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Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915

Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915 by Richard L. DiNardo. ABC-CLIO, 2010, 215 pp.

Richard DiNardo’s book Breakthrough is a welcome and very insightful addition to the limited amount of literature on eastern front campaigns during World War One. Fought on 2–10 May 1915, Gorlice-Tarnow in many ways was the decisive battle on the eastern front. The so-called Polish salient gave Russia a chance to attack to the west into Imperial Germany and to the south into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Germany and Austria-Hungary, however, could also attack and trap every Russian soldier in the salient. After the Imperial German Army had defeated the Russian attack on East Prussia, the Imperial Russian Army still occupied Poland and thus remained a threat to both Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—the central powers in the conflict. The Austrians had suffered some setbacks and looked to their German allies to help them stabilize the front near the Carpathian Mountains. Sensing that they could push the Russians back and use flanking movements to defeat the substantial Russian force, the Germans agreed. All of these events combined to make Gorlice-Tarnow one of the rare breakthrough battles of World War One.

The book touches on topics that the modern military reader will recognize, including coalition operations, air operations, and a lack of both sufficient forces and logistical support. The Germans and Austrians had to overcome differences at the general staff level before the German High Command and Gen Erich von Falkenhayn agreed to move four corps equaling eight divisions from the western front to Gorlice at the edge of the Carpathians, linking them to Tarnow. The new German 11th Army formed under Gen August von Mackensen included the German formations, an Austrian corps, and a Hungarian cavalry division—the first joint command in the war. More operations like this one would follow later in the war, as Germany became the senior partner in the coalition. Because of high casualties, Austria slipped into a junior role.

The Germans, who possessed more aircraft than the Russian Air Service, took advantage of both aerial reconnaissance, which allowed German commanders to see and track Russian movements on the battlefield, and artillery spotting. Since the Germans’ heavy guns suffered from a shortage of artillery shells, spotting allowed them to make each shell count. These two aspects of airpower permitted the German and Austrian attackers to use large-caliber guns (more than 150 millimeters) to obliterate Russian strongpoints.

Able to exploit openings, the Germans ripped into the front line and quickly advanced into the Russian rear, turning the front relatively quickly. Making rapid progress, they threatened the entire Russian Carpathian front. Ordering a full retreat out of Poland, the Russians attempted to consolidate their positions, and by the middle of September 1915, they had fallen back to a line that ran from the Lithuanian to the Romanian border.

In Breakthrough, DiNardo paints a vivid picture of the casualties that the German army units had to absorb and the effect of hard campaigning, forced marches, and nighttime repositioning. The book’s exploration of individual encounters allows the reader to follow the progress of the various battles. Unfortunately, the author includes little numerical data regarding the use of airpower to show the level of effort in reconnaissance, spotting, and bombardment. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this excellent text on operational art to both strategists and historians interested in World War One.

Gilles Van Nederveen

Fairfax, Virginia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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