It’s August 1920, and the armies of Bolshevik Russia have reached the gates of the Polish capital. Desperate Polish forces prepare to defend the city – and maybe even prevent the spread of the revolution to Central Europe: it’s the Battle of Warsaw.
By August 1920, the Polish-Soviet War had been raging for over a year. What had started as a guerilla border war had turned into a full-on conventional conflict in the spring of 1920, as Polish forces advanced east into Belarus and Ukraine, capturing Kiev in May. But the Red Army recovered and launched a major counterattack, which would reach a dramatic and decisive stage at the Battle of Warsaw 100 years ago.
The Red Army offensive began in June, when the Southwest Front, under General Yegorov and the political supervision of Joseph Stalin, pushed the Poles back in bloody fighting. After the initial victory near Kiev, General Semyon Budyonni’s 1st Cavalry Army captured Rowne, Lutsk, Brody, and had surrounded Lwow. This advance was slowed by determined Polish resistance and skilful use of fortified towns and cavalry by the Polish commander, General Edvard Rydz-Smigly. The fight for Brody was particularly bloody. Isaac Babel, who was with the Red Army, recalled the aftermath: (Lehnstaedt 89) By early August, the Red Army had stopped at Lwow, in what had become a drawn-out siege.
The Reds had about 160,000 combat troops against about 115,000 under Polish General Szeptycki – and the Bolsheviks had a 3 to 1 advantage in artillery (Lehnstaedt 85). But the cavalry was the key to the Red Army’s success, as mounted units used the wide open spaces to outflank and surround Polish units. Tukhachevsky, who was himself partly of Polish origin, was younger and more willing to take risks than his older Polish counterparts, and it paid off. In particular, the advance was led by the 1st Red Cavalry Corps, under Persian-born Armenian General Hayk Bzhishkyan, better known as Gaia Gai. Gai was able to keep the Poles off balance by using the Lithuanian and German borders to cover his flank, and even managed to defeat a Polish force equipped with French tanks at Grodno on July 19. One advantage they had was that Polish intelligence had been able to read some Red Army telegrams within a few days of them being sent, which did help the Poles try to predict the general disposition of Bolshevik forces. The Poles also tried to stabilize the front by using old German trenches from the Great War, but could not stem the tide. During the Red Army’s advance, Lithuania joined in on the Bolshevik side, to recover the disputed city of Wilno, Vilnius, from the Poles. By August 1, the Red Army was in Bialystok and Brest-Litovsk, just 200km from Warsaw. A week after that, Tukhachevsky’s spearheads were northwest of the Polish capital, which came under direct threat of encirclement.
So within a month of launching their attack, the Red Army was deep in the heart of Poland. The rapid advance of Bolshevik forces now plunged the country into a crisis, which both united and divided its citizens.
The string of defeats had deeply shaken the Polish army, government and society. Desertions increased, some officers openly spoke of a coming Bolshevik victory, and many civilians fled the city. Some unions called for peace with Russia. Pilsudski was painfully aware of the situation: (Lehnstaedt 115).
The government also faced a political crisis. Partisan divisions in the Polish parliament became even more intense than usual, and Pilsudski twice offered his resignation, which was refused. Prime Minister Grabski resigned, and was replaced by Wincenty Witos, the head of the Peasant Party. Witos headed up an all-party government which weakened Pilsudki’s socialists, but was expected to be more appealing to the Bolsheviks during negotiations. Things were so bad that
The crisis also worsened relations between Catholics and Jews. There had already been numerous outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence and pogroms during the war, and now that defeat seemed near, the association of Jews with the Bolshevik enemy caused trouble in the army. The War Ministry placed a quota for Jews in the army, limiting them to 5% of the army. Some Jews had joined the Bolsheviks, but most accepted conscription, and Jews already made up more than 5% of Polish troops. As a result, thousands were put into labour battalions digging trenches around Warsaw, and others were simply kept in internment camps. This measure was removed after the Battle of Warsaw, which some took as vindication of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy. (Lehnstaedt 112-113).
