The Battle of Somosierra: 30 November 1808

One of the most famous light cavalry charges of the era was made by the Polish Chevaux-Legers regiment at Somosierra, during the 1808 campaign in Spain. This charge demonstrates not only the abilities of light cavalry on the battlefield, but also the dramatic impact that a cavalry charge could have upon an enemy force and how a well-conducted charge could completely unhinge even the most formidable defensive position.

In 1807, Portugal broke with Napoleon’s Continental System, under which an economic embargo was placed on Britain, and a French army was deployed to force it back into line. The French war in Portugal required that Napoleon secure a long supply line across the territory of his ally Spain by placing garrisons and depots in strategic towns. The Spanish grew resentful of the large number of French troops marching across their nation with impunity.

With the situation growing increasingly volatile, Napoleon deposed the Bourbon monarch of Spain and placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) on the throne, thereby making Spain a vassal state of his sprawling empire. The Spanish had no great love for their former king, but swiftly grew to revile Joseph Bonaparte – and the revolutionary political and social system which he represented – even more. In May 1808, an insurrection broke out against Joseph’s rule and he was forced to flee Madrid. The revolt spread, and soon the Spanish Army itself took the field against its erstwhile ally.

Napoleon determined to squash this uprising before it could gather momentum. He formed the Army of Spain and personally led it across the Pyrenees to restore his brother to the throne. Napoleon scored a series of small victories over the Spanish, and in the autumn of 1808 he led a main strike force of approximately 40,000 men on Madrid. His army advanced on the Spanish capital from the north, where the main road wound up through a high mountain pass, at the top of which sat the village of Somosierra.

Spanish general Benito San Juan (d. 1809) attempted to buy time for the Spanish army to organize resistance and defend its capital while hoping for British military support to arrive. Napoleon wanted to make a quick advance, seize the capital and restore his brother to the throne there as a critical first step to returning order to the country. Besides, speed was vital to the French cause, since the longer Madrid remained in Spanish hands, the more the insurrection would be encouraged and grow in strength.

On 29 November 1808, the lead elements of Napoleon’s army approached the pass at Somosierra, only to find it occupied by Spanish artillery, arranged in three batteries of two guns each that blocked the road at intervals, plus 10 guns mounted in an improvised fort that straddled the road at the very top of the pass. Approximately 9000 Spanish infantry were also ensconced along the road, on the slopes of the mountains overlooking the pass and in the fort itself. Napoleon ordered General Francois Ruffin’s (1771-1811) infantry division, part of General Claude Victor’s (1764-1841) corps, to take the pass and clear the road.

Ruffin’s men came under a galling fire from the well-positioned Spanish and made little headway on the position. As daylight began to fade, Napoleon decided to call off the attack and resume it in the morning, when the rest of his army would have closed up and thus be prepared to exploit the anticipated breakthrough.

Early on the morning of 30 November 1808, General Ruffin’s men moved to the attack, yet once more they were driven to ground by cannon and musket fire from the well-placed Spanish defenders. The steepness of the slopes forbade any rapid movement to flank the position, and the road itself was narrow and winding, twisting back and forth to help ease the ascent, forcing an attacking army to linger under the Spanish guns. Napoleon rode forward to a point of observation, escorted by the third squadron of the Polish Chevaux-Legers (light cavalry) regiment.

Enter the Poles

The ancient state of Poland had been systematically dismembered in the late eighteenth century by the combined assaults of Austria, Prussia and Russia, culminating in the final blow of 1792 when Poland disappeared from the map. The kingdom was divided as spoils of war amongst the three great powers, and while Poles served in the armies of their occupiers, they yearned for freedom. When Napoleon defeated Austria, Prussia and Russia during his brilliant series of campaigns from 1805 to 1807, the Poles believed they had found their deliverer. Shortly after his conquest of Poland’s ancestral capital of Warsaw, they began to flock to Napoleon’s cause.

In 1808, Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw as a satellite state of the French Empire, amidst general rejoicing throughout the Polish lands. Although Napoleon stopped short of granting Poland full independence (mainly because of his delicate relations with Russia), he was sympathetic to their cause, and the Poles loved him for it. In order to show their support for the French Empire, a cavalry regiment was formed from the sons of the finest noble families in Poland and incorporated into the ranks of the Grande Armee. This was the Polish light cavalry regiment, and Spain was to be its first campaign.

As Napoleon was busy reconnoitring the Spanish positions near the pass, cannonballs crashed to earth near the emperor and his staff. The enemy fire angered rather than frightened him, since he could not believe Ruffin’s infantry was being held in check by Spanish troops, which he believed to be far inferior to his own. Growing increasingly frustrated, he ordered General Hippolyte Pire (1778-1850) to provide cavalry support for the attack. The French horsemen rode forward into the fight, but the combination of constrictive terrain and heavy enemy fire conspired to drive them backwards. At length an exasperated Pire rode back to Napoleon and told him it was impossible to force the pass.

An already simmering Napoleon flew into a rage at this news. He slapped his riding crop against his boot and exclaimed: ‘Impossible? I don’t know the meaning of the word.’ He then turned to Colonel Jan Kozietulski (1781-1821), commander of his Polish escort squadron. The emperor pointed towards the pass and ordered: ‘Take that position, at the gallop.’

In all likelihood Napoleon was only referring to the first Spanish gun emplacement, which had brought his staff under fire and was the only emplacement that he could see in the fog and smoke of battle. In reality, the Spanish position consisted of three successive gun emplacements spaced along the road, with supporting infantry units, crowned by a fort mounting a total of 10 guns at the summit.

The Charge Begins

Although the exact meaning of the order was unclear, Colonel Kozietulski made no attempt to clarify his instructions. Instead he saluted Napoleon then galloped to the front of his command and addressed the men. French officers overheard the exchange and thought the order madness – a single cavalry squadron to attack what an infantry division had failed to move? Yet in front of their incredulous eyes, the Poles arranged themselves into columns of four, in order to climb the narrow road they had to use, and prepared for battle. Impetuously, a number of French officers joined the Polish horsemen, as did another platoon of Polish horsemen who had just returned from a reconnaissance mission.

Officers shouted commands for the rest of the Polish regiment as well as other French cavalry units to deploy forward to back up the attack, but Kozietulski did not await this support. Instead, he placed himself at the head of his small command and shouted to his men: ‘Forward you sons of dogs, the Emperor is watching.’ A great cheer of ‘Vive l’Empereurl’ swept through the ranks, and the Polish horsemen drew their sabres, then dug spurs into the flanks of their horses as the squadron surged forward.

A hail of musketry and cannon fire greeted the cavalry’s approach. Horses and riders were sent tumbling, but onwards they came. As they wound their way up the hill, their horses laboured to increase their speed on the steep slope. Astonished Spanish gunners hurriedly shifted their pieces to place fire on this new threat as the cavalry swept past Ruffin’s incredulous infantrymen.

Grapeshot whizzed through the air from the three Spanish two-gun batteries on the road, and saddles were emptied, but the charge went forward. The Poles hacked to left and right with their sabres and in a rush overran the first battery, giving no quarter and expecting none in return.

Beyond the Call of Duty

Although they had already fulfilled the mission set out for them by Napoleon, the cavalry did not halt. Instead, they continued their climb up the pass. Musketry exploded into them from either side of the road from supporting Spanish infantry and more horsemen fell. The second battery now came into view and the Poles roared through it at full gallop, scattering gunners and infantry before them as they plunged deeper into the Spanish positions. As at last they reached the crest of the pass, the ground levelled and the Poles urged their frothing mounts into a thundering gallop that exploded into the final Spanish battery. The surprised gunners were cut down where they stood, but with their horses blown and over half their number down, the Polish squadron collapsed in a heap, still short of their final objective.

Their charge, however, had unhinged the Spanish defensive positions. With all eyes fixed on the Poles, General Ruffin’s infantry were at last able to move forward and they came on at the trot with bayonets fixed. Then, from the rear, the blare of bugles resounded as the remainder of the Polish regiment and a French cavalry regiment came roaring up the road. Together with the infantry they struck the final Spanish defensive position at the summit like a thunderbolt and blew through this last line of resistance to make themselves masters of the pass of Somosierra. As the remnants of the Spanish army clambered for safety across the hills and melted away as an effective fighting force, the battle was won and the road to Madrid lay open.

Slaughter in the Pass

Napoleon had observed the attack through his spyglass, and as he saw the French colours mount the summit of the pass, he snapped his telescope shut and gave the order for a general advance. He then spurred his horse forward, as aides and cavalry rushed to keep up with him. He galloped up the winding road, noting the twisted bodies of men and horses, some still struggling for life, which lay strewn about.

Among the first of the imperial headquarters staff to arrive at the pass was Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815). A dying Polish officer lying on the ground raised himself on an elbow and, pointing to the captured batteries, gasped out: ‘There are the guns, tell the Emperor.’

At length, Napoleon himself reached the pass. Amidst the debris of the third Spanish battery, the apex of the Poles’ wild charge, Napoleon found Lieutenant Andrzej Niegolewski (1787-1857), who had been wounded 11 times in the course of the charge, sitting on the ground, barely conscious, propped against one of the captured guns. The emperor called for a surgeon and then dismounted. He knelt beside Niegolewski, clasped his hand and thanked him for the courage he had shown that day. He then removed the Legion d’honneur from his own breast and pinned it to Niegolewski’s chest. The emperor stood and in a loud voice proclaimed that the Poles were the bravest cavalrymen in his army. As the survivors reformed and moved to the rear, they passed the serried bearskins of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Under orders from the emperor, the Guardsmen, moving with their customary machine-like precision, presented arms as the shattered remnants of the Polish regiment passed.

In his official report, Napoleon gave full credit for the victory to the Polish horsemen. In recognition of their courage, he later awarded the Legion d’honneur to 17 Poles who had taken part in the charge. Napoleon ordered the Poles, later reequipped with lances, to become part of his Old Guard. They would faithfully follow their emperor across Europe and onto numerous other battlefields.

Even after his defeat and exile in 1814, the Poles remained loyal to Napoleon and rallied to his cause once more during the Hundred Days of 1815. Yet none of the host of battles they would later engage in would ever remain as gloriously preserved in the national memory of Poland as the wild charge they made at Somosierra.


Poland: War and Independence, 1914–1918 Part I

Józef Piłsudski

A group of officers of the III Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Polish Legions. Most of the officers are wearing the Maciejówka-cap, popular in late 19th & early 20th century Poland.

Poland is the only major state in European history to have disappeared from the map and later reappeared, and then after the lapse of more than a century. The essential dilemma of Poland’s reappearance is that it reentered Europe less consequentially than it had left. Poland was not restored, but reinvented, and, as a result, fit ill into the role it had previously played in the European structure. The results for Poland, and for Europe, were considerable, and they are still plainly in evidence.

Poland was not supposed to be an issue in World War I, and it became one only by necessity and to the annoyance and distraction of the war’s chief actors. As a result, they addressed Poland, about which they knew virtually nothing, only when it intruded itself into more important matters or could be used as a convenient example for vast schemes of international reconstruction. None of the powers ever really had a Polish policy, although, as the war progressed, Poland often featured prominently in various peace programs. The key here is to realize that Poland was always a derivative concern, never an important feature of any of the Great Powers’ vision of the future. The result was compromise and confusion.

Poland reemerged because of two factors. The first was the development of the war itself, unfolding quite beyond the anticipations and control of its participants. The war essentially made Poland, or, more accurately, the war unmade the partitioning empires, and their dissolution allowed Poland to resurface. Of even greater importance was the existence of a large concentration of Poles who exhibited a high degree of national consciousness. The powers could not have re-created Poland—even if it had suited them—had the Poles not been available for that project.

There had been no serious developments in the Polish Question in international politics for generations because the three partitioning states shared a common interest in avoiding the issue. As for the other powers, Poland was insufficiently important to risk complications in the east of Europe for returns problematical at best. If that proposition held, Poland would never resurface as an international issue. However, in 1914, the partitioning powers were ranged in opposite camps, and the western states, over the course of the war, determined that Poland was a question worth raising.

