Tannenberg Days 4 and 5; Russians Surrounded, Devastated

On Western Front, Endless Suffering in Retreat

Special for The Great War Project

(29-30 August) The British retreat from Mons and the French retreat from other lost battles continue into six days of exhausting, scalding marches.

One French officer describes the endless suffering of the march in his diary: “Heads down, red trousers and blue coats indistinguishable for dust, bumping into transport, into abandoned carts, into each other they shuffled down the endless roads, their eyes filled with dust that dimmed the scalding landscape, so that they saw clearly only the foreground of discarded packs, prostrate men, and an occasional abandoned gun.”

Many men “utterly worn out, overcome by fatigue or sunstroke, dropped and lay where they had fallen.” Yet the soldiers push on.

The suffering is especially acute for the horses.

French armored cavalry, August 1914.

French armored cavalry, August 1914.

“Dead and dying horses that had dropped in their tracks from fatigue, lay in great numbers by the side of the roads. Worse still, horses dying but not yet dead, sometimes struggling a little, a strange appeal in their eyes, looked at the passing columns whose dust covered them, caking their thirsty lips and nostrils.”

The British public does not learn of the dire circumstances of the British Expeditionary Force until that Sunday, August 30th, a century ago, when The Times prints an accurate account of the “terrible defeat” at Mons and the disaster of the retreat.

Despite all this, the news is not entirely bad. In their retreat on the 29th the French counterattack at a place called Guise. They fight valiantly, inflicting real losses on the Germans and halting them in their tracks, according to military historian John Keegan.

It wins the French “an extra day and a half for the army to reposition itself for the counterstroke.”

On the Eastern Front on the 29th, it is Day 4 of the Battle of Tannenberg. The Germans complete the encirclement of the Russians. Disastrously, Russian General Alexander Samsonov finds that his army is surrounded.

Russian General Alexander Samsonov

Russian General Alexander Samsonov

According to Keegan, the Germans count 92,000 Russian prisoners besides 50,000 Russians killed or wounded. “The total of prisoners taken,” he writes, “would rarely be exceeded in any comparable episode of the war or indeed approached.”

The impact of the German victory at Tannenberg cannot be overstated.

“Not only does it save the Prussian heartland from occupation” Keegan observes, “but it had also averted the danger of a deeper advance … towards Berlin.”

For the Germans, Tannenberg is a deliverance.


For the Russians, it is “an enormous defeat, the most spectacular of the war” in the view of one historian.

The German plan was to hit France hard, knock it off quickly, then turn to the real enemy, the real reason Germany went to war: Russia.

In fact Germany hits Russia hard and fast, dealing it an enormous blow. But on the Western Front, France (and Britain) prove far more difficult to overcome.

The front line there hardens.

“After Tannenberg,” writes Keegan, “disaster in the east no longer threatened, while victory in the west continued to elude week after week.”

More than 30,000 Russian soldiers are dead, including the commanding Russian general, Samsonov. “The Emperor trusted me,” Samsonov tells his chief-of-staff. “How can I face him again after such a disaster?”

Samsonov puts a bullet in his head.