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Polish-Soviet War: Battle of Warsaw

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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One of the most easily overlooked, yet momentous short wars of the 20th century was the swift-moving clash between the post-World War I Polish Republic and Russia's brand-new Bolshevik regime of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Reaching a climax during the summer of 1920, the Russo-Polish War is often regarded as the final episode of the Russian Civil War. In fact, it was much more — at once a reflection of the age-old enmity between two Slavic neighbors and a Marxist crusade bent on varying the torch of revolution into the heart of Europe. The campaign featured a remarkable cast of characters on both sides and mixed ferocious cavalry charges with early blitzkrieg tactics in quest of exceptional objectives.

The roots of the war ran deep. For a century and a quarter, the once-formidable Polish nation was a political nonentity, having been dismembered by Prussia, Austria and Russia in the infamous partitions of 1772, 1793 and 1795. Three national insurrections had failed to dislodge the occupying powers; severe Germanization and Russification efforts, aimed at the destruction of the Polish language and culture, were imposed upon the population during the 19th century. Although such campaigns had little effect, by the turn of the century only the most optimistic Polish patriots could still dream of independence.

Yet World War I provided exactly the right set of circumstances for the Poles. On November 6, 1916, Austria-Hungary and Germany, in a desperate bid to ensure the loyalty of their Polish populations, jointly agreed to the formation of a semi-autonomous 'Kingdom of Poland.' In Paris, France, Polish spokesmen beat the ears of Allied statesmen on behalf of an independent Poland, but none of the Western powers cared to antagonize their imperial Russian ally, which was opposed to such a move. In 1917, however, Russia had dropped into a violent vortex of chaos and revolution. Partly in consequence to that development, the Fourteen Points for peace drafted by United States President Woodrow Wilson included the creation of an independent Poland and its recognition as 'an allied belligerent nation' as of June 3, 1918. On October 7, 1918, with the Central Powers clearly on the brink of defeat, the Regency Council in Warsaw declared Polish independence. After the guns of war fell silent on November 11, the three torn pieces of the Polish nation were triumphantly reunited.

The representatives of France, Great Britain, Italy and the united States met in the mirrored halls of Versailles in 1919 to dismember the German and Austro-Hungarian empires and set the world right. Russia, the erstwhile ally that in November 1917 had established the world's first Communist government, was shunned by the Western Allies; Lenin's decision to make a separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in the spring of 1918 would not be forgiven just then. Moscow's absence form the Versailles conference later proved to be a costly blunder. While the Allies were able to produce a tentative settlement for Poland's western frontiers, they had no means of establishing any agree-upon border between the new Polish state and the Russian colossus.

The resurgent Poles, meanwhile, quickly established a Western-style parliamentary government and chose a 51-year-old romantic, a conspiratorial and avidly Russophobic military hero named Jozef Klemens Pilsudski as chief of state. Pilsudski, a longtime member of the Polish Socialist Party's right wing, had always placed the achievement of Polish independence ahead of the social reforms advocated by some of his more ideological colleagues. As a young man he had felt the brutality of tsarist justice, spending five years in Siberian exile for revolutionary activity. During World War I, he organized and commanded a Polish legion under Austrian auspices on the Eastern Front, convinced that Russia was the chief enemy of his country's independence. He soon became disillusioned with vague Austrian promises in favor of Polish independence, however, and refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Central Powers. Arrested and imprisoned in Magdeburg for two years, he was released on November 10, 1918, and returned home to be acclaimed as a national hero.

Pilsudski possessed an iron will and a quick mind. He clearly regarded the new Polish army as his special province, and himself as the guarantor of independence. The republic's forces, still motley and ill-equipped, would soon be put to the test as the commander in chief turned his attention eastward.

The re-establishment of Poland's pre-partition 1772 frontiers, which included substantial parts of the Ukraine and Belorussia ('White Russia,' now Belarus), was a matter of top priority for Pilsudski. To accomplish that goal, the veteran revolutionary resurrected the old Polish idea of federalism, first championed in the Middle Ages by the kings of the Jagiellonian dynasty. Put simply, the plan called for an East European federation consisting of the independent republics of the Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania, bound together with Poland. The latter nation would, according to the Pilsudski scheme, play the leading role.

