Victory Indistinguishable From Defeat – The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive (Part Two)

On May 2nd, the opening bombardment for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive started at the light of dawn. Over the next four hours, the Germans let loose a torrent of 700,000 shells. This was followed by a new tactical twist, as German storm troopers moved forward. The storm troopers were able to wreak havoc and chaos as they got behind enemy lines. When the Russians turned to face them, they were confronted with another wave of attackers on what a few hours earlier had been their front. Resistance was feeble. The German General Hermann Von Francois wrote of the hellish scene that unfolded as the battle began in earnest, “North of Gorlice a thick column of fire sprang up, as high as the houses, black masses of smoke swept up into the clouds. It was a gripping unforgettable spectacle. The tanks of an oil refinery had been ignited, either by our fire or perhaps deliberately by the Russians.”  Scenes such as this were common all along the 30 mile front of the attack. The Russian Third Army collapsed. In two days no less than six divisions were totally ruined. One Russian corps, the 24th, lost nearly all of its 40,000 men. A week after the offensive had begun, Russian losses ran upwards of 210,000, with one-third killed or wounded, while the other two-thirds had been captured.

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice - the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice – the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German Steamroller/Russian Collapse – The Front Moves Further East
This was just the beginning. The German 11th Army poured into the gaping hole they had opened through the Russian lines. For their part, the Russians futilely attempted a retreat. The chaos led to tens of thousands more Russian soldiers surrendering. On June 3rd, just a month after the offensive’s start, the fortress of Przemysl, which the Russians had taken in March only after a six month siege, was surrendered by them with scarcely a fight. On June 22nd, Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine today), the fourth largest city in Austria-Hungary was recovered. The pre-war borders were now reestablished. An offensive that had begun in order to relieve the beleaguered Austro-Hungarian forces in the Carpathian Mountains and keep the Russians from breaking into the Great Hungarian Plain had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams. The Russians were forced to not only pull back from the Carpathians, but they continued to retreat eastward. The German steamroller had advanced an average of ten miles a day during the offensive. It now looked like the war on the Eastern Front might be headed to a decisive and dramatic conclusion.

A big problem loomed for the Germans though. The vast spaces of the front made it increasingly difficult for the Germans to resupply their troops so far beyond their initial starting point. They soon put out peace feelers to the Russians, as they hoped to knock Russia out of the war and refocus their efforts on France. Russian Tsar Nicholas II stubbornly maintained his loyalty to the allies and refused to negotiate. This was one of two colossally bad decisions he would make during the summer of 1915. The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive was over, but a full scale attack on the Russian Eastern Front sector was about to begin. The German high command now took the opportunity to use the success of the offensive to make a general attack against the Polish salient, a bulge in the Russian lines that had been created in 1914. The south side of the salient had been undermined by the offensive. Starting on July 13th new attacks took place on the north, west and southeastern sides of the salient. A total Russian collapse seemed eminent.

Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice

The Little That Was Left – A Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

Temporary Victors/Ultimate Losers – Putting Gorlice-Tarnow In Context
On August 4th Warsaw, the capital of Russian Poland, surrendered without a fight. Fortresses at Kovno and Brest-Litovsk, among several others capitulated. By September 18th when the fortress at Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) surrender to German forces the rout was complete. The German and Austro-Hungarian forces had pushed the Eastern Front 500 kilometers (310 miles) back. This unprecedented outcome became known as the Great Retreat to the Russians. They had suffered 500,000 casualties and nearly a million had been captured. The loss of men was matched by the loss of material. Whole swathes of the countryside were burned and bridges destroyed by retreating Russian troops. Polish Jews became scapegoats as thousands were murdered, raped or robbed. This was the unknown Holocaust twenty-five years before a more infamous one would take place. The Germans inherited a wasteland. The Russian Army’s disaster became known as the Great Retreat. Yet the Russians refused to settle for a negotiated peace. Paradoxically, the retreat in many ways strengthened their overall strategic position. There was no salient to defend, as their lines were now straight. The front line had also been shortened from 1,600 (960) to under a thousand kilometers (600 miles). The German supply lines were beyond their limits. Russia had men, material and space to spare, for now.

The worst outcome for the Russian Empire could not be foreseen at the time.  In the midst of the retreat Tsar Nicholas II dismissed Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as Chief of Staff of the Army. He now assumed supreme command of all Russian forces. This was a fatal decision. He would now bear the brunt of blame for anything that went wrong with the Russian war effort. This was a crucial decision that eventually helped lead to revolution and eventually cost the Romanov Dynasty its very existence. Gorlice-Tarnow and the general offensive which followed was not the death knell of the Russian war effort, but it was an unmitigated disaster. For the Germans and Austro-Hungarians it was a pyrrhic victory. It gave them a false sense of confidence that they were winning the war. In actuality they were only winning battles and offensives that led them deeper into an eastern oblivion.

