While, in the west, the Germans tried to implement the Schlieffen Plan, hostilities broke out in the east, committing Germany to the very scenario it wanted to avoid – a war on two fronts. On 17 August, two Russian armies finally arrived and bore down into East Prussia and won a minor victory over the Germans at the Battle of Gumbinnen on 20 August. The German commanders, panicked by the onslaught and with troops outnumbered two to one because of Germany’s commitment on the Western Front, considered withdrawing and abandoning entirely East Prussia to the Russians. Germany’s high command forbade such an action and instead chose to replace its defeatist commanders on the Eastern Front with Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the latter fresh from his successes in Belgium, while Hindenburg, a respected 66-year-old veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, was called out of retirement to lend his vast experience.
The gamble paid off – in part because of the German army’s renewed offensive spirit but mainly down to mistakes within the command of the enemy. The commanders of the two Russian armies, Alexander Samsonov and Pavel Rennenkampf, disliked each other intensely. In 1905, the two men had met on a railway platform and argued so bitterly, they came to blows and had to be pulled apart. Their feud was to have a devastating consequence nine years later on the Eastern Front as, out of principle, they refused to communicate with one another.
When their armies did condescend to communicate, they did so by sending uncoded messages via telegraph, easily intercepted by the enemy. Thus the Germans, in full possession of Russian plans, attacked Samsonov’s army. Samsonov, encircled, did not call Rennenkampf for help – was it pride that stood in the way? His army was routed with 40,000 men dead or wounded, and a further 90,000 taken prisoner. ‘The Tsar trusted me,’ wailed Samsonov. ‘How can I ever face him again?’ He didn’t – on 30 August he walked into a nearby wood and shot himself. The Battle of Tannenberg, as it became known, although the town of Tannenberg was some twenty miles away, was a terrible defeat for Russia. Rennenkampf fared no better – losing the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, for which he was dismissed. (Four years later, in 1918, Rennenkampf was shot by the Bolsheviks.) Although brief, the two battles were to be the last time a foreign invader stepped foot on German soil for the rest of the war.