It’s April 1920, and after a year of a simmering border war, Polish forces launch a major offensive against Bolshevik Russia – it’s the Polish-Soviet War.
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Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to The Great War, and once again we are filming in our pandemic studio in my living room. By the spring of 1920, the cauldron of chaos and violence that was much of Eastern Europe after the 1918 armistice was beginning to take shape. One exception was the region between Poland and Russia, where the borders were still up in the air and armed clashes a regular occurrence. The fighting in 1919 had seen the Poles push east, the Ukrainians squeezed between the Poles and the Bolsheviks, and the Russia Civil War rage between Reds and Whites. The Polish-Soviet War would escalate dramatically in April 1920, So let’s take a look at what happened on the Polish-Bolshevik front in 1919 and the first half of 1920, 100 years ago.
1919 had been a very tough year for both the new Polish Republic, and Bolshevik Russia. Poland was attempting to establish effective government and administration, and had been in border wars with all of its neighbours over disputed territories. The western and southern borders would eventually be established by Paris Peace Conference and the subsequent treaties, but the eastern border was a question mark due to the Russian Civil War. And these eastern borderlands were a complicated political and historical question. These regions had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Polish Kingdom in the past, but parts of them were now claimed by Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Bolshevik and White Russia, and two Ukrainian states.
In early 1919, German troops from the former Ober Ost still acted as a barrier, but once they withdrew, both Poles and Bolsheviks advance into the gap and low level, undeclared war broke out. Pilsudski tried to entice the Lithuanians into a federation, but this failed based on nationalist opposition in both countries, and the conflict over the city of Vilnius/Wilno. Throughout 1919, the Poles were able to advance eastwards, capturing Minsk in August, and the war settled into a guerilla style pattern. They also gained control of East Galicia after a war against the West Ukrainian People Republic that summer.And Polish politics wasn’t sure what to do about them. The Head of State, Jozef Pilsudski, favoured a federation under Polish leadership that would stretch from the Baltic to the Black Sea like the Poland of old. But Roman Dmowski and the National Democratic party favoured what they saw as a more modern Poland, and only wanted areas they saw as Polish, not the old commonwealth. Eventually, Pilsudski came closer to the National Democrat position (Snyder 60).
He was born in today’s Belarus. (Smele 153). The Polish authorities also struggled to set up an effect administration, as a report from Lutsk in March 1920 makes clear:Administering these new eastern territories was not easy for the Poles. The local population was of mixed ethnicity, language and religion, and not all were in favour of being a part of Poland. Even amongst Polish-speaking Catholics, local identity was sometimes more important than that of the new polish state. Lines were so blurred that the national poet of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz’s most famous poem, written in Polish, begins with the words, “Lithuania, my land.”
“The gendarmerie are busy distilling illicit vodka, and requisitioning pigs for their butchers and mistresses.” (Boehler 153)
Another problem was that Polish troops sometimes engaged in looting and violence towards the population, especially Jews. Among others, there were pogroms in Lida, Pinsk, and Minsk when polish troops and paramilitary units, like the Bubas, arrived. Polish-Lithuanian-German Michael von Römer/Michal Roemer/Mykolas Roemeris wrote in his diary in March 1919:
“The Polish troops’ advance onto Lithuanian-Belarusian soil […] is sad and pitiful in nature, and certainly cannot contribute to glorifying Poland in the hearts and minds of the local people and is not conducive to the idea of those lands uniting with the Polish state voluntarily.” (Boehler 154)
It’s important to note that although both Pilsudski and especially Dmowski were anti-Semitic, these pogroms were not state policy and the army brought in new disciplinary measures to try to stop them.
