Polish–Soviet War

gigatos | June 18, 2022


The Soviet-Polish War (Russian: Советско-польская война?, transliterated: Sovetsko-pol”skaja vojna), also known as the Polish-Bolshevik War, was an armed conflict between 1919 and 1921 that pitted on one side the Republic of Poland, newly reconstituted as an independent state after more than a century of foreign domination, and the Ukrainian nationalist government in exile, and on the other side Soviet Russia already fighting counterrevolutionary armies.

The war began with the Polish invasion of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine for the purpose of recreating a Greater Poland; however, the Soviet Red Army reorganized and went on the counteroffensive, inflicting heavy defeats on the Polish army, liberating the occupied territories, and advancing into the heart of Poland in the direction of Warsaw. When by then the fall of the Polish capital seemed imminent and the advance of the Russian Bolshevik troops unstoppable, a Polish counteroffensive led to the defeat of the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw and enabled Poland to regain some of the lost ground. The war ended with a compromise between the parties enshrined in the March 1921 Treaty of Riga, which led to a partition of Belarus and Ukraine between Soviet Russia and Poland. From the newly formed republic of Lithuania, however, the Poles managed to wrest the capital, Vilnius.

The reasons for the conflict

The conflict broke out at about the same time as the February 1919 decision by the Oberkomando-Ostfront, the high command of the German army deployed along the eastern borders established by the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3, 1918 between the German Empire and Bolshevik Russia, to demobilize following the Armistice of Compiègne on Nov. 11, 1918, the approximately 500,000 men deployed along the 2,400-kilometer border between the Gulf of Finland and the Sea of Azov, leaving vast territories of Belarus and Ukraine uncontrolled.

On Nov. 6, 1916, in the midst of World War I, Austria-Hungary and the German Empire, in an attempt to control resurgent Polish nationalism, had agreed to create an autonomous “Kingdom of Poland” in the former Russian territory of the Congress Kingdom, which had been occupied by the Central Empires. On October 7, 1918, with the Central Empires in shambles and Russia plunged into the chaos of the civil war that followed the revolution, the Regency Council of the “Kingdom of Poland” in Warsaw proclaimed Polish independence with the reunification of the three portions of territory that had been under German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian domination before the war, calling to the presidency of the new state Józef Klemens Piłsudski, who soon after assumed the rank of marshal and the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces. At the Versailles conference Russia”s absence, due to the separate peace concluded by Lenin with Germany at Brest-Litovsk and the failure of the victorious powers to recognize Soviet Russia, prevented an agreement on the eastern borders of the new Polish state.

In the political vision of the newly appointed Polish president Piłsudski, Poland in order to survive in the new European order, which arose from the ruins of the war, would have to become a regional power: “Poland will be a great power, or it cannot exist” He thought he could achieve this goal by binding to himself the small nationalities stretching east and northeast (Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine), which were to be taken out of the Russian orbit of influence and brought into the Polish one. To achieve this goal, Piłsudski attempted to resurrect the idea, dear to Polish Romantic nationalism, of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation founded in the 14th century by the kings of the Jagiellonian dynasty: in Piłsudski”s idea, a new federation, called Międzymorze, was to be born, formed by the independent republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania united with Poland under the latter”s domination.

This ambitious idea foundered immediately: the Lithuanians, who in the ancient medieval confederation were the political counterpart of Poland, were animated by strong nationalism and not at all willing to give up their newly acquired independence; Ukraine was in a state of civil war and institutional chaos, marked by the existence of multiple separate state entities with constant changes of ruling factions, and the scene of struggle between Bolshevik troops and counterrevolutionary armies; and the Belarusians had little interest in either the idea of independence or Piłsudski”s proposals for union.

In striking symmetry with the different attitudes Polish and German historians had toward the Drang nach Osten (the eastward thrust of German expansionism), from the 19th century onward, while Ukrainians and Belarusians emphasized the aggressive and colonizing character of the Polish expansionist thrust, Poles emphasized their civilizing mission in the eastern lands, which were underdeveloped and lagging behind the rest of Europe. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation, the Polish aristocracy had colonized the Ukrainian one, resulting in two models of civilization: the genteel (Polonized) and the peasant (Ruthenian-Ukrainian). But, in the Russian Empire, the national resurgence of the Ukrainian and Belorussian peoples coincided with the revolt of the peasant masses against the landowning class, Polish or “polyonized” if of Lithuanian and Ruthenian-Ukrainian origin; whereby, while on the one hand a renewed Polish sentiment that transcended the borders imposed by Austria-Hungary, Russia and Prussia was emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, on the other hand the relations between the different nations formerly united in the Union of the Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were broken, which rejected this new process of “polyonization” precisely because it encroached on the maturing process of Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Byelorussian national consciousness. This aggressive character of Polish nationalism would be confirmed as early as the Polish Constitution of 1921, for which non-Poles were formally full citizens, but de facto were considered second-class citizens, with fewer rights than actual Poles. As the years went by, Polish governments fought increasingly firmly against Ukrainians and Belarusians who aspired to develop their own culture: Ukrainians and Belarusians were forbidden to use their languages in schools. Land reforms in the eastern territories were blocked by fears that land redistribution might benefit Ukrainians and Belarusians to the detriment of Polish landowners. Jews were precluded from accessing collective rights as a minority, and Ukrainian autonomist claims in eastern Galicia were rejected.

Moreover, Piłsudski”s proposal was somewhat ambiguous: he never specified what he actually intended to accomplish, so his idea of federation remained something abstract, a kind of dream transferred into the new century directly from nineteenth-century Polish Romantic nationalism, as on the other hand was his idea of a “Polish nation,” untethered from both the concept of ethnicity and territory. In Piłsudski”s idea, the two entities of the old confederation, Poland and Lithuania, were supposed to have common defense and foreign policy while maintaining their own administrative independence, but such an idea had little appeal to Piłsudski”s Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Belarusian contemporaries, who saw in it simply a mask of Polish imperialism. Indeed, many of them suspected that the proposed federation was ultimately nothing more than trading the protection of the great powers for something that would protect them less while making them mere “objects” of a Polish sphere of influence.

On the other hand, Piłsudski, in fact, was as little romantic as he was very realistic and well aware that the borders within the former Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires would be decided by force of arms. In 1919 he wrote to his friend Leon Wasielewski:

And about Russia:

In addition, the Western Allies were opposed to Piłsudski”s proposal, in which they saw nothing more than Poland”s attempt to expand at Russia”s expense. Both the French and the British asked the Poles, at least at first, to limit the eastern borders to those corresponding to an ethnic division, seeing in Bolshevik Russia only a temporary state of affairs that would soon be swept away by the White armies they actively supported.

On the Soviet side, since there was no defined foreign policy strategy on a national basis, the situation was much more fluid: the very survival of the revolution was at risk, and for many the Poles, in collusion with the White armies and the Western powers, were attempting to destroy Bolshevik Russia militarily or at least to deprive it of a large part of its territory in order to weaken it economically and reduce it to the mercy of neighboring states: related to this fear was the desire to push the frontiers as far as possible from the center of Russia. Instead, that part of the Soviet elite that did not believe in the possibility of the revolution surviving without spreading saw the Polish invasion and subsequent war as an opportunity to export the revolution to Europe. These goals somewhat conflicted with each other: the desire to expand the revolution encouraged the assumption of risky positions and precluded the consolidation of territorial positions achieved; concerns about the survival of the regime exacerbated suspicions about the real Polish goals and the possibility of a grand anti-Bolshevik coalition, undermining the possibility of reaching an agreement.