This incredibly ambitious designed was destined to disintegrate almost immediately. The Lithuanians, former partners in the old Polish kingdom, were intensely nationalistic, after their own long submergence in the Russian empire, and they zealously sought to protect their own newly proclaimed independence in the wake of the tsar's fall. They wanted no part of Pilsudski's federalist notions. The Ukrainians, while keenly desiring independence, were naturally suspicious of the Polish leader's motives, realizing how much of the Ukraine was intended for incorporation within the Polish state. The Belorussians, for centuries caught in the crossroads of Roman Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia, had no outstanding national consciousness yet and were frankly interested in neither in independence nor in Pilsudski's proposals of union. The Polish argument that none of those three nations could stand next to Russia alone fell on deaf ears. To all three of the potential federal members, it appeared that they might be exchanging the former Russian yoke for a Polish one.

The Western Allies, too, were decidedly against Pilsudski's plans. Both Britain and France accused the Polish chief of state of imperialism at Russia's expense, and they urged Poland to limit its eastern frontiers to the farthest extent of clear-cut Polish ethnicity. As for Russian Bolshevism, London and Paris saw that not as a threat, but a temporary disease, soon to be destroyed by the anti-Communist White forces, which the Allies supported in the ten-raging Russian Civil War.

The new Bolshevik government, besieged by a multitude of armies commanded by a politically diverse collection of generals ranging from tsarist aristocrats to disillusioned socialists to provincial warlords, had its hands full at the time. The White forces of Generals Anton Denikin, Nikolai Yudenich and Piotr Wrangel, and Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, supported by Western and Japanese armies and funds, had to be stopped. The Reds had little time in 1918 to worry about Polish schemes to expand on Russia's western periphery.

Lenin's dynamic associate Leon Trotsky organized the Red Army to meet the White threat. By using powerful idealism awakened in the revolution, and invovling fears that the landowning aristocrats might return to power, Trotsky built a formidable force of workers, peasants and ex-soldiers of the old imperial army, complete with a tough cavalry corps, to protect the Bolshevik regime. Throughout 1918and 1919, the Reds turned the tables on their foes, one by one.

At that moment of chaos and civil war in Russia, the Poles struck. In February 1919, Pilsudski sent his troops northeast, occupying as much territory as possible for the purpose of presenting a fait accompli to the Allied Supreme Council. That body would then be forced to recognize Poland's expanded eastern boundaries.

The Polish forces encountered little resistance and advanced rapidly, soon capturing Wilno (Vilius), a historically Polish city, from the Lithuanians, who had proclaimed it the capital of their new republic. By the autumn of 1919, the Polish red-and-white banner was flying over large sections of Belorussia and the western Galician part of the Ukraine was well.

Pilsudski ordered a halt at that point, his intelligence service having informed him that the Whites under General Denikin were pressuring Moscow from the south and could possibly capture the seat of the Bolshevik regime. The Poles surmised that a White government bent on the reconstruction of the old empire would prove more recalcitrant than the hard-pressed Bolsheviks. Denikin was willing to allow Poland to exist up to the borders of Privislanski Kaj, a former Russian province carved from Poland, in exchange for Polish participation in an anti-Communist crusade, but since those terms would deprive Poland of half the territory Pilsudski wanted, the Polish commander in chief rejected that and other White offers. Although Pilsudski secretly negotiated with the Reds for an acceptable eastern frontier, he was by no means convinced of Lenin's sincerity.

In December, the British foreign minister, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, proposed a frontier that roughly corresponded to the ethnic limits of Poland but failed to include the two predominantly Polish cities of Lwow and Wilno. Ironically, the 'Curzon Line,' as it was later dubbed, was to become the eastern border of post-World War II Poland. The border proposed by the British, although never meant to be a final frontier, was rejected by the Poles, for they had already pushed beyond it.

When it became evident to Pilsudski that the Bolsheviks had turned the tide in the civil war and the Whites appeared doomed, Polish-Soviet negotiations were broken off and the Poles prepared for another thrust into Belorussia and the Ukraine. Such an action, the Poles knew, would be tantamount to a full-blown anti-Soviet war.

Before pressing forward,d Pilsudski shopped around for an ally and found one in the anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian Ataman Semyon Pelyura, whose bedraggled troops had fought both Denikin's Whites and Trotsky's Reds for possession of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Nothing loess than complete Ukrainian independence was Petlyura's goal, but he concluded the Poles were decidedly the lesser evil compared to either the White or Red Russians. Overcoming severe objections of several of his nationalist associates, the Ukrainian leader came to Poland to ask Pilsudski's help and, on December 2, 1919, signed a treaty granting eastern Galicia and western Volhynia to Poland in return for Polish support of Petlyura's efforts to recapture Kiev and extend the Ukraine's borders to the western bank of the Dnieper River.

