Facing defeat, Pilsudski halts Trotsky’s Russian steamroller at the gates of Warsaw and wins a momentous victory
The Soviet advance on Warsaw in August 1920 and Poland’s dramatic 10-day counter-offensive (16-25 August) which completely turned the tables. The Curzon Line was Britain’s definition of the Polish frontier in a telegram to Moscow and had no effect on the Red Army’s advance though it is substantially Poland’s border today.
At the end of July 1920 the city of Warsaw seemed doomed. The new Soviet Red Army was engaged on its first full-scale foreign campaign and had advanced more than 300 miles into the heart of Polish territory. It seemed as irresistible as one of the hordes of Genghis Khan with which it was being freely compared. By comparison the Polish Army seemed demoralized, ragged and ill-equipped. Bolshevik sympathisers and anti-Polish elements outside Russia were able to delay or deny the Poles any supply of essential war material. Added to this was the problem that Poland’s natural allies—France and Britain—were unsympathetic towards her in her plight.
For at the end of World War I the Poland that had emerged had not been envisaged by the victorious Allies. Jozef Klemens Pilsudski, who became Poland’s Head of State and C-in-C of the Polish Army in November 1918, had been a socialist conspirator and had raised a Polish Legion to fight against Russia on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary during the war. Afterwards he had taken a very independent line over the extent of the new Republic and, against Allied wishes, had expanded Poland far to the east. From February 1919, while the Soviets were busy with their civil war against anti-Bolshevik, White Russian armies, Pilsudski had used his newly created forces to over-run the disrupted border territories around Vilna. Although these territories formed a part of historic Poland and contained few ethnic Russians, the fact remained that Soviet troops had been defeated and turned out of them.
In April 1920 Pilsudski made sure of Soviet enmity by invading the Ukraine and liberating Kiev. He had hoped to set up a Ukrainian Republic in alliance with Poland against Russia. His hopes were frustrated and, with all the anti-Bolshevik forces—save those based on the Crimea—eliminated, the over-stretched Polish armies were left alone to face the victorious Red Army.
By late May 1920 the most famous and elite of all revolutionary Russian forces-1st Red Cavalry Army (the Konarmiya)—had arrived on the borders of the Ukraine after covering 750 miles in 30 days. An American Polish Air Force pilot reported: ‘I never thought there could be so much cavalry in the whole world!’ This great horde of 16,000 sabre-swinging horsemen with 48 guns, five armored trains and eight armored cars was the creation of the ambitious Josef Visarionovitch Stalin and commanded by 37-year-old Semyon Mikhailovich Budenny—a hard riding, hard-driving, spectacular savage of great personal courage. Assisted by 12th and 14th Soviet Infantry Armies, the Konarmiya attacked on 26 May. On 5 June they broke through to the Polish rear. Among other acts of terror a hospital at Berdichev, containing 600 Polish wounded and Red Cross nurses, was burned to the ground. The Konarmiya had vindicated its reputation and by mid-July every Polish soldier had been driven from the Ukraine.
In the north the Red armies were under Stalin’s ‘demon of the Civil War’, 27-year-old Mikhail Nikolaievich Tukhachevski. At the beginning of July 1920 he commanded five Soviet armies of varying strength. He estimated his forces as 160,000 fighting men (about 50,000 more than the Poles), and there were vast numbers in support. Soviet artillery mustered 595 guns, a 3:1 superiority. Tukhachevski also had a powerful strike force in 3rd Cavalry Corps (the Kavkor), 10th and 15th Cavalry Divisions and 164th Rifle Brigade led by Ghaia Dmitryievich Ghai, Armenian ex-commander of the ‘Iron Division’ and nicknamed by the Poles ‘Gay-Khan’. Kavkor operated on the Russian right wing and, by constantly outflanking the Poles, drove them steadily back towards Warsaw from 4 July. On the 14th Vilna fell, then Grodno on the 22nd with 5,000 Polish prisoners. Only two of the 30 defending Polish tanks crossed the last burning bridge over the Niemen after the Red Army’s first encounter with them.
The pace of the advance astounded observers. World War I had only been over 20 months and yet modern military thinking had been stood on its head. Only that short while before it had taken months of preparation, tons of high explosive and colossal casualties to advance a few hundred yards. Yet here was a war of rapid movement initiated by cavalry—an arm which had been almost completely useless on the Western Front. Observers from Britain and France were uncertain what to make of this phenomenon. The two powers had dispatched an inter-allied mission which arrived in Poland on 25 July as a sop to demands that the Poles should receive some help in their extremity. The civilian Heads of Mission were Ambassador Jusserand (for the French) and Viscount D’Abernon. The soldiers were the celebrated General Maxime Weygand, Chief of Staff to the Allied Generalissimo Marshal Ferdinand Foch in 1918, and British Major-General Sir Percy de B. Radcliffe—a shrewd, clear-headed ex-cavalryman. The much despised Polish General Staff, under its new Austrian-trained chief General Tadeusz Rozwadowski, recalled from the Paris Military Mission, knew that the Russian position was not as good as it seemed. Any invasion of Poland from the borderlands had inevitably to proceed along two completely separate axes. The northern route, along which Tukhachevski’s Western Front advanced, was separated from the Konarmiya on the SW Front by the immense expanse of the Pripet Marshes. They were not all marshland but were sufficiently trackless to be hopeless for large-scale troop movement. Defending armies, falling back on either side of this natural obstacle, gained improved communications as it narrowed and thus the ability to switch forces from one side to the other. As the war neared Warsaw the times became ripe for an imaginative Polish counterstroke. The farther into Poland they were driven the stronger became the Poles and the weaker the Russians.
