Military history


“The Cossacks Are Coming!”

ON AUGUST 5 IN ST. PETERSBURG Ambassador Paléologue of France drove past a regiment of Cossacks leaving for the front. Its general, seeing the French flag on the ambassador’s car, leaned down from his horse to embrace him and begged permission to parade his regiment. While Paléologue solemnly reviewed the troops from his car, the general, between shouts of command to the ranks, addressed shouts of encouragement to the ambassador: “We’ll destroy those filthy Prussians! … No more Prussia, no more Germany! … William to St. Helena!” Concluding the review, he galloped off behind his men, waving his saber and shouting his war cry, “William to St. Helena!”

The Russians, whose quarrel with Austria had precipitated the war, were grateful to France for standing by the alliance and anxious to show equal loyalty by support of the French design. “Our proper objective,” the Czar was dutifully made to say with more bravado than he felt, “is the annihilation of the German army”; he assured the French that he considered operations against Austria as “secondary” and that he had ordered the Grand Duke “at all costs to open the way to Berlin at the earliest possible moment.”

The Grand Duke in the last days of the crisis had been named Commander in Chief despite the bitter rivalry of Sukhomlinov who wanted the post for himself. As between the two, even the Russian regime in the last days of the Romanovs was not mad enough to choose the German-oriented Sukhomlinov to lead a war against Germany. He remained, however, as War Minister.

From the moment the war opened, the French, uncertain that Russia really would or could perform what she had promised, began exhorting their ally to hurry. “I entreat Your Majesty,” pleaded Ambassador Paléologue in audience with the Czar on August 5, “to order your armies to take an immediate offensive, otherwise there is risk of the French army being overwhelmed.” Not content with seeing the Czar, Paléologue also called upon the Grand Duke who assured the ambassador that he intended a vigorous offensive to begin on August 14, in keeping with the promise of the fifteenth day of mobilization, without waiting for all his army to be concentrated. Though famous for his uncompromising, not to say sometimes unprintable habits of speech, the Grand Duke composed on the spot a message of medieval chivalry to Joffre. “Firm in the conviction of victory,” he telegraphed, he would march against the enemy bearing alongside his own standard the flag of the French Republic which Joffre had given him at maneuvers in 1912.

That a gap existed between the promises given to the French and the preparations for performance was all too apparent and may have been cause for the tears the Grand Duke was reported to have shed when he was named Commander in Chief. According to a colleague, he “appeared entirely unequipped for the task and, to quote his own statement, on receipt of the imperial order spent much time crying because he did not know how to approach his duties.” Regarded by a leading Russian military historian as “eminently qualified” for his task, the Grand Duke may have wept less for himself than for Russia and the world. There was an aura about 1914 that caused those who sensed it to shiver for mankind. Tears came even to the most bold and resolute. Messimy opening a Cabinet meeting on August 5 with a speech full of valor and confidence, broke off midway, buried his head in his hands, and sobbed, unable to continue. Winston Churchill wishing godspeed and victory to the BEF, when taking leave of Henry Wilson, “broke down and cried so that he could not finish the sentence.” Something of the same emotion could be felt in St. Petersburg.

The Grand Duke’s colleagues were not the firmest pillars of support. Chief of Staff in 1914 was General Yanushkevich, a young man of forty-four with black mustache and curly black hair who was chiefly notable for not wearing a beard and whom the War Minister referred to as “still a child.” More a courtier than a soldier, he had not fought in the Japanese War although he had served in the same regiment of Guards as Nicholas II, which was as good a reason as any for rapid promotion. He was a graduate of the Staff College and later its commandant, had served on the staff of the War Ministry, and when war broke out had been Chief of Staff for barely three months. Like the German Crown Prince, he was completely under the guidance of his Deputy Chief, the stern and silent General Danilov, a hard worker and strict disciplinarian who was the brains of the Staff. Yanushkevich’s predecessor as Chief of Staff, General Jilinsky, had preferred to be relieved of that post and had persuaded Sukhomlinov to appoint him commander of the Warsaw military district. He was now in over-all command, under the Grand Duke, of the Northwest Army Group on the front against Germany. In the Russo-Japanese War he had served with little distinction but no positive error as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, General Kuropatkin, and having survived that grave of reputations had managed to remain in the upper echelons without either personal popularity or military talent.

Russia had made no preparations to meet the advanced date for attack which she had promised to the French. Improvisations had to be arranged at the last moment. A scheme of “forward mobilization” was ordered which skipped certain preliminary stages to gain several days’ time. Streams of telegrams from Paris, delivered with personal eloquence by Paléologue, kept up the pressure. On August 6 the orders of the Russian General Staff said it was essential to prepare “for an energetic offensive against Germany at the earliest possible moment, in order to ease the situation of the French but, of course, only when sufficient strength has been made available.” By August 10, however, the proviso for “sufficient strength” had been dropped. Orders of that date read, “Naturally it is our duty to support France in view of the great stroke prepared by Germany against her. This support must take the form of the quickest possible advance against Germany, by attacking those forces she has left behind in East Prussia.” The First and Second Armies were ordered to be “in position” to advance on M-14 (August 13), although they would have to start without their services of supply, which would not be fully concentrated until M-20 (August 19).

Difficulties of organization were immense; the essence of the problem, as the Grand Duke once confessed to Poincaré, was that in an empire as vast as Russia when an order was given no one was ever sure whether it had been delivered. Shortages of telephone wire and telegraph equipment and of trained signal corpsmen made sure or quick communication impossible. Shortage of motor transport also slowed down the Russian pace. In 1914 the army had 418 motor transport vehicles, 259 passenger cars, and two motor ambulances. (It had, however, 320 airplanes.) As a result, supplies after leaving the railhead had to depend on horse transport.

Supply was hazardous at best. Testimony in trials after the Japanese war revealed bribes and graft running like a network of moles’ tunnels beneath the army. When even the Governor of Moscow, General Reinbot, was convicted and imprisoned for venality in letting army contracts, he still wielded enough private influence to obtain not only a pardon but reappointment to a new post. Meeting his commissariat staff for the first time as Commander in Chief, the Grand Duke said to them, “Gentlemen, no stealing.”

