Battle at the Niemen River
September – October 1920
By Witold Lawrynowicz
The warm afternoon of September 23rd was filled with the sound of rifle shots echoing from the direction of a wooden bridge spanning the Niemen River in the village of Druskienniki. Dismounted cavalry soldiers of the 3rd Ulan Regiment (known as the “Children of Warsaw”), under the command of Mjr. Cyprian Bystram, tried to force the defenses of the Lithuanian 3rd Infantry Battalion and gain control of the bridge. Despite their superiority in number, their efforts were stopped cold by Lithuanian machine guns strategically placed on the far bank of the Niemen River. The cannonade lasted for hours to no effect. The commander of the Polish II Cavalry Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Nieniewski, feared that Lithuanian reinforcement might arrive and block the passage permanently. The bridge in Druskienniki had strategic value in the plans of the Polish high command. It was key to the successful movement of the Polish Northern Assault Group around the flank of the Soviet front and to entering their vulnerable rear area. The move was associated with the political problem of entering Lithuanian territory, but military necessity and open cooperation between Lithuanian and Soviet armed forces quickly dispelled any scruples in the minds of politicians and officers. Gaining the bridge in Druskienniki was necessary for the success of the Polish plan.
The Lithuanian 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment put up a bold defense denying the Polish cavalry the bridge and the route to the rear of the Soviet front. During the afternoon of September 23, 1920 a squadron of the Polish 211th Ulan Regiment under the command of Capt. Jerzy Dambrowski advanced to aid the 3rd Regiment. Suddenly the whole squadron galloped towards the bridge attacking directly at the Lithuanian machine guns. Capt. Dambrowski led the charge with doctor Aleksandrowicz (a regimental physician) on one side and a regimental priest with a crucifix in hand on the other. Ulans fighting on foot quickly removed barbed wires blocking the entrance to the bridge and the charging squadron entered the wooden planks of the bridge. The charge against the entrenched infantry with machine guns was suicidal, but at that decisive moment one Lithuanian machine gun jammed, and the gunner of the other was killed by a shot straight to his forehead. The intensity of the Lithuanian fire weakened. Using this opportunity the ulans galloped across the wooden bridge and sabers in hand drove the infantry from their positions. The bridge was secured and a route around the Soviet right flank was opened. Soon the entire Northern Assault Group descended on the rear of the Soviet armies defending the Niemen River. This successful maneuver was a part of an operation, which decided the outcome of the Battle at the Niemen River. This battle finally determined the end of the Polish – Soviet war of 1920.
When the First World War ended the clash between Poland and Soviet Russia was inevitable due to colliding aspirations of both nations. Poland, which had been partitioned between Russia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 123 years, never lost its national identity and was rising from the ashes of the Great War. Poles genuinely longing for peace desperately needed to rebuild their country, devastated by occupation and war. The borders were not marked, and the western powers that were delineating them did it in a way unfavorable for Poland. Each of the neighboring countries claimed a part of the Polish territory, basing their rights upon the fact that they had ruled for over a century during the partitioning. The borders, which would encompass all Poles, had to be fought for.
The policy of the revolutionary Soviet Russia in 1919 and beginning of 1920 was predominantly directed at the consolidation of power, fighting the counter-revolution and the intervention of the Western Powers. Shortly after solving the internal problems and overcoming anticommunist forces within Russian borders, Vladimir Ilitsch Ulyanov “Lenin” formulated a new policy of “revolution from outside.” The Communist Revolution was to be carried on the bayonets of the Soviet soldiers to Western Europe. The shortest route from Moscow to Berlin and Paris led through Warsaw. In one of his telegrams, Lenin exclaimed: “We must direct all our attention at preparing and strengthening the Western Front. It is necessary to announce a new slogan: Prepare for war against Poland!” And in the words of comfront (commander of the front) Mikhail Tukhachevsky: “The path to the world conflagration passes over the corps of Poland. On Wilno-Minsk-Warsaw march!”
