On this day in 1915, in a blinding snowstorm, General Fritz von Below and Germany s Eighth Army launch a surprise attack against the Russian lines just north of the Masurian Lakes on the Eastern Front, beginning the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes (also known as the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes).
A previous battle in the Masurian Lakes region, located near the villages of Frogenau and Tannenberg in East Prussia, had taken place in September 1914 and ended in the second major defeat of the Russians by Erich Ludendorff s German forces (the first had come at Tannenberg the previous month). The second battle marked the beginning of an aggressive strategy against Russia conceived by the German commander Paul von Hindenburg, who reasoned that if the Central Powers could manage a string of decisive victories on the Eastern Front, it could knock Russia out of the war and concentrate on the real challenge: confronting Britain and France in the west.
Hindenburg’s strategy called for two armies–the Eighth and Tenth–to be deployed in East Prussia against Russia’s Tenth Army, commanded by General Thadeus von Sievers, which consisted of four corps positioned north of the Masurian Lakes. On February 7, 1915, Below’s Eighth Army attacked the Russian left flank in the driving snow and quickly overwhelmed the Russian lines, easily advancing against the enemy position from the south.
On the second day of the battle, General Hermann von Eichorn and Germany s Tenth Army came at the Russians from the north, severely outnumbering and nearly surrounding Sievers army, which had retreated into the Augustow forest. Faced with tremendous opposition, the Russian XX Corps managed to hold off the German advance for more than two weeks–long enough for the three remaining Russian corps to escape–before finally surrendering to the Germans on February 21, 1915.
All told, the Russians suffered 56,000 casualties in the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes; an estimated 100,000 more had been taken prisoner. German losses were comparatively small, though many German troops suffered from exposure due to the extreme cold.
General Fritz von Below was awarded Germany s highest military medal, the Pour le Merite, for his service as commander of the Eighth Army during the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The Germans had managed to advance a full 70 miles during the first week of the battle. Further German progress eastward was halted, however, when the Russian Twelfth Army attacked the German right flank on February 22, and the victory at the Masurian Lakes ended up having little strategic impact on the Eastern Front.