The threat to Poland and its capital also laid bare the divide between the peasants, who made up the majority of the population, and middle-class urban residents, especially the educated. Peasants had suffered terribly since 1914, and resented the state’s inability to protect and care for them when in the army. They often felt less connected to the nation than their urban counterparts(Boehler 131) Slowikowski recalled a peasant in his unit scoffed at the notion of fighting for national honour:(Boehler 134-135)
Although the crisis facing Poland in August 1920 caused tensions in Polish society, it had also galvanized and unified some groups, especially the urban middle class. For high school graduate and army volunteer Michal Slowikowski, the coming battle was personal: (Boehler 134) Urbanites like Slowikowski were united like never before by the threat to their nation. 100,000 men volunteered for the army, mostly students, scouts, and craftsmen. Peasants were under-represented among volunteers, but they did accept the draft of 1920. Women also volunteered in non-combat roles like sewing uniforms and nursing. The Church, political parties, civic societies and professional associations all mobilized like never before. Despite the suspicions of their fellow citizens, many middle-class Jews also donated money and volunteered to fight, and most workers’ unions also supported the cause.
This national mobilization of the middle and educated classes and the Church crystalized around the idea of Poland as the defender of Christian European civilization against the lesser, barbarous and foreign civilization of the east, sometimes portrayed as Judeo-Bolshevik, and sometimes as quote “tatar-byzantine.” Prince Lubomirski reflected this view in a speech: “ (Reed 223) Pilsudski himself was more concerned with Polish sovereignty and borders than ideological questions.
Poland was both divided and united in the face of defeat – and it also called on its British and French Allies to help.
The existence of Poland as an independent state was vital to the post-war order the British and French were trying to create. Poland was to play a role in containing Bolshevism on the one hand, and in weakening Germany on the other, but there were also disagreements. The French were more strident in their anti-Bolshevik position, whereas the British had tried to gain influence by entering into trade negotiations with them. Both Britain and France had clashed with Poland over the extent of Polish territorial claims, and over the rights of minorities in Poland. Now, the looming victory of the Red Army spurred Allied action. An Inter-Allied Military Commission was sent to advise the Poles, led by General Henrys and Viscount D’Abernon. The officers of the commission, however, like General Weygand and Charles de Gaulle, were sometimes ignored by their Polish counterparts, since their experience with trench warfare on the Western Front did not apply to the wide-open spaces and smaller firepower in the East.
The British and French also got involved directly with the Poles and Bolsheviks at the negotiating table. In July, they forced the Poles to accept, in principle, a border at the Curzon Line, even though the Poles wanted a border further east. The British then gave an ultimatum to the Bolsheviks, demanding that they stop their advance at the line or the Allies would be free to assist the Poles more directly, and the economically important trade deal talks between Britain and Russia would be stopped. This sounded like a serious threat, but British and French hands were partly tied by domestic politics, since there was no stomach for a new war.
So the Allies were attempting to help Poland, even though the relationship was a difficult one. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks had problems of their own.
Commander in Chief Sergey Kamenev wanted to stop at the Curzon Line, whereas War Commissar Leon Trotsky thought the army should be able to cross the line temporarily if necessary. Lenin was more hawkish, and orders were given to push past the Curzon Line in mid-July. The Bolsheviks also wasted no time in setting up puppet soviet states in Galicia and also in Poland. The Polish Revolutionary Committee was established in Bialystok and headed up by Polish Bolshevik Feliks Dzerzhinsky, head of the secret police. The Polish Revolutionary Committee made no bones about what they had planned: “All representatives of the Polish bourgeoisie and landowners, all who support White Poland, will be arrested and sent to concentration camps.” (Engelstein 501)
Now although the Bolsheviks had plans to rule Poland and Galicia, there is a debate about how far or under what circumstances they wanted to use the expected victory in Poland to spread the revolution into Europe. Some, from the leadership down to the lower ranks, like Isaac Babel, felt that the Red Army was on an unstoppable historical march: “We will wage war forever. Russia has thrown down the gauntlet. We will march into Europe to conquer the world. The Red Army has become a factor in world politics.” (Lehnstaedt 93).
But given the weakness of the Red Army, it is unlikely that this could have been achieved by force alone. Because of this, some historians have emphasized the Bolshevik leadership’s caution. Tukhachevsky, for example, wanted to offer Germany its 1914 borders, even though he made public statements about bringing the revolution to the heart of Europe. Lenin, on the other hand, hoped that if the Red Army was able to get close enough to Germany, Hungary, and Romania after defeating Poland, the workers of Central Europe would rise up in revolution on their own – though no specific military plans for this were drawn up. Stalin and Polish Bolshevik Karl Radek thought a European revolution unlikely, and Trotsky feared Allied intervention if the Red Army went too far – but there was general agreement that Poland’s presence in Ukraine and Belarus was a strategic threat to Russia. In the end, both ideological and military reasons contributed to the Bolshevik decision to continue the invasion of Poland past the Curzon Line.
