211: Polish-Soviet War Pt. 5


In August 1920 the Red Army would be very close to their goal of capturing Warsaw, then everything would fall apart.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 211. Thank you John for Paypal Donation. Last episode we left off with the Russian army preparing to launch their attack against Warsaw. Over the course of the preceding 4 weeks the Red Army, led by General Tukhachevsky, had advanced over 600 hundred kilometers. This large success had put the Red Army ever so close to their ultimate goal, but it would be as close as they would get. In the Battle of Warsaw that would follow on August 12th the Russian attack would quickly turn into a Russian rout. The battle that would begin at the gates of Warsaw would end hundreds of kilometers to the east with the Russian invasion in tatters and both sides finally preparing to negotiate. Today we will be looking at the actions around Warsaw in the second half of August 1920 from the opening Russian attacks all the way through the Russian retreat. In the first episode of this series I mentioned how important the Polish-Soviet war was to European history, and this would be the exact moment that I was referring to. While the most immediate impact would be the destruction of the Soviet dreams of conquest of Poland there would also be long term impacts of the defeat. With the defeat of the Red Army the Communist goals for further expansion of the revolution into the West would no longer be possible. The goal had always been to make it to Germany, and then to use Germany as a catapult into the west, the Poles would prevent all of that from happening. Instead the Soviets would be forced to make a complete shift in priorities and actions which would completely change the 1920s and 1930s in Russia and Europe, all because of the actions of the Polish army in August 1920.

The long retreat of the Polish army from the borderlands to the Vistula had completely destroyed the morale of the troops. One Polish soldier would write that ‘Six weeks of consistent backward movement created a sort of compulsion to retreat. The soldier thought about it when he went to sleep, and it was his first thought on waking. It assumed the character of a disease, and its germs entered every bloodstream. During those long weeks we withdrew after every engagement, regardless of whether we had won or lost; it was not cowardice, or despondency, or lack of determination, more of a habit that had warped every mind. This habit was the most dangerous of all; where and when and under what conditions would it be possible to overcome it?’ A soldier of the 27th Leczyca Infantry would report on the conditions of the retreat in the war August weather ‘The road of retreat is infernal, the heat, the lack of water, the stench of rotting corpses and the forest fires are turning it into a sort of hellish torture…. Continual shooting from the flank and rear…’ Part of the problem was that the Russian attacks seemed to never end, and there always seemed to be more and more Russian soldiers ready to join in the attack, Pilsudski would report that ‘This incessant wormlike movement by large numbers of enemy troops, punctuated now and again by a sudden leap forward, a movement continuing for weeks on end, gave the impression of something irresistible rolling on like some heavy, monstrous cloud.’ Much closer to the front the fighting took on a very different quality, one of absolute brutality, as a Sergeant of the 42nd Infantry division would describe ‘The fighting had an insidious quality, since there were no trenches in which to take up positions. One had to expect an attack from any quarter, and in consequence the fighting was bloodthirsty, as you either won or you perished — our men were just as cruel as the Bolsheviks. Human life lost all value…We knew that death was waiting for us at every turn, because the Bolsheviks either killed outright, or drew out the torture as long as they could. If anyone could have seen this wave of Bolsheviks advancing on us, they would have been astonished, on account of their appearance, as some were barefoot, others wore bast leggings, others some kind of rubber confections, and they wore a variety of headgear, even ladies’ hats, winter caps and kerchiefs, or nothing at all, with their hair in the wind. They were like weird apparitions.’

With the army in such a state, and the Red Army bearing down on the capital, the political and logistical activities of the Polish government grew to even greater importance. On the political side the country was starting to experience financial difficulties. The Western governments had extended several loans to the Polish government when it had first been created in November 1918, but by June 1920 all of that money had been spent. The only good news was that the arms and munitions that had been purchased with it were still arriving, and many more trains of goods were still on their way to Poland. Each of these trains, when they arrived, brought with them tens of thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition. These new weapons were critical because as the Russians approached the capital huge numbers of new volunteers joined the Polish Army. After the start of the Russian attacks thousands would join the army, with more volunteers offering their service in the six weeks after the start of the attack than in the previous six months combined. 165,000 men and women in total would join the armed forces by the time that the Battle of Warsaw would begin. These new soldiers were important not just because the Polish Army needed bodies, but also because they were highly motivated and they had also not been present for the defeats suffered during the previous weeks of fighting. They were fresh to the fighting, and did not carry the mental baggage of the long retreat. With his armies reached a new peak in strength Pilsudski planned to execute a reasonably risky plan. As the Red Army approached the Bug River, he decided to abandon its defenses. In his estimation the army could not hold the defensive lines along the river, and it would be better to trade space for time, retreating to the defenses in front of Warsaw. This would allow all of the army’s strength to be saved for the decisive clash near the capital. There were obvious risks with this plan, just letting the enemy approach the most important city in the country was a risk, but it would also give the Polish Army the longest possible period to rest and recuperate before the battle began.

