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Today in history: the Battle of Tannenberg

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This day in history marks the centenary of one of the grandest battles on the Eastern Front —the Battle of Tannenberg.

Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, agreed to help relieve the French and British forces by launching an attack in East Prussia. Two Russian armies invaded Germany, the first commanded by General Pavel Rennenkampf and the second by General Alexander Samsanov. Rennenkampf quickly defeated eight divisions of the German Eighth Army, while Samsanov crossed over the border in the south of Eastern Prussia to threaten the German rear.

German Lieutenant Colonel Max Hoffman wanted to counter the Russian advance with an attack on Samsanov’s left flank. On 23 August, General Paul von Hindenburg took control of the German Eighth Army, whose chief of staff General Erich Ludendorff approved and confirmed Hoffman’s plan.

Soon after, the German military intercepted an uncoded Russian message that indicated that Rennenkampf was not in any hurry to advance. With this new information, Ludendorff adapated Hoffman’s original plan, concentrated six divisions against Samsanov’s left flank and brought in more German troops to move against the right flank.

On 26 August 1914, Ludendorff ordered the attack. The German artillery forced the Russian army to retreat all the way to Soldau. There the Russians launched a counter-attack, allowing the Russian army corps to escape. However, by the evening of the 29 August the Russians were surrounded by the German army. By August 31 the Germans had taken 92,000 prisoners and slaughtered half of the Russian Second Army. Next, the Germans turned their attention to Rennenkampf’s First Army and swiftly drove it from East Prussia. It was a overwhelming defeat for the Russians, with around 250,000 men lost as well as significant resources.

Little was reported about Tannenberg in the pages of The Illustrated London News and the Great Eight publications. In all likelihood this was because coverage focused on the Western Front which was still in its infancy. The most notable mention of Tannenberg in the Great Eight was in an edition of The Illustrated London News that reviewed General Hindenburg’s role in the battle [pictured] and indicated that he played a vital role in the “decisive victory”. The inscription below his picture reads:

“May the spirit of 1914-15 remain with us — von Hindenburg.”

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