212: Polish-Soviet War Pt. 6


The Polish and Soviet forces would find themselves largely back where they started the year, and it was time to think about peace.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 212. Last episode we discussed the Battle of Warsaw and its aftermath during which the Polish army was able to decisively defeat the Soviet attack against the city and then began to push the Red Army troops out of Polish territory. This week we look at the aftermath of the incredibly successful Polish counter-attack. Over the following weeks the Soviet forces would retreat almost as quickly as possible and soon both armies would find themselves back at almost exactly the same positions in which they had started the year in, before either side had restarted the fighting in early 1920. With concern growing in Moscow that the situation could only get worse, and with the Polish Army reaching the end of their ability to push forward, negotiations for a ceasefire and then a final peace which had been occurring since early August would become much more serious and eventually a ceasefire would be signed in October.

After the Red Army’s defeat near Warsaw the retreat began and then continued. While many troops would be able to rapidly most eastward, tens of thousands would be killed or captured by the Polish army. Over 50,000 would be taken prisoner, and thousands more would be interned in German territory. These interned troops included the Kavkor, which was one of the most successful units in the entire army. It also included what was left of four entire Soviet infantry divisions, all of which had been a part of the IV Army. Even those troops that did successfully escape Polish encirclement would only due so by leaving large amounts of their equipment and supplies behind. This meant that only around half of the Soviet troops in the north, those that had escaped from Poland, were actually combat effective when they crossed over the Niemen river, the first point where the Soviet resistance could begin to solidify. While the northern attack was collapsing, in the south Budionny was preparing to attack. He would begin this attack on August 25th, several days after the Russian forces in the north began their retreat. However, he had no idea that the situation in the north was so rapidly deteriorating. He believed that he was attacking the right flank of an enemy fully engaged in defending against Soviet attacks. Instead he was advancing into an area that was going to be crawling with Polish troops who were freed from the fighting in the north. It would not be until the 29th that he would learn the true situation in the north, that Tukhachevsky had suffered a massive defeat and all of his troops were retreating. This put Budionny’s troops in serious danger, and already Polish troops were moving into the area to cut off his retreat. If he wanted to make it out of this trap he would have to move very quickly.

To try and prevent his escape was the Polish Third Army. The army was commanded by none other than our friend General Sikorski who had been brought south after Ghai’s forces had escaped into Germany. At that point the Fifth Army did not really have any further tasks, it being on the Western end of the Polish envelopment which had closed and so Sikorski was sent to the south where more action was taking place. He would arrive in time to command the attempts being made to trap Budionny. Both Sikorski and Budionny knew that there were only two possible paths that the Soviet troops could take to the east. Sikorski had to race his troops to block those routes while Budionny had to race to make it through the territory before Sikorski could complete his maneuvers. With both armies racing for the same areas, clashes were destined to occur. This fighting would contain a battle that would not really ever happen again in Europe, and a type of battle that had not been seen in many years, a massed cavalry battle. Thousands of cavalry troopers would be involved in the fighting, a sight that even with all of the cavalry actions during the Polish-Soviet War was still unique. It would occur on August 31st when the Russian cavalry of the Konarmiya, those of the 6th and 11th divisions, would clash with a Polish cavalry division in mounted combat. The Polish division was trying to hold its sector on the south side of the ring that had closed in on the Soviet forces. Captain Praglowski, at the head of the Polish cavalry column would later recall that ‘When I rode up the next rise, I looked round and…froze. What I saw both fascinated and horrified me. At a distance of perhaps seven hundred metres dark waves of Cossacks were pouring out of the woods one after the other….’ This would be just the first of many charges on both sides. One participant would report that ‘Every time a squadron was thrown back, it would halt, about turn, and then charge once more with renewed impetus.’ For most of the fighting it would appear that the Polish troops were going to be overwhelmed by the greater numbers on the Soviet side. The decisive moment would come late in the day when, with the Polish 9th Lancers being forced to retreat the 8th Lancers arrived and delivered a devastating, and wholly unexpected charge. The shock of this charge would break the Soviet Cossacks, leaving the Poles in command of the field. While this attempt to break through the Poles was unsuccessful, it was just one of many, and others wouild be successful, allowing most of the Konarmiya to escape. The troops that were able to make it through the Polish lines were in a very similar position to those in the north though, they were far from fresh and they were lacking much of their equipment and supplies. The horses and men of the Konarmiya were exhausted and it would be quite some time before they would be able to participate in more fighting in the same way that they had before.

While their armies in the south were barely escaping complete destruction, in the north the Red Army was benefitting from the same circumstances that had been working against advancing armies since 1914. As the Red Army retreated east they were falling back on their supply lines, this allowed them to have all of the supplies, equipment, and men that they needed, or at least all that was available. The first position which they felt comfortable mounting a defense was at the Niemen river. On the opposite side were the Polish forces that had been advancing for weeks, away from their supplies and reinforcements. Pilsudski and the Polish leaders knew that they would be a problem, which is why they had focused so much on trying to encircle the Russian troops. These attempts at encirclement had been successful, but not as successful as was hoped, and this resulted in a great number of Russian troops available to man the new Soviet defenses at the Niemen. Pilsudski’s plan to deal with this new set of defenses was much the same as what had been used by both sides in the conflict up to this point. He would launch an attack straight into the Soviet defenses with his infantry while a mixed force of infantry and cavalry attacked on the flanks. The hope was that this would tie the Soviet forces in the center of their lines and provide further opportunities for encirclement.

