Chiefly active in Siberia during the “Russian” Civil Wars, but also a participant in the Soviet–Polish War, this force had its origins in the formation at Samara, from 1 July 1918, of a Polish volunteer unit (formally, the 5th Polish Rifle Division) under Walerian Czuma (1890–1962), a veteran of the Polish Legions (formed by Józef Piłsudski in Austrian Galicia from 1914 to fight against Imperial Russia). The majority of the volunteers were, like Czuma, prisoners of war, but as the legion retreated into Siberia, its ranks were swelled by local Poles, many of them descendants of men exiled following the Polish uprisings against Russia of 1831 and 1863, thereby glossing the legion’s activities with a sense of historic destiny. At its peak, the legion numbered some 16,000 men.
Following the Omsk coup, the Polish Legion, like the Czechoslovak Legion, withdrew from the front and, under the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement, was later assigned to guard the Trans-Siberian Railway (in the Poles’ case, in the Novonikolaevsk region). When the Russian Army of Admiral A. V. Kolchak collapsed and Omsk fell to the Red Army in November 1919, the Polish Legion joined the scramble eastward along the railway as part of the Great Siberian (Ice) March, but found itself in the rear of the retreating Czechs. On 22 December 1919, Red forces caught up with the Polish Legion and inflicted a heavy defeat on it in a battle at Taiga. The Poles lost many of their trains to the Reds, and many more broke down, lacking spares and engineers, in the Siberian winter.
Consequently, the legion disintegrated: some 1,000 men forced their way eastward, eventually reaching Vladivostok and being shipped back to Poland by the Allies, arriving there in June 1920; some mutinied and joined the Reds; and others (some 5,000) formally surrendered to the Soviet authorities at Krasnoiarsk on 8 January 1920. Those who surrendered were subsequently interned, for the most part, in the primitive Voina Gorodok prisoner of war camp, near Krasnoiarsk, where many soon succumbed to typhus and other diseases. The survivors were eventually repatriated to Poland under Article IX of the Treaty of Riga (18 March 1921).
Many of those Russian- or Siberian-born Poles shipped home by the Allies and those repatriated by the Soviet authorities had never before set foot on Polish soil. Those shipped home, under Colonel Kazimierz Rumsza, became the core of the Siberian Brigade of the 5th Polish Army (formed on 12 July 1920) and joined the defense of the Modlin Fortress from 13 August 1920, at the height of the Soviet–Polish War. Following the Battle of Warsaw, the brigade engaged the Soviet 3rd Cavalry Corps of G. D. Gai, then helped pursue Red forces back across the Neman and participated also in the Polish–Lithuanian War, combating Lithuanian forces around Suwałki.
This conflict, from 1 September to 7 October 1920, was focused on control of the city of Vil′na (Wilno to the Poles and Vilnius to the Lithuanians), which the new Lithuanian Republic claimed as its capital, but which was mostly populated by Poles and Jews. When Polish forces invaded Soviet territory at the beginning of the Soviet–Polish War, the Soviet government, seeking an ally, hurried to recognize Lithuanian independence and the new state’s claim to Vil′na and other territories to the southeast of the city (including Grodno, Oshmiany, and Lida). This was formalized in the Soviet–Lithuanian Treaty of Moscow (12 July 1920). Forces of the 3rd Cavalry Corps of the Red Army, under G. D. Gai, then occupied Vil′na (14 July 1920) and Grodno (19 July 1920) on Lithuania’s behalf, but they were driven from the region by the Poles on 26 August 1920, two days before the arrival in Vil′na of Lithuanian forces. On 22 September 1920, Polish forces staged a new offensive, capturing Grodno three days later. Polish–Lithuanian fighting was formally brought to an end by a cease-fire, the Suwałki Agreement (7 October 1920), negotiated by the Military Control Commission of the League of Nations. The agreement delineated a demarcation line that would have left most of the disputed region in Lithuanian hands.
However, on 9 October 1920, 24 hours before the agreement was scheduled to come into force, the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division of the Polish Army seized Vil′na, and its commander, Lucjan Żeligowski, declared himself “supreme ruler” of what he termed the Republic of Central Lithuania. Following a number of delays and a disputed election, this new “state,” created by the Żeligowski mutiny, was formally united with Poland (as the Wilno Voivodship) on 22 March 1922. The Allies’ Conference of Ambassadors at Paris accepted the status quo in 1923, but in 1931 the International Court at The Hague determined that Polish actions had been in violation of international law. However, no effective action was taken, and the region was only returned to Lithuania following the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the USSR in 1939. A common assertion in Western historiography is that had both Soviet Russia and Lithuania not been defeated in the summer and autumn of 1920, then Red Army troops would have remained in the region, and Lithuania would not have had independence between the wars.