Kriegsfriedhof (German) World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice

German & Austro-Hungarian forces sustained 87,000 casualties during the offensive -Kriegsfriedhof World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

The Ultimate Outcome –A Microcosm Of The Eastern Front
A Google news search for Gorlice-Tarnow around the centenary brought up a lone English language article about a reenactment of the battle in Poland. It was a minor affair. At best it provided some entertainment for the locals and created a bit of awareness of the catastrophe which occurred in their backyard long ago. The reality is that no reenactment can do justice to the destruction wrought upon the area by the offensive. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians counted it as a glorious victory, but lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the campaign. They gained nothing, but territory that was filled with people who opposed them only a little less than they did the Russians. Seen this way, Gorlice-Tarnow was much like the ultimate outcome of the Great War on the Eastern Front, a case where victory was scarcely distinguishable from defeat.

 

The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Forgotten Breakthrough (Part One)

The centenary of the Great War is now in its second year. After highly publicized ceremonies to commemorate the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the resulting lead up to and outbreak of war, remembrances have been much fewer. There has been an uptick of late with the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign and the Armenian Genocide, but by and large commemorative events are no longer front and center in the media’s or public’s consciousness. To be sure 2016 will be host to major ceremonies that commemorate the centennials of the Battles at Verdun and the Somme. Conversely, the current year 2015, lacks many signature events. Look a bit closer though and a century ago, in May 1915, a landmark offensive took place. The centennial of that event offers an opportunity to reflect on both the most successful advance and greatest retreat of the war.  The offensive occurred on the often overlooked Eastern Front, between the Galician cities of Gorlice and Tarnow. These localities proscribed the boundaries of a stunningly successful attack, that exploded and expanded from a narrow start into an offensive the likes of which would never be seen again in the war. The consequences of the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign were long lasting and led to an event that would change the war forever.

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the  World War I battle

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the World War I battle

The Unknown War – Gorlice-Tarnow & The Eastern Front
A Google search of “Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive” yields only 10,500 results. By way of comparison, a search of “Gallipoli Campaign” gives 426,000 results. The 2nd Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Isonzo both show 229,000 results. To say that the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive has been overlooked is a classic understatement. Unknown might be an even better description. No less a personage than Winston Churchill named his 1931 history of the Eastern Front in World War I, The Unknown War. This was an apt description both then and now. Conversely, historians that have studied the Eastern Front are aware of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive’s importance. Norman Stone in his seminal work The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 says, “The six weeks’ campaign turned out to be one of the greatest victories of the war.” Hew Strachen in The First World War makes the bold statement that, “Mackensen and Seeckt (the Commanding General and Chief of Staff of the offensive) were the most successful double-act in the German Army in the First World War.

The fact of the matter is that Gorlice-Tarnow was an unmatched achievement. Yet the gulf between knowledge of the war and the offensive’s shattering ramifications are huge. Of course, the Eastern Front of World War I is scarcely studied by English language historians. Places such as Gorlice and Tarnow seem to belong to another world. Perhaps it is the size of the front that swallows all attempts to comprehend it. Language is a strikingly difficult barrier for even the most gifted of historians to overcome. Then there is the fact that the three empires involved: the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian all ceased to exist by the end of the war. Despite such obstacles to historical knowledge, the offensive was a landmark at the time and still stands out today.

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Tough, Sturdy & Totally Helpless – Peasants To The Slaughter
The name given to the offensive comes from the city of Tarnow and the town of Gorlice. The war did Gorlice no favors as it was utterly destroyed in battle and would later have to be rebuilt. The main thrust of attack came in the area between these two locales. It was delivered by the German 11th Army with help from the Austro-Hungarian 3rd and 4th Armies. The German 11th Army was created prior to the offensive. It was a fine example of the German High Command’s ability to improvise in order to provide the troops needed to carry out operations. The soldiers used to create the 11th Army were taken from existing Western Front regiments and supplemented with new recruits. Though the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were greatly outnumbered by Russian forces, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive mitigated these factors with a high degree of innovation. The German and Austro-Hungarian commanders selected an area of weakness to attack, the Russian 3rd Army.

On the verge - soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

On the verge – soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

These Russian troops were largely illiterate, ill-equipped and incompetently led. This was an army made up primarily of peasants, tough, sturdy and totally helpless when confronted by industrial weaponry on the field of battle. Many were raw recruits, lucky to even have a full uniform. Tens of thousands did not carry rifles, simply because they had not been given one. At this point in the war, for every four recruits there was one rifle being produced by the Russian war effort. The only option was for soldiers to take a rifle from one of their dead or wounded comrades in the midst of battle. Then there was the Russian trench system along this part of the front. These were little more than rifle pits. If this was not bad enough, the attackers had a tremendous advantage in artillery. According to historian Hew Strachan, “The Central Powers collected 334 heavy guns to 4 Russian, 1,272 guns to 675 and 96 trench mortars to none…the densest concentration of the war so far: one heavy gun every 132 yards and one field gun every 45 yards.” The result would be a massacre, quickly followed by breakthrough and breakout.