The war began when Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, with the encouragement of Berlin. To forestall Russian action in defense of Serbia, the Germans threatened St. Petersburg and thus indirectly Russia’s ally, France. This provoked hostilities between Germany and Russia, which Berlin sought to win by first disposing of France in a rapid offensive (the so-called Schlieffen Plan), which, by necessity, violated the neutrality of Belgium. After some hesitation, stung by the action against pathetic Belgium, and fearing a destabilizing German victory over the Franco-Russian allies, Great Britain entered the war against Germany. Hence, the initial battle lines of the war pitted Germany and Austria against Russia in the east, where hostilities would necessarily be joined on the lands of the former Polish Commonwealth. In the west, Germany would face France and Great Britain, later joined by Italy and, in 1917, the United States to name the major actors.

The creation of two hostile camps in the years preceding hostilities and the rising frictions between them had raised the specter of war long before its actual outbreak. The Poles in all three partitions, and the numerous émigré community—Polonia—exhibited enormous and expanding activity in anticipation of a war which, for the first time, would place the partitioners on opposite sides. Logically, at least one of them had to lose; extraordinarily, all of them did.

The Poles were divided between those who wished the Entente— France, England, and Russia—to be victorious and those favoring a victory for the Central Powers, or Germany and Austria-Hungary. The pro-Entente alignment favored the defeat of Germany, which they regarded as Poland’s principal antagonist. There was considerable sympathy for the French and English, and not inconsiderable hope that both could be won to favor the cause of Polish restoration. Russia was, however, a problem. Even the most devoted Polish champion of the Entente realized that Russia enjoyed an odious reputation among the Poles. Only a handful of Poles entertained vague pan-Slavic hopes about collaboration with the ancient eastern antagonist. Rather more naively hoped that an enlightened Russian perception of the danger of German expansion would create the grounds for a Polish-Russian reconciliation. Neither anticipation lasted past 1915. Thereafter, the pro-Entente Poles were held together by fear of German victory and hope of western support. The most influential representatives of this orientation were the flamboyant pianist, composer, and politician Ignacy Jan Paderewski and the acerbic and domineering Roman Dmowski, the father of modern Polish nationalism. His war strategy was to win allied support for the Polish cause by endless dunning, ceaseless propaganda, and a soupçon of historic shaming.

Similarly, the pro–Central Powers camp among the Poles was motivated by hostility toward Russia. These Poles were so convinced that Russia was the central nightmare of Polish history that cooperation even with the Germans was acceptable to exorcise it. Austria played a special role here. Whereas virtually no Poles had any positive feelings toward Berlin, many were well inclined toward Vienna. Indeed, the pro–Central Powers camp contained two quite distinct strains: a sincere “Austrophile” element, which hoped for Austrian victory, and the so-called independence faction. The Austrophiles envisioned a triumphant Habsburg state enlarged and transformed by acquiring the historic Polish lands then under Russian control. Thus two-thirds reunited, the Poles would become, at the very least, equal partners in a new state with Austria. The Achilles’ heel was the relative weakness of Austria within the Central Powers. As Germany rapidly came to dominate the alliance, Austria’s ability to pursue a Polish policy to the liking of its Polish allies faded, leaving them linked to Germany, a fate distasteful to virtually all Poles.

The other strain among the pro–Central Powers Polish camp, the independence faction, was dominated by the charismatic Józef Piłsudski (1867–1935), who regarded cooperation with Vienna as a temporary tactical necessity rather than a strategic alignment. Austria was useful “as a sword against Russia; a shield against Berlin,” he said—a temporary expedient to be jettisoned should the unpredictable fortunes of war allow the Poles an opportunity to pursue a truly independent course. The independence devotees stressed preparation of a separate Polish military component, to be ready for action should a propitious moment arrive. At the beginning of the war, this policy appeared quixotic, a reckless reappearance of the romantic fascination with bold military fancies.

The first weeks of the war confounded the anticipations of all the countries involved. The German offensive against France in the west, designed to win the war there in several weeks, crested and stalled at the Marne and was settled into a virtual stalemate. Meanwhile, in the east, the commander in chief of the Russian army, the tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, issued a proclamation on August 14, 1914, insincerely promising the Poles unity and broad autonomy. Russia had decided to beat the other partitioning powers to the punch and consolidate Polish support at the very outset. However, the bold Russian gambit proved still-born: the Germans won smashing victories over Russia at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, and the tsarist military position was damaged, never to recover fully.

With the Russian bid to capture the initiative regarding Poland misfiring, the field was left open to the Central Powers. Here the chief actor was Austria. As early as 1908, Piłsudski’s political allies began preparing the cadres for a future Polish army in close cooperation with Vienna. In exchange for promises of Polish support in the case of war with Russia, Vienna turned a blind eye to extensive Polish efforts at drilling and performing large-scale maneuvers and even supplied the Poles with surplus equipment. When hostilities commenced, a miniscule Polish force, under Piłsudski’s personal command, took the field at once. Elements of these “Legions”—the name purposely recalling the Napoleonic age—crossed the Russian border and tried to raise a revolution in the Congress Kingdom. Though the precocious effort proved a fiasco, it demonstrated both the audacity of Piłsudski and the possibilities of Austrian-Polish cooperation. The Legions, which grew to a considerable force by 1916, served under Austrian operational orders, but wore distinctive uniforms, and used Polish as the language of command. Although small, the Legions constituted the first identifiably Polish army since the collapse of the November Rising in 1831. Their military exploits and reckless courage captured the imagination of Poles everywhere, making Piłsudski a national hero early in the war.

Piłsudski’s Legions reflected a rapidly developing consolidation of Polish political activity in Galicia. By 1914 many factions had combined to form a loose Supreme National Committee (Naczelny Komitet Narodowy [NKN]) which provided political leadership, though riven by factional disputes. The NKN established a feeble but ambitious network of propaganda agencies abroad, collected money for the legions, and tried to consolidate Polish opinion, including the considerable immigrant population in North America, behind a pro-Austrian, or at least anti-Russian, position in the war.

Though Austria seemed well poised to control or at least exploit the Polish issue to maximum advantage, Vienna’s role in Polish affairs proved relatively insignificant. Pro-Austria Poles were unable to convince the imperial government to take bold initiatives regarding Poland, for example an equivalent to the manifesto of the Russian grand duke Nikolai. Internal opposition from the powerful Hungarian and German factions in the empire blocked any action that might have led to a three-part—Austrian-Hungarian-Polish—empire, with the Poles holding a dominant position. Even more important, any fundamental rearrangement of the partitions to consolidate Polish territory under the Habsburgs would require the active cooperation of Berlin. However, from early in the war, it became obvious that Germany, not Austria, would be the senior military partner. As Vienna’s military position deteriorated steadily, Berlin effectively prevented any major Austrian initiative regarding Polish matters, an arena that the Germans gradually came to dominate. By 1916 only the true Habsburg loyalists among the Poles remained adherents. For the independence faction of Piłsudski, Austria had rapidly worn out its usefulness.

In the other Polish camp, by 1915, Dmowski had concluded that Russia could not be a vehicle for Polish hopes. The grand duke’s manifesto had briefly encouraged many Poles in Russia that Slavic reconciliation was possible and that, by cooperating with the tsar, Polish lands could be reunited after being wrested from German and Austrian control. Although this would have been a partial victory, Dmowski was content to think in stages.

By 1915 it was obvious that those hopes were false. Despite the manifesto, no active policy regarding the Poles was adopted by Russia. The Russians resented Polish efforts to form military units alongside their forces and the project collapsed, leaving the Polish Legions of Piłsudski without rivals. More important than the recalcitrance of tsarist officials to work with the Poles was the continuing decline of Russian military fortunes. By late 1915 the Central Powers had broken the eastern front and had thrown the Russians back hundreds of kilometers. By the year’s end most of historic Poland was in the hands of Germany and Austria. Moreover, the Russians adopted a ruthless “scorched earth” policy, of wholesale destruction in the face of the enemy advance, causing massive dislocation and suffering for the Polish population: villages were burned, livestock slaughtered, food destroyed. As a result, starvation, disease, and economic ruin were the last Russian “contributions” to the territory.

Dmowski concluded that the basis for his program had disintegrated, and he left Russia for Western Europe where he strove to build an anti-German Polish faction in exile. He hoped to convince the Europeans that a restored Poland was in their strategic interests, now that Russia’s ability to determine Entente policy regarding Poland had visibly been weakened by defeat and withdrawal. The West, however, was scarcely disposed to attach any significance to Polish issues. Dmowski and his colleagues realized that their first efforts would have to be devoted to reacquainting the world with the existence of Poland and the aspirations of its people.

Russia’s military eclipse, the lack of Western interest in things Polish, and the rapid decline of Austria left the stage open for new forces to assume the initiative regarding the Polish Question. For a brief time, Polish emigration became the chief focus of national activity.

Early in the war, Paderewski and novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz decided to create a relief agency in neutral Switzerland to collect funds to aid Poles devastated by the war. Ostensibly nonpartisan and dedicated to alleviating Polish suffering regardless of the cause and location, the agency, the Polish Victims Relief Fund (known as the Vevey Committee from the site of its headquarters), reflected the pro-Entente, anti-German orientation of its founders. By 1915 the Russian scorched-earth withdrawal had turned Poland into the largest humanitarian problem of the war. Paderewski left Switzerland for London and Paris to organize branches of the Vevey Committee and expand its resources and prestige. In April he traveled to America, where a large Polish community in a huge neutral country promised a major expansion of the committee’s efforts. Paderewski, however, had more than relief in mind. He wanted to organize the perhaps three to four million American Poles into a powerful political lobby and win both American public opinion and the administration of President Woodrow Wilson in support of his vision of the Polish cause.

Paderewski was uniquely situated for his task. Already world famous as a pianist and composer, he had also embarked on a career as a national sage, delivering himself of patriotic orations at auspicious occasions. The maestro knew everyone useful to know, and he was the favorite celebrity of the exalted. Vain, haughty, and erratic, Paderewski’s bizarre appearance, midway between leonine and Chaplinesque, made him a unique public personality. His belief in Poland, an exalted Poland of his imagination, was so consuming that it made his patriotism an ennobling creed that charmed foreigners and inspired his countrymen. For many in Western Europe and in the United States at the time of World War I, Paderewski was Poland, which was advantageous for both.

Under Paderewski’s autocratic and capricious direction, the large Polish community in the United States became a significant lobby for the national cause. Meanwhile the maestro cultivated the rich and powerful, winning by 1916 the devotion of President Wilson’s most intimate advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, and, through him, Paderewski gained access to the White House.

Paderewski’s arrival in the United States coincided with the American “discovery” of Poland. The reason for this is quite simple, though most indirect. Poland had become a battlefield from the very start of the war, but the Russian collapse of 1915 and the precipitate withdrawal had led to massive civilian suffering, which was beyond the capacity of the Central Powers to alleviate. Hence, they encouraged outside agencies, like the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Red Cross, to investigate. This served a double purpose, and German cynicism is rather apparent. First, Polish suffering was largely the fault of Russian ruthlessness and ineptitude, and publicizing it would embarrass the Entente in the eyes of world opinion. This was a peculiarly useful development because London and Paris had been branding Germany since 1914 as barbaric in its occupation of Belgium. Poland was thus the Central Powers’ Belgium. The Germans were quite sincere in wishing to cooperate in any effort to feed starving Poles because they knew that relief could only come by abridging the British blockade of Europe, the principal Allied means for the strategic strangulation of Germany. Feeding the Poles would thus weaken the blockade. Hence, London opposed the Polish relief effort with a passion, and the Germans supported it with convenient humanitarianism.

The chief battleground for Polish relief became the United States. Polish efforts gained much publicity. Moreover, the context was sympathetic: an innocent people made wretched by a war not their own. British opposition and German maneuvering dragged on for months while the Poles starved, and the Americans became exasperated. Gradually a clamor to intervene led to congressional resolutions, and even presidential action, when Wilson offered his services as a mediator in 1916. The result was victory masquerading as defeat. The contradictory strategic goals of the belligerents prevented any serious relief for Poland. However, the arduous and frustrating campaign eventually brought Poland before the eyes of the public, gave Paderewski an emotional platform on which to appeal to the American public, and made Poland a serious cause in America. Relief issues ultimately engaged public figures, including Nevada’s senator Francis Newlands, to inquire, rhetorically, why the Poles, who were suffering so egregiously, should not thereby earn the independence so long denied them. Relief was the bridge that connected the ignorance and apathy that had so long characterized the West’s attitudes toward Poland with the sympathy characteristic of the war’s final stages.

