Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Battle of Tannenberg (1914)

The Tannenberg battlefield is not easy to interpret. It covers a vast area and most of the monuments, markers and cemeteries have been lost in the years that have intervened. However with some help we covered some of the central ground covered by the Russian 2nd Army and the German 8th Army during the fighting of the 26th to 29th August 1914. The area in question is in the vicinity of Allenstein (now Olsztyn).

Allenstein 1914
Olstzyn 2013
 The Russians had mobilised much more quickly than anticipated. the Arrival of Rennenkampf's 1st Army and Samsonov's 2nd Army in East Prussia presented a major challenge.

The first substantive contact on the North / South axis came at Orlau (Orlawa) on the 24th August where the German XX Corps were heavily entrenched. The topography around Orlau is not what I had imagined - it is rather like the Somme area of Northern France. Cultivated fields, small woods & copses and a smattering of villages and farmsteads. We chose to walk the Russian front line position on a forward slope 100 yards in front of the German trenches which still exist in the environs of Orlau Military Cemetery.
The Old Russian Line at Orlau Mill

In the picture on the right, my friends are standing on what was the Russian front line. On the extreme left you will see a small cross at the front of the trees. This marks the military cemetery which contains 329 German and 1000 Russian graves. Behind the tree line is a river crossing and old mill where the fighting on the 24th was particularly intense.
German Cemetery - Hill 205

Our walk followed the line of the Russian attack through to the point which marked the line of withdrawal for the German defenders. We travelled south following the opposing defence lines. The XX Corps positions are marked by the small cemeteries that can be seen on the tree line adjacent to the Orlawa to Turowo road.

To the north on the route taken by the victorious German 15th Corps the landscape is made up of steep sided valleys and rocky hills. similar to the terrain found in the Belgian Ardennes Forest.
Thurou (Turowo) Russian Cemetery

Our route took us through Skottau (Szkotowo) where local enthusiasts have very recently restored the military cemetery. 28 Germans and 322 are interred in this atmospheric spot.

Skottau Military Cemetery
Drobnitz (Drwek) Military Cemetery
Tannenberg was, of course, a decisive victory for the Germans. By focussing all of their strength on the Russian 2nd Army, the Germans were able to rout Samsonov's invading force and stabilize the situation in East Prussia. It also marked the debut of what was to become one of WW1' most enduring military partnerships - Hindenburg and Luddendorf.

During the battle, Hindenburg had his Field Headquarters at Frogenau, just a few miles from the town of Tannenberg. There used to be a marker on the spot where Hindenburg issued his orders. The stone marker has long since gone but we were able to find the base of the old monument.
Hindenberg's Monument at Frogenau

Strictly speaking the battle was not centred on Tannenberg. However Tannenberg was chosen as the official name as a reference to the first Battle of Tannenberg on 15th July 1410 when an alliance between Poland and Lithuania defeated a German - Prussian army of Teutonic Nights. This event is, today, massively important to the Polish nation and the Grunwald (Tannenberg) battlefield is marked by an impressive memorial and museum.

Polish National Tapestry - The Battle of Grunwald 1410
Battle of Grunwald Memorial Park
The German victory in the later 1914 battle was marked in subsequent years by the construction of a massive memorial. This memorial became a place of pilgrimage in the inter war years. During the Nazi era, Hindenburg and his wife were buried there with much pomp and ceremony. The memorial was supported by excellent roads and a number of 'high end' hotels.
The Tannenberg Memorial - 1937 & 2013
There is not much to see now. The memorial was destroyed by the retreating Axis forces in 1945 and Hindenberg's body was repatriated to Germany. What remained was levelled by the Polish authorities in the 1950s. All that can be found now consists of a few lighting towers and boundary walls plus the main local hotel (now a road house establishment). 
The Tannenberg Lion

There is one feature from the Tannenberg Memorial which has survived though. The 'Olsztynek Lion' once graced the top of a 8 metre high entrance pillar at the Tannenberg Memorial. It was recently discovered in an ex Soviet army base and is now on public display outside of Olsztynek Town Hall.

