At the start of the First World War everyone expected the Russian steamroller to simply crush Germany and Austro-Hungary from the east, taking advantage of their massive advantage in manpower and Germany's commitment in the west. Although the Russian invasion of East Prussia famously ended in defeat, they performed much better against the Austro-Hungarians, and by the end of the year had captured most of Galicia, including the capital of Lemberg. The fortress of Przemysl was under siege, and Russian troops were approaching the Carpathians. There was even the possibility of an invasion of Hungary. Elsewhere the Austrian invasion of Serbia had failed, although the Serbian army was badly bruised.
1915 was perhaps the most important year on the Eastern Front. The first part of the year saw the Austrians carry out a series of costly and failed attempts to save Przemysl, including a brutal winter campaign in the Carpathians. These campaigns saw the Austro-Hungarian army rapidly lose strength. Eventually the Germans were forced to intervene, and the resulting battle of Gorlice-Tarnow forced the Russians to abandon most of their conquests in Galicia. By the end of the year the Russians had been forced to retreat over 100 miles east from East Prussia, had to abandon all of Russian Poland, and only managed to hold onto a narrow strip of eastern Galicia. The Eastern Front would remain in roughly this position for most of the rest of the war, until the Russian collapse of 1917. This dramatic success had a second result - from here on in the Austrians became increasingly the junior partner of the Central Powers, increasingly aware that any offensive needed German help. Even the successful invasion of Serbia involved a large German contingent.
These German successes came despite massive arguments within the high command, and in particular between the 'easterners' led by Hindenburg and Ludendorff and the 'westerners', led by the chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn. This rivalry was so bitter that Hindenburg wasn't actually given command of the great offensive in the east, which instead went to Mackensen. Less well known are the equally toxic arguments within the Russian high command, which come to the front here.
As with other entries in this series, Buttar does an excellent job of bringing these neglected battles to life. The vast scale of the fighting becomes clearer, as does the dreadful human cost of the frequently bungled Austrian and Russian offensives. One also comes away with a feeling that the Germans missed a chance to turn the war decisively in their favour in 1915. The general consensus was that it wouldn't be possible to defeat the Russians on the battlefield, as they would away be able to retreat away from any disaster, but one gets the distinct impression that the Tsarist regime might have crumbled if the Germans had begun to press towards Petrograd.
1 – The Combatants
2 – The First Carpathian Campaign
3 – Winter in Masuria
4 – Springtime: Slaughter and Disappointment
5 – Mackensen's Breakthrough
6 – The Exploitation
7 – Lemberg
8 – Decisions and Departures
9 – The Great Retreat
10 – Volhynia: The End of the Leash
11 – The Fall of Serbia
12 – The Burden of War
Author: Prit Buttar