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The Russian plan of attack for the battle involved consolidating the forces of the 1st and nd Armies in order to encircle and overwhelm the German Eight Army, which was originally under the command of Gen. Prittwitz. Rennenkampf’s nd Army would attack the German front, while Samsonov hit the German rear. The plan began to unravel when Gen. Rennenkampf delayed his advance after successfully engaging German forces at the Battle of Gumbinnen on 0 August 1914. Poor communications between the Russian Armies mislead Gen. Samsonov to believe that Rennenkampf’s forces were moving south-west as planned. As a result, Samsonov soon found himself facing several German divisions by himself. The German forces quickly encircled the Russian nd Army and nearly 100,000 Russians were killed or captured.
Causes of the battle. On 17 August 1914, two Russian Armies invaded East Prussia in order to conduct a two-pronged assault on German forces in accordance with Plan 1. This was Russia’s pre-war plan to support its ally, France. The Second Army entered through Prussia’s South-West corner while the First Army simultaneously entered the North-East. By 0 August 1914, the Russian forces under Rennenkampf had achieved some success against Gen. Prittwitz’s Eight Army at Gumbinnen by effectively disrupting the German’s operations with heavy artillery. General Prittwitz was replaced by Gen. Von Hindenburg as a result of his lackluster performance. In order to recover the ground lost by Prittwitz, Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Gen. Ludendorff, devised a counter-offensive in order to repel the advancing Russian nd Army approaching from the South.
On 5 August, the Chief of Staff of the German Army, Helmuth von Moltke, ordered a cavalry division and three German corps to reinforce the 8th Army. This action, while detrimental to their offensive capabilities on the western front, was instrumental in assuring a German victory over a numerically superior Russian force. The Germans planned to trap and encircle Samsonov by moving one corps to Samsonov’s left flank while two others positioned themselves on the right.
The Russian leadership ignored intelligence indicating that the Germans were moving south towards Samsonov and ordered Rennenkampf to move the 1st Army to Konigsberg. This severely compromised Samsonov’s position as it virtually ensured that he would receive little if any support from Rennenkampf. The situation deteriorated further after the German’s intercepted Zhilinksi’s order as it indicated to them that they had little to fear from the 1st Army. They responded by reinforcing the central and southern segments of their lines. By 8 August, the Germans had completely surrounded Samsonov’s army and had begun attacking both of his flanks. After fierce fighting, Samsonov ordered his forces to withdraw from East Prussia.
Significance of the battle. The Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg is significant because it was a catastrophic loss for Russia. By the campaign in East Prussia , 50,000 Russian soldiers had been captured or killed and large quantities of equipment were lost due to ineffectual leadership and poor intelligence. Additionally, the Russian defeat at Tannenberg marked the last time Russian forces would occupy German territory until late 1945. Lessons learned from the battle. By applying some of the principles of war to the battlefield performance of the Russian and German armies, one effectively learns several useful lessons about conducting military operations. The principle of economy of force best describes the failure of the Russian forces while the principles of mass and offensive apply to the Germans.
The primary reason the Russian military was defeated, is that it violated the economy of force principle. The FM -0 Operations defines economy of force as “Allocating minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts”. Additionally, it states that “commanders never leave any element without a purpose.” Gen. Zhilinksi’s decision to hold Rennenkampf’s forces in place near Gumbinnen left Samsonov exposed and lacking in the support he needed to defeat the German 8th Army. Had both the 1st and nd Armies consolidated, as was originally planned, the Russians could have won the battle.
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