Undoubtedly, the year 1915 has been largely ignored, if not forgotten, by British historians of the First World War. In part, this is because the year was one of success for Central Powers and failure for the Entente. In the West, the ‘Iron Wall’ of the German army repelled numerous major Franco-British offensives with minimal losses. In the Dardanelles, Turkish forces had warded off all attacks by British and French naval and land forces and were poised to inflict a stinging defeat on the Entente. In Mesopotamia, the Turks had stopped a British advance and laid siege to this force at Kut-al-Amara. It was on the Eastern Front in 1915, however, that the Central Powers had their greatest successes. With the exception of a recent book by Richard DiNardo and one of my earlier books, these victories by the Central Powers in the east have been almost completely overlooked by Anglophone historians.
The great Austro-Hungarian-German victories began in early May 1915. Responding to increasingly desperate cries for assistance from the Austro-Hungarian High Command, which was facing an imminent collapse of its defensive front in the Carpathians, the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, transferred eight divisions to the Eastern Front. These divisions were formed into a new army – the 11th – which was initially formed to carry out a breakthrough on the Western Front. This new army had been given Hans von Seeckt as its chief of staff. Seeckt had been chosen for this role, in part, because of his success in the limited battles of Vailly and Soissons in January 1915; Falkenhayn had hoped that Seeckt would use this experience to conduct a larger, war-winning breakthrough with the reserves the German army had now collected. Seeckt would oversee a large and successful breakthrough battle in 1915, but on the Eastern, not the Western Front.
In late April, the Central Powers collected some sixteen divisions and considerable heavy artillery southeast of Krakow. The German 11th Army was to join the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army in an attack on the Russian 3rd Army near Gorlice-Tarnow. The Austro-German force would be commanded tactically by General August von Mackensen, the 11th Army’s commander, with the Austro-Hungarian High Command directing the overall operation. The goal of what would become ‘Army Group Mackensen’ was to punch a hole through the Russian lines and threaten the flank and rear of the Russian forces advancing through the Carpathian Mountains further south.
The offensive began on 2 May and was successful beyond expectations. By 3 May, the 11th Army had captured 17,000 Russian prisoners. By 10 May, the Russian 3rd Army had retreated to the River San and had been ‘bled white’ in the words of its commander, General Radko Dmitriev; only 40,000 of its 250,000 men made it to the new defensive position. The Austro-German offensive did not stop on the San, however, but continued to punish the Russians. When the offensive was brought to a halt on 22 June, the Central Powers had advanced some 300 kilometers, had retaken Lvov, the capital of Austrian Galicia, and had inflicted enormous casualties on the Russian army; the 11th Army alone captured more than 250,000 Russian prisoners and 225 guns. The costs had been relatively light; the 11th Army suffered some 87,000 casualties in the offensive.
The Gorlice-Tarnow offensive was important to the Central Powers for a range of reasons. Strategically, the offensive relieved the pressure on the threatened Austro-Hungarian defensive positions in the Carpathians. Had the Russians broken through this line, they would have been on the Hungarian Plains with little between them and the Hungarian capital Budapest. The heavy casualties suffered by the Russians also did serious damage to the Russian army as a fighting force. In a report on 6 June Capt. J.F. Nielson, a British liaison officer, described the Russian army as a ‘harmless mob’ as a result of the offensive. The weakened Russian army would suffer even more later in the summer.
The battle also had important tactical implications for the Central Powers. The German army believed several factors were crucial for its successes. The first of these was surprise. The offensive was agreed by Falkenhayn and executed by the 11th Army in the space of only 20 days. German troops only began arriving on 17 April, with their deployment finished on 29 April. German troops did not move into attack positions until 1 May, and any German officer who went into the frontline before this time had to wear Austrian uniform. With such short timeframes, the Russian defenders had little time to identify German units opposing them. This alone helped ensure that when the attack came, the Russian would be surprised.
Second, the attacking force of the Central Powers collected over 1,000 guns, which overwhelmed the Russian artillery. The attackers also eschewed a long preparatory bombardment. The Central Powers began ‘harassing fire’ on the evening of 1 May, but only delivered a four-hour bombardment as a prelude to the infantry assault on 2 May. This bombardment was intensive, however, and designed to stun the Russian defenders rather than destroy their defenses. Drawing on the experiences of Vailly and Soissons, the artillery was assigned targets most appropriate to gun types; howitzers and mortars concentrated their fire on Russian trenches and wire, while flat trajectory cannon destroyed Russian bunkers and hit concentration areas. The 11th Army also made use of Feuerwelle, or fire periods, which saw different intensities of fire followed up by observation.
Third, the 11th Army’s attack orders stipulated that momentum of advance was to be kept at all times until the final objectives were reached. The Austro-German attacking units were deployed in depth, rather than breadth. Each unit was to draw upon its own reserves keep the momentum of the attack and was to drive forward regardless of progress by its neighbors. Mackensen and Seeckt expected these deep penetrations would be mutually supporting, as they would keep the Russians off balance.
The Central Powers would return to these tactical concepts and put them to good use later in 1915. They also reinforced the lessons of the German limited offensives on the Western Front in late 1914 and early 1915. While German soldiers recognized clearly that the Russians were a far less competent enemy than the French or the British and that the operations situation was far different on the Western Front, the success of the offensive at Gorlice-Tarnow stood in stark contrast to the Entente failures on the Western Front and on Gallipoli. It helped convince German soldiers that their tactical methods were superior to their enemies, even on the Western Front. The tactics employed by the Germans at Gorlice-Tarnow and elsewhere on the Eastern Front in 1915 would influence Falkenhayn heavily in his concept for the offensive at Verdun in early 1916.
Image: Kaiser Wilhelm II photographed with Hans von Seeckt and August von Mackensen outside the 11th Army headquarters sometime in spring 1915. Photo courtesy of the Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R11105.