Learning From Napoleon – Russia, The Underestimated Enemy I THE GREAT WAR – Week 12

Learning From Napoleon – Russia, The Underestimated Enemy I THE GREAT WAR – Week 12

November 29, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


So far this war things had looked grim for
the Russians. They had unwillingly entered the war in the first place and the colossal
defeats at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian lakes had convinced the German and Austro-Hungarian
armies that Russia’s army was both backward and incompetent, but beginning this week they
would learn that Russia was no pushover at all and had two enviable assets- men and space. I’m Indy Neidell. Welcome to the Great War. Last week we saw Antwerp fall to the Germans,
and the Belgians and the British retreated into Flanders to build their defenses and
try to prevent the Germans from pushing to the sea, while the French held the line further
south. In the East, the Austrians were under siege in their fortress at Przemysl awaiting
relief, the Russians further north were marching to positions to cross the Vistula and attack
Germany, and the Germans were now only 20 km from Warsaw. Here was the general German plan in the east-
to strike, with Austrian help, at Warsaw and Ivangorod and outflank the Russian army there
while the Austrians were being relieved from the siege further south. The Russians, after weeks of disastrous marching
through the mud, had finally reached their crossing point, built a bridgehead, and began
to cross. The Germans reached Warsaw on October 12th, but their attacks were thrown back and
there would be no outflanking. See, the Germans had seen the Russian march and its colossal
mismanagement and believed that Russia was weak around Warsaw, but what they didn’t
realize was that the Russians armies were arriving and entering the battle in sections,
and more and more of them were coming. So we see that before October 15th, the Germans
had the upper hand, but after that, not so much. Soon there was no prospect of German
General von Hindenburg getting a decisive victory in view of the seemingly endless Russian
reinforcements, now coming from central Asia and Siberia. It’s important to realize that by this point
there were actually four fronts in the east- German-Russian in East Prussia, German-Austrian-Russian
on the Vistula, Russia-Austrian on the San River, and Russian-Austrian in the Carpathians,
and the middle two of them were now a concerted operation So along the San River, the Austrians had
finally managed to break out, relieved by General Boroevic von Bonja on October 11th.
This was timed to coincide with Hindenburg’s German advances toward Warsaw further north. Boroevic, eventually a Field Marshall, was
a brilliant defensive strategist who later showed what he could do on the Italian front,
but for now he had to deal with his chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf. section deleted
Conrad thought that the combined forces of the Austrians from within Przemysl and Boroevic’s
relief army could beat the Russians, so on October 14th, he ordered his men to try and
cross the San river and engage the enemy. It was a catastrophe, his men were bombarded
not only by the Russians but by their own side because of miscommunications and there
were no pontoons to make bridges, so they had to use boats to ferry themselves over,
and since one of the Austrian commanders thought a marching band might improve morale, he had
one playing on the Austrian shore. Imagine being one of those poor Austrian soldiers;
trying to cross a river in a boat while being bombarded by both the enemy and your own men,
your comrades are dying around you by the dozen while a marching band on the shore plays
“inspiring” music for you. It was truly a scene from a madhouse. So now that we’ve imagined being an Austrian
soldier, lets imagine that we live in Poland in October 1914. The Germans march in, then the Russians, sometimes
the Austrian[n][o]s, then the Germans again, back and forth and up and down- by now the
basic situation in the towns of Russian Poland was total anarchy. At least the German officers
had some training in civic leadership which their Russian counterparts lacked completely.
There sprang up a huge black market in this region for liquor and food, as you may guess,
but also weapons, uniforms, anything that the locals could scavenge from a battlefield,
or sadly, get from a soldier in exchange for food- even winter clothes with winter soon
here. Really, the troops were so desperate for food they were selling their winter boots,
knowing that Russian winter was coming in just a few short weeks. Another effect of anarchy in Russian Poland
was that when the German troops arrived, the local populations often turned against the
Jews, claiming they were secretly sympathetic to the German cause, and they began a series
of atrocities against them. Shops and synagogues were looted and burned, and Jews were hanged
every day. The idea that Jews were sympathetic to the German cause totally ignored the fact
that a quarter of a million Jews were serving in the Russian army at the time. And that army was finally beginning to turn
itself around, not only because of its enormous size, but because Russia had a way of approaching
battle that none of the other combatants had. See, Russia had no problem giving up land
to the enemy and using space to fight a war instead of just force. This had always held
true- think of Napoleon marching on Russia 100 years ago and the disaster it ended in
for him. Russia had thousands upon thousands of miles of land and if the enemy made some
gains, or even took a whole province- so what? It would simply be re-taken when the enemy
stretched itself too thin and became exhausted. And how does an enemy counter this when the
enemy can’t think like that? None of the other armies had that luxury.
It was immoral for the Germans to cede any of East Prussia to Russia, it was humiliating
to the Austrians that Russia now held Austrian ground and cities, and it was absolutely unthinkable
for the Belgians and French to give up an inch of their land to the Germans in the west,
where the war for a decisive victory was now a war for roads, villages, and hills. The Race to the sea had been going on for
weeks as the Germans tried to outflank the British, French, and Belgians, and vice versa.
The trench lines grew ever longer as neither side was able to gain an advantage and both
sides were forced to dig in. Battles that would rage for weeks began in
places like La Bassee, Armentieres, and Messines as the line grew further and further north.
On the 11th, the Germans began bombarding Lille, which surrendered on the 13th and would
remain in German hands for the next four years. This part of France and Belgium, called Flanders,
was still mostly untouched by the war, and when on October 14th, some British forces
entered the town of Ypres, it seemed like a nice quiet country town. They promptly began
calling it Wipers. The next day they marched east a few miles
and made preparations to make a quick advance on the Germans as soon as the rest of the
British expeditionary Force turned up. No one realized yet that this quaint little patch
of Belgian countryside would soon become the gravesite for over 200,000 British soldiers
during the next four years. British soldiers were going to a watery grave
this week as well, as the German submarine U-9, already infamous for dispatching three
British cruisers in one hour, torpedoed the Hawke in the north sea- 525 British sailors
drowned. Only 21 were saved. However, as the war in the seas grew and developed,
the British gained a lucky advantage. Russia sent them a German navy signal book it had
captured when the German signalman about to destroy it was killed by an artillery shell.
Because of this, British cryptographers in future had a leg up decoding wireless messages
and finding their adversaries at sea. So there we are at the end of the week, with
the British arriving at a nice quiet town called Ypres at the northern end of the miles
and miles of trenches, the Austrians sinking into despair as their maneuvers once again
prove disastrous, the Germans realizing that Russia was nowhere near as incompetent as
they’d thought, and the Russians bringing more, and more, and ever more men to bear
down on the Germans along the Vistula River. Germany and Austria knew, of course, that
Russia had the population advantage, but they’d gone to war confident that their advantages
in tactics and equipment would more than make up for this. And for the Germans, at least,
so far it had. But nobody quite realized the depth of the Russian reinforcements and as
the enemy army’s initial forces were depleted, that depth, as well as the use of the endless
open space, had finally made the Russian army a real force to be reckoned with, and over
the next two months, hundreds of thousands of men would die on the enormous battlefields
of the Eastern Front. See you next week. If you’d like to see how trench warfare
developed in this war, check out these episodes about the battles on the banks of the Aisne
River, and click subscribe to never miss an episode. For the next four years.