British backing for Weygand
As Tukhachevski’s forces reached the River Bug on 22-23 July, Polish resistance began to stiffen. To the French, who had always maintained a large and well-informed Military Mission in Poland, Pilsudski had seemed almost uninterested in the disastrous conflict. They were convinced that he was more interested in maintaining himself as Head of State than in the war, and that he had left management of the long retreat to the very junior head of the Polish Third Bureau (equivalent to the Director of Military Operations), a young 28-year-old officer named Stackiewicz. If this was so then Stackiewicz had done a very fine job in bringing the Polish Army back to the Bug comparatively unmauled. But the French were unimpressed and, backed by the British, tried their utmost to make the Poles accept Gen. Weygand as de facto C-in-C of the Polish Army. Although Weygand refused an official position and title in the Polish Army, he tried repeatedly to make the Poles accept his advice and to give him access to their own intelligence reports. He was after all a famous and successful staff officer and, backed by Radcliffe, surely he could help the Poles salvage something from the wreck? The Poles themselves were forced to pretend deference to Allied advice in the hope of receiving more supplies but they resented any patronage and tried to exclude Weygand from real decision-making.
By early August Pilsudski was beginning to pay more serious attention to the war. He was a complex man—very much a romantic and a dreamer as well as an unorthodox and daring soldier. Until the end of July he probably believed that the Russians had attacked merely to regain the border provinces over-run by Poland in 1919. He told Radcliffe on 27 July that the Soviets would not dare cross the Curzon Line (the British 10 July definition of the Polish frontier) for fear of renewed Franco-British intervention. By August it was apparent that not only had they crossed the Line but that they regarded Warsaw itself as a mere step towards Lenin’s invasion and communisation of Germany. In fact Tukhachevski had a demented vision of an offensive which would over-run all Europe with its momentum. Pilsudski awoke but found that disaster had almost gone too far to be redeemed. For Weygand had urged the Poles to make a stand and halt the Bolsheviks along the Bug. On 1 August Brest-Litovsk fell to 16th Army and local Communists seizing the telephone exchange. Warsaw, 130 miles away, must be the next objective.
Pilsudski realized that he must not lose the capital because it contained essential war material and stores. He had to launch a counter-offensive with troops not committed to defense—yet he had no such troops. As he cast around desperately for inspiration he was forced to accept some of Weygand’s ideas. Ever since arriving Weygand had recognised the importance of the northern front and had constantly urged that some of the troops facing Budenny’s Konarmiya should break off the battle and come north. The Poles were unwilling to yield a yard of ground in the south as the population there was not entirely Polish and they were well aware that such disputed territory, if lost, was very hard to regain in any peace settlement. But Weygand saw that the war would be decided in the north. On 3 August his quiet insistence on this led to a blazing row with Gen. Rozwadowski the Polish Chief of Staff. Rozwadowski argued that the maneuver was impossible as the Polish Army was unprepared, under-trained and ill-equipped: ‘Let Weygand take my job, but he will find the Polish Army very different from the one he is used to dealing with and its problems more difficult.’
A sublimely confident Tukhachevski
Meanwhile Tukhachevski made his plans to take Warsaw. There he hoped at last to trap the elusive Polish Army and destroy it before he drove on to Germany. On 8 August he issued his orders. The 3rd, 4th and 15th Armies (74,000 men) were to swerve north (led inevitably by the 4,700-strong Kavkor), bypass Warsaw’s northern defenses and cross the Lower Vistula before turning and encircling it. The 16th Army (20,700 men) was to march on Warsaw from the east while the flank of the movement was to be sketchily protected along the Upper Vistula by the 8,000-strong Mozyr Group. But Tukhachevski did not worry about his flank. He thought that the Poles were already beaten. As requested, the Soviet High Command assigned him control of the Konarmiya and 12th Army, from 14 August detached from Alexander I. Yegorov’s SW Front. But there is no evidence that Tukhachevski intended to use the threat of the Konarmiya to tie down Polish forces while he assaulted Warsaw. He simply pushed on sublimely confident that the Polish Army was already broken and that his flank would only be exposed for a few unimportant days.
But far from being broken, the Polish Army was stronger than it had ever been throughout the campaign. While Tukhachevski’s strength had declined to well below 150,000 men actively engaged on both fronts, the Polish Army was approaching the total of 370,000 poorly trained and equipped men (including 28,000 cavalry) which it numbered on 20 August. There were 185,000 in position on the 12th.
