Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Ludendorff, took over command of the East Prussian front on August 23 and immediately began a vigorous policy of attack against the advancing Russian armies under Samsonov. Between August 26 and 30 the two armies were in constant battle, and Hindenburg's triumph was such that, at the end, he had crushed two Russian armies, and captured over 100,000 prisoners and 500 guns.
An eye-witness account,
by Major-Gen. Sir Alfred Knox
A British Observer on the Eastern Front
Niedenburg, 25 th Aug. The XVth Corps was halting to-day, though firing ceased at 9 a.m. yesterday. Nothing is known of the position of the XIIIth and Vlth Corps to- night. Things will have to move more quickly for the Russians to do any good in the preliminary campaign in East Prussia, the object of which should be to annihilate the two or three German corps here together with their reserve divisions before they can be reinforced.
26th Aug. There was bad staff work in starting. The Automobile Colonel—a delightful fellow to talk to—was quite unable to read a map, so we went three miles on the wrong road, and the heavy cars had to turn to the right about on a sandy track. It did not occur to him that he should have reconnoitred the road in his light car while the transport cars were taking in petrol at Niedenburg. Yet the Russians seem to muddle through in a happy-go-lucky way.
There was a dramatic incident in the middle of the meal. An officer brought in a telegram for the C. of S. and said that the G.O.C. 1st Corps wished to speak on the telephone with the Army Commander or the Chief of Staff. He said he was hotly engaged. General Postovski put on his pince-nez, read the telegram, and he and General Samsonov buckled on their swords, said good-bye to the Commandant, and left at once.
It appears that this attack on the 1st Corps was not unexpected. This corps is at Usdau, and was known to be faced by a German corps which was reinforced to-day. I tried to induce Anders to start off for the 1st Corps, but without effect.
Ostrolenka, 28th Aug. I arrived at Niedenburg at 8.30 and found Samsonov had gone on. I followed with a colonel of the General Staff along the route running north- east to Jedwabno. Every few hundred yards we stopped to question stragglers, who always had the same story—that they had lost their way through no fault of their own. Samsonov said two days ago that Jewish soldiers skulked in the woods and so avoided fighting, but many of the men we saw to-day were certainly not Jews. We found Samsonov sitting on the ground poring over maps and surrounded with his staff. I stood aside. Suddenly he stood up and ordered eight of the men of the sotnia of Cossacks that was with us to dismount and give up their animals. I prepared to go off too, but he beckoned to me and took me aside. He said that he considered it his duty to tell me that the position was very critical. His place and duty was with the army, but he advised me to return while there was time, as my duty was to send in "valuable" reports to my Government. He said that the 1st Corps, the 2nd Division and the XVth Corps had been forced back on his left. He had just heard that the Vlth Corps had been driven back yesterday afternoon in disorder on his right. He was sending back all his automobiles via Willenberg to Ostrolenka, as Niedenburg and the Niedenburg-Mlava route were no longer safe.
He concluded that he did not know what was going to happen, but even if the worst happened, it would not affect the ultimate result of the War.
It was my duty to keep in touch with my Government, and I knew enough of the Russian character to understand that the presence of a foreigner at a time so critical would increase the nerve-strain of the staff, so I said good-bye, and Samsonov, with his seven staff officers, mounted the Cossack horses and rode north-west, followed by the remainder of the squadron. Both he and his staff were as calm as possible; they said: "The enemy has luck one day, we will have luck another." They told me he was going to the XVth Corps, which was suffering from hunger as well as from heavy loss in a four-days' battle, and that he was going to collect what he could to drive the Germans back.
Warsaw, 3 m Aug. A telephone message came at 8.30 a.m. to say that the train of the G.O.C. 2nd Army was at the St. P. station. I went down and retrieved my servant Maxim. I was told that the best thing I could do would be to return to Ostrolenka and I would find out everything there. No one had any idea where Samsonov was. (He had been dead over thirty hours.)
Ostrov, 1st Sept. I arrived at Ostrolenka at 9.30 a.m., to find the staff train had gone to Ostrov. I asked the railway transport officer if he could direct me to Samsonov. He shook his head, and as I pressed for a reply, he drew his hand significantly across his throat. Samsonov has been routed and has shot himself.
The main German attack from Gilgenburg on Niedenburg and Willenberg seems to have completely cut off the XHIth as well as the XVth Corps. Only odd men of both corps are now coming into Ostrolenka. All the guns and transport have been lost.
Ostrov, 2nd Sept. . . . The Staff of the Army followed the remnants of the XVth Corps in the retreat of the 29th, having been cut off from all communication with the 1st Corps since the morning of the 28th, and with the Vlth and XHIth Corps since the evening of the same day. They soon became isolated, Samsonov having told the Cossack escort, who had suffered severely in charging a machine-gun party, to shift for themselves. All the night of the 29th-3oth they stumbled through the woods that fringe the north of the railway from Niedenburg to Willenberg, moving hand-in-hand to avoid losing one another in the darkness. Samsonov said repeatedly that the disgrace of such a defeat was more than he could bear. "The Emperor trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?" He went aside and his staff heard a shot. They searched for his body without success, but all are convinced that he shot himself. The Chief of Staff and other officers managed to reach Russian territory, having covered forty miles on foot.
Major-Gen. Sir Alfred Knox
Dieu Le Roy!