In essence, while Russia was weakened by the civil war, Poland saw an opportunity to expand eastward: the Poles seized the opportunity and advanced; while for the Soviets, the war was both a response to Polish aggression and an opportunity to export the revolution westward.

The geo-political situation

After the collapse of the Russian Empire following the revolution, a Central Rada was established in Ukraine, which proclaimed, on January 25, 1918, the birth of the Ukrainian People”s Republic, while to the south the Soviet Republic of Donec-Krivoy Rog was formed; after the Brest-Litovsk peace between Bolshevik Russia and Germany, the entire territory was occupied by the Germans, who installed Ethman Pavlo Skoropad”skyj in power. After the collapse of Germany, Ukrainian socialists established the Directorate, which, in January 1919, formally united with the People”s Republic of Western Ukraine, or “National Republic of Western Ukraine,” which was born in the territory of eastern Galicia that had been under Austro-Hungarian rule. Between 1918 and 1920, in a situation of total chaos, as many as eleven armies between White, Bolshevik, Polish, anarchist armies, autonomist forces and troops of the Triple Entente (the latter sent to support the White armies) faced each other in Ukraine, while as a result of the Polish-Ukrainian War the territory of Western Ukraine was incorporated into Poland in July 1919. By 1920, the country was divided into several separate state entities, each controlled by a different faction: Piłsudski chose to lean on the one led by Cossack leader Simon Petljura, a socialist but ardently anti-Russian and anti-Bolshevik. The forces of Petljura, leader of the Ukrainian People”s Republic, had been driven back to the western Ukrainian borders by those of White General Denikin and had found refuge in Poland. The pact, signed on April 1, 1920, seemed very advantageous to the Poles: Piłsudski would be able to claim that he would support Ukrainian nationalist claims, and in addition, in exchange for Polish help in regaining power in Kiev, Petljura would recognize the annexation to Poland of eastern Galicia with the city of Lviv;

In Belarus, the establishment of the Belarusian People”s Republic had been proclaimed on March 25, 1918, under German occupation, which was followed, after the German retreat, by the establishment of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in January 1919.

Lithuania had declared itself independent in February 1918, under German occupation, and after the end of the war, on April 4, 1919, was established as a republic claiming Vilnius, the historic capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as its capital. Vilnius was also claimed by Poland, as the majority of the city”s population was Jewish but Poles constituted by far the largest minority. Bolshevik infiltration led to the outbreak of the Lithuanian-Soviet War and the establishment in the southern part of the country, in December 1919, of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic with capital Vilnius, which, in February 1919, united with the Belarusian RSS to form the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The geography of Central and Eastern Europe played a significant role in the Soviet-Polish war. The theater of operations was immense: the front stretched for more than a thousand kilometers, about half of which were usable for major operations, and was bounded on the north by the Baltic Sea, on the south by the Carpathians, on the west by the Vistula, and on the east by the Dnepr, a triangular-shaped area with Warsaw, Smolensk, and Kharkiv at its apexes. This area is crisscrossed by a series of natural obstacles: a system of rivers, such as the Narew (which flows into the Vistula from the northeast) and the Bug (the forested region of the Masuri Lakes to the north; the Pryp “jat” marshes in the center. These marshes represent the greatest natural obstacle to travel: they are generally considered insuperable and split the route from the east to Warsaw into two separate sectors: to the north the so-called White Ruthenia Gate, a five-hundred-kilometer corridor linking Minsk to Warsaw; to the south the so-called Volinia Gate, a three-hundred-kilometer corridor along the Kiev-Lublin-Warsaw axis. To the west, the Pryp “jat” Marshes open into a plain where the two sectors converge in the vicinity of Brėst: this area not only channeled movement along the east-west axis, but also restricted freedom of movement along the north-south axis by providing the defenders with predictable avenues of approach on which to set up defenses in depth. Railroads were the only reliable means of transportation on a large scale, but their use was problematic because of the variety of rail gauges present (German, Austrian, and Russian). Roads were incapable of supporting an army”s lines of communication: east of the Bug there were only two paved, basically single-lane roads; back roads varied, depending on weather conditions, between being a mud swamp in the spring and a dusty expanse full of potholes in the summer; bridges were scarce or damaged as a result of the military operations of World War I.

The Polish Army

The beginning of the birth of the Polish army can be traced back to 1910, when Piłsudski began to create the “Polish Rifle Forces” (Polskie Drużyny Strzeleckie, or PDS) that were to serve as the basis for the revival of a Polish national army; these formations were secretly supported by the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS) and the Union for Active Armed Struggle (Związek Walki Czynnej, or ZWC), a secret military organization, and provided basic military training.

During World War I Polish contingents fought in the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and French armies. Under Austro-Hungarian control the Polish Legions were formed as independent brigades in the tradition of those that had fought during the Napoleonic wars: in 1916 the three brigades of the Polish Legions numbered 12,000 men. After the end of the war, the Polish units disbanded and the men returned to their homes and then went into the Polish Army.

The Polish National Committee (Komitet Narodowy Polski, or KNP) formed a small Polish army in France by recruiting men from among Polish-Americans, immigrants living in France, defectors from the Central Empires, and prisoners of war. By the end of 1918 the Blue Army, named after the color of the French uniforms it wore, was commanded by General Józef Haller and amounted to 15,000 men plus a regiment of seventy tanks.These men reached Poland in the spring of 1919 taking part in the Polish-Ukrainian war in eastern Galicia, and were the best-trained force in the Polish army.

When Piłsudski returned to Warsaw in November 1918 after being imprisoned by the Austro-Hungarian authorities, he took command of the army. At that time, the Polish army could rely on three infantry regiments and three cavalry squadrons from the Polnische Wehrmacht, the Polish military formations created by the Germans in 1917 formally as the Army of the Kingdom of Poland, totaling about 9,000 men. Soon men and officers from the various fronts joined the army: in June, General Lucjan Żeligowski”s Polish Division, starting from Odessa on the Black Sea, reached Lviv after a three-month march through the Balkans; a Polish detachment from Murmansk in northern Russia reached Poland in late 1919; and the 10,000 survivors of Colonel Kazimierz Rumsza”s Siberian Division from Vladivostok reached the port of Gdansk in July 1920.

Compulsory conscription, introduced in March 1919, multiplied the available men in short order: including volunteers and conscripts, the army reached a strength of 740,000 men in the spring of 1920, organized into twenty-one infantry divisions and seven cavalry brigades. In general, the leadership of the armed forces was weak and did not enjoy much confidence, except for a few men such as Piłsudski, Haller, and the chief of the general staff, General Tadeusz Rozwadowski.

The greatest challenge Piłsudski faced in creating the Polish Army was being able to amalgamate, equip, and train men from all parts of Europe to fight together, who spoke different languages and had received different training depending on which army they had fought in. Also under Polish command was the Russian People”s Army, a formation made up of Russian counterrevolutionaries organized by Boris Savinkov, former deputy minister of war in the Russian Provisional Government (formed following the abdication of the Tsar in 1917) and head of the Russian Anti-Bolshevik Political Committee in Warsaw.

Equipment included at least four different types of rifles: the French Lebel, the Austro-Hungarian Mannlicher, the Russian Berdan, or the German Mauser, each with different ammunition, while for artillery the French 75 mm cannon was the standard equipment although there was a shortage of ammunition. Training was very poor: only a few elite units were capable of engaging in battle, while most formations were only able to perform basic tasks; in an attempt to provide better cohesion, France sent a mission of four hundred officers to train cadres, but their arrival was uniformly frowned upon. The Polish army also used armored trains, equipped with large-caliber guns, which operated as land battleships and also served to transport heavy artillery, horses, and airplanes. There was a small air force in which veterans of World War I and foreign volunteers, especially Americans who had served in France in the Lafayette Squadron, militated in large numbers. Among the airplanes of the heterogeneous Polish air force were twenty Italian Ansaldo A.1 “Balilla” fighters that equipped the famous Kościuszko squadron beginning in June 1920. The presence of this small but well-trained air force gave the Poles a decisive advantage in reconnaissance and, in a more limited way, in troop support.