Vodka, another traditional companion of war, was prohibited. In the last mobilization in 1904 when soldiers came reeling in and regimental depots were a mess of drunken slumbers and broken bottles, it had taken an extra week to straighten out the confusion. Now with the French calling every day’s delay a matter of life or death, Russia enacted prohibition as a temporary measure for the period of mobilization. Nothing could have given more practical or more earnest proof of loyal intention to meet French pleas for haste, but with that characteristic touch of late-Romanov rashness, the government, by ukase of August 22, extended prohibition for the duration of the war. As the sale of vodka was a state monopoly, this act at one stroke cut off a third of the government’s income. It was well known, commented a bewildered member of the Duma, that governments waging war seek by a variety of taxes and levies to increase income, “but never since the dawn of history has a country in time of war renounced the principal source of its revenue.”

In the last hour of the fifteenth day at 11:00 P.M. on a lovely summer evening, the Grand Duke left the capital for field headquarters at Baranovichi, a railroad junction on the Moscow-Warsaw line about midway between the German and Austrian fronts. He and his staff and their families gathered in subdued groups on the station platform in St. Petersburg waiting for the Czar to come to bid farewell to the Commander in Chief. However, the Czarina’s jealousy overrode courtesy, and Nicholas did not appear. Goodbyes and prayers were spoken in low voices; the men took their places in the train in silence and departed.

Behind the front the struggle to assemble armies was still in process. Russian cavalry on reconnaissance had been probing German territory since the first day of the war. Their forays succeeded less in penetrating the German screen than in providing an excuse for screaming headlines in German newspapers and wild tales of Cossack brutalities. As early as August 4 in Frankfort on the western edge of Germany an officer heard rumors that 30,000 refugees from East Prussia were coming to be accommodated in that city. Demands to save East Prussia from the Slavic hordes began to distract the German General Staff from the task of trying to concentrate all military effort against France.

At dawn on August 12 a detachment of General Rennenkampf’s First Army, consisting of a cavalry division under General Gourko supported by an infantry division, opened the invasion of East Prussia ahead of the main advance and took the town of Marggrabowa five miles inside the frontier. Shooting as they rode through the outskirts and into the empty market square, the Russians found the town undefended and evacuated by German troops. Shops were closed, but the townspeople were watching from the windows. In the countryside the inhabitants fled precipitously ahead of the advancing squadrons before there was any fighting as if by prearrangement. On the first morning the Russians saw columns of black smoke rising along their line of march which, on approach, were discovered to be not farms and homes burned by their fleeing owners but dumps of straw burned as signals to show the direction of the invaders. Everywhere was evidence of the German’s systematic preparation. Wooden watchtowers had been built on hilltops. Bicycles were provided for local farm boys of twelve to fourteen who acted as messengers. German soldiers, posted as informers, were found dressed as peasants, even as peasant women. The latter were discovered, presumably in the course of nonmilitary action, by their government-issue underwear; but many were probably never caught, it being impossible, General Gourko regretfully admitted, to lift the skirts of every female in East Prussia.

Receiving General Gourko’s reports of evacuated towns and fleeing population and concluding that the Germans were not planning a serious resistance so far east of their base on the Vistula, General Rennenkampf was the more eager to dash forward and the less concerned about his incomplete services of supply. A trim, well-set-up officer of sixty-one with a direct glance and energetic mustache turned up at the corners, he had earned a reputation for boldness, decisiveness, and tactical skill during service in the Boxer Rebellion, as commander of a cavalry division in the Russo-Japanese War, and as leader of the punitive expedition to Chita which ruthlessly exterminated the remnants of the Revolution of 1905. His military prowess was slightly shadowed by German descent and by some unexplained imbroglio which according to General Gourko “left his moral reputation considerably damaged.” When in coming weeks his strange behavior caused these factors to be recalled, his colleagues nevertheless remained convinced of his loyalty to Russia.

Disregarding the cautions of General Jilinsky, commander of the Northwest Army Group, who was pessimistic from the start, and hastening the concentration of his three army corps and five and a half cavalry divisions, Rennenkampf opened his offensive on August 17. His First Army of some 200,000 men crossed the frontier along a 35-mile front split by Rominten Forest. Its objective was the Insterburg Gap, a distance of 37 miles from the frontier, or about three days’ march at the Russian rate. The Gap was a stretch of open land about 30 miles wide lying between the fortified area of Königsberg to the north and the Masurian Lakes to the south. It was a country of small villages and large farms with unfenced fields and wide ranges of view from the occasional swells of high ground. Here the First Army would come through and engage the main German strength until Samsonov’s Second Army, turning the lake barrier from the south, would arrive to deliver the decisive blow upon the German flank and rear. The two Russian armies were expected to join in a common front in the area of Allenstein.

General Samsonov’s objective line, on a level with Allenstein, was 43 miles from the frontier, about three and a half or four days’ march if all went well. Between his starting point, however, and his goal were many opportunities for the unexpected hazards—what Clausewitz called the “frictions”—of war. Owing to the lack of an east-west railway across Russian Poland to East Prussia, Samsonov’s army could not cross the frontier until two days behind Rennenkampf’s and would already have been on the march for a week before reaching the frontier. Its line of march was along sandy roads through a waste of undeveloped country spotted with forests and marshes and inhabited by a few poor Polish peasants. Once inside hostile territory there would be few resources of food and forage.

General Samsonov, unlike Rennenkampf, was new to the region and unfamiliar with his troops and staff. In 1877, at the age of eighteen, he had fought against the Turks; he was a general at forty-three; in the Russo-Japanese War he too had commanded a cavalry division; since 1909 he had been in semimilitary employment as governor of Turkestan. Aged fifty-five when the war broke out, he was on sick leave in the Caucasus and did not reach Warsaw and Second Army headquarters until August 12. Communication between his army and Rennenkampf’s, as well as to Jilinsky’s headquarters in the rear which was to coordinate the movements of both, was erratic. Precision in timing was not in any case a notable Russian virtue. Having played out the campaign in war games in April before the war with most of the same commanders and staff as were to take the field in August, the Russian General Staff was gloomily conscious of the difficulties. Although the war games, in which Sukhomlinov played the role of Commander in Chief, revealed that the First Army had started too soon, when war came the same schedule was adhered to without change. Counting two days for Rennenkampf’s head start and four days for Samsonov’s march, there would be a period of six days during which the German Army would have to face only one Russian army.

