Top left: Polish FT tanks of the Polish 1st Tank Regiment during the Battle of Dyneburg, January 1920. Below left: Polish and Ukrainian troops in Kiev, Kiev Offensive (1920) Khreshchatyk, 7 may 1920. Top right: Polish Schwarzlose M.07/12 MG nest during the Battle of Radzymin,August 1920. Middle: Polish defences with a machine gun position near Miłosna, in the village of Janki, the first on the right from the rifle – Jerzy Krępeć, decorated with the Cross of Valor (polish Medal of Honor), battle of Warsaw, August 1920. Bottom left: Russian prisoners on the road between Radzymin and Warsaw after the attack of the Red Army on Warsaw. Bottom right: Polish defensive fighting positions on Belarus, Battle of Niemen, September 1920.
5 stages in the Polish–Soviet War
In early 1919, the Anglo-French made tentative efforts to assist the Polish Second Republic, with both Britain and France sending military missions to Warsaw. The French were sympathetic to Poland and sent 1,500 military personnel to train Piłsudski’s army. In addition to the 276 artillery pieces that arrived with Haller’s Blue Army, the French also delivered 350 additional 75mm guns and stocks of ammunition in August 1919. However, the British military mission accomplished very little, even according to its head, Brigadier Adrian Carton de Wiart. Although Carton de Wiart was sympathetic to the Poles, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was not. Lloyd George was himself ignorant about conditions in eastern Europe and was influenced by the opinions of two close foreign policy advisors: Sir Lewis Namier and Edward H. Carr. Namier was born a Polish Jew in south-east Poland, but emigrated to England prior to the Great War and anglicized his name. In 1919, Namier became a member of the British delegation at Versailles and he quickly adopted a hostile attitude towards Dmowski’s nationalism and Poland’s border claims. Carr, a Cambridge historian, was also part of the British delegation at Versailles and he became quite enamoured of the Soviet Union, which also caused him to oppose Polish territorial claims. Even though British military forces were still on Soviet territory and supporting the Whites, Lloyd George sought a way to end that commitment and he was eager to develop new trade relations with the Soviets. Despite suggestions at Versailles the Poland should gain Upper Silesia and the southern part of East Prussia, Lloyd George and his protégés opposed this, as well as Piłsudski’s efforts to acquire Galicia and Wilno – which were dubbed ‘imperialistic’. Paderewski’s acquiescence to British demands caused great political strife in Poland, which led to his resignation. Although some English politicians, such as Winston Churchill, were still viscerally opposed to the Soviet Union, they were unwilling to offer substantive military assistance to the Poles. Even the attempted delivery of a few dozen surplus aircraft and surplus German rifles led to protests from English trade unions, which delayed shipment of the meagre arms aid that was authorized. German railroad workers worked to impede arms shipments to Poland across their territory and Czechs also blocked shipments. Consequently, British military aid to Poland in 1919 was negligible. In contrast, Italy provided the Polish government with a monetary loan and delivered a vital shipment of heavy artillery pieces to Danzig in June 1919.
Nevertheless, by spending 49 per cent of Poland’s national budget on his military, by early 1920 Piłsudski had managed to assemble a nominal force of nearly 200,000 men under arms. He even had an armoured regiment with 120 French-made FT tanks and an air arm with about 200 aircraft. Although there was a shortage of trained pilots, foreign volunteers made up some of the deficiency; enough American pilots arrived to form a complete squadron, known as the Kościuszko Squadron. In Paris, Dmowski directed the Polish Military Procurement Mission to purchase very large quantities of ex-German weapons as scrap and send them to Poland, although much of this equipment was worn out. Emboldened by his new armament, Piłsudski was determined to resolve the question of Poland’s eastern borders by force, whether or not the Anglo-French approved. Denikin’s forces had been defeated and the Red Army was now shifting massive forces to its western border to crush Poland. Piłsudski unwisely chose to strike first and took personal command of the Ukrainian Front, while Władysław Sikorski took command of the Lithuanian–Byelorussian Front. By forging an alliance with the defeated Ukrainians, Piłsudski managed to capture Kiev on 7 May 1920. However, a Soviet counter-offensive in June threatened to crush Piłsudski’s over-extended forces and he was forced to withdraw westwards in haste. By early July, the Red Army had seized Vilnius and was pushing towards Warsaw. At this point, the Anglo-French realized that a Bolshevik advance into central Europe was now a distinct possibility and authorized an enlarged military mission, headed by General Maxime Weygand. Allied military aid trickled in to Poland, but no more credit would be offered to Piłsudski’s government to purchase additional equipment. British diplomats impotently demanded that the Red Army stop its advance at the Curzon Line, which was blithely ignored. On 24 July 1920, the Red Army crossed the line and captured the city of Białystok, 175km north-west of Warsaw.
