These days, everybody knows it’s a bad idea to try and conquer Russia. Russia’s too big to invade properly in the few months when weather permits anything so frisky, and has the resources to recover from any known military disaster during the long, fallow months of winter. Napoleon and Hitler tried it, and ruined themselves in the failure. In the summer of 1915 General Ludendorff, already much maligned in these pages, wanted to try it, but was only allowed a limited version of his great invasion plan. The result was an apparently massive victory, won at relatively little cost, which stripped the Russian Empire of almost all its eastern European possessions. This was the (largely) German Triple Offensive that began in July 1915.
Without going into maps, the Triple Offensive was a series of attacks all along the Eastern Front. They were carried out with fewer men and weapons than Ludendorff (and, if he was awake, Hindenburg) wanted, but as many as German chief-of-staff Falkenhayn could spare, given his commitments on other fronts. The attacks found the Russian armies in their standard condition of overstretched, ill-organised unpreparedness, and the Russian high command (Stavka) reacted to initial German breakthroughs in the usual way, by sticking its head in the sand and simply ordering field commanders to hold firm. They couldn’t, and Stavka, facing the prospect of massive losses as armies were cut off by German forces advancing on their flanks, finally changed its mind on 22 July, when it played the trump card that has been saving Russia for the last two centuries. It ordered a ‘Great Retreat.’
History is full of ‘great’ retreats. A Russian Great Retreat had drawn Napoleon all the way to Moscow and left him broken, and a Soviet Great Retreat would one day lead Hitler along the same path, but the Russian retreat of 1915 wasn’t in the same league. It wasn’t even the greatest Great Retreat of that year, less desperate and dramatic than the Serbian version that would follow in November, and deserved the sobriquet only in that it stabilised the theatre by shifting the front line some 350km to the east. A lot of men and equipment were preserved to fight another day, some industrial plant was moved to safety, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy was implemented to deny supplies to the enemy – but the scorching was carried out on a patchy basis that allowed landowners of wealth and influence to negotiate exemptions, and on the whole the retreat was an improvised affair, barely controlled by Stavka and regarded as a shambles by contemporary Russian critics. If that makes you wonder how it joined the pantheon of Great Retreats, accepted as such by all sides of the argument, here’s an answer.
Simple propaganda explains why Russian authorities insisted that a narrow escape from catastrophic defeat constituted a brilliant exercise in defensive warfare, and why Russia’s allies were happy to support the myth – but the key to this retreat’s illusory greatness lies in German attitudes. As they pursued the retreat east, German forces missed the chance to encircle seven escaping Russian armies, a failure that left the balance of power on the Eastern Front essentially unchanged at the end of what had seemed a potentially decisive operation. Unwilling or unable to accept that rough terrain, poor communications and lengthening supply lines (in other words, the fighting conditions of the era) had been responsible for yet another disappointment, and anxious to avoid any personal blame, German commanders on the Front, from Ludendorff down, queued up to praise Russian brilliance.
The retreat ordered a hundred years ago today was undoubtedly significant. It repeated the militarily unpalatable lesson that, the way things stood in 1915, the mere fact of territorial gain turned any offensive into a laborious reinforcement of stalemate, and in so doing bought Russia time for the economic and military reorganisation that kept the stalemate going. It wasn’t great, and it became a Great Retreat simply because, like Dunkirk and a lot of other retreats (and for that matter like the War on Terror), the concept was convenient for both sets of leaders involved.