Great Retreat (Russian)

Great Retreat
Part of the Eastern Front during World War I

Russian withdrawal in 1915.
DateJuly–September 1915
LocationGalicia and Poland
Result German victory
Russian retreat from Galicia and Poland
German Empire German Empire
Russia Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
German Empire Erich von Falkenhayn
German Empire Erich Ludendorff
Russia Grand Duke Nicholas
Russia Mikhail Alekseyev
Russia Nikolay Iudovich Ivanov
1,136,000 combat troops, 4650 guns[1] 1,200,000 combat troops, 6000 mobile guns, 9300 fortress guns[2]
Casualties and losses
German Army: 200,000 killed, wounded and missing[3] c. 500,000 killed, died of wounds, missing
c. 1,000,000 prisoners, 9300 fortress guns[4]

The Great Retreat was a strategic withdrawal from the Galicia-Poland salient conducted by the Imperial Russian Army during September 1915 in World War I. The Russians' critically under-equipped and (at the points of engagement) outnumbered forces suffered great losses in the Central Powers' July–September summer offensive operations, this leading to Stavka ordering a withdrawal to shorten the front lines and avoid the potential encirclement of large Russian forces in the salient. While the withdrawal itself was relatively well conducted, it was a severe blow to Russian morale.


During this period, the buildup of forces generally favored the Central Powers. Four new German armies, the 11th, 12th, Army of the Niemen and Army of the Bug were formed. Given the steady erosion of the Russian armies' combat power due to a poorly administered system of reinforcement, particularly of officers, this dramatically shifted the balance of power in the eastern theatre to the Central powers as 13 Central Powers armies faced nine under-strength Russian armies. Under pressure from the Kaiser, Falkenhayn gave in to Hindenburg and Ludendorff's insistence on an offensive in the region. Although Ludendorff and Austro-Hungarian General Staff Chief Conrad von Hötzendorf favored an encirclement operation (attacking the extreme north-east and south-east of the salient), just as Stavka feared, Falkenhayn vetoed this on the grounds of the Central Powers' logistical limitations which confined them to slow advances along major railway lines.

Commanders of the Russian Field Armies in Poland had already worked to persuade the Stavka to order a withdrawal from the salient, but Stavka had felt unable to take such a bold move due to the political implications. Stavka also did not permit tactical withdrawals within the salient such as the Second Army's proposal to withdraw behind the Vistula, forcing the field armies to hold tactically disadvantageous or even indefensible positions.


Despite heavy initial resistance, the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive of May–June 1915 eventually resulted in a series of tactical breakthroughs and Mackensen's armies crossed the San River and re-took the Austro-Hungarian fortress at Przemyśl, the Russians leaving the Galician capital of Lvov on 22 June. At this point Stavka began planning a retreat from the Poland salient as the Russians's forces in southern Poland withdrew northward to a new defensive line anchored on the Vistula river and the fortress of Ivanovgrod. Between 23 and 27 June the Germans established bridgeheads across the Dniester to the south, but were halted by Russian counterattacks from the east in July.

More worryingly for the Stavka, the German Tenth and Niemen armies pressed through on the extreme north end of the line in Courland. Although there was nothing worth defending in the area, Stavka felt pressured to defend it on principle and so created a new army to defend the region. When this army was defeated and pushed back from Courland, Stavka's over-estimation of the Germans logistical capabilities led to them fearing that these advances could be used as a springboard for further advances. It was feared that further successful advances in the north, combined with a fresh offensive in the south, could lead to the encirclement of the entire Poland-salient. Over-estimation of German naval capabilities also led to fears of an offensive thrust through Pskov to St Petersburg with the aid of amphibious landings in the capital itself.

Due to heavy losses in the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive the Russian Army as a whole was a million combat troops, roughly 30%, short of its nominal strength of 1.8 million combat troops as well as being in an exposed position in the Poland Salient.

