Revolving Door War on the Eastern Front

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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The Body
10 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.


The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."


The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.


The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.


The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.


The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.


For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.


Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.


You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.


In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.


When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.


On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even without considering that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his birth 200 years ago, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.


Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.


Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.


While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.


Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.


In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.


He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.


Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.


Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.


The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.


Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.


As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.


Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.


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