210: Polish-Soviet War Pt. 4


After the Polish attack the Red Army would prepare a counterstroke, one that would take them to the gates of Warsaw.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 210. Thank you Christie. In the early summer of 1920, with the Soviet attack against the Polish positions around Kiev turning into a complete success the Soviet leaders turned their eyes to the north and began to focus on their primary offensive for 1920. This offensive would see the Red Army, for the first time, put the Western Front, or Polish Front, into focus with their full strength. The Red Army would mass most of this strength for the coming offensive, and for the first time almost the entirety of the combat troops in the Red Army would all be working together. This presented its own organizational and logistical problems, but it was believed that such a large concentration of troops was essential if they wanted to defeat the Polish forces in front of them.

This concentration of the Red Army included some new members that, if you would have guessed six month before would have been very surprising. The Polish attacks on Kiev had unleashed a wave of patriotic feelings throughout Russia, a situation that I touched briefly on during a previous episode. This wave of patriotism caused many things to happen. one of these was the proclamations from previous Tsarist leaders in support of the Communist government. The most famous of these would be General Alexey Brusilov, who had been at one point the Commander in Chief of the Tsarist Army during the First World War. Unlike many other leading members of the Russian military he did not join the White movement, but he also had refrained from joining the Red Army. That was until the Poles invaded Ukraine. He would write a letter to the commander of the Red Army, stating that he was going to support the new efforts, and he would later appeal to his former subordinate officers to do the same. This appeal would appear in Pravda and it would include the following “Forget the wrongs you have suffered. It is now your duty to defend our beloved Russia with all your strength and to give your lives to save her from irretrievable subjugation.”

While this new set of patriotic feelings was beneficial to the Red Army’s changes in the upcoming fighting with Poland, it also created and awkward situation for the Communist leaders. To put it simply, for years the Communists had constantly and consistently criticized patriotism as a concept. They believed that it was one of the many tools that the bourgeoisie had used to gain support among the proletariat only to then use that support to take advantage of the proletariat for their own ends. Even with these stated beliefs it was clear that in 1920 speaking out against the patriotic feelings that were sweeping Russia and so the party leaders tried to find a way to justify their support and encouragement of it. Trotsky would justify this by simply putting the victory over the Poles as the absolute priority, anything that needed to change to make that happen was justifiable and should be pursued. Whatever ramifications there might be would be dealt with later. To try and create an official reason for the new support of these movements Karol Radek, a Polish Communist would write three articles for Pravda titled ‘The Character of the War with White Poland.’ In these articles Radek would say that in such a struggle with a capitalist enemy like Poland patriotic feelings were to be expected, but they were not necessarily real or to be acted upon once the struggle was over. With the theoretical contradictions taken care of, the Red Army and the Soviet leaders would really lean into the new situation. All of the former Tsarist officers and NCOs were instantly conscripted into the army, even many who had earlier deserted the Red Army or had even fought for the Whites. This would bring over 300,000 new men into the Red army and was just part of the vast manpower pool that the Red Army now had at its disposal. By the beginning of August 1920 the Red Army would have more than 5 million men in its ranks, 800,000 would be sent to the Western Front for the attacks on Poland, providing the Red Army with a manpower advantage for the early fighting.

With the large movements of troops to the Polish front one of the most successful Soviet commanders would also come West. This was General Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky, who had played a leading role in the Soviet campaigns against both Kolchak and Denikin. He arrived at Red Army headquarters in Smolensk on the same week that Kiev was lost to the Polish attack and he would scramble to try and reorganize the front. Tukhachevsky was already planning an attack in the north, and so he moved quickly to try and stabilize the Southern front. This stabilization was not necessarily out of concern that the Poles would continue their attack, but instead out of concern that they would, after stopping in Kiev, start moving troops north. This was to be avoided at all costs, to give the northern attack towards Warsaw that was soon to be launched the greatest chance of success as many Polish troops as possible should be kept in the south. Some of Tukhachevsky’s first actions would be to launch infantry attacks, before the Konarmiya was ready for the real attack in the south to begin. These infantry attacks would be the first moves with the intention of pinning Polish forces in the south.