Polish relations with the Allies in Paris were mixed. The British, French and Americans wanted an independent Poland, but didn’t agree on a common policy. The French were the most pro-Polish, with their idea of Poland as a bulwark against Bolshevik Russia, and sent a military mission, which included Charles de Gaulle. But there were problems too. The Allies forced the Poles to agree to protect linguistic minorities in the new Polish state, and this was resented by some Poles and seen as a shameful peace. In February 1919, the Allies promised to help Poland if the Bolsheviks advanced past the “legitimate frontier” but this wasn’t defined. In December, the Supreme Council proposed the so-called Curzon
The Bolsheviks were not satisfied with their situation in 1919 either. They had their hands full with the civil war, fighting the Whites on three fronts. The western border could not be their priority, although they did advance earlier in the year. This advance has been seen by some Polish historians as the cause of the war:
“The Red Army's advance into the Borderlands, especially into the territories Warsaw considered ethnically Polish, led to the outbreak of hostilities. For Moscow, however, the advance and the concurrent establishment of national Soviet republics in this region was necessary as a means of spreading revolution to the rest of Europe.” (Borzecki 22)
The areas controlled by the Red Army also saw local populations often unsupportive, again because of the long years of war behind them, and the behaviour of the Bolshevik troops, which included looting and pogroms as well. Some locals did support the Bolsheviks, either because they identified more with Russia, or because they feared the return of the Polish landowners. Overall, locals were more worried about how the armed force in their area would behave, more than which state or nation was winning the war. (Boehler 152)
When the Poles advanced eastwards in 1919, the Red Army was fully engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the Whites outside Moscow, and the western front would have to wait.
PLANNING FOR 1920
By the first months of 1920, the Bolsheviks had all but defeated the Whites, and could turn their attention to the west – at first in diplomacy. In March and early April there were talks, but these proved fruitless, and it’s not clear either side was serious about a negotiated settlement. Pilsudski insisted on the 1772 borders of the Polish Kingdom, which were so far east they would surely be, and were, rejected by the Bolsheviks. Many have seen Bolshevik offers as insincere, but others have described their approach as a more coherent “dual foreign policy of ideological warfare and formal negotiations.” (Boehler 128) The Russians were also internally divided on what to do, with Lenin and Trotsky favouring war but Commissar for Foreign Affairs Giorgy Chicherin favouring a truce (Engelstein 497). The Russian offer of parts of Belarus, Ukraine was rejected by the Poland, since they felt they could get more through military means. By April 23, Chicherin was exasperated:
“Soviet Russia is not a defeated country to which the victor can dictate its will.” (Engelstein 497)
While negotiations were going on, both sides also began planning for new offensives. The Bolsheviks ordered reinforcements freed up by their victories over the Whites to move to the Western and Southwestern Fronts. These included Bashkir cavalry and the Chapaev Division, but most importantly, the First Cavalry Army under Semyon Budyonni. The First Cavalry also included four armoured trains, three air squadrons, and some guys named Giorgy Zhukov and Semyon Timoshenko, maybe you heard of them.
Budyonni had a fearsome reputation as a tough and daring commander, although French General Weygand was not very diplomatic when he called Budyonni “[A reincarnation] of the Tatar chiefs whose hordes once conquered southern Russia.” (Engelstein 499). After being withdrawn from the Caucasus Front against the Whites, the First Cavalry Army would ride across all of Ukraine, fighting Nestor Makhno’s anarchist forces along the way, to reach the southwestern front.
Of course the Poles were also preparing. This included a diplomatic offensive towards the French and British to convince them that Bolshevik Russia was at fault for the failing negotiations. But diplomacy might not be enough. They feared that since the Bolsheviks were beating the Whites in the Russian Civil War, it was only a matter of time before they turned on Poland in the west. Polish intelligence reported in January:
“[…] the Bolsheviks are turning their eyes to the Western Front, which up to now has been treated as secondary […] after completion of the operations against Denikin and Kolchak, the Bolsheviks are to begin an action against Poland. At that point, all the burden of fighting against the Bolsheviks will fall on Poland.” (Borzecki 64)
Pilsudski decided to act now, and felt he could beat the Bolsheviks:
“I am not afraid of Russia’s power. If I wanted to, I could now advance as far as Moscow, and nobody would be able to withstand my power.” (Borzecki 27).
