World War 1 History: Overview of the War on the Eastern Front

Updated on September 20, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Germans Attacking Russians

WW1: German infantry charging against the Russian Fortress of Novogeorgievk in August 1915.
WW1: German infantry charging against the Russian Fortress of Novogeorgievk in August 1915. | Source

Neglected By The West

In the English-speaking world, the Eastern Front during World War One is generally ignored in favor of the Western Front fought in France and Belgium. This is unfortunate, since the Eastern Front in Eastern and Central Europe was every bit as horrendous as the war in the west and the Western Front cannot be fully understood without appreciating the effect the war in the east had on it.

Eastern Front in 1914

Map of the Eastern Front in World War 1, 1914.
Map of the Eastern Front in World War 1, 1914. | Source

What Was Different About The Eastern Front?

The fighting on the Eastern Front was mainly between the Central Powers (the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires) and the Russian Empire. Later, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers and Romania joined Russia. There were several factors which changed the nature of fighting on the Eastern Front when compared to the Western Front:

  • The Terrain

    The Eastern Front covered a far larger area, stretching at times for over 1,000 miles, basically north-to-south and hundreds of miles east-to-west. A solid trench system similar to the Western Front never materialized because neither side had the manpower to cover such a distance in depth. This resulted in more a war of maneuver, whereby attackers might penetrate 50 or 60 miles before being stopped.

  • The Russian Empire

    Russia's infrastructure was poor. Although Russia initially fielded a huge and well-trained army, her factories could not keep up with demand and, even when they finally geared up around 1916, there weren't enough roads and railroads to keep the army supplied most of the time.

  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire

    The Empire of Austria-Hungary was in decline. Many of her soldiers came from provinces and states that yearned for freedom and thus had little loyalty to the empire. This, combined with poor leadership, resulted in low morale.

  • The German Empire

    The German Army was trained to fight a war of maneuver, had strong leaders and a good infrastructure for supply. This enabled them to succeed even when outnumbered.

Russian Artillery to the Front

WW1: Russian 8-inch guns advancing to positions.
WW1: Russian 8-inch guns advancing to positions. | Source

1914

On August 17, 1914, Russia launched its full scale offensive against Germany by entering East Prussia in the northern part of the front. The Russians were decisively beaten at the Battle of Tannenberg and withdrew.

Further south, Russia had much more success against Austria-Hungary, driving the Austrians back across the Carpathian Mountains and occupying the Austro-Hungarian province of Galacia.

Germans in Latvia

German officers in Riga during World War I
German officers in Riga during World War I | Source

1915

At the beginning of 1915, the Austrians were unable to do much against the Russians in Galacia. So Germany took over command of the entire Eastern Front and shifted troops to bolster their southern neighbors. The German and Austrian troops launched a major offensive in May and drove the Russians back more than 200 miles from the Carpathian Mountains in two weeks-- an unimaginable feat on the Western Front. The Russians had to make a strategic withdrawal, partly due to the deficiencies of supplies and ammunition, before they managed to make a stand, now back in their own territory. The Central Powers had captured Russian Poland, Lithuania and most of Latvia and parts of Russian Ukraine.

Russian POWs

WW1: Captured Russian soldiers at the Tilsit train.
WW1: Captured Russian soldiers at the Tilsit train. | Source

1916

By 1916, things improved for the Russians, who were then better supplied. While Germany was occupied in the west by their massive offensive against the French at Verdun and then fighting for her life against the British Somme offensive, Russia attacked the Austro-Hungarians and, once again drove into Galacia. In addition, Romania, to the south of the Eastern Front, entered the war on the side of the Allies, extending the Eastern Front hundreds of miles south. Instead of first setting up adequate defenses, Romania immediately attacked west, dreaming of regaining the Transylvanian region of Austria-Hungary. Germany, Austria-Hungary along with Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire counterattacked against Romania, which collapsed and the Central Powers gained control of her vast coal and wheat fields.

Late 1916 also saw mutinies and revolts in several countries as soldiers became disillusioned with the war, the way it was conducted and the unimaginable loss of life. Russia, especially, edged closer to revolution.