The Soviet–Polish War was just one—albeit the most prolonged, geographically extensive, studied, and perhaps internationally significant—of a series of conflicts that erupted in Eastern Europe as German forces withdrew from the region in the aftermath of the First World War. The retreat of Ober Ost and the collapse of the territorial settlement brokered through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918) left a power vacuum that was contested by local nationalist forces and Soviet Russia, although the nationalists also often fought among themselves, such as in the Ukrainian–Polish War and the Polish–Lithuanian War. (Other related conflicts were the Soviet–Ukrainian War, the Estonian War of Independence, the Latvian War of Independence, the Lithuanian Wars of Independence, and the Kinship Wars.) Polish aims, broadly speaking, as articulated by the preeminent Polish leader of the era, Józef Piłsudski, were to recapture territories lost during the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century and to create a Polish-led federation, the Międzymorze (or Intermarum, “the land between the seas”) of several East-Central European states, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, as a bulwark against the reemergence of both German and Russian imperialisms. (The two aims, it is worth noting, were to some extent conflicting, because if Poland recovered the lands lost in all three partitions, it would be in possession of territories claimed by its desired allies in Ukraine, Belarussia, and Lithuania.) Soviet aims were to repulse any Polish advance (which they regarded as a branch of the Allied intervention in Russia) and, potentially, to carry the revolution west through Poland to Central Europe.
Skirmishes began soon after the armistice of 11 November 1918 (although a case could be made for citing the Dowbor-Muśnicki uprising of January–February 1918 as the beginning of the conflict), but escalated rapidly following the Red Army’s capture of Minsk on 5 January 1919, as Belarussian, Lithuanian, and Polish self-defense forces began to organize for the defense of “their” homelands in what was an ethnically mixed region of intractable complexity. Hostilities remained at a relatively low level for most of 1919, however, as the Soviet government prioritized its campaigns against the Whites and Warsaw calculated that it was to its advantage to grant the Red Army a free hand to crush forces that were unabashedly committed to the reestablishment of a “Russia, One and Indivisible.” Moreover, this breathing spce merely granted the newly created Second Polish Republic the opportunity to begin concentrating forces along its still undemarcated eastern border; by September 1919, the Polish Army numbered 540,000 men, of whom 230,000 were deployed in the east. As the Whites fell back in the autumn of 1919, these forces began to engage with Red forces with increasing frequency, contesting the claims to sovereignty over the disputed border regions voiced by the newly created Litbel (the Lithuanian–Belorussian Soviet Republic, proclaimed on 27 February 1919), for example.
For its part, the Soviet government was seeking to preempt the imposition of a border such as that suggested by the Allies at Paris (the Curzon line), which it regarded as too generous to Poland. However, with the Red Army forced to concentrate its resources on the Eastern Front and the advance of the Russian Army of Admiral A. V. Kolchak, the Poles gradually gained the initiative during the spring of 1919. Forces under General Stanisław Szeptycki captured Słonim (2 March 1919) and crossed the River Neman; forces under General Antonu Listowski took Pinsk (5 March 1919) and crossed the Jasiolda (Iasel′da) River and the Oginski Canal; and other units entered the outskirts of Lida. (Although Poland also, it should be recalled, was distracted by its border disputes with Czechoslovakia over Cieszyn Silesia, Orava Territory, and Spiš and by the risings of Poles in Silesia against German rule.) The situation was then further complicated, during the summer of 1919, by the northward advance of the White Armed Forces of South Russia (AFSR), whose leadership appeared disinclined to recognize Polish independence, never mind negotiate about borders (despite the fact that the AFSR’s main commander, General A. I. Denikin, was half Polish). In the light of this, Piłsudski determined in April 1919 that, although his army should counter any Red incursions into territory held by Poland, it should avoid challenging the Red Army to a degree that might grant respite or succor to the Russian Whites. Nevertheless, the Poles not only pushed Soviet forces out of the recently captured centers of Grodno and Vil′na (19 April 1919), but launched a counteroffensive that led to the capture of Mołodeczno (4 July 1919), the Polesie region (10 July 1919), Minsk (8 August 1919), and Dubno (9 August 1919). Further advances were made in the northwest, with territory from the Dvina to near Daugavpils secured by early October 1919. Thus, by early January 1920, Polish forces had reached the line of Uszyca–Płoskirów–Starokonstantynów–Szepietówka–Zwiahel–Olewsk–Uborć–Bobrujsk–Berezyna–Dyneburg (Daugavpils).
