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Campaigns of World War One:
The Eastern Front  1914-1916


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As an ally of Austria-Hungry who invaded Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia on August 3rd, 1914 once they refused to stop mobilizing their army in support of Serbia. Even though the Russian army was in an incomplete state of reorganization it was still the largest in Europe, and Germany perceived Russia to be their most dangerous opponent. The notion of this Russian Steamroller put fear into the Germans while relieving French anxieties. Believing they did not have the resources to fight a two front war, Germany planed to only fight a defensive war in the East, temporarily sacrificing their extended position in Prussia through a slow strategic withdrawal while concentrating most of their soldiers in the West against Russia’s ally France. A quick victory in the West would then allow them to transfer their armies to the East to deal with Russia.

Austria-Hungry initially took a more aggressive approach on this front based on the fear that a Russian advance into its territory might inspire Slav uprisings within their empire. Combined with an overconfidence in their ability to fight the Russians, they would strike first. As it turned out they were ill prepared to fight this War and would have suffered even more severe consequences had it not been for the continual influx of German aid.

Unlike the Western Front that turned static after trench warfare set in, the eastern theater was too expansive for either side to man the full length of the front. This rendered warfare here highly mobile with each side trying to outflank the other. Trenches were still widely employed but usually to hold strategic points. Most of the fighting took place within three theaters of operation; East Prussia, the Polish Silesian border, and Galicia to the Carpathian Mountains.

(Though this theater of war closed at the end of 1917, it also marks the beginning of the Russian Civil War. While these are looked upon as two separate conflicts, they are intertwined and discussions of one can’t ignore the other. Only basic information on the Russian Civil War is given here to place it within the context of the Great War. Further details are available in the Wars of Ideology section of this Guide.)

NOTE: To avoid confusion in chronology, all the dates in this section have been made to conform to the Gregorian calendar. This unfortunately alters popular references on postcards based on the Julian calendar that was used in Russia at this time; so an event like the October Revolution is listed as taking place in November.



1914


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After launching some initial spoiling attacks in August, the outnumbered Germans facing two Russian armies in East Prussia began retreating toward the Vistula River. The Russians had mobilized faster than expected, and now there was grave fear that they might advance much further as well. Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff were then assigned to take control of German forces on this front. Outraged at the prospect of giving up East Prussia without a fight they began planning their own offensive.

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Superior military intelligence work gave the Germans access to Russian plans, which allowed them to outmaneuver the Russians in a manner that would under normal circumstances be considered too risky. Believing the 1st Imperial Russian Army would not support the 2nd Army, the Germans concentrated their forces on the latter and almost surrounded them at the Battle of Tannenberg at the end of August. The entire Russian force was nearly destroyed in a week of hard fighting.

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The Battle of Tannenburg was probably the most highly represented single incident on German postcards depicting the Eastern Front. Occurring early in the war on a front where success was not expected, it became great a propaganda victory as much as a military one. It was received back in Germany as a miracle and caused celebration and the desire for commemorative postcards. Most of these cards show panicked Russians fleeing before the advancing Germans.

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By September the Russians thought the victorious Germans would turn south in an effort to seize Warsaw, but they tried to repeat their success of Tannenberg by moving against the 1st Russian Army to the east instead. Though somewhat taken by surprise at the Masurian Lakes, the Russians managed to protect their flanks and a seesaw battle ensued. The Russians fearing encirclement finally decided to retreat from Prussia. While they suffered great losses, their army remained intact. These early German victories provided them with much more latitude in overall strategy. When the Western front bogged down into trench warfare, a quick victory there was no longer essential as originally planned, and they began transferring troops eastward to take advantage of the situation.

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Following on the popularity of Tannenberg postcards, German publishers were quick to produce many more cards depicting the fighting at the Masurian Lakes as well. Lacking concrete information on the battle, it was usually depicted in generic terms making generous use of swampy terrain and retreating Russians. While specifics were sometimes shown, this formula would remain common for the remainder of the War. While many believed that these great German victories over the Russians would soon bring the fighting there to an end, it was far from the case. Between Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, Russia had lost most of its best troops before the War had barely begun. This disaster would hamper further Russian operations for the rest of the War but it did not come close to delivering a knock out blow. The nature of warfare itself had changed. It was now being fought at such a large scale that no single battle would bring about conclusive results.

