207: Polish-Soviet War Pt. 1


The First World War was over, the Russian Civil War was ongoing, but the fighting in Eastern Europe was just getting started.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 207. Gregory for Patreon and Paypal and Christine for Paypal. In the aftermath of the First World War many new nations would be created out of the old empires of Europe. One of those new nations would be Poland. Poland had a long history of independence, and also a long history of being attacked and partitioned by its larger neighbors. Many times throughout history either the Prussians, Austrians, or Russians, or all of them at once had attacked Poland in wars of conquest. During the years after the First World War Russia, led by the Communists, would once again try to conquer Polish territory. In the war that followed, known as the Polish-Soviet War, fighting would be brutal, with both sides executing prisoners and terrorizing the countryside. The fighting would move hundreds of kilometers first to the east, then back west, and then east again as the fortunes of war swung first one way and then the other. For the Poles this was a war for survival, and for the Red Army it was just the first step in their plan to spread the revolution into the West. It would eventually lead to two important changes in the European political landscape. The first was that Poland fully asserted itself as an independent country, one that was capable of defending itself, ensuring its independence for at least the foreseeable future. The second was that, with the defeat of the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw, the Communist leaders of Russia would alter their views on the global revolution that they previously hoped to lead. Using the Red Army as a revolutionary vanguard, to move first into Eastern Europe and then Germany had always been the plan, but the defeat at the hands of the Poles made it clear that this path was no longer open to Communism. Discussing the events that led to these changes will be our topic for the next six episodes. Today we will lay some ground work with an overview of the development in Poland during and after the First World War, followed by a discussion of how the Western Powers responded to Polish calls for aid. This episode will end with a discussion about the military forces available to Poland at the start of the conflict. I will just way, on a personal note, that of all of the topics that I have covered in this podcast, since I had barely heard of its existence, the Polish Soviet War probably surprised me the most in terms of how much I enjoyed learning about it and how important it was to modern European history.

During the first world war both sides used Polish nationalism for their own gains. The Entente was in a bit of a tight spot in terms of responding to this nationalism. The British and French probably would have supported the Poles, but with so much territory under Russian control in 1914 expressing that support was impossible. This allowed the Germans and Austrians to be the outspoken supporters of Polish nationalists everywhere. They would use this position both before and during the war to garner support from the Poles. The most prominent person in our story that would utilize this support to catapult himself into the position of leader of the Polish independence movement was Jozef Pilsudski. Pilsudski was born in 1867, and would eventually lead Polish through the period of its war with Russia, but first he led a paramilitary unit in the Austro-Hungarian Army. The Austrian leaders realized over a decade before the First World War that it could use the passion of the Polish people in a conflict with Russia. To do so they created a Polish Legion made up primarily of Polish men from Russian territory. In the event of a conflict they could then attack into Russian held Polish territory. From the very beginning the Austrians gave at least lip service to some form of Polish independence after a Austro-Russian conflict. In 1914 everything would go precisely to plan and Polish forces, led by Pilsudski and others, would move into Russian territory. The war in the east was so successful for the Central Powers that after two years of war vast areas of Polish territory were under Austrian and German control. This was actually in some ways problematic for the two countries because it required them to make actual promises and to show actual results to the Poles. The Germans would attempt to do so through the creation of a Kingdom of Poland, but they were incredibly vague on what that actually meant. The precise borders, leadership, and relationship with other countries that the new kingdom would have were all unanswered questions. Really the Germans wanted to use the concept of the Kingdom to bring Polish men into their armies. The Austrians just did not want to answer any questions about the future of Poland, not because the Austrian leaders did not know what they planned to do but instead because they knew that the Polish nationalists who were fighting for them would not like the answer. All of this uncertainty would lead some Poles to reject the Germans and Austrians, and Pilsudski would be among them. For his refusal to swear an oath of friendship to Germany he would be imprisoned for the last two years of the war. This period of imprisonment, while uncomfortable, would actually aid Pilsudski’s eventual rise to leadership in Poland due to it cementing his nationalist credentials.

The same day that the armistice was signed in the West the German occupation of Poland started to come to an end. The German troops would evacuate, creating a power vacuum that would have to be filled. This vacuum caused disorder and chaos in some areas, like Ukraine, but in Poland it was seen as a gift, to be utilized to create a new Poland. Pilsudski was released from prison and in just a few days he was able to declare to the Allies that Poland had been reformed. Official recognition for this new nation would not arrive until February 1919. That did not prevent the Poles from sending a delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. When they arrived they found that they had very solid support from many Western countries, but this support was skewed in a very specific direction. In regards to all of the questions around Poland and its North, West, and Southern borders there were many opinions in Paris. The leaders were also willing to help resolve any differences between Poland and the new countries springing up in the wake of the disintegration of Austria-Hungary. At times resolving these differences involved detailed arguments and the adjustment of borders just a few miles one way or another. However, the one area where the Western countries were not willing to spend the time to create a real settlement was in the east. They were unwilling to put in the time to find a settlement and crucially were unwilling to guarantee its acceptance, by military action if necessary. It would not have been easy, with both Poland and Russia believing in very different borders even as a starting point for negotiations, and the leaders of Russia in flux, with the Civil War still raging. This challenges would prove to be unfortunate for the new Polish state. It did not help that the Russians believed that in attacking Poland they were attacking a puppet of the Western Countries and the Versailles Treaty as a whole. Lenin would say ‘By attacking Poland we are attacking the Allies, by destroying the Polish army we are destroying the Versailles peace, upon which rests the whole present system of international relations.’ This additional reason just added extra excuses for the eventual Russian attack.