On August 17 General Rennenkampf’s two cavalry corps, guarding his flanks on right and left, had orders not only to screen his advance but to cut both branches of the railway in order to prevent the withdrawal of German rolling stock. Having deliberately used a railroad gauge different from the German as a defense against invasion, the Russians could not bring up their own rolling stock, or use the invaluable network of railroads in East Prussia unless they captured German trains. Naturally, the Germans left little rolling stock behind to be captured. The Russian Army, moving farther and farther from its base into hostile country, began almost at once to outrun its horse-drawn and not fully organized supply train. For communication, lacking the wire to lay their own lines, the Russians were dependent on German telegraph lines and offices, and when these were found destroyed they resorted to sending messages by wireless, in clear, because their divisional staffs lacked codes and cryptographers.

Little reconnaissance or artillery spotting was accomplished by airplane, most of the Air Force having been sent to the Austrian front. At sight of an airplane, the first they had ever seen, Russian soldiers, regardless of its identity, blazed away with their rifles, convinced that such a clever invention as a flying machine could only be German. The enlisted soldier consumed quantities of black bread and tea which were said—though it is not easy to see why—to give him a characteristic odor rather like that of a horse. He was armed with a four-edged bayonet which when mounted on a rifle made a weapon as tall as a man and in hand-to-hand combat gave him an advantage over the German. In firepower and fighting efficiency, however, German preponderance in artillery made two German divisions equal to three Russian. The Russian disadvantage was not helped by the mutual hatred of Sukhomlinov as War Minister and the Grand Duke as Commander in Chief, especially as liaison between front and rear was bad enough and the problem of supply worse. Before the fighting was a month old the shortage of shells and cartridges was already so desperate and the indifference or lethargy of the War Ministry so discouraging that on September 8 the Grand Duke was driven to appeal directly to the Czar. On the Austrian front, he reported, operations would have to be held up until stocks of shells reached 100 per gun. “At present we have only 25 per gun. I find it necessary to request Your Majesty to hasten the shipment of shells.”

The cry “Kosaken kommeni” (The Cossacks are coming!) echoing out of East Prussia weakened Germany’s resolve to leave the province with only a minimum defense. The Eighth Army in East Prussia, consisting of four and a half corps, one cavalry division, garrison troops of Königsberg and some territorial brigades, was about equal in numbers to either one of the two Russian armies. Its orders from Moltke were to defend East and West Prussia but not to allow itself to be overwhelmed by superior forces or to be driven into the fortress camp of Königsberg. If it found itself threatened by greatly superior forces, it was to withdraw behind the Vistula, leaving East Prussia to the enemy. Such orders contained “psychological dangers for weak characters,” in the opinion of Colonel Max Hoffmann who was now deputy Chief of Operations for the Eighth Army.

The weak character Hoffmann had in mind was the Eighth Army’s commander, Lieutenant-General von Prittwitz und Gaffron. As a court favorite Prittwitz had enjoyed a career of rapid promotions because, according to a fellow officer, he “knew how to get the Kaiser’s ear at table with funny stories and salacious gossip.” Now sixty-six years old and notorious for his girth, he was a German version of Falstaff, “impressive in appearance, conscious to the highest degree of his self-importance, ruthless, even coarse and self-indulgent.” Known as der Dicke (Fatty), he was without intellectual or military interests and never moved if he could help it. In vain Moltke, who considered him unfit for his assignment, had tried for years to remove him from the designated command of the Eighth Army; Prittwitz’s connections were proof against his efforts. The best Moltke could do was to appoint his own Deputy, Count von Waldersee, as Prittwitz’ Chief of Staff. In August, Waldersee, suffering from the after effects of an operation, was in Hoffmann’s opinion “not up to par,” and since Prittwitz never had been, this left Hoffmann in the happy assurance that real power to direct the Eighth Army lay in the hands of the best qualified person, himself.

Anxiety for East Prussia became acute when on August 15 Japan declared for the Allies, freeing large numbers of Russian forces. In making or keeping friends, a task that forever eluded it, German diplomacy had failed again. Japan had her own ideas of her best interests in a European war, and these were well understood by their intended victim. “Japan is going to take advantage of this war to gain control of China,” foretold President Yuan Shi-kai. As it proved, Japan used the opportunity of the war while the European Powers were too busy to stop her, to impose the Twenty-one Demands on China and to make the incursions into Chinese sovereignty and territory which were to twist the history of the twentieth century. To start with, the immediate effect of Japan’s joining the Allies would be to release Russian forces from the Far East. Conjuring up visions of added Slavic hordes, the Germans now had new cause to be nervous about leaving East Prussia to be held by the lone Eighth Army.

From the beginning General von Prittwitz was having trouble controlling the commander of his Ist Corps, General von François, a bright-eyed officer of Huguenot ancestry, fifty-eight years old, who looked not unlike a German Foch. The Ist Corps was recruited from East Prussia, and its commander, determined that not one Slav should tread on Prussian soil, threatened to upset Eighth Army strategy by advancing too far.

Based on Hoffmann’s calculations, the Eighth Army expected Rennenkampf’s army to advance first, and anticipated meeting it in battle on August 19 or 20 in the area of Gumbinnen, about twenty-five miles from the Russian frontier, before it reached the Insterburg Gap. Three and a half corps, including François’ Ist Corps, and a cavalry division were sent to meet it while the fourth corps was sent southeast to make contact with Samsonov’s approaching army. On August 16 Eighth Army headquarters moved forward to Bartenstein, closer to the Insterburg front, where it was discovered that François had already reached and passed Gumbinnen. He believed in taking the offensive at once whereas Hoffmann’s strategy was to let Rennenkampf’s army come as far west as it could on its first two days’ march on the theory that the farther it advanced from its base, the more vulnerable it would be. Hoffmann did not want it halted, but on the contrary allowed to reach the Gumbinnen area as soon as possible so as to give the Germans time to engage it alone before having to turn to face Samsonov.

François’ advance beyond Gumbinnen where he had established his headquarters on August 16 threatened to pull the rest of the Eighth Army after him to support his flanks, thus extending itself beyond its powers. Prittwitz on the 16th peremptorily ordered him to halt. François indignantly protested by telephone that the nearer to Russia he engaged the enemy, the less risk to German territory. Prittwitz replied that a sacrifice of part of East Prussia was unavoidable, and dispatched a written order reminding François that he was “sole commander” and again prohibiting further advance. François ignored it. At 1:00 P.M on August 17, Prittwitz “to his great astonishment” received a message from François that he was already in action in Stalluponen, twenty miles beyond Gumbinnen and only five miles from the Russian frontier.