So the Poles looked around for a local ally. But this wouldn’t be easy since in 1919 they had fought with all of their neighbours, including a summer war against the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, which they had defeated. The other Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, had been defeated by the Bolsheviks and also needed help. So Pilsudski and Symon Petliura worked out an alliance, confirmed by the Treaty of Warsaw. Petliura accepted that the Poles would keep the provinces of Galicia and Volhinya, and in exchange the Poles would provide the military forces to re-establish the Ukrainian People’s Republic. If there could be an independent Ukraine centred on Kiev, Poland would be in a better long-term position against a weakened Russia. Just days after the treaty was signed, the Polish forces, supported by smaller Ukrainian units, launched their offensive into Ukraine, the Wyprawa Kijowska.
The Poles had assembled three armies on the front in the south, around 75,000 men, 12,000 of whom were Ukrainians. There were even some Russians who fought for a Polish general against the Whites (Smele 152, Leonhard 1193). The Red Army statistics are murky, but it seems their two armies had about 29,000 fighting men. The Poles were able to concentrate more men on the critical sector of the front, including two brigades of western Ukrainian troops who deserted from the Red Army. The Poles also had the advantage in armoured cars, guns, and, especially, aircraft. They used a variety of WW1 planes from both sides like the Fokker D.VII. And they also included the Polish-American volunteer Kosciuszko Squadron.
The 3rd army, under General Rydz-Smigly, would strike the main blow towards Kiev, against the Bolshevik 12th Army under General Mezhaninov. Crucially, Budyonni’s First Cavalry Army had not yet arrived when the Polish offensive began on April 25.
At first, things went swimmingly for the Poles. Their local advantages meant that they immediately sent the Red Army into headlong retreat. This was, in the words of historian Norman Davies, “Border war in its purest form”: lots of movement, heavy use of cavalry, and relatively light fighting. Polish troops reached ZhitOmir on the 26th, having advanced 90km in just 24 hours. On May 3rd, a Polish cavalry patrol reached Kiev, where they commandeered a tram, rode into town, captured an unsuspecting Red Army officer, and withdrew. The main Polish force entered Kiev unopposed on May 7. The Kiev Offensive had cost the Poles just 150 dead and 300 wounded (Davies 110). The Red Army retreated in chaos and confusion, and suffered heavier losses.
So it seemed the Polish Army had won a great victory in Ukraine, but the question after Kiev fell was what to do now. The Bolsheviks would surely respond – in fact they had those reinforcements already on the way – and their southwestern front had not been surrounded and destroyed, just pushed back. The Poles were not strong enough to launch a full-scale invasion of Russia either.
What was critical now was a political victory, and that meant a successful Ukrainian state that would be a Polish ally against Bolshevik Russia. Pilsudski made a declaration to the Ukrainian people on April 26:
“I formally declare that the foreign invaders, against whom the Ukrainian people have risen sword in hand to defend their homes from rape, banditry and looting, will be removed by the Polish force from territories inhabited by the Ukrainian nation. The Polish forces will remain in the Ukraine for such time as may be necessary to enable a legitimate Ukrainian government to take control.” (Davies 110)
There is some debate about whether Pilsudski saw Ukraine as a potential satellite under Polish control, or simply as a tool to gain some time and space against the coming Bolshevik counterattack. In any case, Petliura was unable to set up a working administration in the little time he had. The country was in ruins after the battles of the Great War and the Russian Civil War, and the population was lukewarm about Petliura. Kiev, for example, had changed hands 15 times since 1918, and now the peasants were complaining about looting by Polish troops (Davies 109, Engelstein 497) He was only able to raise 30,000 troops and was unable to establish a functioning administration. The Poles did not provide much political support, and shifted their focus to the front in Belarus. In the words of historian Norman Davies:
“The Ukrainian People’s Republic, having been delivered into this world, proved stillborn.” Davies 116
In fact, even though there was a rush of victory in the country, the Poles themselves were also divided. Dmowski had been critical of the alliance with Ukraine, or borders so far to the east, which include so many non-Poles in the country. Polish communists also initiated several strikes, as did socialist and communist unions in Britain and France.
