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Entente. Serbia, with her army reorganised and its equipment completed, was ready to exact vengeance from her assailant. It seemed not incredible that the plains of Hungary might be the scene of the penultimate act of the great drama; and that, when Austria had been beaten into submission, the invasion of Germany might come from the south.
These possibilities were not hidden from the minds of the German General Staff, who took immediate steps to guard against them. Rumour became very busy about events in Hungary. A fresh expedition against Serbia in which a couple of German army corps were to take part was sedulously advertised. The Hungarian railways were crowded with troops, Austrian and German. The Austrians made a show of bombarding Belgrade and occupying islands in the Danube. The thing was done so skilfully that the Serbians themselves were misled; and, in spite of military expediency and probability, it was generally believed in this country that Serbia was to be invaded in overwhelming force. It proved, however, to be only a clever ruse to cover the concentration on the Carpathian front of large German and Austrian forces, which quickly gained possession of all the passes east of and including the Uzok, and, by the end of the first week in February, were pouring into the Bukowina.
Concurrently with the despatch of troops (supposed to amount to at least four army corps) to help on the Carpathian front, the Germans began to prepare for a complementary move on the opposite wing. During the last week of January they renewed their attacks on the line of the River Rawka in the neighbourhood of Bolimoff with forces which, by Feb. 3, reached a total of seven divisions and a hundred batteries (probably about 100,000 men with 500 guns) on a front of about seven miles. Though this force was clearly inadequate, in the light of previous experience, to break through the Russian position in front of Warsaw unless highly favoured by fortune, the persistent violence of the attack was calculated to suggest such a design. Whether the Russian General Staff were misled is not certain, but they were admittedly surprised by the new move from which these attacks were intended to distract attention, namely, the
Vol. 223.–No. 443.
concentration of considerable forces on the eastern, or Niemen, front of East Prussia. In this region the Russian Tenth Army had embarked on an offensive movement towards the end of January, which by Feb. 2 reached the main German position on the River Angerap near Darkemen, and, further north, arrived within fifteen miles of Tilsit. Two days later the German concentration was detected, and the Russians were in the act of retiring when, on the 8th, a sudden attack combined with an outflanking movement led to the hurried retreat of the Russian right wing. This left the centre exposed, resulting in the twentieth army corps being enveloped and sustaining severe losses. The German right wing had meanwhile moved on Johannisberg and Lyck, driving the Russian left in the direction of Ossowetz, a fortress of the third class which guards the bridge by which the Königsberg-Bielostok railway crosses the River Bobr. The concentration of troops by which these rapid successes were attained comprised the 21st active army corps transferred from France, two newly-raised corps, and probably three or four army corps drawn from the Vistula front. These reinforcements, added to the force already on the Niemen front, probably made a total of nine or ten army corps, or from 400,000 to 440,000 men, who, according to German statements, were opposed by eleven Russian divisions, or about 200,000 men.
Having thus for the second time expelled the Russians from East Prussia, the Germans transferred a great part of the troops to reinforce the army corps, probably four or five in number, which had been deployed on the Narew front between Kolno and the Mlawa railway. Those which remained pursued the retiring Russians nearly as far as the Niemen, and detachments attempted to cross the river, apparently with the intention of destroying the Vilna-Warsaw railway. The Russian General Staff had meanwhile stated that the object of the retirement was to reorganise and reinforce the army under cover of the fortresses.
In spite of the unquestioned fact that a large part of the German forces had been promptly transferred to the Narew front, the view has been generally held by nonmilitary commentators that the Germans intended to seize the line of the Niemen; and, because they did not carry out this supposed intention, it has been assumed that they failed to give effect to their plans through exhaustion of their offensive power. The matter is obviously of some importance as indicating the value of the German army as an instrument for giving effect to the strategical plans of the General Staff. It also illustrates the importance of forming a correct idea of the object of military operations. If it was the purpose of the German General Staff to gain possession of the line of the Niemen, they failed in their purpose because of the inability of the army to develop the requisite offensive power. If, on the other hand, it had never been their intention to gain possession of the line of the Niemen, the commentators referred to have fallen into the error of underestimating the value of the German army; an error which, by misleading public opinion as to the magnitude of the effort needed to overcome the enemy's military power, might have serious consequences.