In this period, Polish relations with the Lithuanian government were reaching crisis point over border issues (particularly their rival claims to Vilnius/Wilno), but Warsaw’s negotiations with the Latvian government at this time had some success, and by early 1920, Polish and Latvian forces were conducting joint operations against the Red Army (notably in the capture of Dyneburg/Daugavpils, 3–21 January 1920). In spring 1920, the Polish–Ukrainian War also drew to a close with the Treaty of Warsaw (21–24 April 1920), and thereafter Poland enjoyed a military alliance with the Ukrainian Army of the Ukrainian National Republic. This emboldened the Poles, as did the defeat of Denikin and Kolchak’s forces over the winter of 1919–1920, which had neutralized any threat of the establishment of a White government in Russia. Likewise, with the last significant White force (General P. N. Wrangel’s Russian Army) confined to Crimea, a peace settlement having been negotiated with Estonia (the Treaty of Tartu, 2 February 1920), and a cease-fire in operation on the front with Latvia, the Bolsheviks felt that their hands were now free to deal with Poland and potentially, to export the revolution to Europe.
What had essentially been, throughout 1919, a low-level border conflict, was thus primed to erupt into full-scale war. By April 1920, the Red Army had over 700,000 troops concentrated on its Western Front and South-West Front facing Poland; the Poles could draw on an army of approximately the same number. Anticipating a Soviet offensive, Piłsudski launched his own (“Operation Kiev”) on 24 April 1920. This was a joint operation, with the Polish 3rd Army (under General Edward Rydz-Śmigły), 6th Army (under General Wacław Iwaszkiewicz), and 2nd Army (under General Listowski) advancing into Ukraine alongside the two remaining divisions (around 15,000–30,000 men) of S. V. Petliura’s Ukrainian Army. It was initially a remarkable success; Kiev was captured on 7 May 1920. Preparations were then made for an offensive against Żłobin, to secure the most direct rail route between Kiev and Minsk (then in Polish hands). However, the Polish and Ukrainian attackers had failed in their objective to entrap defending Soviet forces, and the 12th Red Army and 14th Red Army had both retreated beyond the Dnepr in good order. On 15 May 1920, a Red counteroffensive was duly launched on the South-West Front (commanded by A. I. Egorov), with S. M. Budennyi’s 1st Cavalry Army joining the fray. Bolstered by over 100,000 new volunteers (responding to a flood of Soviet agitprop directed toward rousing anti-Polish feeling) and some 14,000 new officer volunteers (answering a call by the former tsarist commander General A. N. Brusilov urging fellow officers to join the Red Army), by 10 June 1920 the Red Army had Polish forces in retreat along the entire front and on 13 June 1920 recaptured Kiev. Over the following weeks, the Poles attempted a series of counterattacks (at Usza on 19 June, at Horyń on 1 July, and at Równe on 8 July), but Egorov and Budennyi’s men pressed on.
Meanwhile, an offensive was launched, on 4 July 1920, by Soviet forces to the north, commanded by M. N. Tukhachevskii and comprising an army group made up of the 3rd Cavalry Corps, the 4th Red Army, the 15th Red Army, the 3rd Red Army, and the 16th Red Army (a total of some 108,000 infantry and 11,000 cavalry, backed by 722 artillery pieces and almost 3,000 machine guns). Facing them were around 120,000 troops of the 1st and 4th Polish Armies and Group Polesie, backed by some 460 artillery pieces. Again the Reds were successful, capturing Wilno/Vil′na on 14 July and Grodno on 19 July 1920 (and thereby sealing the secret military alliance with Lithuania that was an annex to the Soviet–Lithuanian Treaty of Moscow of 12 July 1920). On 1 August 1920, Brest-Litovsk fell, and that same day Red forces crossed the Narew and Western Bug Rivers, while in the south Polish forces had been pushed entirely out of Ukraine, and Budennyi was closing on Zamość and Lwów (now defended by the Polish 6th Army under General Władysław Jędrzejewski). At this point, however, the situation in the south improved for Poland, as the Polish 2nd Army recaptured Brody (2 August). Polish spirits were also lifted by the supportive activities of a strong French military mission in Warsaw (which included Marshal Foch’s chief of staff, Maxime Weygand, and a young Charles de Gaulle); by the activities of the Kościuszko Squadron of the Polish air force, which was manned by Polish American volunteers; and by the arrival of shipments of military supplies from Hungary, although the labor movements in France, Britain, and elsewhere (united in the “Hands Off Russia” campaign) were mostly critical of the Polish invasion of Ukraine. This sentiment struck something of a chord with Lloyd George, whose government had just entered negotiations with the Soviet government that would eventually lead to the Anglo–Soviet Trade Agreement. Poles have consequently always insisted (probably justly) that they alone were responsible for what then ensued.