That morning when Rennenkampf’s army crossed the frontier in full force, his IIIrd Corps in the center began its march, more by lack of coordination than by design, several hours ahead of the other two. Russian reconnaissance having located François’ forces at Stalluponen, orders were given to attack. Battle was joined a few miles east of the town. General von François and his staff were watching the progress of the fight from the steeple of the Stalluponen church when, “in the midst of this nerve-wracking tension,” the church bell suddenly tolled with appalling sound upon their eardrums. The steeple shook with its vibrations, the telescope trembled on its tripod, and infuriated officers let loose a hail of Teutonic oaths upon the head of the unfortunate town councilman who had felt it to be his duty to warn the people of the Russians’ approach.

Equal fury raged at Eighth Army headquarters on receipt of the message from François. He was ordered by telephone and telegraph to break off action, and a major-general was rushed off in person to confirm the order. Climbing to the belfry in no less bad temper than already raged there, he shouted at General von François, “The General in Chief orders you to stop the battle instantly and retire upon Gumbinnen!” Furious at the tone and manner, François grandiloquently retorted, “Inform General von Prittwitz that General von François will break off the engagement when he has defeated the Russians!”

Meanwhile a German brigade with five batteries of artillery had been sent around from the German right flank to attack the Russians from the rear. As the early advance of the Russian IIIrd Corps, especially of its 27th Division which was now engaged at Stalluponen, had opened a gap between itself and the neighboring Russian corps on its left, it was unprotected from the German attack. The regiment upon whom the German attack fell, broke and fled, involving the whole 27th Division in retreat and leaving 3,000 prisoners to the Germans. Although the rest of Rennenkampf’s army reached the objective line laid down for it that day, the 27th Division had to retire to the frontier to reform, holding up the scheduled advance for the following day. Brimming with victory, François retired that same night toward Gumbinnen, after evacuating Stalluponen, personally convinced of the virtues of disobedience.

Despite the check, Rennenkampf’s Army renewed its advance. But as early as August 19 it had begun to feel the drain of incomplete services of supply. Hardly fifteen miles from their own frontier, corps commanders reported supplies not coming up and messages not getting through to each other or to army headquarters. Ahead of them roads were clogged by massive, milling droves of cattle and sheep herded by the fleeing populace. The flight of the people and the retrograde movement of François’ corps caused Rennenkampf and his superior, General Jilinsky, commander of the Northwest Front, to believe that the Germans were evacuating East Prussia. This did not suit the Russians, for if the German army retired too soon it would escape destruction by the Russian pincers. Rennenkampf consequently ordered a halt for the 20th, less because of his own difficulties than to entice the enemy forward into battle and allow more time for Samsonov’s Second Army to come up for the decisive blow upon the German rear.

General von François was more than willing. With battle in his nostrils once more, he telephoned General von Prittwitz at Eighth Army headquarters on the 19th and clamored for permission to counterattack instead of continuing his retreat. It was a golden opportunity, he asserted, because the Russian advance was loose and scattered. He described feelingly the flight of the inhabitants and passionately urged the shame of yielding the soil of Prussia to the horrid footprint of the Slav. Prittwitz was torn. Intending to fight behind Gumbinnen, the Eighth Army had well-prepared positions along the river Angerapp. But von François’ too early advance had upset the plan and he was now some ten miles on the far side of Gumbinnen, to the east. To allow him to attack there would mean to accept battle away from the line of the Angerapp; the other two and a half corps would be pulled away with him and would be separated further from the XXth Corps sent to watch the approach of Samsonov’s army from the south and which might need support at any time.

On the other hand, the spectacle of a German army retiring without serious battle, even if only for twenty miles, especially in full view of a terrified population, was distasteful. The decision was made more difficult when the Germans intercepted Rennenkampf’s order to halt. The order was sent to Russian corps commanders by wireless in a simple code which a German professor of mathematics attached to the Eighth Army as cryptographer had no difficulty in solving.

This raised the question: How long would Rennenkampf halt? The time in which the Germans would be free to fight one Russian army without the other was running short; by that evening three of the six days would be gone. If the Germans waited on the Angerapp for Rennenkampf to come against them, they might be caught between both armies at once. Just at this moment, word was received from the XXth Corps that Samsonov’s army had that morning crossed the frontier. The second claw of the pincer was advancing. The Germans must either fight Rennenkampf at once, giving up their prepared position on the Angerapp, or disengage and turn against Samsonov. Prittwitz and his Staff decided on the former, and told François to attack next morning, August 20. The only difficulty was that the other two and a half corps, dutifully waiting on the Angerapp, could not be activated in time to catch up with him.

Before dawn von François’ heavy artillery opened fire, taking the Russians by surprise; the shelling continued for half an hour. At 4:00 A.M. his infantry moved forward over the stubbled fields in the uncertain dark until they came within rifle distance of the Russian lines. As morning broke, combat spread like a licking fire over the front. Russian field batteries poured shells on the advancing gray lines and saw the white road ahead suddenly turn gray with the bodies of the fallen. A second wave of gray charged, coming nearer. The Russians could make out the spiked helmets. Their batteries fired again, and the wave went down and another came. The Russian guns, supplied with ammunition at a rate of 244 rounds per day, were now firing at a rate of 440 per day. An airplane with black crosses flew over and bombed their artillery positions. The gray waves kept on coming. They were within 500 yards when the Russian guns stuttered and fell silent; their ammunition was used up. François’ two divisions cut up the Russian 28th Division, inflicting a casualty rate of 60 per cent, virtual annihilation. François’ cavalry with three batteries of horse artillery made a wide sweep around the open Russian end, unopposed by the Russian cavalry which, having no artillery, took itself off, permitting the Germans to fall upon the Russian transport in the rear. These were the fortunes of the corps on Rennenkampf’s extreme right; on his center and left matters went very differently.

Here the Russians, warned by the sound of François’ predawn cannon, were ready for the attack which came piecemeal over a front 35 miles wide. In the center the German XVIIth Corps did not reach the front until 8:00 A.M., four hours behind François, and on the German right the Ist Reserve Corps did not arrive till noon. The XVIIth was commanded by General August von Mackensen, another of the group of generals who had fought in 1870 and were now sixty-five or over. The Ist Reserve was commanded by General Otto von Below. They had been behind the Angerapp on the evening of the 19th when they received the unexpected order to join François in an offensive beyond Gumbinnen next morning. Hurriedly assembling his units, Mackensen crossed the river during the night to become entangled on the other side among refugees, wagons, and livestock on the roads. By the time they sorted themselves out and advanced far enough to make contact with the enemy, they had lost the advantage of surprise and the Russians opened fire first. The effect of shelling by heavy guns is devastating, whoever is on the receiving end, and in this, one of the rare cases of 1914, the receivers were Germans. The infantry was pinned to the ground lying face down, not daring to raise their heads; ammunition wagons were blown up; horses were galloping riderless. By afternoon Mackensen’s 35th Division broke under the fire. A company threw away its arms and ran; another caught the panic; then a whole regiment, then those on either side of it. Soon the roads and fields were covered with battalions streaming to the rear. Staff and divisional officers and Mackensen himself tore across the front in motors, attempting to stem the rout which continued for fifteen miles before it could be halted.