While the Polish army was having a few problems, the Red Army was not without its own difficulties. They had put time and effort into the logistical problems of supporting the advance through hundreds of kilometers of Polish territory. This included organizing requisitions from the countryside and putting monumental effort into rebuilding the bridges and railways as the army moved forward. The rebuilding of the railways were particularly challenging because it also meant adjusting them to the Russian rail gauge, or back to the Russian gauge after the Germans and Polish had swapped them over to the standard European gauge during and after the First World War. This task was hard and exhausting, but by doing it many of the logistical problems of sustaining an advance into Poland were solved. Tukhachevsky and the Red Army had many choices that had to be made as they advanced on Warsaw. The northern armies had now moved past the Pripet marshes, and for the first time would be able to coordinate with the troops to the south. However the two army groups were under two completely different commanders, splitting the Soviet front in two. This made it hard to coordinate, and so Tukhachevsky requested that three of the armies from the southern armies would be given over to him. This would put him in charge of all of the armies that were at that point advancing into Poland. This seemed logical to the leaders in Moscow, including Lenin and Trotsky, and so the orders were written up and sent to the commander of the Southern Armies. General Yegorov was to detach three of his armies and give them over to Tukhachevsky, the rest of his troops would then be turned away from Poland to refocus their efforts on defeating Wrangel in Crimea. This made sense to everybody but General Yegorov, and Stalin who was also closely involved. They did not want to be sidelined, chasing the defeating Whites while Tukhachevsky got all the credit and the glory for Soviet successes in Poland. To protest the new orders, they simply ignored them. They would continue to ignore all orders from Moscow for the next two weeks, until after the Battle of Warsaw had started. Instead of turning aside and sending troops to work with Tukhachevsky, they would instead push forward in an attempt to capture Lvov and southern Poland. This, they hoped would put them in position for a triumphant march into Prague, Vienna, and Budapest after Poland was defeated. These problems with coordination were strictly political problems, that would then manifest as difficulties that the Red Army would have to work around, something that Tukhachevsky and the others proved unable to do.

Regardless of the many problems that the Polish armies were also facing, as they fell back to the West their resolve and fighting abilities increased. This went against what the Soviets believed would happen, or really what many external observers expected to happen. There was a general belief among Tukhachevsky, Lenin, and the Western Allies that when the Polish Army was put under stress it would fall apart. This proved to not be the case and instead of falling apart Pilsudski began planning not just for the defense of Warsaw but also for a counter-offensive. The idea of launching this counter attack was driven partially by the fact that the Polish army had been defeated again and again in defensive situations during the previous months. Therefore instead of relying on this to suddenly change Pilsudski wanted to attack. His options in this regard were somewhat limited. On the Polish left the constant threat of the Kavkor made advancing difficult, just opened up too many flanking opportunities. It was expected that the primary Russian assault would come in the center right towards the city. On the far right of the Polish line the distances involved would just be too great and so that mostly left either an attack on the center left or the center right. He would chose the center right, in the hope that a successful attack would allow him to surround some of the Soviet troops in the north. This had the added benefit of making it slightly easier to concentrate the needed forces because he could pull from both the northern and southern groups quite easily. This concentration was just one part of the larger reorganization of the Polish armies. Up to this point there had been two army groups, north and south, these were split into three. The units of these armies were then shuffled around based on need and capabilities. This resulted in a giant game of musical chairs behind the Polish front in the days before the attack as the units were moving everywhere and trying to get into position before the attack began. This created confusion, but would hbe handled well enough that it did not completely compromise the ability of the army to resist the Russian attacks when they began.

