The fighting between Poland and the Red Army would begin in a tiny town in modern day Belarus.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 208. Thank you Nicholas and Charlotte, support on Patreon and the wonderful message. Question Episode 231. This is our second episode covering the Polish-Soviet war, and this week we will be discussing the first phase of the fighting between the two armies in Eastern Europe. The Polish-Soviet war as a whole would happen in several distinct phases. The first phase would involve a Polish attack in the border regions between the areas controlled by the two new nations. This attack would come at a time when the Red Army was not actually ready to actively resist the attacks in any meaningful way. This very first phase of fighting will be our topic for this episode. It would begin in February 1919, and it would begin small, with just over 50 Polish soldiers attacking a small Red Army detachment in the village of Bereza Katuska. If that village does not ring a bell do not worry, it is just a small town in modern day Western Belarus. After the fighting began in February 1919 it would continue for most of 1919 as the Polish army continued to advance and the Red Army tried to find a way to slow that advance, with very limited resources to do so. We start today with the Polish advance toward their first major objective, the city of Wilno, modern day Vilnius the capital of Lithuania.
Of all of the various fighting during the war the opening campaign in which the Polish forces advanced toward and then captured Wilno was the one most driven by Pilsudski, and it would be the action during which he was the most directly involved, partially for personal reasons. Pilsudski was a native of Wilno, and he quickly made up his mind to at least attempt to capture it soon after he came into power in late 1918. This decision was prompted by the creation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania-Byelorussia in February 1919. This government was very similar to many of the other Soviet governments created in the Eastern European countries in the years after the war. It was created by local Communist leaders, in this case it was led by Polish Communist Jozef Unszlicht, but it was fully supported by the leaders in Russia, and everybody knew it.
The capture of Wilno, while a bit of a passion project for Pilsudski, was part of a larger plan for Pilsudski and his goals for the future of Eastern Europe. Key to this plan was an expansion of Polish influence to the east, although he realized that it may not be possible for Poland itself to control all of the territory. He did believe that Wilno should fall under direct Polish control due to the fact that a large portion of its population were Poles. It was historically the capital of Lithuania, which is why it was so important to Lithuanian nationalists, but in the years since it had been a part of Russia other groups had moved into the city in large numbers and in 1919 Lithuanians within the city were outnumbered by other groups like Poles and Russians. Pilsudski wanted to project Polish power far beyond Wilno, with the goal of not necessarily extended Polish borders but just making sure that the territory was not incorporated into Russia. The creation of border states, like Lithuanian and Ukraine, would be sufficient, as they would be natural allies of Poland against possible Russian aggression. While this was the long term goal, in the short term the first step was the capture of Wilno and the expulsion of Red Army forces in the area. To achieve this goal Pilsudski would move up behind the front on April 15th. He would bring 2 infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. These units may not seem like much in terms of manpower, but on the Polish-Soviet front at this point 2 infantry divisions possessed a huge amount of striking power relative to the rest of the front. When the fighting started the front ran from Neiman to Pinsk, a distance of about 350 kilometers. along this front both sides could field maybe an average of a man for every 50 yards. Most of the front was simply being patrolled occasionally and was not actively manned by troops like would have happened during the First World War. This meant that being able to concentrate 2 divisions and some cavalry was a huge advantage. The plan was to use it by advancing between Wilno and Lida, which were about 100 kilometers apart. Then once the Polish troops were through the gap between the Soviet concentration in the two areas they would turn north and move towards Wilno to attack it from the south.
The advance toward the city involved a cavalry group led by Colonel Belina-Prazmowski leading the way followed by the infantry. The cavalry advanced much faster than the infantry, and after just a few days the cavalry was able to make it to a set of woods outside the city. The next morning Colonel Belina had two choices. He could take the cautious approach and wait for the infantry, using the time to reconnoiter the city and the areas around it. He would also take the aggressive approach and just attack straight into the city. Belina would choose the attack, due to his belief that the citizens within the city would support the Poles along with knowledge that the defenders were not prepared to resist a Polish attack. On the 19th they charged into the suburbs of the city and headed directly for the rail station. They were able to capture the station and some trains that they were then able to send down the rails to meet up with the advancing Polish infantry. The cavalry would spend the rest of the day moving around the city with the Soviet forces mostly just retreating in front of them to the northern side of the city.
