Lessons for India from World War I
Mani Shankar Aiyar
My wife and I have been traipsing around the Warmia district of Poland this last week visiting the sites of the Battle of Tannenberg on precisely the dates, 26-30 August, that the opening engagement of the First World War between Russia and Germany was fought in 1914 on the soil of Poland.
The German plan, drafted two decades earlier by the German genius, von Schlieffen, provided for the German army to enter Paris within 33 days of D-Day. It was the expectation that even if Russia came into the war against Germany, she would need at least 30 days to mobilize. So, Germany would wrap up France well in time to turn the full force of its wrath on the Russians. But to the astonishment of most, Russia completed its mobilization within 15 days while Germany was still caught up in Belgium and northern France. The Russian plan was to push their First Army under General Rennenkampf through the north of Warmia to cut off any German attempt to flee to the Baltic Sea through the principal Warmian port of Danzig. Rennenkampf was then to wheel left to link up with the Russian Second Army under Gen Samsonov coming up from the south to envelope the Germans in a pincer movement before the Germans fell back westwards to the River Vistula.
After wrapping up the German army before the Vistula, the Russians would then be able to cross the river and position themselves for a week’s march to Berlin. Once Berlin was captured, it could be traded for Paris, and the war would end within six weeks. Had this happened, nearly 15 million lives would have been saved before WWI actually ended in 1918. And had WWI ended in September 1914, there would neither have been a World War, nor, therefore, a Second, and close to a hundred million lives would have been saved. That is how crucial the Battle of Tannenberg looks a hundred years later in retrospect.
However, to get back to what actually happened, as against what was expected to happen….
Unable to spare the troops from the Western Front to confront Russia on the Eastern Front, the German army in Prussia, under the charge of a most incompetent general, von Prittwitz, decided to withdraw west to the river Vistula to fight off the Russians at the river or perhaps even from behind it. The Russian First Army, coming in under Genral Rennenkampf, were thus astonished to find themselves marching through miles and miles of abandoned villages. But one disobedient German corps commander, Gen Francois, unable to countenance the German High Command abandoning Prussia, decided to not retreat and instead challenged Rennenkampf head on at Gumbinnen. He lost heavily on the right and left flanks of the Russian army but smashed through the Russian centre with his cavalry.
To Gen Francois’ amazement, instead of being encouraged to consolidate his victory, he was ordered to withdraw and regroup in the far south-west to confront Samsonov’s Second Army. To Francois’ further amazement, his counterpart Russian general, Rennenkampf, broke contact and did not harry the retreating German troops. At the same time, the defeated Russian cavalry corps, under a really weak and cowardly commander, simply disintegrated, with the remnants running back to, and even behind, the Russian frontier.
The fact is that Rennenkampf and Samsonov hated each other, and Samsonov was also despised by General Zilinsky who was to coordinate the two armies from his rear base in Warsaw. Unlike Rennenkampf and Samsonov, who had some, indeed, considerable experience of warfare, Zilinsky, like our own Gen.BM Kaul, appointed commander of the ill-fated IV Corps at the start of the 1962 India-China war, was a chamcha who had risen by Court favour rather than any merit. Zilinsky was mis-promoted by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sukhomlinov, much as Kaul was mis-promoted by VK Krishna Menon – and for much the same reason: Zilinsky was reputed to be close to the Czarina through Rasputin, just as Kaul was supposed to be related to Teen Murti House!
Consequently, instead of berating the First Army commander, Rennenkampf, for not pursuing the retreating Germans, or cashiering the cavalry commander who had fled, and urging Rennekampf to position himself to wheel to the left to link up with the Second Army, Zilinsky ordered Gen Samsonov’s Second Army to force march forward to the Vistula without adequate supplies. The Russian pincer, so beautifully planned on paper, never got off the ground.
Meanwhile, the Germans decided to replace their useless commander and bring in the combination of Hindenburg and Ludendorff who were to become the most famous twin commanders in German military history, reinforced by two corps rushed from the Western to the Eastern Front. But not even this formidable combo could have succeeded but for the bone-headedness of the same corps commander, Gen Francois, who had won at least a partial victory at Gumbinnen by disobeying orders. He insisted on not attacking until his heavy artillery caught up with him. (I thought of Brigadier John Dalvi at the Namka-chu who, if only he had similarly refused the stupid order to attack coming to him from Army HQ, might still have survived the humiliation of the total rout of Dhola Post that signalled the start of the 1962 war).
Notwithstanding Hindenburg and Ludendorff driving down to Francois’ base to order him to attack earlier than he planned, Francois stood his ground. He might have been dismissed for insubordination the same evening but for two extraordinary intercepts that changed the face of the battle. Since the Russians were transmitting their orders “en clair”, that is, not in code, the Germans, stopping off at a local telegraph office, received copies of Russian orders showing that Rennenkampf had decided not to link up with Samsonov and listing the precise dispositions of Samsonov’s corps for the next day (just like the IPKF revealing to Prabhakaran through ‘en clair’ transmissions its plans for air dropping paratroopers into Jaffna University, and consequently being picked off the skies as at a duck shoot). So when next morning, Francois opened up with his heavy artillery, Samsonov’s Second Army was decimated, except for one Russian commander, Gen Martos, who routed his German counterpart at Hohenstein, a few miles north of Francois’ devastation, but in the process lost 4000 men and most of his officers, much like Brig Hoshiar Singh against overwhelming Chinese might at Sela.
Meanwhile, instead of coming to Samsonov’s rescue, as per the original plans, Rennenkampf contented himself with sending to Samsonov a single regiment, who, despite brave fighting, were mowed down at Deureten by the Germans in a narrow defile between two great lakes.
Samsonov was thus left with no alternative but a shameful retreat. This brought on a nervous breakdown (remember Kaul tottering sick off the Tawang battlefield?). And at the edge of a forest near the Russian frontier, unable to face up to the humiliation of telling the Czar he had lost an entire army, Samsonov shot himself, the final victim of a stunning and unforeseen defeat, which ensured that a hundred million would die after him.
My mind goes back to a meeting at the India International Centre in 1983 just after the Sri Lanka crisis erupted where a very, very senior general of the Indian Army – with a very, very propah British accent – insisted that if only our Government would let the Army do so, they would slice through Sri Lanka “like a knife through buttah!” We know what happened. The Battle of Tannenberg classically illustrates that between the plans of mere men and the workings of Destiny falls a shadow that cannot be foreseen.
So, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by retired militarymen on TV sporting handlebar moustaches, as most are wont to do, South Asia might find itself caught in the 21st century in the same mincing machine that in the 20th century made keema of the lives of millions and millions of young men in their prime.
I went to Poland not in search of war but to learn why we must give peace a chance. Nothing is more terrible than war. War is not Glory. War is Hell!