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To pre-empt any Russian advance into Austria-Hungry, General Conrad von Hötzendorf launched his own double prong offensive from Galicia in late August against Russian Poland and into the Ukraine. The Austro-Hungarian army in the north drove back the unprepared Russians at the Battle of Krasnik, which was soon followed by another victory at Komarov. The Russians however began to mobilize more rapidly than anticipated and offer greater resistance. By the time Conrad’s army to the south met the Russians at Gnila Lipa they were thrown back after a disastrous defeat. With the Russians now pressing forward, the Austrians fell back and formed a defensive line anchored between their fortified cities of Lemberg, Przemysl, and Cracow.

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Even though Austria eventually used the War to expand their empire in Galicia, this was never their aim. They had hoped that Germany’s threats would have kept Russia at bay so that they could concentrate on conducting military campaigns against Serbia. This two front War, and latter three when Italy joined in, drained resources much faster than anticipated. Even when some success was achieved on one battlefront, problems elsewhere usually prevented a successful followed through. Ambitions had clouded their true abilities, and they might have won a war in the Balkans, they were not ready to fight a wider protracted war.

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While Conrad tried to regain the initiative, the larger Russian army was finally out maneuvering him, exploiting gaps in his line. By the end of September Conrad ordered a general withdrawal allowing the Russians to secure all of Galicia. This failed campaign that inflicted severe casualties on the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army (k.u.k.) is sometimes referred to as the Battles of Lemberg. The Russians who had been moving forward slowly now picked up the pursuit and pushed the thinly spread out Austrians into the Carpathian Mountains.

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Lying in the lowlands at the head of the mountain passes into the Carpathians, the city of Przemysl had always been an important trade center. The Austrians began fortifying it during the Crimean War until it had become one of the largest fortresses in Europe by 1914. As Russian armies advanced through Galicia, they occupied the fortified city of Lemberg but were unable to take Przemysl by storm, so they left a besieging force behind while the main army pushed onwards. The garrisons heroic defense then became the subject of Austro-Hungarian postcards.

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The geography of Russian Poland was that of a huge salient whose occupants could be cut off from Russia by a strong German trust down from East Prussia or by an Austro-Hungarian advance up from Galicia. For this reason the Russians left it lightly defended while the Central Powers did not have enough troops to exploit this weakness. Instead of abandoning the salient, Russia opted to securing its flanks by going on the offensive on both fronts. This move failed in East Prussia but the precipitous Austro-Hungarian retreat from Galicia had opened up a whole range of possible moves to the south. Fearful that a Russian offensive could now be launched into Silesia, the Germans acted as soon as a new army was assembled. Ignorant of the Russian buildup, General Hindenburg tried to exploit the weak Polish border by driving down the Vistula to take Warsaw but this major offensive was met with much heavier resistance than expected. Fighting swayed back and forth until the Germans were forced to withdraw.

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Sensing that Russian forces had been removed from his front, Conrad added his Austro-Hungarian army to the drive to Warsaw with the immediate aim of relieving the besieged fortress at Przemysl. The Russian victory at Warsaw had left them holding the bridgehead at Ivangorod, which threatened the flank of the retreating German army. Conrad then advanced on Ivangorod but he too was defeated and forced to retreat toward Cracow. The slow moving Russians however failed to trap the Germans. By end October everyone was back to where they had started, but Austria-Hungry had lost its best troops, which would severely limiting future offensive capabilities.

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While Polish units fought with the Russians, Jozef Pilsudski, head of the Polish Socialist Party help form the Eastern and Western Polish Legion early in the War to fight as an independent unit within the Austro-Hungarian army. Although the Eastern Legion was disbanded in September, the Western Legion became the Polish Auxiliary Corps and fought against the Russians in the fall offensive. Postcards published during the War that depict these Polish troops tend to show them in non-combat situations to play down nationalistic urges. This theme was revisited after the War by Polish artists in the new Polish state; and these cards are much more heroic. Akropol in Krakow was a major publisher of these cards.

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In November the Russians renewed their advance toward Silesia but were again attacked by the Germans, this time at Lodz. The Germans had hoped that the capture of this important rail center along with Warsaw would end the threat to Silesia. The Russian line held and a counterattack forced the Germans back but exhaustion also put a stop to their offensive. In December the reinforced Germans made another push capturing Lodz but they could not advance much further. Both sides then began to entrench leading to a stalemate in this sector that would last the winter.

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After receiving German reinforcements, Conrad launched an offensive against the Russians near Cracow. After a good start he was pushed back into the Carpathians once the Russians were reinforced, which threatened control over strategic mountain passes leading to the Hungarian Plain and Budapest. Conrad rallied his forces in December and secured a victory at the Battle of Limanowa-Lapanow, eliminating the immediate Russian threat. The Russians however were not driven out of the mountains, and they fortified strategic positions.

