Share This Article

The opening clash between the German and Russian empires in World War I ended in one of history’s most misleading outcomes. Germany’s war plan, accepting a two-front conflict against France and Russia, initially allowed only token forces to defend East Prussia. Russia responded to this opening with a two-pronged drive into that exposed province—one army advancing west across the Niemen River, the other northwest from Russian Poland. Mounted with overwhelmingly superior forces, the operation seemed on its way to success when the German theater commander panicked and proposed abandoning East Prussia entirely.

The Russians, however, failed to press their advantage or coordinate their movements. The headquarters of Northwestern Front left the army commanders to their own devices. The oft-mentioned, but essentially imaginary, hostility between their commanders, Paul von Rennenkampf and Alexander Samsonov, contributed far less to the resulting entropy than did inadequate communications, poor intelligence and worse staff work. Rennenkampf’s First Army advanced slowly and lost touch with the Germans it was ostensibly pursuing. Samsonov’s axis of advance with Second Army—mostly determined by poor roads—extended so widely that its subordinate corps found maintaining lateral contact increasingly difficult.

Second Army’s situation created an opportunity for a new German team: Paul von Hindenburg as commanding general, and Erich Ludendorff as his chief of staff. Hindenburg had a reputation for unshakeable imperturbability, Ludendorff for erratic brilliance. It proved an effective combination. They implemented plans, already drafted by staff officers on the ground, to concentrate their entire strength against the southern sector. It was a gamble dependent for success on the marching ability of the troops and the carrying capacity of East Prussia’s railway network. Both repaid their commanders’ confidence. As the Germans closed in from three sides, Russia’s Second Army stumbled into the developing encirclement, obliging its enemy by advancing in the center while disregarding the looming threats to its flanks. After five days of close-quarters fighting, nearly 80,000 Russians lay dead or wounded; 90,000 more were prisoners of war.

Tannenberg was a tactical triumph. But its operational consequences were marginal and its strategic consequences nonexistent. The outcome reflected less fundamental Russian incompetence than a specific decision to wage a campaign of maneuver their field armies could not execute. The battle did not break the Russian army, nor did it drive Russia out of the war. The real results were matters of policy and mythology. Tannenberg set Hindenburg and Ludendorff on the road to supreme power in the Second Reich—power they exercised with disastrous incompetence. The battle became an instant myth in a Germany hungry for decisive, single-blow victories. Such victories proved beyond reach in 1914–18 and three decades later in a greater war.


■ Raised in a barn? Don’t leave the back door open when calling on your enemy.

■ Be nimble. Flexibility is key, whether in command structures or operational movements.

■ Do a reality check. Policy, strategy and operations must be congruent with tactical capacities.

■ And check your ego. Belief in press clippings is high risk, for generals and governments.

■ Got wheels? In a battle of maneuver, good transportation is a force multiplier.

■ Stay in touch, especially if you can’t concentrate your forces.

■ Change is good. Replacing an inept commander sometimes bears fruit.

■ Bold maneuvers sometimes win battles, but consistency wins the war. Success in one circumstance is no guarantee of transferability.

■ Come here often? Seeking decisive combat in modern war is like looking for true love in a hookup bar—the odds are against it.


Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.