Immediately after the collapse of the Polish-Soviet negotiations, Pilsudski ordered several Polish divisions to move north and assist Latvian troops in dislodging the Bolsheviks from the banks of the Dvina River. The campaign resulted in the capture of the crucial fortress of Dvinski on January 3, 1920, and frightened the Soviets into resuming negotiations with the Poles.

Pilsudski rejected Lenin's offer of a frontier settlement that corresponded somewhat to the existing front line; he deliberately dragged his feet, convinced that the Red offer was insincere, a ploy masking Moscow's real intentions — a transfer of troops from the crumbling White fronts to the Polish line. As a gesture of good faith, Pilsudski insisted that the peace talks should be conducted at Borissov, a small Belorussian town near the front. The Soviets' insistent rejection of that demand apparently convinced the Polish leader that an attack on his position was imminent.

While playing the Bolshevik negotiating game throughout the winter months, Pilsudski prepared for battle. Determined to strike first, he managed to station 100,000 Polish troops on the front, but they were spread out a line more than 600 miles long. Meanwhile, Warsaw's intelligence service kept Pilsudski informed of every detail of Soviet troops movements toward the front while the talks continued.

By that time, London and Paris were greatly alarmed at the reports they were getting of the Polish war preparations. Foreign Secretary Curzon fired a sharply worded telegram to Pilsudski on February 9, warning him that Poland should expect 'neither help nor support' from Great Britain. The Allied Supreme Council followed suit two weeks later with a stern admonition. Pilsudski ignored both messages.

Polish spies reported to Warsaw that more Red troops, fresh from victory over the Whites, were transferring west to the front every day. By spring, Pilsudski could wait no longer. On April 21, the Polish chief of state signed a military agreement with Peltyura and his Ukrainian National Council for a pre-emptive expedition against the Bolsheviks. Should the campaign prove successful, the Ukrainians were pledged to enter a federal union with Poland. Four days after the pact was signed, Pilsudski launched a daring offensive deep into the Ukraine.

The Western Allies were as dumbfounded as the Reds by the Polish commander's audacity. How could a newly restored Poland, whose population had suffered terribly during World War I and whose economy was virtually nonexistent, even contemplate — let alone mount — a full-scale attack on Russia? Undeterred by the protestations of the Western Allies, Pilsudski pushed his forces all the way to the Dnieper in less than a fortnight. On the tips of their lances, the Polish cavalrymen carried a proclamation written by their chief of state that promised 'all inhabitants of Ukraine, without distinction of class, race or religion' the brotherly protection of Poland; it exhorted the Ukraine to drive out the Bolshevik intruders 'to win freedom for itself with the help of the Polish Republic.'

By May 7, Kiev had fallen to the Poles without resistance. For the fourth time since 1918, the Ukrainian Soviet government under Christian Rakovsky was forced to flee its capital; once again, the anti-Bolshevik regime of Petlyura ensconced itself in the city and announced the end of Russian domination of the Ukraine. The capture of Kiev boosted Pilsudski's popularity at home. Even his political enemies, the National Democrats, changed their minds about the 'Ukrainian adventure' and ceased their verbal attacks. The Polish government passed a resolution of praise for Pilsudski on May 18, and a Te Deum Mass was sung in his honor in every Polish church. Portraits of the bushy-browed, heavily mustachioed old revolutionary were hung in all public buildings. Hardly an honor remained unbestowed on him, for he had already been promoted to the rank of marshal in March.

The celebrations would be short-lived. Red Army Commissar Trotsky, no longer concerned about the White threat, was able to muster a sizeable and battle-tested force for action against the Poles. Pilsudski's swift drive to Kiev had severely overextended his supply lines, and his troops found little comfort in the Ukraine, whose population, though anti-Russian, was also historically anti-Polish.

The initial Bolshevik response came in late May, with the appearance of the most famous unit of the civil war, the First Red Cavalry Army, or Konarmiya. Consisting of 16,000 saber-swinging horse soldiers backed up by five armored trains, it was commanded by 37-year-old General Semyon Mikhailovich Budyonny, described by a British military historian as a 'hard-riding, spectacular savage of great personal courage.' On June 5, the Red Cavalry crashed through the rear of the Polish lines south of Kiev, pausing to burn down a Polish military hospital filled with hundreds of wounded men. The thinly stretched Polish forces could not contain the Soviet counterattack and immediately retreated westward toward Volhynia and Podolia.

