Ninety-six years ago, the Poles saved Europe, and I bet most of you donâ€™t even know about it.
On 14-15 August 1920, newly-formed Soviet Red Army, commanded by the legendary Mikhail Tukhachevsky (later murdered on Stalinâ€™s orders during the 1937 Red Army purges), was finally stopped and repulsed at the gates of Warsaw. There but for the grace of God â€“ and the Poles later christened the battle â€œthe Miracle on the Vistulaâ€ â€“ because with Germany comprehensively disarmed after the Treaty of Versailles, and the victorious Entante powers demobilised and demoralised by the recent carnage of the Great War, there was nothing and no one to stop the revolutionary communist army between Warsaw and the English Channel. One of the great â€œifsâ€ of history, but fortunately we will never know.
Poland only regained her independence in the aftermath of World War One, having suffered 123 years of partition by the Prussian (later German), Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires, all of which collapsed during or immediately after the war. Most worryingly for Poland, to the east, a year before her independence was won, the Bolsheviks came to power following a successful coup dâ€™etat in St Petersburg. Alarmed by the communist threats that the world revolution, which failed to occur spontaneously, would have to be carried to Europe by the Red Army, Polandâ€™s new government decided to strike pre-emptively. Reconstituted Polish Army had managed to occupy most of Ukraine (which in centuries past used to be a part of the Polish Commonwealth) before the Red Army finally regrouped, routed the Poles and their Ukrainian allies, and kept pushing them back for a thousand kilometres, all the way to the outskirts of the Polish capital, Warsaw.
On 3 July, before his final push, Tukhachevsky gave the following order to his soldiers:
SOLDIERS OF THE RED ARMY
The time of reckoning has come. In the blood of the defeated Polish army we will drown the criminal government of Pilsudski.
Turn your eyes to the West, In the West the fate of World Revolution is being decided. Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to World Conflagration. On our bayonets we will bring happiness and peace to the toiling masses of mankind.
The hour of attack has struck! Westward!
On to Wilno, Minsk, Warsaw â€“ Forward!
Polandâ€™s Marshall Pilsudzski was a socialist but of a fiercely anti-communist and anti-Russian variety (in his younger revolutionary days he supplied Leninâ€™s older brother with explosives to blow up Tsar Alexander III, the attempted crime for which Alexandr Ulyanov was hanged, irrevocably radicalising the young Vladimir). Throughout July and the early August, Pilsudzski regrouped his remaining forces and lured the overconfident Russians into a pincer trap. The Red Army was completely annihilated in a space of days â€“ 25,000 killed, 65,000 taken prisoner, and the remaining 35,000 interned by the Germans, having escaped across the border to East Prussia. I wonâ€™t bore you with assorted militaria, but for those wanting more detail of the operations I recommend Adam Zamoyskiâ€™s â€œWarsaw 1920: Leninâ€™s failed conquest of Europeâ€ and Norman Daviesâ€™ â€œWhite Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 and â€˜The Miracle on the Vistulaâ€™â€.
After the static trench slaughter of World War One, this was a war of manoeuvre, a precursor of the next warâ€™s blitzkriegs, albeit still largely dependent on cavalry, with tanks a rare novelty on the eastern front. It was the lesson well absorbed by the then Captain de Gaulle, who was the official French Army observer and fought with one of the Polish units. It was a lesson he unfortunately was unable to impart back home, with disastrous results for France twenty years later. English military historian, General J F C Fuller, recognised the battle of Warsaw as one of the great decisive battles of the Western history, alongside the much better known ones like Marathon and Waterloo. In the immediate aftermath of the Polish victory, Lord Dâ€™Abernon wrote in his diary:
â€œThe Battle of Tours saved our ancestors from the Yoke of the Koran; it is probable that the Battle of Warsaw saved Central and parts of Western Europe from a more subversive danger â€“ the fanatical tyranny of the Soviet.â€
Alas, in the end, the Polish victory wasnâ€™t final. A quarter of a century later, Stalin, who had never forgiven Poles for humiliating the Red Army, finally realised Leninâ€™s dream and got as far as Berlin. But no further. The World Revolution, first halted by the Poles in 1920, was never to be.
(Polish propaganda poster, pretty self-explanatory. It reads: “Do you want this to happen to your women and girls? Fight with all your strength against the Bolshevism!”)