But it wasn’t only communists abroad that were critical of Poland. The British government were no fans of the Bolsheviks, but Lloyd George was wary of Polish ambitions:
“The Poles are inclined to be arrogant and they will have to take care they don’t get their heads punched.” (Davies 112)
The French military was supportive of Poland, but the political left was not, so the government kept relatively quiet. The League of nations condemns the “deplorable events” and accused Poland of a premeditated attack on Russia. (Davies 112)
For the Bolsheviks, the Kiev Offensive was a political gift. They could now rally Russians to the cause of national defence as well as protecting the revolution against external aggression. They also played on the fact that traditionally, the landowning class in the border regions had been made up of Polish aristocrats. The Party Central Committee combined these two concepts:
“Honourable citizens! You cannot allow the bayonets of the Polish lords to determine the will of the Great Russian nation.” (Davies 115)
Even former Imperial Russian General Aleksei Brusilov rallied to the Bolshevik side. There were appeals to Ukrainian nationalism as well, and many Ukrainians did fight on the Bolshevik side.
They also hoped this might be a chance to spread the revolution to the industrial heart of Europe. Bolshevik leader Mikhail Kalinin:
“I believe the Polish lords by marching on the Soviet republic are only digging their own graves […] but they will only succeed in founding yet another Soviet state through which we will gain close relations with the proletariat of the west.” (Davies 114)
So the Poles found themselves in political difficulties, and even their military success was not what it seemed. It is true, the Bolsheviks were worried, as Trotsky wrote to an official in early May:
“The administrative machinery is weak; the army commanders and commissars are below the average level. Yet we have operating against us for the first time a regular army led by good technicians. The best army commanders must be taken from all fronts and posted [to the west] as divisional commanders. […] Haste is needed in order to make up for lost time.” (Smele 154)
All the same, the Red Army leadership was happy that the attack had come in the south, rather than in the north, and they hoped to draw the Poles deeper into Ukraine for a planned counterattack on both fronts. The Bolsheviks also needed to relieve the pressure on the southwestern front, and so launched a limited offensive in Belarus. 27-year old General Mikhail Tukhachevsky led the Bolshevik attack on May 15, which struck just before the Poles could launch their own offensive in that sector. The Red 15th Army drove the Polish forces back over 100km in two weeks during the Battle of the Berezina. Polish Generals Sosnkowski and Skierski led a counterattack that had regained most of the ground by the first week of June, and the front stabilized until the beginning of July.
In Ukraine, Bolshevik reinforcements began to arrive. The very same day Pilsudski returned in triumph to Warsaw, May 18th, Budyonni’s First Cavalry Army arrived on the scene after their long ride from the Caucasus. Commissar for Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, also arrived May 29 and would later claim much of the credit for what was about to happen.
