become a remarkable offensive. Specifically, Serbian and French forces worked under the cover of night for two weeks to push, pull and lift artillery into positions up to heights of 7,700 feet in the Moglenitsa Mountains. From here they would be able to unload devastating barrages on the Bulgarians. The Bulgars unwittingly believed that their fortifications were impregnable. Even the German officers and troops sprinkled in to stiffen the Bulgarians spine did not believe the Allied forces would attack the rocky slopes, precipices and peaks covering the area. Yet that was exactly what they intended to do.

Serbian soldiers on the Macedonian Front

Serbian soldiers on the Macedonian Front

In & Above the Clouds – The Battle of Dobro Pole
The Allies had set their sights on Dobro Pole, a broken ridge six miles in length that ran between the Sokol and Ventrenik, names which respectively meant hawk and wind swept one. These were apt pseudonyms for land forms that were in and above the clouds. The common belief up to this point on the Macedonian Front was that an attack on this area would be suicidal. It was steep, heavily fortified and offered the enemy open fields of fire. Conversely, if the Allies did somehow manage to take Dobro Pole, the entire Bulgarian defenses might entirely collapse. It offered an opportunity to unhinge the entire Bulgarian defended part of the front. The risk was worth taking.

At 5:30 a.m. on September 15th, just as dawn was breaking over the high peaks of the Moglentisa, the French and Serbian artillery began to rain shells onto the exposed Bulgarian positions. The barrage was part of an eighteen hundred gun, storm of shot and shell stretching for over a hundred miles across the entire front. It was the greatest assemblage of artillery on the entire Balkan Front during the war. The thunderous roar shook the mountain sides softening the Bulgarian defenses The Bulgars were able to withstand the initial barrage. Dobro Pole would have to be conquered by foot soldiers. Serbian forces slowly fought their way up the steep slopes. The closer they got the more ferocious and frequent the Bulgarian counterattacks, five were launched in a matter of hours. The inhospitable landscape had once only been the haunt of goats and shepherds, now the Serbs and French followed in their footsteps. The machine gun nests of the enemy unleashed a deadly torrent. The Serbs had to use flamethrowers to finally root out the defenders. In the early afternoon, eight hours after they had begun, Dobro Pole was surprisingly conquered. The Bulgarian front line had been breached.

The Way To Skopje – The Way To Victory
The same process was repeated in other areas all along the front. What lay beyond the first formidable defenses was the fragile Bulgarian second line, filled with those starving reservists. They offered scant resistance. Two days after Dobro Pole fell, the Allies had managed to carve a salient six miles deep and twenty miles wide into the enemy lines and this was just the start. Ten days after the offensive had begun the Serbs took Gradsko, the main communications center for the Central Powers along the front. Now the German commanders were unable to coordinate a defense with their Bulgarian counterparts. The breakthrough continued at an incredible pace for what had been heretofore one of the most static fronts of the entire war. On September 29th, the city of Skopje and its important rail yard fell to French and Serbian forces. Meanwhile on the eastern end of the front, British forces had managed to break out as well. The Bulgarians were in full retreat. The Germans had no other recourse, but to abandon this ill-fated area of the Balkans.

Erich Ludendorff in 1918 - his look only got worse

Erich Ludendorff in 1918 – his look only got worse

Beyond All Repair – The Ramifications of Dobro Pole
For the once mocked Army of the Orient, the road to Budapest and Vienna lay open. In just two weeks the entire course of the war had changed. Bulgaria sued for peace. An armistice was granted on September 30th.  The Bulgars, once a bulwark of the Central Powers, had been decisively defeated. It would not be long until the others surrendered as well. The Battle of Dobro Pole was a tipping point. What had been thought all but impossible, the conquest of this high mountain area had been brought about by planning, surprise and innovative tactics. With its fall the Bulgars were suddenly exposed. Their rugged façade had finally cracked and what lay beyond offered little to no resistance.

Unlike other World War I battles, there were no tens of thousands of casualties to count and victory was no longer measured by a few hundred meters. It was a resounding and resonant triumph, the ramifications widespread. No less a historic personage than Erich Ludendorff, the overall commander of German forces at the time, said that the collapse of the Macedonian Front spurred by the loss at Dobro Pole was the worst day of the war for him. On September 28th just as Skopje was on the verge of being captured, Ludendorff collapsed to the ground, began foaming at the mouth and suffered a nervous breakdown. He must have known that Bulgaria would soon surrender and worse was yet to come. The battle of Dobro Pole and its resulting effects damaged the Central Powers beyond all repair.