A Journey To The First World War

Memories of an age past Stalin Palace is one of the few remaining monuments from the Cold War era
Memories of an age past Stalin Palace is one of the few remaining monuments from the Cold War era. Photo: CCL/Jorge Lascar

The enduring monument in Warsaw to the Cold War is the towering Stalin Palace soaring 30 storeys into the sky, now hemmed in by two post-modern manifestations of American dominance, the hideously unaesthetic Intercontinental and JW Marriott hotels. Poland’s dreadful Soviet past, and even more dreadful German past, may now be behind them but the Stalin Palace remains a grim reminder of a dark history. As for German atrocities, the city is strewn with shrines in memory of hundreds of ordinary Poles shot in cold blood by the Germans, the terror compounded by the decimation of the entire Polish Army leadership by Stalin’s troops in the nearby Katyn woods to open the road to the Communist take over of Poland in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. But shivering stall vendors and doddering old women in scanty shawls are also a reminder of the breakdown under neoliberalism of the astonishingly successful social security system that the Communists ran. The choice between growth and social justice is quite as stark in Poland as elsewhere.


Hitler razed Warsaw to rubble. Yet the old town where we find the cute little Castle Inn to pass the night is actually brand new, restored from the mid-1950s on but completed only in the ’80s. Even the imposing 14th century Royal Castle, wantonly burnt, pillaged and laid waste by Hitler is as it was in 1939, lovingly restored, brick by brick and stone by stone, to exactly what it looked like hundreds of years ago. The story is dramatically told in a series of underground audio-visual theatres that vividly take you through the building, destruction and rebuilding of one of the lasting symbols of Polish sovereignty. The Poles must number among the world’s greatest restorers. Perhaps we should hand over our Red Fort to them to savour again what the Lal Qila must have looked like from the time of Shahjahan to the ill-fated Bahadur Shah Zafar. It would be delightful revenge on the British barbarians who vandalised the fort and old Shahjahanbad worse even than the depredations of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali.


I look out at the verdant forests and picturesque farmhouses through the windows of the Inter-City Express that bullets us from Warsaw to Krakow and wonder how it is that developed countries with astronomic wage rates keep their train windows clean while windows in even the best Indian trains are fogged over with grime and dirt. Is it perhaps to shield us from the spectacle of men easing themselves along our rail tracks?


Preserving cities The Poles have restored most of the buildings destroyed in the war
Preserving cities The Poles have restored most of the buildings destroyed in the war

Krakow means, of course, a visit to nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration camp where Hitler’s odious henchmen disposed of more than a million human beings, 90 percent for no fault other than that they were Jews. Preserving the death chambers much as they were through World War II, the exhibits are a stark reminder of the depth of depravity to which even that most civilised of nations, Germany, could sink under Hitler. While Rudolf Hess, the camp commandant, was caught and hung with poetic justice from the same gallows where he had supervised the death of hundreds, many of the worst elements, including Martin Bormann and the manic Dr Joseph Mengele, escaped to South America. A few, notably Adolf Eichmann, were traced by Mossad and brought to judgement, but most lived happily ever after, under the benevolent protection of a number of vicious South American dictatorships that, in turn, survived under the benevolent protection of the United States. As we emerge into a wet and miserable day, entirely appropriate for a visit to Auschwitz, my wife remarks, “What horrors they subjected them to; no wonder they’ve gone a bit berserk in Israel” — as succinct a summing up as I have ever heard of 70 years of atrocities on either side.

There is so much more to see in Krakow — the one Polish city not despoiled by Hitler: magnificent Basiliques (in one of which we hear the most moving Eastern Orthodox choir) and original (not rebuilt) towers and forts and market places dating back to the Middle Ages — but the experience of Auschwitz is so overwhelming and depressing as to blot out other memories more fondly recalled.


Armed with Aleksandr Solzhensitsyn’s August 1914 in one hand and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August in the other, we set out on the main purpose of our voyage — visiting the sites of the Battle of Tannenberg between the Russians and the Germans on the very days — 27 to 30 August — that the battle was fought a hundred years ago. It gives our voyage a binding theme that needs to be explained as its relevance to India and our subcontinent is not immediately obvious.