The Red Army’s plan was to strike at the juncture between the Polish 3rd and 6th Armies with the Red 12th Army and the Fastov Group. At first the Bolshevik cavalry attacks made limited progress, and the Poles even captured two of Budyonni’s armoured trains. So the Red Cavalry changed tactics, and began to fight in more coordinated, smaller groups and concentrate against strongpoints. Breaking through Polish lines would prove to be difficult, since the Red Army did not outnumber the Poles on this front. Another complication was that the Orenburg Cossacks, who had previously deserted the Whites for the Reds, now deserted the Reds and joined the Poles. Finally on June 5, the Bolshevik cavalry infiltrated a weak point in the Polish defences and broke through, with Budyonni himself engaging in close combat. The 3rd Polish Army was temporarily surrounded, and the Red Cavalry raided behind Polish lines into ZhitOmir, sowing panic. 5000 Bolshevik prisoners were freed, and a hospital complex housing 600 wounded Poles was burned. The Poles were on the run:
“Stores had to be abandoned, prisoners released; aeroplanes were left behind on the ground because there was not time to repair them; units which lingered to fight were overtaken.” (Davies 126)
The Poles abandoned Kiev on June 10th, but were able to avoid destruction in spite of the chaotic retreat. This was partly because of their advantage in the air, which allowed them to observe Bolshevik movements and project firepower. Isaak Babel was serving with the First Cavalry Army, and wrote autobiographical stories about his experiences, including facing Polish-American planes:
“They dropped down to three hundred metres and shot up first Andrushka and then Trunov. None of the shots fired by our men did the Americans any harm…So after half an hour, we were able to ride out and fetch the corpses […] All [Trunov’s] wounds were in his face, his cheeks punctured all over, his tongue ripped out.” (Davies 129)
Another reason the Poles were able to avoid a catastrophe was because Budyonni did not exploit his breakthrough, and withdrew. There has since been a debate about whether he could have held ZhitOmir and destroyed the Poles, or whether his withdrawal was the right thing to do given limited logistics and communications. In any case the Bolshevik breakthrough sent the Poles into full retreat in Ukraine, and by the beginning of July, the Red Army had reached Rowne, where Pilsudski’s Headquarters had been at the start of the offensive in April. Isaac Babel described the Red Cavalry crossing the Zbruch river:
“Into the cool evening dripped the smell of yesterday’s blood, the stench of slaughtered horses. The blackened river roared along, twisting itself into foaming knots at the rapids.” (Davies 126)
So by the beginning of July 1920, the Polish offensive into Ukraine had been stopped and turned around by the Red Army. And the Bolshevik high command was now ready to launch its own attack westwards all along the front. General Tukhachevski felt it was an historic moment:
“In the West, the fate of world revolution is being decided – over the corpses of White Poland.” (Engelstein 500).
On the other side, a Polish soldier put it in more practical terms:
“We ran all the way to Kiev, and we ran all the way back.” (Davies 105)
As the Red Army prepared its counteroffensive in Belarus, the question in early summer 1920 was where exactly “all the way back” would be.
- Now it’s time for our roundup segment, where we take a look at what else is going on in April 1920.
- In Europe, on April 2 the German army marches into the Ruhr, to fight the Ruhr Red Army. The French see this as a breach of the demilitarized zone guaranteed by the Treaty of Versailles, and on April 6 the French army occupies Frankfurt and several other cities.
- From April 19 to 26, the Conference of San Remo takes place. France and Britain are given League of Nations mandates in the former Ottoman provinces of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia.
- Also on the 19th, Germany and Bolshevik Russia agree to exchange prisoners of war who have been in limbo since the end of the Great War.
- On the 20th, the summer Olympic games open in Antwerp. The five interlocking ring symbol is shown for the first time.
- In the Middle East, on April 4th, violence broke out between Arab and Jewish residents in Jerusalem. The Palestine riots left 9 dead and 200 injured.
- And finally, on the 23rd, Mustafa Kemal forms the Grand National Assembly in Ankara, which adopts a new constitution in opposition to the Sultan.
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Bibliography and Source
- Centek, Jarosław: Polish-Soviet War 1920-1921 , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08
- Leonhard, Jörn. Der überforderte Frieden. Versailles und die Welt 1918-1923 (CH Beck, 2018).
- 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).
- Smele, Jonathan. The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars 1916-1926 (London: Hurst, 2015).
- Davies, Norman. White Eagle Red Star (Random House, 2003 (1972))
- Böhler, Jochen. Civil War in Central Europe, 1918-1921 (Oxford University Press, 2019)
- Timothy Snyder. The Reconstruction of Nations. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003)