While in theory this was good, and had in fact been successfully applied multiple times by both the Polish and Soviet troops, in this case the execution would be less than optimal. The Russians were not expecting the attack, but the front line units were able to successfully resist the opening Polish movies. This would cause the action to devolve into a battle of attrition, with both sides pouring reserves into the fighting for the next week. On the Soviet side things were starting to reach a breaking point. Even though the Red Army had began the Polish campaign with a large numerical advantage, and had brought in thousands of new troops they were beginning to reach the end of their trained and equipped reserve troops. The troops that were now being fed into the fighting did not have the proper weapons and equipment for the current situation, especially as it was getting to be late in the year and so the temperature was beginning to drop. When this was reported to Lenin he is reported to have said that ‘I don’t care if they have to fight in their underpants, but fight they must!’ The news of the Soviet defeat in Poland had also started to filter throughout all of Russia, which resulted in renewed resistance, especially in Ukraine, to Soviet rule with many internal groups hoping to take advantage of the Red Army’s challenging position. A week after the Polish attack began, Tukhachevsky was forced to order another retreat. The troops would now take up positions in the First World War trenches, the same ones that the Poles had tried and failed to hold in July. By the first of October the Russians were in these positions, although it was not known how long they could be able to hold onto them. Political pressure was mounting on Tukhachevsky to hold them as long as possible due to the ceasefire discussions that were occurring, which made it essential that the Soviet be in control of as much territory as possible. Tukhachevsky understood this necessity, but there was little that could be done except hope that the troops would be able to hold out.

Things were going a bit better on the Polish side of the line. They had initially underestimated the ability of the Red Army to resist their attacks, but they had still been able to push them out of the Niemen defensive lines. As they advanced on the new line around the First World War trenches Pilsudski believed that the Army was reaching the end of its abilities to continue forward at the time. However he was working under the same political pressure that Tukhachevsky was, only in the opposite direction. Pilsudski needed to capture as much territory as possible while the ceasefire negotiations were ongoing, which would put additional pressure on the Soviets to sign the agreement quickly. The good news was that most of the objectives for the Poles were already in Polish hands, including almost all of the areas with large Polish populations. They were also almost back to the areas that they had started the year in. To their surprise when they approached the new Russian positions their attacks were once again successful, and instead of halting the advance the opposite occurred, and the Polish advance once again accelerated.

With pressure mounting on the Soviet leaders to conclude the ceasefire, as the first snow fell in the middle of October the ceasefire would come into effect on October 18th. At midnight on that day the Polish forces stopped in place, the Soviets continued for another 15 kilometers to the east to create a neutral zone between the two armies, and the fighting was over. Both sides believed that there was a high probability that this ceasefire was once again temporary, this would prove to be a permanent ceasefire, the fighting was over. On the 18th Pilsudski would send out an order to the Polish troops congratulating them on what they had accomplished over the previous months of fighting. here is an excerpt. ‘Soldiers! You have passed two long years amidst heavy toil and bloody strife. You are ending the war with a magnificent victory.… Soldiers! It is not in vain that you have laboured.… From the first moments of its existence, envious hands were stretched towards the New Poland. There were numberless attempts to reduce Poland to a state of impotence, and to make it a toy for others. It was onto my shoulders as Commander-in-Chief, and into your hands, as defenders of the homeland, that the nation placed the heavy burden of protecting Poland’s existence, of establishing general respect, of giving her freedom to dispose of her destiny in all its plenitude. Soldiers! You have made Poland strong, confident, and free. You can be content with the fulfillment of your duty. A country, which in two years has produced soldiers such as you, can regard its future with tranquility.’

While the fighting at the front would not end until October, peace negotiations had actually started in mid August. These discussions had been pushed for by the Western Powers and they would initially take place in Minsk. At the time the Red Army was still deep in Poland, and before the first session on August 17th they appeared to be on the edge of victory. The situation at the front set the stage for the talks and it allowed the Soviets to make some pretty large demands. They agreed to allow Poland to keep all of the territory west of the Curzon line, the line previously stated by the Western Powers to be what they believed to be the borders of Poland. However, the soviets pushed for severe limitations on the size of the Polish military, just 60,000, and mandated the creation of a Citizen’s Militia. The hope was that this Citizens Militia would be controlled by the workers, and then the Soviets, to create a Polish version of the early Red Army which had been a militia of workers. While discussions were actively occurring about this proposal the Polish delegation received word of the Polish victories near Warsaw. This completely changed the power dynamics between the two countries, and the Polish delegates made it clear that the Soviet terms were unacceptable.

