The Battle of Tannenberg: five misconceptions

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The campaign resulted in one of the most decisive victories of the First World War. Here, we take a look at five popular misconceptions about Tannenberg.

Russian prisoners being held at Tilsit station in August 1914.
Russian prisoners being held at Tilsit station in August 1914.

German plans assumed slow Russian mobilisation. In fact, the Russians mobilised rapidly and launched an immediate offensive to relieve the pressure on their French allies in the West. In consequence, the decisive battle of the war of movement in East Prussia was fought two weeks before that in the West (the Battle of the Marne).

The Russian ‘steamroller’ was not a uniformly primitive military machine. Part of the way through its modernisation programme, the Russian Army was a mix of tradition and modernity. The technical arms were especially good: the Russian artillery was numerous and well-served, and there were no less than 244 military aircraft available at the outbreak of war.

The German Army, though more advanced than the Russian, was itself a hybrid. Beyond railhead, it moved at the speed of marching men and horse-drawn transport. In this respect, it represented a mix of 18th- and 20th-century technology.

The use of uncoded radio signals was not due to incompetence. The Germans also sent many uncoded messages during the campaign. The Russian problem was lack of codebooks and trained personnel. The German problem was lack of time. In any case, the air was alive with radio communications, and it required large numbers of trained enemy operators, fully equipped for interception work, to take full advantage. Both sides were aware that much en clair messaging was relatively safe.

Tannenberg was a decisive defensive battle in that it saved East Prussia from invasion. But it was not decisive in any wider sense: Rennenkampf’s First Army fell back in good order after the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, while Germany’s Austro-Hungarian allies crashed to disastrous defeat in Galicia.

This is an article from the October 2014 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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