The armies of the Western Front under the command of comfront Tukhachevsky opened their offensive against Poland in early July 1920 by striking at the Auta River in Byelorussia. The force of the Soviet attack fell upon the Polish 1st Army commanded by gen. Gustaw Zygadlowicz. The overextended, weak Polish army was defeated and forced to retreat westward. The Soviet advance was stopped the second week of August 1920 at the outskirts of Warsaw – the capital of Poland. While Tukhachevsky was occupied with the storming Warsaw, the Polish 4th Army counterattacked south of Warsaw and defeated the Red Army in the Battle of Warsaw. The Soviet armies were split in the center, and later the northern part of the Red Army front was forced to flee east with heavy losses. Large units of the Red Army crossed the border of East Prussia and were interned; the German authorities soon let them go free, provided transportation and allowed them to once again join the Soviet military.
After their defeat in the Battle of Warsaw, the Soviet troops retreated east in disarray. They went back 150 miles as far as the Niemen River where they established a new line of defense. The front line ran south from the point of contact between the Polish-Lithuanian-Russian border through Grodno and Wolkowysk to the Pripet marshes. The Soviet troops incurred enormous losses but were not destroyed. The Polish staff officers knew that another successful battle was needed before the peace talks could be concluded on acceptable terms. The Soviets could afford to lose a battle and still muster enough strength to attack again. Both armies vigorously prepared for the next battle and meanwhile prolonged the peace talks in Riga, Latvia.
When the retreat finally ended on August 26, 1920, both sides needed time to regroup and refit their divisions. The Soviet armies began quickly reorganizing and resupplying their forces with the aim of regaining initiative in the near future. The commander of the Western Front, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, still enjoyed full confidence of the commander of the Red Army Sergey Kamenev, despite the debacle in the Battle of Warsaw. In September 1920, Tukhachevsky put forward a new plan of the offensive against Poland, which was approved in Moscow. The first phase of the plan called for an attack by four armies in the direction of Bialystok, and next Lublin. Tukhachevsky received a number of Red Army units from the reserve or other fronts of the war. He also obtained replacements for his mauled divisions from Russia as well as forced pressed Byelorussian and Ukrainian peasants into the army. These replacements were not of equal value in morale: the ideological communists coming from the cities were disciplined and trained soldiers, while peasants from the villages in the rear of the Western Front were not interested in the war and lacked even basic military training. Tukhachevsky received a boost when 30,000 soldiers briefly interned in East Prussia at the end of the Battle of Warsaw were set free and transported through the territory of the nominally neutral Lithuania to Soviet Russia. He managed to restore most of the divisions destroyed in the Battle of Warsaw, but the morale of the units was varied. The date of the offensive against Bialystok was set at the end of September 1920.
During these preparations the Soviet divisions had taken defensive positions along the Niemen River from Grodno to the territory west of Pinsk. The Soviet front was anchored in the north at the Lithuanian border and in the south at the Pripet marshes. The northernmost 3rd Army encompassed four rifle divisions: 5, 6, 21 and 56 counting 21,500 soldiers in the line units. The 15th Army was stationed in the vicinity of Wolkowysk with four rifle divisions: 2, 11, 16 and 27 as well as a cavalry brigade totaling 26,600 soldiers in their combat element. Further south stood the 16th Army with four rifle divisions: 8, 10, 17 and 48; west of Pinsk the 4th Army could be found with two rifle divisions: 55 and 57 as well a host of smaller units. Both these armies counted 37,600 soldiers in their combat units. Thanks to his efforts, Tukhachevsky managed to raise the number of effectives from few thousands and 50 guns at the end of August 1920 to 85,000 and 284 guns in the mid September 1920. At the same time the Soviet staff did not have reliable information on activities of the Polish armed forces and expected to surprise them with their planned assault at Bialystok.
The Polish staff began preparation for the next battle during the final stages of the battle at Warsaw. Commander-in-Chief Józef Pilsudski issued the preliminary orders to regroup the 2nd and 4th Armies on August 26, 1920. The Poles faced fundamental problems with organizing their forces mingled during the pursuit, organizing supply lines and reinforcing their divisions. The Polish 2nd and 4th Armies contained troops selected to execute the attack. The 2nd Army consisted of five infantry divisions: 1 and 3 Legion, 21 Mountain, 22 Volunteer and 1 Lithuanian-Byelorussian as well as II and IV Cavalry Brigades. The total strength of the 2nd Army was 941 officers and 32,376 other ranks in combat units. The 4th Army consisted of four infantry divisions: 11, 14, 15, and 16 numbering in line units 380 officers and 18,736 other ranks. Both armies were equipped with 423 guns including some heavy artillery. The Polish armies were inferior in number to the Soviet forces but were better armed with artillery, and their morale after a successful battle was very high. The economic disposition of the troops gave Poles a numerical advantage on the direction of the main effort. Also, strict secrecy as well as the concealing of troops in forests provided the Polish side with the advantage of surprise.
