Battle Of Warsaw 1920

By Witold Lawrynowicz

When World War One ended a clash between Poland and Soviet Russia was inevitable due to colliding aspirations of both countries. Poland, which was partitioned between Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary for 123 years, but never lost its national identity, was rising from the ashes of the Great War. Poles genuinely longed for peace desperately needed to rebuild their devastated by the war country. The borders were not marked and western powers, which were delineating them, did it in a way unfavorable for Poland. Curzone line left millions of Poles, living on the eastern bank of river Bug, in Russia Western borders cut off Poland from coal-basin and industrial regions of Silesia. Germany, the former partitioning power, tried to grab Polish soil to recompense itself for expected loses in the west. Russia, the other former partitioning power, regarded Poland as one of its provinces. Borders which would encompass all Poles, had to be fought for.

Policy of the revolutionary Russia in 1919 and beginning of 1920 was predominantly directed at internal problems: counter revolution and Western Powers intervention. Shortly after consolidation of power and overcoming anticommunist forces within Russian borders, Lenin formulated a new idea of "revolution from outside." Revolution was to be carried on the bayonets of the Soviet "soldats" to the Western Europe. The shortest route to Berlin and Paris led through Warsaw [1]. Lenin in one of his telegrams exclaimed:" We must direct all our attention to preparing and strengthening of the Western Front. It is necessary to announce a new slogan: Prepare for war against Poland" [2]. And in the words of General Tukhachevski "The path to the world conflagration passes over the corpse of Poland. On Vilno-Minsk-Warsaw march" [3].

Polish politics in those days, was under strong influence of Joseph Pilsudski, Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, who put forward a concept of federalistic order in Eastern Europe. According to that plan Poland was to enter a loose federation of small countries emerging from the crumbling Russian Empire. The strength of such federation, uniting Poland, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania, would be sufficient to restrain any imperialistic intentions of both Russia and Germany [4,5].

This political concept was manifested by the "Kiev Expedition" - the offensive of the 3rd Polish Army, under the command of Gen. E. Rydz-Smigly, aimed at creating a independent Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalist, Semen Petlura, who after defeat of his government from the bolsheviks hands found asylum in Poland, was taking part in the "Kiev Expedition" at the helm of two Ukrainian infantry divisions. Pilsudski envisioned Petlura to become a leader of free Ukraine and expected that masses of volunteers will flock to his army. But Ukraine, tired of war and bloodshed, gave an insufficient number of volunteers to the newly created army of Ukrainian Peoples Republic. The hopes of raising Ukrainian army were soon shattered [6].

The "Kiev Expedition" started on April 25th, 1920 with the intention of beating Soviet troops on the Polish southern flank and establishing friendly government in the Ukraine. After winning the battle in the South, Polish General Staff planned a speedy withdrawal of the 3rd Army and strengthening of the northern front where Pilsudski expected the main battle with the Red Army to take place. As it is often the case the actual course of events was different than envisioned. The 3rd Army easily won border clashes with the Soviets and marched to Kiev encountering only token resistance, but the bolshevik army, although badly mauled, avoided total destruction. Polish offensive stopped at Kiev and only a small bridgehead was established on the eastern bank of Dnieper.

Enrolment to the army of The Ukrainian Peoples Republic was slow. Consequently, Ukrainian units could not replace Polish divisions in holding the front line. Polish troops had to stay in the Ukraine longer than it was planned and could not augment the Northern Front.

Situation around Kiev was stable until the end of May 1920 when the 1st Cavalry Army under Siemion Budionny arrived at the scene. Repeated attacks by this elite cossack cavalry opened the second act of the "Kiev Expedition". Polish front was broken through on June 5th and Polish army begun retreat from Ukraine on June 10th [6].

The "Kiev Expedition" was an important prelude to a decisive battle which took place in the North. Polish divisions, which according to plans of the Supreme Commander were to strengthen defenses at the Auta River, were tied down at Kiev. As a result of the insufficient forces the 200 miles long front was occupied by 120 thousand soldiers backed by some 460 artillery pieces divided between 1st and 4th Armies and Polesie Group. Soldiers were spread in a thin line along the whole length of the front. Gen. Szeptycki, commander of the Polish North-Eastern Front, did not have any strategic reserves at his disposal. This linear formation was an effect of the Great War type thinking: "Establish a fortified line of defence". Such tactic proved its merit on the Western Front which was saturated with troops, machine guns and artillery. The front in Eastern Poland was weakly manned, supported with inadequate artillery and bear of any fixed fortifications. Pilsudski on many occasions called for the "strategie de plein air," a strategy of open spaces, instead of fixed positions, but his appeals fall on the deaf ears.

