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THE BOLSHEVIK WAR, 1919-1920
An Outline

Bozenna Kirkpatrick

 

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.
The borders with Poland's neighbours were unsettled and on many occasions it seemed that politicians designing post-war Europe at the Paris Peace Conference had a tendency to accepting the results of territorial conflicts attained locally by force of arms. Even before the Proclamation of Independence took place, Poland had to fight Ukrainians, who on November 1, 1918 occupied the capital city of Galicia - Lwow. Having this in mind Pilsudski, given powers of a dictator (officially he was Chief of the State and Commander-in-Chief of the army) concentrated on building the army and protecting the land, leaving the burden of political negotiations in Paris to Ignacy Jan Paderewski and his (Pilsudski's) political opponent, Roman Dmowski.

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.
Impressed by Polish military successes, the Allies, who finally realized what the Bolshevik Revolution was, tried to convince Pilsudski to continue his offensive against the Bolsheviks in cooperation with the 'white' Russians. He declined the invitation as the 'Whites' refused to recognize Poland's independence.

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.
However, as unfortunate as it was, the Poles, instead of concentrating on the rebuilding of their regained country - at that time devastated by war materially and in a terrible economic shape - had to concentrate on building their army first. The necessity of that task was well understood by the Polish population and, although at a great expense and sacrifice to the nation, the Polish Army grew steadily.

COMMON ENEMY - RUSSIA

The secret Polish-Soviet peace negotiations commenced in Mikaszewicze in Volhynia. The terms dictated by Pilsudski included:

- the Bolshevik armies to be withdrawn ten kilometres from the present Polish-Soviet demarcation line;
- Soviet propaganda aimed at Poland's population to be stopped;
- the right for self-determination to be granted to Belorussians and Ukrainians on parts of Belorussia and Ukraine occupied by the Bolsheviks;
- the City of Dyneburg (Dvinsk) to be returned to Latvia;
- Soviet military operations against the Dnieper Ukraine (recognized as an independent state by Poland) to be stopped.

The Soviets did not agree to accept the last three conditions claiming that they extend beyond strictly Polish-Soviet relations.
It became apparent almost from the very beginning that the Soviets' intentions were anything but sincere - they were playing for time and time was working for them.

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 Poland.
Meanwhile, following military collapse of the 'Whites', the Soviets worked tirelessly on consolidating their grip on Russia and building their military might at a pace that could not be matched by Poland. In March 1920, the Red Army reached fighting readiness and began concentrations along the Polish-Soviet demarcation line, particularly in the north with the same goal as in 1919 - the spread of the communist revolution to Western Europe through Germany. Russia's Lenin made it bluntly clear. The escalation of the war was imminent.

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.
The Polish-Ukrainian agreement provided that in exchange for Poland's commitment to liberating Dnieper Ukraine from Bolshevik occupation and resignation by Poland from claims to ethnically Ukrainian territories, which once belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ukrainians would abandon their claims to Eastern Galicia, Podolia and Western Volhynia. The Polish-Ukrainian alliance was not an easy one, as the cessation of fighting between Poland and Western Ukrainian Republic, which started on November 1, 1918 when the Ukrainians captured the City of Lwow, occurred only months ago and mutual animosities persisted.

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 liberated territories.
Despite all enthusiasm, expressed by most Ukrainians in the liberated territories, particularly when they saw well equipped and organized Ukrainian divisions, other factors, like the results of centuries of russification in the Dnieper Ukraine, crafty communist propaganda, and anti-Polish sentiments in Eastern Galicia played a negative role in the mobilization efforts. Time, however, needed for formation of a strong and effective Ukrainian army, or rather the lack of it, was a decisive factor.

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.
Surprisingly, even the Lithuanians, liberated in 1919 from the Soviet occupation by the Polish Army, joined the Soviets in their anti-Polish crusade.

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.
Britain's prime minister of the time, David Lloyd George, once a strong supporter of the tsarist Russia on the international stage, suddenly became a Soviet devotee and devil's advocate for the Polish cause. His pro-Soviet sympathies resulted in large quantities of armament (including modern tanks) being shipped by Great Britain hurriedly to fill the urgent Soviet order. The British working class and British bankers co-operated with great enthusiasm.

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 the first days of August, the Soviets were almost on the banks of the Vistula River and approaching the outskirts of Warsaw.

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 same feelings that Poland was near her imminent collapse prevailed also in the West to the extent that most Western leaders used all available means of political pressure to force Poland into signing the peace with the Soviets at any cost to Poland. Fortunately, the Polish negotiators did not bend to the Soviet 'peace' demands, which clearly bordered on requesting Poland's capitulation. The Soviets, certain of their military victory, were apparently not interested in resigning from the fruits of that victory.

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 the north.
The most important role, however, was assigned to a relatively small (20 000), newly assembled strike force composed of battle hardened and most determined army units. Their task was to spearhead a lightning northward offensive from the Vistula-Wieprz triangle south of Warsaw, through a weak spot identified by Polish intelligence between Soviet Western and South-Western Fronts. That offensive would separate the Western Front from its reserves and disorganize its movements. Eventually, the gap between Gen. Sikorski's army and the strike force lead offensive would close near the East Prussian border, and result in the destruction of the 'trapped in a sack' Soviet offensive.

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.
Only few days later the Soviets paid dearly for that mistake.

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.
Consequently executing his plan, he continued his northward offensive with two armies following and wiping out the surprised and confused enemy. When the Soviets realized what happened to them, it was too late. Within two days the victorious Red Army underwent a dramatic metamorphosis into a disorganized, panic-stricken Red Horde running for cover.

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 if he not had enough, on September 15, after receiving new armies under his command, he mounted another offensive from the Niemen River region. By September 21, he was wiped out again, this time for good.

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:

... The history of contemporary civilization knows no event of greater importance than the Battle of Warsaw, 1920, and none of which the significance is less appreciated. The danger menacing Europe at that moment was parried, and the whole episode was forgotten. Had the battle been a Bolshevik victory, it would have been a turning point in European history, for there is no doubt at all that the whole of Central Europe would at that moment have been opened to the influence of communist propaganda and to Soviet invasion, which it could with difficulty have resisted. It is evident from speeches made in Russia during the war against Poland that the Soviet plans were very far-reaching.
In the more industrialized German towns plans were made on a large scale to proclaim a Soviet regime a few days after Warsaw had fallen.
... Several times Poland has been the bulwark of Europe against Asiatic invasion, yet never had Poland's services been greater, never had the danger been more imminent. The events of 1920 also deserve attention for another reason: victory was attained above all thanks to the strategical genius of one man and thanks to the carrying through of a manoeuvre so dangerous as to necessitate not only genius, but heroism... It should be the task of political writers to explain to European opinion that Poland saved Europe in 1920...

 

SOVIET-POLISH WAR, 1919-1920