The officers in Polish Headquarters discussed two possible variants of the
operation, which was planned to be the outflanking of the Soviet front. The
first proposition was to break through the Soviet southern flank and strike
north in the general direction of Baranowicze – Wilno. This proposition
was rejected because of the condition of the terrain deemed unsuitable for large
military operations due to its marshy character in the south and its richness
in rivers and lack of roads. The second variant of the operation suggested outflanking
the northern tip of the front and cutting the Soviet lines of retreat. The Soviets
were to be engaged in the central sector by the infantry, while a Northern Assault
Group was to take their position to the rear of the enemy. The execution of
this plan necessitated marching across a sliver of Lithuanian territory. Commander-in-Chief
Józef Pilsudski analyzed both plans and decided on the second variant.
Finally the Polish plan of battle called for an assault in the center by the
2nd Army (21, 22 and 3 Legion ID) occupying Grodno and crossing the Niemen River.
At the same time the Northern Assault Group (1 Legion, 1 Lithuanian-Byelorussian
ID and II and IV CB) executed a flanking movement and enveloped the Soviet 3rd
Army. Orders for the Polish 4th Army, stationed in the south, commanded them
to break the front and cut off Soviet lines of retreat in Wolkowysk. The plan,
if successful, would cause a total envelopment of the Soviet Western Front units
and ensure their destruction.
The terrain of the battle was dominated by the twisting Niemen River and its tributaries. The theater of operations was limited in the south by the Pripet marshes and in the north by territory of formally neutral, but friendly to Soviets, Lithuania. The land contained numerous lakes, forests and hills, and was sparsely populated with few major cities and villages. The war destroyed this poor region to the point that finding suitable quarters for the troops was nearly impossible.
On September 20, 1920, the surprise attack by the 21st Mountain and 22 Volunteer ID from the Polish 2nd Army opened the battle at the Niemen River. The assault was directed against the positions of the Soviet 5th and 6th Rifle Divisions from the 3rd Army defending the town of Grodno. At the same time the 3rd Legionary ID attacked positions of the Soviet 11th and 16th Rifle Divisions of the 15th Army, located further south. The assault took the enemy by full surprise and was successful, as the enemy was driven from the trenches of their forward position and two Soviet regiments were scattered. Faced with the powerful Polish attack, comfront Tukhachevsky ordered the 3rd Army reserves to the front at Grodno, and on September 22, 1920 the Soviets counterattacked. The Soviets concentrated 20,000 riflemen and 100 guns against Polish forces of 19,000 infantry and 124 guns. Intense fighting along the entire length of the Polish attack ensued. A number of villages changed hands several times; however, despite the superior force and appalling losses, the Soviets failed to break through the Polish lines. Nevertheless they managed to stop the Polish offensive and destroy the Polish timetable, but committed their reserves to the front.
The Northern Assault Group entered the action midday September 22, 1920. Acting on orders from the Headquarters, the Assault Group pushed aside weak Lithuanian forces at the border and quickly marched towards Druskienniki. The first assault at the bridge at Druskienniki was met with fierce resistance and a firefight between Polish cavalry and Lithuanian infantry ensued. After a few hours of shooting without a conclusion, a cavalry charge decided the outcome of the skirmish. The bridge was taken intact. Infantry divisions following the cavalry pushed the Lithuanian troops north and eliminated them from further fighting. After one day of advance across Lithuanian territory, the Assault Group reentered Polish soil. Further movements of the Assault Group were dependent on the outcome of the battle in the center.