Kiev was abandoned on June 11, and the hapless Petlyura and his Ukrainian National Council fled the city for the last time. The fierce Soviet counterattack was part of a two-pronged strategy. While Budyonny's horsemen of the Southern Front pushed the Poles out of the Ukraine, a northern attempt at evicting the Poles from Lithuanian and Belorussian territory was underway. Five Red armies, estimated at 160,000 troops. opened a massive campaign at the beginning of July.

The commander of this Northern Front, General Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky, was a 27-year-old former tsarist lieutenant who had joined Lenin's cause shortly after the Bolshevik triumph in 1917. Considered something of a military genius, Tukhachevsky had rendered invaluable to the Reds throughout the civil war; it was he who brutally suppressed the Kronstadt sailors' rebellion in St. Petersburg. Now the so-called 'Demon of the Civil War' would turn his considerable talents against the Poles. On July 5, Tukhachevsky opened his campaign in the north, his right flank led by another remarkable character, the Armenian cavalry general Chaia Dmitreyevich Ghai, whose hard-riding Caucasian III Cavalry Corps consistently outflanked the Poles and drove them toward Warsaw.

Undersupplied, outgunned, outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Poles fought hard but could not stop the Urssians' northern drive. On July 12, Minsk, the Belorussian capital, fell to the Red,s followed by Wilno on the 14th and Grodno on the 19th. In his order of the day for July 20, Tukhachevsky sounded an ominous note: 'The fate of the world revolution is being decided in the west; the way leads over the corpse of Poland to a universal conflagration…To Warsaw!'

Western military observers were as surprised by the Bolshevik onslaught as they had been by Pilsudski's before it. The flames of World War I had been extinguished not two years, and memories of the long months of preparation necessary to advance a few yards at a time from the trenches were still keen. Yet here was a conflict of swift movement spearheaded by cavalry, a branch that had long been pronounced useless. The question was, where and when would the Bolsheviks stop their advance?

The Soviet government at first had met the serious Polish challenge by appealing to the Russian people, not for the sake of Bolshevism, but for nationalist reasons. Even the old aristocratic old tsarist General Aleksei Brusilov, the last Imperial Army commander, responded to this approach and joined in an anti-Polish campaign; many other patriotic ex-tsarist officers followed his example. But now that the Poles had been evicted from Belorussia and the Ukraine, ideology overwhelmed nationalism. The intoxicating success of Budyonny and Tukhachevsky revived in Lenin's mind an old Bolshevik dream: the Red Army breaking through Poland to Germany, where it would assist the strong and well-organized German Communist Party in establishing a socialist republic in the homeland of Karl Marx.

Several key members of the Bolshevik Central Committee, including Trotsky and Josef Stalin, strenuously objected to Lenin's plans to reach Germany. Karol Radek, the Soviet expert on foreign policy, opined that the Polish and German people were not prepared to accept communism. Why not make peace with the Poles on the basis of the British-proposed Curzon line of 1919? In the heated arguments that followed, Lenin vehemently and repeatedly insisted that the time was right to spread the revolution westward. Supported by Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev, the Bolshevik leader's point of view held sway; Stalin and several others changed their minds when the crucial vote was taken, giving Lenin the victory.

The Soviet plans became readily apparent when Tukhachevsky's troops reached ethnically Polish territory. In the city of Bialystok, the Russians installed a 'Polish Revolutionary Committee,: headed by Felix Dzerzhinski, Julian Marchlevski and Felix Kon, longtime Communists known for their opposition to Polish independence. On August 3, the committee issued a 'Manifesto to the Polish Working People of Town and Country,' proclaiming a revolutionary socialist government.

To Lenin's great surprise, the promulgations of this Moscow-organized regime fell on deaf ears. None of the committee's members had the remotest link to the Polish working class; indeed, one of the Bialystok group's most important members, Dzezhinski, was Lenin's close associate and the head of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. The mere mention of the 'Polish Revolutionary Committee' was enough to send thousands of Polish workers flocking to the national colors to defend their capital. Still, the uncharacteristically impatient Lenin disregarded those ominous signs and insisted on the immediate capture of Warsaw. The Bolshevik leader's political advisers warned him not to count on a proletarian insurrection anywhere in Poland. Bitter, centuries-long memories of Polish oppression could not be raised by raising the revolutionary red flag in Warsaw. Trotsky, who seconded that gloomy appraisal, also warned Lenin that the speedy capture of the Polish capital could only be achieved by stretching the Red Army's supply lines to precariously thin limits. Again, Lenin rejected the opinions of the doubters in his midst.