While the Polish units were in motion all along the front Tukhachevsky was making his plans without any firm idea of what he would be facing. He made the assumption that the Polish forces would be arranged so that most of their strength was protecting the capital. This went against the information that he had available to him, which was found on the dead body of a Polish officer. This officer had the entirety of the Polish plan of attack, but the Red Army leaders did not believe that the information was accurate, it just seemed too convenient and so it was disregarded. With his continued belief that the Polish army would prioritize defending Warsaw, Tukhachevsky hoped to outflank those defenses but focusing most of his strength to the north of the city. This was because the defenses around Warsaw were actually quite good. While the Polish army did not plan to entirely focus on the defense of the city it would be the only area along the front that would come close to reaching First World War levels of defensive concentration and strength. Trenches, artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire were all present in large amounts in the Warsaw defenses on the East side of the Vistula, with the strongest area being a few miles east of the city in Radzymin. However, neither side planned to focus their efforts on either attacking or defending these areas. The Poles would focus most of their strength in the south, the Russians in the north. This left the Polish defenders to the north of the city in a very precarious position

These troops of the Polish Fifth Army were commanded by General Wladyslaw Sikorski. Sikorski had been active in the Polish Independence movement since before first world war, and after the war began he had continued that work. His specific method involved working within the Austro-Hungarian army to try and secure Polish independence. When Poland became independent he would begin his time in the Polish Army. By April 1920 he was in command of an entire Polish Army, in this case the 5th Army which was stationed just to the north of Warsaw. It would be in this area that the Polish forces would be at greatest risk. They did not have strong defenses like those present around Warsaw, or the large troop concentrations that were south of the city. In total Sikorski would be outnumbered over two to one when the fighting began. He was also at a disadvantage due to the reorganization of forces that had been executed right before the battle, this limited his ability to prepare his position and his troops for the Soviet attack that began on August 12th. On that day the Soviet infantry would begin to push forward, The first assault did manage to capture some defenses, and succeeding attacks also had some success. However, mirroring many of the difficulties that countless armies had experienced during the First World War, even in the areas where some initially success was found it was difficult for the Red Army to push forward reinforcements. This resulted in several instances where the infantry attacks would push the defenders out of their positions, but then they would fail to be reinforced. This squandered whatever advantage may have been present. These attacks, and these same types of failures, would continue for two more days. After those two days things began to change. Early in t he fighting Sikorski had given General Kanicki a cavalry brigade for the purpose of finding a way through or around the Soviet forces and into their rear. It was believed that his brigade could find a seam between the Army in front of Sikorski and the one to the north. They were successful in this task and on the 14th they would arrive behind the Russian front in the city of Ciechanow. The command of the Russian IV Army had only recently moved his headquarters into this same city and with the appearance of the Polish cavalry on his doorstep he rapidly abandoned it. While the Russian general was able to escape he was forced to leave behind his documents, most of his staff, and his army’s radio transmitter. This daring cavalry raid had successfully removed the leader of one of the Russian armies, and it coincided perfectly with Sikorski starting a counter attack.

On the 14th Sikorski was able to push back some of the Soviet units. This amounted to a defeat of the primary Soviet attack, but Tukhachevsky and the other Red army leaders did not known how much danger they were truly in. Sikorski’s single army had withstood and was not reversing the attacks of three Russian armies and Red Army reinforcements had to be moved north. Even with this additional manpower it was clear that any chance of taking Warsaw had already been lost. On the 15th Sikorski continued to attack, although he was still a bit hesitant, at the time he was not completely certain exactly what was in front of him, or the situation on his left. It was only on the 16th that he would really commit to the attack. On that day he ordered an all-out attack by his forces. The attack was not a complete success, but it did gain some ground. Then the next day roughly the same thing happened, not a stunning success, but not a failure. Then the next day, again much the same. By this point the Red Army had much larger problems on its hands. On the 16th Pilsudski had launched his attacks in the south, and was advancing very rapidly. The Soviets had two choices, double down on their defense in the north, by pushing forward more troops and trying to reconcentrate the three armies that were already having problems in the area, or they could just give up in withdraw. This would be the path that they chose, there was one problem with it, the IV Army was still engaged heavily with Sikorski’s forces, and would not be able to follow, only the XV and III Armies would be able to retreat to the east. Without a better option available, the orders were sent out and the IV army was on its own.