The Polish plan envisioned winning a passage across the Niemen River in the center, but due to the strong Soviet counterattack, this was not accomplished. Both the 21st Mountain and 3rd Legionary infantry divisions were engaged in repulsing determined Soviet infantry attacks and could not move forward. Nevertheless, the 205 Infantry Regiment of the 21 Volunteer ID reached the river north of Grodno and crossed to the other bank using a partially destroyed bridge. The opportunity opened by the skillful action of the infantry was missed because the report concerning the seizure of the bridge reached the staff of the 21st ID after 24 hours. At the same time, the Polish 4th Army in the south broke through the Soviet front and captured the important railway junction at Wolkowysk. The Polish attack in the south came as a total surprise for Tukhachevsky, who believed that all Polish forces were concentrated at Grodno. The Soviet reaction was predictable. The 27th Rifle Division from the reserve was moved in the direction of Wolkowysk along with the 56 Infantry Brigade, which was withdrawn from the front at Grodno. The Polish 4th Army fulfilled their main task by forcing the Soviets to use their reserves on the southern flank of the front.
Tukhachevsky, watching the battle closely, was under the impression that the Polish operation was aimed at liberating Grodno, and consequently concentrated his forces in the defense of the center using all available reserves. The Polish attack against Wolkowysk was a total surprise and compelled him to use more of his reserves at the far end of the battle line. To complicate his situation even more, on September 24, 1920, the Soviet staff received news that the Poles had crossed Lithuania and threatened the rear of the Soviet 3rd Army. Again his conclusions were erroneous, as he had expected Poles to march in the direction of Grodno to help their forces engaged there. This illusion was augmented by information about the 205 Regiment marching towards Grodno. Tukhachevsky decided to dispatch the 2nd and 21st Rifle Divisions to hinder the Polish Assault Group. However, Soviet soldiers were already exhausted by the battle and could not begin fighting immediately after reaching a new location. The Soviet staff did not expect a deep maneuver towards Lida against the rear of the front.
September 25, 1920 was the crucial day in the battle. The 22nd Volunteer ID, supported by heavy artillery, began an assault against the western forts of Grodno. The 205 Regiment was marching from the north and the 21 Mountain ID crossed the Niemen River and threatened the town from the south. The Soviet forces defending Grodno began to lose cohesion under the enormous pressure. The Polish soldiers observed the first symptoms of defeat when groups of Byelorussian and Ukrainian soldiers murdered their officers and came over to the Polish side. Józef Pilsudski understood that the crisis of the battle was over and issued an order to the Assault Group to march on Lida and sever the Soviet lines of retreat.
That same day, the commander of the Soviet 3rd Army comandarm, Vladimir Lazarevich, received a report indicating that Polish troops operated far deeper in the rear of his army then he had ever expected. He consulted with his superior- comfront Tukhachevsky, and gave his troops an order to retreat in the direction of Lida. At the same time, Tukhachevsky gave the armies of the Western Front a general order to retreat. He also ordered the incorporation of soldiers from the train to the battle units, raising the number of effective soldiers in each division by approximately 600. The Soviet plan of retreat envisioned a concentration of troops west of Lida, reorganization, and a change to the offensive. The Soviet 5th Rifle Division was given the task of screening the movement from the direction of Grodno, while the 2nd and 21st divisions were responsible for Druskienniki. However, on the night of the September 25th the Polish 21st Volunteer ID entered Grodno already evacuated by the Soviets, and continued marching east. At the same time the Polish 3rd Legionary ID crossed Niemen River. The front began moving east along the whole line.
Meanwhile Pilsudski, recognizing that the situation was favorable for his troops, issued a new order to encircle the entire Western Front. He gave the most important task to the Assault Group, which was expected to close the ring at Lida and halt the retreat of the Soviet 3rd Army. This barrier was supposed to force the Soviet 3rd Army to change their direction of retreat from due east to southeast, toward the town of Baranowicze. The Polish 4th Army was to attack and secure Baranowicze and destroy the retreating Soviets.
The execution of this order was not an easy task. The stretched out Assault Group, counting 10,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry in two infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades, was to stop the march of the Soviet 3rd Army with its 21,000 riflemen and 1,600 cavalry. The situation was additionally complicated by the lack of reliable means of communication, which caused delays in the passing and execution of orders.
The first phase of the march at Lida proved to be lucky for soldiers of the Polish 1st Legionary ID. On the evening of the September 26th, they took prisoner the 21st Rifle Division chief of communication, who informed the Polish staff of plans of future movement of his division. Based upon this information, the 1st Legionary ID and II Cavalry Brigade attacked the Soviet 21st Rifle Division at Radun and after several hours of fighting forced it to retreat south with heavy losses. However the success was not fully exploited, as Polish units did not have sufficient communication. This proved to be a great obstacle to victory.