On Mackensen’s right von Below’s Ist Reserve Corps could give no help because it had started even later and, by the time it reached its appointed sector at Goldap on the edge of Rominten Forest, was at once heavily engaged by the Russians. The rout of Mackensen’s corps in the center uncovered von Below’s left flank, forcing him, too, to retire, both in order to cover Mackensen’s retreat and to protect himself. On von Below’s right the 3rd Reserve Division, commanded by General von Morgen, which had started from the Angerapp last of all did not arrive until evening when all was over, and saw no action. Although the Germans made good their retreat and the Russians had suffered severely against François, the Battle of Gumbinnen was on the whole a Russian victory.

Prittwitz saw his whole campaign undone. A vigorous Russian pursuit through the broken German center could smash through the Insterburg Gap, splitting the Eighth Army and pushing François’ corps in the north into refuge within the Königsberg fortified zone which OHL had expressly warned must not be allowed to happen. To save the Eighth Army and hold it together, Prittwitz saw retreat to the Vistula as the only solution. Moltke’s last words to him had been: “Keep the army intact. Don’t be driven from the Vistula, but in case of extreme need abandon the region east of the Vistula.” Prittwitz felt the extreme need was now, especially after a talk over the telephone with Mackensen who vividly described the panic of his troops.

At six o’clock that evening, August 20, he called François and told him that in spite of success on his sector the army must retreat to the Vistula. Thunderstruck, François protested violently, urged reasons for Prittwitz to reconsider, contended that because of their own losses the Russians could not mount an energetic pursuit, besought him to change his mind. He hung up with an impression that Prittwitz was not entirely adamant and had agreed to think it over.

At Headquarters, through a chaos of excited comings and goings and conflicting reports, an astonishing condition began clearly to emerge: there was no pursuit. At Russian headquarters Rennenkampf had given the order to pursue between three and four o’clock that afternoon, but owing to reports of heavy German artillery fire covering Mackensen’s retreat had canceled the order at 4:30. Uncertain of the extent of the German rout in the center, he waited. An exhausted staff officer who asked his permission to go to bed was told he might lie down but not undress. He slept for an hour and was wakened by Rennenkampf who stood by his bed smiling and said, “You can take off your clothes now; the Germans are retiring.”

Much has been made of this remark by the military historians who swarm over a battle after it is over, especially by Hoffmann who reports it with malicious glee in a rather distorted version. They point out with some truth that when an enemy is retiring is the time to pursue, not to go to bed. Because of the momentous results of the Battle of Tannenberg of which Gumbinnen was a preliminary, the episode of Rennenkampf’s halt has raised clouds of fevered explanations and accusations, not omitting references to his German ancestry and the explicit charge that he was a traitor. The more probable explanation was offered a hundred years before the event by Clausewitz. “The whole weight of all that is sensuous in an army,” he wrote in discussing the problem of pursuit, “presses for rest and refreshment. It requires exceptional vigor on the part of a commander to see and feel beyond the present moment and to act at once to attain those results which at the time seem to be the mere embellishments of victory—the luxury of triumph.”

Whether or not Rennenkampf perceived those ultimate results, the fact was that he could not, or felt he could not, fling himself after the fleeing enemy to pluck the final victory. His supply lines were functioning weakly; to advance further beyond his railhead would be to outrun them altogether. He would be lengthening his lines in hostile territory while the Germans, falling back toward their base, were shortening theirs. He could not use the German railways without capturing their rolling stock, and he had no railroad gangs to alter the gauge. His transport was in chaos after the German cavalry attack; his right-wing cavalry had performed miserably; he had lost most of a division. He stayed where he was.

The evening was hot. Colonel Hoffmann was standing outside the house in which German headquarters was located, debating the battle and the prospects for tomorrow with his immediate superior Major General Grünert with whom he expected to govern the weaker wills of Prittwitz and Waldersee. Just then a message was brought to them. It was from General Scholtz of the XXth Corps reporting that the southern Russian army was now across the frontier with four or five corps and advancing over a front 50 to 60 miles wide. Hoffmann in that disturbing way he had, which no one quite knew whether to take seriously, suggested “suppressing” the report in order to keep it from Prittwitz and Waldersee who in his judgment “had for the moment lost command of their nerves.” No other phrase in memoirs of the war attains the universality of “He lost control of his nerves,” usually applied to a colleague; in this instance it was doubtless justified. Hoffmann’s brief plot was in vain, however, for at that moment Prittzwitz and Waldersee came out of the house wearing expressions showing that they too had received the report. Prittwitz called them all indoors and said: “Gentlemen, if we continue the battle against the Vilna Army, the Warsaw Army will advance on our rear and cut us off from the Vistula. We must break off the fight against the Vilna Army and retire behind the Vistula.” He was no longer talking of retreat “to” but “behind” the Vistula.

Hoffmann and Grünert instantly disputed the necessity, claiming they could “finish off” battle with the Vilna Army in two or three days and still be in time to face the danger from the south, and until then Scholtz’s Corps could “manage for themselves.”

Prittwitz harshly cut them off. It was up to him and Waldersee to make the decision. He insisted that the threat of the southern Russian Army was too great. Hoffmann must make the necessary arrangements for retreat behind the Vistula. Hoffmann pointed out that the left wing of the southern army was already nearer to the Vistula than the Germans were and, demonstrating with a compass, showed that the retreat had become impossible. He asked to be “instructed” how to carry it out. Prittwitz abruptly dismissed him and everyone in the room and telephoned to OHL at Coblenz announcing his intention to retreat to the Vistula if not behind it. He added that its waters in the summer heat were at low ebb and he was doubtful if he could even hold the river without reinforcements.