Anticipating a rapid military victory over the Poles, the Soviets took steps to establish a puppet government in Białystok, dubbed the Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee or Polrevkom. Since Felix Dzerzhinsky (who was also head of the Cheka, secret police) was head of the Polrevkom, there could be little doubt for Piłsudski and his associates what their fate would be if they lost. However, the population of Białystok, which was 75 per cent Jewish, did not relish remaining under Polish jurisdiction and many were enthusiastic about the prospect of communist rule. Furthermore, as Polish historian Halik Kochanski noted, ‘the Polish–Soviet War had an enormous effect within Poland. It reminded the Poles that the Russians, whether tsarist or Soviet, brought repression and subjugation’.
When the Anglo-French failed to provide effective diplomatic or military support, the Poles were left to fend off the Soviet offensive towards Warsaw on their own. Piłsudski lacked the training or experience to plan and co-ordinate the movement of multiple armies in a mobile campaign, so General Tadeusz Rozwadowski was brought back from Paris to serve as head of the Polish General Staff. As the saying goes, ‘victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan’, so it has been difficult to accurately gauge who planned the Polish counter-attack, although it is more likely that it was the product of careful staff work, rather than amateur improvisation. In any case, the Polish Army mounted a brilliant counter-offensive which inflicted a catastrophic riposte against the Red Army in the battle of Warsaw. Sikorski’s 5th Army launched a carefully timed pincer attack into the enemy’s flank, spearheaded by tanks, which encircled one Soviet army and threw the rest into chaos. By carefully husbanding their remaining airpower, the Poles were able to gain air superiority around Warsaw and use aircraft to bomb and strafe the enemy. The Red Army’s best units were shattered and routed. Contrary to popular perception that the battle of Warsaw was won primarily by Polish cavalry, only about 5 per cent of Piłsudski’s combat forces were mounted troops. Instead, the Poles fought a modern battle, winning through use of combined arms tactics that properly meshed air operations with infantry, tanks, artillery and cavalry. Shortly after the victory at Warsaw, four Polish air squadrons repulsed the Soviet 1st Cavalry Army’s push towards Lwów by relentless bombing and strafing attacks. As the shattered Red Army retreated in disorder, pursued by the Poles, Lloyd George demanded that Polish forces cease their pursuit at the Curzon Line. Piłsudski ignored him. Instead, in the subsequent Treaty of Riga, the Soviet Union was forced to concede much of Kresy to Poland. Victory had not come cheap to Poland, which suffered over 170,000 military casualties in its eastern border conflicts in 1918–20.
The Polish Air Force (Lotnictwo Wojskowe or LW) also played a significant role in the defeat of the Ukrainians and Russians, by maintaining air superiority over the main battlefields. Flying a mix of Austrian, French, German and British aircraft, the LW flew a total of 5,172 combat sorties during 1918–20 and demonstrated a clear superiority over their Soviet opponents. Indeed, the Poles had an easier time finding skilled pilots (often from abroad) than the Bolsheviks, since most of the tsarist-era Russian pilots opted to join the White forces.
Despite the fact that Poland had regained its independence through the efforts of its own soldiers, the Anglo-French allies subsequently fabricated a false narrative that claimed that Poland owed its existence to their efforts at Versailles and their last-minute military aid. While President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Dmowski’s diplomacy at Versailles set the stage for international recognition of the reborn Polish state, independence itself was achieved solely through Polish military success. Both Lloyd George and Churchill convinced themselves that Poland owed its independence to their good offices, while ignoring what Polish armies actually achieved in the field in 1919–20. By March 1921, Poland had achieved a tenuous peace and two years later the League of Nations recognized the new Russo-Polish border.