While there were certain topics that the Western nations would not commit to, like the eastern borders of Poland, France still considered relations with Poland to be absolutely critical for future national security. The relationship between the two countries would be strained, but the defensive concerns of both would keep the relationship together. The French believed that the Polish territorial claims were much larger than they should expect to receive, an disagreement which was particularly problematic in 1919 when the French were still supporting both the Whites and the Poles in any fighting against the REds. If the Whites did eventually win it probably would have resulted in more fighting due to their statements about a united, undivided, Russia. This would never really come to pass. The Polish leaders would constantly feel that the French were both far too interested in the Polish situation, but not nearly helpful enough. The French would try to control the situation from afar, including Polish military campaigns through military missions and advisors, but they would not provide the men or material to really justify such control. In December 1919 Polish representatives in Paris had discussed their plans for an attack to be launched in 1920 with the French General Staff. There were several different mindsets within the French government. There was one group that wanted to temper Polish goals, especially as it related to the Ukraine which France as at that moment attempting to build better relations with. Another group, led by Prime Minister Millerand, saw the Poles as the best way to control Bolshevik expansion. This group wanted to make sure that the Poles were in no way discouraged of their desire for greater territorial acquisitions, and in fact those desire should be nurtured and encouraged. The third group of French leaders was simple more cautious, with their primary concern being that a Polish attack could lead to defeat and disaster. The climax of the French efforts would be the French military mission that would be present during the actions around Warsaw a mission that planned to play a crucial role in guiding the defense, and which the Poles barely listened to.

The one question I have not really answered is why the French cared as much as they did about Poland. Well, many French leaders saw Poland as the key to the entirety of the Treaty of Versailles, and if the new country fell to the Communists than the treaty would have to be drastically changed. In late 1919 Poland was the bulwark behind which the rest of Europe could rest easy, not having to worry about Bolshevik attacks, the most important of these countries was Germany. Germany had been almost completely disarmed by the Treaty of Versailles, its army was reduced to barely enough to maintain internal security and most of its military hardware was confiscated. If Poland should fall to the Communists, and the Red Army appear on the German border, this military situation would have to change. The Germans would insist on revisions, and the French and British would have to allow them to rearm and to begin again the process of military expansion. The only other option would be to send their own military forces into German to fight the Red Army advance. This army was quickly rejected by most French leaders, even the most aggressive members of the military like Marshal Foch who would say that committing French troops to Eastern Europe ‘would set into motion a course of events the consequences of which would be incalculable’. With the possibility of committing large numbers of French troops into the fighting rejecting, the only hope was to trust to the Polish defenses. The only thing that the French could provide were weapons, supplies, and military missions to provide technical assistance. What the Poles wanted, and precisely what they would not get, were large numbers of French soldiers.

While the French were trying to determine their commitment to Polish security, in London a very different conversation was occurring. Lloyd George had been concerned about the ability of Poland to defend itself since the Paris Peace Conference had started in early 1919. He had raised concerns when certain territorial decisions had been made, like in the creation of the Danzig Corridor. These concerns were based around a simple question ‘Should the populations of these areas rise against the Poles and should their fellow-countrymen wish to go to their assistance, would France, Great Britain and the United States go to war to maintain Polish rule over them.’ If the answer to this question was no, then the Western Countries had given the Poles a liability that they were not prepared to assist them with if needed. Lloyd George believed that the Poles were preparing to introduce a whole new set of liabilities if they continued on their path of expansion in the east. If they expanded, confronted the Russians, and failed, Lloyd George believed that the Allies might get pulled into the fighting as it reached Germany, which was basically the worst possible outcome. Among British politicians their was growing support to, instead of supporting the Poles in a war, to try and rebuild relations with Russia and the Communists, especially in the realm of trade relations. This change to a more conciliatory approach was only made after it became clear that a military confrontation with the Communists was unlikely to end in success. In a Cabinet meeting Lloyd George would say, quite rightly, that “There can be no question of making active war on the Bolsheviks, for the reason we have neither the men, the money, nor the credit and public opinion is altogether opposed to such a course.”

Even if these feelings had not been prevalent in the British government it is unlikely that they would have been able to play an active role in the fighting in Poland. 1920 was a time of great unrest on the British home front. The labour unions and the labour party were agitating for changes, and they were strongly against any British actions against Russia. Many within the labour party believed that the Bolsheviks were bringing with them socialism around the world, a changed that they hoped would improve the situation in Britain and all of Western Europe. Because of these views they were deeply troubled by the interventionist rhetoric that was being used by the British government in late 1919. In early 1920, even after Lloyd George declared that his government was attempting to reopen trade with Russia, they were will quite wary. Over the course of the Polish-Soviet War, and as the Polish fortunes declined with the Russian advance toward Warsaw, the labour groups felt that they had to speak out in stronger and stronger language and greater resolve. On August 5th the Council of action was created with the expressed purpose of uniting and organizing the workers to prevent any British intervention in Poland.