Moltke was aghast. This was the result of leaving that fat idiot in command of the Eighth Army, and of his own illconsidered last words to him. To yield East Prussia would be to suffer a tremendous moral defeat and lose the most valuable grain and dairy region as well. Worse, if the Russians crossed the Vistula they would threaten not only Berlin but the Austrian flank and even Vienna. Reinforcements! Where could he get reinforcements except from the Western Front where every last battalion was engaged. To withdraw troops from the Western Front now could mean loss of the campaign against France. Moltke was too shocked or too distant from the scene to think to issue a counterorder. For the moment he contented himself with ordering his staff to find out the facts in direct conversation with François, Mackensen, and the other corps commanders.

Meanwhile at Eighth Army Headquarters Hoffmann and Grünert were trying to persuade Waldersee that retreat was not the only course—was indeed an impossible course. Hoffmann now proposed a maneuver by which the Eighth Army, taking advantage of its interior lines and the use of railways, could so dispose itself as to meet the threat of both Russian armies and, if things developed as he thought they would, be in a position to throw all its weight against one of them.

He proposed, if Rennenkampf’s army still did not pursue next day, and he did not think it would, to disengage François’ Ist Corps and bring it the long way round by rail to reinforce Scholtz’s XXth Corps on the southern front. François would take up a position on Scholtz’s right opposite Samsonov’s left wing, which, being nearest to the Vistula, was the most threatening. General von Morgen’s division which had not been in action at Gumbinnen would also be sent to Scholtz’s support by a different set of railway lines. The movement of troops with all their stores, equipment, horses, guns and munitions, the assembling of trains, the boarding at stations mobbed by refugees, the switching of trains from one line to another would be a complex matter, but Hoffmann was sure the German railroad system, on which so much brain power had been expended, would be equal to it.

While this movement was under way, the retreat of Mackensen’s and von Below’s corps would be directed toward the south for another two days’ march so that when successfully disengaged they would be some 30 miles nearer the southern front. From here, if all went well, they would march across the short inner distance to take up a position on Scholtz’s left which they should reach not long after François reached his right. Thus the whole army of four and a half corps would be in place to engage the enemy’s southern army. The cavalry and Königsberg reserves would be left as a screen in front of Rennenkampf’s army.

The success of this maneuver depended entirely upon a single condition—that Rennenkampf would not move. Hoffmann believed he would remain stationary for another day or more to rest and refit and make good his supply lines. His confidence was based not on any mysterious betrayal or other sinister or supernatural intelligence, but simply on his belief that Rennenkampf had come to a halt from natural causes. In any event Mackensen’s and von Below’s corps would not change fronts for another two or three days. By that time there should be some sign—with the help of further intercepted codes—of Rennenkampf’s intentions.

Such was Hoffmann’s argument, and he persuaded von Waldersee. Somehow, sometime that night Waldersee either persuaded Prittwitz or allowed Hoffmann to prepare the necessary orders without Prittwitz’s approval—the record is not clear. As the Staff did not know that Prittwitz had in the meantime told OHL of his intention to retreat to the Vistula, no one bothered to inform the Supreme Command that the idea of retreat had been given up.

Next morning two of Moltke’s staff, after battling the frustrations of the field telephone for some hours, succeeded in talking individually with each corps commander in the East, from whom they gathered that matters were serious but retreat too rash a solution. As Prittwitz seemed committed to retreat, Moltke decided to replace him. While he was talking it over with his deputy, von Stein, Colonel Hoffmann was enjoying the delightful sensation of being right—so far. Reconnaissance showed Rennenkampf’s army quiescent; “they are not pursuing us at all.” Orders were at once issued for the movement of François’ Ist Corps to the south. François, according to his own account, was overcome with emotion and wept when he left Gumbinnen that afternoon. Prittwitz had apparently approved and immediately regretted it. That evening he called OHL again and told von Stein and Moltke that the proposal of his staff to advance against the Warsaw Army was “impossible—too daring.” In reply to a question, he said he could not even guarantee to hold the Vistula with his “handful of men.” He must have reinforcements. That sealed his dismissal.

With the Eastern Front in danger of collapse, someone bold, strong, and decisive was needed at once to take over the command. How a commander will meet the crises of real war is never certain in advance, but OHL was fortunate in knowing of a staff officer who only a week ago had proved himself in action—Ludendorff, the hero of Liège. He would do for Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army. In the German system of command exercised through a pair, the Chief of Staff was as important as the commanding officer and sometimes, depending on capacity and temperament, more so. Ludendorff was at that moment with von Bülow’s Second Army on the outskirts of Namur where, following his success at Liège, he was directing the storming of Belgium’s second great fortress. He was on the doorstep of France at a crucial moment—but the need of the Eastern Front was drastic. Moltke and von Stein agreed he must be called. A staff captain was instantly dispatched by motorcar with a letter which reached General Ludendorff at nine next morning, August 22.

“You may be able to save the situation in the East,” wrote von Stein. “I know no other man in whom I have such absolute trust.” He apologized for drawing Ludendorff away from the threshold of a decisive action “which, please God, will be conclusive,” but the sacrifice was “imperative.” “Of course, you will not be held responsible for what has already happened in the East but with your energy you can prevent the worst from happening.”

Ludendorff left within fifteen minutes in the staff captain’s car. Ten miles from Namur he drove through Wavre which “only the day before when I passed through it had been a peaceful town. Now it was in flames. Here also the populace fired on our troops.”

At six that evening Ludendorff arrived at Coblenz. Within three hours he was briefed on the situation in the East, was received by Moltke, “who was looking tired,” and by the Kaiser, who was “very calm” but deeply affected by the invasion of East Prussia. Ludendorff issued certain orders to the Eighth Army and departed at 9:00 P.M. by special train for the Eastern Front. The orders he issued, besides directing Hoffmann and Grünert to meet him at Marienburg, were for François’ Corps to be sent by train to support Scholtz’s XXth Corps on the southern front. Mackensen’s and von Below’s two corps were to complete their disengagement and rest and refit through August 23. These were the same as Hoffmann’s orders, thus realizing the ideal of the German War College in which all students, given a problem, come up with the identical solution. It is also possible that Ludendorff saw a telegraphed copy of Hoffmann’s orders.

During the drive through Belgium, Ludendorff was told by the staff captain that as new Commander of the Eighth Army OHL had selected a retired general but it was not yet known whether he would accept the post. His name was Paul von Beneckendorff und Hindenburg. Ludendorff did not know him. Before leaving Coblenz later that night, he learned that General von Hindenburg had been located, had accepted the post, and would board the train at Hanover next morning at 4:00 A.M.