Nightmare More than 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz, just outside the Polish city of Krakow
Nightmare More than 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz, just outside the Polish city of Krakow. Photo: CCl/Joshua Doubek

The German plan, drawn up by their military genius, Alfred von Schlieffen, was to capture Paris within 33 days of the commencement of the war, leaving them enough time to turn the full strength of their armed might against the Russians who, it was believed, would require at least a month to mobilise and another two weeks to reach the battle front. The Russians, however, invaded East Prussia (then in Germany, now in Poland as the province of Warmia-Masurian) within a fortnight of the commencement of the war, presenting the Germans with the dilemma of either altering their arrangements on the Western Front to strengthen their forces on the Eastern Front or abandoning East Prussia until the Western Front had been settled. The Russians moved two full armies from the north and the south into East Prussia in a pincer movement designed to trap the entire German Eighth Army before they fell back on the Vistula river, thus opening the way to Russia marching within a week or so into Berlin.

Had the Russians succeeded, as planned, Berlin could have been exchanged for Paris and the status quo ante restored by the end of September 1914, thus staving off the whole of the First World War and thereby averting the Second. Up to a hundred million lives might have been saved. But, as recounted in pained and agonising detail by Solzhenitsyn, and with a broader sweep by Tuchman, the incompetence of the Russian commanders (reflecting the disintegration of the Czarist order that paved the way to the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917), the artillery power of the Germans that substantially overcame the manpower advantage of the Russians, which was twice that of the Germans, the insubordination of a German corps commander of French Huguenot origin, and, most important of all, sheer luck, enabled the Germans, against all odds, to turn the tables on the Russians and end up taking nearly a lakh of their soldiers prisoner and killing or capturing most of their officers, including several Russian generals. It was a victory comparable only to the Indian capture of East Pakistan in 1971. General Samsonov, the commander of the Russian Second Army, horrorstruck at having to confess to the Czar in person that he had lost an entire Russian Army, shot himself in the dense forest near Wielbark (called Willenburg in German) — and thereby hangs the climax to the tale of our own visit to the battle sites.

But before we get to that, the moral of the story is that games played by military men in preparation for war can never accurately predict the actual course of the war. In 1947, the Pakistanis were on the verge of capturing Srinagar when the unexpected happened — India responded and drove back the “tribal” invaders. But when full-scale war broke out in 1948, we, in turn, were halted before taking either Domel or Muzaffarabad or the Chiari- Chakhoti segment of the Jhelum Valley road because troops had to be diverted to counter the Pakistanis who, in the meantime, had started threatening Srinagar by attacking from the north towards Kargil and Drass (C Dasgupta, War and Diplomacy in Kashmir: 1947-48, pp 148-49).

In 1962, we thought we could throw the Chinese off the Thagla ridge; when we tried, it was they who actually came down all the way to foothills in the Brahmaputra valley. And just when we were thinking of abandoning Assam, the Chinese unilaterally withdrew to virtually the positions they held before Thagla. None of this was provided for in the script.

Then, in 1965, Pakistan invaded us across the international frontier in Jammu. They did not expect India to counter- attack along the length of the frontier. We pushed them out, but when our paratroopers were airdropped across the Ichchogil canal to the outskirts of Lahore, we had not anticipated that the narrow canal, no broader than a ditch, would prove such an insuperable obstacle to the advance of our army on Lahore before ceasefire was declared.

In Sri Lanka, our generals talked of slicing through the island “like a knife through butter” — but the Indian Peace Keeping Force (ipkf) was strangled by a rag-tag guerilla force. The point is that war is unpredictable, and we must treat with the utmost caution the calls to military action that we hear on TV from retired generals with bristling moustaches every time there is an incident on the loc.

No lesson is more important for our subcontinent to learn in this centenary year of the outbreak of World War I than the tale of the tangle of alliances, the false political signalling, the diplomatic bungling, the military short-sightedness and the glorification of war that led over two world wars to nearly a hundred million young and old, men, women and children, being ground in the killing machines of the most advanced nations of the world and their wretched empires. They falsely believed they could control wars when, in fact, it was wars that controlled them.

Therefore, instead of televised lectures to schoolchildren from the prime minister on Teachers’ Day, it would have been far more apposite to present our teachers with copies of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 and Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, the two centenary volumes that have taken the western world by storm for the cautionary tale they tell of the best and the brightest blundering into the most terrible slaughter ever experienced by humankind. Yet, because neither of the two world wars was fought on our soil, too many on our subcontinent seem to think war is a viable option. It isn’t.

