Discontent Spreading Among Russian Soldiers; Germans Seize More Than 1.4 Million Prisoners.
Outbreak of Typhus
Special to The Great War Project
(15-17 August) Just as Turkish troops are inflicting great losses on the British and Allied forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula in northwest Turkey, Germany is busy making great gains against the Russians on the Eastern Front in Europe.
According to historian Martin Gilbert Turkey’s allies “continued to wreak havoc on sea and land.”
On August 17, exactly 100 years ago, the Germans unleash an enormous bombardment against the Russians, reports Gilbert, “a 1,360-gun artillery offensive including the use of 16-inch naval guns, and the firing of 853,000 shells.” German forces capture the fortress city of Kovno near Russia’s border with Poland in what is now Lithuania.
The Germans take the ancient fortress inside Kovno, along with 20,000 Russian soldiers who capitulate.
This comes only a few days after a German submarine sinks an Allied troop transport ship bound for Gallipoli near the Greek island of Kos. Some 1865 are drowned.
The Russian general in command at Kovno is accused of dereliction of duty.
As the German onslaught nears, he fails to blow up a key railway terminal. He is said to have “never left his dugout except at night,” reports Gilbert, “and who had left the fortress before its fall without telling his chief-of-staff.”
For these and other actions, the General is court-marshalled and sentenced to eight years of hard labor.
The Germans also capture several million tins of preserved meat. This is Russia’s main front-line supply of food, lost to the Russian army as it retreats, now feeding German soldiers.
Farther south, joint forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary are approaching the fortress city of Brest-Litovsk, driving the Russians even further east.
The Russian army and the local population suffer greatly in the retreat from these areas. According to one Russian officer present, “men who had fought in several wars and many bloody battles told me that no horrors of a field of battle can be compared to the awful spectacle of the ceaseless exodus of a population, knowing neither the object of the movement nor the place where they might find, rest, food and housing.”
“Themselves in an awful condition,” this officer reports, “they increased the troubles of the troops, especially of the transport who had to move along roads filled with the disorganized human wave.
“Many a time our forces had to stop and fight a rear-guard action just to allow this crowd to make room for the troops…
…God only knows what sufferings were endured here, how many tears were shed and how many human lives were given.”
“The flight of Russian soldiers,” writes historian Gilbert, “was spreading grave discontent among all its armies.
“It was also swelling the prisoner-of-war camps throughout the German-conquered lands.”
On the day Kovno falls to the Germans, August 17th, the Germans hold more than 726,000 Russian prisoners of war. The Austrians hold an additional 700,000, a total of more than 1.4 million in German and Austrian prisoner-of-war camps.
Typhus breaks out in several prison camps, and at one – at Wittenberg – the Germans abandon the camp but surround it with machine-guns and dogs to keep the Russian soldiers confined there.
“Only an outpouring of neutral criticism,” writes Gilbert, “led the German staff to return to the camp and improve conditions in it.”