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Revolving Door War on the Eastern Front

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 154th installment in the series. NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email

November 19, 1914: Revolving Door War on the Eastern Front

As the Race to the Sea on the Western Front reached its climax at Ypres, to the east the fighting became even more fragmented, with the vast front diverging into three different theatres from the Baltic Sea to the Romanian border.  Whereas before the war on the Eastern Front resembled a seesaw, now it looked more like a revolving door, as both sides advanced and retreated simultaneously in different sectors.


After hostilities commenced in August 1914, the Russians mounted ambitious invasions of German East Prussia and Austria-Hungary’s northeastern province of Galicia. The Russian Second Army was destroyed in East Prussia at the Battle of Tannenberg, but the attack on Galicia fared much better, forcing Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf to call on the Germans for help.

The tide began to turn against the Russians (for the first time) with the formation of the new German Ninth Army under Paul von Hindenburg in Silesia in mid-September. With the German Eighth Army guarding East Prussia and a new army detachment, the Woyrsch Corps, watching the border with Russian Poland, in early October 1914 the Ninth Army spearheaded an advance into Poland from the southwest, forcing the Russians to begin falling back all along the line, including further south in Galicia.

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By mid-October, the Austro-German forces were closing in on Warsaw, and on October 10 the Ninth Army (now under August von Mackensen) defeated the Russians at Grójec, about thirty miles south of Warsaw. By October 12 Mackensen’s forces were just seven miles from the city, while in Austrian Galicia Hapsburg forces lifted the Russian siege of the key fortress town of Przemyśl.

 Wikimedia Commons (1, 2, 3, 4)

But the tables were about to turn yet again: the Austro-German offensive was already grinding to a halt due to limited manpower, reflecting German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s decision to concentrate his resources for a final blow against the British, French, and Belgian forces at Ypres on the Western Front. Meanwhile the new Russian Second Army was arriving northwest of Warsaw, and to the southeast the Russians halted the advance of the Hapsburg Seventh Army at the San River in Galicia.

By October 17, Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, were already contemplating a strategic withdrawal from Poland, and Mackensen began pulling his troops back from positions outside Warsaw on October 20. As expected, the Russians began their second major advance along the entire front from Galicia to northwest Poland, recapturing the key towns of Stanislau and Czernowitz (today Stanislavivka and Chernivtsi, Ukraine) by the end of the month, and renewing the siege of Przemyśl on November 10. To the north they recaptured Łódź in western Poland on October 28, prompting the German general staff to order the Ninth Army to fall back to defensive positions along the Silesian border on October 30.

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The fighting on the Eastern Front was just as fierce as on the Western Front, despite (or perhaps because of) its relative mobility. Stanley Washburn, an American correspondent following the Russian Army, described the Battle of Ivangorod, also known as the Battle of the Vistula River, which took place in a wooded area southeast of Warsaw:                    

… the forest for miles looks as though a hurricane had swept through… Men, fighting hand to hand with clubbed muskets and bayonets, fought from tree to tree and ditch to ditch… Dead horses, bits of men, blue uniforms, shattered transport, overturned gun carriages, bones, broken skulls, and grisly bits of humanity strew every acre of the ground… Here it is no figure of speech about the ground being soaked with gore. One can see it—coagulated like bits of raw liver; sand and earth in great lumps are held together by this human cement.

The Russian troops pursued the retreating German and Hapsburg forces amid heavy rain that inundated the countryside and turned large sections of the Eastern Front (like the Western Front in Flanders) into oceans of mud, adding to the general misery. John Morse, an Englishman serving with the Russian Army in Poland, encountered a horrifying landscape after crossing the Vistula:

The country was in a terrible state. The Germans had no time or opportunity to bury their dead, and the whole district, for hundreds of miles, was strewn with the bodies of men and horses, sometimes half-covered by water, often floating in it… the corpses soon began to decay, and the whole land stank revoltingly; and the men kept their pipes constantly alight to counteract the offensiveness. Owing to the state of the ground it was scarcely possible to bury many of these bodies, and they were left to rot away where they lay, or floated.

Further south the front moved with startling speed, as Austro-Hungarian armies collapsed, for the second time, in the face of a determined Russian offensive. Anton Denikin, a Russian officer who would later become one of the main leaders of the counter-revolutionary White forces during the Russian Civil War, recalled an attack which almost succeeded in capturing Archduke Josef, a cavalry general commanding the Austrian VII Army Corps:

With no artillery preparation I threw my regiments at the enemy trenches. The raid was so unexpected that it panicked the Austrians… [The archduke] had such confidence in his security that he fled with his staff only when he heard Russian machine guns in the streets of the village. On occupying his former lodgings, we found untouched a table laid with a coffee service bearing the archduke’s monogram and we drank warm Austrian coffee.