The Red Army

The Red Army was born on January 18, 1918 under the leadership of Lev Trotsky: at first Trotsky had no certain idea how to form the new army; the forces at his disposal consisted of a few Latvian troops from the tsarist army to which were added men from the Red Guards and a few battalions of sailors from the Kronstadt base; soon volunteers arrived from all parts of Russia to fill out the ranks, and by April there were already about 100,000 men at his disposal, which grew further after Trocky”s decision to institute compulsory conscription. Since most of the men had no military training, former officers of the imperial czarist army were resorted to by issuing Order No. 228 on July 29, 1918, which commanded the general mobilization of former czarist officers; the same procedure was used to recruit non-commissioned officers and administrative personnel. By August 1920, 48,000 officers, 214,000 non-commissioned officers and 10,000 administrative personnel from the czarist army were serving in the Red Army.

To be sure of the loyalty of former tsarist officers, Trotsky established a central system of control consisting of political commissars operating alongside them in a parallel hierarchy that duplicated the chain of command. A course was set up in February 1918 to recruit and train officers, but still, until the Soviet-Polish War, the best training for Red Army men was the experience gained in the Civil War.The war gave many young officers the opportunity to prove their talent and genuine belief in the revolution, and among them were Tuchačevsky and Egorov, who commanded the fronts during the Soviet-Polish War, and Čujkov and Žukov, future marshals during World War II.

Moreover, the Civil War was a school of combat for the Red Army that altered traditional perceptions about the existing relationship between space and arrangement of forces: the war was characterized by movement, emphasizing the importance of lines of communication and centralized command. Through its mobility, cavalry regained its position as a decisive weapon, in contrast to what had occurred in World War I. The fluid nature of warfare increased the importance of having a main reserve available to block adversary penetrations and counterattack, and also led to the formation of an effective general staff, capable of thinking conceptually on a large scale so that it could plan operations and control and position forces within a geographically wide theater of operations.

In contrast to the Polish Army, the Red Army had a single basic weapon: the Mosin-Nagant rifle, of which there was a large supply, both as weapons and ammunition left over from the Tsarist army, and two factories that still had it in production; although inaccurate over long distances, it was still a sturdy and reliable weapon. By 1920, however, the rapid expansion of the Red Army had made the production of arms and ammunition insufficient to equip the entire force, but as the White armies were gradually defeated, large quantities of French- and British-made armaments had been captured. In the mobile operations that characterized the Civil War, two weapons played a key role: the Russian variant of the Maxim machine gun, produced as the PM M1910, a rugged and virtually indestructible weapon that could fire for long periods without the need for maintenance, and the Tachanka, a horse-drawn spring wagon armed with a machine gun that could offer a very important combination of mobility and volume of fire during attacks and retreats. Unlike the Polish Army, the Red Army had no significant air component of its own, limiting itself mostly to observation operations for artillery by means of braked balloons that proved easy targets for both ground fire and Polish aircraft partly because, having never had to confront an opposing air force, the Soviets had not developed an effective antiaircraft artillery.

By the beginning of the Soviet-Polish War, the Red Army had evolved into a credible fighting force: the army, born of the revolution, had its own doctrine and tactics on the use of forces, sufficient combat experience and a developing industrial base to support it.

The Polish invasion

Heralded by some border clashes in early 1919 (Battle of Bereza Kartuska-February 1919), although a definite frontier did not exist, the war began with the advance of the Polish army toward Vilnius (occupied in April), from which the Soviet government of the Lithuanian-Belarusian RSS was expelled, and toward Minsk (conquered on August 8), and precipitated in the following spring with the sweep of the Polish army, flanked by the Ukrainian troops of ataman Simon Petljura, into Ukraine and the conquest on May 8, 1920, of the city of Kiev, which thereby changed masters for the fifteenth time in three years.

The Red Army, already engaged on at least fifteen fronts at once (British troops at Archangel, Murmansk and in the Caucasus; French troops at Odessa; U.S. and Japanese troops at Vladivostok), practically retreated without a fight.

Since there were only a few Red Army units available on the Western Front in the spring of 1919, the bulk of the Polish army was deployed along the disputed border areas with Galicia, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. Thus, the Polish attack against Lithuania and Belarus, was initially led by a force of only 10,000 men, under the command of General Stanisław Szeptycki, organized into twelve cavalry squadrons, twelve infantry battalions and three artillery companies. On the Soviet side, manning that sector were the Western Division in Lida (southwest of Vilnius) and the Pskov Division in Vilnius. Piłsudski arrived at the front on April 15 bringing with him two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade in reinforcement. Relying on surprise and thanks to a feint toward the town of Lida, the Poles distracted part of the Soviet defenses from Vilnius, then, using cavalry, succeeded in interdicting the communication routes by isolating the Soviet defenses at both Lida and Vilnius and advancing into the gap between the lines that had thus been created. The Poles managed to occupy Vilnius in only three days. With the arrival in reinforcement of the Poznań Army in early July, the Poles began maneuvering to attack Minsk, toward which the Soviet Western Division had fallen back. The battle to capture the city occupied the first week of August, and, similar to what was done in Vilnius, the Poles first conducted cavalry raids into the Soviet rear, cutting off communications routes so as to isolate the city, and then attacked it directly. By occupying Vilnius and Minsk by mid-August 1919, the Poles had secured their strategic objectives in Lithuania and Belarus.

Grappling with pressing military (on September 19, General Denikin”s counterrevolutionary army had occupied Kiev) and economic problems (the economic blockade imposed by the Entente, which for about a year prevented Bolshevik Russia from any foreign trade, aggravating the situation of the population stricken by typhoid and other epidemics, by shortages of food, clothing and medicine) that advised avoiding a new war, moreover against an external enemy, the Soviet government showed itself willing to reach an agreement with the Poles even at the price of generous territorial concessions. However, just in case, the military command began to prepare a plan of operation to be used in case war with Poland broke out. On December 22, 1919, a note with a peace offer was sent by Foreign Commissar Georgij Čičerin to the Polish government but received no response. On January 28, 1920, an official statement was sent to the Polish government by Lenin, Trocky and Čičerin on behalf of the Council of People”s Commissars; the declaration warned the Polish government of the dangers inherent in the war with Soviet Russia into which the Allies were dragging Poland, “unconditionally” reaffirmed its recognition of the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Poland, stated that Bolshevik Russia had no aggressive intentions, that the Red Army would not advance beyond the existing frontier line, and that the Soviet government had not concluded any agreements with Germany or any other nation hostile to Poland. As the only result, the statement gained acceptance and a promised retort from Polish Foreign Minister Patek. New Soviet peace offers were sent on Feb. 2 and March 6 to no avail. Finally, on March 27, Patek informed Čičerin that Poland was ready to begin peace negotiations with Bolshevik Russia. Čičerin proposed Moscow, Warsaw or a neutral location in Estonia as negotiating venues, but Piłsudski, determined to exploit the advantageous situation also for propaganda purposes, demanded that the negotiations take place in the small town of Borisov, in the middle of the Polish front, and rejected the Soviet proposal for an armistice for the duration of the negotiations, granting only a twenty-four-hour truce in the Borisov sector: just enough time and space to allow the Soviet delegation to pass through Polish lines. Polish inflexibility along with the obvious reminder of the humiliating conditions under which the Brest-Litovsk peace had taken place convinced Lenin and Trotsky of the insincerity of the Polish proposal. According to Count Aleksander Skrzyński, later Poland”s foreign minister and prime minister, “The peace proposals were not seriously considered…Since, however, a parliamentary and democratic policy did not allow them to be left unanswered, the question of where negotiations could be held was put forward in such an insulting way that everything came to a halt at that point.”