While Piłsudski had been focused on the Russian threat, yet another conflict had been developing in Upper Silesia, which possessed a large Polish population. Germany intended to keep this region, with its heavy industry and coal mines, despite Polish nationalist agitation. German forces easily crushed one Polish uprising in August 1919 and a second in August 1920, resulting in thousands of casualties. The Polish POW formed paramilitary units in Upper Silesia to counter German repression and German Freikorps units swarmed into the region, leading to frequent clashes. Once the Russo-Polish War had been resolved, Poland asked the League of Nations for a plebiscite, to determine the fate of Upper Silesia. In February 1921 the League decided to send a small Allied peacekeeping force to Upper Silesia to monitor the plebiscite and keep order. Prior to the plebiscite, the German government sent in thousands of citizens from outside the region, which skewed the results in favour of Germany. In response, the Polish politician Wojciech Korfanty organized a successful third revolt, which seized much of the eastern portion of Upper Silesia and held it against German counter-attacks. French peacekeeping forces allegedly did little to stop the Polish attacks, since the French government wanted to weaken post-war Germany as much as possible. However, Britain’s leadership was of a different mind and rushed two infantry brigades to the region so it could separate the two warring sides.24 Surprisingly, Korfanty’s rebels held onto the eastern part of Upper Silesia and the League eventually recognized this area as legally part of Poland. Yet while Poland gained valuable iron and coal mines in Upper Silesia, they were virtually indefensible since they were too close to the new border.
The Polish Second Republic desperately needed a period of peaceful stability to organize itself, but this proved elusive due to political in-fighting, an anaemic economy and the persistent concern about another Soviet invasion. Independence had unleashed a cacophony of political voices across the country, each of which demanded some representation in the Sejm and the Senate. Aside from national defence, there were those who thought priority should go to agricultural reforms, while labour groups wanted to focus on driving down unemployment. Poland held its first free legislative elections in November 1922, which resulted in no clear victory for any faction, so the result was a weak coalition government. Significantly, the Bloc of National Minorities (BMN), representing Germans, Jews and Ukrainians in Poland, won the second largest majority in the election. Gabriel Narutowicz, a moderate, was elected president. Piłsudski reverted to strictly military duties, becoming Chief of the General Staff. Two days after the transfer of power, President Narutowicz was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic. In turn, Stanisław Wojciechowski, an ally of Piłsudski, was elected president of Poland and Sikorski became prime minister. Roman Dmowski led an anti-Piłsudski faction in the Sejm, intent upon limiting his powers, but Piłsudski ensured that Dmowski and his right-wing nationalists were frozen out of the government. Nor did it help the new government that the Polish economy was in terrible shape due to hyperinflation and that the primary trade partner was a resentful Germany, which started a tariff war with Poland in 1925. Amazingly, Prime Minister Władysław Grabski’s government managed to partly stabilize the economy within two years by the introduction of a new currency (the złoty) and by stimulating coal production to earn export income. Efforts were also made to develop domestic industrial production (particularly steel and chemicals) and repair national infrastructure, although the bulk of the economy remained focused on agriculture. Unemployment was also very high – up to 12.7 per cent in 1925 – which created further social unrest. In Kraków, Polish Army troops were called in to crush a strike led by Piłsudski’s own PPS; between 30 and 40 strikers were killed.
Due to the threat of another Soviet invasion, Poland was obliged to maintain a very large peacetime army, with over 250,000 troops. Furthermore, Sikorski created the Border Protection Corps (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza or KOP), of six brigades, to protect the eastern borders. While this force was sufficient to deter another Soviet invasion, it also deprived the cash-strapped military of funds for modernization. Seeking allies and aid, the Poles turned to France, which agreed to sign a defensive military alliance with Poland in February 1921. The French pledged mutual military collaboration in case of an attack by a third party, by which they meant Germany, not the USSR. In addition, France provided Poland with a loan of ₣ 400 million for rearmament and in return, Poland promised to purchase all its arms from France. However, Britain’s efforts to prop up Weimar Germany served to undermine Poland’s security situation. At an international conference at Locarno, Switzerland in 1925, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Belgium pledged to respect the new borders in Western Europe, but the question of eastern borders was left unresolved. Piłsudski was livid about the Locarno Treaty and stated that it meant that Poland’s borders were not regarded as inviolate by the Anglo-French.