While the first move had been made by the Polish cavalry they were unable to completely capture the city. After the Polish infantry arrived they were able to take the city, but only after several days of street fighting. On the 21st Pilsudski would arrive in Wilno to officially announce its capture and to stage a victory parade. While the celebrations were still ongoing news would reach Lenin and the other leader in Russia about the city’s fall. They were shocked by the development and immediately ordered local troops to recapture Wilno. The order would come down from Lenin that “The loss of Vilna has strengthened the Entente still further. It is essential to ensure the maximum speed for the recovery of Vilna in the shortest possible time … Hasten the movement of reinforcements already on the way, and act more energetically.” Inside the city the Polish army began to arrest anybody who was connected with the Soviet government that had been created. Some of the leaders were arrested and then executed at the earliest possible opportunity. The Wilno campaign was one of the most successful operations by the Polish Army during the fighting after the war. Its success had been greatly assisted by the inability of the Communists to make common cause with the Lithuanian population, who rejected the Soviet government that had been put in place in Lithuania in 1919.
With the fall of Wilno fighting between the Polish Army and the Red Army began in earnest. The next target for the Polish advance was 180 kilometers to the southeast, Minsk. Minsk, even more than Wilno was an important junction of railways, specifically those that ran north to south through Russia. The Polish forces would be led by General Szeptycki, who commanded 12,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. The attack would involve what I would probably call the ideal set of circumstances for offensive operations in the theater during the early fighting. The garrison in the city was isolated from other forces, the attacks had large numbers of cavalry that were highly mobile and this allowed them to advance the cavalry around the city to cut off the railways to the rear with the infantry did most of the fighting near the city. After this plan was successful the city was destined to fall, it was just a matter of time. The fighting would continue for over a week, with it not ending until August 8th. The fall of Minsk was more important than the fall of Wilno, for one thing it was a more important transportation nexus. But more importantly was that it proved that the Russian method of defending the border regions, with widely dispersed garrisons in the cities was not going to work against a concerted attack by the Polish army. The ability of the offensive units to concentrate, surround, and then defeat any of these garrisons meant that the Russian defensive system had to be altered in some way, but any change would require more resources, and those were resources that the Russians simply did not have.
After the fall of Wilno and Minsk the fighting in the borderlands between the Poles and Russians would slow, due to all of the various problems and commitments that the two armies were forced to deal with. For the Soviets the second half of 1919 would see the White resistance reach the height of its capabilities and power. In the north Yudenitch would march towards Petrograd and in the south Denikin would launch his assault towards Moscow. This may have been a huge problem for the Russians if the Polish Army was not also pre-occupied with a different theater. In the south the Polish Army was engaging the Ukrainians in Western Ukraine around the city of Lvov. The campaign to capture this city would consume most of the available Polish forces during the summer months. Once it was in Polish hands Pilsudski and the other Polish leaders began to reconsider the state of the war. With Wilno, Minsk, and Lvov in Polish hands, and the growing Polish army in danger of overstretch, the Polish leaders began discussing the possibility of signing a ceasefire with the Soviets.
The purpose of the ceasefire were not entirely related to the situation in the Polish army, Pilsudski was also concerned about the situation with the Whites, which at the time were appearing to be doing quite well. The Polish leaders were never on friendly relations with the Whites, Kolchak had always rejected the very concept of an independent Poland, a viewpoint in line with his views on all of the other nationalities from the old empire. Denikin had for some time been more conciliatory with the Polish leaders, however as his strength and success grew he began to move further towards Kolchak’s views. This was a critical point, Pilsudski believed that whoever won the Russian Civil War they would make Poland their next target. Therefore he was in a position where he could perhaps choose who he wanted the Polish army to face in that situation. He would choose to deal with Lenin and the Communists, and so he began secret ceasefire negotiations with the Soviets in late 1919. Lenin and the Soviet leaders were more than happy to entertain ceasefire discussions. The threat from the Whites was growing, and if peace would be signed in the West, even briefly, it would free upwards of 40,000 troops that were desperately needed to meet Denikin’s advance. I know I harped on this a lot in the previous episodes, but the stated policies of the Whites in relation to the new countries like Poland were incredibly counterproductive, and this is a great example as to why.