Battle of Tannenberg Germans routed the Russian Army (above) in the first days of World War I
Battle of Tannenberg Germans routed the Russian Army (above) in the first days of World War I

With these thoughts in mind, we start our journey on 27 August, the day a hundred years ago the preliminary skirmishing ended in East Prussia and the Battle of Tannenberg started in earnest. We first stop along the line Dzialdowo (then Soldau) — Usdowo (then Usdau) which marked the Russian front. Rolling green hills, tranquil wooded copses, quiet little villages, cattle peacefully grazing, the stillness broken only by the distant noise of a tractor starting up — it is impossible to believe that this was the scene of a German artillery onslaught of the like that Europe had not till then experienced. At 4 am, the guns opened up; by 10 am it was clear who had won as the Russian line collapsed. The battle was to have begun 48 hours earlier but the German corps commander, Gen Francois, in total violation of the German military code that deemed unquestioning obedience to be the highest military virtue, refused to begin the attack until his heavy artillery arrived. Had he charged earlier with bayonets as ordered, the Russians would undoubtedly have won — and the history of the 20th century might have changed, But possibly because Gen Francois, as his name indicates, was of French descent, his very French refusal to obey orders handed the Germans a victory in six hours that 60 years of preparation could not have predicted.

We move on to Grunwald, the site of the first Battle of Tannenberg in 1410, at which the Poles and the Lithuanians together defeated the Teutonic Knights, forefathers of the present German nation. For the Poles, that 15th century battle is the symbol and pride of the Polish nation. For the Germans, it was the hour of shame and defeat. Half a millennium later, when in the vicinity of Tannenberg, the Germans won their overwhelming but unanticipated victory in August 1914, the two German army commanders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, whose names were to become synonymous with the German army of World War I, decided to call this their Battle of Tannenberg to avenge themselves on history. There is no trace, however, of any commemoration of the 1914 Battle of Tannenberg, but the 1410 victory of the Poles is celebrated in a moving monument spread over acres of undulating parkland, surmounted by a memorial tower that proclaims Polish national pride to the world. In fact, the village of Tannenberg, now called Stebark, saw no fighting in 1914 — it was merely near the scene, and naming the battle after a non-combatant village was German revanchist fantasy.

We spend the night in a beautiful château, set among well-tended gardens, green lawns and dense woods, that once belonged to a Prussian Junker family, the walls hung with their portraits and a number of Rembrandts redolent of a longgone but little regretted past.


Rewriting history Germans decided to call it the Battle of Tannenberg to avenge themselves on history
Rewriting history Germans decided to call it the Battle of Tannenberg to avenge themselves on history

Next day, 28 August, takes us past Waplewo (Waplitz), where the Russian centre penetrated the German front and almost avenged the defeat the previous day at Usdowo of the Russian left wing. We visit a much-neglected German cemetery of those who fell that day. Most of the gravestones are broken or illegible. But I find one in memory of Otto Brehme, born six weeks before Jawaharlal Nehru, dead aged 25 on 28 August 1914, exactly 100 years ago. Brehme sounds so close to ‘Brahmin’ that I fantasise that it was perhaps I in a previous avatar, destined to visit my own grave at the very minute a hundred years later that my earlier short life was aborted. Ridiculous — but offering an empathetic emotional link to a past to which I do not belong.

We go on, past Fraknowo (Fragenau), the headquarters of the German centre, to the line Orlowo (Orlau)—Nadrowo (Nadrau), where the Russian centre under Gen Martos was concentrated. It was a bloody battle that lasted several hours beyond the rout of the Russians further south. Bloodied but unbowed, the Russians carried the day. Martos was the only Russian general to emerge from the Battle of Tannenberg with any distinction, but although he was the victor that day, his victory was Pyrrhic, coming as it did at the cost of most of his best officers and the loss of over 4,000 men.

En route Nadrowo, we transit through the Russian army headquarters of Neidenburg, now called Nidzica. There, through the 27th, the tragic Russian Second Army commander, Gen Samsonov, awaited news of a Russian breakthrough that never happened. When all seemed lost, he took off in the early morning of 28 August for the front in the hope of retrieving, as a dashing cavalryman, the honour he had lost though the collapse of his generalship. He was warned that Germans might be encountered if he took the short route due north to Gen Martos’ headquarters at Nadrau (Nadrowo). So he had to ride about 12 km east to Grunfliess (Napiwoda), brushing with his sleeve the heavily wooded, dense Grunfliess forest (now known as Koniuszyn).

