May 11, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

6 mins read

World War I Retrospective: The Challenges of the Eastern Front

World War I Retrospective: The Challenges of the Eastern Front
(Three Lions/Getty Images, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"The heavens granted our troops wonderful sunshine and dry roads" — German Gen. August von Mackensen, commander of the joint German 11th Army and Austro-Hungarian 4th Army, describing conditions as his troops prepared to launch an offensive to break the Russian 3rd Army lines in western Galicia on May 2, 1915.

Unlike the Western Front, which was static for much of World War I, the Eastern Front was mostly dynamic, as Germany and its ally, Austria-Hungary, fought the Russian Empire across battle lines that moved back and forth hundreds of miles at a time. In a pattern repeated throughout the war, Germany's 1915 offensive aimed to protect its weakened Austro-Hungarian ally and reverse Russia's 1914 territorial gains.

As with Napoleon's invasion of Russia more than 100 years earlier and Nazi Germany's invasion nearly three decades later, the region's flat geography, harsh winter weather and difficult logistics played a critical role in shaping the fighting on the Eastern Front. Underdeveloped road networks, inadequate supply lines, poor planning, and — in the case of the Russians — very limited pre-war ammunition stockpiles led to significant problems for both sides fighting around the Carpathian Mountains in the winter of 1915. The lessons of the Eastern Front remain as relevant now as they were then.

The regions that today constitute Poland and Ukraine have been heavily contested throughout the centuries. Relatively flat terrain allowed large armies to move east and west across the area with relative ease. Napoleon's troops marched across what is today Poland and Belarus, invading Russia in 1812. In 1941, German troops and their allies moved east into the Soviet Union along similar routes.

Yet, while the topography has aided troop movements, harsh winters and long supply lines have posed difficulties for militaries across the region. During Napoleon's invasion of Russia, for example, his army's supply lines proved incapable of transferring sufficient provisions to the front. During the winter of 1812, French troops fighting in Russia lacked food and warm clothing, contributing to Napoleon's retreat. Inadequate supply lines, insufficient planning and difficult weather conditions similarly created major problems for Russian troops fighting on the Eastern Front in World War I, as well as their opponents. The German defeat in its late 1941 advance on Moscow further highlighted the harm that a harsh winter and insufficient supplies can do to an invading army.

The War on the Eastern Front

Galicia, which included parts of western Ukraine and southern Poland, lies to the north and east of the Carpathian Mountains. The range separates the region from modern-day Hungary and, further to the west, Austria. At the time of World War I, the Austrian Empire had controlled parts of Galicia since the late 18th century. Under the first partition of Poland in 1772, Austria took control of the urban center of Lemberg (now Lviv), which by the early 20th century had become the empire's fourth-largest city and a major cultural center.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, and began bombarding Belgrade. The following day, Russia started mobilizing troops in Russian territories close to Galicia; a full mobilization began two days later. On Aug. 17, Russia opened the Eastern Front by attacking Germany in Eastern Prussia. The war was initially greeted with enthusiasm in Russia, and cheering crowds filled the streets of St. Petersburg. However, neither Russia nor Austria-Hungary was prepared for a long war with multiple theaters, long supply lines and challenging terrain.

In the opening months of the war, Russian troops moved west into German and Austro-Hungarian territories. The German Eighth Army was able to stop the advances of the Russian Second Army at the decisive Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 and, a month later, halt the Russian First Army at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. However, Russian forces in Galicia responded quickly, forcing the Austro-Hungarian Third Army to retreat in the Battle of Gnila Lipa. The Russians took Lviv in September, its troops pushing farther west and crossing the San River toward the Carpathian passes leading into Hungary.

The Troubled Carpathian Offensive

The Carpathian Mountains slowed the Russian advance. The Hapsburg leadership, particularly the highly influential Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, feared that the Russian troops arriving in the Carpathians would cross the mountains and launch an invasion of Hungary, threatening the core of the empire. At the same time, the Russians were laying siege to Przemysl Fortress, a strategic point in the mountains where more than 100,000 Austro-Hungarian troops were stationed.

Wishing to free its forces in Przemysl Fortress and prevent a wider invasion of Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian military — believing that a counter-offensive would result in a quick resolution — struck back. However, conducted in the middle of winter, the Carpathian offensive crippled the Austro-Hungarian military, as both Hapsburg and Russian forces suffered significant attrition due to the severe weather conditions and lack of effective supply lines. The Hungarian railway network was underdeveloped in 1914, making it difficult to move supplies and troops to the front efficiently. Road networks throughout the entire region were also not conducive to large-scale troop and equipment movements. Winter weather and mountainous terrain exacerbated the challenge of using local roads and other passageways for troop movements.

The Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces both lacked sufficient quantities of rifles, while the failure of decision-makers in Moscow to plan for a long war led to a shortage of ammunition, especially artillery shells, by 1915. Russian attention had also been diverted by the German Ninth Army's offenses in the Battle of the Vistula River and the Battle of Lodz. On the Austro-Hungarian side, planners committed insufficient forces to their initial campaign in the Carpathians in January 1915, having committed a part of their forces to the fighting in Serbia. For the soldiers deployed in the mountains during the winter battle, poor planning and ineffective supply lines meant a lack of warm clothes and basic provisions. Modern scholarship has shown that hundreds of thousands of troops died during this time not from enemy fire, but by freezing to death.

In 1915, Germany and its allies sought to reverse the advances Russia had made in 1914. With the Russian troops making some progress in the mountains, the German military decided in the spring of 1915 that it was necessary to come to the aid of Austria-Hungary in Galicia and prevent Russian forces from crossing to the western side of the Carpathians. In early May, German-led troops launched the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, pushing eastward from what is today southern Poland, enabling the Central Powers to take back Lviv and forcing Russian forces to retreat to pre-August 1914 lines.

The German-led offensive temporarily relieved some pressure on Austria-Hungary's struggling military, which had suffered massive casualties in late 1914 and early 1915. The Austro-Hungarian forces were never able to fully recover from this loss of personnel early in the war. Although German forces and their allies used the terrain to their advantage and pushed Russian troops back during the spring and summer months of 1915, the battle lines on the Eastern Front continued to be relatively fluid, with the Russian side launching another offensive aimed at crippling Austria-Hungary's forces in the following year.  

A Region Still Beset

A century later, as NATO and Russian strategists scrutinize the region, many of the centuries-old constraints and challenges are still in place. There is no significant geographic barrier that would prevent Russian forces from invading through parts of Ukraine. Yet, most scenarios for a direct military invasion of Ukraine involve Russian soldiers moving across hundreds of miles. Troops in the open are vulnerable, and the most defensible position for an advancing force would be one that anchors Russian troops along the Dnieper River. Reaching the river, however, would require the Russian military to advance 400 miles, thereby stretching its supply lines. It would also require a large-scale mobilization and a retasking of Russian security forces.

Therefore, even though a century has passed since Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces clashed in the Carpathians, the lessons of the Eastern Front remain relevant today. The region has evolved, but it has remained a geopolitical hotspot where geography continues to play a major role in the political and military planning cycles of regional strategists and decision-makers. 

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