The Russian field armies at this time were critically short of modern weapons and ammunition of all kinds—artillery, machine guns, and even rifles. In the words of David Lloyd George, then the British Minister of Munitions, "The Russians, with their inferior equipment and serious shell deficiency, were quite unable to reply. Retreat was the only expedient open to them to save their armies from complete destruction."[5]

The obsolescent fortresses of Novogeorgievsk, Ivangorod, Grodno, Osowiec, and Dvinsk, that were on or near the front lines at the time, contained considerable artillery, including some modern types. It was hoped that these could compensate for the temporary weakness of the infantry and render the Ivangorod-Lublin-Chełm line defensible.

On 13 July, the Central Powers' armies opened a new offensive across the entire front. By 17 July the forces Gallwitz's forces in the center-north had taken 80% losses, and although they had only been forced back only some 8 km they had to retreat across the Narew to avoid total annihilation. German advances in the far north in Latvia and Lithuania took the fortress of Grodno in a matter of days, when Stavka had assumed that it could hold for weeks at the least, and with the renewal of Austro-Hungarian attacks in the south Stavka now believed that the encirclement of the Poland-salient was inevitable without an immediate withdrawal and so ordered the abandonment of the defensive lines along the Narew and Vistula, trusting that the fortresses could cover the retreat of its forces.

German Cavalry entering Warsaw on August 5, 1915.

By 13 July, the entire southern wing had been pushed back another 160 km (99 mi) to the Bug River, leaving only a small portion of Congress Poland in Russian hands, anchored on Warsaw and the Ivangorod fortress. On 22 July, armies of Central Powers crossed the Vistula river. In August, the Russian Fourth army left the Ivangorod fortress. With the continuing Russian retreat, Warsaw became isolated, and the German 12th Army (under Gallwitz) seized the opportunity and conquered it on 4–5 August.

Poniatowski Bridge in Warsaw after being blown up by the retreating Russian Army in 1915.

New attacks by the German Eighth, Tenth and Twelfth armies moving south out of Prussia soon caused even this front to collapse, sending the entire northern end of the Russian lines streaming backward, eventually forming a line running north-south at about the pre-war eastern Prussian border.

The Germans, after having received considerable reinforcements, took Brest-Litovsk on 25 August. On 19 September, Hindenburg's forces captured Vilna.


With their troops starving and their forces critically under-strength due to battle-casualties and particularly disease, the German advance was halted by Russian counter-attacks in late September. The new frontline ran from the Baltic sea to the Romanian border by way of the Belarusian forests and disease-ridden Pripyet Marshes. The new line was roughly on the line of Riga-Jakobstadt-Dünaburg-Baranovichi-Pinsk-Dubno-Ternopil.

On 21 August 1915, Tsar Nicholas II took advantage of Stavka's blunders, in losing so many troops to the Central Powers' summer offensives and then retreating only when it was too late, to effectively neuter its power by removing Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich from his post as its head, taking direct control of the army.

Russian terror and atrocities against civilians

Peasants from a destroyed village in front of a shack constructed from debris, environs of Warsaw, 1915

As the Russian army retreated, the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Yanushkevich ordered the army to devastate the border territories and expel the "enemy" nations within. The Russian authorities launched pogroms against German populations in Russian cities, massacred Jews in their towns and villages and deported thousands of them into the Russian interior. The Russian military leadership regarded Muslims, Germans and Poles as traitors and spies, while Jews were considered political unreliables.[6]

The atrocities were part of the Tsarist policy of ethnic homogenization. Ethnically homogeneous and militarized societies were seen as modern and therefore superior to multiethnic empires. The Russian generals applied this view to their German enemies and saw in them a unified and militarized society.[7]


  1. Norman Stone, The Eastern Front, 1975, p.191
  2. Norman Stone, The Eastern Front, 1975, p.174
  3. Richard L. DiNardo, 2010, p. 132-133
  4. Norman Stone, The Eastern Front, 1975, p.191
  5. Lloyd George, David. War Memoirs of David Lloyd George. Vol. 1. London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1933. p. 451-52.
  6. Baberowski and Anselm Doering-Manteuffel 2009, pp. 202-203.
  7. Baberowski and Anselm Doering-Manteuffel 2009, p. 203.


  • Baberowski, Jörg; Doering-Manteuffel, Anselm (2009). Geyer, Michael; Fitzpatrick, Sheila, eds. Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism compared. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-89796-9. 

Further reading

See also

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