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Summary Article: Eastern Front
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Battlefront between Russia and Germany/Austria-Hungary during World War I. In 1914 it was effectively the borders of eastern Prussia/Russia, Germany/Poland, Galicia/Poland, and Galicia/Russia. In present-day terms the front ran roughly from Kaliningrad in Russia via Białystok, southwesterly to Torun in Poland, south to Katowice, east to Lviv, and southeast to the mouth of the River Danube.

In August 1914 the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) were at war in Western Europe with France, Britain, and Belgium, and in Eastern Europe with Russia. Although this had been envisaged in Germany's Schlieffen Plan, the intention had been to defeat France with a rapid strike and then turn all forces towards Russia. The failure of the Schlieffen Plan left Germany fighting a war on two fronts, the Western Front and the Eastern, for the next three years. War in the east only ended after the Bolsheviks took power in the 1917 Russian Revolution and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

Failure of the Schlieffen Plan The Schlieffen Plan made the assumption that the inefficient Russian transport system would take weeks to get the massive Russian Army in place to fight. During this time, the Germans intended to knock the French out of the war in the west, leaving their forces free to concentrate on the Russians. The Russians, however, proved far more efficient and ready for war than expected. Within six days of mobilizing its forces against Austria-Hungary on 29 July, Russia had some 4.5 million soldiers ready for duty, with a further 2 million in reserve. Coupled with this the German chief of staff Helmuth Moltke, had altered the Schlieffen Plan, diluting its effect by delaying decisions and moving troops around. By the end of 1914 the Schlieffen Plan had failed, and the war on two fronts that the Germans had feared and tried to avoid became a reality.

Battles of 1914 The Eastern Front was longer and much more mobile than the Western Front. There were far fewer trenches established because of the terrain and the uneven strength of the opposing forces. While the German army was a superior fighting force to the poorly-led and badly-equipped Russians, the Russians proved superior to the Austro-Hungarian army. The Russians had successes against Austria-Hungary in Galicia, forcing them back to the Carpathian Mountains, and advanced into East Prussia during August 1914. However, in their first battles with the Germans at Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes, the Russians were heavily defeated, losing over 200,000 men. Russian belief that their army would steamroller its way to victory through sheer size and power was shattered in 1914, although it would take a further three years of war before the Russians accepted defeat; by this time estimated casualties had reached over 6,650,000 dead or wounded.

Brusilov Offensive 1916 The Russians continued to launch offensives against the Austrians and Germans, including the Brusilov Offensive of 4 June 1916. This was timed to support the Battle of the Somme of July 1916 on the Western Front by drawing German troops to the east, and was initially a great success. The Russian general Alexei Brusilov gained up to 160 km/100 mi, and Romania joined the allied powers. However, by the end of 1916 these early gains were lost and the Central Powers and their new ally Bulgaria had defeated Romania. Brusilov had achieved much, but the Russian army had suffered almost a million casualties during the Offensive – some reports suggest that only 30% of his troops had weapons – and his forces were demoralized. When German reinforcements arrived to bolster the Austro-Hungarian army, Brusilov's success could not be sustained.

Termination of war In February 1917 (Julien calendar; March according to the Western calendar) the first phase of the Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov dynasty and government. Russia's new provisional government continued with the war and launched the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917. With the failure of this attack, the Russian threat was neutralized. The Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian provisional government in October 1917, and the revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky was ordered to end the war at any cost. The Germans dictated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918, giving themselves vast areas of White Russia (Belarus) and the Ukraine. These terms were later annulled under the peace Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, but the war on the Eastern Front had ended.

Impact of the war on two fronts Although to some extent a separate entity, the Eastern Front was inextricably linked to the war on the Western Front. Fighting on two fronts made it almost impossible for Germany to muster sufficient troops to defeat the Allies in France, contributing to the eventual outcome of the war in 1918. The Germans had to engage in a permanent balancing act, sending troops between the two fronts as they were needed. Even when victory on a specific front seemed assured for the Central Powers, as in Bulgaria's attack on Salonika, Greece, in September 1915, the Germans were unable to spare the necessary troops from the main battles on the Western and Eastern fronts. A joint Anglo-French expedition to Salonika in October 1915 eventually forced back the Bulgarians in the summer of 1916. In January 1916 German chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn moved 250,000 troops to support the German offensive at Verdun (21 February–18 December 1916). However, when the Russians launched the Brusilov Offensive in June 1916, von Falkenhayn was forced to transfer thousands of men back to the Eastern Front to stem the losses of the Austro-Hungarian forces, and the attacks on Verdun failed. Germany's inability to inflict full defeat on the Russians until the Russian Revolution of 1917 handed them victory, the weakness of its allies, and the burden of fighting on two fronts all contributed to eventual victory for the Allies.


Eastern Front, 1914–1917


Russian troops

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