Eastern Front

The Eastern Front was the vast theatre of the First World War that took place between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. All three countries expected conflict in this area. The German Schlieffen Plan assumed an invasion of Russia and the Russian Army had its own Plan 19, that involved an attack on Germany.

General Alexander Samsonov was given command of the Russian Second Army for the invasion of East Prussia in August, 1914. He advanced slowly into the south western corner of the province with the intention of linking up with General Paul von Rennenkampf advancing from the north east.

General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff were sent forward to meet Samsonov's advancing troops. They made contact on 22nd August and for six days the Russians, with their superior numbers, had a few successes. However, by 29th August, Samsanov's Second Army was surrounded. General Alexander Samsonov attempted to retreat but now in a German cordon, most of his troops were slaughtered or captured. Only 10,000 of the 150,000 Russian soldiers managed to escape. Shocked by the disastrous outcome of the Battle of Tanneberg Samsonov committed suicide.

The slow Russia invasions of Galicia were more successful against the poorly organised Austro-Hungarian Army. Eventually Austria-Hungary ordered a counter-attack at Komarow. After initial progress, the Austro-Hungarian troops were forced to retreat to the Carpathian Mountains. The German attack, led by General Erich Ludendorff, on the Russian Army at Lodz, inflicted heavy casualties.

In September, 1915, Russian forces were driven from Galicia. By this stage it was estimated that the Russian Army had lost over 2 million men in six months. General Erich Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff of the German Army, considered the Russians had been badly damaged but decided they could not be beaten and brought a halt to the offensive. Instead, German forces were concentrated on the Western Front at Verdun.

Attacks by the Central Powers on Russia were resumed in the autumn of 1916. By the end of the war it was estimated that the Russian Army had lost another million men. The failed Russian Kerenski Offensive in July, 1917, broke both the army and the will of the government. The October Revolution brought Lenin to power in Russia. The Bolshevik government immediately entered into negotiations and fighting on the Eastern Front officially ended on 16th December, 1917.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1915 Hamilton Fyfe began reporting the war on the Eastern Front for the Daily Mail.

Brussilov was the ablest of the army-group commanders. His front was in good order. For that reason we were sent to it. The impression I got in April was the Russian troops, all the men and most of the officers, were magnificent material who were being wasted because of the incompetence, intrigues, and corruption of the men who governed the country.

In June Brussilov's advance showed what they could do, when they were furnished with sufficient weapons and ammunition. But that effort was wasted, too, for want of other blows to supplement it, for want of any definite plan of campaign.

The Russian officers, brutal as they often were to their men (many of them scarcely considered privates to be human), were as a rule friendly and helpful to us. They showed us all we wanted to see. They always cheerfully provided for Arthur Ransome (a fellow journalist), who could not ride owing to some disablement, a cart to get about in.

(2) Arthur Ransome reported the war on the Eastern Front for the Daily News and the Observer.

It was March 1916 before I was given my first limited permission to visit the Russian front as a war correspondent. We went to Kiev and thence to the South Western Army Headquarters at Berditchev, where we met for the first time General Brusilov, the smartest-uniformed and most elegant of all Russian generals, later to be famous for his break-through in the west, and for the disasters his armies suffered in retreat.

I remember interminable driving in vehicles of all kinds along roads that war had widened from narrow cart-tracks to broad highways half a mile wife. Drivers had moved out of the original road to ground on either side of it not yet churned to mud. As each new strip turned to a bog, the drivers steered just outside it, so that in many places two carts meeting each other going in opposite directions would be out of shouting distance.

I saw a great deal of that long-drawn out front and of the men who, ill-armed, ill-supplied, were holding it against an enemy who, even in his anxiety to fight was no greater than the Russian's, was infinitely better equipped. I came back to Petrograd full of admiration for the Russian soldiers who were holding the front without enough weapons to go round.

(3) John Reed, The War in Eastern Europe (1916)

Slowly we drew near the leisurely sound of the cannon, that defined itself sharply out of the all-echoing thunder audible at Novo Sielitza. And topping a steep hill crowned with a straggling thatched village, we came in sight of the batteries. They lay on the hither side of an immense rolling hill, where a red gash in the fields dribbled along for miles. At intervals of half a minute a gun spat heavily; but you could see neither smoke nor flame - only minute figures running about, stiffening, and again springing to life. A twanging drone as the shell soared - and then on the leafy hills across the river puffs of smoke unfolding.

In the very field of the artillery, peasants were calmly ploughing with oxen, and in front of the roaring guns a boy in white linen drove cattle over the hill toward the pasture along the river. We met long-haired farmers, with orange poppies in their hats, unconcernedly driving to town. Eastward the world rolled up in another slow hill that bore curved fields of young wheat, running in great waves before the wind. Its crest was torn and scarred with mighty excavations, where multitudinous tiny men swarmed over new trenches and barbed-wire tangles. This was the second-line position preparing for a retreat that was sure to come.