On November 14 the Communist leaders accepted the terms presented to this by Pilsudski. The agreement stated that the new border would mostly be at the point where the fighting had ended. There would also be a 10 kilometer wide neutral zone between the two armies. The Communists would also have to end any attempts at agitation within the Polish army or within Poland itself. Both sides viewed this treaty as only temporary, just a brief respite from the fighting. Both believed that the fighting would continue at some later date, and the period where the treaty was in force would provide them with the ability to build up their forces an to get their internal affairs in order. Even just a few weeks after the treaty was signed, with the White threat drastically receding Russian troops began to move back onto the new border with Poland. On both sides staff officers were already pouring over maps and creating plans for attacks, attacks that would make 1920 a very busy year.
During the early months of 1920 both sides would be preparing for war, both sides also knew that the other was also preparing for war, which just caused them to become concerned about their army, which then caused them to ramp up their preparations to even greater levels. On the Polish side they had their own reasons to attack. There were concerns about the continued fighting in the Baltics, with the national armies in those states still fighting the Reds, Whites, and Germans. Pilsudski also still firmly believed that at some point the Red Army would attack into Poland, and so being prepared for that eventuality was very important. These viewpoints, and their obvious hostility with one another, resulted in a total breakdown of relations between the two nations, and it would eventually lead to a resumption of hostilities.
As soon as peace discussion had began in late 1919 there had been several different viewpoints among the Communist leaders. During this period they all still believed that they were the beginnings of an international revolution, one that they would help to spread both militarily and ideologically. there were different paths that could be taken by the Russian Communists in the early 1920s that would accomplish this goal. There was one set of paths that led directly through Poland and into Western Europe and the other that would go other directions. The question on the western path was one of timing. There were those who believed that the Red Army should attack as soon as possible, regardless of the situation in Russia at the time. This course often found its strongest support from those who had lived in Western Europe before the revolution, and who believed that the isolation of Soviet Russia, which in late 1919 seemed almost complete, was an untenable situation. The only option to prevent this isolation, and to continue the growth of the worldwide revolution was to attack immediately. From a military perspective there was some logic to this view, if Poland could be conquered beyond it lay a disarmed Germany and an exhausted Western Europe. There were other leaders who believed that the Russian Communists should wait until they had gained full control of Russia before they started fighting any foreign enemies. This group was often made up of those who had always lived in Russia and who had a very Russian-centric view. They believed that it was madness, with the continued disorder and turmoil throughout Russia, to engage in the military conflict with foreign powers. Instead all of the strength of the Communists should be spent on bringing all of Russia under control and then they could begin their military campaign against the west. There were also those who did not believe that the Russians should attack West at all, and instead it would be more profitable to focus on the east, and to take down the Western capitalists by first removing their colonial possessions in Asia from them. Some time was spent trying to make this Eastern approach a reality, mostly from a political standpoint like with the Congress of Peoples of the East, but very little progress would be made in making the eastern path a reality.
During late 1919 and early 1920, while Poland was frantically building up its army, it was able to utilize its relations with the Western Countries to its advantage. Nobody was going to provide them with large numbers of troops, but both the French and the United States gave them money with which they could buy large quantities of the Allied weapons and ammunition that the Western Countries were looking to sell as they demobilized. These loans accelerated the expansion of the Polish Army, but they were also given by Western Countries that fully supported the Polish Army being used for defensive purposes only, not for offensives. They did not officially forbid the Poles from attacks, which they may not have been able to do anyway, but they also made it clear that they would not support it. This is more interesting when you look at what the Soviets believed. They were saying their propaganda that the Poles were not the aggressive people, in fact they did not even want to fight, instead they were just reluctant pawns in the machinations of the Western Imperialists who wanted to use them as weapons against the world revolution. These were the same types of accusations they leveled against the Whites, that they were pawns in the game played by the Western Powers, in the case of the Poles it was really even less true.