Against Polish linear formation Red Army gathered their North-Western Front lead by brilliant young general Michail Tukhachevski. His troops were organized in four armies: 4, 15, 3 and 16 north to south respectively. Their number exceeded 108 thousand infantry and 11 thousand cavalry supported by 722 artillery pieces and 2913 machine guns. These troops were massed against Polish front reaching in decisive points a four-to-one advantage in numbers [7].

Tukhachevski launched his offensive on July 4th along the axis Smolensk-Brest Litovsk. For three days the outcome of the battle was hanging in a balance but numerical superiority of the Russian troops finally prevailed. The battle was full of wasted opportunities, encirclements, breakthroughs and heroic deeds. One of such feats was performed by two battalions of the 33rd Infantry Regiment which stopped advance of two and a half Red Army divisions for a full day, denying them opportunity to turn northern flank of the Polish front. Infantry of the 33rd Regiment still managed to withdraw after a day of heavy fighting. Thanks to stubborn defence of Polish units Tukhachevski's plan to break the front and push defendants south-west into the Pinsk Marshes failed. Nevertheless, starting July 7th Polish forces were in full retreat [8].

Resistance was offered again on the line of "German trenches", a heavily fortified line from the days of the Great War. This well prepared line of field fortifications presented a unique opportunity to stem Russian offensive. The battle for Vilno, as it was later called, took place from July 11th to 14th. Also in this encounter history repeated itself, Polish forces were not sufficient to adequately man the whole line of defenses. Soviet forces were able to select weakly defended part of the front and break through. The whole front was forced to roll back because, once again, Red Army turned the northern flank. From that time on Polish war communique were constantly repeating the same phrase "because our northern flank was turned by the enemy our armies are forced to retreat west" [8,9].

At this time governments of England and France exercised pressure on Poland to accept Russian terms of armistice no matter how harsh. Poland, having no allies, was forced to abide and entered into negotiations with Soviet emissaries. Russian terms amounted to total capitulation and even than Lenin was stalling the negotiations to give his troops time to take Warsaw and conclude the war in their favor. Only afterwards Western Powers decided to help Poland by sending supplies but it was at best marginal aid [4].

Those were the black days for Poland. Lithuania joined the Soviet side in the war against Poland. This decision was dictated by the desire to incorporate Vilno into Lithuania and fear of the Red Army standing on Lithuanian borders. Western public opinion influenced by the press and left wing politicians, was vehemently anti-Polish. Workers of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany refused to transit any war materials to Poland. In the Gdansk harbor British troops were used to unload a ammunition ships because dock workers, mostly German, went on strike when they learned about the cargo. On August 6th, 1920 British Labor Party published a pamphlet which stated that workers of Great Britain would take no part in the war as allies of Poland. French Socialist, in their organ L'Humanite, declared "Not a man, not a sou, not a shell for reactionary and capitalist Poland. Long live the Russian Revolution. Long live Workman's International." Only Hungarians, who had their own experience with the bloody regime of Bela Kun, tried to extend a helping hand. They planned to dispatch a 30 thousand cavalry corp to join Polish Army, unfortunately this idea was derailed by the Czechoslovak government refusal to allow them passage through Czechoslovak territory [5].

Soviet forces were relentlessly moving forward with an incredible in those days speed of 20 miles a day. When Grodno fell on July 19th Tukhachevski gave order to occupy Warsaw by August 12th. When Brest Litovsk fell on August 1st and Bug River was crossed by the Soviets the last river barrier before Vistula and Warsaw was broken through. Red Army was marching for three weeks with average speed of 12 miles a day. Their continuous advance seemed to be unstoppable. Soldiers of the North-Western Front, after taking Lomza and crossing river Narew on August 2nd, were only 60 miles from Warsaw. The South-Western Front pushed Polish forces out of Ukraine and was closing on Lwow, important industrial center of southern Poland. Road to Polish capital laid open [8].

The history of the "Warsaw Battle" begins in mid July when Pilsudski put forward his plan of stopping Tukhachevski's march by determined defense and counter attacking his left wing. At first Pilsudski wanted to base his operation on the river Bug and Brest Litowsk but unexpected fall of these two barriers made it impossible [10].

Pilsudski recognized the chance to split two Russian fronts in the center. The bolsheviks South-Western and North-Western Fronts were naturally divided by the Pripet Marshes in the beginning of the campaign. When they moved forward and passed marshes they established a weak link between the fronts with the help of a Mozyrska Group. The idea was to break through between two fronts and later roll the Northern Front. Risks associated with this simple plan were enormous. The first and foremost question was: is Warsaw going to be able to survive the full brunt of the Russian onslaught? Will gross of Red Army forces be engaged at Warsaw bridgehead? The loss of the capital would be regarded by many people as the loss of the war. The other question was whether the troops of South-Western Front could be prevented from taking part in the battle? The biggest problem in the south created the fast and operative 1st Cavalry Army under Siemion Budionny [10].