In the spring of 1920, the fortunes of the civil war in Russia were definitely turning in favor of the Bolsheviks, Piłsudski decided it was time to act to deliver a decisive blow to the Red Army before it could reorganize and transfer forces en masse to the Western Front. Piłsudski could dispose of about 120,000 men: the 1st, 4th and 7th armies were left to garrison the front in Belarus, while the forces mobilized for the invasion of Ukraine were concentrated in four groupings: in the north, the 4th Infantry Division was in contact with the 4th Army in Polesia; in the center, supported by a cavalry division and three armored car platoons, the 3rd Army was deployed in Novograd and the 2nd Army in Šepetivka, along with Ukrainian forces in Petljura; finally, in the south, the 6th Army was positioned on the Dnestr. Facing the Poles were the 12th Army in Kiev and the 14th Army on the Dnestr, both of which were under-staffed and outnumbered by the Poles (according to Soviet sources, to 52,000 Poles, the two Soviet armies could counter only 12,000 men; in particular, the 14th Army did not reach the size of a division. ), this was compounded by the mutiny of two Galician brigades, one of which switched entirely to the side of the Poles, and raids by Machno”s gangs in the Soviet rear that caused the massacre of several units, the destruction of bridges and supply reserves as well as the disruption of the transport and communications system. Piłsudski launched the offensive against Kiev on April 25 meeting weak resistance from Soviet troops: the 14th Army withdrew after staging a series of rear-guard actions to try to slow the Polish advance, and on May 6 the 12th Army left Kiev, which was occupied by the Poles two days later. The Poles, after occupying Kiev and a small strip on the left bank of the Dnepr, immediately turned to defensive positions.

Tactically, the operation was a success for the Poles, but strategically it was a failure: mistakenly assuming that the bulk of the Red Army was in the south, Piłsudski had concentrated his forces against Ukraine in the hope of dealing the enemy a mortal blow, but the few Soviet forces in the area managed to escape annihilation, and Piłsudski only succeeded in extending the front and dispersing his forces. Moreover, the alliance with Petljura proved counterproductive as by then the Ukrainian nationalist leader was no longer able to attract a large following. Piłsudski also hoped that the arrival of Polish troops would cause the Ukrainian population to rise up against the Bolsheviks, but there was no uprising: if the Soviets had the support of at least part of the population, conversely, the Poles aroused no enthusiasm.

The Red Army”s counteroffensive.

The Polish occupation of Ukraine and the loss of Kiev initially caused consternation and bewilderment among the Soviet leadership, having come quite unexpectedly, but soon turned the tide in their favor: Poland had occupied unquestionably Russian territory and on the international stage now clearly played the role of the aggressor thus justifying a drastic military response. In addition, the Polish attack aroused the solidarity of the European working classes and provoked a wave of patriotic passion in Russia that the necessity of the moment prompted the Bolshevik leaders to exploit by falling back on a new version of Russian patriotism that appealed both to the revolutionary values of class struggle and Soviet internationalism and to the traditional values of defending the motherland: on April 29, 1920, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued an appeal, not only to Soviet workers, but to all “honorable citizens” of Russia not to allow “the bayonets of the Polish magnates to determine the fate of the Great Russian nation,” while the KP(b)U (Ukrainian Bolshevik Communist Party) denounced the danger that Polish invasion would threaten the existence of a Ukrainian motherland. The appeal to patriotism proved far more productive in terms of morale and mobilization of the population than propaganda based on class struggle, but it alienated the Bolshevik cause from the support of part of the Polish workers, although there was always care in Soviet propaganda not to fall into chauvinism and to make a clear distinction regarding Poles between landowners and capitalists on the one hand and workers and peasants on the other.

The Polish attack in Ukraine significantly altered the military situation, and the operation plan initially prepared by the Soviet command had to be modified. The Supreme Army Commander, General Sergei Kamenev, reorganized Soviet forces in the west on two fronts: the Western Front (to the north) and the Southwestern Front (to the south). The new plan called for two actions: the main attack was to be carried from the western front into Belarus; the southwestern front was assigned a supporting attack pandering to the general direction of the offensive, from Rivne to Brest-Litovsk; the two fronts were to cooperate as closely as possible, and although the southwestern front was assigned a subsidiary role, its action was considered of particular importance, so it was assigned as a reinforcement one of the most offensive-impactful forces available to the Red Army: General Semën Budënnyj”s First Cavalry Army. On April 29, 1920, the then just 27-year-old General Michail Tuchačevsky was placed in command of the Western Front and its four armies (15th, 3rd, 16th, and 4th armies). In contrast, the southwestern front, with the 12th and 14th infantry armies and the 1st cavalry army, was placed under the command of General Aleksandr Egorov. The two Soviet fronts could count on about 160,000 men.

General Tuchačevsky left the Caucasus and arrived at his new headquarters in Smolensk, on the border with Belarus, on May 7, finding a rather critical situation: the Soviet units were only partially organized and, although nominally superior in numbers to the Poles, only one of the four armies was capable of fighting; in addition there was the risk that the Poles would divert some of the divisions that had occupied Kiev to Belarus. In order to have his own cavalry force, Tuchačevsky assembled two cavalry divisions and an infantry brigade, thus creating the III Cavalry Corps (Kavkor), under the command of General Gaja Gaj. The Soviet offensive was set for May 15 and, according to the high command”s plans, included a main attack to be led by the 16th Army in the direction of Igume-Minsk, while the 15th Army, operating further north, was given a supporting role. This plan was modified by Tuchačevsky when he realized the impossibility of carrying it out, both because of the precarious condition of the units under his orders and the inadequacy of the supply system, which made a continued offensive in depth unfeasible. Tuchačevsky had a total force of about 92400 men and, after rapid preparation, launched a first attack with the 15th Army, the only one already capable of facing the battle, seizing the Molochevski railway junction. The action shortly preceded a similar Polish attack, directed against Žlobin and Mogilёv, which if successful would have disrupted railroad communications between the Soviet forces deployed to the north and south and disturbed Soviet preparations in no small measure. This action marked the beginning of the first of two offensives on the Western Front.

The first offensive (Battle of the Beresina) was launched on May 15: a diversionary attack was brought against the right wing of the Polish deployment, while the 15th Army, having crossed the Dvina, carried the main attack northwestward against the Polish left wing, succeeding in breaking through the enemy lines, and then falling back to the southwest attempting to drive the Poles back to the Pryp “jat” marshes; three days later the offensive was joined by the 16th Army, which, having crossed the Beresina, occupied Borisov. Opposing the Soviet forces were the Polish 1st, 4th and 7th armies under the orders of General Stanisław Szeptycki, with the 4th army deployed along the Beresina and the 7th maintained as a strategic reserve. The offensive took the Poles by surprise: for two weeks the Soviet troops advanced, driving the Polish troops back; in early June, with a series of counterattacks after more than a hundred kilometers of uninterrupted retreat, the Polish army managed to contain the Soviet offensive along a line of defense that ran from the forests around the town of Kazjany (Казяны) in the north to Pelic Lake in the south. At this point, having temporarily staved off the threat of a Polish offensive in Belarus and unable to take full advantage of the success he had achieved, Tuchačevsky preferred to pause to resume the reorganization of his forces, and on June 8 he ordered his troops to retreat to the western banks of the Avuta rivers (especially since the breakthrough of the First Cavalry Army to the south had diverted Polish attention to the southern front.