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If combat was not dangerous enough, facing the harshness of winter weather, especially when not adequately equipped, could be just as deadly. While many winter scenes appear on cards, their popularity seems to have more to do with their bold contrasting graphics than their relation to reality. Some cards however play up the drama of these situations and invoke details from an already popular myth. The association of these scenes cannot be divorced from similar ones that arose from Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812. In creating immediate recognition and emotional response, they give comfort in knowing that the enemy will be destroyed by God’s hand if not by the Russian army. The viewer does not have to consider if the scene is plausible for the myth has already given credence to the narrative and the response to it. While wolves did pose a real threat, it was freezing temperatures that took a high toll on troops.



1915


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The Russian presence in the Carpathian Mountains not only posed a serious danger to Hungary, it was feared that a victory here might convince Italy and Romania to join the Allies. In January Conrad launched a major winter offensive to secure all the mountain passes and relieve the the large garrison still besieged at fortress Przemysl. Snowstorms and extremely cold temperatures conspired against this campaign, limiting troop movements and the deployment of artillery. Not only did the Austro-Hungarians fail to seize their objectives, they lost territory to the Russians under General Nikolai Ivanov who launched in own offensive.

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In February, Conrad launched a second offensive into the Carpathian Mountains with his exhausted and depleted troops, and little change in strategy. Some initial gains were made despite the harsh weather, but Russian counteroffensives only pushed the Austro-Hungarians back further. While both sides were suffering high casualties, it was the Austro-Hungarian army that was beginning to disintegrate.

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The snowy mountain backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains provided Austro-Hungarian publishers with the excuse to produce many cards of romanticized fighting as this sought of drama attracted a wide audience. The real significance of these battles did not matter; it was a chance to provide the public with scenes of their army driving back the Russians and taking many prisoners. As with depictions of their other fronts, it seemed that Austro-Hungarian troops did nothing but win every encounter they fought. The truth was that the quick campaign envisioned dragged on and many Austro-Hungarian soldiers not equipped to fight a prolonged winter war froze to death. Collectively, the three offensives in the Carpathian Mountains cost more lives than any other battle fought in the Great War, and decimated the core of the Austrian Imperial Army.

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The German faint toward Warsaw in January led to the Battle of Bolimov. Here the Germans used poison gas laden artillery shells against the Russians but this innovative weapon only managed to cause confusion on both sides. To take advantage of this situation the Russians counterattacked only to suffer high casualties at the hands of conventional artillery fire.

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In an attempt to throw the last of the Russians completely out of East Prussia Hindenburg launched a major offensive in February resulting in the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The battle opened in a snowstorm causing much confusion among the Russians. One Russian army corps was nearly surrounded and lost many men but its resistance allowed the rest of the Russian forces to safely withdraw. A couple weeks later a Russian counterattack halted the German advance.

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German publishers produced many postcards representing this winter campaign but they are almost as generic as those depicting the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The only thing that distinguishes these cards is the addition of snow on the battlefield. Though touted as another great German victory over the inferior Russian army, they had only inflicted heavy casualties, not taken territory of strategic value.

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In March Conrad launched a third offensive in the Carpathians despite the continuing bad winter weather and the decimated condition of his troops. This was supposedly a last ditch effort to relieve their starving garrison besieged in Przemysl, but the attacks continued even when it was realized they would never reach their goals. Likewise the Przemysl garrison made an effort to break out but this too failed after suffering high casualties. When the garrison realized that no relief would be forthcoming and they finally surrendered. Ivanov continued the Russian advance through April, finally entering the Ung Valley and posing a real threat to Hungary. German reinforcements flung in his way along with a severe shortage of supplies did not allow him to take advantage of the situation. Realizing that Austria-Hungry was no longer capable of launching offensive actions on their own, Germany took control over the entire Eastern Front.

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The besieged fortress at Przemysl was a symbol of Austrian pride and resistance causing General Conrad to become obsessed with saving it to the point of loosing many more men in futile attacks than were lost in its fall. When Przemysl finally surrendered, it was a huge propaganda coup for the Russians though they weren’t in a good position to exploit it on postcards. Most cards depicting the siege were either made by the French showing the furious Russian attack or by the Austrians depicting their brave defense before its fall. German publishers would later illustrate its recapture in June.

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After receiving reinforcements, a joint Austrian-German offensive under General Mackensen was launched against Russian-Poland in May, a day before General Ivanov was to lead an Russian invasion into Hungary. While resistance was initially stiff, the Russians began to withdraw out of fear of being encircle once the Germans overwhelmed their lines between Gorlice and Tarnow. By June the Germans advanced to retake Lemberg and Przemysl, and then established an important bridgehead on the Dniester. Russian counterattacks then halted their advance but only temporarily.