While diplomacy with the Western countries was important, there were other areas of foreign relations that were also critical to Poland in the early months and years of its existence. Relations with two countries would be at the top of that list, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania. We will hold off on Lithuania for now, due to the critical role that it will play in later episodes, at the moment we will just discuss relations with Czechoslovakia. In theory the Poles and Czechs were perfectly positioned allies. They shared a border and were both bordered by much larger powers, Germany for Czechoslovakia and both Germany and Russia for Poland. However, they could never really find their path to an agreement, even a defensive alliance. There was support for various groups on both sides, with Czech statesman Masaryk saying that they were “forced to form a defensive alliance not only because of the geographic situation but by the command of history..the political arithmetic has brought the two western Slavic nations to conclude an alliance for life and death.” The biggest roadblock to this cooperation was the territorial disagreements on the shared border between the two countries. This was focused on a small area of Silesia, which was important due to its coalfields and industrial capacity. There would even be fighting in the area which would only end after a ruling from the allies in Paris. It would only be after the Russia threat had receded in the early 20’s that the two countries would be able to come together, and even that brief period of cooperation would soon come to an end.

While the feelings of various countries around Europe, and their views of Poland, were important with the almost inevitable confrontation with Communist Russia the Polish military would have to take center stage. When Pilsudski formed the Polish State in late 1918 the country had an army that was made up of just three regiments of what had been Polish units in foreign armies. In total there were about 9,000 men. After November this number began to quickly expand, most of it due to further Polish veterans coming from all of the surrounding nations. Polish volunteers flooded in from the armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia which were all either disbanded, greatly reduced in size, or had served states that no longer existed. From further afield would come 50,000 troops from France led by General Haller. These men, which made up a unit called the Blue Army that had been waiting in France for this very moment after having been formed into an army in 1917. They had been gathered from Polish prisoners of war which had been serving in either the German or Austrian armies, and they were will trained and equipped by the Western Allies. All of these soldiers, after they arrived, allowed the Polish Army to field 110,000 soldiers in February 1919. It would be at that point that the new Polish parliament would pass laws that formalized the creation of the army. Over the next few months it would continue to expand, up to 170,000 men. To try and sustain this level of growth and equip the ever expanding force almost half of the budget of Poland was poured into the armed forces.

Beyond the fiscal responsibility of paying for the army, such a rapid expansion, and particularly the bringing together of disparate units from around Europe would cause problems. The first problem was that while all of the soldiers were Polish, they all had drastically different backgrounds. Many had just came out of a war where they had fought one another. They all had their own separate identities, with the Polish soldiers of the Blue Army having a very different mindset than those who had served in the Russian army. This caused friction between units, and it caused problems when trying to integrate replacements and reinforcements into various units. There were also almost impossibly complex problems of supply. The equipment available to the Polish army was a grab bag of World War 1 surplus items. Russian, British, German, Austrian, French rifles, munitions, and spare parts were all available and in use in the various units of the army. This obviously became problematic when it came to making sure the right units got the right types of ammunition. This flow of ammunition was critical because it was often impossible for one unit to help supply another if ammunition did not get through because they might have completely different weapons. Over time this would become less of a problem, if only due to the masses of allied surplus arms that flooded into the country as the Western nations demobilized. At the beginning it was a colossal headache for staff and supply officers, and there was really nothing that the Polish leaders could due to reduce the problem in the short term.

While the weapons given to the infantry were of a wide variety of make and model, there was similar confusion in the artillery. In 1919 you could find Canadian howitzers, Italian mountain-guns, and French guns dating back to the late 1800s all present in the Polish army. Resupply was just as big of a problem as in the infantry, and if a battery lost its guns, or if they broke down then there was the additional problem of retraining the gunners on different pieces. It was partially due to this fractured supply situation that the cavalry would play such an important role during the Polish-Soviet conflict. The cavalry units that would see the most action were what I would refer to as classical cavalry, relying on the lance and the saber instead of rifles and machine guns. Both the Polish army and the Russians would heavily utilize cavalry in this way, aided by the vast distances over which the fighting would occur. In this environment the cavalry would find the kind of welcoming environment that was so rare during the 20th century.

While the Polish Army was being created from almost nothing, and then expanded during 1919, the Communists were fighting for the future of Russia in Siberia and Southern Russia. But at the same time both countries were already on the path to confrontation due to the situation in the border areas between them. After the retreat of the German troops in late 1918 there was a vast area between the region of Polish control in the west and the area of stable Communist control in the east. These borderlands would be claimed by both countries, but controlled by neither. The Russians could not assert their control due to the Red Army being committed to chasing down the Whites, the Polish army was busy fighting the Czechs and guarding against German aggression in Silesia. However, as all of the other fronts settled down during late 1919 and early 1920 the number of troops in the border areas increased, making a clash between the two armies inevitable.