Meanwhile, the rapid Soviet advance on Warsaw caused a serious political crisis that resulted in the collapse of the Polish cabinet. After 15 days of haggling, Prime Minister Wladislaw Grabski finally managed to form a crisis government. He then appeared, hat in hand, before the Allied Supreme Council at Spa, Belgium to appeal for help in defending the Polish capital, only to be subjected to bitter criticism of Pilsudski's eastern policy. If the Poles expected the Supreme Council to help arrange a truce with the angered Bolsheviks, the price would be high. On July 10, Grabski, having little choice, signed the Protocol of Spa, in which Poland agreed to accept the council's recommendations on the disputed Polish-Czechoslovakian and Polish-Lithuanian frontiers; to return Wilno to Lithuanian control; to respect the Allies' solution for the Polish use of the port of Danizg; to abide by any future decision on the status of Ukrainian-inhabited eastern Galicia; and finally, to pull all Polish troops behind the Curzon Line until an armistice could be arranged.

The severity of those terms masked the actual alarm felt by the Allies as Tukhachevsky's forces crossed the Bug River and headed for Warsaw. Frantic appeals from the Polish capital for arms and ammunition underscored the urgency of the situation. Torn between saying 'You made your bed, now sleep in it,' and providing the requested assistance, the Western Allies decided they had no alternative but to render aid to the beleaguered Poles, lest the Red Army thrust its way into the heart of Europe.

Accordingly, the French and British sent high-powered civilian and military missions to Warsaw. The combined Allied mission reached the city on July 25. The French contingent featured the prominent General Maxime Weygand, Marshal Ferdinand Foch's chief of staff during World War I. The celebrated Frenchman brought along his aide-de-camp, a trim and proper junior officer names Charles de Gaulle. The British were represented by Viscount Edgar Vincent d'Abernon and Maj. Gen. Percy de B. Radcliffe, an old-time cavalryman with a reputation for logical thinking.

The Western military experts swiftly proceeded to show the battered Poles how the Red Army could be stopped. Fed information on the existing situation by French officers attached as advisers to the Polish army, the Allied mission came to believe that Marshal Pilsudski had seriously underestimated the gravity of the Soviet threat. The British felt it necessary under these circumstances to force the Poles to accept Weygand as de facto commander of the Polish forces. The Poles steadfastly refused, although they feigned deference to the great French general's advice rather than jeopardize their source of supplies. In reality, Weygand was excluded form the decision making whenever possible.

By July 22, the day Tukhachevsky's troops crossed the Bug into indisputably Polish territory, the defenders' resistance had stiffened considerably. Pilsudski was reported to have been quite surprised that the Soviets had dared traverse the Curzon Line, the truce frontier suggested by the British. By August 1, the Polish leader realized that the Bolsheviks intended destination was Warsaw. On that day, the fortress town of Brest-Litovsk fell to the invaders; the capital lay only 130 miles west.

Pilsudski knew that a dramatic counteroffensive was the only possible way to save Warsaw, but where, he wondered, could he muster the forces necessary for such a move? The entire Polish army was committed to the defense of the country. Despite the more pressing threat posed by Tukhachevsky in the north, the Poles were reluctant to pull out their troops facing Budyonny on the Southern Front — the Galician region that had never been under Russian control, not even temporarily. They preferred to build their military strength by conscription and volunteers.

Time was obviously of the essence. Pilsudski finally decided that the war would be decided in the north. But for effective resistance, the Poles were in desperate need of Allied war supplies, which became increasingly difficult to obtain. The problem came from pro-Bolshevik German and Czech railroad workers, and even some British dockworkers, who refused to load the Polish-bound equipment in their countries. Some of the materiel could reach Poland only through the Baltic port of Danzig, the Free City under League of Nations administration. There too, German dockworkers — convinced by Bolshevik and German propaganda that a Soviet victory would unite Danzig with Germany — obstructed delivery. French marine infantry had to be sent to Danzig to expedite the unloading of munitions.

On Aguust 8, Tukhacehvsky, confident the Poles were on the verge of collapse, issued his orders for the capture of Warsaw. He intended to bypass the city's northern defenses, move on to the lower Vistula River and attack from the northwest. The Red Sixteenth Army was to proceed from the east, while its flank was to be protected only by the 8,000-man Mozyr Group. Although Moscow had detached Budyonny's cavalry from General Aleksandr Yegorov's Southern Front and assigned the horsemen to Tukhachevsky, the latter appears not to have planned to use those additional forces for the protection of his flank. The Bolshevik commander apparently believed that the Poles posed no danger to his exposed periphery. Additionally, Lenin wanted Warsaw delivered as soon as possible.

