A hundred years ago this week, a series of biggest battles that Europe were to witness between the end of the First World War in 1918 and the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 decided the fate of the continent as much as, if not more than, the Great War itself. In early August 1920, the newly resurrected, independent Poland saved the Eastern Europe, Germany and possibly the rest of the war-exhausted Europe from the triumphant Russian communism. As a result of a little known war in the distant corners of the continent, the status quo of the East was preserved for another two decades. It would take the Second World War for the Soviet Union to expand its empire all the way to the Elbe and (briefly) the Adriatic. Had Poland not triumphed over the Red Army in 1920, and with Germany defeated and disarmed, no significant military force stood between the Soviets and the English Channel. History of the 20th century would have taken a different course, and not necessarily a better one.
Polish peasants did not in fact welcome the Red Army as liberators from the aristocratic oppression.
The Polish-Russian war of 1919-20 was the last major conflict where massed cavalry played an important role. Unlike the static Western Front a few years earlier (but similarly to the much more mobile Eastern Front) it was a war of maneuver and speed, conducted over vast swathes of territory. While still fought in a pre-armour era, its conduct directly and indirectly inspired the major proponents of the future tank warfare and the doctrine of blitzkrieg, from the young De Gaulle (who was one of the official French Army observers in Poland at the time) through Tukhachevsky in the Soviet Union to Guderian in Germany. Two million troops from both sides took part in the conflict, making it the most significant foreign intervention against the newly installed Bolshevik regime over the course of the Russian Civil War. It might have even succeeded in strangling communism in its cradle; what prevented the cooperation with the counter-revolutionary White forces was their old imperial hostility to independent Poland (coincidentally, the anti-Hitler German opposition of 1944 was likewise unfriendly to the idea).
“Smash a Bolshevik” (or, punch a commie?)
The basic story of the war is easily enough told. After 123 years of partition between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, Poland was recreated (or, really, recreated herself) among the chaos of the late 1918, with the collapse of all three of her occupying empires. The new “Versailles” Poland was smaller than in the past, which led the new government to try to restore by force what has been denied to her at the negotiating table (where Poles had no seat in any case). The Russian Revolution (or rather the Bolshevik coup d’etat) and the following civil war provided a perfect opportunity. Throughout 1919, the reconstituted Polish Army under the command of Marshall Jozef Pilsudski fought against and took over the briefly independent Western Ukraine republic and then marched on Kiev, this time in alliance with the forces of also briefly independent Eastern Ukraine republic (it was Pilsudski’s intention to recreate some form of an independent Ukrainian state – minus the predominantly Polish areas – as part of his larger project to create the Miedzymorze (Intermarum) Confederation of both anti-Russian and anti-German states stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea).
“Give a sound trashing to the Polish lord”
But the Polish Army became overstretched and the Soviet government, now having defeated its major White opponents, found itself willing and able to stand up to and roll back what they saw as the Polish aggression against historically Russian territories. The Red Army, which sporadically skirmished with the Poles over the previous year, now counter-attacked across the whole wide front across what is now Belarus and Ukraine, driving the Polish Army back at an unprecedented pace of 30 kilometres a day. Soviet Marshall Tukhachevsky ordered his troops “To the West! Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to worldwide conflagration. March on Vilno, Minsk, Warsaw!” and “onward to Berlin over the corpse of Poland!” Pravda newspaper echoed “Through the corpse of the White Poland lies the way to World Inferno. On bayonets we will carry happiness and peace to working humanity”. British Labour Party and French Socialists vowed not to support “reactionary” Poland; German and Czech unions sabotaged the delivery of crucial military supplies to the beleaguered Poland.
Defending the Madonna of Ostrobrama (the patroness of the Polish Lithuania)
On 10 August, Cossack units of Tukhachevsky’s northern Army crossed the Vistula River north of Warsaw in at attempt to envelop the capital. This was a mistake, as the southern Army, under Budyonny, was still stuck around Lwow, three hundred kilometres to the south-east. For weeks preparing in secret, the last Polish reserves punched through the centre, first cutting off the two Soviet fronts from each other and then in a series of counter-enveloping maneuvers routing three Soviet armies. Now it was the Poles’ turn to advance 30 kilometres per day, as the Red Army collapsed and retreated in chaotic circumstances. The Polish counter-strike subsequently became known as “Cud nad Wisla” (Miracle of the Vistula), but it was less of a supernatural intervention and more a combination of several favourable factors: Soviet missteps, good Polish organisation, the growing hostility between Stalin and Trotsky as well as various military commanders, which hampered the cooperation between the Soviet fronts. Last but not least, and this was only revealed in 2004, Polish cryptographers had managed to break the Red Army codes – just as they would later be instrumental in breaking the German Enigma.
Polish lord and Russia’s counter-revolutionary Baron Wrangel, in one sweep
The war ended a couple of months later with the Peace of Riga. As it’s often the case, no one got what they initially wanted. Independent Ukraine was not created; its western part absorbed instead into the Polish Republic (similarly with the western Belarussia), the eastern parts into the Soviet Union. In other ways it was a stalemate: Poland remained intact and independent for the next 19 years and the Soviet advance west in search of the regional (if not world) domination likewise did not resume until 1939 – and then, more successfully, 1943. Red Army’s humiliation fed into the traditional Russian hostility toward the Catholic and Western-oriented Poland; no mistakes would be made in the future (but for the very costly hiccup of an alliance with Hitler) and Poland would pay a terrible price during and after the Second World War. Warsaw, almost taken in August 1920, would be allowed to burn in August 1944, the Red Army this time not in a hurry, allowing Nazis to do their dirty job for them. During the life of the Polish People’s Republic, the Polish-Russian war remained one of the great historical “unmentionables” (the so called “biale plamy” or “white spots” of erased history), conflicting as it did with the narrative of “the eternal friendship” between the two nations.
“Will you allow this to happen to your women and girls?”
In the more immediate aftermath, military lessons of the conflict were learned by the more insightful men of arms like De Gaulle and Poland’s Sikorski, neither of whom was listened to twenty years later in their respective countries, in both cases with dire results. Politically, without the Red Army assistance, all the communist uprisings and mini-revolutions throughout the Central Europe were quickly suppressed. “Happiness and peace” did not arrive on bayonets to “working humanity” of Western Europe, and Trotsky’s dream of revolution on the Vistula and the Rhine was not realised. Arguably, he was now fatally weakened in his competition with Stalin, a man much less interested than Trotsky in exporting the revolution. Stalin would instead keep the terror at home, at least for the time being. Western Europe was spared through the sacrifice of the Polish arms. To borrow from Emperor Franz Joseph, it would soon astound the world with its ingratitude.