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.