After deciding on a Chief of Staff, OHL had turned to the problem of finding a commanding officer. Ludendorff, everybody felt, was certainly a man of undeniable ability, but to complete the pair it would be well to have a regular “von.” The names of various retired corps commanders were considered. Von Stein remembered a letter he had received from a former comrade on the outbreak of war, saying, “Don’t forget me if, as things develop, a commanding officer is needed anywhere,” and promising that the writer was “still robust.” Just the man. He came from an old Junker family established in Prussia for centuries. He had served on the General Staff under Schlieffen and risen through all the proper steps to become a corps chief of staff and subsequently a corps commander before retiring at sixty-five in 1911. He would be sixty-eight in two months but he was no older than Kluck, Bülow, and Hausen, the three generals of the right wing. What was wanted in the East, especially after Prittwitz’s panic, was a man of no nerves, and Hindenburg, throughout a solid, dependable career had been known for his imperturbability. Moltke approved; the Kaiser gave his consent. A telegram was dispatched to the retired general.

Hindenburg was at home in Hanover when at 3:00 P.M. he received a telegram asking if he would accept “immediate employment.” He replied, “I am ready.” A second telegram instructed him to leave for the East at once to take command of the Eighth Army. OHL did not bother to invite him to Coblenz for talks. He was instructed to board the train at Hanover and informed that his Chief of Staff would be General Ludendorff who would meet him on the train en route. Hindenburg had just time to be fitted for one of the new field-gray uniforms before departing, much to his embarrassment, in the old blue uniform of a Prussian general.

When the recall of Prittwitz was made public a few days later, the invaluable diarist, Princess Blücher, noted, “A General Hindenburg, quite an old man, has taken his place.” Newspaper editors hurriedly scraped together material about the new commander, which was difficult to find since he appeared under “Beneckendorff” in the Army list. They were gratified to discover that he had fought at Sedan where he received the Iron Cross, Second Class, and was also a veteran of the earlier war against Austria in 1866. His Beneckendorff ancestors were among the Teutonic Knights who had settled East Prussia; the name Hindenburg was a product of marriage connections in the eighteenth century. He was a native of Posen in West Prussia, and early in his career, as staff officer to the Ist Corps at Königsberg, had studied the military problems of the Masurian Lake district, a fact that was soon to become the germ of the legend that depicted Hindenburg planning the Battle of Tannenberg thirty years in advance. He had been brought up on his grandparents’ estate in Neudeck in West Prussia and remembered having had talks as a boy with an old gardener who had once worked two weeks for Frederick the Great.

He was waiting at the station in Hanover when the train drew in at four in the morning. General Ludendorff whom he had never met “stepped briskly” to the platform to report himself. On the way east he explained the situation and the orders he had already issued. Hindenburg listened and approved. So was born, on the way to the battle that was to make them famous, the combination, the “marriage” expressed in the mystic monogram  that was to rule imperial Germany until the end. When sometime later he was made a Field Marshal, Hindenburg earned the nickname “Marshal Was-sagst-du” because of his habit, whenever asked for an opinion, of turning to Ludendorff and asking, “Was sagst du?” (What do you say?)

Characteristically the first person OHL thought to inform of the change in the Eighth Army command was the Director of Railways on the Eastern Front, Major-General Kersten. On the afternoon of August 22, even before the special train had started on its way, this officer came into Hoffmann’s office wearing “a very startled expression” and showed him a telegram announcing the arrival next day at Marienburg of an extra train bringing a new Commander and new Chief of Staff. That was how Prittwitz and Waldersee learned of their dismissal. An hour later Prittwitz received a personal telegram placing him and Waldersee on the “unattached list.” “He took leave of us,” says Hoffmann, “without a single word of complaint of this treatment.”

Ludendorff’s methods were no more tactful. Although he knew Hoffmann well, having lived in the same house with him in Berlin for four years when both were serving on the General Staff, he nevertheless telegraphed his orders to each of the corps commanders individually instead of through the Eighth Army Staff. This was not necessarily a deliberate effort to be offensive; it was normal for General Staff officers to be offensive. Hoffman and Grünert promptly felt insulted. The reception they tendered the new commanders at Marienburg was, says Ludendorff, “anything but cheerful.”

The critical question on which the fate of the campaign hung now had to be faced. Should Mackensen’s and von Below’s corps remain where they were for defense against a further advance by Rennenkampf or should they be moved south in accordance with Hoffmann’s plan to oppose Samsonov’s right wing? There was no hope of defeating Samsonov’s army except by the whole of the Eighth Army. François’ Corps on that day, August 23, was finishing the intricate process of entrainment at five different stations between Insterberg and Königsberg and was now en route to the southern front. It would take another two days of switchings and sidings and equally intricate detrainment before it would be in position to fight. Von Morgen’s division was also on its way by a different line. Mackensen’s and von Below’s corps were halted for the day. Cavalry reconnaissance reported continued “passivity” on the part of Rennenkampf’s army. He was only separated from Mackensen and von Below by some thirty to forty miles, and if they were moved south against the other Russian army he could still—if he moved—follow and fall upon their rear. Hoffmann wanted Mackensen and von Below to start on their way at once. Ludendorff, barely thirty-six hours out of Namur and newly arrived in a situation in which a decision either way might be fatal and for which he would be responsible, was uncertain. Hindenburg, barely twenty-four hours out of retirement, was relying on Ludendorff.

On the Russian side the task of timing the pincers to close simultaneously upon the enemy tormented the higher command. So many and various, intractable and obvious were the stumbling blocks that the military chiefs were ridden with pessimism from the start. General Jilinsky, commander of the Northwest Front, whose function was to coordinate the movements of Rennenkampf’s and Samsonov’s armies, could think of no better way to perform it than by continued instructions to hurry. As Rennenkampf had started first and gone into action first, Jilinsky addressed all his hurry-up orders to Samsonov. At the same time Jilinsky himself was on the receiving end of a chain of ever more urgent pleas from the French. To relieve the pressure upon them in the West the French instructed their ambassador to “insist” upon the “necessity of the Russian armies prosecuting their offensive à outrance toward Berlin.” From Joffre to Paris, from Paris to St. Petersburg, from St. Petersburg to “Stavka” (Russian General Headquarters at Baranovichi), from Stavka to Jilinsky the demands passed, and Jilinsky passed them all on to General Samsonov, struggling forward foot by foot through sand.

