* Dates: 17 August 1914 -
20 August 1914 - Gumbinnen
* Background: For Germany's "Von Schlieffen Plan" to succeed on the Western Front, Chief of General Staff Helmuth von Moltke and his advisors were counting on two primary factors falling into place in the eastern theater of operations: firstly, that the Russians would not be completely mobilized for up to three months, and secondly, if the invasion did occur, that the 80-mile natural barrier formed by the Masurian Lakes, along with the powerful fortifications near K÷nigsberg (Kaliningrad), would allow von Prittwitz's Eighth Army to hold the Russians off until the French were defeated.
At France's desperate urging, however, the Russians prematurely ordered its first and second armies to begin its advance into East Prussia on 13 August, well before logistical support was established and before their overall mobilization was even one-third complete. And, just as German intelligence expected would eventually happen, Rennenkampf's First Army moved west toward the Insterburg Gap, while Samsonov's Second Army attempted to circle around the Germans to the south, on a march through Poland. On 17 August, ready or not, Rennenkampf crossed the frontier near Stallup÷nen, initiating the war's first engagement on the Eastern Front. Three days later, the Russians and Germans once again squared off at Gumbinnen.
|* The Germans: Eighth Army leader Generaloberst Max von
Prittwitz und Gaffron, with well over 200,000 troops under his command, decided to quickly concentrate his forces near Insterburg,
leaving one corps at Allenstein to cover any advance by Samsonov from the south
and sending General of Infantry Hermann von Franšois's I. Corps from nearby K÷nigsberg
to plug the gap
at Stallup÷nen. Von Moltke's greatest fear was that the Eighth Army would have
to withdraw westward beyond the Vistula River.
Von Franšois' family was originally from Normandy. They fled to Germany during the Huguenot persecution, and both of his grandfathers ended up serving as generals in the the Prussian Army. Following the Battle of Tannenberg, von Franšois briefly commanded the Eighth Army, and then finished out the war as a corps level general
I. Army Corps
Infanterie Hermann von Franšois
|1st Infantry Division||
Generalleutnant Richard von Conta
1st Infantry Brigade
(Grenadier Regt 1, Infantry Regt 41)
2nd Infantry Brigade
(Grenadier Regt 3, Infantry Regt 43)
Uhlan Regt 8
1st Field Artillery Brigade
(Field Arty Regts 16 & 52)
Pioneer Bn 1 - 1st Coy
|2nd Infantry Division||
Generalleutnant Adalbert von Falk
3rd Infantry Brigade
(Grenadier Regt 4, Infantry Regt 44)
4th Infantry Brigade
(Fusilier Regt 33, Infantry Regt 45)
Jńger zu Pferde Regt 10
2nd Field Artillery Brigade
(Field Arty Regts 1 & 37)
Pioneer Bn 1 - 2nd & 3rd Coys
Bn Foot Artillery Regt (heavy field howitzers)
Aviation Det 14
Corps Pontoon Train 1
Telephone Det 1
Pioneer Searchlight Sect 7
Munition Columns and Train
* The Battle of Stallup÷nen: The Germans initially had at least three advantages in their favor: Rennenkampf's inexplicable tendency to not use his cavalry for reconnoitering German positions, the Russian practice of not encrypting communications, and probably most importantly, Rennenkampf and Samsonov's lack of cooperation due to an intense personal hatred of each other. Although these issues factored more heavily during the Tannenberg engagement, they also helped slow the initial Russian parry into East Prussia. Upon crossing the frontier on 17 August, elements of Rennenkampf's center (III. Corps) unexpectedly ran into the ready and waiting units of von Franšois' forces near Stallup÷nen (present day Nesterov, Russia). The German counterattack pushed the advance Russian troops back toward the border with the loss of over 3,000 men. Although the Russian First Army was a confused mass of soldiers at this point, Franšois was ordered to withdraw to Gumbinnen, about 25 km to the west, where the bulk of the Eighth Army was positioning itself defensively behind the Angerapp River. This allowed Rennenkampf's men to regroup, and on 18 August, they continued their westward advance to Insterburg (Chernachovsk).
By 19 August, the Russians had passed by Stallup÷nen and were now approaching the town of Gumbinnen (present day Gusev, Russia). Although von Prittwitz was expecting the Russians to attack that next morning, on the night of the 19th, his listening posts intercepted Russian communications which revealed that Rennenkampf's forces were to stay put. Prittwitz became a bit nervous at this, given that the Russian Second Army was now supposedly crossing the border on their advance toward Allenstein (Olsztyn, Poland). General von Franšois was thus able to convince Prittwitz that the Germans should take the attack to Rennenkampf.
* The Battle of Gumbinnen: On the morning of 20 August, von Prittwitz attacked with Franšois' I. Corps on the left, Mackensen's XVII. Corps in the center, and Otto von Below's I. Reserve Corps on the right. Von Franšois boldly led his troops to crush the Russian XX. Corps, driving them almost back to Stallup÷nen with heavy losses. Mackensen's XVII. Corps, however, was repulsed by the Russian III. Corps, while von Below's I. Reserves fought to a draw with IV. Corps.
While mulling over the possibilities of resuming the attack, von Prittwitz received news that night that Samsonov was pressing on to Allenstein. Deeply fearful that the Eighth Army would be encircled, von Prittwitz, who owed his command more to his courtly connections than to his military skills (he was also the cousin of von Hindenburg's wife), completely lost his nerve and issued orders for an immediate retreat to the Vistula. When back in Koblenz, von Moltke was informed of the retreat and of von Prittwitz' desperate plea for additional troops, he decided to can his inept army commander and replace him with more reliable, steady-nerved leadership. His choice of course was to call out of retirement the rock-solid Paul von Hindenburg and match him up with the capable hero of Liege, Erich Ludendorff.
In the meantime, lieutenant colonel Max Hoffmann,
serving as Eighth Army Chief of Operations, was able to convince von Prittwitz
that the situation was truly not all that desperate. In fact, the Germans would
not be able to withdraw to the Vistula without a heavy fight anyway, given that
Samsonov was over 100 km closer to the river. Hoffmann thus proposed leaving a
cavalry division at Gumbinnen in order to screen the slow-moving Rennenkampf,
while I. Corps and the 3rd Reserve Infantry Division would move by rail to
Allenstein, where they would join with XX. Corps and engage Samsonov. XVII.
Corps and I. Reserves would also move west to Allenstein to assist in the
attack. Meanwhile, Ludendorff was amazingly busying himself by drawing up the
same basic plan (without consulting Hindenburg), and this was the groundwork for
what would be the Battle of Tannenberg. Although von Prittwitz approved
Hoffmann's plan change, no one thought to inform Supreme Command, and thereby
sealed the doom of both Prittwitz' military career as well as the Schlieffen
* click to enlarge