For the full 'Battle of Tannenberg' photo set click here.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Kaliningrad (East Prussia) Road Trip - Part 2

The old Romintin forest is tucked away in the North East of the Kaliningrad Oblast. This picturesque area was traditionally the hunting grounds of Prussian and German high society. The Kaiser's Hunting Lodge was situated there and prior to his death in 1941, Wilhelm II was a regular visitor. The Lodge has long since gone and it is only now that the areas' prolific wildlife is recovering from years of exploitation. During our visit we encountered wild boar and a number of deer species.
Tolmingen Railway Siding
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, the local population are just beginning to wake up to the opportunities presented by tourism. So far, the number of visitors has been tiny but I suspect that one day this might change.

Lock on the Kanal Masurski
There was a time when trade was brisk in this part of the world. Nowadays the canal and rail networks are little used given that most of the routes run into modern day Poland and Lithuania.

The Masurian Canal connected the Masurian Lakes with the Baltic Sea. In 1942 the waterway was 90% complete and this is how things stayed once East Prussia was lost to Germany in the latter year of WW2. The lock we explored was an engineering marvel with a phenomenal drop. Sadly no longer operable.

Railway Bridge - Rominten
Our journey took us North towards areas of the Region which saw heavy fighting in both World Wars. Gumbinnen (now known as Gusev) was historically the regional capital in the East of what was known as Prussia). Now it is a pleasant town which is beginning to show some pride in its' German heritage. Some of the old German street names have been publicised alongside the Russian alternative and we saw recent murals showing how the town looked prior to WW2.

German heritage in Gusev
Cleaners take a break in Gusev
Gumbinnen saw one of the first battles of WW1 when, on the 19th August 1914, the local German commander, Prittwitz, pushed his 8th Army forward to meet Rennenkampf's 2nd Russian Army which was thrusting towards Konigsberg. The German's were pushed back and Prittwitz lost his job. Hindenburg was the replacement and the subsequent Battle of Tannenberg was a different story. We visited a well marked German cemetery to the East of the city (German place name of Mattischkehmen). The German war graves show details of the regiment as well as the name. For example: 'Lieutenant dR. Richard Solbrig, 2 Komp Jnf, Regiment 21'.
German & Russian Memorials

Mattischkehmen Military Cemetery
The cemetery contains the graves of 643 German soldiers and 438 Russian. Of the latter, 165 are buried in one communal plot.

The area saw vicious fighting in WW2 as well. The Goldap-Gumbinnen offensive was launched by the Russian 3rd Belorussian Front in October 1944. The Germans were able to prevail and retook much of the ground captured by the Russians. This was the first incursion into 'The Reich' and the German propoganda machine made much of the Russian atrocities commited in places like Nemmersdorf. Nemmersdorf fell to the Red Army on the 21st October 1944. It was the scene of considerable violence against the native population and a number of French and Belgian non combatants. There remains some dsagreement about the scale of the massacre but few doubt that it took place.

There are many contemporary photographs (most too graphic to publish in this blog). We walked through the village and managed to match two reference points which are shown in the 'Then and Now' photographs below.

Nemmersdorf Bridge - Then and Now
Military Signs - Then and Now
 From the tragic village of Nemmersdorf, we travelled North to the Lithuanian border and to the city of Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit). The town is dominated by the bridge over the Neman River. The bridge was destroyed in the autumn of 1944 but the one of the old towers remains. As is so often the case with important river crossings the town square plays host to a very impressive Soviet War Memorial marking the taking of this town on the 20th January 1945.
Border Crossing - Sovetsk
War Memorial at Sovetsk
The town has had some money spent on it. The main street has been restored to its' former glory including German street signs and a refurbished tram car 'destination Engelsberg'.

Restored Tram Car - Sovetsk
Remains of Bismark Tower
At this stage in our journey time was beginning to run against us but before we returned to Kaliningrad City, we made a couple of stops in the Labiau area. It is quite remarkable that a Bismark Tower can be found in this part of the world. There were originally 240 such towers scattered across Germany and East Prussia. 

At the end of our trip we did visit Kaliningrad's World Heritage site 'The Kurische Nehrung'. This is narrow spit of land which separates the Kurisches Haff from the Baltic Sea. It's an atmospheric place characterised by stands of pine trees and vast tracts of shifting sands. Ideal for bird watching and quiet contemplation. Somewhat short on military history though!

Click here for the Siege of Kaliningrad City (1945).
Click here for the Heiligenbeil Pocket (1945).
Click here for the Evacuation from Pillau (1945).
Click here for the full Kaliningrad Oblast Photo Set.
Click here for Part 1 of the Kaliningrad Road Trip.