Another key to the outcome of the war, however, was that rather than follow the orders of the Soviet commander in chief, S. S. Kamenev (and the pleas of Tukhachevskii) that his forces should push northward against Warsaw, Egorov (encouraged by his military commissar on the South-West Front, J. V. Stalin) continued to push westward, hoping (but failing) to capture Lwów and Lublin. (Stalin’s motives in this affair are obscure, but may have involved his known distaste for military specialists of the type of Kamenev and Tukhachevskii.) The consequence was that, although Red Cossacks of the 3rd Cavalry Corps under G. D. Gai crossed the Vistula as early as 10 August 1920 and threatened to attack Warsaw from the west, the Polish 1st Army (under General Franciszek Latinik) was able to resist Tukhachevskii’s assault on the capital from the east, stopping Soviet forces at Radzymin on 13 August, while a countereattack by the heavily armored Polish 5th Army (under General Władysław Sikorski) halted the 3rd and 15th Red Armies around Nasielsk on 14–15 August 1920. Further Polish forces, among them the Reserve Army, then joined the battle, pushing northward through the gap between the two Soviet fronts and encircling Tukhachevskii’s armies. The Poles’ thereafter legendary “Miracle on the Vistula” was complete, while the puppet governments that the Bolsheviks had prepared to install in a Soviet Western Ukraine and a Soviet Poland (the Galrevkom and Polrevkom, respectively) proved to be redundant.
On 18 August 1920, Tukhachevskii ordered a general withdrawal toward the Bug River, but by then he had lost contact with most of his forces, which fled in disarray—some of the 4th and 15th Red Armies into East Prussia, where they were disarmed by the Germans. Most of the 3rd Red Army extracted itself from Poland intact, but the 16th Red Army disintegrated at Białystok, and most of its men were taken prisoner. Freed from commitments before Warsaw, Polish forces then headed south to confront Budennyi. The 1st Cavalry Army was forced to abandon its siege of Lwów on 31 August 1920 and was that same day defeated by Polish cavalry at the Battle of Komarów—the greatest cavalry battle since the Napoleonic era and the last significant cavalry battle of the 20th century. Another defeat followed at the Battle of Hrubieszów (6 September 1920), as what remained of the 1st Cavalry Army limped eastward.
With Red Army forces in retreat from Lithuania to Ukraine throughout September 1920, the Soviet government was eventually forced to sue for peace (with offers made on 21 and 28 September 1920); a cease-fire was signed on 12 October and went into effect on 18 October 1920. Following protracted negotiations, a full peace treaty, the Treaty of Riga, was signed on 18 March 1921. Under its terms, Poland made substantial territorial and other gains from Soviet Russia. At the same time, Warsaw was left free to force a successful outcome to the Polish–Lithuanian War (1 September to 7 October 1920), thereby capturing Wilno/Vilnius.
In the course of the Soviet–Polish War, the Red Army suffered casualties of over 100,000 and the Polish Army almost 50,000 men. The number of civilians killed remains unknown, but among the many controversial aspects of the conflict are charges that all contending armies engaged in terror against the civilian population—particularly the many Jews in the region, who were subjected to a wave of pogroms that resulted in the deaths of up to 100,000 people, according to some estimates. (Attacks on Jewish communities during the conflict form a central motif of Isaak Babel’s collection of short stories, Red Cavalry, which was based on his own experiences in Poland in 1920.) Moreover, after the Treaty of Riga, more than 80,000 Red soldiers remained in Polish prisoner of war camps, of whom around 20,000 would perish; a similar number of Polish prisoners (out of around 51,000 in captivity) died in Soviet and Lithuanian camps. Prisoner exchanges began only in 1922. Apart from Babel’s aforementioned work, the Soviet–Polish War has been portrayed in myriad literary and filmic accounts, notably the feature film Bitwa warzawska (“Battle of Warsaw, 1920,” dir. Jerzy Hoffman, 2011), which was shot in 3D and was one of the most expensive films ever made in Poland.