Sympathy is immensely useful, but only if the political forces of the world allow it to be brought to bear. By 1916 this was happening. The Central Powers had decided to seize the initiative regarding Poland and gamble on a new departure regarding the east. On November 5, 1916, Berlin and Vienna jointly proclaimed, in the Two Emperors’ Manifesto, the re-creation of the Polish kingdom. Motivated by everything except concern for the Poles, the manifesto designated no specific territory as constituting the state and made clear its political dependence on the Germanic powers. The initiative regarding the Poles was more prompted by the 1916 battles of Verdun and the Somme, where Germany had sustained gigantic casualties, than by any specific developments in Poland.

By late 1916 the Central Powers were beginning to reach the limits of their manpower potential. Russia, whose military performance had been poor in 1914 and disastrous in 1915, had found new lows in 1916. The east beckoned with strategic opportunity, while the west devoured the dwindling reserves. Poland might be the means of winning the war for the Central Powers if Polish manpower—estimated by the Germans at 1.5 million possible soldiers—could be tapped and the active support of the country could be inspired. These would require major concessions. Only the promise of independence would have the galvanic effect necessary to rally active Polish support. Suddenly, in 1916, the demands of the war had given Poland a leverage it had not had since the partitions. The Central Powers were willing to reverse a century of policy and resurrect the very country they had done so much to destroy. To be sure, they attempted to win the Poles without conceding anything of real significance by ringing the November 5th declaration with vagaries and conditions which, it was hoped, would keep a restored Poland as a small and manageable client state (its borders were not defined, and it was to be closely associated with the Central Powers). After November 5, 1916, the Polish Question in international affairs was fundamentally altered. By proclaiming the restoration of Polish independence, howsoever circumscribed, the Central Powers had loosed a process beyond their ability to control.

The Central Powers’ initiative was quickly echoed. Within a few weeks, the Russians announced that Poland would be autonomous after the war and endorsed the notion of a “free Poland composed of all three now divided parts.” For Paris and London, the Russian announcement, grudging and tardy though they knew it to be, freed them to pursue a more active Polish policy. Their fear was that the Germans, who already controlled the bulk of Polish territory, would, by their November 5th act, capture Polish support as well and in so doing win the military balance in the west. With the Russians finally crowded into concessions, the west could now attempt to enter a bidding war for Polish support, if only to neutralize the Central Powers. Suddenly, everyone was interested in the “Polish Question.”


Poland: War and Independence, 1914–1918 Part II

Józef Piłsudski and members of the Polish legion in Kielce, in front of the Governor’s Palace on August 12, 1914.


Below is a list of prominent Polish battles against the Imperial Russian Army in 1914–16, leading to victories in most cases, with notable exceptions especially during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916.

Polish and German views of the November 5th manifesto, however, were diametrically different. For Berlin, the principal goal was to create a mechanism to recruit Polish manpower while ensuring German strategic domination of the east. Serious work to establish a functioning Polish administration was ignored after initial ceremonial flourishes, but Berlin eagerly strove for recruits. Germany made elaborate plans to attach eastern Poland to Prussia and to subordinate Poland to Germany economically.

Piłsudski entered the new kingdom’s Provisional State Council— supposedly the nucleus of a Polish government, it was essentially a powerless agency under German control—in charge of military affairs, but he was anything but a loyal ally of the Central Powers. Regarded contemptuously by the Germans as a “military dilettante and demagogue,” Piłsudski strove for maximum concessions for Polish autonomy, arguing that a “real” Polish army would require the prior establishment of a “real” Polish government, which the Germans would not grant. Convinced that possibilities for collaboration with the Central Powers were limited, Piłsudski bided his time and increasingly relied on his recently formed Polish Military Organization (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa [POW]), a secret network composed of his most devoted followers. To a close collaborator, he predicted an imminent revolution in Russia and mused: “Now let Roman Dmowski play his hand. I gave him an ace to use [i.e., the Legions]; let him make a play; let him demand more from the other side.”

Piłsudski did not have to wait long; 1917 was crowded with events crucial to the reemergence of Poland. On January 22, in a speech to the U.S. Senate, President Wilson cited “a united, independent, and autonomous Poland” as exemplifying the better world to emerge from a just conclusion to the war. This was a significant development because the United States was the first major power to adopt a Polish policy before belligerency, and it was one not obviously calculated for any military advantage.

Several months of complicated maneuvering followed to determine the center of gravity of Polish politics. Essentially there were three foci, each with distinctive advantages and disadvantages. In Western Europe was Dmowski and his pro-Entente nationalists. Having abandoned Russia in 1915, Dmowski had concentrated his attentions on London and Paris, but he was frustrated by the Western powers’ willingness to concede to the Russians all initiative regarding Polish matters. However, by 1917, Russia’s collapse and the prospect of the Poles being railed behind the Central Powers finally opened possibilities for movement. After many preparatory steps, Dmowski created the Polish National Committee (Komitet Narodowy Polski [KNP]) in Paris to coordinate action in the west in August 1917. The KNP, composed exclusively of Dmowski’s political allies on the Right, was little more than an extension of his will, despite its impressive membership list. The KNP’s access to Paris and London was an émigré organization, a political general staff without an army hoping to be taken seriously by the Western governments. Ultimately the KNP’s success would depend on matters beyond its control: the Western countries had to regard Poland as sufficiently weighty in the war to need someone, indeed anyone plausible, to represent Poland. Since the West would need the KNP almost as much as the KNP needed the West, both could overlook the fact that the KNP was a self-appointed factional group quite out of touch with Poland. Second, the KNP would be as influential as Paris and London were decisive in determining allied Polish policy. Dmowski had staked everything on the wager that the Polish Question would be decided in Western Europe. He had guessed wrong earlier when he lingered in Russia and almost guessed wrong again.

For a while it looked as though the decisive locus in Polish affairs would move across the Atlantic to the United States with Paderewski as the chief spokesperson. Various Polish organizations in the United States gave him the right to do virtually anything at any time in their name. Moreover, Paderewski had consolidated his status as the unofficial ambassador of Poland in Washington, D.C. The Wilson administration regarded the maestro as the preemptive authority regarding Polish affairs. But, in fact, the maestro had little influence on American policy toward Poland. Washington’s sympathy for the cause of Polish independence was rather vague, circumscribed, and uninformed. It did not envision a large role for Poland in postwar Europe.

As America moved toward entering the war in 1917, Paderewski planned to stage a virtual coup in international Polish politics. He would try to convince Washington to let him create an army of 100,000 or more from among the Poles living in North America. An intimate of Wilson, the leader of millions of American Poles, with a military force to throw into the war, Paderewski would be transformed from the spiritual inspiration of his countrymen to their political leader.

The final locus in the determination of Polish affairs was the occupied homeland. Here, both the advantages and the problems were considerable. Obviously, Polish politics in the homeland would be significant to all Poles. If the Poles of Warsaw spoke freely, those in Chicago or Paris would fall silent. However, Warsaw was under German domination, and Polish efforts there seemed crushed by the sheer weight of German military power. Piłsudski, as was so often the case, was prescient when he anticipated that for much of 1917 the tempo in Polish matters would be set outside the country.

In March 1917 the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsarist government, and power passed to a fragile dual authority of radical socialists in the so-called Soviet and moderate parliamentarians of the Provisional Government—which shared power unevenly and jealously in Russia. One of the first acts of each of the authorities was to announce the freedom of Poland. The Provisional Government called for an independent Polish state, reuniting its three historic parts, and denounced tsarist policy regarding the Poles as “hypocritical.” This reborn Poland, however, was to be “united with Russia by a free military alliance,” a condition wisely not defined. The Soviets outbid their rivals in magnanimity by calling for Poland’s “complete independence.” Polish political activity exploded in Russia after the revolution; emphasis was placed on the creation of a separate Polish army. Previous efforts along these lines had produced virtually nothing, but with 600,000 Poles serving in Russian ranks, the possibility of a major, distinctly Polish, force on the eastern front was a tremendous attraction to Polish leaders in Russia and abroad. Piłsudski even mused over the idea of leaving German-controlled Warsaw and somehow taking control of Polish soldiers in Russia. Not only were the Poles aware of this military potential. Buoyed by the change in Russian policy, Paris and London now hoped to engage the Central Powers in competition for Polish military and political support.

On April 2, 1917, the United States entered the war against Germany. Two days later, Paderewski addressed a huge Polish throng in Pittsburgh and called for the immediate creation of a Polish military force in America, before general mobilization caused Polonia’s manpower to be “lost imperceptibly in an enormous American sea.” The Kos ´ciuszko’s Army, of at least 100,000, was to be offered to the Americans as a distinct unit of its national forces.

Rather than embrace Kos ´ciuszko’s Army, Washington dithered and delayed. The Wilson administration viewed a separate Polish force as, at least, a distraction and at worst a contradiction to the unity of its armed forces. Paderewski watched helplessly as his dreams of leading Polish affairs from America aborted, dispersed in a sea of bureaucratic confusion. He broke down under stress and frustration.

The KNP suffered almost the same fate. In June 1917 the French government suddenly announced the creation of an autonomous Polish army to be recruited from Poles worldwide. The KNP, though headquartered in Paris, was stunned by a development not of its own design, but it quickly maneuvered to endorse it. Paderewski and the American Poles tried desperately to oppose the effort.

This struggle between European and American Polonia for leadership in émigré politics was coupled with a larger struggle over which great power would be the principal patron of the Polish national movement. Ultimately France, and hence the KNP, won, because the Americans showed themselves to be too unconcerned, and the British decided to support the French in face of American procrastination.

By the end of summer, a Polish army was being recruited—the fitful and clumsy product of Allied compromise and confusion— mostly in the United States. Paderewski reluctantly endorsed the project, which had supplanted his own, and accepted membership in Dmowski’s KNP as well as functional subordination. Dmowski made efforts to salve the maestro’s gargantuan vanity by giving him limitless authority in America, which he would have exercised anyway. The army was raised largely by the paramilitary Polish Falcons organization in America, trained in Canada, and financed by the French on loans largely from Americans. It recruited about 25,000, a quarter the number anticipated. The KNP became the “political directing authority” for the army and began pressing for recognition as a virtual Polish government-in-exile. It never reached its goal, but by late 1917 all the Allies, including the United States, had agreed on some formulation that designated the KNP as the representative of Polish interests.

The KNP also gained the right to name the commander of its growing army, more than 100,000 by war’s end, and chose Colonel Józef Haller. Haller, an Austrian Pole, who had served in the Habsburg army and commanded a brigade in the Polish Legions, was brave, patriotic, and melodramatic. Politically unlettered and already promoted beyond his military competence, Haller was no threat to the political leadership of the KNP.

At the same time Dmowski’s KNP also effectively consolidated the Poles of Russia, thus rendering the KNP, and really Dmowski, the principal Polish leader outside the occupied homeland. The task of the KNP was to crowd the Allied governments into clear declarations of support for the restoration of Poland at war’s end. This proved a formidable task as the belligerent governments were reluctant to tie their hands regarding European reconstruction while the war still raged. After much lobbying by the Poles, the Allies issued a series of pronouncements which included an independent Poland as a component of a worthy peace. None, however, included specifics or elevated Poland to a fundamental war aim.