As Tukhachevsky planned his strategy, the Polish forces had grown much stronger than his 150,000 men. Pilsudski's army had grown to 185,000 by August 12, and in two more weeks the Poles could count 370,000 hastily trained, poorly equipped soldiers on their rolls, including almost 30,000 cavalry. Included in this force was General Jozef Haller's army of Polish-Americans, which had seen Western Front service in World War I, and the 7th Eskadra 'Kosciuszko,' a squadron of daring young American volunteer pilots. The capital's defense was augmented by a motley but enthusiastic force of 80,000 workers and peasants. The crisis government of Prime Minister Wincenty Witos, which had replaced the Grabski cabinet on July 24, had done its job well.

In spite of the progress of the Polish defense plans, the situation remained grave. Marshal Pilsudski, having little time left, issued his orders for a bold and imaginative counterattack on August 6, several days before he learned of Tukhachevsky's plans to encircle Warsaw. The Polish commander had finally brought several key units up from the south. A 20,000-man strike force, commanded by General Edward Smigly-Rydz, was to smash through Tukhachevsky's Mozyr Group and begin a sweeping, encircling movement to cut off the Soviet northern forces. The Polish Fifth Army under the able General Wladislaw Sikorski was to hold the crucial Wkra River line north of the capital. The city itself was defended by a 46,000-man garrison aided by the worker-peasant volunteer brigades, while the Third and Fourth armies were to support the strike force.

By August 12, it was apparent to the Allied military mission in Warsaw that Tukhachevsky intended to attack the city from the northwest. Weygand expressed grave reservations about the Poles' ability to defend the Wkra River line, where they were severely outnumbered. The Allied commission even recommended that a more effective Polish defense might be mounted west of the Vistula, though that would mean abandoning Warsaw. The next morning, Bolshevik infantry units broke through Polish lines and captured Radzymin, only 15 miles form the capital. Bloody hand-to-hand combat ensued until the arrival of reinforcements enabled the Poles to recapture the town on the 15th.

Meanwhile, General Sikorski's Fifth Army attacked the Red Fourth Army northwest of Warsaw and broke through, seriously exposing the Polish flank in the process. The Russian failure to capitalize on such an opportunity was the result of a lack of communications — disrupted by the Poles — and a lack of cooperation among the Bolshevik commanders. In addition to a poor coordination among Tukhachevsky's army commanders around Warsaw, the headstrong Budyonny (possibly on Stalin's advice) had ignored Tukhachevsky's call to join him, instead remaining in the Lwow area to the southeast.

Sikorski, quick to take advantage of the chaos among the Reds, continued his advance, raiding the Red Fourth Army headquarters at Ciechanow and capturing its plans and ciphers. Using tanks, trucks, armored cars and mobile columns, the Polish general has been credited with employing the first blitzkrieg tactics of the 20th century. Instead of attacking Sikorski's vulnerable left flank, the Red cavalry commander Ghai, who refused to support the Fourth Army, busied himself cutting Polish railway lines some 40 miles west.

In those desperate days of mid-August, more Allied supplies finally arrived. At Warsaw's Mokotow Airfield, Polish mechanics labored day and night assembling former Royal Air force figher planes in order to deny the Soviets any aerial reconnaissance. On the 16th, when Budyonny's Cossacks finally crossed the Bug River and began their advance on the city of Lwow, aircraft of the III Dyon (air division), comprised of the 5th, 6th, 7th and 15th Eskasdri, began three days of bombing and strafing in an effort to stem the onslaught. Flying a total of 190 sorties, dropping nine tons of bombs, Polish and American airmen managed to slow Budyonny's advance to only a few miles a day, buying precious time for Polish land forces to move to counter the Soviet threat.

On August 16, too, Marshal Pilsidski ordered his strike force into action. Covering toughly 70 miles in three days, the Polish northward movement encountered almost no resistance. Breaking through the gap in the Bolshevik ranks, the Polish Fourth Army, supported by 12 French-built Renault M-17FT light tanks, reached Brest-Litovsk and in the process cut off and trapped the Red Sixteenth Army. While Sikorski's troops kept the Bolsheviks in a state of confusion, Pilsidski, who traveled in the back of a truck with his forward units, pushed his forces farther north.

The Allies, meanwhile, had arranged for another round of Polish-Soviet peace negotiations, apparently believing that only a truce could save Warsaw now. On August 17, delegates from both sides met in Mink, where Moscow presented its conditions for a cease-fire: the Polish army was to be dismantled and the Allied military commission was to be sent packing. The Curzon Line was the only acceptable frontier, declared the Soviet delegates, with some small alterations in favor of the Poles.