The southwestern front offensive to recapture Ukraine began on May 26.The directives sent by Kamenev to Egorov called for the 12th and 14th armies to attack the Polish positions north and south of Kiev, respectively; while the First Cavalry Army was assigned the task of leading the frontal attack. Liaison with the western front at Tuchačevsky was provided by the Mozyr Group, whose meager numbers, which amounted to less than two divisions, were partly compensated for by the fact that it was deployed to garrison a section of the front (which encroached into the Pryp “jat” marshes) characterized by terrain that made troop movements difficult. At the time of the Polish invasion, General Budënnyj”s First Cavalry Army, the famous Konarmiia, had about 16,000 men and was in the North Caucasus (in the Kuban”), where it had fought against General Denikin”s army. Starting from the town of Majkop, it regrouped in the town of Uman”, in Ukraine southeast of Kiev, which it reached after a 1,200-kilometer relocation march, almost all of which was covered by riding in thirty days and at the cost of fifty crippled or dead horses a day.

On May 31, the attack of the southwestern front began. The mobility and disruptive force of the First Cavalry Army was entrusted with the task of breaking through the lines of the Polish 3rd Army, south of Kiev, advancing northwestward so as to cut its communication routes, while the 12th Army, having crossed the Dnepr north of Kiev, was to proceed southwestward so as to complete the encirclement. The 14th Army was to cover the left flank of the First Army against the Polish 6th Army and, on its right, Fastov Group, strong with two infantry divisions, was positioned for a parallel attack in the direction of the Fastiv railway crossing, about 40 km southwest of Kiev.

Initially, efforts made to break Polish lines using mass cavalry assault, a tactic that had frequently been successful against the White armies, did not yield the desired results against the well-entrenched and relatively disciplined Polish forces. Egorov then changed tactics: the Konarmiia attack was supported by that of the infantry and conducted by exploiting the superiority of Soviet artillery; the Konarmiia itself was staggered over several lines of attack (the first line consisted of the 4th Division, the second by the 14th and 11th Divisions, and the third by the 6th Division). The general assault was launched at dawn on June 5, and four days later the Soviet infantry succeeded in breaking through the Polish lines, occupying Fastiv and opening a gap in the opponent”s deployment through which the cavalry quickly poured. The Konarmiia, advancing rapidly along the railroad west of Fastiv, brought the breach in the Polish front to a width of 40 km. Egorov”s intent was to quickly cut off the line of retreat to the Poles, but the Konarmiia, which should have closed the pincer around the Polish 3rd Army by converging northward on the Kiev-Korosten” railroad, due to lack of communication and confusion in orders, instead advanced in the direction of Žytomyr, against the positions of the Polish 2nd Army. The Konarmiia was the only unit at Egorov”s disposal capable of rapid maneuvers; the Soviet infantry, on the other hand, struggled to keep up with its own cavalry and the retreating Polish troops. The lack of mobile reserve forces made Egorov”s attempt to encircle and destroy the Poles fail, so they were able to retreat in relative order along the railroad to Korosten” preserving forces that, however tried, would otherwise have been destroyed. On June 13 the Red Army entered Kiev, abandoned by the retreating Poles.

After ten days of attacks, the Southwestern Front had succeeded in breaking the Polish lines, initiating an advance that continued uninterrupted for ten weeks, forcing the Poles to retreat precipitously toward the Bug at an average rate of ten kilometers per day. The success of the advance was largely determined by the Konarmiia”s ability to continually find weak points in the Polish deployment, quickly penetrating through them to the rear, or outflanking the Poles on the flanks in the open terrain of the Ukrainian plain, while all Polish counterattacks were easily repulsed. During the advance, the First Cavalry Army was divided into two groups: Budënnyj, with the 6th and 11th Divisions, headed toward Žytomyr; the Army”s Political Commissar, Kliment Vorošilov, with the 4th and 14th Divisions marched in the direction of Korosten”.

They fell, one after the other, Korosten”, Berdyčiv, Žytomyr and Rivne, the headquarters of Marshal Piłsudski”s command. By the end of June much of Ukraine had been liberated, and by July 10 the Poles had withdrawn to the line they held in August 1919. However, Egorov”s three armies had drifted far apart in the vastness of the Ukrainian plain, losing cohesion: the 12th Army and Konarmiia, having crossed the Zbruč River, were moving northwest, but the 12th Army, as it approached the positions of the Western Front, had become bogged down in the swampy terrain dividing the two fronts; while, the threat to the southern flank of the Southwestern Front posed by the Romanian troops who had occupied Bessarabia, forced Egorov to keep the 14th Army further south.

On July 4 Tuchačevsky, after extensive material and ideological preparation of the troops, initiated the second major counteroffensive on the Western Front: at dawn, after heavy artillery preparation, he launched his four armies on the attack against the Polish 1st and 4th armies along the Smolensk-Brest-Litovsk railroad axis. By nightfall the Poles had to retreat 25 km suffering heavy losses under the constant threat of being outflanked and encircled by Soviet cavalry. Piłsudski wrote that the Red Army”s advance gave “the impression of something unstoppable, a great and monstrous cloud that no obstacle can stop…the men trembled and the soldiers” hearts began to give out.” On July 7, the Poles began to retreat across the entire front. By July 10, the Soviets had reached the frontiers preceding the Polish invasion and began to launch continuous attacks with III Cavalry Corps to outflank the Polish deployment and attempt to destroy the opposing lines of communication, but, as had already happened at Egorov on the southern front, the lack of reserve forces with sufficient mobility to penetrate deep into the enemy”s deployment did not allow Tuchačevsky to take full advantage of the success of these operations, while the Poles managed to keep the core of their force compact even though they had had to retreat by giving up strategic positions.

On July 11, the Red Army entered Minsk and on July 14 passed Vilnius: between July 4 and July 20, the Polish army was forced to retreat more than 300 km. At the end of July, the Red Army took Hrodna after a fierce battle, but again Tuchačevsky failed to encircle and destroy the Polish forces, which instead escaped encirclement by retreating beyond the line of the Bug and Narew rivers. By August 1 the Red Army was at Brest-Litovsk, and on August 12 III Cavalry Corps reached the eastern bank of the Vistula just 50 km from Warsaw.

It seemed at that moment that the Russian Bolsheviks were on the verge of following the example of the French Jacobins, entrusting their armies with the task of spreading the revolution throughout Europe. During the precipitous retreat the Polish troops indulged in all kinds of violence against the people of the regions they crossed, including organizing pogroms, and new brutalities occurred as the Bolshevik troops passed through.

Poland, which saw its very survival as an independent nation in jeopardy, sought military and economic aid from France and the United Kingdom, which, however, was slow to arrive because Germany had proclaimed its neutrality and refused transit permission to supplies from France; the Czechoslovak railwaymen inspected all trains bound for Poland and would not let through those carrying arms; British dockworkers threatened to strike if forced to load ships with arms destined for the Poles, as did German dockworkers in the port of Danzig if forced to unload them. Nonetheless, some supplies were able to reach Poland through the fishing port of Gdynia in the Polish corridor, while the cargo of French ships that stopped off Gdansk was transferred, with the use of British troops, onto barges and transported down the Vistula to Dirschau (“Tczew” in Polish), from where it was loaded onto freight trains to Warsaw. In this way, War Minister Kazimierz Sosnkowski was able to supply the Polish army with 73 new artillery batteries, 200 field guns, 1,000 machine guns and 20,000 horses by July 1; in addition, 100,000 new volunteers were drafted. The systematic destruction of railroads by the Poles forced the Red Army to transport supplies on wagons or motor vehicles, and that of telegraph lines to rely on horse-drawn order carriers to maintain communications between divisions and commands.