In January 1918 Wilson included Poland as the thirteenth of his famous “Fourteen Points”:

An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

Despite elation over the fact of Wilson’s pronouncement, most Poles were disquieted after a careful reading of the text. The thirteenth point was a compromise between Wilson’s sincere but uninformed championing of the cause of Polish independence and the extremely cautious recommendations of his principal advisory body, the so-called Inquiry. Fundamentally, Wilson’s Poland ignored Poland’s historic borders. It was to be designed within problematical so-called ethnographic boundaries. Without a specific coastline, it was to have, somehow, “access to the sea.” Even more threatening, the Sixth of the Fourteen Points speaks of the liberation of “Russian territory” without any indication of what constitutes that territory: would it, too, be ethnographically determined? Or, by implication, would the historic multinational Russian Empire be reconstructed? Poland’s national security was so tenuous that its survival would depend on the workings of some “international covenant.” Moreover, the whole project was only a good idea—something that “should” eventuate—not a necessity. Thus, Wilson’s Poland was far from that envisaged by the Poles. What Wilson was trying to do was maintain a conservative retention of traditional European geopolitics under the gaudy distraction of grand pronouncements. With no word about a free Ukraine, Lithuania, or Belarus, and Poland confined to ahistorical ethnography, the historic rapacity of Russian aggression was being enshrined. It was, as Piłsudski ruefully snorted, “American palavering.”

Piłsudski appeared to be in political eclipse as Polish events accelerated in the west. Continued frustration in working with the Germans helped convince him that cooperation with the Central Powers was rapidly ending. The Bolshevik Revolution—which overthrew the short-lived Provisional Government and brought Communism to power in November 1917—plunged Russia into chaos and civil war, the Polish Question shifted dramatically. The eastern front was ending. When the new Communist authorities of Russia began conducting armistice negotiations with the Central Powers in December, Piłsudski had to reorient himself to a new reality in which, as noted by historian Piotr Wandycz, the Central Powers, resurgent after Russia’s collapse, had become “the main obstacle to the realization of Poland’s independence.”

Piłsudski and his associates resigned from the German-created Provisional Council of State. Most of the legionnaires refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Central Powers and were arrested, as were Piłsudski and his chief of staff, Kazimierz Sosnkowski, both of whom were sent to Germany and imprisoned at the fortress of Magdeburg in late July 1917. The Legions were effectively dead, and Polish relations with the Central Powers had been reversed from careful cooperation to hostility. The POW began to plan a coup d’état. The German hopes of using the November 5th proclamation to create a major Polish army had proven a fiasco; only a handful had been recruited. However, with the war victoriously concluded in the east, the Germans no longer needed the Poles.

In fact, the Polish position in the east deteriorated rapidly after late 1917. At the peace negotiations between the new Bolshevik government of Russia and the Central Powers which opened at Brest-Litovsk in December 1917, Polish interests were dealt with complete cynicism. The supposed government in Warsaw —little more than a puppet administration—was not allowed to attend the negotiations. A separate treaty with the Ukrainians gave them a slice of eastern Poland, and Austria made a secret promise to divide Galicia into Polish and Ukrainian administrations, destroying the historic unity of Austrian Poland. The Central Powers had decided at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded in March 1918, to jettison the Poles for new clients in the east. Berlin was busily fostering Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and even Belarusian schemes of independence to hem in the Poles geographically and render them politically docile. Outraging the Poles was a minor inconvenience if the war could be won rapidly in the west, and new, weaker, and more pliable clients could be found in the east. The Austrians had long toyed with the idea of playing the Poles off against the Ukrainians in another chapter of traditional Habsburg divide and conquer tactics. Vienna was virtually a spent force, and its capacity to influence Polish affairs was minimal. Berlin had assumed the dominant voice here as well.

Polish reaction to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was massive and immediate. The pro-Austria camp disintegrated, the Council of State resigned, Polish units in Austrian service mutinied, Piłsudski’s POW redoubled its activities, and armed clashes with the German occupation authorities broke out. The pro–Central Powers orientation in Polish politics had collapsed in the last months of the war.

Fortunately for the Poles, the brief German window of opportunity, created by victory in the east, did not stay open long enough for them to reposition in the west in sufficient time and force to achieve victory there as well. By November 11, 1918, the Germans had been defeated in the west and signed the armistice. The Habsburgs had not lasted that long. In the capital of their zone of occupation, Lublin, a prominent Polish socialist, Ignacy Daszyński, declared a People’s Government. In Galicia itself the Austrian administration collapsed, and the Poles simply took over. From the ruins Austria sued for peace. Similarly, German authority had collapsed in Warsaw where, on November 10, 1918, Piłsudski arrived by train after his release from German imprisonment. He had only one uniform and had worn it in confinement for sixteen months; he was exhausted, sick, and ragged. He was also the chief of state of reborn Poland.

Poland’s reemergence in November 1918 occurred under conditions of almost indescribable confusion. Piłsudski, regarded as a national hero, quickly dominated the scene in Warsaw, but how far his writ ran was problematical at best. To the Western powers he was either an unknown with a revolutionary past or, worse, a German hireling who had fallen out with his masters. In the west the KNP represented Poland, albeit with ambiguous authority. Paderewski was in many ways an independent contractor, officially merely the KNP’s Washington representative, but still harboring huge ambitions to play, with American support, the dominant role in Polish affairs. By war’s end, Dmowski did not trust the maestro, whom he suspected, quite correctly, of poor judgment. Reciprocally, Paderewski resented Dmowski’s ruthless insistence on maintaining all real power in his own hands, trying to be both philosopher and architect of Poland’s future.

In Poland the situation was chaotic and threatening. The only uniformity was ruination. The majority of economic assets in Poland had been destroyed; more than three-fourths of the factories were idle; less than half, and in many areas only a quarter, of the arable land was under cultivation; much of the livestock of the country had been lost. German (and to a lesser extent Austrian) requisitioning had carried off stocks of raw materials, industrial equipment, and spare parts; their systematic deforestation had caused incalculable harm. Human losses were staggering: there were more than 500,000 Polish soldiers killed in World War I, and another million casualties: Polish soldiers in foreign uniforms. Civilian deaths are uncountable.

The Poland that reemerged in 1918 was a ruined county with an impoverished and hungry population. Currency confusion and inflation led to black markets, speculation, and disorder. That such a country avoided revolution, became integrated, and survived large-scale struggles that lasted until 1920 was little short of miraculous.

But what Poland had emerged? Had the events of 1914–1918 overturned the partitions and returned Europe to 1795, or was this to be a new state, part of the architecture of a new continent? If so, what principles would be used to reconstruct Poland, and what would be the result for the Poles and for the world?

The Plains of Poland

The Second World War began with a terrific gamble. At dawn on 1 September 1939, a huge German army rolled across the 1,250-mile Polish border. The attack was spearheaded by Panzers, seven divisions of them. No one had tried such a strategy before. It was not one of the terror tactics that the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War that had raged for the previous three years. The deployment of Panzers in Spain was considered largely a failure. When German tanks rolled over the border into Austria in 1938, at least 30 per cent had broken down before they reached Vienna. Things went little smoother during the occupation of Czechoslovakia the following year. The crews lacked the experience to fix mechanical problems on the spot and a tank broken down on a bridge or a narrow road could hold up a whole brigade. They also destroyed the surface of the roads they used, slowing those who followed. Fuel was another problem. The Wehrmacht, the German army, quickly realised that there was more to tanks than guns and armour. They were going to have to learn a whole new discipline – the art of mechanised warfare.

However, there were a handful of men who believed that tank warfare would work on the plains of Poland. Hitler was among them. The proper use of the Panzer, he believed, was something that would have to be learnt in war itself.

The first lesson, it was believed, should be easy. The Poles had just one armoured brigade, 660 tanks in all versus Germany’s 2,100. Although the Polish army would outnumber the attacking Germans once it had all been mustered, the Poles started out with seventeen ill-equipped infantry divisions, three infantry brigades and six cavalry brigades – real cavalry brigades with horses, not the armoured units cavalry later became. However, the German High Command was not 100 per cent confident of victory. Orders issued in Berlin in 1939 stated:

No tanks must fall into enemy hands without the crew and the crews of neighbouring tanks doing their utmost to rescue or destroy it. A crew may abandon an immobilised tank only if they have run out of ammunition or can no longer fire, and if other vehicles cannot be expected to save it… If there is a risk that the tank may fall into enemy hands, it should be destroyed. Waste wool, combustible material, ammunition, etc. inside the vehicle should be soaked with fuel (possibly by ripping out the fuel pipe) and the vehicle is to be set on fire.

The German Panzer spearhead would be followed by four motorised infantry divisions, four light divisions and forty regular infantry divisions. The Germans also had overwhelming superiority in the air. The Polish Air Force had just 842 obsolescent planes, while the Luftwaffe, the German air force, could put 4,700 modern aircraft in the air. One tactic the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War was the terror bombing of civilian targets, including, infamously, the Basque market town of Guernica.

The Poles also believed that the French would attack Germany in the rear, across Germany’s western frontier. When they finally did, they sent insufficient forces and it was too late. The Soviet Union – Russia and its Communist satellites – would be no help. It had signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, which publicly guaranteed that the two nations would not attack each other and privately divided Poland between them. Poland was on its own and its cavalry lances would be matched against the monstrous new machines of war: the Panzers.

The Luftwaffe wiped out the Polish air force in the first two days. This left the sky clear for German Stukas to dive-bomb Polish columns which did more to dent the morale of raw Polish recruits than inflict physical damage. What tanks the Polish did possess were dispersed throughout the army, which itself made the fatal mistake of trying to defend the entire length of the border. The Panzers concentrated on weak points and broke through. They penetrated deep into the country, then fanned out, isolating and encircling Polish units. When they came across Polish strongpoints, they simply bypassed them and allowed the bombers to take care of them later. And if they could not simply outflank a heavily fortified Polish position, they waited for the infantry and artillery to catch up, then launched a conventional assault on the stronghold.

The Poles did not grasp the full extent of the threat posed by the German armour and believed that, once they had fallen back to a defensive line, they could hold it. But the speed and depth of the Panzers’ thrusts caused confusion and the dive-bombing of undefended towns choked the roads with refugees. This was all part of Panzer theory. The idea was to prevent the enemy from using the road network to bring up reinforcements or regroup its forces. After all, civilians on the roads were no hindrance to the advancing Panzers. The refugees were simply machine-gunned from the air, producing further panic – and further obstacles to advancing Polish forces.

After the First World War, Poland had been recreated with two million Germans living within its borders. Some were involved in active sabotage. Others spread rumours of German victories, the inevitability of Polish defeat and the cowardice and deceit of Poland’s leaders. This tactic, known as Schrecklichkeit, ‘frightfulness’, again sapped morale.

The Panzers led four deep thrusts into Poland. Two came directly from the German Reich itself, led by the XIX Panzer Corps and the XVI Panzer Corps heading for Warsaw, via Bydgoszcz and Lodz respectively. A southern thrust from Slovakia, led by the 2nd and 5th Panzer Divisions, headed through Chelm to Brest-Litovsk, where they were to meet up with the Third Army, led by elements of XIX Panzer Corps. This came via East Prussia, a part of Germany separated from the Reich by the ‘Polish Corridor’ which, under the Treaty of Versailles, gave Poland access to the Baltic. The Southern Army Group was under the command of General Karl von Rundstedt, whose chief of staff was General Erich von Manstein. The Northern Army Group was commanded by General Fedor von Bock.

The attack began at 0445 on Friday 1 September when the German naval training ship Schleswig Holstein began bombarding the Polish Corridor. The Luftwaffe then bombed the Polish airfields. At 0800 a large formation of tanks from the German 4th Panzer Division arrived at the positions held by the Polish cavalry brigade Wolynska Brygada Kawalerii. They came under fire from machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and retreated to the village of Wilkowiecko. The Polish cavalry were then dive-bombed, causing the horses to stampede. A swarm of Panzers then left Wilkowiecko to attack the Polish 21st Lancers, who were now fighting on foot along the edge of Mokra Wood, but they were forced to withdraw leaving four burning tanks behind them. Renewed Stuka attacks and an artillery barrage left the villages of Mokra I, II and III in flames. Polish casualties were high. Nevertheless, when the Panzers went in again, several were hit and caught fire, and escaping crews were captured by the lancers.

The Germans aimed their main attack at the 4th Troop of the 21st Lancers. But at 1100 hrs, shortly before they reached the lancers’ position, the Polish Armoured Platoon arrived and began bombarding them with 10cm howitzers and 7.5cm field guns. The Germans retreated behind Wilkowiecko, leaving crews behind on the battlefield in their wrecked tanks to be captured by the Poles. This was going to be no pushover.