Pilsudski worked on the operation plan for three days at his home in Anin near Warsaw. He arrived at his final decisions during the sleepless night from 5th to 6th of August spent in Belvedere - his official residency. The biggest problem constituted the correct division of troops for the operation. Later in his memoirs "Year 1920" Pilsudski quotes Napoleon Bonaparte definition of a military commander working on the decision for the battle. Napoleon said of himself that "he was like a girl on the point of giving birth to a child-pusillanimous (frightened)." Pilsudski fully understood meaning of this expression while working on the plan of Warsaw Battle. The most difficult questions were: how many troops should defend Warsaw? How many divisions can be withdrawn from the southern front without endangering its stability? Having secured both wings, how to mass sufficient number of troops for the offensive [8]?

Finally, after several nerve wracking days of hesitation, Commander-in-Chief arrived at the decision. This decision, in his own words, was a "nonsense" because "the one who was weak had to give force and who, against all logic, had to have a decisive role." The division of forces was following: 5 1/2 divisions concentrated in a 4th Army under gen. E. Rydz-Smigly was to lead the counterattack. The main task of the 4th Army was to break through the enemy front and fall on the rear of the Soviet North-Western Front. Pilsudski gave passive role of defending Warsaw from the east to 10 1/2 divisions formed in 1st and 2nd Armies. Additional 5 divisions in the 5th Army were defending Warsaw from the north. The most difficult task was entrusted to the weak 4th Army whose troops, one week before planed operation, were fighting in places as far as 100-150 miles from the concentration points. All movement of troops was done within striking distance of the Red Army. One strong push by them could derail plans for counterattack and endanger cohesion of the whole Polish front [8].

The decision for such distribution of troops was forced upon Pilsudski by defeatist mood of politicians and fear for the safety of the capital. He committed this obvious error in the strategic assumption for the operation with the full conscience, understanding that under circumstances it was the only possible solution.

Because of the enormous risks involved, Pilsudski decided to personally supervise the offensive. He appreciated personal danger of being killed or taken prisoner, so that before departing for the front he handed a letter with his resignation from all state functions which he held, ie. Commander-in-Chief and Head of State, to the Prime Minister. This letter was to be used when need arise but was never acted upon by the Prime Minister [10].

Pilsudski visited all units of the 4th Army between August 13th and 15th. He tried to erase from the soldiers memory the days of hopeless retreat and inspire them with the spirit of victory. It was not an easy task, soldiers were tired and demoralized, recently incorporated numerous replacements proved to everyone the extent of the losses endured during the retreat. Logistics were a nightmare, Polish army was supported by guns made in five countries and used rifles manufactured in six different countries, each of them used different ammunition. Equipment was in poor shape. Pilsudski remembers: "In 21 Division almost half of the soldiers paraded in front of me bare-feet." Nevertheless in only three days Pilsudski was able to rise the morale of his troops and motivate them for the greatest efforts. Within a short time troops spirit changed from morale breakdown to full confidence in absolute victory [10,11].

Tukhachevski did not wait. He despatched Soviet 4th Army west across Vistula River. His plan called for wide northern hook around Warsaw, crossing Vistula at Plock and attacking the capital from the north-west. This plan was a repetition of the manoeuvre performed by the tsarist army of Field Marshal Ivan Paskievitch in 1831 during the November Uprising in Poland. Coincidentally A. N. Tukhachevski, great grandfather of Michail, was commanding the leading Oloniecki Infantry Regiment and died in the assault on the fortifications of Warsaw in 1831 [7].

Tukhachevski launched also a frontal attack against Warsaw. On August 13th the 3rd Army commenced final assault on Polish capital. Radzymin was taken on August 14th and Russians were able to see church spires in the city. Only 15 miles separated them from the greatest prize of the campaign and possibly the end of the war. Simultaneously, the 4th Army stroke from the north on Polish front on Wkra River. Situation became desperate. Foreign diplomats with the exception of British and Vatican ambassadors, hastily left Warsaw. Gen. J. Haller, commander of the Polish Northern Front, asked Pilsudski to start the offensive 24 hours earlier. Pilsudski felt compelled to agree although his forces were not fully prepared and some divisions were still in transit [8,9].

Tukhachevski by all his movements against Warsaw, unconsciously, was acting on Polish behalf. His march across Vistula in the north was striking in the operational vacuum, there was no sizeable Polish troops there. On the other hand, south from Warsaw, where the fate of the war was about to be decided, Tukhachevski left only token forces to guard vital link between North-Western and South-Western Fronts. Mozyrska Group, which was to fulfill this task, numbered only 8 thousand soldiers. Another error committed by the Soviet generals, which influenced the outcome of the war, neutralized 1st Cavalry Army of S. Budionny. Soviet High Command, at Tukhachevski's insistence, ordered the 1st Cavalry Army to march toward Warsaw from the south. Budionny did not obey this order due to grudge between commanding South-Western Front gen. Jegorov and gen. Tukhachevski. Joseph Stalin meddling decisively influenced Jegorov and Budionny disobedience. Joseph Stalin, at a time chief political commissar of the South-Western Front, in search of personal triumph, desired to capture the important industrial center of Lwow. Ultimately Budionny's forces, which could changed the course of the history, marched on Lwow not on Warsaw and excluded themselves from the battle [2,12].