The following day of September 27th, 1920, the Minsk Regiment of the Polish 1st Lithuanian-Byelorussian Division surprised the retreating staff of the Soviet 3rd Army at the ford of the Lebioda River. The Soviets were scattered with heavy losses, but the Soviet 6th Rifle Division was recalled from the eastern bank of the river and pushed Polish soldiers toward the forest known as Krwawy Bór (Bloody Woods). It was there that during the night two battalions of the Minsk Regiment were attacked by the Soviet 5th Rifle Division retreating east. Polish battalions were quickly separated into small groups and fought for their survival until late hours in the night. The hand to hand fighting in the forest in the total darkness of the night was savage and intense. Polish regiments entered combat as they marched one by one, which dispersed the effort and could not change the overall situation. Two Polish regiments, which finally took part in the three hour long combat, could not stop the retreat of a mass of soldiers from two Soviet divisions. Eventually when Soviet troops moved east, the Polish units were brushed aside with a loss of 130 dead and 230 wounded. The Soviets lost 1,000 prisoners and some of their artillery; what was the most important however, was that comandarm Lazarevich lost control over subordinate divisions when he and his staff were forced to flee after being surprised at the Lebioda River. The retreat of the Soviet 3rd Army was continued but each division acted on its own.
The next day after the battle at Lebioda River, the 1st Legionary ID approached the town of Lida and attacked without hesitation. Due to erroneous Soviet orders, the town was not occupied, and the garrison was sent on a wild goose search for Polish cavalry. However the staff of the 3rd Army with its commander Lazarevich rested there after a night flight from the Lebioda river. The 6th Legionary Regiment took hold of the town after a two hour long fight, again forcing comandarm Lazarevich to run for his life. This time Lazarevich completely lost control of the events. Before Polish troops could prepare a cohesive defense facing west and take their positions, the 5th Soviet Rifle Division arrived at Lida, marching in the avant-garde of the retreating 3rd Army. The Soviets charged with the battle cry “za krasnoiu armiu” and “za swabodu” (for the Red Army, for freedom). The attack broke through Polish defenses, despite the desperate company size counterattacks, and entered the center of the town. Soviet forces in the town were weakened by heavy losses suffered during the fighting however, and a well organized counterstrike of the 1 and 3 battalions of the 6th Legionary ID threw them out of the city. After the initial misfortune, the 5th Rifle Division lost its spirit and by 2 PM turned south to avoid further battle, and marched away across surrounding woods. The lack of overall control over the army resolved in a piecemill battle by the divisions of the Soviet 3rd Army. Confusion and dispersion of the Soviet forces caused a series of small engagements at Lida, instead of one powerful attack against the eastern wall of the Polish ring.
At 4 PM, the 56 Rifle Division and elements of the 6th Division arrived at Lida and also attacked the town. The well prepared by then Polish defense, supported by artillery and machine guns, easily repulsed the weak attack, while the 56th Division turned south and followed the route taken by the 5th Division just a few hours earlier. However even the march south and the avoidance of further combat at Lida did not guarantee safety as Polish IV Cavalry Brigade operated east of Lida. Near the village of Dubrovna, in the forest, the Polish 7th Ulan Regiment discovered a regiment from the 6th Rifle Division. The ulans charged immediately supported by a bayonet attack of two squadrons of the 16th Ulan Regiment on foot. The short skirmish netted 600 prisoners and scattered the remnants of the Soviet regiment. Mjr. Zygmunt Piasecki, commander of the 7th Regiment remembered: “I charged with the squadrons. The enemy stopped shooting at 100 meters and as quickly as they could, they returned to the forest and retreated, escaping from the attacking cavalry. The forest formed a narrow strip, and then they could not run far. The 3rd squadron, charging on the left flank, immediately surrounded them. Shouting, shooting, the stamping of horses, and the barking of machine guns somewhere outside of the woods made such noise and confusion that commands could not be heard or given. Ulans on foot, following the 7th Regiment, began collecting prisoners from the woods. It was all over in a moment.”