Around this time the Reich Press Chief, Otto Dietrich, issued an edict that the word ‘war’ was to be avoided in press reports at all costs, stressing that the Polish ambassador was still in Berlin. Even the Polish News Agency said that the fighting was ‘confined to border zones’. But the German First Lieutenant W. Reibel took part in the attack and described the scene:

The bow waves crashed around the tanks, spraying a cool shower over many a driver who crosses the river too fast. To our left is a blown-up railway bridge, at the edge of the road is a dead Polish soldier. It really is a strange feeling to know that now we have left Germany and are standing on Polish soil. Far away we hear the weak barking of a machine gun. Somewhere there is a hollow thunder of cannon – the first signs of war. Ahead of us lies a village. According to the map it must be Mokra III. The name means nothing to us yet. It’s just a village like any other. But what would we have done if we had known? There! Arriving at the last houses in the village we hear rifle and machine gun fire, then comes the order: ‘Prepare for combat.’ The shooting steps up… projectiles strike the tank with a bright clang. Trenches crisscross our attack zone, marshy meadows impair our progress. Yet we roll on relentlessly… Slowly we reach the edge of the wood and push into a forest lane, my company ahead of me. All hell has broken loose here. Ahead of us is an embankment with an underpass. Bullets are cracking and roaring like mad… A lot of vehicles from 2nd Company and our company are now standing in the forest lane. Suddenly a tank that had already pushed through the underpass goes up in flames. Damn the lot of them. It’s an anti-tank force… Many a dear comrade was missing when we assembled. Their tanks turned into iron graves. Our company too has suffered its first deaths… A short time later our company too marched back to the resting area… The burning villages lit the horizon with a red glow. Then came a sudden cry: ‘Polish cavalry approaching to the left’ and we seized our weapons again. But it was a false alarm. Herds of riderless horses were searching for human beings.

Nevertheless, the Wolynska cavalry brigade succeeded in holding up the advance of the German 4th Panzer Division for a whole day.

Official sources in Germany told a different story. After reporting ‘an almost grotesque attack on some of our tanks by a Polish lancer regiment with what annihilating consequences one can easily imagine’, the army propaganda sheet Die Wehrmacht went on to say:

Even the anti-tank guns which the Poles believed could easily halt the advance of our tanks were soon revealed as too weak. In one battle a single German heavy tank annihilated two gun crews with a single shot and then crushed the guns themselves under its heavy track chains. Incidentally, the tank driver, a very young second lieutenant, shortly afterwards stopped a railroad train loaded with Polish reservists, forced them to climb out and herded them along – 400 men in all – in the van of his tank.

On 2 September, the Polish army was forced to retreat under intense pressure from the XV Panzer Corps under General Hoth and the XVI Panzer Corps under General Hoepner who threatened to encircle it from the south. Meanwhile at the head of the XIX Panzer Corps, the armoured spearhead of the Northern Army Groups, was General Heinz Guderian, the great theorist of Panzer warfare. Now, at last, he could now see his theories being put into practice. He believed that it was essential for a Panzer commander to be in the forefront of the action with his men. Reporting the situation back to an HQ in the rear then waiting for orders to be sent forward again would slow progress.

The fast-moving nature of this new type of mechanised warfare meant that troops were liable to shoot first and ask questions later. Consequently, Germans ended up firing on other Germans who had turned up in unexpected places. Nevertheless Guderian soon proved the worth of his ‘command from forward’ system. All the armoured unit commanders were kept as far forward as possible, allowing them to issue commands by radio direct to the Panzers and infantry troops following. This meant they could take rapid advantage of any situation. However, stationing the commander forward when the lines are fluid had its own dangers. Guderian found himself under shellfire from his own artillery who were firing haphazardly through the mist and was lucky to escape with his life. The Luftwaffe general in charge of close air support was also fired on by his own troops, even though his plane clearly carried German markings.

The Poles also claimed some initial successes. On 5 September, their news agency reported: ‘A successful Polish counter-attack has been reported against motorised divisions advancing towards Bieradz in southern Poland. The enemy abandoned considerable numbers of assault vehicles and motor cars whose occupants were taken prisoner. There were many captives.’

There were other setbacks. Panzers outran their fuel supplies, blocking the roads when they ran out of petrol. Again there was a high level of breakdowns. No less than a quarter of the tanks were out of action at any one time. This was an improvement on the 30 per cent breakdown rate they had experienced before, though all the vehicles needed an overhaul by the end of the campaign. However the Panzers played a decisive role in the remarkable success of the Polish campaign. The Wehrmacht, under another important advocate of the Panzer, General Walther von Reichenau, covered the 140 miles to the outskirts of Warsaw in just seven days. Guderian made even more ground in lightning thrusts with two Panzer divisions and two motorised divisions moulded into a single corps. His XIX Corps covered 200 miles in ten days cutting through the Narev Operational Group and destroying the Polish Eighteenth Army for the loss of only 4 per cent of its strength: 650 killed and 1,586 wounded and missing. And General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, Panzer commander in Spain, managed to infiltrate 50 miles though thick, though undefended, woods to turn the Polish flank at the Jablunka pass.

But the Panzers acted as a cutting edge rather than as an independent force. Their six armoured divisions comprised just 11 per cent of the Wehrmacht’s strength and they were given strict orders not to outpace the infantry. The Panzers were still strictly under the command of their larger army groups. Training regulations maintained that tanks were only allowed to open fire independently ‘when breaching the enemy or to ward off impending attack’.

It was only on 8 September, when it became clear that the Southern Army Group had not managed to occupy Warsaw that Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps were allowed to leave the Third Army behind and race south-eastwards to take Brest-Litovsk, a hundred miles beyond the Polish capital to the east. But Guderian’s success, according to von Manstein, was due to Germany’s success in the air, rather than the Panzers themselves.

‘What decided the battles,’ he wrote, ‘was the almost complete elimination of the enemy’s air force and the crippling of his staff communications and transport network by the effective attacks of our Luftwaffe.’

But Die Wehrmacht lauded the success of the 15th and 16th Panzers, who had fought their way through to the outskirts of Warsaw on 6 September: ‘Our spearhead rapidly reached the hills on the side of the river. The enemy artillery fired but our tanks rolled undeterred towards their targets along roundabout routes, under cover of farmsteads and underbrush. As the sun sank towards the west, our tanks penetrated the city under their protective fire, German combat engineers crossed the river so as to get behind and destroy the enemy still resisting in the city. While the armoured spearhead was still securing the river crossing, the second wave of tanks was already rolling up. It was led by a general travelling in a command tank studded with antiaircraft machine guns. Reinforcement Panzer units and mobile divisions rolled up in an irresistible train over twelve miles long.’

A defence of the city had been hastily prepared. But by 8 September, Panzers had entered Warsaw. However, the 4th Panzer Division met dogged resistance in the city and 57 of the 120 attacking tanks were lost in just three hours. On the 11th, there was a report of a Polish counter-attack which claimed to have smashed eighteen tanks. Although the Poles claimed on 14 September to have set more tanks on fire, and captured several anti-tank guns in skirmishes in the capital, the German thrust into Poland had been so swift that it was impossible for the Poles to pull back enough of their army to mount a concerted defence of the city.

The Myth of Polish Cavalry Charges Against Tanks in September 1939

While resistance inside the capital continued, the Polish cavalry took on the Panzers, according to Guderian. The British advocate of mechanised warfare Basil Liddell Hart also wrote of ‘gallant but fantastic charges with sword and lance’. However, it is probably a myth. Denis Hills, a Briton who was in Poland at the time, dismissed this ‘Balaclava stuff’ as ‘a bit of fantasy’. Though the Polish lancers would have come up against Nazi Panzers, they were far more effective against infantry battalions. At dawn on 9 September, the 3rd Light Horse Regiment of the Suwalki Cavalry Brigade charged a column of transport trucks just north of the Zambrow Forest, but only after they had been softened up by machine-gun fire from men hidden in the woods.

‘The command “Draw sabres, gallop, march!” flew down the lines,’ according to platoon commander M. Kamil Dziewanowski. ‘Reins were gripped tighter. The riders bent forward in the saddles and they rushed forward like a mad whirlwind.’

This, the last Polish cavalry charge in history, turned the Germans into ‘a frantic mob’ who were quickly overrun with negligible Polish losses.

‘The morning sun was high when our bugler blew assembly,’ Dziewanowski went on. ‘We came up slowly, driving our prisoners ahead of us. We took about two hundred men, most of them insane from fright.’

Dziewanowski said that, although his proud cavalry brigade did turn themselves into ‘an outfit of tank hunters’ that autumn, they had more sense than to attack them with sabres. Instead, daredevils among them crept up on the German tanks at night and threw Molotov cocktails at them, or blew their tracks off with hand grenades.

After this one last charge, the cavalry’s horses were too hungry and exhausted to mount anything like it again. However, the myth of the Polish cavalry taking on the Panzers persists. The reason may be that Polish, like the British, love stories of heroic defeat. After years of suffering under Nazi, then Soviet, tyranny, they have clutched onto the romantic idea of gallant Polish cavalry officers digging their spurs into their horses’ flanks and galloping heroically at the invading Nazi divisions. In fact, the origin of story probably lies in Nazi propaganda – Germany, a great twentieth-century power, was crushing primitive Poland, stuck in the eighteenth.

On 17 September, Soviet forces entered Poland from the east. The country was divided between Germany and Russia along the lines of the secret protocol that accompanied the Non-Aggression Pact. On the morning of 18 September, the Polish government and high command crossed the Rumanian frontier into exile and formal resistance was over. The Warsaw garrison held out against the Germans until 28 September, while terror-bombings and artillery barrages reduced parts of the city to rubble and the civilian population were starved and denied water. The last serious body of the Polish Army held out until 5 October, though some guerrilla fighting went on into the winter. By then Poland as an independent state had been removed from the maps.

However, while the Poles were ill-equipped and unsupported, the invasion of Poland was not the bloodless victory that the Germans had expected, or the Panzers had hoped for. The Germans lost 10,572 killed in action. Another 5,029 were listed as ‘missing’, but as the country was completely overrun it can be assumed that they were not taken prisoner. And 30,332 Germans were wounded.

Of the 2,100 tanks that took part in the attack on Poland, 218 were destroyed. Fifty-seven of those were lost in heavy fighting in the streets of Warsaw. Tanks are not well suited to fighting in the confined conditions of city streets, where they are vulnerable to attack from the side and above. Against such a weak enemy a 10 per cent loss was considered high. Few faced anti-tank guns. When they did it was discovered that the smaller Panzer Is and IIs had neither the strength nor the firepower required for all-out mechanised warfare. It was found that the four divisions of light tanks were of little use, even in the ideal conditions of Poland. As a result four more Panzer divisions were created, bringing the total to ten and each was assigned its own Luftwaffe unit. From now on, armour and air power would work hand in hand.

The campaign had also shown up problems with the motorised infantry troops assigned to Panzer divisions. They had been carried in trucks, aptly known as ‘soft-skinned vehicles’ which presented easy targets to the enemy. This made the drivers cautious and large gaps opened up between them and the Panzer spearhead. Meanwhile, the infantry itself, which was on foot, was left far behind, along with the horse-drawn transports that the Germans used throughout the war.

During the Polish campaign, the rivers did not present the obstacles that the Panzer commanders had feared. Although none of the 1939 generation of tanks was amphibious, mobile bridging units were brought up rapidly from the rear and the Poles were too disorganised to mass their forces on the far bank. The Germans also learnt that the Soviet tanks had thin, out-dated armour, and that their crews were often undisciplined. When the Soviets attacked Finland on 30 November 1939, their tanks could not overcome the Finnish tank hurdles and fell victim to anti-tank guns bought in Sweden. They could not cross rocky terrain. Traps were laid using felled trees and huge boulders, and slit trenches were used to conceal a soldier. When a tank appeared the man would toss a hand grenade under its gears to put it out of action. By 29 December, the Finns had destroyed 271 Russian tanks.

