The Eastern Front in 1915

  September 22, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Eastern Front in 1915
Nor had the Allies done any better on their major fronts. The strategic initiative still lay with Berlin—in particular with Erich von Falkenhayn, the highly competent new Chief of the General Staff. Falkenhayn had a clear order of priorities.

He realized that Germany’s most dangerous enemies lay in the west. Unless France and, even more important, Britain, were defeated, the Allies could prolong the war indefinitely—not so much through their own military strength as through the maritime superiority that enabled them to draw on the economic resources of the New World and deny them to Germany. Russia no longer presented any immediate threat, and the sheer size of the eastern theatre made it difficult to obtain a decisive victory on that front. Left to himself, Falkenhayn would have returned to the Schlieffen strategy of allocating minimal forces to hold the Russians while concentrating everything on securing a decisive victory in the west. But he was not left to himself.

For the German public the great heroes of the war were now the victors of Tannenberg: Hindenburg and Ludendorff. This formidable couple had no intention of allowing their theatre to dwindle into a backwater, and they now commanded enough political influence to ensure that it did not. Moreover, the Austrians at the end of their disastrous winter campaign were on the verge of collapse. Already by the end of 1914 they had lost a million and a quarter men. By March they had lost a further 800,000. Those losses included most of the professional cadres that had held the multinational army together, and Slav units—Czech, Romanian, and Ruthene—were beginning to desert en masse. Conrad himself began to consider a separate peace with Russia, if only to deal with the Italians more effectively.

Reluctantly, therefore, Falkenhayn accepted that for the time being he would have to stand on the defensive in the west and attack strongly enough in the east to rescue his Austrian ally and inflict enough losses on the Russians to strengthen the hand of the influential circles in St Petersburg who were already calling for peace. To this end he created a new Austro-German army group under the command of General August von Mackensen, with Colonel Hans von Seeckt as his Chief of Staff, to attack the Russian positions in Galicia in the region of Gorlice-Tarnow. This offensive saw the first use of the methods that were to characterize the middle years of the war: carefully planned infantry attacks behind a curtain of prolonged and concentrated artillery fire. It was a total success: 100,000 prisoners were taken and the Russian lines penetrated to a depth of eighty miles. It was not in itself ‘decisive’, but for Falkenhayn that was not the point. He was beginning to understand the nature of this new kind of warfare. In this, the object was not victory in the field so much as ‘attrition’. Germany’s strategy should now be to compel her adversaries to exhaust their resources while committing as few as possible of her own.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff disagreed. They still visualized a far-reaching strategy of encirclement that would trap the entire Russian army, as Schlieffen had hoped to encircle the French, in ‘a battle without a tomorrow’. Falkenhayn would have none of this. In August he authorized an offensive in the northern sector of the front, but with the limited objective of driving the Russians out of Poland and establishing a defensive line running north–south through BrestLitovsk. This operation was so successful that he then allowed Ludendorff to carry out a further sweeping advance in the north to take Vilna; but, once again, the German army secured a spectacular operational victory that had no strategic consequence.