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Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes

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 167th installment in the series. 

February 7, 1915: Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes 

Following Russia’s disastrous defeat at Tannenberg, the Eastern Front began to look like a seesaw, or occasionally a revolving door, as both sides took turns attacking, shifting their forces and looking for weak spots in the enemy line, only to see their offensives run out of steam before reaching their objectives (Warsaw and Lemberg for the Germans, Krakow and Silesia for the Russians). During this period there were limited gains, as the Russians managed to conquer and hold the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia, laying siege to the strategic fortress town of Przemyśl, while the Germans established a defensive perimeter by occupying a strip of territory inside Russian Poland. But neither side was able to parlay these advances into a decisive breakthrough. 

This dynamic continued through the winter of 1914-1915, as the Russians called up millions of new troops and created three new armies—the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth—with the intention of resuming the offensive against East Prussia. For their part the Germans, having decided on the New Year to shift their focus to the Eastern Front, transferred troops from the Western Front to create the new South Army (Südarmee), bolstering the forces of their hapless ally Austria-Hungary, while to the north they also created a new Tenth Army in East Prussia and a new army group under General Max von Gallwitz (from August 1915 the Twelfth Army). 


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On February 7, 1915, the German commander-in-chief on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg—assisted, as always, by his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff—preempted the planned Russian invasion of East Prussia with a surprise attack by the Eighth Army under Otto von Below, catching the Russian Tenth Army under Thadeus von Sievers unprepared, while the Russian Twelfth Army was still mobilizing. The Germans hit the Russians in the eastern Masurian Lakes region, the site of a previous victory (the battle is also called the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes).

This daring offensive, launched in the middle of a snowstorm, forced the Russians into a chaotic retreat through frozen swamps and forests filled with snowdrifts. By the end of the first week the Germans had advanced 70 miles, crossing the East Prussian border and threatening a total encirclement; indeed by the end of the second week the Russian 20th Army Corps was cut off in the Augustowo Forest, a dense old-growth forest crisscrossed by small lakes, and forced to surrender. The Germans also took huge numbers of prisoners, while thousands of Russian soldiers were incapacitated by frostbite. 

The rout only came an end on February 21-22, 1915, when the Russian Tenth Army dug in along new defensive positions southeast of the Augustowo Forest, while the Russian Twelfth Army finally rumbled into action, threatening the German Eighth Army’s right flank from the southwest. 

 

Once again the cost of defeat for the Russians was mind-boggling, with the Tenth Army suffering around 200,000 casualties, including killed, wounded, prisoners and missing (above, Russian POWs). An American correspondent, Edward L. Fox, described the aftermath in former Russian trenches captured by the Germans near the Forest of Augustowo: 

Further on in the field… I saw a shapeless heap of men, and then another heap, and another, until I had counted six… I had never seen such men before. They were men postured like jumping jacks only their legs and arms were still. They were men who seemed standing on their heads, their feet over the trench top, turned soles up to the sky. Somehow, they gave you the impression of being all legs and arms,– stiff grotesque legs, stiff grotesque arms. They all seemed lumpy, all but one, and he was standing up… and he was standing because the piled dead braced him so that he could not fall.

By comparison the Germans lost "just" 16,000 men in all categories. And once again Hindenburg and Ludendorff had destroyed a Russian threat against East Prussia – but were unable to turn their victory into a knockout blow, as the Austro-German forces on the southern half of the front remained bogged down in the northern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

Eastern Abattoir 

Meanwhile smaller engagements continued along the length of the Eastern Front, adding to the toll of dead and wounded. John Morse, an Englishman serving with the Russians in central Poland in February 1915, recalled horrifying scenes in captured German trenches, in a battlefield full of dead bodies stacked on one another: 

They lay thickest in and about the trenches. In the bottom of the advanced trenches there was a foot depth of blood which had drained from the corpses… the men occupying the position were compelled to stand in it half-leg deep for several days until an opportunity came to clean the trenches, when the congealed horror was removed… and buried by the ton in holes dug for the purpose. In one part of the trench I helped remove a heap of sixty-nine corpses, lying eleven deep in the middle… [some] had been smothered under the weight of their dead comrades, or trampled to death. 

And yet amid all the horror there were still moments of humanity between enemy soldiers, as individuals. J.M. Beaufort, an American observer with the German army, described the following vignette after the Winter Battle of Masurian Lakes:

One cold and grey morning, while driving through the extensive forests of Augustowo, we came across a scene that would have touched a heart of stone. A giant Russian was sitting cross-legged in oriental fashion in the snow. On his lap lay pillowed the head of a German private, whose stark body, long since cold and dead, was covered with the Russian’s overcoat. An empty flask lay beside them in the snow. The Russian’s left sleeve was soaked with blood, and, on investigation, we found that his elbow was completely smashed. And the man’s sole comment was: “Nitchewo.” [“It is nothing.”]

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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Scarface is Returning to Theaters for Its 35th Anniversary
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures

Pop culture history was forever altered on December 9, 1983, when Scarface arrived in movie theaters across America. A loose remake of Howard Hawks's classic 1932 gangster film, Brian De Palma's F-bomb-laden story of a Cuban immigrant who becomes the king of Miami's drug scene by murdering anyone in his path is still being endlessly dissected, and quoted, today. To celebrate the film's place in cinema history, the Tribeca Film Festival is teaming up with Screenvision Media and Universal Pictures to bring the film back into theaters next month.

Just last month, Scarface screened at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival as part of a 35th anniversary celebration. The film's main cast and crew—including De Palma and stars Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer—were on hand to discuss the making of the film and why it has endured as a contemporary classic. (Yes, that's the same conversation that left the panel momentarily speechless when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much she weighed during filming.) That post-screening Q&A will be part of the upcoming screenings.

"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years. We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary," Darryl Schaffer, executive vice president of operations and exhibitor relations at Screenvision Media, said in a press statement. "The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."

Scarface will screen at select theaters nationwide on June 10, June 11, and June 13, 2018. Visit Scarface35.com to find out if Tony Montana and his little friend will be coming back to a cinema near you.

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