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Hindenburg and Ludendorf would have liked to try to pocket all the Russians in the Polish salient by launching a second offensive out of East Prussia but they lacked the capacity to carry it out without further weakening the Western Front. Mackensen renewed his offensive into Poland in July without their help and managed to push forward rapidly. Without enough supplies to put up an adequate defense, Russian commanders now realized they now had to abandon the Polish salient. They set up a defense on the Vistula River, hinged on previously fortified point while the remaining Russians retreated. By early August the Germans took the strongpoint of Warsaw and then the Austro-Hungarians took Ivangorod. The fall of Ivangorod was celebrated on many Austro-Hungarian cards, not only as a victory, but possibly because it made up for their defeat here in 1914.

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The fall of the strongpoints on the Vistula allowed the Germans to quickly advance and take Brest Litovsk and Grodno before the month was over. While many Russian units were routed, the army as a whole retreated in good order keeping unit integrity. Trading space for time was an old Russian strategy; as they fell back more men were defending a shorter front and their supply lines were growing less tenuous. The Germans on the other hand were quickly straining their capacity to supply their army over devastated terrain with poor roads and rail.

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During the advance into Poland, German publishers produced a tremendous amount of postcards showing their army scattering the Russians before them. While some cards capture specific events, the vast majority are generic depictions of small encounters with fleeing Russians or of their futile attempts to resist charging Uhlans. The attitude displayed wasn’t all propaganda put out by publishers for public consumption as many military leaders within the Central Powers also thought the Russian army was finished.

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Unhappy with the summer’s events, Czar Nicholas II removed Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich as the lackluster supreme commander, and took personal control over the Russian army. Other generals that had retreated too liberally were also sacked. Since the Czar had no military experience to offer real help, many thought this a poor political move; it only set himself up for blame for any future failures.

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In September a new German army was formed and it began moving up the Baltic. Though it was unable to capture the heavily fortified port of Riga, most of Courland fell into German hands. Other German units advanced into Russian-Lithuania capturing Vilnius, while Mackensen pressed forward in Poland. By the end of the month bad weather halted these advance as the Germans could no longer bring supplies forward. The surviving Russian units had now reestablished a cohesive defense and would move back no further. German and Austrian commanders made the dangerous assumption that Russian offensive capabilities were at an end, and they began transferring their own troops to other fronts.



1916


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Bowing to French pressure to relieve their front at Verdun, the Czar ordered a massive attack against the Germans in Belarus near Lake Narotch in March. Though supposedly a weak sector on the German line, it was still well fortified, and it cost the Russians tremendous casualties to take. By April when the campaign concluded, the Germans had regained all lost territory through counterattacks. The poor outdated tactics used by Russian commanders to fight this battle were not lost on the troops involved. It not only lowered their morale, it made them reluctant to engage in future operations. With the Czar now in command this disaster came to reflect on his own judgement rather than on his generals alone.

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To further relieve pressure on the Western and Italian Fronts, the Russians under the command of General Alexei Brusilov launched a massive well planned attack against the entire Austro-Hungarian front south of the Rokitno Marshes in June. In the north the Russians were stopped by a German counterattack, but after renewing their offense in July they made great headway by breaking the Austrian line and pushing them back into the Carpathian Mountains. The attack had surprised Austria-Hungary and they had little reserves to handle the breakthrough. Their successful offensive into Italy at Trentino had to be called off so that troops could be transferred back to the Carpathians. By mid-July Conrad was removed from command as the Germans took over the deteriorating front. When additional German and Turkish reinforcements arrived, the Russian advance was slowed.

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By the end of summer the Brusilov Offensive began winding down due to the lack of supplies, but the Czar ordered it to continue. More Russian attacks were made that led to the capture of Bukovina but at a very high price. As casualties quickly mounted with little gain to show for it, dissension began to rise in the Russian ranks. The Russian advance would completely grind to a halt in September, and although they suffered tremendous casualties, the Austro-Hungarians suffered more and came close to being knocked out of the War.

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Romania declared war on Austria-Hungry in August and by September they had captured Transylvania. While they believed the Central Powers were too engaged elsewhere to adequately deal with this situation, the end of the costly Brusilov Offensive left the Russians unwilling to come to their aid once all the Central Powers ganged up on her. By the end of the year almost the entire kingdom was in German hands, and it would suffer a brutal occupation.

(Romania’s neutrality separated the Balkan Front from the Eastern Front early in the War, but once she entered the conflict the fighting became integrated with both fronts. For more information on Romania see the Balkan Front section of this Guide.)




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