THE BOLSHEVIK WAR, 1919-1920
When on November 16, 1918 Jozef Pilsudski, Polish Chief of the State, notified foreign governments
of the: ... existence of a Polish independent State, uniting all Polish territories, he had no illusions
that political assurances alone (like President Wilson's Fourteen Points) were sufficient enough as
guarantees of Poland's independence, regained after 123 years of Partitions.
FRAGILE, BUT FINALLY FREE !
With the German armies slowly withdrawing from the lands once belonging to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the buffer zone between Poland and Bolshevik Russia disappeared flooded by the Red Army heading westward in support for the Bolshevik-instigated German Revolution. Puppet communist republics of Lithuania and Belorussia with puppet communist governments were created early in 1919. A puppet communist Republic of Poland was next according to the Bolsheviks' plans. Already involved in a struggle with Ukrainians in Galicia, Poland faced now the Bolsheviks, whose short term goal was - reaching the Vistula-Bug line (Operation Target Vistula).
On January 23, 1919, a new, opportunistic player appeared on the scene. Taking advantage of Poland's difficult military and political situation Czecho-Slovakia, after a short ultimatum, attacked Poland from the south. Although finally fought back by the end of February, and with the ruling from the Allies against them, Czecho-Slovaks managed to occupy Polish Cieszyn (Teschen) Silesia for almost twenty years. [the Czech unlawful, oppressive occupation of this Polish territory continues, and remains unchallenged to this very day (2012) - E.M.C.]
Being difficult for Poland militarily, the situation was complicated for the Allies from the political point of view as well. The 'white' Russians, although very vocal in Paris, fought with varying success in Russia; the 'Reds' did not participate in Paris negotiations, since they have signed a separate peace treaty with Germany. The Allies were short of any realistic concept, or a plan in regard to dealing with the Bolsheviks. This political vacuum allowed Pilsudski to deal with them on his own, Polish terms. Not bound by any territorial or political ramifications, imposed by the Allied Supreme Council, he decided that the further the Bolsheviks are, the better. He knew, he could not count on any help from the Allies, and he also knew, that facts speak for themselves.
The onset of Polish-Soviet hostilities occurred on February 17, 1919 east of Grodno and shortly
after that in Volhynia. A series of swift military operations against the Bolsheviks and Ukrainians followed,
resulting in liberation of Lithuania, Belorussia, Volhynia, Podolia and Eastern Galicia.
By October 1919 his political, territorial and military objectives were achieved. The time came to put Pilsudski's concept of federation of the nations of Central Europe into practice. Besides, the Bolsheviks, pressed hard from all directions, asked him also for much needed peace.
The successful repulse of the Bolshevik invasion just months after Poland regained independence
not only facilitated and accelerated the unification of Poland's military units, coming mostly from the armies
of the empires, which partitioned Poland in the XVIII century, into one, Polish Army. It raised the
self-confidence of her citizens - they also began seeing the prospects of their country in much brighter
colours. It also significantly strengthened Poland's position on the international stage.
COMMON ENEMY - RUSSIA
The secret Polish-Soviet peace negotiations commenced in Mikaszewicze in Volhynia. The terms dictated by Pilsudski included:
The Soviets did not agree to accept the last three conditions claiming that they extend beyond
strictly Polish-Soviet relations.
The Mikaszewicze negotiations ended at an impasse in December 1919. In January and early
February 1920 the Soviets made several peace proposals suggesting that each country simply incorporate
ethnically Belorussian and Ukrainian territories that were in their possession. This was contrary not only to
Pilsudski's beliefs and plans, but also in violation of the Treaty of Versailles and rejected as such by
Again, the Allies had no unanimous policy towards the Soviets with Britain's Lloyd George
expressing even some pro-Soviet tendencies. And again, Poland was alone. Although not entirely. Following
mutual consultations an unexpected Polish-Ukrainian agreement (the Treaty of Warsaw - April 21, 1920) was
reached between Pilsudski and Simon Petlura, Ukrainian Chief of the State and Commander-in-Chief of the
Ukrainian army. Unlike other Ukrainian leaders, Petlura saw Ukraine only as an independent state. In order to
ensure that, he was ready to make territorial concessions in exchange for help. Under the existing
circumstances - almost entire ethnically Ukrainian territory was either in Polish or Soviet hands with
Petlura and his government exiled - he had to chose between Poland and Soviet Russia. Petlura knew, like
Pilsudski in the case of Poland, that an independent Ukrainian state would always have Russia (whether 'red'
or 'white') as an enemy waiting for an opportunity to abolish it.
Taking military initiative into their hands the joint Polish-Ukrainian forces struck on April
25, 1920 in the south, smashing Soviet armies with speed and efficiency, which shocked the Soviet political
and military leaders. Kyiv was freed on May 7, 1920. But the lightning military success had also some
negative aspects: the lines of communication and supply were extended over a thousand kilometres, and in
order to maintain positions against expected Soviet counter-offensive much more than a Polish Army and a few
Ukrainian divisions was needed. Pilsudski and Petlura counted heavily on mobilization of Ukrainians from the
Upon the outbreak of hostilities between Poland and Soviet Russia in April 1920, the 110 000
strong Polish Army faced the 160 000 Soviet force. By the end of August the Polish Army reached 370 000
(much of it poorly trained volunteers) with 330 000 more recruits being potentially available. The Soviets
not only matched the Poles in sheer numbers (the Red Army totaled 5 000 000 at that time) - their reserves
were virtually limitless.