News from the front, where Pilsidski's success astonished everyone, including the marshal himself, made the Bolshevik peace terms sound ludicrous. By August 18, Tukhachevsky realized that he had been completely outflanked and ordered what amounted to a general retreat — it was, in reality, a rout. Those Red units in a position to do so immediately bolted for the East Prussian border before the Poles could close the ring. Some groups, such as Ghai's cavalry and the Red Fourth Army, were locked in battle with Sikorski's troops and were trapped. Although badly mauled by ferocious encounters with pursuing Polish units, Ghai's battered horsemen managed to reach East Prussia, where they were immediately interned by the German authorities. The Fourth Army could not escape and was forced to surrender in Poland.

By August 24, it was virtually over. Tukhachevsky's forces had left behind more than 200 artillery pieces, more than 1,000 machine guns, 10,000 vehicles of every kind and nearly 66,000 prisoners of war. Total Soviet casualties were in the vicinity of 100,000; the Polish victory had cost 238 officers and 4,124 enlisted men killed, as well as 562 officers and 21,189 soldiers wounded.

There remained only the threat of Budyonny, whose cavalry had committed atrocities the Poles would not soon forget. Placing General Sikorski in command of the Third Army on August 27, Pilsudski then ordered h8im to oust Budyonny's force from the Southern Front. On August 29, Sikorski's vanguard Operation Group, consisting of the 13th Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry Division under the overall command of General Stanislaw Haller, confronted Budyonny's Cossacks at Zamarsc. In an unusual battle by 20th century standards, Polish lancers rode at full gallop into the Red cavalry and tore the Russians to pieces. After a second engagement with Sikorsky's forces that evening at Komarow, Budyonny quickly ordered a rearguard action and fled homeward, barely avoiding the complete annihilation of his army.

While Sikorski gave chase to Budyonny in the south, Pilsudski pursued Tukhachevsky's battered legions into Belorussia. Catching up with the Reds on the Niemen River on September 26, the Poles smashed the Soviet defensive lines and inflicted another humiliating defeat on them, destroying their Third Army in the process. Pilsudski's troops entered Grodno on the same day. Following up on September 27, the Poles pummeled Tukhachevsky's beaten and de moralized troops yet again on the Szczara River, sending them scurrying back to Minsk. In the Battle of the Niemen River, the Russians lost another 50,000 prisoners and 160 cannons.

The rout now complete, Poland rejoiced in her hour of victory; Marshal Pilsudski's prestige soared and the Allies breathed a sigh of relief. The Red Army had suffered its most disastrous defeat of the entire Russian Civil War period. An armistice was officially declared on October 12, followed by a protracted series of negotiations to formally end hostilities and settle the Polish-Soviet border question.

The result was the treaty of Riga, signed on March 18, 1921, in the Latvian capital. Poland received a significant portion of her pre-partition frontiers, including the city of Lwow, and took possession of territories inhabited by about 12 million Lithuanians, White Russians and Ukrainians.

Little remembered in the West, the Battle of Warsaw was in fact one of the most significant land engagements of the 20th century. Strategically, it reversed an ideological onslaught that might otherwise have carried Soviet Communism into Western Europe in 1920 — and eventuality the consequences of which can only be imagined by posterity. Militarily, the sudden counterattack by which Pilsudski and his lieutenants split and routed the Bolshevik forces — themselves led by one of the enemy's most brilliant generals — deserves a place among the tactical masterpieces of history.



This article was written by Robert Szymczak and originally published in the February 1995 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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13 Responses to “Polish-Soviet War: Battle of Warsaw”


  1. 1
    Bartosz says:

    Poland stopped on itself the full brunt of the Red Army and defeated an idea of the "export of the revolution." Communist time table was slowed 24 years and countries of the Central Europe were spared from communist rule for a quarter of a century. Western Europe, where revolutionary fever was boiling over on the streets, was spared a bloody fight for survival. Unfortunately, political and military significance of this victory was never fully appreciated by Europeans.

    • 1.1
      Pavel Rennenkampf Xocoyoztin says:

      This is the same Poland that made two attempts to gain territory at the expense of the Czechs and whose leaders' inability to master foreign politics in a rational sense rivaled that of Fascist Italy. They won what they did because the Reds were used to having 10:1 advantages, and that's all they had. One can say any Soviet regime would demand territory at Poland's expense but without 1920 they'dve needed a lot to justify it. Invasion of Russia and forcible annexation of Russian lands just made it easy for the Soviets, and even Winnie the Silver-Tongued understood that much. Poland won in 1921, yes, and set up 1939 and thus the Warsaw Pact. Brilliant job on the part of military dictators who think five minutes ahead.