Revolving Door

Even as the Russians advanced in Galicia, the Germans were regrouping in preparation for yet another offensive in the north, creating a revolving door dynamic. In early November Hindenburg, now overall commander of German forces on the Eastern Front, secretly transferred the Ninth Army under Mackensen north to the area near Posen for an invasion of Russian Poland from the northwest, while Conrad sent the Austrian Second Army to take over Ninth Army’s old positions. These moves set the stage for Mackensen to attack the advancing Russians on the right flank, and maybe even execute another huge encirclement like Tannenberg. 

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The Battle of Łódź began with the Ninth Army taking the Russians completely by surprise, first smashing into the right flank of the Russian First Army under Rennenkampf on November 11, taking 12,000 prisoners and sending the First Army reeling backwards. This in turn opened a gap between the Russian First Army and the reformed Second Army under General Sergei Scheidemann, exposing the latter to encirclement by a German pincer formed by the Ninth Army from the north and the Woyrsch Corps from the south.

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Seeing the threat the Russian commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nikolai, hurried the Russian Fifth Army under General Pavel Plehve northwest, covering a remarkable 70 miles in two days through forced marches and successfully relieving Second Army with a counterattack on Mackensen’s right flank on November 18. As the German and Russian armies clashed in winter conditions including heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures, Rennenkampf’s First Army regrouped and advanced west again, turning the tables and suddenly threatening part of Mackensen’s Ninth Army with encirclement on November 21-22. However the German commander of the 25th Reserve Corps, Scheffer-Boyadel, staged a dramatic breakthrough over three days of relentless fighting from November 23-25, finally reuniting with the rest of the Ninth Army on November 26.

With the end of the Battle of Ypres, Falkenhayn was able to send Hindenburg reinforcements for Mackensen, allowing the Germans to resume the offensive against Łódź with a new attack in the south in early December, forcing the Russians back and laying siege to the city. Violetta Thurstan, an Englishwoman volunteering as a nurse with the Russian Army, recalled tending to wounded Russian soldiers in Łódź as the city came under German shellfire (top, destroyed buildings in Łódź): 

… fresh wounded were being brought in every minute and there was no one else to help. Lodz was one big hospital. We heard that there were more than 18,000 wounded there, and I can well believe it. Every building of any size had been turned into a hospital, and almost all the supplies of every kind had given out. The building we were in had been a day-school, and the top floor was made up of large airy schoolrooms that were quite suitable for wards. But the shelling recommenced so violently that the wounded all had to be moved down to the ground floor and into the cellars. The place was an absolute inferno. I could never have imagined anything worse.

On December 6 the Russians evacuated Łódź and pulled back to new defensive lines behind the Bzura and Rawka Rivers in Central Poland. Now the path lay open for a new German offensive towards Warsaw.

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As the Germans advanced in Poland, the Russians were advancing in Hapsburg territory, approaching within 20 miles of Krakow and capturing the strategic Dukla Pass (later the scene of a dramatic battle on the Eastern Front in WWII) in the Carpathian Mountains on November 28. In the days to come General Alexei Brusilov’s Eighth Army descended the slopes of the Carpathians to invade the Hungarian plain, threatening the heartland of the Kingdom. By December 7 Krakow was under siege and the Austrians were preparing to defend Prešov in what is now Slovakia. The fortress town of Przemyśl remained under siege, with 100,000 Hapsburg troops trapped by the Russian Eleventh Army, and it was only a matter of time before it fell. 

But German successes to the north forced the Russians to abandon Brusilov’s offensive into Hungary, in order to consolidate their strength for a renewed thrust on Krakow in the center of the Eastern Front, which would in turn (they hoped) leave the Germans no choice but to call off their own offensive towards Warsaw. 

As it happened, the new balance of forces resulted in stalemate. By the winter of 1914 both sides had brought up most of their immediately available reserves, material shortages were making themselves felt, and the weather made major offensive operations difficult, if not impossible. In the second half of December the German offensive towards Warsaw stalled, and the Russians withdrew from Hungary in the face of an Austrian counter-offensive. The Carpathian passes would change hands again that winter, and to the north the Germans would score a victory at the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes in East Prussia in February, but neither side achieved a major breakthrough. 

Indeed, little would change until spring 1915, when the Germans shifted their focus from the Western Front to the Eastern Front, in the hopes of giving Russia a knockout blow. 

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.


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