We follow the path that Samsonov took — not, of course, as he did, on horseback, but by road, yet experiencing something of the despairing hope that filled Samsonov’s breast as he went to his final doom. The route is tranquil, so tranquil as to make it virtually unimaginable that in these peaceful, serendipitous surroundings a great battle had been fought and won, changing the destiny of the globe in the first half of the 20th century.

The forest, dank and dark but unutterably beautiful, presses in upon us, and when we emerge from the woods at Orlau (Orlowo), the gentle downs roll down towards one of the numerous lakes that dot the countryside. We scramble our way through the woods — “lovely, dark and deep” — towards one of these lakes, and there, looking out from the platform of a watch-tower, I read out aloud to my wife Suneet from the relevant Solzhenitsyn passage as we cast our eyes over one of these lakes that the Russians found so treacherous as they fled the German hordes later that day 100 years ago.

I talk to a passerby. It is either because he cannot understand my negligible Polish or because he really does not have any recall that he barely comprehends my questions about the war — it has passed over him as it has since passed over generations of Poles. They have other concerns than to dwell on a long-ago battle that did not involve them even if it was fought in this very setting. Which is also perhaps why we are the only ones to recall that at Orlowo (Orlau) on 23 August 1914, five days earlier, the Russians had won a previous skirmish. There, we visit yet another German cemetery of those who fell in the skirmish.

I wonder how it is that there are German graveyards of the time still to be seen but no Russian; then it occurs to me that Tannenberg was, after all, the Czar’s war — ended by the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, before World War I ended. The Soviet regime had no interest in commemorating the Czar’s dead, nor the Germans in doing for the Russians what the Russians were not doing for themselves, and least of all the Poles who had nothing to do with the battle except to suffer the consequences of someone else’s conflict fought on their soil.



We reach Nadrowo — Samsonov’s destination of last, extinguishing hope. Gen Martos was astonished to find him there, as were all his frontline troops. It was not done for a Russian army commander to put himself right in their midst as they faced the German artillery barrage. Seeing large numbers of German prisoners of war being led away, Samsonov had a moment’s illusion that perhaps his centre was winning after all. Martos was quick to disillusion him. He had, indeed, won the previous day, but the Russian right wing under Gen Kliyuev having failed to link up with Martos, there was no alternative now to abandoning the fight and saving what little could be saved. Samsonov himself having lost all touch with his right wing (the cavalry regiment had, in fact, fled back to Russia) now had to acknowledge that all, in fact, was lost and to fall in with the plans of retreat. As they retraced their steps back into the dark secrets of Grunfliess (Koniusztyn) forest, Martos’ horse was shot from under him and he was taken prisoner, but treated with honour by the Germans. Chivalry was still practised at the start of World War I.

As we move on from Nadrowo, we pass again through Waplewo (Waplitz), which was taken and retaken several times during the same day. A notice in Polish and English tells us that corpses were strewn all over the place, dead horses quite as many and putrefying as the human corpses. I stop an old but sprightly man hobbling by. He tells me through our driver that he is 91 years old, just nine short of having been present at the war that day. He remembers tales of the fighting and shares a few memories with us. He then points to a wooden shed and remarks that it was probably witness to the fighting.

At our night halt at Olstyn (Allenstein), I read up again about why Kliyuev had not tied up with Martos. Partly because contradictory orders were issued from Samsonov’s headquarters and partly because Kliyuev, not having seen a single German, had no idea how vulnerable he was. Having entered Olstyn (Allenstein), the only city in the region, without firing a shot, he had then spread his forces all over the countryside to bivouac in the open. When forced to move next day (28th), he abandoned Olstyn, leaving but a small rear-guard behind, in the mistaken belief that another Russian corps were on their way to replace his. In fact, the Russian VI corps under Gen Blagoveschensky never got to the battle site. Information about this confusion was readily available to the German general, von Below, because it was all transmitted en clair, that is, without resort to codes. In any case, Martos was forced to move east on the 28th before Kliyuev moved south.

