Alexander Samsonov, 1859-1914, Russian General

Joined the Russian Cavalry in 1875, almost immediately saw service in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-8), after which he attended the Nikolaevsky Military Academy, and rose through the ranks, to command a cavalry unit during the Boxer Rising (1900), and serving as a divisional commander during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). In a worrying sign for the future, his relationship with General Paul von Rennenkampf broke down after the Battle of Mukden (21-February-10 March 1905). Samsonov felt that he had been led down by Rennenkampf, and the two men came to blows. With this in mind, it is perhaps odd that at the outbreak of the First World War the two men were entrusted with the invasion of German East Prussia, and the total lack of co-operation between the two men doomed both of their armies. The Russians planed a two pronged invasion. The Russian First Army, under Rennenkampf, was to cross the eastern border of East Prussia, from Russia proper, while Samsonov, in command of the Russian Second Army, was to invade from the south, from Russian Poland. Right from the start the two armies were out of sync. Rennenkampf managed to mobilise with impressive speed, and crossed the German border on 15 August.

Unfortunately, Samsonov took five days longer, and only crossed the border on 20 August. Worse, Rennenhampf was able to move faster, with a clear path into Prussia, while Samsonov suffered delays crossing the many minor tributaries of the Vistula. A dangerous gap soon formed between the armies, who were always at least three days march apart, preventing them from aiding each other. The German commander, General Max von Prittwitz, decided to attack Rennenkampf first, leaving Samsonov for later. However, the resulting battle of Gumbinnen (20 August 1914), at first appeared to be a disaster, and Prittwitz was panicked into suggesting a withdrawal to the Vistula, and the abandonment of East Prussia. He soon recovered his nerve, and realised that Rennenkampf had been forced to stop after Gumbinnen. Accordingly, Prittwitz put in place a plan to envelope Samsonov's army, still advancing slowing into Prussia. However, by now the German command had decided to replace Prittwitz with the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who this took credit for the resulting victory. Samsonov now decided to push for the Vistula, a fatal mistake. Ignoring any threat to his rear, he moved forward, stretching his army, which helped the German plan. The resulting battle of Tannenberg (26-31 August 1914) was a total disaster. On 29 August the Russians were encircled, and the second armies totally destroyed. The Russians lost 50,000 dead, and 90,000 captured, in one of the few encirclement battles of the war. While the numbers of dead were already being overshadowed on the western front, the number of captives was rarely ever equalled. Samsonov was one of the few to escape the trap, but in despair at having failed the Tsar shot himself, probably on 29 August. His body was recovered, and he was buried on his family estate.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (18 March 2001), Alexander Samsonov, 1859-1914, Russian General, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_samsonov.html

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