Poland has always been in an unfortunate geographic location; between two nations which throughout history have competed for dominance over Europe. To the west lies Germany, the powerhouse of Europe. And to the east is the vast melting pot of European and Asian cultures, the great expanse of Russia. Sadly for the Poles their homeland has been a convenient battle ground for the two and for large periods of its history Poland has been divided between these two great powers.
So it was in 1918 after the Great War – supposedly the War to end all wars – Poland was resurrected once again and declared an independent state, free from Russian or German influence. Having just lost the greatest conflict ever fought, Germany was suffering from civil strife as its politicians struggled to rebuild the nation. For a country with a strong sense of nationalism that could never believe they lost the war, most Germans began looking for scapegoats. Jews and the communists became the ones to blame. As the economy crumbled and poverty set in the Communists naturally gained more support. As they looked to the east where fellow workers had overthrown the old Russian Tsarist order they felt an opportunity was nearing.
In Russia, the Great War had ended a year earlier in 1917 when the people rose up in revolution. The Bolshevik’s seized their chance and rode the wave of revolution, fast becoming it’s leaders. A Civil war broke out as the communists wrestled for control of the country. Whilst in Poland peace resumed and under the inspiring nationalist Jozef Pilsudski the Poles took back control of their country and began to rebuild.
But Peace did not last long. By 1920 the Bolsheviks had pushed back the ‘White Armies’ in Russia inflicting a number of defeats on them. Now they turned to the west. Global revolution was the aim for the Bolsheviks and post war Europe seemed ripe for the taking. As in Germany, the many new nations born out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires faced economic problems mixed with social unrest. They were perfect breeding grounds for young enthusiastic communists, all they needed was a spark to ignite the revolution, and a Red Army carrying the banner of Socialism would provide it. Poland was the first nation that stood in their way.
Skirmishes between the Russian and Poles over territory had been occurring since 1919. But in 1920 Pilsudski knew a conflict with the Russians over Polish Independence was inevitable, it was only a matter of time. The Polish army would be greatly outnumbered yet they had a potential ally. If the Poles could resurrect an independent Ukraine it would allow the Poles to stretch the Red Army to having to fight on a number of fronts. With this in mind in a pre-emptive strike in April 1920 the Poles attacked Kiev, currently occupied by the Bolsheviks, to install a Polish-friendly Ukrainian government. The offensive was a success and the Red Army pulled back in surprise at the strength of the Polish forces, but the offensive did not have the desired affect. Far too few Ukrainians than was hoped came forward to volunteer for the new Ukrainian army and the Poles could scarcely hold the newly won territory on their own. It was now up to the Russians to make the next move, and that came in the North.
Warsaw sits slightly to the north of the centre of Poland. Far off to the East lays the Pripyat Marches which expands like a long thin arrow pointing at Warsaw. The marshes make military manoeuvre near impossible and so nature dictated that the conflict between Poland and Russia would be down two corridors, one to the North and the other to the South with the Pripyat Marshes in the middle. The Russian advance from both the North and South would be directed towards Warsaw.
To the North the Russian armies advanced against the Polish front lines that occupied the old German trenches from the Great War. Whilst resistance was strong, the overwhelming might of the Red Army forced the Poles back, in some places the Russians outnumbering the Poles 4 to 1. It was not long before a full retreat began. The Polish generals were terrified that the orderly retreat may soon degenerate into a rout and constantly struggled to keep up morale. They faced another issue with the spiralling rate of desertion that plagued the Polish Army. It seemed every time the Poles stopped and attempted to set up an effective defence, their lines were overrun by the Russians and the retreat began again.
As the Polish armies of the North fell back the Russians in the south took their turn and counterattacked pushing the Poles back from Kiev. The conflict was reminiscent of Napoleonic battles where huge armies of Cavalry swept across the landscape hacking with sabres and lances at troops on the ground. The Polish forces managed to hit back at the Russian army and almost encircled a large Russian force, but as Polish cavalry threatened to complete the circle they were stopped at the last moment. The Russians on the northern front were approaching Warsaw and the armies of the south were being withdrawn for what seemed to be a decisive battle for the capital.
Whilst the East was once again engulfed in war the political landscape was a mess in post war Europe and to the outside world, opinion was divided about the Poles. The Entente (Britain and France) had sponsored the White Russians in the fight against the Communists, but the Poles had refused to invade Russia, the Poles fearing that a re-established Russian Empire would again impede the independence that Poland now enjoyed. Then with the Poles attacking Kiev to establish a Ukrainian state, it seemed to the world that Poland was the aggressive country meaning public and, potentially more importantly, working class sympathy lay with the Communists. For the Western Allies military intervention was out of the question and any attempt to send the poles military supplies was hindered by dock workers, sympathetic to the ideology of communism, who refused to unload arms and supplies from cargo ships. Poland was truly alone.