However, the Western Allies learnt little from the Polish Campaign. They dismissed many of the reports they received of lightning thrusts by armoured columns as the ravings of a demoralised people reeling under the shock of defeat. Allied strategists also failed to pick up the fact that the Panzers had not confined themselves to the wide open plains of Poland that would normally be considered perfect tank country, but had also pushed through heavily–wooded areas and over hills. Just eight months later the Western Allies would be surprised when the Panzers attacked through the heavily-wooded Ardennes, an area they would break through again in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1939 though, British and French military thinking was still mired in the mud of the First World War. Although forward-thinking strategists had developed the theory of mechanised warfare, those in command had turned a deaf ear and for the next three years the Panzer would reign supreme.


Territory of the State of the Teutonic Order between 1260 and 1410; the locations and dates of major battles, including the Battle of Grunwald, are indicated by crossed red swords.

In military history the Poles celebrate their spectacular victory at Tannenberg, or Grünwald, over the Teutonic Order with special reverence, this is because the victory ensured that the newly created Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania survived and could put a halt to the advance of the German order.

The Teutonic Order had been founded as a Crusader order of knights at Acre in 1190 but transferred its seat of war in the name of Holy Christ to the Baltic, fighting Prussian, Latvian, Livonian and Estonian pagans. The pagan Prusy raided across the frontier into the Polish Duchy of Masovia and in order to put a stop to these attacks Duke Conrad invited the Teutonic Order to counter this menace. The knights arrived in 1230 and had crushed the Prusy within a decade of fierce fighting. But once their mission had been accomplished these increasingly unwelcome alien intruders refused to return to Germany. The Teutonic Order continued to expand and by 1283 controlled both western and eastern Pruthenia (Prussia) stretching from the Vistida River in the west to the port of Memel in the east. Later on, by merging with the Order of the Sword, the Teutonic Order gained control over the great trading port of Riga and the lands of Estonia, Livonia, Latvia and Courland. The order now controlled the entire eastern coastline of the Baltic and was a regional great power backed by a superlative army. Military might made the Teutonic Order unpleasant neighbours for Poland and Lithuania and for the Russian principality of Novgorod. Conquest by the Teutons was followed by colonization by German peasants and in 40 short years (1310-50) some 1400 German villages were established in Prussia.

The Teutonic Order’s inexorable Drang nach Osten (March to the East) was greatly facilitated by the state of political chaos and division that reigned in Poland during the 1200s – the country was divided into a series of squabbling duchies and lacked a united front against the German menace to the west and north. In 1320 Poland was united under King Wladislaw I (1260-1333; reigned 1320-33), and then in 1386 Wladislaw Jagiello (c. 1350-1434), the Grand Duke of Lithuania, married Queen Jadwiga of Poland. Two sworn enemies had united against the Teutonic Order, and the Lithuanians, by turning to Catholicism, deprived the order of a propaganda weapon – they were no longer fighting `pagans’. The Poles wanted a corridor to the sea and coveted above all the port city of Danzig but their overriding ambition – in the long term – was no doubt to crush the order once and for all. The order for its part saw its role as continuing the expansion ever southwards and eastwards at the expense of the Poles and Lithuanians. An uneasy period of `peace’ came to an end when the order and Poland-Lithuania clashed over the fate of the province of Samogitia.

Of the two sides, the order was militarily the stronger and more experienced. They had known almost constant success during the previous century and a half against Slav and pagan enemies. The core of their army consisted of the 2-3000-strong Teutonic Knights themselves. They were superbly mounted, armoured, armed and disciplined. In conventional cavalry battles between armoured knights they had few equals. But during the previous decades they had had to supplement their cavalry arm with a numerous German and European mercenary infantry force and specialist troops such as English archers, Genoese crossbowmen and Italian artillery. All in all the order was a formidable war machine compared with its enemies.

The united Royal, or Commonwealth, army under King Jagiello was in fact composed of two entirely different armies that had almost nothing in common in tactics, strategy, combat experience or equipment. The striking arm of the Polish army was its cavalry, which was composed of proud, aggressive and bold armoured knights on some of the finest mounts in Europe. These knights were, man for man, more than a match for their Teutonic enemy. But as for the infantry, it was as poorly equipped and disciplined as the cavalry were not. The Polish infantry was made up of peasant levies with only the most rudimentary weaponry, armour, training and discipline. They were no match for the Teutonic Knights in open battle except in terms of their customary almost suicidal Polish bravery. The Lithuanian army was more Asiatic than European in training, equipment and tactics since it had spent the last centuries fighting and defeating the formidable Mongols across western Russia. As a consequence they relied upon lightly armed and armoured cavalry that was highly mobile and fought the enemy with lightning raids, skirmishes and ambushes. It also contained a large contingent of `Tartar’ (Mongol) cavalry who served as mercenaries and were armed with bows and lassos and mounted on small shaggy steppe ponies. Although these Asian warriors and the Lithuanians were superb light cavalry they were of dubious value in a pitched battle against Teutonic Knights.


In December 1409 Jagiello and his cousin. Grand Duke Witold, Viceroy of Lithuania, met at Brest-Litovsk to discuss the forthcoming campaign. They agreed their armies would combine at Czerwinsk on the Vistula – it was not only equidistant between them but provided a safe and well-protected point to cross the mighty river. Meanwhile Jagiello secured a diplomatic triumph when he got the Landmeister (Master) of the Livonian Knights to agree to a truce. The Lithuanians thus would not face a diversionary attack in the rear from Livonia. The King of Hungary assured Jagiello that his alliance with the order, signed in March 1410, was not worth the paper it was written on: he would not take to the field with a large army. Thus Poland’s rear was also secured.

To keep the order guessing as to what their enemy’s intention was Witold sent Lithuanian forces against Memel while Jagiello’s forces raided the Pomeranian frontier. Jagiello wanted the order to believe that this was where he would attack. But the first ordeal was simply getting his Polish army across the Vistula. A pontoon bridge spanned the 601m (550-yard) wide river at Czerwinsk and it took the Poles three days to get across. By 30 June Jagiello’s Poles and Witold’s Lithuanians had combined. As they set off on 2 July the Bishop of Plock gave the troops a stirring sermon to fight the enemy to the death. His words would no doubt resound on the battlefield.

Meanwhile the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen, had failed to concentrate his army, as he was still in the dark about the intentions of his enemy. But he was quite sure the Poles and Lithuanians were easy prey – he could not believe the Poles (whom he looked upon as Slav `barbarians’) were technically advanced enough to construct pontoon bridges. As Jagiello’s army moved north from Gzerwinsk Ulrich was forced to move his army from Pomerania to Kurzetnik on the Drweya River. On 9 July the allied army crossed into Prussia singing Bogurodzica (Mother of God) having covered 90kni (82 miles) in a mere eight days. The following day the Polish-Lithuanian army camped at Lake Ruhkowo, opposite Kurzetnik where the order had erected a strong line of fixed defences. Jagiello was now commander-in¬ chief of the combined Royal army while Pan Zyndram of Maszkowice (a Cracow nobleman) was appointed commander-in¬ chief of the Polish army. Witold remained commander of the Lithuanians.


The Grand Master built a series of bridges across the Drwega and his army crossed over to the eastern bank where the battle was to be fought. Here in a rough triangle between the villages of Grünwald, Tannenberg and Ludwigsdorf (Lodwigowo) was the battlefield. It was far from ideal, as the visibility was poor due to the wooded and uneven terrain in this shallow depression that measured 3km (1.9 miles) across. Jagiello’s Polish-Lithuanian army numbered 40,000 cavalry and 10-20,000 infantry. The order’s army, reflecting its origins, numbered a mere 6000 foot soldiers, but was strong in cavalry – some 21,000. The Royal army’s camp was situated near Lake Lubien some 7.2km (4.5 miles) east of Grünwald. Early in the morning of 15 July a Polish knight, by the name of Hanko, rode into camp with news that the enemy was already drawn up for battle. The allies had only begun to get into formation and if Ulrich had attacked immediately he might have won a decisive victory. As it was, the Teutonic army had arrived earlier and dug ditches facing the enemy with two lines ready for battle. Here was open ground with a few woods and isolated copses of trees sloping for 6562m (6000 yards) at a gentle gradient down towards Tannenberg. There was a sharper gradient towards the thicker forests that flanked Lake Lubien. Towards the northern shore of the lake the terrain was highly unsuited to the order’s style of warfare. Lithuanians but the Grand Master wanted them to attack him first. Not wanting to displease Almighty God, whose support was ardently invoked by both sides, Jagiello had spent all morning in fervent prayer in his own private chapel in the camp. He finally bestirred himself and rode out with his bodyguard to the Weissberg – a small hill that gave a good view of the battlefield. If Ulrich thought the enemy would rush into battle in their usual impetuous manner then he was sadly mistaken. Three hours passed with the scorching sun rising ever higher without a single Pole or Lithuanian stirring. Ulrich called one of his aides, telling him if Jagiello could not be enticed into attacking


As stated above, had Ulrich attacked with his ready troops straightaway he might have crushed the disorganized Poles and Lithuanians but the Grand Master wanted them to attack him first. Not wanting to displease Almighty God, whose support was ardently invoked by both sides, Jagiello had spent all morning in fervent prayer in his own private chapel in the camp. He finally bestirred himself and rode out with his bodyguard to the Weissberg – a small hill that gave a good view of the battlefield. If Ulrich thought the enemy would rush into battle in their usual impetuous manner then he was sadly mistaken. Three hours passed with the scorching sun rising ever higher without a single Pole or Lithuanian stirring. Ulrich called one of his aides, telling him if Jagiello could not be enticed into attacking then he would have to be goaded by an appropriately insulting gesture.

The Grand Master sent out his two highest-ranking knights to provoke the `slow-witted’ Jagiello into attacking. One was the Imperial German herald, whose shield displayed the Black Eagle (symbol of the emperor) on a gold background, and the other – with a red griffon on a white background – was Duke Kasimir of Stettin. They rode forth across the fields under a white flag of truce and were politely received by Jagiello – who had hoped the Teutons might be willing to negotiate instead of fighting.

Instead the two knights, rudely and arrogantly, rebuked Jagiello and the Polish-Lithuanian army for `cowardice’. They should come out, said the knights, on the open field and fight like real men. Not surprisingly Jagiello lost his monumental patience, told the Teutonic Knights that they would regret their insolence, told them to return and gave Witold, the actual commander of the army, the signal to commence battle.

The Poles advanced in good order with lances and spears at the ready. On their right the Lithuanians, with their Russian and Tartar auxiliaries, could not be restrained any longer. With an almighty battle cry they crashed into the Teutonic lines, sweeping all before them until the Grand Master committed his knights. These heavily armoured troops fought the Lithuanians to a standstill. The Tartars tried to spring their trap of the controlled retreat to lure the Teutonic Knights into a trap but the plan backfired. Their own troops thought the Tartars were fleeing and began to flee themselves. The knights moved forward methodically, coldly butchering the fleeing Tartars, Lithuanians and Russians. Only three squadrons of Lithuanians and Russians held the line as Witold cut his way through the confusion to beg Jagiello to swing the Poles around and save the right flank from total collapse.

Jagiello could not have made out what was going as the whole battlefield was enveloped in thick dust stirred up by the hooves and feet of thousands of horses and men. A sudden downpour settled the dust and finally the two sides could make out what was going on and who was fighting whom. Witold called up his last remaining reserves to stem the Teutonic attack that had seemed unstoppable only half an hour before. But the enemy had clear visibility. Jagiello was only protected by a small guard and Grand Master Ulrich ordered an attack upon the Weissberg by some of his best knights. One of these, clad in white, rushed forward but was stopped by the king’s secretary. Count Zbigniew of Olesnica, who thrust a broken lance into the German’s side. The white knight fell to the ground where he was bludgeoned and stabbed to death by Polish infantrymen.


Meanwhile the fleeing Lithuanians, Tartars and Russians had been prevailed upon to halt and now streamed back as fast as they had fled before. They rode at the enemy with their customary courage and élan. A rain of arrows fell on the Teutonic troops as the Tartars, riding at full gallop, shot a them with their bows, while the Lithuanians and Russians used their swords and battleaxes to good effect.