VISTULA RIVER VICTORY
The Soviets had at their disposal countless military depots handed down to them by German
armies withdrawing from Eastern Europe in 1918/19 and modern French armament (including armoured cars,
trucks and artillery) captured in great numbers from the 'Whites' following their collapse. Poland, on the
other hand, fought with whatever was left after the World War I. In addition, shipments of military supplies,
materials and armament sent as a form of military assistance by the Allies (most of it by France) were
effectively sabotaged by some countries (Germany and Czecho-Slovakia) under the pretence of neutrality, and
by British and German workers converted to communism and manipulated by Soviet infiltrators.
The Soviet counter-offensive began in the north on May 14 and from the very beginning it
aimed straight at Poland's capital - Warsaw. Initially, it suffered some setbacks but in general the
Soviets advanced steadily westward. In the beginning of July it became obvious to the Poles that the
Polish-Soviet conflict was not about Belorussian and Ukrainian right to self-determination anymore.
Poland's own independence was at stake.
In Ukraine, despite the success of the joint Polish-Ukrainian political campaign to raise patriotic spirits among the population, the plans to form a strong Ukrainian army capable of taking over the positions against the Soviets had to be abandoned due to lack of time. On May 24, the Polish-Ukrainian expeditionary force was engaged by the enemy (Semyon Budenny's notorious Konarmiya) for the first time. Despite beating the Soviets on several occasions, the willingness to defend Dnieper Ukraine and confidence in their ability to withstand the Soviet offensive, they were ordered to retreat. They managed to withdraw in order and relatively unscathed but it was a bitter day for the Poles and Ukrainians on June 13, when Kyiv was evacuated and left to the Soviets. Petlura's Ukrainians, although small in numbers, fought bravely and with fierce determination throughout the campaign.
The Soviet strategy called for encircling Warsaw from the north after crossing the Vistula River. The capture of Warsaw would have a tremendous propaganda effect for the Soviets and undermine the morale of the Poles.
Despite growing resistance of the Polish armies the political and military establishment in
Moscow as well as the commander-in-chief of the invading Soviet forces, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky
considered the capture of Warsaw to be a fact. A communist, quasi-Polish government, composed by the
Soviets of Polish renegades, stayed in waiting, eager to represent the would be Polish Soviet Republic
within the Soviet Federation.
The final Soviet assault on Warsaw began on August 12 at Radzymin (only 23 km east of Warsaw),
and its initial success prompted Pilsudski to hasten the execution of his meticulously worked out defence
plan. A plan, which by all military strategy standards of the day was highly unorthodox and risky. It
required that two armies under Gen. Jozef Haller, facing the Soviet frontal attack on Warsaw from the east,
keep their entrenched positions at any cost. At the same time one army under Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski
strikes north from behind Warsaw, thus cutting off the Soviet forces attempting to 'envelope' Warsaw from
Pilsudski's plan, although based on deep knowledge of the situation, reliable information
provided by Polish intelligence and intercepted Soviet wireless communications, was so 'amateurish' in the
opinion of military experts (some high ranking army officers were quick to use the term 'amateurish' to
underline Pilsudski's lack of formal military education) that when a copy of it fell accidentally into
Soviet hands it was considered to be a deception attempt and... ignored.
On August 14, Gen. Sikorski's army began its operation which was nothing short of a 'blitzkrieg'. His units supported by tanks, armoured cars and artillery of two armoured trains advanced at the speed of thirty kilometers a day shredding literally within few days the Soviet 'enveloping' manoeuvre in the north.
On August 15, Pilsudski inspected the strike force, which remained under his personal command
and on the next day it went into action slicing through the soft spot of the Soviet front - the Mozyr Group.
Pilsudski's amazement grew steadily as his unit covered about seventy kilometers in thirty six hours,
splitting the Soviet offensive and meeting virtually no resistance.
On August 18, Tukhachevsky was fully aware of the extent of his defeat and in the evening that
day he ordered the remnants of his armies to withdraw, what in practice amounted to a stampede. Chased
relentlessly he managed to escape, but two thirds of his armies were lost either as casualties or taken
prisoners of war. Some of his decimated units crossed in despair the East Prussian border to be briefly
interned by the sympathetic Germans. Tukhachevsky lost also most of his armament.
As soon, as the siege of Warsaw was relieved, large Polish Army units were dispatched with great haste to Galicia to deal with the Soviet South-Western Front besieging the City of Lwow. By August 31, the Soviet South-Western Front ceased to exist. The survivors of the Budenny's infamous Konarmiya, feared for barbaric excesses rather than valorous conduct on the battlefield, fled back to Russia after being badly mauled by Polish cavalry in battles at Zamosc and Komarow.
Finally, the Soviet Russia was on her knees, defenceless and expecting the worst from the Poles. This time the Soviet political and military establishment really had enough. Never before, and never after the Soviets were begging so eagerly for peace. The armistice was signed in October 1920, and the peace treaty (Treaty of Riga) on March 21, 1921.
In retrospect, the failure to establish an independent Ukrainian state in 1920, which is clearly attributed to malevolence of Pilsudski's political opponents (Dmowski et consortes) leading the team of Poland's peace negotiators at Riga, brought far reaching consequences upon Europe and the world. Russia, whether 'white' or 'red', without Ukraine's natural resources, agricultural, industrial and human potential would remain for many decades an underdeveloped wasteland on the periphery of the world. Not only unable to wage a war against the countries of Central Europe, but also incapable of playing the role of an opportunistic scavenger that she had played in September 1939, when World War II broke out.
As to the Polish Vistula River Victory of 1920 - Sir Edgar V. d'Abernon, who as a member of the Anglo-French mission to Poland at that time, had a full scope of events including the Vistula River Victory, and understood well the possible implications of Bolshevik victory, wrote:
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