The Battle of the Vistula River was a battle fought on the Eastern Front of World War I from 29 September to 31 October 1914. The Imperial Russian Army defeated the Central Powers' attempt to capture the Polish capital of Warsaw, halting their advance into Congress Poland after several previous reversals.
Divided between Russia, Germany, and Austria since the 18th century, the Polish lands became a major battlefield in World War I. Most of Poland was a province of the Russian Empire, but many Poles also lived in Galicia in Austria-Hungary and a smaller number in East Prussia. Poles served as conscripts in all three armies. Polish nationalists seeking independence were split at the start of the war. The Polish Legions under Jozef Pilsudski fought with the Austro-Hungarian Army, while other nationalists sided with Russia and its allies. Austria-Hungary was defeated by the Russians in Galicia in August-September 1914 and forced to abandon an invasion of Russian Poland.
In the opinion of the German general staff, the main function of Austro-Hungarian forces at the start of the war was to invade Russian Poland, therefore preventing the Russians from mounting an offensive against Germany from that direction. But by mid-September 1914, instead of aiding German plans, Austria-Hungary was becoming a liability. After heavy defeats in Galicia, Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf pleaded for German troops to rescue his threatened armies.
Germany to the rescue
The German commanders had little sympathy for Austria-Hungary's plight, but they could not ignore the fact that their ally's military failures left Germany exposed to a possible Russian thrust through Silesia toward Berlin. The Russian central command, Stavka, under Grand Duke Nikolai, was indeed assembling its forces at Warsaw for just such an offensive. The German General Staff decided to create a new Ninth Army in Silesia, under the command of generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the victors of Tannenberg. Most of the troops for the ninth Army came from East Prussia, transferred south by the German railway system. On 29 September, Ludendorff launched an offensive toward Warsaw, coordinated with an Austro-Hungarian advance in Galicia. The Russians had begun their advance towards Silesia. Great bodies of troops marched along Poland's muddy roads, with only fragmentary information about the movement of the enemy gleaned from radio intercepts and reconnaissance by cavalry or aircraft. In the second week of October, approaching Warsaw, Ludendorff became aware that Russians were preparing to cross the Vistula behind him, threatening to encircle his forces. The German advance was reversed, turning into a fighting retreat, accompanied by the destruction of railways, bridges, villages, and cattle. The Ninth Army got back to its starting lines relatively intact. Farther south, the Austro-Hungarians, attempting to support the Germans, were defeated at Ivangorod.
Both sides intended to return to hte offensive with the shortest possible delay. The Russians were steadily receiving reinforcements, as conscripts mobilized in Siberia and Central Asia arrived at the front. At the start of November, the Germans transferred forces to the Ninth Army from the Western Front. The Russians had superiority of numbers but were short of rifles, bullets, and artillery shells, as well as food and clothing. Their forces were overstretched, since they were attempting to sustain offensive operations over a vast area, from the Vistula in the north to the Carpathians in the south. Nonetheless, through early November Russian forces pressed the Austro-Hungarians back toward Krakow and to the Carpathian mountain passes, through which General Alexei Brusilov's Eighth Army hoped to capture Budapest.
Warfare on a vast scale
As the Russians attempted their offensive on the Vistula, Ludendorff sent the Ninth Army aroudn their northern flank by rail to Posen and Thorn. Under the command of General August von Mackensen, the Germans attacked on 11 November, initiating the Battle of Lodz. This was warfare on a vast scale, with more than 600,000 troops engaged in combat. The weather was freezing, daytime temperatures dropping to 9 degress Fahrenheit. Ludendorff was in effect attempting to repeat the encirclement of Tannenberg, but Russian commanders had learned their lesson. They canceled the advance on Silesia and pulled back at high speed through forced marches - some units covered as much as 60 miles in two days.
Mackensen smashed through the Russian flank but then found his army caught by a flanking attack from the Russian Fifth Army. By the time the Germans extricated themselves, the Russians had entrenched in front of Lodz. Ludendorff demanded and received reinforcements from the Western Front, while launching frontal assaults in an attempt to take the city. By 6 December, the men were near exhaustion. The Russians decided upon a strategic withdrawal toward Warsaw and left Lodz to the Germans. Within a week, the fighting wound down, as both sides dug in for the rest of the winter in trench lines.
The fighting of 1914 had an unexpected conclusion in Galicia. In the first week of December, Austria-Hungary achieved a successful offensive at Limanowa, south of Krakow. The Russians were forced into a withdrawal that ended the threat to the Carpathian passes, although the fortress at Przemysl remained under Russian siege. This was not enough to restore German faith in Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Conrad, but it enabled him to fight off a German bid to place all the forces of the Central Powers on the Eastern Front under unified command.
The human impact of the fighting had been immense, with more than 2,000,000 troops killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. The fate of civilians in the territory was dismal. Cholera and typhus, the traditional companions of war, had made their appearance. No end to the war between the three empires was in sight.
The situation in late 1914 provoked a bitter debate between German commanders over priorities while fighting continued through winter. Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff were convinced that they could defeat Russia. German Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn was not prepared to focus exclusively on the Eastern Front, but did support major German operations there in 1915. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary faced successful resistance by Serbia. In March 1915, the besieged Austrian fortress at Przemysl fell to the Russians, entailing the surrender of 120,000 men.