The southern movement had begun the previous night when one of his regiments entered the village of Hohenstein (Olsztynek) encountering no opposition. The main body of Kliyuev’s forces started moving south to link up with them, but inexplicably halted at the Gumbinnen Heights (Grizliny), 15 km short of Hohenstein. Von Below’s troops moved into the gap and mowed down both the Russian forces to their south at Hohenstein as also to their north at the Gumbinnen Heights. Meanwhile, the rear-guard left at Allenstein were pulverised by the Germans, the worst massacre occurring at Deureten (Dortowo). The remnants of Kliuyev’s forces, brave but abandoned, were caught between the two lakes, Plautziger (Pluszne) and Lanskar (Lanskie), and the small contingent that found its way out of the narrow defile were finished at Schlage M (Sledgehammer), the marshes formed at the bottom of the lakes. Kliyuev escaped but was caught, like Martos, the next day. It was the end of the worst disaster in Russian military history since Napoleon swept through the steppes 96 years earlier.

We visit all these sites, Solzhenitsyn guiding us through the alleys of that tortuous war, and Byron’s famous poem ringing in our ears: “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold”!


mani-shankarIt is almost a relief to get away from the Battle of Tannenberg as we head towards the dinky little town of Ketrzyn (pronounced Ke-chhin). A relief, that is, until we discover on arrival that Ketrzyn is none other than the notorious Rastenburg, Hitler’s headquarters for much of World War II. War is so omnipresent in Poland that “you can run but cannot hide” from it. Actually, the Wolf’s Lair, as Hitler liked to call his hideaway, is a few kilometres outside the town of Ketrzyn proper, cached away in the deep woods and covered by thick foliage to keep out of sight of American bombers who, it was feared, might discover and destroy the hideout. Ironically, the Wolf’s Lair is principally known now as the site of the failed attempt by Colonel von Stauffenberg and his colleagues to assassinate Hitler, a memorial stone, unveiled by the German ambassador in the presence of von Stauffenberg’s son, being the one unspoiled marker in the place, Hitler having ordered the destruction of the bunkers and other buildings as the Russians advanced and he was compelled to flee to Berlin, there to meet his wretched end.

We then head out to Mragowo, in the middle of the forests and lakes like the hydra-headed Omulewo where the Russians lost their way extricating themselves from the German pincer. Most never made it, including Samsonov, who found that his troops had evacuated both Ortelsberg (Szcztyno) and Willensburg (Wielbark), leaving him stranded in the middle of the night in the middle of the jungle. He ended his agony with a shot from his pistol to his temple.

Now, in a time of peace, it is holiday country, a lovely landscape of every conceivable shade of green and placid turquoise waters. I spy a little girl, about eight, fishing from a pier on the lakeside. As I approach her, a fish catches her bait. She yanks her rod out of the water, grimaces as she sees the fish threshing about for breath, then hands the rod over to her father, who plucks the fish off the hook where it is caught, much to the girl’s relief, and casts it back to life in a tub filled with water. It is such a joy to see someone valuing life here where a hundred years ago only death had any value.


Next morning, the 31st, we head back to Warsaw to catch our flight to New Delhi. We set out late and are running so short of time that I am refused the opportunity I ask for to divert into the forest near Wielbark to try to find the place where Samsonov fell. However, as we race through the town, I spot a chapel festooned with posters saying 1914 in letters dripping with blood. I overrule all objections to stop there — and go into an exhibition held in the chapel that served as a military hospital in 1914. Draped are hangings of sepia photographs of the soldiers who actually fought the battle, write-ups on the walls vividly bringing to life that long-ago time, and along the rear wall the enlargement of a photograph taken in August 1914 of wounded soldiers lying along the pews with brave nurses tending to them. It is a fitting and wholly unanticipated climax to my journey to the First World War!


The Germans won the battle but lost the war. They lost the next war too, their dreams of world conquest crashing to the ground but taking a hundred million people to their death along with them. Yet, today, Germany has peacefully achieved almost everything she sought through war. It runs an economy that is the envy of the world, the “lebensraum” (living space) it sought in East Europe discovered in the European Union that encompasses 27 countries with Germany virtually in the centre, besides dominating the Eurozone, all but dictating economic policy to her partners: Deutschland is indeed uber alles.

The lesson to be learned is that nothing can be attained by war that cannot be achieved by peace. My visit to Poland was not so much a quest for war but a search for enduring peace. Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Rajya Sabha MP from the Congress party



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