The Poles had in the meantime held more than half of the order’s army at bay and had forced them back in close combat. As the Lithuanian army streamed back to the fight the Teutonic army began to give way, some even fled while others died where they stood. As the Teutons began to give way they were surrounded on all sides by the enemy. To their credit the Order did not capitulate or flee in wild disorder – most of them, including the Grand Master himself, fought to the death. Others who had been able to disengage from the advancing enemy continued to fight on the road that led to Grünwald. It was in this village that the Teutonic army made its last stand and fought to the death with the Poles and Lithuanians. By 7.00 p. m. the battle was finally won.

The Teutonic Order had ceased to exist as a proper military force. The number of Teutonic dead was 18,000 and 14,000 had been taken prisoner. The Grand Master, his deputies and most of his district commanders {komturs) lay dead on the battlefield. Only two senior knights had survived: Prince Conrad the White of Silesia and Duke Kasimir of Stettin – the same man, presumably, who had taunted Jagiello for his `cowardice’ at the outset of the battle.


Instead of marching on the Teutonic Order’s capital of Marienburg to the west the Polish-Lithuanian army – utterly exhausted – remained on the battlefield to divide the loot, rest and recuperate. When it was ready to march on Marienburg – held by Count Heinrich von Plauen and 3000 troops – it was too late. This immense fortress complex with stone walls 8.2m (27ft) high and 2.1m (7ft) thick and ample supplies of food and water proved impregnable. Jagiello’s victorious army arrived on 25 July but failed to make any headway during the two-month-long siege. The war would continue for years and the Order would recover. For the Prussians this defeat left a permanent, humiliating scar that never healed, and in 1914, General Paul von Hindenburg – a Prussian – named his epic World War I victory over the Imperial Russian army in the same region after the village of Tannenberg.



Battle of Świecino

The Battle of Świecino (named for the village of Świecino, near Żarnowiec Lake, northern Poland) also called the Battle of Żarnowiec or in German Battle of Schwetz, took place on September 17, 1462 during the Thirteen Years’ War. The Poles commanded by Piotr Dunin, consisting of some 2000 mercenares and Poles, decisively defeated the 3300 man army of the Teutonic Knights commanded by Fritz Raweneck and Kaspar Nostyc. Auxiliary forces sent by duke Eric II of Pomerania, an ally of the Polish king, did not enter the battle.

The Teutonic Order’s armies in terms of troop types, on this occasion the army was comprised of 1,000 heavy cavalry, 600 light cavalry, 1,300 militia and 400 other infantry.

The battle started in the evening. Adopting a relatively new tactic, Polish units built a fortified camp on the Hussite model consisting of wagons linked by a chain surrounded by a deep ditch (tabor). The units of Raveneck and his subordinate, Kaspar Nostyc (commander from Conitz (Chojnice) also created a tabor. Piotr Dunin decided not to wait for the enemy and attacked first, setting infantry with crossbows on the left, defended by cavalry between the tabor and the coast of the nearby lake of Rogoźnica. Raveneck placed cavalry in front of his tabor, and infantry behind it, without any strategic plan. The first phase of the battle was started by a charge of Polish heavy cavalry under Paweł Jasieński. Fierce fighting continued for three hours and ended without a clear winner. After a short pause at midday, Teutonic units were able to push the Poles back; however, they found themselves under very heavy fire from crossbows of the Polish infantry, which caused huge losses and a withdrawal. During this fight Raveneck was wounded. He stopped his soldiers and tried to attack again, but this charge ended with a total defeat – Raveneck died and the rest of the cavalry surrendered or escaped. The Teutonic infantry tried to defend themselves at the tabor but its resistance was broken by a quick attack of Polish cavalry.

The Teutonic Order’s army lost around 1000 soldiers, including some 300 cavalrymen. Fifty soldiers were captured. The Teutonic commander was also killed in battle and was buried in the Żarnowiec chapter church.

The Poles lost just 100 soldiers, although 150 later died from their wounds. Among the dead on the Polish side was Maciej Hagen from Gdańsk. Piotr Dunin was wounded twice.

War of the Cities (1454–1466)

The leading cities of Prussia (Danzig, Elblag, Torun, Elbing, and Thorn), later joined by 16 other towns, and the Junkers formed the Preussische Bund (‘‘Prussian Confederation’’) in 1440. In 1452 the Bund appealed to Emperor Friedrich III to mediate their grievances with the Brethren. Instead, early the next year Friedrich ordered all Prussians to submit. This forced the Bund to seek help from the Poles. In early 1454, the Bund secretly asked to be incorporated into Poland. Casimir IV signaled that he would support the rebels if they made a public request: his interest was to detach Prussia from the Teutons and annex it to Poland- Lithuania. From February 6, the Bund began taking over and destroying lightly garrisoned Teutonic castles. On March 6 a formal agreement was reached between Casimir and the Bund asserting Polish sovereignty over Prussia and declaring war on the Brethren.

Since most of the Teutonic castles in Prussia had fallen to the rebels even before the war officially started, it was widely expected to be a short campaign. In fact, it lasted thirteen years. Cracks in the Teutonic edifice were offset by initial Polish weakness: despite sharing Casimir as joint sovereign, the Lithuanians refused to send troops or finance the war in Prussia. Other Polish troops were tied down by the threat to southern Poland of a possible Ottoman attack. As a result, an undersized Polish army was sent into Prussia. After a desultory and unsuccessful siege of Chojnice by the Prussians, this force engaged in a major battle outside the city. On the field at Chojnice (September 18, 1454) the Poles and Prussians were soundly defeated by the Teutonic Knights, aided by a large band (9,000 horse, 6,000 foot) of German mercenaries. Teutonic victory at Chojnice ensured that the war would go on. The rebels seized most of the Order’s arsenals and castles in Prussia, but failed in an effort to storm the citadel and Teutonic capital of Marienburg (Malbork). The financial weakness of the Order meant that its Grand Master had to promise the mercenaries control of Prussian cities in lieu of wages. Still, the Knights raised small armies from among loyal Brethren outside Prussia and by conscripting their enserfed peasants. While the Prussian towns remained determined to break free of Teutonic overlordship, the larger Hanse cities allied with the Knights. Nor did the international situation favor either side: most other powers were preoccupied with their own unsettled internal affairs or other wars, and remained neutral.

The Poles were also forced to hire mercenaries, primarily Czechs and Silesians, greatly straining the royal purse which was light in the best of times. Casimir’s repeated call-ups of peasant levies were only agreed to by the Sejm after he made heavy political concessions to the nobility, which started the Polish state down a road that ultimately led to a fatal weakness at the center. The Poles besieged Lasin in 1455, but again their lack of siegecraft and cavalry-heavy army told against success. As war taxes began to bite into the rebel cities the Teutons enjoyed better luck. Their army was better equipped for siege work, and several towns fell to a combination of internal unrest and external military pressure: Konigsberg surrendered on April 17, 1455, and Knipawa gave in on June 14, 1455. When the Brethren again ran out of money, however, some mercenary captains took Prussian towns for themselves and milked them dry. Several companies also negotiated with the Poles to transfer possession of fortified cities. Now, external powers also intervened: the Holy Roman Empire moved to ban the Bund and the pope threatened to excommunicate any who refused to come to terms with the Teutonic Knights. Denmark declared war on Poland and the Bund but that was largely an empty gesture since Denmark was already engaged in a major naval war with Sweden. Still, this emboldened the Knights, who refused terms to the Poles and rebels. The Poles replied by hiring still more mercenaries from Silesia, more mercenaries from Russia, and even Tatars from the Crimea. Fighting resumed, but with both sides suffering internal dissension and bad finances the war settled into a pattern of minor raids and indeterminate sieges.

A Prussian fleet, mostly built in Danzig on orders from Poland, defeated a Teutonic fleet at Bornholm (August 1457). As the war lengthened, the fundamental economic weakness of the Brethren was revealed. They were not as rich as in the past and struggled unsuccessfully to meet the payroll of their mercenary troops. In 1457 Bohemian mercenaries garrisoning Marienburg mutinied, sold the fortress to the Poles, and went home. The loss of the Teuton capital should have ended the war but on September 28, 1457, Marienburg was retaken in a surprise assault by the Knights that was abetted by internal treachery which opened its gates before they were forced. In 1458 the Poles invaded Prussia again, employing Tartar auxiliaries, and besieged Marienburg. Yet again the Poles proved incompetent at siege warfare. The campaign collapsed and a cease-fire took effect that lasted nine months, into 1459. The Danes withdrew from the war, an act almost as little noticed as their entry. Pope Pius II tried to mediate peace, hopeful that he could get all sides to join in a new crusade against the Ottomans. The Poles rejected the pope’s entreaties and his threats of excommunication (eternal damnation was not what it used to be).

The Knights were briefly resurgent: they defeated the Danzig militia and burned part of the city in July 1460. The fundamental weakness of the Polish recruitment system, based still on feudal levies of peasants and independently minded noble cavalry, became apparent in deep resistance to new enlistment drives. Casimir finally persuaded the nobles to turn the fight over to professionals. That meant raising funds to hire a mercenary army rather than raising peasant levies to be led by amateur noble captains. These harder and more skilled troops crossed into Prussia in 1461. At Swiecino (August 17, 1462), the defeat they handed to the Brethren’s field army was so sharp that the end of Teuton rule in the eastern Baltic came into sight. Loss of the Brethren’s fleet at Zatoka Swieza (September 15, 1463) so severely damaged the Order’s maritime interests and profits in the eastern Baltic that the Knights could no longer pay for a war being fought mainly by privateers at sea and mercenaries on land. A complete defeat was only averted by the internal divisions of Poland-Lithuania.

Świecino 1462 (2005)


After the First World War, Poland was revived as an independent state by grouping together the territories previously occupied by Germany, Russia and Austria. The. new Polish national army came into being soon afterwards from a nucleus formed by a Polish corps which had been organised in France. Interest in armoured vehicles soon appeared, when units of the Polish Army were sent for training periods with the French Army. One regiment of tanks, equipped with Renault FT machines, arrived in Poland in June 1919 and one of its battalions took part in the Russo-Polish conflict of 1919-20, which soon took a quite different form from the former entrenched type of warfare which had prevailed on the Western front. In Poland, small mechanised forces, combining armoured cars with motorised infantry and truck- drawn artillery, were often engaged in deep raiding parties.

The Russo-Polish War was ended by a peace treaty in 1921, and the Polish armoured forces were reorganised along French lines. While the armoured cars were given to the Cavalry, the tanks became part of the Infantry and were established into a tank regiment with three battalions.

Between 1923 and 1930, most of the activities of the Poles in the tank development field were concentrated on continuous attempts to improve the Renault FT tank. One of the first stages in this direction was by substituting new laterally flexible tracks – designed by S. Kardaszewicz – which were composed of twelve steel cables fitted with steel grousers. Although the speed was increased to 12kmh (7.5mph), the Kardaszewicz tracks were not accepted as standard and a similar fate occurred to another pattern with steel plates introduced by an officer of the 1st Tank Regiment. Later, it was decided to up-date the Renault FT, at least as far as armament was concerned, by fitting it with a newly designed turret carrying both a 37mm gun and a coaxial 7.92mm Browning machine-gun. Some other redesigns were to increase the performance to I3kmh. A number of Renault FT tanks were also rebuilt into specialised variants including smoke producer tanks and radio/command tanks.

From late 1924 onwards, numerous conferences were held by the Polish military authorities on the subject of constructing a domestic heavy tank capable of a break- through role as well as infantry support missions. A light tank was also considered as a replacement for the Renault FT. Despite opposition from the Chief of the Infantry branch, the KSUS department drew up a specification for a new tank. Dated 1925, this specification requested a weight of 12tons, an armament composed of a gun with a maximum calibre of 47mm, complemented by one heavy and one light machine-gun, all-round vision equipment and an electrically started engine which could drive the tank at a speed of 25kmh, with a range of action of 200-250km. The go-ahead was given for a competition between the Polish S. A. B. E. M. S. and ‘Parowoz’ companies and a Czech firm, for the design of a so-called WB-10 tank. Sophisticated designs and even prototypes were submitted by the competitors, but trials conducted with them revealed that they were not acceptable. The WB-10 project was therefore terminated with- out further development.