At this point, with Poland seriously endangered and the possibility that the Bolsheviks would be able to link up directly with the German communist workers” movements by bringing revolution to Central Europe, the government of the United Kingdom, through its foreign ministry George Nahaniel Curzon, radioed a note to the Bolshevik government on July 11 urging it to cease hostilities against Poland, to recognize the border between Poland and Soviet Russia constituted by the demarcation line set by the Supreme Allied Council on December 8, 1919 (the so-called “Curzon Line,” which passed through Suwałki, Hrodna, Brest-Litovsk and then down the middle course of the Bug River to Sokal” and had already been rejected by Piłsudski in December) and to immediately send a delegation to London to attend a peace conference. The Soviets refused, arguing in their official reply, given by Čičerin on July 18, that they saw no reason why negotiations should take place under Anglo-French supervision, nor why they should extend to the Baltic states-with whom bilateral talks were under way at the time, which had already resulted in peace agreements with Estonia (Feb. 2, 1920) and Lithuania (July 12, 1920)-nor was the condition of an armistice with “white” General Vrangel” (whose troops were to be guaranteed the possibility of remaining in Crimea for the duration of the negotiations) acceptable, that they would negotiate directly with the Poles when the latter were willing to engage in direct official negotiations, complaining about the late intervention of British diplomacy and how the previous year the Poles had refused peace offers far more generous than those envisaged by the British plan.

General Kamenev”s plan, approved by the Central Committee Politburo on April 28, called for the southwestern front, once Ukraine had been liberated, to advance in the direction of Brest-Litovsk and, having reached the western boundary of the Pryp “jat” marshes and made contact with the 16th Army in the north, then to come under the control of the western front for the final advance toward Lublin and Warsaw. However, as the border demarcation line, which in the December 1919 version applied only to formally Russian territory, in the note sent by George Curzon had been extended southward through Galicia where it passed only 80 km east of Lviv, Lenin decided to push the Southwest Front offensive further in the direction of Galicia by instructing Egorov and Stalin (appointed Political Commissar of the Southwest Front) to transfer the main force of the First Cavalry Army, then headed northwest, in the direction of Dubno and the Rivne-Leopolis railway to support an advance of the 14th Army toward Lviv.

Urged on by the Allies, the Poles finally agreed to deal directly with the Soviets. The talks were to take place in Minsk starting on August 10. The Soviets were willing to negotiate on the basis of the Curzon A Line, which brought within the borders of Soviet Russia the city of Lviv (essentially the only Polish-majority area of the disputed territory) and the oil fields of Podolia, although with territorial corrections in favor of Poland in the Białystok and Chełm areas; the Polish army was to be reduced to a size of 60000 men, supernumerary arms were to be surrendered to the Red Army, the war industry dismantled, and the Poles were to guarantee the right of free transit for goods and passengers from Russia along the Volkovysk-Grajewo railway. But in the preliminary document with Soviet conditions sent to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, General Kamenev had omitted two additional demands: a disarmament zone, which was to be guarded by a 200,000-man “workers” militia,” and compensation for the families of Polish war victims through the granting of free land. These last two demands, rather than terms of peace, seemed to constitute revolutionary propaganda and it was obvious that they would be unacceptable to any “bourgeois” Polish government, but the Soviets, on the wave of enthusiasm from the military victories, did not want peace at that time any more than the Poles did in March. Lloyd George urged the Poles to accept the Soviet proposals, but negotiations never took place both because the Poles deserted the talks and because of the evolving military situation.

The Battle of Warsaw

By the end of July the Soviets seemed close to victory. Part of the Soviet leadership harbored strong optimism and believed it was possible to organize a new Soviet Poland; after Warsaw the goal would be reunification with the German revolutionaries, and Lenin went so far as to hypothesize a “Bolshevik Union” also including Poland, Germany, and Hungary: the Soviet leader had faith in a general insurrection of the European proletariat. In the summer of 1920, the Second Congress of the Communist International was held in Petrograd in an atmosphere of great euphoria: the proceedings opened on July 19, there was talk of a “European socialist revolution,” and on a large map the delegates could observe the advance of the Red Army westward.

A Polrevkom (Polish Provisional Revolutionary Committee), formed by Bolsheviks of Polish origin, was created in Smolensk on July 24, and then moved successively to Minsk, Vilnius, and finally to Białystok on July 30: it was hoped that it might form the first nucleus of a future Polish Soviet government; the Polrevkom”s first act was a manifesto proclaiming the nationalization of factories, forests and land, but declaring peasant property inviolable. However, Lenin”s optimism was not unanimously shared within the Politburo of the Central Committee: Trockij and Stalin doubted the possibility of triggering a revolution among the Polish popular masses and believed that a Polish nationalist movement supported also by the working-class masses was more likely; in addition, Trockij viewed the advance toward Warsaw with concern, believing that the spread of military operations would impose an unsustainable strain on Russia”s resources and economic capabilities. In the end, however, Lenin”s strategy prevailed and the Politburo voted in favor of the offensive on Warsaw.

In early August, from his headquarters in Minsk, 500 km from Warsaw, General Tuchačevsky began to formulate plans for the assault on the Polish capital. The forces at his disposal, as commander of the Western Front, consisted of four armies (the 3rd, 4th, 15th, and 16th), each consisting of four infantry divisions, General Gaja Gaj”s III Cavalry Corps (two divisions), and General Tichon Chvesin”s Mozyr Group (about 8,000 men including cavalry and infantrymen, thus equivalent to two divisions, which was entrusted with the not-so-easy task of covering the left flank of the front while maintaining contact with the southwestern front). In total, Tuchačevsky could dispose of a force of about 104,900 men…. Errors in the reconnaissance patrol reports, which failed to determine the actual position of the Polish defenses (in addition to the long time it took the reports to reach Minsk because of the destruction of the telegraph lines), and in the aerial reconnaissance, hampered by cloudy skies, led Tuchačevsky to be convinced that the bulk of the Polish defenses were positioned in front of Warsaw (the Polish units were able to conceal their movements, along the 300 km front, thanks to the dense fog and movements made in small groups).

Tuchačevsky”s plan was to attack and destroy the Polish forces deployed to the north and then outflank the Polish deployment on the left flank. According to the battle plan formulated on August 8, the tasks assigned to the units were as follows:

The general attack was set for August 14. The major flaw in this plan was that it did not provide for reserve forces; in fact, General Kamenev, concerned about the position of the southern flank of Tuchačevsky”s deployment, had already decided to unify, under the command of the Western Front, all the forces of the Western and Southwestern fronts, converging the latter”s units toward Lublin in order to launch the attack against Warsaw with all available troops. The decision, which had been approved on August 2 by the Central Committee Politburo on Lenin”s initiative and made executive on August 5, was, however, sabotaged by the commander of the Southwest Front, Egorov, and the Military Revolutionary Council chaired by Stalin, who essentially refused to put themselves under Tuchačevsky”s orders. Resorting to his own prestige and authority, Tuchačevsky succeeded in getting the Supreme Command to move the 12th Army and the First Cavalry Army from the southwestern front along the Vladimir-Volynsky line; this time it was the command of the First Cavalry Army (Budënnyj and Vorošilov) that resisted and ignored the higher orders. The failure to unify the two fronts, due to the behavior of Egorov, Stalin, Budënnyj and Vorošilov, left Tuchačevsky without a reserve and with his left flank exposed to a possible Polish counterattack.