With this increase in forces Pilsudski gave orders for a bold and imaginative counter-stroke. Despite later Polish claims that Weygand was the author of the plan which saved Poland, it is clear that the plan was conceived by Pilsudski alone and the details worked out with Gen. Rozwadowski. On 6 August his orders went out to form a Strike Force 60 miles south of Warsaw on the River Wieprz. He did not know then that Tukhachevski would try to encircle Warsaw from the north. It was fortunate therefore that he entrusted defense of the line of the River Wkra, north of Warsaw, to Fifth Army (26,000 men) under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, perhaps the steadiest and most capable commander of either side. The 46,000-strong garrison of Warsaw was formed by First and Second Armies with a strategic reserve. To the south the Strike Force was supported by the Third and Fourth Armies (48,000). The 20,000-man Strike Force, commanded by General Edward Smigly-Rydz (destined to command the doomed Polish Army of 1939) was built around formations he brought up from the south—chiefly 1st and 3rd Legionary Divisions with two brigades of cavalry. On 17 August the Strike Force was to lead a drive through the Mozyr Group and start an enormous encircling movement of all Tukhachevski’s northern armies. The outside edge of this immense sweep would embrace Brest-Litovsk and Bialystok.
So Pilsudski had adopted Weygand’s suggestion and brought troops from the south to spearhead his counterattack, but Weygand had taken no part in drawing up the plans for it. Indeed it is doubtful if Weygand believed that the Poles were capable of carrying out such an ambitious scheme. Radcliffe certainly was dubious and since this able soldier realized that Tukhachevski would try to encircle Warsaw he was concerned at any rate to use the garrison of the city to strike the flanks of any such turning movement. But Radcliffe, a foreign observer, had no influence on events and Pilsudski’s bolder, more unorthodox plans were destined to settle the issue. To carry out these plans involved grave risk during the week forces were actually in transit from the south to the north. Pilsudski himself spoke deprecatingly of the battle as a ‘brawl’ and described the risk as ‘contrary to all logic and sound military principles’. Tukhachevski agreed. The full text of Pilsudski’s plan was taken by the Russian 12th Army from the body of a Polish officer killed near Chelm. As 1st and 3rd Legionary Divisions were then fighting on the Southern Front it seemed wildly improbable that they could possibly spearhead an offensive in the north. Tukhachevski decided the captured plans were a fraud, and instead maintained that ‘because of the high morale of our troops, we had the absolute right to count upon victory’.
Contact between the two sides was made on the evening of 12 August. By then it had already become apparent that the Soviet forces were moving around the north of Warsaw—at least to Allied observers who were using the staffs of the French and British missions as an intelligence-gathering corps. The movement was led by Kavkor which was less than dashing during the crucial days of 6-17 August in contrast to its spectacular advance of 450 miles in July. Radcliffe described Kavkor at the time as ‘very unenterprising and badly commanded otherwise there is nothing to have prevented them having got round the left of the Polish Army and cut them off from Warsaw’. He pointed out that the Kavkor hardly travelled faster than the Soviet infantry formations. Polish wireless intercepts showed also that Ghai and the Soviet 4th Army commander were mutually hostile and uncooperative. Despite all this the Poles were heavily outnumbered along the Wkra and had cause for concern. Weygand constantly emphasized that this line had to be held in the north before any counter-offensive had a chance. He and Radcliffe were delighted that Sikorski was in charge there and that he had been reinforced by the 18th Division which had been brought up from the south.
Despite the fact that Warsaw was defended by seven divisions, backed by adequate artillery and occupying prepared positions only 43 miles long, the attack of the Soviet 16th Army (five divisions) had an early success. On the morning of 13 August the Soviets rushed the wire and the first of two lines of trenches. They took Radzymin (15 miles from Warsaw) and broke the Polish 11th Division. On 14 August there was hand-to-hand fighting and the Polish command became calmer when they realized that they only had one Bolshevik army to deal with. Next day they threw in their reserves, including tanks which advanced till they broke down, and retook Radzymin. At Warsaw’s Mokatow airfield Polish mechanics were frantically assembling newly-arrived ex-RAF Bristol fighters without instruction manuals as part of successful efforts to deny the Russians any air reconnaissance.
The man who had the rest of the Soviet armies to deal with was Sikorski. Unaware of the odds against him, the Warsaw garrison commander had appealed to him for help during the panic of the 13th. Sikorski attacked a day early, on the 14th. On the 15th his 8th Cavalry Brigade raided Ciechanow20 miles to the NE and carried off Soviet plans and cyphers from the burnt radio station of 4th Army HQ. On 16 August Sikorski continued his advance using tanks and eight armored cars. Behind his front he had artillery support from two armored trains but he was forced to advance with his left flank unguarded. This left flank should have been attacked by the Kavkor but Ghai was content to occupy himself with shelling railway lines 40 miles away, across the Vistula around Wloclawek—he was not -co-operating with 4th Army.