The Polish leaders needed little encouragement to attack, but they had to solve some of the problems that the Polish army was experiencing before they could think about advancing into Russian territory. The first problem was simply transporting all of the goods that they had purchased in Western Europe back to Poland. Then once it was there units had to be equipped with the new equipment and prepared for further fighting. This often involved almost completely reorganizing all of the units, since they were greatly expanding and because the fighting during 1919 had often been done by units that were thrown together for specific tasks with very little coherent structure. This type of spontaneous organization would not be sufficient when it came to further fighting against a reinforced Red army. The Russians were also trying to execute a similar reorganization, they could not import large amounts of supplies from external states, but they had large numbers of resources that they could reposition internally. A critical point was in the opening weeks and months of 1920, at which point the Western Front, as the Red Army called it, gained the highest reinforcement priority. This meant that large numbers of troops and large quantities of supplies were rerouted from other theaters and were sent West. This involved almost 200,000 men, with the intent to eventually launch them into an attack during the summer of 1920. Just the shifting of the focus among the Red Army completely changed the situation on the front. During 1919 the Western Front had received the lowest priority in men and supplies, in 1920 if the Poles did attack they would find a Red Army far different than what they had faced in 1919.
While the Red Army was preparing for the resumption of fighting, they were also trying to execute political campaigns to weaken the ability of the Polish army to resist them. The goal of these political moves was to weaken the support for the Polish government among the Polish people. There were two parts to the campaign, the first was propaganda based and the second was based around bolstering the Communists groups within Poland. From a propaganda perspective there were messages sent to Polish troops and civilians that were supposedly from Polish prisoners of War that were still in Russia. “Comrades, colleagues! We, Polish prisoners of the Bolsheviks, send you fraternal greetings. We wish to describe for you without any exaggeration what the Soviet system means. Soviet Russia is a hundredfold a better fatherland for us than Poland. Under the Tsarist regime, the Russian worker was a slave. In Poland, the hungry worker was often driven to crime. But here everyone works. The workers administer the whole state through their councils to which delegates are sent from every factory and farm. The workers here have their own schools, their universities, newspapers and palaces of labour. The Soviet regime guarantees real freedom. Comrades! Turn your arms on your oppressors.” At the same time that they were trying to reach out to the Polish soldiers Communists groups launched a wave of strikes across the country. The socialist press also began a campaign to push for peace. The problem for the Russians, and the Polish socialists, is that these actions had precisely the opposite effect that they had hoped. Instead of bringing the Polish leaders closer to peace it actually pushed them further away. Instead of listening to the socialist press, and working with the striking workers the Polish leaders, led by Pilsudski and the leaders of the National Democratic Party, cracked down on the strikers and closed down the socialist newspapers. In the few cases where units of the Polish armies formed soldiers’ councils on the Soviet model they were broken up. Much like in other attempts to undermined local governments, in the Russian efforts in this case had been too transparent, and nationalist groups within the country had put the blame on foreign intervention instead of believing that the feelings were actually genuine feelings of their own people.
These Russian actions also made it clear that the fighting was not over, and Pilsudski and the leaders of the Polish Army were concerned that if they allowed the Red Army to strike first and to take the initiative they would not be able to regain it or even respond properly. This caused them to plan to launch their attack in early 1920. The target date was always in the spring of 1920, after the worst of the winter weather had passed, which pushed it until April. On December 22, 1919 an order was sent out to bring the army to its maximum state of readiness by that month, ‘not merely to resist Bolshevik attacks but to permit a definitive settlement of the Russian question.’ The hope was that attacking as early as possible to allow the Poles to interrupt any Russian efforts to fully mobilize and prepare their forces. The early date would necessitate the attack starting in the south, where the winter would end earlier than in the north. On April 17th orders were issued for the army to take up their forward positions with the attack to begin shortly thereafter. The war was about to begin again.