Who controls Modlin, Controls Warsaw and Poland” (Bonaparte)
Booking a Ryanair flight from Birmingham to Warsaw lands you at Modlin (actually a suburb of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki) 34Km North West of Warsaw. Modlin possesses a remarkable legacy, the fortress of Modlin. Now lying derelict and mainly empty it is the largest fort in Poland and one of the largest in Europe. The history of the fort encapsulates much history of Poland and the Eastern Front in the Great War. Although originally of more ancient origins, it was Napoleon who identified its potential for modern military warfare and commenced enlarging and modifying the fort but this was never completed because of the retreat from Moscow in 1812. In 1832 when Congress Poland was absorbed into the Russian Empire, the fortress name was changed to Novogeorgievsk and it remained a major Russian fortress and fortified area until the German advance of July 1915 when it surrendered. It then stayed in German hands until 1918 when it became a fortress of the newly independent Poland.
Modlin sits at the confluence of the rivers Narew and Vistula which are by British standards, very large rivers. The fort along the rivers Vistula and Narew is roughly hexagonal in shape with three major towers and a barracks block 2.25 Km in length, the longest building in Europe. The Great Russian Retreat had begun in July 1915 as Germany controlled all of today’s modern Poland and was a strategic retreat ordered by Stavka, the Russian High command to shorten the line. In effect the Russian army as a fighting machine was beaten and despite further fighting being urged on by the western allies, many Russian soldiers voted with their feet returning to their villages to help on the farms.
A short note is needed on Russian strategic policy in 1914. Its roots were with Peter the Great who worried about how a country as large as Russia should be defended. It is not possible to put a border fence around the country and so a policy of fortifications was decided and these were placed at strategic points. These were to be defended using naval guns and this policy of large guns was not changed until after 1914. When the Czar is an autocrat, industrial policy is always difficult. Von Molke in 1843 viewed fortresses as obsolete in the face of railway flexibility yet in 1843 Russia did not have a single commercial railway track. The demand for naval guns for fortresses was so great that the shortage of field guns only became apparent to the Russians when the war quickly became mobile. It was not Russian backwardness that resulted in the shortage of field guns but the failure of strategy at the highest level.
The great retreat for the Russian army commenced in 1915. The fortress strategically placed between Warsaw and the Baltic could have been used to enable the safe withdrawal from Poland. However, the evacuation of Warsaw itself would require 2000 trains and these could not be spared because of fodder requirements and besides, Novogeorgievsk was supposed to protect Warsaw.
Norman Stone describes the fall of the fortress in brutally short terms. In 1915 it held 20,000 men, a million shells and 1600 guns. The German army arrived in mid July 1915. Later, Bresler, the conqueror of the Antwerp fortress arrived with a siege train. The fort engineer who was doing his rounds with all of his maps was captured, a single German shell blew up one of the forts and Novogeorgievsk surrendered on August 19th 1915. Other sources suggest that at the time of the surrender there were up to 100 thousand people inside, about 60 thousand (probably terrified civilians) and about 40 thousand military. Not all the artillery was obsolete, but there was not enough modern artillery to be of any strategic use.
If you are passing through Modlin it is worth a visit. I stayed at the Royal Hotel which was formally the laundry of the fort. The two main towers are open to the public and there is a path along the river which passes the fort with information boards in English. A walk back along the road passes through the interior of the fortress which has many military, now civilian buildings.
Modlin Fortress Website. https://twierdzamodlin.pl/ Norman Davies. God’s Playground Vol 2 2005 Norman Stone. The Eastern Front 2007
My thanks to John Davis for this contribution. Richard.