Lessons on Maneuver Warfare and Fighting Smart

by Col Lawrence G. Karch, USMC(Ret)

The Marine Corps has officially adopted maneuver warfare as “. . . a philosophy for generating the greatest decisive effect against the enemy at the least possible cost to ourselves-a philosophy for fighting smart. ” Alongside maneuver warfare, the last two Commandants of the Marine Corps have placed renewed emphasis on the study of military history. By learning the lessons of past battles, Marines will thereby become more adept at fighting smart.

The East Prussia campaign of World War I-often referred to as Tannenberg after its most important battle-is of interest today because it is a clear example of the successes of both maneuver warfare and fighting smart. In August 1914, at the same time that German forces were pouring into France, thereby executing the infamous Schlieffen Plan, two invading Russian armies failed miserably to defeat a much smaller German force that maneuvered brilliantly to score decisive victories. The ringing lessons of Tannenberg transcend 80 years.

War Preparations

Germany entered World War I with the best equipped army on the continent. Each active German division contained 12 batteries of light artillery (twice as many as a Russian division), backed by 6 batteries of howitzers. Each active German corps had an attached battalion of heavy howitzers. Further, such impressive firepower was supported by an efficient logistics system fed by Germany’s highly developed rail network. Indeed, the best and brightest officers on the German General Staff were assigned to logistics planning involving wartime use of the railroads.

Germany’s advantages were not confined to the material. Across the board, German soldiers engaged in tougher and more realistic training than those in other armies. German junior officers had a much better grasp of the tactical problems posed by modem weaponry. At higher levels, the General Staff system produced officers skilled in large-scale operations.

The Russian army, on the other hand, appeared to have made a remarkable recovery from defeat in the Russo-Japanese War some 10 years prior. To foreign observers, Russia’s vast manpower inspired visions of inexorable advance crushing all opposition. Before World War I, the term “Russian steamroller” was widely heard in Paris and London. The governments of both countries placed great faith in the massive Russian Army in any future war with Germany.

However, in reality, the field armies of Czar Nicholas II were poorly prepared for the challenges of modem warfare. The entire army was short a million modem rifles and a billion cartridges. There were not enough uniforms or boots. While Russia had 60 batteries of heavy artillery, Germany had 381. In August 1914, Russian depots held 7 million artillery shells, but only 650,000 more were delivered during the remainder of the year. Soon after hostilities started, many Russian artillery batteries were limited to firing no more than four rounds per day due, in part, to a lack of transport for munitions.

But in truth, the greatest Russian deficiencies lay elsewhere. Command of Russian forces was mostly entrusted to men whose only talent consisted of flattering their weak-willed monarch. Russian officers, mostly aristocrats, openly displayed contempt for the peasant conscripts they led. Such contempt led to mistreatment, which engendered resentment in the normally patriotic Russian soldier. In time, resentment would grow into revolution.

War Plans

To repulse a surprise German invasion, France wanted an early Russian attack into East Prussia to draw German forces from the Western Front. In 1911, the French extracted a Russian promise to invade East Prussia on the 16th day following general mobilization (M+16). The French knew Russia could not completely mobilize and concentrate all its forces in 16 days, but an early Russian attack of any magnitude was essential.

In 1912, Gen Jilinsky, chief of the Russian General Staff, foolishly promised the French that all 800,000 Russians intended for East Prussia would fight one day sooner-on M+15. The next year, he further advanced the planned attack to M+13. Thus, the seeds of Russian defeat were sown, watered, and fertilized long before the conflict began.

The Russian plan for East Prussia called for separate advances by two armies of about 400,000 men each. The Russian First Army, commanded by Gen Pavel Rennenkampf, would advance due west and engage the largest Gentian force as close to the Russian border as possible. The Russian Second Army, under Gen Alexander Samsonov, would swing around south of the Masurian Lakes region into the rear of the engaged German force.

Russian success depended on coordinated movement of their two armies. But even here there were unneeded complications. Samsonov and Rennenkampf were old and bitter rivals going back to the Russo-Japanese War. And Rennenkampf was not even on speaking terms with the promisethe-French-anything Gen Jilinsky. These personal animosities did not augur well for a concerted Russian effort.