As Tuchačevsky”s advance progressed, the Polish government began to wobble, and before it had even begun, the attack by the First Cavalry Army brought fear to the Polish military high command: at a conference in the Belweder Palace, Marshal Piłsudski”s official residence, the chief of the army staff, General Szeptycki, stated that the war was now lost and that peace had to be achieved at any cost. Then when the Red Army arrived at the gates of Warsaw, fear turned to panic and the Polish political situation deteriorated rapidly: Leopold Skulski”s conservative government resigned in early June, and as Piłsudski”s power lost support, that of his main opponent Roman Dmowski grew; after a fortnight of negotiations, a government was set up headed by Wladisław Grabski, who resigned on July 24 to be replaced by Wincenty Witos to head a national coalition government. Lenin”s hope was that the Polish workers would see the Soviet army as their liberator from the capitalist yoke and thus welcome it by rising up against the bourgeois state, but as the Red Army approached Warsaw, threatening the survival of independent Poland, the traditional Polish patriotic spirit awakened. Polish workers turned out to be far more responsive to the call of national sentiment than to that of class solidarity, and nationalism, combined with traditional hostility to Russia, was decisive in pushing Polish workers to defend their homeland from the risk of foreign domination.

Polish war propaganda made extensive use of anti-Semitic themes and motifs. Numerous leaflets and postcards depicted Soviet officers with the physical features that anti-Semitic propaganda attributed to Jews. The Polish Catholic Church also aligned itself with these positions: the Polish bishops issued an appeal to the rest of the Catholic world in which the conflict was interpreted from an eschatological and anti-Semitic perspective:

After the hard defeats suffered by the Polish army in June and July, Piłsudski realized that a change in strategy was needed. During the Red Army offensive, the Polish army had used the tactic of line defense, to which it had been trained by French military advisers, but which had dispersed Polish units along a front stretching 1,500 km; this tactic proved ineffective against an enemy that was accustomed to carrying successive attacks at different points in the opposing array and then breaking through the breaches thus created, sowing panic in the rear. Piłsudski decided to adopt a strategy, which he referred to in French as “la stratégie de plein air” (“the strategy of open space”), based on mobility and speed in order to attack the enemy”s weak points with constantly moving forces.

The situation for the Poles was difficult: in the north Tuchačevsky”s armies were massed around Warsaw; in the south Egorov”s armies and Budënnyj”s cavalry were squeezing toward Lviv. However, Piłsudski had an advantage: the Red Army had moved far from its bases and consequently its supply lines had lengthened; the destruction of rail lines forced the Soviets to depend on road transport, which took place under very difficult conditions. The two Soviet fronts, Tuchačevsky”s western and Egorov”s southwestern fronts, were linked by a very weak deployment centered on Lublin Little had been gained by Tuchačevsky”s urgent requests to Supreme Commander Kamenev to move troops operating in the south north to compact the deployment: it took more than a week for Kamenev, after multiple discussions with Tuchačevsky, Egorov, Budënnyj and Stalin (who, according to Trotsky, “Wanted, no matter what, to enter Lviv at the same time that Smilga [Political Commissar of the Western Front] and Tuchačevsky were entering Warsaw. People have such ambitions!” ), decided to decisively order Egorov, on August 13, to converge the Konarmiia and 12th Army northward: too late for them to arrive in time.Moreover, the Soviet high command was distracted by the development of the civil war on the southern front: in fact, taking advantage of the Soviet-Polish war, Vrangel””s White forces had attacked in Crimea, advancing rapidly northward. By the end of June, Vrangel” had seized northern Tauride, destroying the Soviet 13th Army sent by Egorov to counter its advance. This sudden internal threat to the very survival of Soviet Russia overshadowed the goal of bringing the revolution to the center of Europe, and thus the battle for the conquest of Warsaw itself, by diverting resources and troops to the Don at the very crucial moment of the battle, and Stalin, who had been tasked with overseeing the formation of a southern front to counter Vrangel”, exploited a certain ambiguity and confusion in his orders, due in part to the inadequacy of the radio communication system, as an expedient to keep the First Cavalry Army and 12th Army under his control while awaiting their transfer to the south.

Piłsudski”s plan was based on the possibility of being able to contain the Soviet armies” assault, while a rapid counterattack carried from the southwest to the northeast, on the left flank of the Soviet deployment right in the wide gap between the two Soviet fronts (manned only by the Mozyr Group), could have penetrated deep into the enemy rear. For a long time, it was believed that Piłsudski was unaware of the Red Army”s disposition and intentions, but documents found in 2004 in the archives of the Polish Military Police would seem to prove otherwise: the Red Army”s encrypted radio communications had been decrypted by the Poles, and this may have played a key role in the Polish victory. These archives had been seized by the Germans in 1939, passed to the Soviets in 1944, and returned to Poland in the mid-1950s.

The famous “order No. 8385

Basically, the order involved:

The authorship of this famous “order” has been the subject of much debate among historians. In fact, according to some, it was not the work of Piłsudski but of French General Maxime Weygand who, at the head of a French military mission, arrived in Poland at the end of July to take command of the Polish army, since the Entente powers had little confidence in the ability of Polish generals to succeed in halting the Red Army”s advance. Between August 6 and August 13, the Polish army prepared for battle: the troops, already exhausted by the long retreat, had to be repositioned along the front, reaching as far as 300 km under constant pressure from the Red Army.

On August 13, Tuchachevsky launched the Red Army on the attack: the 16th Army advanced toward Warsaw from the south, while the 3rd, 4th and 15th Armies attacked the positions held by the Polish 5th Army from the north. During the previous weeks the defenses around the city had been reinforced with artillery and several defensive belts and could thus easily withstand the initial attack, but between August 14 and 15 the Red Army intensified its attack by approaching up to 25 km from Warsaw, and while the Polish 5th Army with a series of counterattacks, desperately tried to hold its positions by fielding all its reserves under the constant risk of being outflanked and encircled, the Polish 1st Army succeeded in repelling the Soviet assault by carrying a counterattack with the support of forty-seven tanks. The success lifted the morale of the Poles.

At 04:00 a.m. on August 16, Piłsudski ordered the decisive move: the Polish 3rd and 4th armies launched an attack to the northeast, aiming at Mozyr Group and penetrating deep into the weak left flank of the opponent”s deployment, albeit at the risk of being encircled in turn; but the move caught the Red Army by surprise, and the Polish troops penetrated the Soviet rear almost unopposed. With the destruction of the Mozyr Group and the flight of its remnants the entire left flank of the Soviet front collapsed: the 16th Army, attacked on its flank and rear began to fall back in total disarray; left uncovered on its left flank in turn, the Soviet 3rd Army quickly organized a new line of defense to parry the threat, but, with the resulting thinning of the deployment, the Poles managed to drive a wedge between the 4th and 15th Armies separating them. Through the gap broke through the Polish cavalry, which penetrated the rear of the Soviet 4th Army, occupied the army headquarters and captured the only radio equipment available to the army command and that of the III Cavalry Corps, whereupon, the two units, having lost all contact with the headquarters, were no longer able to adjust to the changed situation and dispersed toward the German frontier to avoid capture. The pitiful state of the communication routes prevented Tuchačevsky from sending reinforcements, while Budënnyj only decided on August 20 to leave the Lviv route and head north toward Lublin: however, too late to take action.

