The landscape of Eastern Europe is peppered with monuments and memorials that come as a surprise to many an educated Briton at large in Poland or Belarus, the Ukraine or Lithuania. These are not monuments to the vast battles and bloodletting of the Second World War, or even to the hubris of Napoleon, but to the sweeping, empty carnage of the First World War’s Eastern Front, a struggle largely ignored by Western historians and forgotten by the heritage industry. A hundred years on from the day the Central Powers retook the symbolically significant fortress of Przemysl, which had fallen to the Russians in the autumn, the Eastern Front merits some attention.
The Eastern Front is generally described as another of the War’s great stalemates, and until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 it was. Unlike the death-grip immobility of the fronts in France, Gallipoli and Italy, the stalemate in the east was conducted over vast, often empty areas, so that armies could and did advance hundreds of kilometres without disturbing the overall strategic status quo.
All through the autumn of 1914 and the following spring, land had been won and lost all along the front, from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea. Long, long supply lines, the military inefficiency of Austrian and Russian forces, commitment of the best German forces to the Western Front, the difficulty of sustaining advanced forces in inhospitable, often baked or frozen wilderness – all these factors and more made every victory temporary, and every defeat reversible once a defensive line had been established. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the process in conditions that made the Western Front seem, if not benign, at least somewhere soldiers didn’t expect to starve or freeze to death.
In 1915, that year of unfounded optimism, the east’s stalemate of movement offered a mirage of total victory even more seductive than breakthrough in the West or backdoor triumph through a sideshow. Nothing so coherent as focused strategic optimism was coming out of Russia’s chaotic and fractious high command, Stavka, but in Conrad, the blinkered eminence of Vienna’s war effort, and Ludendorff, the influential egotist in charge of Germany’s eastern operations, the Central Powers were saddled with two of the War’s most dangerous dreamers.
The fall of Przemysl was a highlight of the German and Austrian clean-up operation after the spring’s highly successful but strategically irrelevant Gorlice-Tarnow offensive. By the end of the month the Central Powers had occupied all of Galicia, and operations paused for another round of fantasist lobbying by Conrad and Ludendorff. Their argument was, as ever, that if German chief of staff Falkenhayn would give priority to the east, Russia could be knocked out of the war with one great blow. Falkenhayn, caught between the seductive propaganda of his most apparently successful general and the need to stay strong in the west, once again refused the great gamble, and instead opted for a limited July offensive designed to pinch out the great bulge in the front line that was the Polish heartland.
To be fair to Ludendorff and Conrad – both high on my list of the Twentieth Century’s relatively unsung villains – the Russians looked ripe for the beating in June 1915. Having hemorrhaged men all spring, Russian forces were scattered along the front in shallow trenches, desperately short of equipment, training and competent commanders. Russia’s Entente allies were very afraid that a second enemy offensive, swiftly delivered, would force the Tsar into a separate peace with Germany, a fear that added urgency to their own efforts to achieve breakthrough in France.
So optimism about the attacker’s chances reigned supreme into the summer of 1915. The fact that Russian armies could triumph after retreating a very long way for a very long time had been well established since Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, and nothing about the Tsar’s regime suggested that the loss of a few hundred thousand subjects was likely to alter its strategic priorities – but as preparations for what would be called the Triple Offensive got underway the world at large held its breath in anticipation of news from a front that seemed on the point of decisive denouement.