Alternate History

Battle of Stallupönen (God Save the Tsar)

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Battle of Stallupönen
Part of Invasion of East Prussia, Eastern Front of World War I
Date 17 August 1914
Location Stallupönen, Prussia
Result Russian victory
Flag of Russia Russia Flag of the German Empire Germany
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Russia Nikolai Dukhonin Flag of the German Empire Hermann von François
Units involved
I Army VIII Army
84,000 16,000
Casualties and losses
2,591 killed or wounded 8,672 killed or wounded

The Battle of Stallupönen, fought between Russian and German armies on August 17, 1914, was the opening battle of World War I on the Eastern Front. With more than fivefold numerical superiority (84,000 Russians against 16,000 Germans), the Russian army was triumphant. It was a minor Russian success, but did little to upset the German planning.


The German Schlieffen Plan was based on defeating France (and the United Kingdom, should it be involved) as quickly as possible in the west, which would then permit the Germans to transport their forces eastward to meet the massive Russian Army. The Russians were able to field up to ten complete armies compared to Germany's eight, but they were scattered across the country and would take some time to organize and move up. This meant that the Germans had a short window of time where they could fight a defensive battle, holding off what forces the Russians could move forward, while they waited for the battles in the west to be decided.

Immediately prior to the opening of hostilities, the Eastern Front developed largely according to pre-war planning. Two Russian armies were in the immediate area, Nikolai Dukhonin's First Army east of the city of Königsberg, and Alexander Samsonov's Second Army to the south. Dukhonin planned on marching on Königsberg, then head south towards Samsonov, and attack the main German positions concentrated to the south.

The Germans were also deployed largely according to everyone's expectations. The German Eighth Army was strung out in pockets in front of Dukhonin, but did not have the manpower to completely cover the front of either of the Russian armies. On paper, the situation looked almost hopeless, and the standing orders were to fight a delaying retreat. However, Hermann von François, the commander of the First Corps of the German Eighth Army, was convinced his better-trained and equipped forces could halt, and perhaps defeat, Dukhonin's Russian forces.

Most of the Eighth Army was organized into a defensive line running south of Gumbinnen, about 20 miles (32 km) west of the Russian border. However, small units were sent forward to garrison towns, railway lines and strongpoints. They were ordered to retreat on contact with the enemy, joining the main forces at Gumbinnen. For the first five days of the war, the only combat was minor skirmishes with Dukhonin's cavalry who were conducting reconnaissance along the border area.


On August 17, Dukhonin started the invasion of East Prussia, marching the First Army directly westward towards the German lines. He faced no resistance, and so Dukhonin continued marching forward. Acting without orders, François decided to take his forces to Stallupönen where one of the Russian divisions was advancing. A furious frontal attack nearly broke the Russian division, which was able to repulse the attack. It resulted in some 8,000 German casualties.

When Prittwitz learned that François had engaged the Russians, he ordered François to break off the attack and retreat to the Vistula. François by this time was too committed to safely disengage, and had no intention of doing so anyway. He contemptuously, and famously, told the adjutant, "Report to General Prittwitz that General von François will withdraw when he has defeated the Russians." However, later that day, he was forced to retreat because of the heavy casualties.


While the Germans retreated, Dukhonin pursued them into the evening, but ended his advance when he came under German artillery fire. François obeyed Prittwitz's order and withdrew 15 miles (24 km) to the west, taking up new positions around Gumbinnen. His defeat was humiliating, and convinced Prittwitz to be more careful in dealing with the Russian forces.

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