With the balance of power having shifted so drastically the Polish delegates pushed for the negotiations to be moved out of a Russian city, like Minsk, and instead to a more neutral area. One of the Baltic states was suggested as a neutral theater for further negotiations. Eventually Riga would be chosen, and it was announced on August 30th that the Latvian Government had agreed to host the conference, and it could begin on September 21. The Soviet leaders had some problems coming to an agreement on what their new negotiating position should be. They were split into two camps, pretty much in the same groups that we have already been discussing for several episodes now. On one side were those who believed that negotiating terms with the Poles was basically just one step away from what had happened at Brest-Litovsk and would represent the abandonment of the worldwide revolution. On the other side were those who believed that Europe was not close to a revolution, and so continuing to fight for a European revolution was a waste of resources and represented a risk to the revolution as a whole. Lenin was at this point in the latter camp, which resulted in the Soviet delegation being told that territorial concessions were acceptable to a certain point. On the Polish side, they did not plan to push for the maximum possible concessions. They hoped that being more lenient would help repair their image with the rest of the countries in Europe, many of whom were still frustrated at the earlier Polish attacks. This resulted in the Polish suggested borders to be, while not as far east as some among the Polish leaders wanted, still contained large areas of Byelorussia and Ukraine. The border would be roughly where the fighting ended. After some discussions and some changes, like the Soviets wanting transit rights to Lithuania and Germany, the official document would be signed on October 8ths, with the only outstanding item to be financial settlement numbers.

When news of the details of the deal reached Moscow there was general rejoicing. Some important pieces of territory had remained in Soviet hands, when the fear was that places like Minsk would find themselves under Polish control. On the Polish side there was a general outcry among some groups that the negotiations had been far too lenient on the Soviets. Pilsudski was a member of this group, being generally shocked that the Soviets had gotten off so easy in the peace that had now been signed. He saw the settlement as a betrayal, and it would be part of the cause for the issues between the Polish government and Pilsudski in the years to come. Among the people of Poland the general feeling was one of both triumph and tragedy, and it was widely believed that the Polish Army had won a great victory, but it had been to some degree taken away during the peace discussions.

Much like the previous ceasefire agreements there was a general belief on both sides that the peace would not last. On the Polish side this was still rooted in the belief that there was a good chance that the Communist leaders might still find themselves removed from power due to internal problems. There were also those who believed that the Communists would simply try to expand westward once again. Some of the Communist leaders believed this as well. As I previously mentioned there was a group of Communist leaders, led by Bukharin, who believed that signing the peace treaty with Poland was a mistake. They were advocating for further hostilities. This general believe, especially on the Polish side, would influence their actions after the ceasefire. The most immediate actions were that the Polish leaders made renewed efforts to reach out to all of Poland’s neighbors, especially those countries who were also looking for security against Russia. The primary players in these conversations were Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The hope of all of these countries was that through their combined strength they could contain any future Russian aggression. Further afield the views of the British and French were, odd. During the fighting both governments had been less than involved and far less than the Poles had initially hoped for. The French still supported the Poles, as shown by the French Military Mission, but that support had not manifested in the military support that the Polish leaders had hoped for. After the fighting would end French support would continue however both the British and French were also moving towards a more general reconciliation with Russia. When the armistice was being signed in Riga, the British were actively negotiating a trade agreement with Moscow, and they were very concerned about how any of their actions would be viewed by the Russian leaders. The French were always more open and aggressive with their support of Poland, and in February 1921 the two countries would sign an official Military Convention.

While there were advocates for restarting hostilities on both sides, the conditions within both countries made strong arguments against such actions. The economy of Poland was wrecked in the same ways that had happened to many other countries over the previous years. Inflation was at disastrous levels, real purchasing power of wages was in free fall. Even relatively well off professions, like metalworkers, only had a quarter of the real purchasing power that they had possessed in 1914. The only good news was that the Polish people had a reasonable amount of food, and the 1920 harvest, somewhat miraculously, had been pretty good. There was also some food brought in by the American Relief Administration which made up for many of the shortfalls. On the opposite side, as I have discussed in previous episode, the economic and internal challenges in Russia were reaching new levels of severity. It would be in late 1920 and early 1921 that the internal issues in Russia would reach their peak. This along probably would have prevented a reigniting of hostilities with Poland. This was also the period where the goals and objectives of the Soviet leaders decisively changed, and by the end of 1921 they were actively attempting to improve relations with Poland and other countries for economic reasons.

Even with some small threat of more fighting, in early January 1921, the Polish Army began partial demobilization. This represented the most noticeable movement of Poland to a peace footing, for the first time in its existence. 1921 would be the first time since 1914 that Polish territory would not see fighting, or that the country would not be part of a war. For the country as a whole, this was absolutely fantastic, and the economy would begin to recover. However, it would also be at this time that some of the political fissures within the country, which would only truly rupture in later years, would begin to grow. These problems would slowly grow in severity, and in 1925 Pilsudski would lead a coup d’etat and install himself at the head of a dictatorship.