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After the winter battles of early 1915, the nature of combat on the Eastern Front fundamentally shifted. The front now became essentially continuous, with a solid line of troops from the Romanian border in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north. To be sure, the density of those troops varied greatly: the two extremes—the Carpathians at the Romanian border and the flat, marshy ground on the Baltic—were manned by relatively small formations supplemented by cavalry. Nonetheless, the nature of strategic planning had to change. No longer was it possible to find unmanned sectors or open flanks for an offensive. Instead, commanders had to think in terms of forcing a breakthrough against prepared defenses either by finding weak points or through the application of overwhelming force, thereby creating a gap to exploit. The Germans, benefiting from their experience in trench warfare on the Western Front, used their substantial advantage in heavy artillery to inflict terrible losses of territory and manpower on the Russians in the late spring and summer of 1915, threatening the Russian army with total collapse. The Great Retreat of 1915—the Russian expulsion from Galicia, Poland, and Lithuania—was a military and political disaster of enormous scale. The Russian army abandoned 300,000 square kilometers of territory. While precise figures are impossible to determine, the Russian army may have suffered a million soldiers killed, wounded, or captured. The fragile political and social accord created by the outbreak of war shattered into backbiting, recrimination, and xenophobia. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in 7 The Great Retreat, 1915 146 Stone_The Russian Army in the Great War 5/19/15 9:43 AM Page 146 mind one overarching fact: in the face of disaster, the Russian military machine never disintegrated. Its units remained capable of organized defense, and despite its losses in soldiers, territory, and equipment, it remained a force that still, in September 1915, held at bay 12 Austro-German armies on the Eastern Front, including 110 infantry and 20 cavalry divisions. The Great Retreat also illustrates the particular problems of the Russian army in fighting the Central Powers and particularly the Germans. The Russians were perfectly capable of outmatching the Habsburgs, but the German army routinely responded to crises and opportunities more quickly that the Russian army was capable of doing. German expertise also propped up Habsburg performance. In almost all the significant actions of 1915, the leading role was taken by German divisions, supported and assisted by Austrians. Over the course of the war in the east, as AustroHungarian casualties mounted and morale fell, the Habsburg army became more and more dependent on such assistance. German officers, senior sergeants , and whole units were with time organically integrated into Austrian formations. Barracks humor regarded these Germans as “corsetstays ” for their ability to keep Austrian soldiers ramrod-straight, upright, and in fighting trim. Joking aside, the Habsburgs lost autonomy with each German officer commanding their formations. Habsburg victory seemed an increasingly meaningless concept, as it would inevitably bring with it German political hegemony. While in retrospect the Great Retreat seems like a steady and inexorable German advance and Russian retreat, a close look at the actual events shows a different pattern. The fighting of 1915 proceeded in fits and starts. Mackensen’s Eleventh Army, the formation that did the lion’s share of German fighting over the summer, engaged in at least four offensive cycles: preparation, attack, breakthrough, pursuit, exhaustion, and recovery— before beginning again. In almost all cases, the Russian high command detected the buildup of enemy forces, though often not the full scale or intent of German action, and prepared to meet the attack. In each case, though, the Russians came up short: not enough heavy artillery, not enough ammunition , not enough divisions, not enough time to shift reinforcements. Each German victory made the next easier—Russian artillery lost or captured , trained divisions decimated, fortifications abandoned—and the Russian army simply could not break of the cycle of German victory until German supply lines had been stretched to the breaking point and the apTHE GREAT RETREAT, 1915 147 Stone_The Russian Army in the Great War 5/19/15 9:43 AM Page 147 proach of winter in late 1915 provided some respite. The Russian performance in 1914 was not bad, but it was worse than the German; over 1915, that difference became magnified. GERMANY’S STRATEGIC CHOICE In spring 1915, initiative lay with the German high command. Falkenhayn knew he had the luxury...


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MARC Record
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