The situation at Warsaw was temporarily mastered by the counterattack of the defendants. The 27th Infantry Division of the Red Army managed to get to the village of Izabelin 8 miles from the capital of Poland but that was the high point of the Russian invasion, from then on Red Army was retreating [7].

Polish operation started from the Wieprz River in the early hours of August 16th. After overcoming initial resistance of the weak Soviet outposts Polish troops were without the contact with the enemy for the first two days of the operation. The 14th Infantry Division encountered the units of the retreating 16th Soviet Army on the evening of the second day of operation. Polish High Command could not understand what happened to Mozyrska Group which so effectively pushed Polish troops until few days ago. It turned out that Mozyrska Group consisted solely of 57th Infantry Division which has been beaten in the first day of the operation. Polish onslaught found a huge gap between Russian fronts and exploited it strategically [8].

During the offensive the 1st Division of the Legion, in order to cut enemies retreat, did a remarkable march from Lubartow to Bialystok - 163 miles in 6 days. Soldiers fought two battles, slept only few hours and marched for up to 21 hours a day. Their sacrifice and endurance was rewarded by cutting of the entire 16th Soviet Army at Bialystok and taking most of its troops prisoner [13].

Polish troops enjoyed full support of the local population. Peasants, which according to communist doctrine should support international ideas of communism, in fact backed national goals of the Polish government. Officers of the 21st Infantry Division witnessed peasants armed with pitchforks accompanied by their wives carrying flails assisting soldiers in the bayonet charge on the enemy positions[8].

First two days of the operation Pilsudski spent among his troops encouraging them to the greatest effort. Only when on the third day he left for Warsaw to coordinate actions of armies attacking from the capital and from Wieprz River, the tempo of the pursuit lessen. Some units of the Soviet 4th and 15th Armies managed to cross Prussian frontier and avoid captivity. The Germans disarmed Russian troops but after transporting them to the Soviet border set them free. These troops took part in a Niemen Battle just few weeks later [8].

Tukhachevski placed his headquarters in Minsk some 300 miles east from Warsaw. Considering primitive communications systems available at a time, he understandably had trouble to keep in touch with his own troops. His first communication with any army commander after beginning of the Polish attack took place on August 18th on the third day of the offensive. Commander of the 16th Army, in a telephone conversation, told Tukhachevski about "local counterattack on the southern wing of the army." Tukhachevski immediately grasped the situation and ordered a limited retreat. His intention was to straighten the front line, stop Polish attack and regain initiative. But it was too late for that, the Red Army was in full retreat. Only the 15th Army tried to obey orders from the High Command and shield the withdrawal of the most western extended 4th Army. But defeated twice on August 19th and 20th it joined the general rout of the North-Western Front. By August 21st all organized resistance cased to exist [14].

Four Soviet armies begun march toward Warsaw on July 4th in the framework of the North-Western Front. By the end of August the 4th and 15th Armies were defeated in the field, their remnants crossed Prussian border and were disarmed. Nevertheless, these troops were soon released and fought against Poland again. The 3rd Army retreated east so quickly that Polish troops could not catch up with them, consequently, this army sustained the least loses. The 16th Army disintegrated at Bialystok and most of its soldiers become prisoners of war.

That was the end of the Warsaw Battle. Victorious Polish army has taken 66.000 prisoners, 231 guns and 1.023 machine-guns. Additional 30.000 to 40.000 Soviet troops was disarmed by the Germans. During the two months of July and August Polish casualties were estimated at 50.000 and Soviet at 150.000 [8,9]. Victory at Warsaw was decisive but not final. Pilsudski defeated Red Army again in September in Battle of the Niemen River and in October in Battle of the Szczara River. On October 10th the armistice was signed and the war was over.

Poland stopped on itself the full brunt of the Red Army and defeated an idea of the "export of the revolution." Communist time table was slowed 24 years and countries of the Central Europe were spared from communist rule for a quarter of a century. Western Europe, where revolutionary fever was boiling over on the streets, was spared a bloody fight for survival. Unfortunately, political and military significance of this victory was never fully appreciated by Europeans.


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  14. Tukhachevski, M., Lectures at Military Academy in Moscow, February 7-10, 1923. Reprinted in Pochod za Wisle, Lodz 1989.

  15. And others.