Since commanding a cavalry division in the Russo-Japanese War, this “simple and kindly man,” as the British liaison officer with the Second Army called him, had had no experience fitting him to command an army of thirteen divisions. He was working through a staff and divisional commanders unfamiliar to him. Because the Russian Army was not organized on a regional basis, the newly reported reservists, numbering in some cases up to two-thirds of a regiment, were complete strangers to their NCOs and officers. The shortage of officers and the low, often nonexistent, level of literacy among the men did not ease the process of communicating orders down the line. Almost the worst confusion was in the signal corps. At the telegraph office in Warsaw a staff officer discovered to his horror a pile of telegrams addressed to the Second Army lying unopened and unforwarded because no communication had been established with field headquarters. The officer gathered them up and delivered them by car. Corps headquarters had only enough wire to connect with the divisional commands but not enough to connect with Army Headquarters or with neighboring corps. Hence the resort to wireless.

Because of the insistence on haste four days had been cut out of the period of concentration, leaving the organization of the rear services incomplete. One corps had to dole out its shells to another whose supply train had not come up, thus upsetting its own calculations. Bakery wagons were missing. To enable an army to live off the country in hostile territory, requisitioning parties were required to be sent ahead under cavalry escort, but no arrangements for this had been made. Single-horse power proved inadequate to pull wagons and gun carriages over the sandy roads. In some places the horses had to be unharnessed from half the wagons, hitched up in double harness to the other half, moved forward a certain distance, unhitched, brought back, harnessed up to the stranded wagons, and the process begun all over again.

“Hurry up the advance of the Second Army and hasten your operations as energetically as possible,” Jilinsky wired on August 19. “The delay in the advance of the Second Army is putting the First Army in a difficult position.” This was not true. Samsonov on the 19th was crossing the frontier on schedule, but Jilinsky was so sure it was going to be true that he was anticipating.

“Advancing according to timetable, without halting, covering marches of more than 12 miles over sand. I cannot go more quickly,” Samsonov replied. He reported that his men were on the move for ten or twelve hours a day without halts. “I must have immediate and decisive operations,” Jilinsky telegraphed three days later. “Great weariness” of his men made greater speed impossible, Samsonov answered. “The country is devastated, the horses have long been without oats, there is no bread.”

On that day Samsonov’s XVth Corps commanded by General Martos came up against the German XXth Corps of General Scholtz. Combat was opened. The Germans, not yet reinforced, retreated. About ten miles inside the frontier General Martos captured Soldau and Neidenburg which until a few hours before had been General Scholtz’s headquarters. When Cossack patrols entering Neidenburg reported German civilians firing on them from the windows, General Martos ordered a bombardment of the town which destroyed most of the main square. A “small, gray man,” he personally felt uncomfortable that night when he found himself billetted in a house whose German owners had departed, leaving behind their family photographs staring at him from the mantelpiece. It was the mayor’s house, and General Martos ate a dinner prepared for the mayor and served by his maid.

On August 23, the day Ludendorff and Hindenburg arrived in the East, the Russian VIth and XIIIth corps on the right of General Martos captured more villages; General Scholtz, still alone except for some support from the Vistula garrison behind him, backed up a little farther. Ignoring Rennenkampf’s inactivity in the north, Jilinsky continued to rain orders on Samsonov. The Germans on his front were hastily retreating, he told Samsonov, “leaving only insignificant forces facing you. You are therefore to execute a most energetic offensive .… You are to attack and intercept the enemy retiring before General Rennenkampf’s army in order to cut off his retreat from the Vistula.”

This was, of course, the original design, but it was predicated on Rennenkampf’s holding the Germans occupied in the north. In fact, on that date Rennenkampf was no longer in contact with the enemy. He began to advance again on August 23 but in the wrong direction. Instead of moving crabwise to the south to link up with Samsonov in front of the lakes, he moved straight west to mask Königsberg, fearful that François would attack his flank if he turned south. Although it was a movement with no relevance at all to the original design, Jilinsky did nothing to alter it. Operating like Rennenkampf in a complete fog as to the German movements, he assumed they were doing what the Russians had planned on their doing—retreating to the Vistula. Accordingly, he continued to push Samsonov forward.

On the evening of August 23, General Martos’ Corps, encouraged by the feel of the enemy falling back, moved on from Neidenburg and reached positions within 700 yards of the German lines. Scholtz’s Corps was entrenched between the villages of Orlau and Frankenau. The Russians were under orders to take the trenches at all costs. They lay all night in position and crept forward another hundred yards before dawn. When the signal for attack came they took the last 600 yards in three rushes, throwing themselves to the ground under the fire of the German machine guns, surging forward again—and down and up again. As the wave of white-bloused figures with their glistening bayonets closed in, the Germans scrambled from the trenches, abandoned their machine guns, and fled. Elsewhere along the line German superiority in artillery punished the attackers. The Russian XIIIth Corps on Martos’ right, owing to a blunder in communications or poor generalship, or both, failed to come to his support, and no great advantage was gained from the engagement. By the end of the day the Germans were in retreat but not routed. The Russians captured two field guns and some prisoners, but their own losses were high, a total of 4,000. One regiment lost 9 out of 16 company commanders. One company lost 120 out of 190 men and all its officers.

Though German losses were less, Scholtz, facing overwhelming numbers, withdrew for some ten miles, establishing his headquarters for the night in the village of Tannenberg. Still harried by Jilinsky who insisted that he must move on to the agreed line where he could cut off the enemy’s “retreat,” Samsonov issued orders to all his corps—the XXIIIrd on the left, the XVth and XIIIth in the center, the VIth on the right—giving their dispositions and lines of march for the following day. Beyond Neidenberg communications had become ever more feeble. One corps had run out of wire altogether and was relying on mounted orderlies. The VIth Corps did not possess the key to the cipher used by the XIIIth. Consequently, Samsonov’s orders were issued by wireless in clear.

Up to this moment, some twenty-four hours since the arrival of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the Eighth Army had not yet decided whether to bring down Mackensen’s and von Below’s corps to oppose Samsonov’s right wing. Hindenburg and his staff came down to Tannenberg to consult Scholtz who was “grave but confident.” They returned to Headquarters. That evening, Hoffmann wrote later, “was the most difficult of the whole battle.” While the staff was debating, a signal corps officer brought in an intercept of Samsonov’s orders for the next day, August 25. Although this assistance from the enemy did not reveal Rennenkampf’s intentions which were the crucial question, it did show the Germans where they might expect to meet Samsonov’s forces. That helped. The Eighth Army made up its mind to throw all its strength into battle against Samsonov. Orders went out to Mackensen and von Below to turn their backs on Rennenkampf and march south at once.

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