On August 18, Tuchačevsky was forced to order a general retreat; a retreat that soon turned into a rout: pursued by Polish troops, in a situation of general confusion, with some units fleeing or straggling, while others continued bravely to fight, the Red Army was forced to retreat 500 km beyond the Bug. The losses suffered by the Red Army were enormous: the Poles captured between 50,000 and 66,000 prisoners and large quantities of weapons, horses and vehicles; the dead numbered about 5,000 and the wounded 10,000. About 20 000 soldiers belonging to the 4th Army, trapped in the north between Poland and East Prussia, trespassed into German territory, where they were interned; the same fate befell the men of the III Cavalry Corps, although General Gaja Gaj fought with tenacity and skill in order to avert defeat and surrender. One way or another, the Western Front had lost about 100,000 men, although many of them were represented by stragglers or auxiliary personnel employed in the rear. Polish losses were roughly 40,000 men, including 5,000 dead, 22,000 wounded, and the rest missing.

Of the 21 divisions initially at his disposal, only seven were still able to fight when Tuchačevsky withdrew across the Niemen. With the reinforcement of a few units, the Soviets reconstituted the 4th Army and, in September, Tuchačevsky established a line of defense that ran from the Lithuanian border to Polesia and centered on Hrodna in Belarus. But in the Battle of the Niemen River, fought between September 15 and 25, the Poles outflanked the Red Army”s right flank by entering Lithuanian territory and forced the Soviets to retreat after several days of intense fighting. The retreat was halted temporarily on a new line of defense established at the Russian-German trenches of World War I, however, on October 2 the Poles broke through the Soviet defenses at the first assault and the retreat turned into a rout: the reconstituted 4th Army disintegrated (two infantry divisions fled, a third surrendered and a cavalry division joined the Poles); the 3rd Army was surrounded and ceased to exist as an organized entity; the 15th and 16th Armies survived the retreat.

In the south, Soviet southwestern front forces advancing toward Lviv were slowed by fierce Polish resistance. Between August 30 and September 2, the First Cavalry Army, which was attempting to rush to the aid of Soviet troops to the north, after being separated from the 12th Army that was supposed to cover its right flank, was encircled by the Polish 3rd Army. On August 31, the Konarmiia clashed with the Polish cavalry at the Battle of Komarów (near Zamość) in the largest clash of mounted troops ever fought since 1813: two Polish cavalry brigades clashed in the battle against units of the 11th and 6th Konarmiia divisions; victory accrued to the Poles but both sides suffered many losses. The Konarmiia, in spite of losses and attrition caused by air attacks and incessant shelling by Polish artillery, managed to break the encirclement by rejoining the 12th Army and retreating eastward. The Soviet 14th Army was pushed back by the Polish 6th Army and Ukrainian forces from Petljura, which took control of the left bank of the Zbruč River on September 18 and then moved east toward the Dnestr. On October 15 the Poles took Minsk and advanced to within 150 kilometers of Kiev, but three days later an armistice went into effect, this time accepted by Piłsudski, who, despite his successes, had no illusions about retaking Kiev.

After the Battle of the Niemen River, Lenin made peace proposals to Poland; on September 26, the Poles agreed to Lenin”s request, and an armistice was signed on October 18. After a series of other minor clashes between the two armies, a peace treaty, known as the “Peace of Riga,” was finally signed in March 1921 and signed on October 20 of that year. Petljura”s troops, deployed on the left bank of the Zbruč, were attacked by the Red Army on November 21, 1921 and driven back into Polish-controlled territory where they were interned.

Politically and territorially, the war ended with a compromise solution. On the one hand, Poland had to give up the idea that it could restore the past glories of the 18th-century Polish-Lithuanian Confederation but, after the Red Army scare at the gates of Warsaw, it managed to retain its independence and see its territorial aspirations partially recognized by annexing parts of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. On the other front, although it had had to cede vast territories in the west and give up the dream, dear to Lenin, of being able to link up directly with the European workers” movements, Soviet Russia retained most of Ukraine and part of Belarus, imposed a stop on the only neighboring state that could have seriously threatened it, but, above all, despite internal and external attacks, brought the revolution to life: shortly thereafter, in November, the final defeat of General Vrangel””s White armies in Crimea would end the civil war in Russia.

The experience of the Soviet-Polish war was of fundamental importance in the development of Soviet military doctrine. Analysis of the Battle of Warsaw revealed that the Soviet offensive was conducted with inadequate reserves, poor logistical support and ineffective control of operations. Soviet military theorists-Tuchačevsky, Svechin, Triandafillov, and Frunze-came to the conclusion that the complexity of modern warfare had fundamentally changed the way warfare itself could be conducted and that, between tactics and strategy, an intermediate level of operations was needed. In his book The Vistula Campaign, Tuchačevsky wrote: “… the impossibility, given the breadth of today”s fronts, of annihilating an enemy army by a single attack makes it necessary to use a series of gradual operations … , linked by a continuous pursuit of the goal, can supplant the battle of annihilation, the best form of engagement in the armies of the past.” An intermediate operational level, called “operational,” was then introduced into Soviet military doctrine, defined by Svechin as “…a series of operations divided in time by more or less long pauses, encompassing different sectors of the theater of war and differentiated sharply as a consequence of different intermediate ends.”

Advances in the mechanical industry between the 1920s and 1930s led to the development of mobile armored or mechanized forces (as well as tactical aviation) as the most effective means of conducting maneuver warfare in adherence to the new military doctrine. In addition, an examination of the Red Army”s logistical and administrative procedures revealed that there had been no shortage of supplies to support the advance toward Warsaw: the Red Army”s logistical networks had simply been incapable of supplying the army. The campaign revealed the importance of rail transportation of supplies and reinforcements: reliance on hippotrailed wagons and motor vehicles, in the absence of an adequate road network, had proved lethal. The Battle of Warsaw also highlighted the importance of the relationship between space and time in the command and control of units in a maneuver war waged on a very broad front: since Tuchačevsky remained in Minsk, 500 km from the battle, it took eighteen to twenty-four hours for information to reach his headquarters, and as long for, in response, his orders to reach the various operational commands; it was therefore impossible for him to direct his forces in relation to the development of the battle; The same happened to Egorov and Stalin, who established their headquarters in Char”kov, over 800 km from the forces engaged against Lviv.

Outside of some attention from German military theorists, the Soviet-Polish war was essentially ignored by the Western powers, whose military doctrines remained anchored to the “positional warfare” concept of World War I.

Paradoxically, those who profited least from the experience of the war were Poland itself. The events of the war should have advised the Polish leadership to take a more modest view of the role that the reborn Poland could play in the new Europe. Indeed, Poland had won, but the Soviet counteroffensive had been stopped by the time the Red Army was already in the heart of Europe and the Soviet cavalry on the East Prussian frontier. Moreover, the prodigious Polish attack had meant that the suspicions already held by Imperial Russia against Poland were also inherited by the new Soviet Russia. But the lesson the Polish rulers chose to draw from the war was different: Poland had defeated the Red Army and Polish cavalry had beaten Soviet cavalry. From the dazzling victory achieved descended great complacency and an overestimation of their strength, in public opinion but especially in the military caste that came to power after Piłsudski”s 1926 coup. After Piłsudski”s death in 1935, succeeding him at the head of Poland, the Polish military deluded itself into thinking that it could keep itself in balance between the two rapidly rising neighboring powers (Germany and the USSR) and, when the Nazi threat became increasingly evident, it recisely rejected any possibility of a politico-military agreement with the Soviet Union, when, between 1934 and 1939, Stalin tried in vain to establish an alliance with the European democracies in an anti-Nazi capacity.

Bibliographical notes


  1. Guerra sovietico-polacca
  2. Polish–Soviet War
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