While the Red Army marched and Bolshevik leaders debated internally, negotiations with the Allies and the Poles went on. A series of talks took place, which reached their peak in early August after the Poles requested talks, and the British proposed conference. There was much back and forth, with the British threating to cancel trade talks with Russia, and the Soviets suggesting a Polish border east of the Curzon Line, but at the price of a disarmed Polish military. Bolshevik Lev Kamenev assured British Prime Minister Lloyd George Poland’s independence was safe: “[The Red Army advance did] not predetermine in the slightest the question of the character of the peace treaty and does not constitute a threat to the independence and integrity of the Polish state in its ethnic borders.” (Engelstein 503) But the British intercepted telegrams that showed the Bolsheviks were not sincere, and were stalling to allow their forces to decide the issue on the battlefield. Viscount D’Abernon was outraged: “[The Bolsheviks] pride themselves in hitting below the belt and in breaking their word.” (Engelstein 503)
So the Bolsheviks were divided – but they were able to buy time while negotiating, and now their army was on the cusp of victory. Except that the Red Army that stood at the gates of Warsaw was more fragile than it looked.
One thing that put the Red Army in a difficult position was the lack of coordination between Tukhachevsky’s Western front and Yegorov’s Southwestern front. Geography played a role, since the two armies were divided by the natural barrier of the Pripet Marshes, but politics was the real problem. Trotsky and Tukhachevsky were close, whereas Stalin, Budyonni and Yegorov formed a rival clique. Militarily, it made sense for the Southwest front to shift as many forces as it could to help the Western front at Warsaw instead of wasting time in Galicia. Tukhachevsky pressured Kamenev to do this, but Kamenev at first issued unclear orders. Stalin and Budyonni delayed, and argued that they could not move west until they had taken Lwow. The presence of General Vrangel’s White forces in Crimea was also a distraction, as Stalin wrote to Lenin on August 12 – just days before the Battle of Warsaw began: “It is my impression that the commander in chief and his boys are sabotaging the work of organizing victory over Wrangel. In any case, they do not show a tenth of the desire to win that they certainly show in the fight against Poland.” (Engelstein 506) All this infighting would waste precious time that the Red Army would soon desperately need.
And they weren’t getting the support from the Polish population that Lenin had counted on either – most Catholic Poles were hostile to the Bolsheviks, just as Stalin had predicted. The behaviour of Red Army troops as they advanced did not endear them to the locals either – both Christians and Jews were targeted in spite of friendly Bolshevik propaganda, as Isaac Babel recorded: “The population expects a saviour, the Jews expect freedom – and the Kuban Cossacks come riding in…” (Lehnstaedt 94) Local Poles sometimes rose up against the invaders, and there were attacks on local Jews, as a Red Army report indicated: “[The locals] emerged onto the roads, entire villages at a time, armed with rifles, pitchforks, [and] axes, attacking our supply trains, capturing soldiers. Communists, Jews, commissars were shot; Russians were roughed up.” (Engelstein 510)
As if that weren’t bad enough for the Bolsheviks, despite recent victories, the Red Army had been weakened. Poland had been devasted by years of war since 1914, and passable roads, intact bridges, and food were rare, which led to problems of supply and morale. Isaac Babel recalled a letter home he wrote for illiterate soldier: “Send me what you can, what you are able to. Please slaughter the spotted wild boar and send me a parcel…Every day I go to bed hungry and without clothes, so it’s terribly cold.” (Lehnstaedt 83) Combined with combat losses and desertion, about 116,000 Bolshevik troops now faced 156,000 Polish defenders (Lehnstaedt 118).
So a vulnerable Red Army under divided leadership now stood ready for the final assault on Warsaw, and perhaps victory in the war.
Tukhachevsky’s launched his assault on Warsaw from the east and north. He knew his forces were overextended, but gambled that the poles would not be able to react in time. East of the city, Polish forces occupied new trenches dug in haste, as well as old German trenches left over from the Great War, and Polish General Lucjan Zeligowski admired the Germans’ handiwork: “One must admit that they built [their trenches] very well.” (Lehnstaedt 123) Near Radzymin, on August 14, the Red 16th Army began to push against Polish defences, and at first drove the Poles back. But General Haller’s defenders rallied, and soon recaptured the lost ground and more, with the help of French tanks – a victory did wonders for Polish morale, and some historians have argued that this was the decisive turn in the battle. To the north of the city, things went equally badly for Gaia Gai’s Red cavalry. They were stopped by inexperienced Polish forces under General Sikorski in an unlikely victory that prevented Warsaw from being enveloped from the north. Sikorski’s attack was a very risky move, and the chance destruction of a Red Army radio transmitter has been said to have avoided a Polish catastrophe by interrupting Bolshevik communications at a critical moment. Some historians consider this battle north of the city to have been the decisive moment, not Radzymin. Regardless of which was more important, both of these fronts had to hold long enough for Pilsudski’s planned counterattack in the south to work.