In reaction to Locarno and the worsening economy, Piłsudski became disenchanted with the democratic experiment in Poland and plotted with former legionnaire officers to overthrow the civilian government. Piłsudski regarded the civilian government as too weak and divided to deal with the myriad of serious problems facing the country. The final straw may have been a rumour that the civilian government was about to cut the army by one-quarter as part of a fiscal austerity plan, which Piłsudski believed would compromise Poland’s national security. On 12 May 1926, Piłsudski led a military coup against the government of President Wojciechowski. Although he was able to enter Warsaw with about 3,000 troops, the government held its ground in the Belwedere Palace, surrounded by a loyal infantry regiment. A number of loyalist officers, including Generał Tadeusz Rozwadowski and Generał Stanisław Haller, urged the president to resist and wait for loyal troops from outside Warsaw to arrive. When the government refused to capitulate, scattered fighting broke out in the capital between loyalist and rebel troops for two days. General Rozwadowski ordered Generał Brygady Włodzimierz Zagórski’s aviation group, which remained loyal to the government, to bomb the rebels – which they did. However, Piłsudski was able to rally more troops to his side, including two regiments sent by Edward Rydz-Śmigły. In the face of further bloodshed, the legitimate government decided to surrender on the morning of 15 May. A total of 821 Polish soldiers and 478 civilians were killed or wounded in Piłsudski’s two-day coup – a rather bloody affair.
Piłsudski established an authoritarian regime dubbed the Sanacja (Moral Renewal) and moved quickly to crush his opponents. Most of the senior officers who supported the legal government were arrested and imprisoned, while prominent ex-legionnaires such as Sikorski and Józef Haller had their military careers terminated. Kazimierz Sosnkowski, once Piłsudski’s right-hand man, had not been informed about the coup and after hearing of it, he attempted suicide. Poland had few General Staff-trained officers at this point, but many were cashiered after the coup. General Zagórski simply disappeared after a year in incarceration – possibly liquidated. On the other hand, the officers who had sided with Piłsudski – such as Edward Rydz-Śmigły – were rewarded with positions of greater responsibility in the Sanacja regime. Piłsudski’s coup imposed an authoritarian regime upon Poland which deepened already wide chasms in the body politic and created irreversible fissures in the Polish officer corps, between pro-Piłsudski and anti-Piłsudski officers. Later, about 30 senior officers – mostly from the Polish General Staff – were retired early. In essence, Piłsudski’s coup was a de facto purge, which sidelined many of Poland’s most able military officers in favour of men personally loyal to him. In order to provide the appearance of a civilian government, Piłsudski engineered the election of Ignacy Mościcki, a former chemistry professor, as the new president, so he could focus on foreign affairs and the military. Far from stabilizing Poland, Piłsudski’s Sanacja regime was unable to prevent the economy from sliding into a state of near-collapse by 1927, which was only rescued by a timely emergency loan from France.
Piłsudski decided to allow free parliamentary elections in 1928, but this galvanized the opposition, which included the nascent communist party. The Sanacja regime could not gain a majority at the ballot box and was forced to work with other parties – but compromise was not in Piłsudski’s lexicon. When the opposition began to gel into a real anti-Sanacja coalition known as the Centrolew, Piłsudski opted for repression against them in the 1930 election cycle. Heavy media censorship was imposed and opposition candidates harassed and ultimately arrested, including Wojciech Korfanty, who had gained part of Upper Silesia for Poland. Prominent Poles, such as Ignacy Paderewski, condemned the coup and the resulting Sanacja regime. Rather than saving Poland, the Sanacja regime served to destroy any hope for real political co-operation and the country slid into a republic in name only; this was not the country that Polish patriots had struggled and sacrificed for decades to achieve.
Piłsudski’s charisma and determination – along with the sacrifices of many of his soldiers – had laid the groundwork for a resurrected Polish state. Unfortunately, like many revolutionaries, Piłsudski was imbued with a pig-headed inability to compromise or work with other strong personalities, which deprived the nation of some of its best talent. His tendency to hold grudges against those who opposed him – or favour those who supported him – meant that the Second Republic was skewed towards the views of one man. Poland needed Dmowski, Korfanty, Sikorski and Paderewski as much as it needed Piłsudski, but the man at the top of the pyramid decided that only he was essential. Due to Piłsudski’s authoritarian inclinations, the Polish Second Republic was undermined by a fractured political system which left it particularly vulnerable to the machinations of its neighbours. Furthermore, Piłsudski’s desire to expand Poland’s borders led to the creation of friction with all its neighbours and left large numbers of resentful non-Poles within its borders, thereby providing the casus belli for future conflicts.