Germany was thoroughly committed to defending East Prussia, the home of the Hohenzollern ruling class, despite intentions to execute the Schlieffen Plan. There would be no retreat in East Prussia. The defending Gentian Eighth Army was about two-thirds the size of either Russian army, superior in artillery, logistically sound, and extremely well trained. The Eighth Army’s strategy-indeed the only hope of victory-was to sequentially attack and defeat the separate Russian armies.

Sarajevo Assassination

Following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, Russia mobilized on 30 July 1914. When a German ultimatum to demobilize expired, Germany mobilized and declared war on Russia. Now events moved fast. Four days later, Germany initiated the Schlieffen Plan on the Western Front.

Eight days after Germany moved on France, Russia fulfilled her prewar promise to France by moving the lead elements of the two armies into East Prussia. However, Russia’s invasion started well before all her support units had mobilized. Both Russian armies thus began moving away from their unprepared logistics bases and toward some very prepared and determined Germans.

The early Russian invasion of East Prussia shocked the German General Staff, which had assured Kaiser Wilhelm that Russia would require at least 6 weeks to fully mobilize. This was a reasonable estimate given sound logistical planning. However, this estimate did not contemplate an attack with poor logistical preparation. Had the Kaiser even suspected an early Russian invasion of East Prussia, he might never have permitted the German General Staff to move on France. Kaiser Wilhelm constantly expressed concern for East Pmssia in a two front war to Gen Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the General Staff.

Aborted Ambush on the Angerapp

LtGen Maximilian von Prittwitz, the obese commander of the German Eighth Army in East Prussia, owed his rapid promotions and army command more to his close friendship with the Kaiser and less to merit. Gen Moltke tried for years to get rid of Prittwitz but to no avail. Following the Russian invasion, Prittwitz wanted to abandon East Prussia and defend instead on the Vistula River. However, he knew this was not an option, at least not initially, so he accepted the advice of his chief of staff, Col Max Hoffmann, to lure Rennenkampf into an ambush west of Gumbinnen on the River Angerapp. If the Russians were defeated quickly here, he could then move southwest to deal with the Russian Second Army.

Unfortunately for Prittwitz, these plans were spoiled by an act of insubordination on the part of MajGen Hermann von Francois, one of his corps commanders. Francois, an East Prussian who held little regard for Prittwitz, launched an unauthorized attack against one of Rennenkampfs divisions at Stallupoiien, some 25 miles east of Gumbinnen. After a brief and highly successful engagement where Francois took 3,000 prisoners, he withdrew westward.

But the Germans had now lost the element of surprise. Instead of pressing forward and falling into the prepared German trap on the Angerapp, a cautious Rennenkampf halted. Moreover, the Russian General Staff strangely choose to interpret the withdrawal of Francois’ corps from Stalluponen as a German evacuation from all of East Prussia! If true, this would dash Russian plans to trap and destroy German forces in East Prussia.

Repulse at Gumbinnen

Prittwitz was now in a dilemma. He wanted to fight a defensive battle on the Angerapp, but Rennenkampf wouldn’t cooperate, and all the while Samsonov would be moving up from the south into his rear. So, goaded on by the aggressive Francois, Prittwitz ordered an attack on Rennenkampf using four corps on line. However, the attack lacked coordination-once again the problem was with the impetuous Francois.

On the German left, Francois was in an excellent position to attack Rennenkampf because his corps was closer to its assigned target. Francois was so close because he had once again disobeyed Prittwitz by not pulling his corps all the way back to the Angerapp after his initial unauthorized attack at Stalluponen. However, the other three German corps were still on the Angerapp and would have to move a considerably greater distance to engage the Russians.

In the predawn of 20 August 1914, following fast upon a night forced march, Francois and his corps struck the Russian right flank like a hammer out of the darkness. Russian artillery initially put up a spirited defense, but when their ammunition ran low (an early Russian logistics casualty), the Germans prevailed.

Later in the day, however, in the Russian center and on the left flank, the Teutons fared very differently. With their longer march from the Angerapp, three German corps attacked several hours later than Francois. The Russians were ready for these attacks and soundly rebuffed the Germans. Two of the attacking German corps were routed in great disorder. The uncharacteristic sight of defeated German soldiers streaming mob-like to the rear really unnerved Prittwitz. He telephoned Moltke and announced that all was lost in East Prussia, and that the Eighth Army would retreat behind the Vistula to avoid annihilation. Moltke, of course, could hardly believe his ears.