In 1928, there appeared in Great Britain the two-man Vickers Carden-Loyd Mark VI tankette, a truly outstanding design which attracted a great deal of attention. This tiny tracked armoured vehicle could be either used as a machine-gun carrier or as a light tractor, and it was sold to numerous foreign states in one form or another. Poland purchased one sample from Vickers-Armstrong Ltd and soon went on to produce a domestic development based upon a similar formula. Designated TK. 1, the Polish tankette was a 1.75ton, 2-man vehicle powered by a Ford motor. Through an intermediate model, the TK. 2, further development led to the somewhat heavier TK. 3 which was accepted as the production model. The TK. 3 became the first armoured tracklaying vehicle manufactured in quantity in Poland. It was produced under the parentage of the state-run PZI institute, and orders for 300 machines were fulfilled from 1931-32 onwards. A TK. 3 was demonstrated in Yugoslavia as a competitor for the Czech Skoda S-1 (MU 4/T-1) tankette but no order was placed for it.

By the late twenties, little progress had been made in procuring new equipment. Several foreign tanks, such as the Czech wheel-and-track KH. 50, the French Renault FT M. 26/27 (with Citroen-Kegresse trackwork) and the Renault NC. 1 (NC. 27) had been demonstrated in Poland but no procurement programme had been planned. The year 1930 was however marked by a significant event: the infantry tank regiment, the cavalry armoured car squadrons, and the artillery armoured trains, were all combined into an independent branch of the service. With a new internal organisation including two tank regiments, one armoured car group, and two armoured train groups, this was called the Bron Pancerna. The need for a more powerful armoured vehicle – the tankettes being incapable of an actual combat role – forced Poland to turn her attention to a further Vickers product, namely the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank, (Vickers Mark ‘E’), which was soon to gain a worldwide reputation for a whole decade. In fact, between 1930 and 1939, Vickers-Armstrong Ltd sold over 190 machines of that type (tanks and tractors) to foreign countries – Bolivia, Bulgaria, China, Finland, Greece, Japan, Portugal, Russia and Thailand (Siam) – but the largest order came from Poland with a total of 50 (other sources give 38) tanks with either the single and twin turret arrangement.

The fact that the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank was well within the capacity of the Polish technology, and as it offered some potential for further development, the PZI design bureau was entrusted with the study of a homemade copy. Subsequently PZI produced the 7 TP, a 9ton twin turreted tank which was to be a considerable step forward in design over the Vickers original. At first, the Armstrong-Siddeley engine of the Six-ton was re- placed by a licence-built Saurer 6-cylinder diesel engine which developed 110hp, so making the Polish 7 TP the first diesel-powered tank to reach production status. The 7 TP armour was also 4mm thicker than the Six-ton armour. The first 7 TP to be built by PZI left the works in 1934 and production continued at a slow tempo up to I939.

Around the mid-thirties, the question of designing tanks in Poland had become a very controversial matter. Two schools of thought were in opposition: the first one defended the launching of domestic design and production programmes while the second one, represented by the Chief of the Armoured Force himself, considered this as a waste of time and money which could be better spent in purchasing well-proven foreign tanks.

One of the favourite fads of certain tank designers between the mid-twenties and the mid-thirties were the multi-turret tanks, relying on several guns and machine- guns to be able to fire simultaneously on different targets. While Germany and Japan more or less investigated the three-turret formula, only Britain and Russia translated it into fact with their A. 9 and T-28. As late as 1936, Poland also dallied with the formula and drew up her 20/25 TP project of which three alternatives were proposed. The first one came from the government-owned BBT design bureau and was to have a weight of 23tons, a crew of seven and an armament composed of one 40mm (or 75mm) gun with three machine-guns, two of them being located into front sub-turrets. Maximum armour thickness was specified at 50mm. The second one, issued by the KSUS Committee, explored a diesel-engined 22ton tank, with a crew of six, a 35mm thick armour and the same armament as for the BBT variant. The third and last edition of the 20/25 TP project was a proposal from the PZI concern which put forward a design for a 7man, 25ton diesel-powered tank with an armour up to 80mm; being already outmoded since its design stage, the whole project was cancelled. It would have been a waste of money, and of limited Polish industrial resources.

Surprisingly enough, the development of the tankette concept had been continued in Poland over the years, through progressive steps. In 1933, the TK. 3 had given rise to the TKS, slightly heavier than its parent. Powered by a Polski-Fiat motor, the TKS had armour protection capable of withstanding small calibre AP bullets, embryonic forms of optical equipment consisting of a periscope and a sighting telescope and a strengthened suspension. This newly patterned tankette had been put into production in 1934, with an order for 390 vehicles. Following the lines already taken by Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd with their Carden-Loyd Patrol Tank (I932), the next stage in the Polish tankette development emerged during 1934. It was a turreted midget tank designated TKW, of which only a few prototypes were constructed. An ultra- light self-propelled gun, fitted with a 37mm Bofors anti-tank gun mounted in the front plate, was designed on the basis of the TKS and became known as the TKS-D. A small number of such vehicles were constructed in 1936 but the design was rejected after trials. The TK series was finalised as the TKF; this variant was powered by a Polski-Fiat engine and carried two machine-guns, one of which was capable of anti-aircraft fire. In 1936 also, it was decided to investigate the possible adaptation of either the Danish Madsen or the Swiss Solothurn 20mm cannon for this type of vehicle but the trials conducted with these foreign weapons proved to be very deceptive and a homemade weapon of this calibre was eventually conceived. The Polish 20mm FK cannon was ready in 1938 and its mounting on TK. 3 and TKS tankettes started in 1939 after suitable modifications of the vehicles. Only a few were so modified when the war broke out and brought to an end further Polish armoured fighting vehicle development.

When trying to find further successful foreign designs, Poland had turned her interest to the United States where, by 1928, J. Walter Christie introduced his fast tank chassis which utilised a new coil spring suspension acting on pivoted arms. Considerable interest in this Christie fast tank had been shown by the United States, Russia, Poland and later – via the Russian BT – by Great Britain. Orders for nine machines – five for the United States, two for Russia and two for Poland – of the newly developed Model 193I had been accepted by the firm run by J. Walter Christie, the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation, of Linden, New Jersey, USA. However, Poland defaulted to take delivery of her two samples which were later purchased by the US Army to supplement the five machines originally ordered.

Polish interest in Christie tanks was to resume in 1936 when BBT drew up plans for a wheel-cum-track fast tank of its own but based upon the American design as far as the suspension system and the twin purposes running gear were concerned. The Polish version of the Christie tank was to mount the same Bofors turret and 37mm gun as the last Polish version of the Vickers Six-ton tank and be powered by an American La France V-I2 cylinder motor developing 210hp. A prototype, designated the 10 TP, was actually built in I938 and undertook trials. It was contemplated as the main equipment for the four mechanised cavalry brigades foreseen in the modernisation programme of the Polish Army, which had been laid down in I936-7.

Some time later, a start was made on another project along the same lines but intended to run on tracks only. This 14 TP, as it was known, was to have increased armour to that of the 10 TP and therefore a greater weight. As far as the maximum speed was concerned, this would have been greatly reduced in comparison with its parent, the 10 TP which could run on wheels at a speed of 75kmh. Neither the 10 TP nor the 14 TP, of which the uncompleted prototype was destroyed in September 1939, reached production status. Such an unfortunate fate for these tanks which showed so much promise would probably not happened if the development of a Polish-made Christie tank had begun as early as 1932-3, on the basis of the 193I machine which had been ordered then rejected.

While the production of the modified twin turret model 7 TP was proceeding slowly, it was decided to introduce a single version carrying a Bofors gun (the turret being manufactured by this same concern). This variant appeared in 1937, but the production was restricted by the difficulties of making armour plates and of procuring the turrets from Sweden. Afterwards, in 1939, some quibbles about its unsuitable armour thickness brought PZI to evolve a heavier variant with an improved engine, welded armour thickened up to 40mm in front, a strengthened suspension, wider tracks and a turret with a rear overhang which could accommodate both transmitter and receiver radio sets. The up-armoured 7 TP, which now weighed 11 tons, did not have time to go beyond the prototype or, at best, pre-production stage.

Meanwhile other tanks were under development at the PZI design bureau in the form of two ultra-light tanks which came into being on a common basis, namely the Pzlnz. 130 and the Pzlnz. 140. The former was a variant developed specifically as an amphibious tank and consequently was fitted with a rudder and a three-blade propeller for steering and propulsion in water. Prototypes of both models were constructed in 1936-37, using the same Pzlnz. 425 6-cylinder engine as a power plant. Contemplated for standardisation as the 4 TP, the Pzlnz. 140 was fitted with a turret which could accommodate a 20mm FK light automatic cannon and a coaxial 7.92mm machine-gun, while the amphibious Pzlnz. 130 was intended to be fitted with the same turret but carrying only either one or two machine-guns. At one time, it was hoped that the 4 TP (Pzlnz. 140) would be amenable to a 37mm gun armament but this project was abandoned. Both models were tested during the autumn of 1937 and showed some promise but also revealed defects such as overloading of the suspension and, for the Prlnz. 130, a lateral instability when swimming. From the purely military point of view, it was evident that such ultra-light tanks would be below an acceptable level of fighting capability because they were too thinly armoured and too lightly armed. In consequence no preparations for quantity production of these models were undertaken and the final fate of both prototypes is unknown. Two self-propelled gun projects, designed along the same lines, were also dropped.

With the political crisis which arose between Poland and Germany over the question of Danzig, it became vital to complete the mechanisation programme of the mid-thirties. In 1937, two horse cavalry regiments had already been converted – on paper – into motorised units, and the 10th (Motorised) Cavalry Brigade had been raised. This was later followed by a second large unit of this type. The formation of eight independent tank battalions was also considered, but if the weak point of the motorised brigades was the lack of suitable tanks, there were no tanks at all for the independent battalions. As a stop-gap measure until a range of new tanks could be produced, the Polish Armament Ministry decided to spend a French military loan granted in 1936 for the purchase, amongst other military equipment, of the complement for two tank battalions. Purchase of the S-35 was negotiated, but since this tank was not available for export orders, 100 light tanks of the R-35 type were ordered in April 1939. By August 1939 however, only one battalion, deducted from the French orders in production, had been received.

With the advent of the Second World War, Poland had 169 7 TP tanks, 50 Vickers Six-ton tanks, 53 Renault R-35 tanks, 67 Renault FT tanks, 693 TK and TKS tankettes and 100 armoured cars. Of course the Bron Pancerna was greatly outnumbered by the German Schnelle Truppen which were able to line up no less than 3,195 tanks (1,445 PzKpfw. I, 1,226 PzKpfw. II, 98 PzKpfw. III, 2II PzKpfw. IV and 2I5 PzBfw), supplemented by a number of formerly Czech PzKpfw. 35 (t) and PzKpfw. 38 (t), organised into 6 regular panzer divisions, 1 provisional improvised division and 4 light divisions. The famous Blitzkrieg tactics – combining an armoured sword-thrust at a vital point and deep sweeping actions with air dive bombing attacks – propounded by General H. Guderian, was employed for the first time and completely decimated the Polish armies in three weeks. Strangely enough, the R-35 battalion was not engaged in action, and on 17 September 1939, was evacuated to Rumania.

The unfortunate German-Polish War did not put an end to the Polish armoured forces. Many Polish soldiers having escaped to France, one ‘brigade polonaise’, with two battalions of R-35 tanks, was raised with them from April 1940 onwards. They fought gallantly during the French disaster and a number of them were, once again, evacuated to England. They formed, via an Army Tank Brigade and a reborn 10th Cavalry Brigade, the nucleus of an armoured division. Created in the spring of 1942, with Covenanter then Crusader III tanks, and later with Cromwell and Sherman tanks, the 1st Free Polish Armoured Division fought in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Another Polish armoured brigade, formed in 1943 from personnel saved from Russian camps, had been engaged on the Italian front and later expanded into the 2nd Polish Armoured Division. Both units were demobilised after the war. When Poland was re-established as a state closely allied with Russia, the new Polish armoured forces received Soviet patterned tanks which were later built by Poland herself.