Alexander Samsonov Edit Profile
After graduation from the Vladimir of Kiev Cadet Corps and elite Nikolaev Cavalry School, he joined the Imperial Russian Army at age 18 as a cornet in the 12th Hussars Regiment.
Like many a freshly minted Genshtabist ("General Staff officer"), he rose rapidly, reaching the rank of general in 1902. The popular and highly regarded young leader commanded first a cavalry brigade, then a division, in the Russo-Japanese War. Upon the close of the conflict in the Far East, Samsonov served a brief stretch as chief of staff of the Warsaw Military District, 1906/1907, then left for more remote parts of the empire. By 1909 he was governor general of Turkestan and commander of the Turkestan Military District. It was at this prestigious but distant post that Samsonov received his assignment in the first weeks of World War I.
At the urging of French leaders, the Russian High Command ordered an early advance against the lone German Eighth Army in East Prussia. General Rennenkampf, at the head of the Russian First Army, was to drive in from the east on August 17, while Samsonov's Second Army charged up from the south to cut off the German line of retreat. Samsonov's role in the ensuing tragedy is clear to a point. Urged forward by General Zhilinsky, commanding the northwestern front, Samsonov crossed the German border on August 20. He pushed forward against stiffening resistance until August 26/27, when he found his main body heavily engaged on both flanks. By August 28 the enemy had cut off communications to the south and the Second Army was surrounded.
Samsonov allegedly had doubts about launching such an offensive into East Prussia; Rennenkampf was fifty miles to the east and the Masurian Lakes stood between the two isolated Russian field armies. Stories abound of bad blood between the two Russian army commanders, dating from their service together in the Russo-Japanese War.
But Samsonov was above all the victim of the Russian army's high level of incompetence, jerry-built chain of command, and technical backwardness. Zhilinsky failed to comprehend the range of German options, specifically, the enemy's ability to use rail transportation to concentrate in the south and strike Samsonov's left flank. This dim view of the unfolding campaign led Zhilinsky to permit Samsonov's neighbor Rennenkampf to amble forward. German aerial reconnaissance and monitoring of Russian radio transmission made all of this clear to Samsonov's opponents in East Prussia. The Russians had no aerial reconnaissance planes, and their poorly trained signal personnel transmitted messages without managing to put them in code!
Accounts differ on Rennenkampf and Zhilinsky's motives. Did they slow the First Army down to prepare a long siege at Königsberg, where the Eighth Army was likely to entrench? Or did they hope, by a deliberate crawl forward, to forestall a German "panic" that would lead the enemy to run westward too quickly to let Samsonov close the trap? In any event, by the close of August the Second Army had been transformed into a horde of prisoners of war, 100,000 in number. Accompanied by a tiny escort, Samsonov rode off into the forest to commit suicide.
November 4, 1888