      • 1.1.1
        Pawel says:

        Have you heard about Czech's attack on Polish Cieszyn in 1919 while Poles were involved in recovering territories in the West and with the war with Soviets in the East? Czech had attacked Poland and gained the Cieszyn by force in 1919 in the same circumstances as Poland attacked them in 1938 to regain Cieszyn. And remember, today there's no communism and there is Poland. If communist had lost in Russia there wouldn't have been free Poland because of Whites (supported by western countries). Whites didn't accept the Polish independence. Russia has been destroyed the most by communism. Stalin also hasn't spread the communism. It sad to read the comments about bad Poland in 1938 while keeping silence about bad Czechs in 1919 from people who don't know history well, see everything from their own nationalism and from country which didn't give a single shot to welcome Germans on their lands in 1938.

  2. 2

    [...] of territories inhabited by about 12 million Lithuanians, White Russians and Ukrainians. Something you won't ever read about in history books presented to American school children. Little remembered in the West, the Battle [...]

  3. 3
    Pavel Rennenkampf Xocoyoztin says:

    Eh, Poland did well because the Reds were used to fighting armies at most 30,000 strong, so fighting a much bigger army than that was not what they were good at. When the Poles did that, they buggered themselves with the Czechs, Germans, and Russians to completely isolate themselves and would gain at Czechoslovakia's expense and demanded they keep land won at gunpoint in 1944, when the Red Army was occupying Poland. The Polish dictators are the only ones to rival Mussolini in the setting themselves up for catch-22 department. The Reds win the Battle of Warsaw, they still need to beat Wrangel, and they still need to get guys like Baron Ungern-Sternberg, who rivaled Lavrenti Beria and Nikolai Yezhov for sheer murderous insanity. They won't win Warsaw and overrun Europe, they'd take too many casualties to win Warsaw.

    • 3.1
      HERR says:

      Nice example of soviet propaganda. Better send your copy of Большая советская энциклопедия to Museum of Communism :)

  4. 4
    Kurt says:

    "The Belorussians, for centuries caught in the crossroads of Roman Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia, had no outstanding national consciousness yet and were frankly interested in neither in independence nor in Pilsudski's proposals of union. The Polish argument that none of those three nations could stand next to Russia alone fell on deaf ears."

    Frankly speaking it's a lie. Most Belarusian nationalists agreed to form a federal state with Poland. They fought against Bolsheviks even in ranks of Polish military formations, in independent units or as partisans in Soviet rearguard.
    But all promises of federal state, equal rights of equal peoples turned out to be false. Poland betted on full assimilation of Belarusians and Ukrainians.

    After the war some prominent Poles born in Belarus (Edward Wajnilowicz, founder of "Red" Catholic Church in Minsk) said that they felt ashamed and had nothing to say when Belarusians asked them about war-time Warsaw's promises.

  5. 5
    Dave Thomas says:

    Great article. I just read another in my current copy of Strategy & Tactics.

  6. 6

    [...] FT-17, was the first such vehicle to be used by the Polish army. The model was deployed in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, and in the defence of Poland in [...]

  7. 7
    Marian says:

    So called jackall policy was a norm in central Europe after the WWI, democratic Czech Republic in 1919 decided to attack knowing it would have lost democratic plebiscite in the Zaolzie area :) In the end the finese foreign policy did not took the only central european democracy any further than Poland got, so… :)

    Got my roots on the eastern bank of Bug river, still I think the Curzon line is proper border, having 12mln of minorites would be a time bomb,

    • 7.1
      HERR says:

      Curzon Line had nothing in common with ethnic border. In fact it was the western border of third Russian partition of Poland. The British thought that White movement (their ally) would win and His Majesty's Government wanted to satisfy Russians.

  8. 8
    Roger says:

    I enjoyed the article but for crying out loud, please have someone edit the copy before publishing it. Such sloppy writing begs the question of whether or not the scholarship behind it is equally sloppy.

  9. 9
    Chris says:

    If you want to read a good book about this war then I suggest that you read \White Eagle, Red Star\ by British historian Norman Davies. This book is fantastic! It points out every strength and weakness of both sides and it's very great at giving you the wild atmosphere of central and east Europe after war. Moreover, it says about some things that the Britain did which were unacceptable. For example they were funding Russian white generals, which were easily defeated and their resources taken, with the amount 100 times greater then they gave to Poland. This book is very objective unlike most that I read which were either glorifying Poles or justifying Soviets.



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