Little Reporting from Eastern Front; Arrival of the Steel Helmet

Special to The Great War Project

(18-19 September) On the Eastern Front, historians call the battles there “titanic.”

The Austrians are in retreat east of Cracow in what is now Poland. Their losses are 350,000. In pursuit, the Russians suffer a quarter of a million casualties. The Austrians also abandon a thousand railroad locomotives on the battlefield, according to historian Max Hastings.

Yet far less is known of these Eastern battles.

There are far fewer written accounts of the fighting in the east.

“Personal reminiscences are very rare,” writes war historian John Keegan. “Nobody collected them…

Russian peasant soldiers in World War One, date uncertain

Russian peasant soldiers in World War One, date uncertain

“The voice of the Russian peasant soldier could not speak to posterity.”

As for the Austrian side, they too leave “equally few recollections of service in the ranks,” according to Keegan, “probably because the disaster of the war was overtaken in personal experiences by the even greater upheaval of the Habsburg Empire’s collapse.”

“Photographs help,” writes Keegan. Rare though they may be, they all show soldiers packed close together, carrying too many provisions and ammunition, with no protection from bullets, not even steel helmets like the Germans, French, and British are issued.

The Russians also lack steel helmets.

“Within a few months,” observes Keegan, “most armies will have adopted the steel helmet, the first reversion to the use of armor since its disappearance in the 17th century.”

By these days in September 1914, despite the dramatic Russian defeat at Tannenberg, the Austrian collapse and retreat from Lemberg (today’s Lviv in Ukraine) “precipitated one of the first great strategic crises of the war.” The Hungarian half of the empire is threatened with invasion, writes Keegan. And that could leave the territorial heart of Germany exposed.

So the Germans formulate a new plan to save their weaker ally. They will drive toward Warsaw in Poland, where the Russians maintain one of their operational centers.

On the Western Front, the Aisne has become the critical battle ground. The Germans occupy the high northern ridge of the river. The Anglo-French forces are also on the north side of the river, but below the German positions.

Both sides mount “a succession of attacks as troops become available,” writes Keegan, “the allies in the hope of pressing their pursuit further; the Germans with that of holding their line or even going over again to the offensive.”

French artillery squad, note steel helmets, World War One, date uncertain

French artillery squad, note steel helmets, World War One, date uncertain

The possibility of the French going over to the offensive is undermined by a shortage of ammunition. That “had begun to impede the ability of the [French] gunners to exploit the German retreat,” writes historian Martin Gilbert.

On September 19th a century ago, the chief of the French General Staff, Marshall Joseph Joffre, writes to the Minister of War that he must have at least 50,000 rounds of ammunition every day to maintain the advance. Gilbert reports that the answer from the Ministry is….

Not possible. Do everything “to prevent waste.”