The sacrifice of the IV Army was necessitated by the actions of Pilsudski’s forces in the south. The plan was somewhat simple, the Polish forces south of Warsaw would attack and swing north. If everything went according to plan they would advance in a wide front that would create an ever shrinking West-East corridor that the Soviet forces would be trying to retreat through. If they did not retreat quickly enough they would be completely cut off, which was the best possible outcome for the Polish forces. For optimal chances of this outcome Pilsudski had to wait until large numbers of troops were committed to fighting in the north. For four days after the Soviet attack began he wanted, and then on the 16th he made his move. This attack would involve five divisions as its primary attacking force, and they would have to advance across the Wierprz (Vee-ep-sh) river. Almost as soon as the attack began it started to experience success. What they found in front of them was suspiciously empty countryside. The vast majority of the Russian troops were either in front of Warsaw or to the north of the city where they were hoping to outflank the city. With so much empty space in front of them throughout the 16th and 17th the Polish forces mostly just kept advancing, encountering a few Russian units here and there, but no concerted resistance. In several cases the Polish infantry were moving as fast as their feet and vehicles could carry them. In Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe historian Adam Zamoyski traces the movements of the 1st Legionary Infantry Regiment during this time period. “covered fifty-four kilometres on 16 August, and slept for only three hours before setting off on its second lap of thirty-seven kilometres, followed by five hours’ sleep, a third lap of forty-five kilometres followed by seven hours of fighting and four of sleep, and then a four-day slog of 125 kilometres punctuated with snatches of rest, followed by a fourteen-hour battle for Bialystok.” This type of movement was not abnormal in any way, there are many other Polish regiments with similar mileage in the early days of the attack. This put the Soviet generals in an impossible position. The XVI Army was the first to be caught, due to its position in front of Warsaw, soon they had strong Polish forces to the south. Confusion started to reign and army and division cohesion began to fall apart. Up until the 18th Pilsudski had assumed direct command of the IV Army, which was executing the Polish attacks however on the 18th he judged the situation to be sufficiently i hand, gave command over to another Polish general, and went back to Warsaw to coordinate the entire front. At that point he knew that the attack was successful, but he probably did not know just how successful it would be. Back at the front one of the members of the French Military Mission, Major Charles de Gaulle, would write that ‘Our Poles have grown wings. The soldiers who were physically and morally exhausted only a week ago are now racing forward in leaps of 40 kilometres a day. Yes, it is Victory! Complete, triumphant Victory!’

The shock of the reversal on the Soviet side was only amplified by their belief before August 12th that they were so close to victory. Their confidence was so high that they were already looking beyond Warsaw, and even beyond Poland. On August 10th the orders went out for all German Communists in Russia to head west and prepare to move into their home country. Propaganda in German was already at the printing presses when the Polish counter attack began. Then the disaster began, but it was a disaster that for days Tukachevsky and the Red Army leaders knew almost nothing about. The Poles began jamming the Russian Radio network as soon as the attack began, a tactics that they had not widely used up to this point. This prevented Soviet communication at a critical time, and meant that Tukhachevsky did not have a clear idea was happening until the 19th. At that point there was little to do but order a retreat, there was simply nothing that could be done in the short term to stop Pilsudski’s advance. At the time that this order was sent out the belief was that the retreat was just a temporary measure, not a complete reversal in the campaign, which proved to be a bit too optimistic.

With the abandoned IV Army in the north was Ghai’s cavalry troops. During the opening phases of the Soviet attack they had started their own attack in the hopes of passing behind the Polish lines, just like they had done so many times before. They were having some success when, on the 20ths, they found out that all of the Russian troops were retreating. Ghai’s first move was to take over the command of all of the IV Army infantry that he could find, and began moving as quickly as possible to the east. However, Ghai’s presence in the area had been known to Sikorski and troops were properly positioned to block their retreat. The Kavkor had one more surprise in store for the Polish troops though, and they moved much quicker than expected, getting around the Polish blocking forces. All of this effort would prove to bein vain though. On the 25th, before Ghai’s troops could move far enough east the 14th Poznan Division of the Polish army, advancing from teh south, had reached the borders of East Prussia. Any of the Russian troops still to the west of the 14th was not trapped. In one last attack, with the assistance of the 53rd Infantry Division, Ghai attacked directly into the Polish lines to try and break through. For two days the battle continued, but to no avail. Then on the 26th the 53rd Division retreatd into Germany. Ghai did the same shortly thereafter, partially out of concern that if he was captured by the Polish troops he would be killed due to the violence and destruction that he had ordered all across the Polish countryside. With the move across the German border all of the Soviet forces were disarmed and interned. The Kavkor which had led the Soviet attack for 50 days, had covered 800 kilometers, and captured four major cities almost single handedly, was no more.

When the retreat did not quickly end, and then Soviet forces were trapped to the West of Pilsudski’s forces, the true scope of the defeated started to be known. The Soviet invasion of Polish, of all of Western Europe, was over, 66,000 prisoners had been taken by the Polish army, over 40,000 were not interned in Germany. While this represented serious manpower setbacks for the Red Army, it also represented a failure in their revolutionary mission. They were supposed to be the vanguard of a social revolution that would sweep around the globe, and they had just been defeated on the banks of the Vistula, it would be the furthest the Soviets would advance West until 1945.