Had the Russians pursued the retreating Germans, the Eighth Army would have been in serious trouble. But, Rennenkampf did not pursue. He did not even send forward his five cavalry divisions, which had not seen action, to maintain contact with the retreating enemy. Rennenkampf had his reasons for holding fast, but the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on the German Eighth Army would not come again. Indeed, when he next encountered the Eighth Army, the situation would be very different.

Hindenburg and LudendorfF

Moltke reacted quickly to replace Prittwitz. For a new commander, Moltke brought Gen Paul von Hindenburg out of retirement. Hindenburg had a reputation for imperturbability-a quality which the new German commander in East Prussia would surely require. For chief of staff, Moltke selected MajGen Erich Ludendorff. Ludendorff was already a war hero having led the capture of the key Belgian fortress of Liege just days earlier and been awarded Germany’s highest honor for his efforts. Col Hoffmann, arguably the best strategist during the entire war, would become chief of operations.

Meanwhile, back in East Prussia, Col Hoffmann convinced Prittwitz that a retreat behind the Vistula River posed great risk because the Eighth Army would be withdrawing across the line of advance of Samsonov’s Second Army. The Eighth Army should either renew the attack on Rennenkampf, or take Hoffmann’s advice and attack Samsonov. Prittwitz accepted Hoffmann’s advice, but then incredibly failed to inform Moltke of these changes of plans! Up to this point, the Germans were running a close race with the Russians in command ineptitude.

On 23 August 1914, Hindenburg and Ludendorff (H-L) arrived at Eighth Army headquarters to find Hoffmann redeploying units to attack Samsonov. H-L quickly approved this plan to covertly redeploy and attack the Russian second Army as it held great promise. Once Samsonov was dispatched, the Eighth Army could then wheel about and deal with the Russian First Army.

For success, the Germans needed hard intelligence and efficient road and rail movements. The Russians obliged by transmitting many important radio messages in the clear or in easily broken codes. Next, German redeployments, though complex, were near perfect. Given the attention paid to tactical and strategic mobility by the German General Staff before the war, these accomplishments of large scale movement were not unexpected.

Francois’ corps, initially on the left of the Eighth Army, entrained at five railroad stations west of Gumbinnen and traveled for two days via a circuitous route through Konigsberg and Marienburg. Following an intricate detrainment, he moved into position on the right flank of the single German corps which had screened the Russian Second Army since it crossed into East Prussia.

The rightmost German corps at Gumbinnen redeployed by another set of trades to become the new German center at Tannenberg. Finally, the two German corps that broke and ran at Gumbinnen forced marched and reorganized en route to become the new Eighth Army left flank. Only a single German cavalry division was left to screen Rennenkampfs quiescent First Army. The road to Berlin was now open, but Rennenkampf wasn’t traveling.


In just 2 days, which included a forced change in command, the German Eighth Army had boldly redeployed without either Russian army commander being the wiser. Rennenkampf still thought the Germans were abandoning East Prussia. Samsonov thought he was facing a single corps instead of a five-corps army poised to strike a mortal blow. At Russian General Staff Headquarters, Jilinsky compounded the problem by urging Samsonov to move faster (i.e., into the German trap) while ignoring Rennenkampfs lack of movement.

When Samsonov ordered a general advance, his center two corps immediately became heavily engaged. Simultaneously, his right flank was turned by two German corps which promptly proceeded to decimate a Russian corps. (These were the same two corps which suffered defeat and humiliation at Gumbinnen.) Next Francois attacked the Russian left flank with tremendous artillery barrages. Russian soldiers, unfed for days and drained of the will to fight, retreated in the midst of these cannonades with great loss of life. By nightfall of 28 August 1914, H-L’s warriors were on three sides of Samsonov’s troops and poised for the kill. The next morning Francois opened up with another great artillery barrage that shattered the remainder of the Russian left flank. This permitted his corps to block the route of retreat of the entire second Army. In the center, two Russian corps continued to fight well, but their situation deteriorated rapidlycaught in the crushing jaws of an enormous double envelopment.