The real Soviet attack would be launched the Konarmiya, led by General Semion Mikhailovich Budionny. Budionny had some very specific tactics which had worked quite well against the more disorganized White armies. They were pretty simply, throw as much strength as possible at the weakest point of the enemy, and drive forward not matter what happened into the enemy rear. In this forward movement he was only focused on his army pushing as far forward as possible and causing as much chaos as possible. Little thought was given to security on the flanks, or even to the exact disposition of the enemy. This worked very well against the less organized Whites, and it would also provide some initial success against the Poles. It relied on speed and also a good amount of fear to be successful and it also benefitted from large expanses of terrain which reduced density of defenders. Budionny was also not thought to be exactly politically reliable, Trotsky especially was concerned about this loyalty. The commissar that was assigned to Budionny was a close associate of Stalin, and this would allow Stalin to influence the course of the coming actions. This would be important because the goals of the Soviet leaders, and specifically Trotsky and Stalin were already beginning to clash and this would alter events both in the attack and then later in the retreat from Poland.

After starting their attack in late May the Konarmiya would continue to attack for over a month. During this time they would constantly cause the Polish forces to retreat. A situation that would occur multiple times would be that the Polish forces would find a defensible piece of terrain, usually a river. They would begin to solidify a defensive line on that piece of terrain, but Budionny would be able to find a weak spot and push through. This would compromise the entire Polish position, and the entire army would have to pull back once again, later repeating the same process. This would occur throughout June and into July but along the way the attacks became harder and more costly as the Soviet forces moved West.

To try and stop Budionny’s attack more and more Polish forces were moved into the area. The goal was to slow and then stop his advance, and then begin to push him back. If this could happen then the Polish units in the south could perhaps even turn their attack north to hit Tukhachevsky’s forces that were poised to attack. The new troops that were set in front of Budionny were not just stronger because there were more of them, but also, as they gained experience against the Russian cavalry they became less susceptible to the panic that Budionny relied upon for his many successes. Instead of continuing to deteriorate the Polish Army grew stronger as it fell back into Polish territory. The Russians were also now advancing into territory that had been ravaged ty years of war, fare more than the areas that they had until that point been attacking through. These had been World War One battlefields, and so the ability of the cavalry units to forage for food and supplies quickly dissipated. This had been a critical source of food and supplies in previous campaigns, but in these new areas of operation it simply was not possible. The supply system was not setup to bring supplies all the way forward to these troops, and so their advance began to slow.

Even though his troops were experiencing difficulties Budionny was not ready to give up yet, and so he continued to launch attack after attack, but now something new began to occur, sometimes the attacks would fail. He would continue to attack all the way to Brody, but by that point the problems were starting to mount. One of this officers would write that ‘We were being hemmed in, for the first time in the campaign we could feel on our backs the devilish lash of flank attacks and blows from behind - a taste of the very weapons that had served us so well.’ By the first day of August it appeared that Budionny’s attacking was over, he had infantry divisions attacking on both flanks, one positioned to his front, and there were rumors of two more Polish cavalry divisions organizing for an attack that threatened to cut him off entirely. This situation would force Budionny to order the retreat from Brody. What he did not know at this point was that the two cavalry divisions, who had been preparing to attack had instead been ordered to break off all contact and prepare to move north. On August 1st, the attacks that Tukhachevsky had been leading had reached a critical stage, and were closing in on Warsaw, which meant that all possible Polish troops would have to move north to defend the capital.

After the initial successes by the Red Army in the south all eyes had turned away from the northern fronts. Tukhachevsky wanted to wait as long as possible to allow him to build up more troops, and to prepare those that he did have. The first attack in the north was actually only shortly after the Poles took Kiev, but it was not well prepared and quickly ground to a halt. In June the Red army would be much better prepared. They enjoyed only a slight numerical superiority, but the Polish troops were spread out over a wide distance, and so their line was only thinly held for most of its length. This gave Tukhachevsky the advantage when it was planning his attack for July. He would have three entire Soviet armies to throw against just a single Polish army. This advantage was essential because he planned to reach Warsaw by the second week of August, which meant that there were just 6 weeks to advance 700 kilometers. To match this goal the army would have to breakthrough quickly and then find a way to keep the attack going. One of the keys to making this happen, much like in the south, was a large concentration of cavalry. In the north this group would be under the command of an Armenian general named Ghaia Dmitrevich Bzhishkian. He would command the 3rd Cavalry Corps or the Kavkor. Ghai was not the most experienced cavalry officer, but he was well versed in the theoretical use of the cavalry and he would prove to be really good at coordinating cavalry and infantry units during the offensive. This was fortunate for the Soviet aims, because Ghai had perhaps the most important role of any general in the entire northern attack. The Kavkor would be operating on the far northern flank, or the right wing of the Soviet advance. Throughout the entire offensive they would be asked to push forward to turn the Polish flank again and again to prevent the attacks in the center form bogging down.

