Today, a well-known battle in the East (Tannenberg), a lesser-known one in the West (Etreux), and plenty else besides.
Today is the crucial day of the Battle of Tannenberg. The German counter-attack slams into the flank of the Russian Second Army. They’ve brought plenty of artillery with them, and as it finds its range the Russians begin to suffer. Confusion and miscommunication is high on both sides of the battle. For the Germans, orders have trouble reaching units on the ground. At one point, a wave of panic sweeps through them and an entire battalion retreats for absolutely no reason, convinced that the rest of the army is fleeing. The Russians’ problem is the exact opposite; they’re overly confident of their position. Reports from the commanders on the ground are not passed up the chain.
Consequently, they remain unaware that the Germans have launched a grand encirclement. By the 29th, the pocket around the Second Army will be complete. From an initial strength of 150,000 men, only 10,000 Russians will escape from Tannenberg. The rest are either killed or taken prisoner, and the Germans also acquire 350 Russian guns. They will achieve this complete and total rout for the loss of just under 14,000 killed or wounded. It’s unquestionably one of the biggest, most lop-sided kickings ever given out in the history of warfare. Its effect on morale on all sides will be immediate and electric.
And the effects of the Battle of Tannenberg will continue to resonate through the coming days. In the complete absence of their comrades, the Russian First Army is ordered to attempt to help, but only succeeds in disorganising itself and ruining its own cohesion. By the time the Germans are ready to engage it, in ten days’ time at the Masurian Lakes, it will be in a bad way.
The Battle of Le Cateau is the best-known of the stands that allowed the Great Retreat to continue, but to my mind the Battle of Etreux was almost as vital, despite being of a completely different character. Le Cateau allowed the BEF’s II Corps to escape; Etreux will do the same thing for I Corps. Where Le Cateau was a mass stand followed by a retirement, Etreux is a rearguard action with the most amazing delusions of grandeur. Two guns and three rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers engage with elements of the German 1st and 2nd Armies both, and keep them tied down going absolutely nowhere for some fourteen hours, despite being outnumbered six to one on the battlefield. Their initial strength was 800 officers and men, of whom 240 survived longer than their ammunition. They surrendered with dignity, and many survivors later told stories of how they were warmly congratulated for their efforts and fighting spirit by their German captors.
It’s very hard to overstate how important Le Cateau and Etreux were to the retreat, and to the BEF remaining on the field as an effective fighting force. At best, they had hoped for a short break before the Germans could start pressing them again. Instead, they’re able to completely disengage. They’ll have to fight several minor skirmishes and rearguard actions on the way, but they’ll never again be as hard-pressed as they were in the first four days. The exact reasons for this have been a Matter of Some Debate among historians for a good long time. From what I can make out, it goes something like this:
German intelligence was poor, and it vastly overestimated the strength of the force opposing them. This is where people usually start to mention the (probably apocryphal) stories that the BEF’s rifle fire was so intense that German officers reported being opposed by vast armies bristling with machine guns. This is probably an exaggeration, but the basic truth that the Germans overestimated the strength of the Allied left flank is just that. They also blundered in predicting that the BEF would think of saving itself above all else, and retreat to defend the Channel ports, its lines of supply, and its quickest route home. Instead, they were retreating with the French, back towards Paris, to defend it if need be. Sir John French has also ordered that all routine shipping and supply lines be diverted via the Atlantic port of St Nazaire. This means that the BEF can still be supplied and can continue fighting if the worst happens and the Channel ports fall.
And so, the Germans angled further westwards as they advanced, looking to find and turn a flank that wasn’t really there any more, while the BEF continued south and escaped. The situation is far from rosy. I Corps on the far left is out of contact with II Corps and, being further north than them, doesn’t have as much breathing room as they do. Worse, the gap between II Corps and the French will get bigger over the next few days. General Joffre will continue retreating his left flank. His 4th and 3rd armies have now been compelled to retreat along with the 5th Army, in search of a good place to turn and fight. The BEF is left with no option but to continue heading further and further back into France.
The Germans may have got there firstest with the mostest; however, since leaving Mons the BEF has fucked up the littlest and the leastest, and the immediate danger has passed. But the Allies haven’t won anything, they’ve just succeeded in not losing, yet. Germans are still advancing deeper and deeper into France, relatively unchecked, and still broadly in agreement with the Schlieffen plan.
In Galicia, Komarow proceeds well for the Austro-Hungarians. Over the next few days they will attempt to pocket their opponents as the Germans are doing at Tannenberg. Meanwhile, the Third Army is obviously outnumbered, and is ordered to retreat back to the Gnila Lipa river.
On the sea, the British Admiralty is eager to do something more offensive than escorting BEF supply convoys. A sortie is planned into the Heligoland Bight to meet the German sea patrols and do some damage to them.
In the Pacific, the Anglo-Japanese fleet begins a blockade of Tsingtao, and plans are made for the general conquest of all German possessions. With the East Asia Squadron removing itself from the area, this will only be a matter of time. This does not cause too much concern in Germany; they will surely be able to regain their colonial possessions in the negotiations after they win the war in Europe.