The Battle of Riga -September 1917


Oskar von Hutier


Crossing the Dvina.

At the Moscow Conference General Korniloff had uttered grave warning to the effect that if the Russian army did not help him to hold the shore of the Gulf of Riga, the road to Petrograd would be opened wide. Whilst he was speaking, the Germans were preparing their attack. Great naval activity started in the Gulf of Riga on September 1st. On the same day, after a strong artillery preparation, the German land forces crossed the River Dvina in the region of Uxkull, south-east of Riga, occupied Kupfer-Mammer, and developed their success in a northerly direction. The next day the enemy assumed the offensive in the region of the Mitau road. Towards the evening they succeeded in penetrating the Russian positions on the river Jagel, in the region of Melmager-Skripto. Some Russian detachments left their position and retired to the north. This caused a general order to be given to abandon the Riga region, and the Germans were left in possession. The city was evacuated on Monday, September 3rd, after it had been shelled by the Germans for a few hours.

Later details of the fall indicated that although some Russian detachments had fled before the oncoming enemy, others of the Russian troops behaved with great gallantry. They fought well, but were finally compelled to retreat owing to the superior numbers of the enemy’s forces, and his preponderance in artillery. The Petrograd reports mentioned that the fortifications and bridges of the town were blown up before the retirement.

Once in possession of the town, German submarines entered the Gulf of Riga, and commenced shelling the villages along the shore. Meanwhile the Russian army fell back north, and was followed by a rapid advance of the Germans. On September 4th, the Russians had retired beyond the Livonian River Aa. The Germans claimed thousands of prisoners and much booty, including large coastal guns of 30.5 centimetres. No further advance of the enemy was recorded until September 23rd, when news came to hand of the fall of Jakobstadt, south of Riga.

Oskar von Hutier

Oskar von Hutier was born in Erfurt on 27 August 1857, in the Prussian Province of Saxony. His family had a long tradition of military service; his grandfather served in the French Army and his father, Cölestin von Hutier, rose to the rank of colonel in the Prussian Army. Hutier was commissioned into the German Army in 1875 and attended the Prussian Military Academy beginning in 1885. There, he gained the attention of the General Staff, on which he subsequently served. He served as the Generalquartiermeister in 1911.

Hutier married Fanni Ludendorff, and had three children. Their son Oskar was seriously wounded at the Battle of Verdun in 1916.

Hutier spent the first year of the First World War as a divisional commander in France. There, he commanded the 1st Guards Infantry Division in the Second Army. He commanded the unit during the First Battle of the Marne, and remained on the Western Front until April 1915, when he was transferred to the Eastern Front. There, on 4 April, he took command of the XXI Corps of the Tenth Army. He briefly commanded the Army Detachment D from 2 January to 22 April in 1917. On 27 January, he was promoted to General der Infanterie (General of the Infantry) and placed in command of the Eighth Army on 22 April.

On 3 September 1917, Hutier, commanding the Eighth Army, ended the two-year siege of the Russian city of Riga. Here, he moved his troops to an unexpected sector in the Russian lines, and using a heavy bombardment prepared by Georg Bruchmüller and a surprise crossing of the Dvina River, took the city. The tactics he employed—surprise and encirclement—were essentially standard German Army doctrine; indeed, his infantry attacked in company-strength skirmish lines after crossing the River Dvina, much as they would have done in 1914. He followed this success with Operation Albion, an amphibious assault (the only successful one of the war) that seized Russian-held islands in the Baltic Sea. Hutier was awarded the Pour le Mérite by Kaiser Wilhelm II for seizing Riga, and his success there also impressed General Erich Ludendorff, who transferred Hutier to the Western Front in 1918

Georg Bruchmüller

At the beginning of World War I he was reactivated and became artillery commander of the 86. Infantry Division at the Eastern Front. Bruchmüller developed techniques to support attacks with a sudden concentration of accurate fire instead of prolonged preparatory bombardments. In the spring of 1916 he convinced the chief of staff of the Tenth Army to adopt this method of concentration for a major attack at Tarnopol, and the effect in supporting the rapid advance of the infantry was impressive.

Bruchmüller’s technique emphasized fire in depth throughout the enemy positions. His support included an accurate creeping barrage, the Feuerwalze, for the advancing infantry.

Bruchmüller developed several techniques to achieve disruption, which required strict control of all artillery assets. Each battery of each type of weapon received specific fire missions with specific timetables. He organized it in three stages of delivery of fire. The first consisted of surprise, concentration, hitting headquarters, phone links, command posts, enemy batteries, and infantry positions. The fire was sudden, concentrated, and made extensive use of gas. The second stage required that the other batteries reinforced those batteries already firing on enemy batteries. The third stage asked for fire for effect on designated targets according to range. Some batteries continued to shell infantry positions, heavy pieces engaged long range targets.

To achieve maximum disruptive effect on the enemy, surprise was essential. Thus, the Germans concealed their attack preparations very carefully and their initial target data had to be very accurate. Bruchmüller rose in position in the east, commanding the artillery of von Hutier’s Eighth Army at Riga in September 1917. When his unit was transferred to the west in late 1917, Bruchmüller arrived in time to participate in the Cambrai counterattack.

Operation Albion: The Attack on The Baltic Islands

In October 1917, an invasion force of some 25,000 German soldiers, accompanied by a flotilla of 10 dreadnoughts, 350 other vessels, a half-dozen zeppelins, and 80 aircraft, attacked the Baltic islands of Dago, Osel, and Moon at the head of the Gulf of Riga. It proved to be the most successful amphibious operation of World War I. The three islands fell, the Gulf was opened to German warships and was now a threat to Russian naval bases in the Gulf of Finland, and 20,000 Russians were captured. The invasion proved to be the last major operation in the East. Although the invasion had achieved its objectives and placed the Germans in an excellent position for the resumption of warfare in the spring, within three weeks of the operation, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia (November 7, 1917) and Albion faded into obscurity as the war in the East came to a slow end.

Book: Operation Albion – The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands

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