On the first day of the attack the Soviet forces on the northern half of the attack experienced great success. Ghai, in the far north would advance 40 kilometers in a single day and to his south Sergeyev advanced 25. However, further south there was much less success, with some Soviet attacks being stopped completely, with others only advancing a few kilometers. With only half of the Soviet attack experiencing the expected success, Tukhachevsky had two choices. He could double down on his successful areas, continuing to push deeper into Polish territory he could attempt to use that northern success to perhaps trap some Polish forces to the south. To do this he would assign some of the northern troops to wheel south and attack into what should have been the rear of the Polish forces. Unfortunately, this was not the correct call. As soon as the news of the Soviet successes in the north had reached the Polish Fourth Army, which had for the most part been successful, began to retreat. This meant that the Russian forces moving south were moving into essentially just open terrain, and they found very few Polish prisoners. While this was a mistake, it did not prevent the larger success, it just made it a bit less decisive because once the Polish retreat began it was hard for the Polish leaders to slow it down. Multiple times Ghai’s cavalry would move around positions that the Poles hoped to defend. For example of July 12th the Poles had reached the old German defensive line from the First World War and here they were confident that they would be able to dig in and fight. Instead of letting this happen Ghai moved around the northern side and made directly for Wilno, which would force the Poles to once again retreat.

There were two major problems that the Poles were experiencing that were causing many of their problems. The first problem was around defensive strategy. They had setup a defensive system that utilized a line of defenses manned by forces that were not meant to hold the line by themselves, instead there would be very large reserve forces that would rush to any threatened area. This had worked well during the First World War, but would not perform well for the Poles in the new environment. This was because it was dependent on the defensive front being strong enough to delay any enemy attacks. The Poles simply did not have enough men to make this work. This resulted in a long series of events where the Red Army would attack, the Poles would try to bring in reinforcements, but they would not arrive fast enough. By the time that they did the Soviet forces were behind the other defenses, which then had to retreat or risk being surrounded. Then as the entire Polish front fell back it would not arrive at defensive positions fast enough, and the cycle would begin again. The second problem, was simply due to fear, mostly the Soviet cavalry but also just of being cut off. General Sergeyev, one fo the Soviet generals leading the attack would write ‘Rumours of the deep advance of our cavalry spread quickly among the Polish soldiers and assumed fantastic proportion … A single word about the movement of our cavalry from the north panicked the Poles into throwing away their positions which faced the front to the east.’ Both of these issues were exacerbated by the quick movements made by Ghai and the Kavkor. Everytime they were met by a Polish unit they were able to move around it and threaten to cut the unit off. There were several instances where the Polish units had the opportunity to cut off the Russian cavalry or at least to slow its advance. To do so would have required resolute defenses and quick thinking generals, neither of which were in great supply for the Poles in the path of the Kavkor. This, when combined with some Polish leaders being indecisive in the face of such decisive moves made by the Russian cavalry which caused multiple near disasters. Ghai would actually be ahead of schedule during the early weeks of the attack and his sights were set on Wilno. On July 12th he would reach the city, and its capture would send shockwaves throughout the Polish government.

The Soviets were able to use the fall of Wilno to their political advantage, it allowed them to sign a peace treaty with Lithuania, and in that treaty they were able to hand Wilno over to the Lithuanians. This did not completely fix relations with Lithuania, but it was a large step, and it also improved relations with Estonia and Latvia as well. It was only after the fall of Wilno that the Polish government went into full crisis mode. Before that point they had been able to mostly conceal the disasters at the front from the population, but after such an important city fell things got very serious very quickly. The Polish government was forced to resign. The problem was that with the fall of Wilno many of the defensive lines that the Poles could have used were now useless, being already in Soviet hands. There were four major defensive positions that the Polish Army planned to use, the first one had been near the front, the second had been a Wilno. With it captured the Soviets were basically halfway to Warsaw. On the first day of July a new Council for the Defense of the State was created by the Sejm which was the Polish representative body. It was created specifically out of fear that a Russian attack was imminent, and the Polish leaders wanted to be ready. It was made up of 18 members, with Pilsudski at its head and a combination of military leaders, ministers from the govenrment, and representatives from each of the main political parties. The Council would serve under a new Government of National Defense. There were other political moves made by the Polish government aimed not necessarily at increasing their military capabilities but instead bolstering the support of people of Poland. There were many groups within Poland whose support was not not guaranteed, one of these was the peasants and especially the poorer peasants. The Soviet policies of land redistribution were attractive and so the Warsaw government decided to introduce and put into place a land reform bill on July 15th. This would redistribute some land from some of the larger estates and hand it over to the landless peasants. AT this point this was a move that had been made by so many different governments in Eastern Europe and Russia, but it was an important step to assuring that the peasants within Poland were not swayed to the Soviet side. Along with political moves designed to increase support from certain groups, using the carrot I guess you could say, the Council for Defense of the State would also begin using the stick in the form of several arrests. One of their first acts was to order the arrest of any person suspected of ‘anti-state activity’ which of course had a very broad definition. These arrests, aimed at preventing any subversion from within targeted groups that were thought to be in support of the Russian advance. This included Polish Communists, leaders of trade unions, and of course Jews. These were not always small efforts, for example in just two days in late July 600 people whould be arrested in in Warsaw, with several working-class districts fully cordoned off by the military while the arrests were made.