Click Here To Read The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Great Retreat (Part Two)

Without History or Memory – The Battle of Lake Naroch

To both western and eastern Europeans, the Battle of Lake Naroch does not exist. Knowledge at best is limited to a few obsessive World War I aficionados squirreled away in a campus basement of the Russian studies department. At best, they might mention the battle as one of many examples for the gross mismanagement of the war by the Russian Empire.

For those unfamiliar with the Battle of Lake Naroch, it occurred in late March of 1916. The Russian Empire had been asked by their allies, specifically the French, to relieve the massive pressure being placed upon it by the German attack on Verdun. The Russians were not exactly in the best shape to mount an offensive at this time.  They were suffering from an acute shell shortage while in the process of recovering from the defeat inflicted upon them in the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign the previous year. Nevertheless, they agreed to an operation which would draw German forces away from Verdun to the Eastern Front.

Lake Naroch

Lake Naroch

The Worst Time of the Year
Too say that early spring was not the best time of the year for the Russians to stage an offensive would be an understatement. Actually, it is hard to imagine a worse time in western Russia to mount an offensive than the late winter/early spring. This is when the annual thaw takes place. After long, bitter months of cold, the first hints of spring arrive in fits and starts. The frozen ground begins to slowly dissolve into a watery muck. Lake Naroch is located in what is today western Belarus, an area known for its swampy, marsh laden ground. The slush filled muck which materializes each spring brings impassable conditions. Add to this, the fact that Russian roads were notoriously awful, little more than vague tracks in many places. Even good metaled roads would disappear beneath an icy syrup of muddy water. Offensive operations in this environment were nearly impossible.

The Germans opposing the Russians on the Eastern Front understood this. The common Russian soldier who experienced this wasteland first hand must have realized this as well. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership did not. Tsar Nicholas II felt that it was important to support his allies no matter what the cost (this was part of the reason he would lose his throne). The Russian commanders at the front were neither resourceful nor logical. They treated the brave, peasant soldiery with contempt and felt no compassion for these men. This led to one of the worst disasters in a Russian war effort that was filled with them.

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

Five Times the Casualties
The strategy and tactics of the Battle of Lake Naroch need not detain us for long. A few telling details and anecdotes will suffice. Consider that Russian forces outnumbered their German counterparts by three and a half to one, but sustained five times the casualties. Five times! On the very first day of the battle, the Russians lost 4,000 men compared to 200 for the Germans. How did this happen? During the day, Russian soldiers assaulted German positions defended with heavy artillery and machine guns that were calibrated with deadly accuracy. The Russian soldiers did not so much assault as wade into battle. At times, they were up to their wastes in frigid water. Then at night, temperatures would plunge below freezing, cementing the troops to the ground. Companies froze in place and had to be cut out of the ice. They were riven with frostbite. The official figure of 100,000 wounded for the Russians is only a rough approximation. There was no accounting for those who due to hypothermia, frostbite or sickness were rendered useless.

Swallowed by Space and Time
The Battle of Lake Naroch was a disaster, but a relatively unknown one. It could be called “missing history,” as it falls into an abyss of space and time unique to Russia. It was swallowed in the vast spaces of the Eastern Front, where large battles with untold casualties took place. Much of this has been lost to history, as historical consciousness has never really grasped the sheer breadth and brutality of this front. Lost in that space as well, a vast sea of humanity that drowned or froze in the marshes, swamps and slate gray waters of Lake Naroch.

The battle was also lost in time, as it was swept away by the whirlwind of the Bolshevik Revolution. The valor and tragedy so indicative of the Russian soldiers experience in the First World War at battles such as Lake Naroch was eventually written out of the history books. According to the Bolsheviks, these imperialist forces were fighting for the wrong cause, not one worth dying for. Yet the Bolsheviks failed to mention that without the folly of this war, without those men wading into those icy waters, there would have been no revolution.

Missing History
Perhaps the Battle of Lake Naroch is most notable today for what it represents, as opposed to what actually occurred. It represents the folly of war, good men dying for a lost cause. The battle also represents a Russia today – the largest nation in the world – that can be searched across all eight of its times zones, but does not have one official monument to the eight million men who died fighting in the First World War. Now that is truly “missing history.” What a shame that the Battle of Lake Naroch is unknown to the west, what an even greater tragedy that it is unknown to Russia.