Since August 6, the Poles had been planning a very risky counteroffensive, which would lead either to a smashing victory, or total defeat. He ordered a difficult re-positioning of Polish forces during the fighting, and withdrew some units from Galicia to bolster the front south of Warsaw. The plan was to push north near Lublin, to cut off the Bolshevik forces threatening Warsaw – the Poles didn’t know it at the time, but this was exactly where the Red Army was weakest. But the Poles had to hurry. If Budyonni’s cavalry were to finally begin moving west from Lwow, they could catch the Poles in the flank or rear and all would be lost. Since Polish defences around Warsaw were holding, Pilsudski was able to launch his daring attack on August 16, days before Budyonni finally accepted orders to move. Tukhachevsky had learned of the preparations, but did not believe his intelligence reports.
The Polish attack was a smashing success, despite the confusion reigning on both sides. They faced little resistance as they raced 120km into the gap and began to cut off Bolshevik lines of communication and supply. Budyonni was too far away to intervene, and Tukhachevsky’s overextended and exhausted forces found themselves in an impossible position – they could not take Warsaw, and they could not defend themselves with the enemy behind them. Three Red armies were routed within the space of a few days, and a chaotic retreat eastwards began. Supply trains and artillery were abandoned, and Gaia Gai’s cavalry was cut off and crossed into East Prussia, where they were interned by the Germans. As the remaining Red forces withdrew, the Polish population that had generally refused to support them now in some cases rose up against them, as a Red Army commissar reported: “[The locals] were extremely hostile to us…In many cases the retreating units conducted rearguard battles with the local population, during which the Red Army soldiers dealt brutally with the insurgents.” (Engelstein 507) He went on to note that in Bialystok, “Even the Jewish population took part in the hostile actions.” (Engelstein 507) The Red Army had been beaten, not only by the Polish army, but also by Polish citizens who rejected its presence.
The Polish victory at Warsaw was as complete as it was surprising, and its importance was discussed at the time, and by historians afterwards. Two thirds of Tukhachevsky’s army was killed, wounded or captured – perhaps 100,000 men. In Poland, rejoiced: “ (Reed 230) Viscount D’Abernon wrote a book calling Warsaw one of the decisive battles in Western history, and the famous military theorist JFC Fuller also included it in his list of decisive battles.
On the Bolshevik side, there was now general acceptance that peace with Poland had to be made. Lenin later reflected on what might have been: “If Poland had become Soviet, the Versailles treaty would have been shattered, and the entire international system built up by the victors would have been destroyed.” (Engelstein 507) Lenin blamed Stalin for the failure, and so did Trotsky, who wrote: (Davies 211)
Regardless of individual roles, Bolshevik and Red Army command and control had clearly failed at the critical moment, and the Polish gamble had paid off. Not only had Poland prevented a Bolshevik conquest and perhaps stopped the spread of the revolution, but ironically the result of the Battle of Warsaw may have had benefits for the Bolsheviks as well. If they had won, the Allies might have been provoked into intervening and potentially overthrowing them. In the words of historian Laura Engelstein: (Engelstein 510)
So by the third week of August 1920, the Poles had won a major victory, the Red Army was on the run, and armistice talks began at Minsk. But the Polish-Soviet War was not yet over – there would be more battles, and months of difficult and very unusual negotiations ahead.
Borzecki, Jerzy. The Polish-Soviet Peace of 1921 and the Creation of Interwar Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008)
Engelstein, Laura. Russia in Flames (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Lehnstaedt, Stephan. Der Vergessene Sieg. Der Polnisch-Sowjetische Krieg 1919-1921 und die Entstehung des modernen Osteuropa (CH Beck, 2019)
Davies, Norman. White Eagle Red Star (Random House, 2003 (1972))
Böhler, Jochen. Civil War in Central Europe, 1918-1921 (Oxford University Press, 2019)
Hux Reed, Vivian, ed. An American in Warsaw (University of Rochester Press, 2018)