The third set of Polish defenses were based around the city of Grodno but it would suffer much the same fate as Wilno had before it. On July 19th the first Soviet cavalry troops would reach the city and instead of strong polish defenses thy would just find an undermanned and disorganized garrison. A few days later units of Soviet infantry would arrive and the city would quickly be surrounded, and the city would quickly fall. With the fall of Grodno the third Polish line was broken and here the Soviet leaders had to make a decision. Grodno had been part of what was known as the Curzon line, or the line of demarcation that had been specified by the leaders at the Paris Peace Conference. Everything to the West of the line was supposed to be Polish territory, and so advancing beyond it would be seen as the most blatant action against the wishes of the Western Allies that the Soviets had taken. It represented a Soviet invasion of what the Allies considered to be Europe. This did not cause Tukhachevsky to miss a step, and the attack continued forward without so much as slowing down. With the line at Grodno breached, the next stop for the Soviet troops was the Fourth Polish defensive line made up of the Narew and Bug rivers, the only defensive line beyond that point was right in front of Warsaw.

With the threat to Warsaw and the continuation of Poland as an independent country in jeopardy the Polish leaders would send an official request for aid to the Allies. When the news of the Soviet attack reached London and Paris it greatly surprised the leaders of the Allied countries. They had generally assumed that the Red Army was too weak to conduct an offensive into a foreign country, having blamed most of their successes on the weakness of the Whites instead of to the strength of the Reds. Because they were so shocked by the new development the Allies leaders were not in any way prepared to lend any actual support. Their militaries were by 1920 almost entirely demobilized and there was simply no support on the home fronts for large military expeditions. Technically the Allies were not even obligated to assist, at least not until Warsaw fell. This would be their policy, they would sit out the fighting, and they would just send an Inter-Allied Mission which would arrive in Warsaw. It consisted of a few political representatives and two generals, Hacking and Weygand. The hope was that Weygand could be put in command of the Polish Army. Pilsudski would never allow this to happen, and it almost certainly would not have resulted in better outcomes for the Poles, and it was also kind of insulting. Overall the response from the Allies was incredibly disappointing to the Polish leaders, they brought no real help, just the implication that the Poles did not know what they were doing.

While the lack of support from the West was very concerning the Polish leaders had little time to dwell on it. There were more important concerns far closer to home, even closer than the Red Army troops which were advancing. The first concern was with the Polish Communist Workers Party. This group was in a pretty tight spot, because they were greatly distrusted by the Polish authorities for obvious reasons. The leaders mostly just assumed that the Polish Communists were simply a lackey of those in Moscow. This was almost certainly not true, and in fact at this stage the Polish Communists were actually pulling away from the Russians. Their greatest concern was the way that the Russian Communists had first embraced and then encouraged Russian patriotism during 1920. The Polish Communists leaders wanted to keep their communist movement in their own hands, not become a servant of those in Moscow that had already shown that they were more than comfortable of embracing their Russian history. Of course the Polish political leaders were not really interested in a lengthy discussion on the details of the policy with the Communists.

While these internal concerns were important, nothing was more important than the Red Army that was marching to Warsaw. At the time it seemed like there was little that could be done to stop it. However, in retrospect it is easy to see how vulnerable the Red Army really was at this stage of the campaign. It had advanced hundreds of kilometers into Polish territory, and to achieve this advance it had lost between 25 and 40 percent of its manpower. A large number of this reduction was due simply to deserters, always a worrying sign. Against them stood a Polish Army that was only getting stronger as it fell back into its own territory. Most of that information comes to us with the benefit of hindsight, and on the ground in Warsaw at the time all that they knew was that the Russian troops had defeated everything in front of them and had advanced hundreds of kilometers to the banks of the Vistula, and now they were poised to make their next attack, an attack on Warsaw itself.