Germany Takes Control of Eastern Front, Rescues Austrian Forces.

Chaotic Russian Retreat

Special to The Great War Project

(10-12 June) The Eastern Front is seeing a dramatic reversal of fortune, with Russia losing much of the territory in Eastern Europe it seized earlier in 1915.

Austria-Hungary, which looked to be on the brink of collapse only a few months ago, now with considerable German support, is retaking much of its lost territory in Galicia, (most of Poland and Ukraine).

German troops in Poland, Eastern Front, 1915.

German troops in Poland, Eastern Front, 1915.

Earlier this month, combined German and Austrian forces recaptured the fortress town of Przemysl (SHEH-mih-shuhl) in Poland. The town with its medieval fortress is taken by Russian forces in March.

It looked then as if the Russians were about to invade the heartland of Austria-Hungary, threatening the very existence of the Dual Monarchy.

Now the Russians have lost Przemysl and are routed and in retreat.

“There followed a vast crisis on the Russian Front,” reports historian Norman Stone. The Russians fall back into Ukraine, with the city of Lemberg (now Lviv) threatened by the forces of Germany and Austria.

Russian troops are facing critical, life or death, supply shortages on the battlefield. They do not receive enough ammunition nor enough rifles.

“The stories of Russian infantrymen waiting unarmed to inherit the rifle of another killed or wounded were not tittle-tattle,” writes war historian John Keegan. “They were nothing less than the truth.”

Thousands of Russian soldiers are captured. “Russia’s control of Galicia was all but over,” writes historian Martin Gilbert. “A British observer with the Russian Third Army wrote:

‘This army is now a harmless mob.’”

“There was a further complication,” Stone reports, “in that the Germans had opened another front, on the Baltic” to the north. That syphons valuable Russian troops to fight in the north, in Latvia and Lithuania, weakening Russia’s forces now facing the Germans and Austrians in Galicia.

“The Russian strategic position was a very poor one,” observes Stone, “and the sensible thing would have been to give up Poland altogether.

Russian troops attacking on Eastern Front, 1915.

Russian troops attacking on Eastern Front, 1915.

That does not happen. The rare voice in St. Petersburg to argue in favor of such a retreat “was easily silenced,” according to historian Stone.

“The Russian army would therefore stand and fight.”

They are facing mostly German armed forces now. The losses the Austrians experience earlier in 1915 are too devastating for Vienna to recover. Its army “lay shattered,” writes historian Geoffrey Wawro. “The whole bungled war effort was rotting away.”

“The Germans briskly and contemptuously took over the Austrian war effort….For the remainder of the war, every time the Austrians were hard pressed, the Germans would ride to the rescue.”

The German rescue on these days a century ago…

“took back in a week what the Russians had required six months to take.”

Reports historian Wawro, “They killed and wounded 1.4 million Russians and captured a million more.”

Russian prisoners on the Eastern Front, 1915.

Russian prisoners on the Eastern Front, 1915.

As a result of this battle, the Russian army is broken in two – one in Galicia, the other in Poland. “The Russians ran so fast in the spring of 1915 that some units retreated forty-five miles a day,” according to Wawro.

By this time a century ago, it seems both the Russian army and the Austrian army are facing collapse.

With the juggernaut of the German army seizing nearly all of Eastern Europe, the Eastern Front is in the hands of Germany.

Now the huge question facing Russia is, what will be the political impact of its collapse on the battlefield. Can the government of Tsar Nicholas II survive?