Russian Wolves

During the winter of 1916 – 1917, huge packs of Russian wolves attacked soldiers on both sides. The wolves caused so much trouble that a temporary truce was called so the Russians and the Germans could deal with them.

Eastern Front in 1917

WW1: Map of the Eastern Front as of 1917.
WW1: Map of the Eastern Front as of 1917. | Source

1917

1917 was the year of the Russian collapse. Her armies mutinied, the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government tried to hold things together. A final Russian offensive was tried, but the soldiers wouldn't stand for it and open civil war swept Russia as the Germans continued to advance. In November, the Communist Bolsheviks took control and began negotiations with the Germans and fighting stopped in December.

Russian Lands Ceded to Germany in 1918

WW1: Map of Territory given away after Brest-Litovsk
WW1: Map of Territory given away after Brest-Litovsk | Source

1918

On March 3, 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was concluded, officially ending the war on the Eastern Front. As far as concessions to Germany, its terms didn't survive the year, but it did affirm the independence of Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine. Poland was not included, which caused riots and animosity of Poles to the Central Powers. This freed up substantial German soldiers to transfer to the Western Front to support the massive German Spring Offensive, but still tied up a million Germans till the end of the war. The Spring Offensive made spectacular gains in France but the arrival of American soldiers eventually offset any German advantage in numbers.

Allied Casualties

  • The Russians lost from 1.8 million to 2.3 million soldiers killed and from 3.8 to 5.0 million wounded. About 500,000 civilians died in the fighting.

  • Romania lost about 250,000 soldiers killed and 120,000 wounded, with 120,000 civilians killed in the fighting.

Central Powers Casualties

Casualty figures for the Central Powers are not broken down by which front they occurred in, so these are total casualties:

  • Austria-Hungary lost 1.1 million soldiers killed and 3.6 million wounded. About 120,000 civilians died in the fighting.

  • Bulgaria lost about 87,000 soldiers killed and 150,000 wounded.

  • Germany lost about 2.1 million soldiers killed and 4.2 million wounded. Only about 1,000 civilians died in the fighting.

  • The Ottoman Empire lost about 770,000 soldiers killed and 400,000 wounded.


Images of Russians Fighting on the Eastern Front During WW1

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 David Hunt

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      • profile image

        sherman tank 

        2 months ago

        I love ww1, stupos

      • profile image

        Johnwin A. Ferasan 

        17 months ago

        Thank you for this information about eastern front because I'm using for my assignment in History. I learned a lot things that I do not know about WW1. This so useful and interesting to me. This is so awesome. Thank you very much!!!

      • profile image

        football01 

        17 months ago

        This is a great site, I am using it for a project and I have learned a lot of info ya'll.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        And thanks for the awesome comment, DS. I'm glad you enyoyed it and got something out of it. Sometimes Hub "lengths" restrict us from writing near-book-length articles and I think that's generally a good thing. It forces me to keep focus without going overboard (I hope). Thanks again for all the vote ups.

      • DS Duby profile image

        DS Duby 

        6 years ago from United States, Illinois

        I loved this article, I have always had a vast interest in world history, but sadly I don't know nearly enough about our more recent centuries focusing a little to much on ancient history and mythology. This hub brought me much interest and enthusiasm in learning more about the twentieth century, Thank you. Voted up awesome, interesting and useful.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for reading and commenting, JKenny and Judi Bee. I felt the same way myself, having no "personal" involvement with the Eastern Front (my two grandfathers served in France) and being culturally more attuned to the Western Front. I think part of it is all the "foreign" names and cultures we have to learn just to be able to follow the narrative. I imagine that's why many don't follow World War One anyway-- "Where's Ypers? How do you pronounce it? This is too hard to follow".

      • Judi Bee profile image

        Judith Hancock 

        6 years ago from UK

        Great overview Harald - I know very little about the war on the Eastern Front. For my part my ignorance is largely due to there being no "personal" involvement, my family all being mainly on the Western front.

        Voted up etc.

      • JKenny profile image

        James Kenny 

        6 years ago from Birmingham, England

        A very interesting article Harald, and a very useful one too. You're right, about it being neglected; we often hear about Verdun, the Somme and Ypres. But we hardly know anything about the Eastern Front, so thank you for writing this. Voted up and shared.

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