In August the Russian armies approached Warsaw from the North and East whilst the Polish commanders frantically attempted to organise a defence. Pilsudski faced criticism for his decision to attack Kiev first and now the military setbacks saw political rivalry and dissention within the Polish government increase. But Pilsudski was robust and was determined to defeat the Bolsheviks, and rivals at home. He kept his position as head of the army and devised a plan, a daring counterattack to defeat the Russian army approaching Warsaw.
To the South the Russian Armies stood poised to invade Hungary and the Balkans but had given up the advance into Poland. Under the notorious Commissar Josef Stalin, the Southern Front of the Red Army refused orders to advance against Warsaw. With Stalin being denied the chance to be in the lime light for capturing Warsaw he was looking to the future. Believing Poland would capitulate soon his eyes were looking towards the rest of Eastern Europe and even harboured hopes that his army would reach Vienna. It was a fatal decision not to attack Warsaw as the Polish counterattack began to unfold.
Pilsudski had managed to withdraw 5 Polish divisions south of Warsaw in relative safety. With the Russian armies in the south staying put The Polish divisions were free to prepare for the offensive. As the Russian armies continued to hammer the Polish defences from the East and North the Poles in the South began their attack. They positioned themselves 1 division next to the other stretching from West to East and advanced Northwards, the 14th Polish division being the most westward division was the first unit to attack the Russian forces. The Russians had not anticipated this move and had been throwing everything they had at Warsaw without making any provision to prepare for a possible counterattack from the South. After some frantic battles the Poles inflicted serious defeats on the Russians and soon their attack turned into retreat as Polish forces surged into the rear.
The Polish counterattack pushed northwards like a hand with its fingers outstretched. It tore straight into communication and resupply lines that the Russian front line units were depending on. As they began to retreat the Russian units found themselves having to battle through 5 Polish divisions one after the other. Disorder broke out in the Red Army as their frantically retreated. Against the Polish onslaught the majority of units fled north away from the Polish divisions into East Prussia and were interned where their arms were confiscated. on the 25th of August after the 10 day offensive the Poles counted the spoils of victory. They had captured 50,000 prisoners, the Russians had lost 25,000 killed and at least 30,000 – possibly as many as 80,000 – interned in East Prussia.
For the Poles it truly was a miracle on the Vistula. They had decimated the Russian armies attacking Warsaw and now the initiative swung in their favour once again. They advanced towards the North East taking back much of the land they had only recently retreated through as the Russians now fell back further and further, frantically attempting to prepare some kind of defence. By October the Red Army’s Western front was in pieces and the Poles frantically fought for as much territory as they could to better their position in any talks of a ceasefire. For the infant Bolshevik government more enemies were appearing on the horizon; Russian White armies, partly recovered from their earlier defeats, once again began advancing from the Crimea. Red army units had began deserting in tens of thousands and civil unrest was on the rise as few people could see any improvement to their living conditions. The only thing that could save the Soviet Union now was a ceasefire.
On 18th March 1921 peace was finally signed. In hopes of improving its image abroad Poland did not insist on restoration of her natural frontiers but agreed to a compromise that included much of Belorussia and Ukraine. Many in the region realised it was not a peace treaty, but rather a truce until the next conflict between these powers erupted. In 1939 the truce would come to an end with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany invading Poland from both sides. For Josef Stalin, his refusal to advance with his army onto Warsaw had led to much criticism and he had to bear a large part of the blame for the military reversal. The destruction of Poland became personal for Stalin and his decisions throughout the Second World War only proved his hatred for the nation.
For Poland it was a tremendous victory, short lived as history would prove, but nonetheless a great moment of pride for the nation. Facing unbelievable odds against a far stronger enemy they came out the victors. But the true victory was not for Poland but for Europe.
What if Warsaw had fallen in 1920 and the Red army had pushed onwards? For the Red Army the invasion of Poland was merely a stepping stone before advancing onto Central and Eastern Europe. It’s highly unlikely Germany would have been able to defend itself against the Red Army with many of its citizens welcoming the Russians. In the Balkans the junior states would have also likely folded. With Britain and France weary of war and the USA falling back into isolationism, would the Entente once again commit to a war for Europe against the Red Army? Who knows. But we can say with come certainty that the Polish victory protected Europe from communism.
It is a cruel twist of fate that Poland would once again end up under Russian dominance until 1989 after defending itself so valiantly in 1920. But throughout history no one can doubt the stubborn determination of Polish citizens to fight for their country in the hopes of gaining independence. The Polish – Soviet war is a forgotten and overshadowed conflict. But the heroism the Poles displayed in defending their homeland, and Europe, from communism should always be remembered.