VON RENNENKAMPF, Pavel-Georges Karlovich. P.K. Rennenkampf was born on 17 April 1854 in Estonia, the son of a Germanic Baltic nobleman. He was educated at the Helsingfors Cadet School, and upon graduation in 1873 was commissioned a cornet in the 5th Litovski Uhlan Regiment. He served with his regiment until 1879, when he earned a seat in the Nicholas General Staff Academy. His attendance was at a prestigious time for the academy, as the director was one of the leading military theorists of the period, General M.I. Dragomirov, and the Chancellor was Colonel V.A. Suklomlinov, the future Russian War Minister. von Rennenkampf did extremely well in the course, graduating at the head of his class in 1882.

Rather than returning to his regiment, von Rennenkampf received a series of General Staff asssignments, including a post as a special staff officer in the 14th Army Corps; a special staff officer in the Kazan Military District; Senior Aide-de-Camp to the General Staff of the Don Cossack Army; and, after his promotion to colonel in 1890, Chief of Staff of the 14th Cavalry Division. In 1895, he took command of the 36th (Akhtirski) Dragoon Regiment (later the 12th Akhtirski Hussars), a post he held until 1899. Superiors and subordinates alike considered him as an intelligent and aggressive officer; considered good qualities in a cavalryman. His superiors rated his performance as 'brilliant' in his various duties.

von Rennenkampf was appointed Chief of Staff of the Trans-Baikal Military District in 1899, serving under the Ataman of the Trans-Baikal Cossacks, General Matzievski. He was promoted to Major-General in 1900 just as the Boxer Rebellion was sweeping northern China and Manchuria. Given command of four infantry battalions, two Cossack sotnias, and two horse batteries, von Rennenkampf quickly and efficiently swept the Boxers from the cities of Tsitsihar and Kirin, thereby removing any Boxer threat to Harbin and the Chinese Eastern Railway.

After the rebellion, von Rennenkampf was offered a command in the Imperial Guard, but to the Tsar's surprise, he turned down the command. He was then given command of the 1st Independent Cavalry Brigade, a command he held until 1904. In February of that year, after the outbreak of the war, von Rennenkampf was appointed commander of the Trans-Baikal Cossack Division. His popularity with the Cossacks and his experience in Manchuria made his selection a sound choice.

During the war, von Rennenkampf commanded successively larger combined arms groups, normally protecting one of the Russian army's flanks. He was promoted to Lieutenant-General in July 1904, and was wounded in the same month; the latter hospitalizing him until after the Battle of Liao-yang. He actively commanded a division-size flank force during the Battle of the Scha Ho, and a corps equivalent force during the Battle of Mukden. In the latter battle, he replaced Major-General Alexiev in command of the Russian left flank after a series of defeats. von Rennenkampf quickly stabilized the situation and successfully held the left throughout the battle.

After the war, von Rennenkampf was given command of the III Siberian Army Corps, during which time he put down the mutinies that gripped the Russian army in Manchuria. From 1907 to 1913, he commanded the III Army Corps, after which he was promoted to General and given command of the Vilna Military District. On the outbreak of the First World War, he commanded the 1st Army during the disastrous Tannenberg Campaign. He was victorious at the Battle of Gumbinnen, but suffered defeat at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. General von Rennenkampf was relieved of command of the army after the Battle of Lodz on 28 November 1914, and soon afterwards retired from the army. In 1918, the Bolsheviks approached him and offered a command in the Red Army; an offer he quickly refused. He was promptly arrested and shortly afterwards executed.

Much of the historical discussion of von Rennenkampf whirls around his role during the Tannenberg Campaign and his relations with General Samsonov. His French biographer, Jean Savant, has demonstrated that his errors at Tannenberg were minor compared to those of Generals Zhilinski's and Samsonov's, and weren't the root cause of the defeat. Savant has also argued that the infamous 'fighting' scene between the two generals at a railway station in Manchuria never happened, and is likely a caricature of the very real schism that existed within the Russian military leadership in 1914. But the perception remains, and the results of Tannenberg, combined with the lack of any significant Russian success during the Russo-Japanese War, has obfuscated any real examination of his military abilities in 1904-05.

What is undisputed is that von Rennenkampf was relatively unknown in 1900 but had become a national hero and internationally known military figure by 1905. He proved an effective leader who received greater responsibility as the war progressed. Ordered to operate in mountainous terrain disadvantageous for cavalry and in a support role, von Rennenkampf never possessed a venue to fully demonstrate his strengths and weaknesses. His best opportunity was taken from him when General Kuropatkin at Mukden decided to transfer von Rennenkampf from the western to the eastern flank, while dispersing von Rennenkampf's cavalry corps into small groups. Most historians agree that this decision possibly cost the Russians the battle, for von Rennenkampf's force was ideally positioned to stop the Japanese attack until this change upset all the plans. The other 'what if' involving von Rennenkampf was at Liao-yang. 'What if' he hadn't been wounded and commanded the Russian left at Liao-yang? Both events were critical to the outcome of these battles, and General von Rennenkampf was likely the 'right man' who, unfortunately, wasn't at the right place. The Russian campaign in Manchuria likely suffered because of this.

Jeff Leser