At 10 PM the Soviet 21st Rifle Division reached Lida and assaulted the Polish defenses. That day it was the third attempt to storm the town, which succeeded in breaking through the outer defenses. Soviet troops reached the barracks inside Lida and began moving toward the center of the town. A Polish counterattack, carried out by elements of the 1 and 3 battalions in the light of burning houses, threw the Soviets out of Lida. The overly exhausted troops of the Soviet 21st Division suffered heavy losses and exhausted their ammunition supplies, which severely strained their morale. The following morning of September 29, 1920, Polish patrols venturing out from Lida started collecting surrendering Soviet riflemen. Soon Soviets began to capitulate en mase. It was this morning that the units of the 1st Lithuanian-Byelorussian ID marched into Lida. The battle at Lida cost the Soviet 3rd Army 10,000 prisoners, 40 guns, and most of their supply trains, but the 3rd Army was not destroyed.
Commander-in-Chief Józef Pilsudski came to Grodno on September 29, 1920, striving to obtain information on the location of his divisions. Pilsudski met with gen. Edward Rydz-Smigly, the commander of the Polish 2nd Army, but after the confusion of the long battle when divisions had only very basic means of communication with the Headquarters, he did not know the exact dislocation of his troops. Hence, Pilsudski decided to travel to Lida by car to collect the necessary information first hand. In the existing situation, the trip was a reckless idea being without an escort and going across recent battlefields, but nobody could persuade Pilsudski to abandon this thought. Nevertheless, the journey to Lida passed without adventures. Pilsudski had the opportunity to speak to the troops, confer with officers, and form his own opinions. He found out that the soldiers of the Assault Group were exhausted and required both food supplies and ammunition.
Despite these findings, Pilsudski gave the units of the Assault Group the order to aggressively pursue the retreating enemy. After winning the battle, the Commander-in-Chief’s aim was to encircle and eliminate as much of the Soviet formation as possible. Pilsudski changed his plans with the situation at hand, and intended to close the ring around the Soviets further east at Nowogródek. He ordered the 2nd Army to push toward the center, and at the same time ordered the Assault Group to attack from the north and the 4th Army from the south. The success of this operation was dependent on the speed of the Polish divisions marching at Nowogródek. Unfortunately the Polish units were worn out by the long battle and devoid of supplies, and understandably did not perform as expected. Military actions were run until the armistice negotiated in Riga went into effect. The encirclement of the Soviet troops was unsuccessful, and most of the Soviet divisions retreated very quickly east to Russia. On October 14, 1920, the armistice signed in Riga was enacted and war ceased and in the eastern part of Poland.
The battle at the Niemen River ended in the defeat of the Soviet Western Front armies. It effectively forced the Soviet government to abandon the preparation for the second march towards Warsaw and liberated a large part of Polish eastern provinces from communism. The Poles has taken 40,000 prisoners, 140 guns and huge amount of military supplies. The Soviet 3rd Army was smashed, which forced all armies of the Western Front to quickly retreat east. However, planned encirclement of the Soviet 15th, 16th and 4th Armies did not succeed, due to the slow pursuit by Polish troops.
Polish Commander-in-Chief Józef Pilsudski realized that Poland was exhausted by wars and was in dire need of peace to rebuild. Hence, he could not prolong the war. The enemy was beaten and forced beyond the Polish eastern border for another 19 years. The battle at the Niemen River delineated the eastern border of the country, secured Poland from unexpected invasion from Soviet Russia, and precipitated a peace treaty lasting until September 1939.
1. N. Davies “White Eagle Red Star. The Polish Soviet War 1919 – 1920”
2. M. Tarczynski editor “Bitwa Niemenska 29 VIII – 18 X 1920” (The collection of documents and orders from the battle at Niemen)
3. T. Kutrzeba “Bitwa nad Niemnem” (Polish General Staff official operational study of the battle at Niemen)
4. L. Wyszczelski “Niemen 1920” (Study of the battle at Niemen)
5. N. Davies “God’s Playground”
6. J. Odziemkowski “Leksykon Bitew Polskich 1914 – 1921” (A lexicon of battles in Poland 1914 – 1921)
7. “Bitwa Niemenska” (a collection of essays on Battle at Niemen river)