Considerations of space preclude a full discussion of the subject; but it may be said without hesitation that the view generally held is opposed to every consideration of military expediency. To hold the line of the Niemen is, from the German point of view, unnecessary at the present stage; it would entail unjustifiable extension of front; and, as a defensive line, the position is very disadvantageous because the country in rear of it, as far as the Prussian frontier, is a wilderness of swamp and forest, almost devoid of communications either by road or rail. For these reasons, among others not less weighty, it must be concluded that the German plan was successful in all essential points. The operations were prompt and decisive; the Russian army was severely handled and driven into the shelter of its fortresses and a position was gained near the frontier which from the nature of the country and the communications is advantageous for the defence, and equally disadvantageous for the attack.
Concurrently with the fighting on the Niemen front there were daily encounters, from Feb. 7 onwards, along the whole Narew front from Johannisberg to the Vistula in the vicinity of Plock. On this front the Russians were favoured by the railway communications; and, as the German troops arrived from the Niemen front, they were opposed by equal or superior Russian reinforcements. By Feb. 17 the fighting had become violent along the entire front, and on the 20th large German forces advanced with great impetuosity in the vicinity of Przasnysz. The battle, which raged furiously for ten days, appears to have culminated in a midnight panic, which caused the Germans to abandon their positions about Przasnysz on the night of the 26th-27th. The arrival of further reinforcements enabled the Germans to renew the offensive in this region on March 8, but the Russians gradually established a preponderance of force, and the enemy were being steadily pressed back towards the frontier when a general thaw, setting in about the 15th, made the continuance of connected operations impracticable.
The Germans have thus failed in three separate attempts to gain the control of the line of the Polish rivers. The first two attempts were made against the Vistula front; the last against the line of the Bobr and Narew, with the object of taking the line of the Vistula in rear. They have only succeeded in reaching the riverline at one point-Ossowetz on the Bobr—which they have attacked with heavy artillery, stated to comprise two 42-cm. howitzers, since Feb. 20. The fortress artillery appears to have had the advantage throughout, and the latest reports indicate that the attack is weakening.
The Russians, on the other hand, have attained their principal object, which has been essentially defensive. An invasion of East Prussia, or an advance from Western Poland on Posen, whatever might be the political effect, would not be justified on military grounds. The conquest of East Prussia would not end the war; and the further advance on Berlin is barred by the formidable obstacle of the Lower Vistula, so strongly guarded by fortresses as to be practically insurmountable. The province of Posen, though it lies on the shortest route to Berlin, is girt with swamps and forests; and beyond it the way is barred by the fortresses of the Oder. The fortress of Posen blocks the principal com. munications. The province itself is not of great political significance, and its lakes and marshes make it unsuitable for operations. An offensive from North or West Poland would, 'therefore, offer no advantages. The Russians at the beginning of the war turned their attention to Silesia, for reasons which were indicated in the last article. The Austrian positions in Western Galicia have since become so strong that the Russians have concentrated their forces further south, and directed their efforts to the invasion of Hungary.
The situation on the Carpathian front has already been broadly outlined; it will now be examined more closely. The entrenched positions in Western Galicia, following the line of the rivers Dunajetz and Bialla, appear to merge in the broken country of the Carpathians in the region of Gorlice and Zmigrod. The Russian front is then thrown forward, beyond the Dukla and Lupkow passes, into the upper valleys of the Ondava and Laborcz. These advanced positions have been maintained since the end of January against numerous attacks. East of the Lupkow Pass the Russian line falls back into the valley of the Upper San in the neighbourhood of Baligrod, whence it runs parallel to the main ridge as far as the neighbourhood of the Wyskow Pass. This portion of the front has been the scene of heavy fighting, which has been especially severe at Koziowa, where the Russians occupy a formidable position on the high ground west of the railway from Stryj to Munkacs. Although the enemy hold the passes over this portion of the range, they have been unable to descend into the Galician plain. East of the Wyskow Pass they have been more successful. Early in February, while the Russians were developing their offensive in the region of the Dukla and Lupkow Passes, the Austrians concentrated large forces between Munkacs and the Roumanian frontier, and speedily drove the Russians from the Bukowina. The right of the line was then thrown forward, marching in the direction of Lemberg, while the centre advanced through the passes and cooperated with the movement. By Feb. 23 the Austrians had reached the line Dolina-Halicz, which seems to have been about the high-water mark of their offensive; for the Russians, having brought up reinforcements, defeated them in a series of engagements fought during the latter part of March in different localities between Halicz and Kolomea.