The German victory at Tannenberg was near total. The Eighth Army took nearly 100,000 prisoners and captured most of the Russian artillery. Enemy dead were greater than 30,000. Survivors of the Russian second Army amounted to less than a brigade.

Masurian Lakes.

With one enemy army destroyed, the victorious Huns turned to deal with another. Over the next week, German forces redeployed to once again confront Rennenkampfs First Army. Two additional German corps arrived from the western front to bolster German forces in East Prussia to seven corps. (One wonders whether the absence of these two corps from the Western Front contributed to the German defeat on the Marne.) The Russians also used this period to reinforce. The lead elements of a new army, the Tenth, began arriving in East Prussia in the Masurian Lakes region on the left flank of the First Army. But the logistics problems that had dogged the Russian First and Second Armies also slowed flip Tenth.

When the German offensive came, only a few regiments of the Tenth Army were actually in position on the First Army’s left flank. It was at this weak left flank over terrain that Rennenkampf thought unsuitable for attack that H-L aimed a powerful force of four corps commanded by Francois. The fast-marching Germans slashed through the poorly organized Tenth Army and raced toward the rear of the Russian First Army in an effort to encircle all Russian forces. Another Tannenburg was looming large.

At this point, Rennenkampf finally came to life. In a series of astute forced marches and effective rearguard actions, the Russian First Army saved itself and crossed back into Russia on 13 September 1914. Though Russian losses were heavy (125,000), another Tannenberg had been averted-but just barely.

Russia’s defeat in East Prussia had a catastrophic effect on that country as evidenced by later political events. The sudden loss of over 300,000 trained men, considerable modern artillery, and many experienced officers and noncommissioned officers was never made up.

For Germany, East Prussia coincided with the defeat on the Marne River in France and with Austro-Hungary’s catastrophic defeat in Galicia. Victory in East Prussia alone permitted Gennan leaders to conceal the true meaning of these defeats-the failure of a short, glorious war and start of a long, bloody conflict of tragic proportions.


Much of Germany’s success in East Prussia was due to superb prewar preparations. Though Russia possessed a significant numerical superiority that seemed overwhelming, German superiority in about everything else that mattered more than offset the three-to-one numerical advantage of the Czar’s armies. Clearly, the German Army’s emphasis on strategic and tactical mobility, logistics, firepower, and training in the prewar period resulted in a German force in East Prussia that was flexible and capable enough to execute just about any scheme of maneuver.

But, besides maneuverability, the Germans simply fought smarter than the Russians. German intelligence was superior and the Eighth Army made masterful use of their intelligence at about every point in the campaign. Besides doing mundane things such as building watchtowers across East Prussia and providing bicycles to Gennan farm boys, the German Army also made outstanding use of two revolutionary-for those days-intelligence gathering means: the airplane and electronic signals intelligence.

In what must have been the first large-scale use of tactical airborne reconnaissance, the Eighth Army employed observation aircraft to locate Russian forces. On the other side, the Russians sent all their aircraft to the Austrian Front for some unexplained reason. Had the Russians just one aircraft to spy on the Eighth Army, Tannenberg may never have happened. Of course, if Rennenkampf had used his many cavalry divisions to keep an eye on Eighth Army movements, Tannenberg may still have been avoided. Russian forces in East Prussia disregarded the need for tactical reconnaissance in a most bizarre and egregious way and paid dearly.

Along with tactical airborne reconnaissance, the Germans also made outstanding use of intercepted Russian radio messages, which were conveniently broadcast in the clear or in easily broken codes. Ludendorff personally received these intercepts and issued orders accordingly with little delay. There was an enormous asymmetry between German and Russian forces in the intelligence area which greatly boosted the Huns and blinded the Slavs.

Final Thoughts

World War 1 would seem to be the last place to seek lessons on maneuver warfare and fighting smart. Averaged over 4 years of conflict and millions of lives, World War I is deservedly remembered for being exactly the opposite. But in one sense the East Prussian campaign in August-September 1914 is probably more like future wars of the 21st century-short notice, high intensity, conventional arms conflicts fought close to the borders of warring states by largely untested combatants armed with the latest in high technology weaponry.

In this the eightieth year since the start of World War I, the Marine Corps might well consider the lessons of Tannenberg as the Corps strives to implement a maneuver warfare doctrine and instill a philosophy of fighting smart.