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Text Box: War in the Ukraine

The Legendary Major Klee

by Volodymyr Barahura

The day was dark, oppressive, damp and rainy. A bitter, penetrating wind had brought a drizzling rain since the morning. To add to the troubles, the town had been captured by Polish forces. It had happened unexpectedly the day before, in the afternoon. The past couple of weeks had been peaceful. A small Ukrainian garrison had been stationed in Nemyriv for a few weeks and the town had managed to avoid any military actions. But yesterday, the garrison suddenly began to hurriedly entrech itself along the line of the town's ancient walls. They set up a field telephone, a few machine guns with their muzzles pointed in the direction of the Voroblyachynsky forest. Maybe, they expected the enemy to approach from the direction of Rava Rus'ka. Suddenly, we noticed, that the garrison was abandoning its fortifications without a fight. Far away on the Blikh hills, we saw that the Ukrainian soldiers stationed there were also falling back, occasionally returning fire on the advancing enemy.

Later, it became clear that a superior Polish force had set upon Nemyriv from three sides - from Rava, which was their invincible stronghold, from Mageriv and from Lyubachiv. To avoid capture, our forces had to beat a hasty retreat in the direction of Yavoriv, before the foe could close the circle and cut off the escape route through the Zavadivskiy forest.

After some tense minutes spent waiting, the Polish vanguard entered the town followed shortly by the main column. They were well armed, they even had a battery of filed artillery. We could tell they were of the Poznan regiment because of the greyish-green German uniforms they wore with dark green trim on the collars and cuffs. Being from western Poland, their dialects were different from that of the local Poles, with a lot of German loan words.

They immediately began to requisition all sorts of goods, especially cattle, horses, food stuffs and they began to conduct inspections and arrests. They ransacked homes, left no belonging unturned, poked into every nook and cranny as if they were hoping to find Major Klee hidden in one of the cupboards. Major Klee was a Galician German who after the collapse of the Central Powers and the creation of the Ukrainian Galician Army, volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces, to fight for the freedom of the country that had become his second fatherland. He wasn't alone - Bizantz, Koch, Vaygert, Muller, Laier - were but a few of the German colonist who acted likewise.

Klee was an exemplary, able soldier, fearless, rash and valiant, besides, he was an expert in tactics and laying traps and ambushes for the unwary opponent. He conducted his battles methodically, but fearlessly, putting trust into his military luck, which hadn't failed him yet. He commanded a well organized, highly trained, disciplined unit that was armed to the teeth. The Poles tried to avoid direct battles with him. To build up confidence they made up a little ditty about him that went sort of like this:

"We'll write a letter to Klee,
  In black indelible pen,
  That we don't fear him,
  even with 1,000 men."

But in truth Klee inspired panic in them. They would scatter at the very mention that ; "Klee is on the battlefield."

Ignoring the discomfort of the rain and the unwelcome guests, I left the house to go feed the rabbits and bring some firewood for mama. But no sooner had I finished with the bunnies and gathered some wood when shots rang out from the direction of Voroblyansky forest. The bullets whistled past me and shattered some boards on the roof of our house. Fear overtaking me, I dove to the ground and crawled the rest of the way home where my frightened mama was already awaiting me.

The Poles formed a line along both sides of the road to Rava, lying in the roadside ditches, and returned fire. Machine gun nests were set up on the fortifications behind our house and two howitzer were dragged right into our yard.

The battle intensified. Machine guns chattered from within the forest. Small arms fire peppered the town. A young Polish artillery officer ran into our home with a few soldiers. Seeing my mother and three young children, he told us to lie on the ground and ordered his charges to lay mattresses and grain sacks along the walls to protect us from the bullets. We weren't really sure who was attacking. Ukrainian forces had never advanced on Nemyriv from the direction of Rava before. We thought it could be a Polish unit, as yet unaware that Nemyriv was already in their hands, thinking they were attacking Ukrainian positions.

However, the artillery officer's comportment convinced us that it was in fact Ukrainian forces advancing on Nemyriv. Could it be that our side had captured Rava?

After every few volleys, the Polish officer would run into the house take a sip of black coffee, and shielding himself with the mattress, peered though his field glasses at the enemy positions. It was hardly likely that the officer could see what was happening in the forest from his vantage point, but every time he looked through the glasses he would shout "Look how they're running!" Later, we discovered that the artillery had missed the Ukrainian forces all together. The shells had fallen all they way over in the village of Voroblyachyn where they damaged the local magnate's palace.  


The Polish cannon alternated their bombardment and with every shot our house shook, window panes shattered, the dinner ware pounded out a staccato rhythm, dust fell from the ceiling. The crackling, crunching, whistling, buzzing, the noise, the pounding, the crack of rifles, the shouts, the screams of the wounded all blended into one endless cacophony. As night fell, we notice that the Polish officer no longer came into the house to make his observations; that the cannon fire seemed to be further away. On the other hand, the fire from the forest seemed closer than ever. I peeked out from behind the mattresses and saw some ghostly figures running through the field, taking cover in the dips and valleys as they approached.

           Twilight limited my range of vision. The Polish cannon fell silent; suddenly all about there was silence. At once we saw that some soldier with a bayonet attached to his rifle, and grenades on his belt was running up to the houses on the outskirts of town. Someone was shouting "Hurrah! Strike at the Haydamaky!*"  This insulting word which the Poles used to label the Ukrainians, brought fear into our hearts. Could it be that the Poles regained the upper hand and were advancing again. Suddenly with hisses and loud bangs, green flares rose into the sky and the air shook with a fierce war cry: Slava!" These were the lead scouts of the Ukrainian forces announcing that the village was freed from the enemy. Now we understood that the earlier shouts of "Hurrah!" were just a ruse to fool the enemy, keep him guessing whether those advancing were friends or foe.

Presently, a column of Ukrainian troops followed the scouts along the Ravsky road from Voroblyachyn to Nemyriv. Behind them stretched the long train of supply wagons. At the head of this column rode Major Klee with his staff. He was dressed in a cavalryman's uniform with a short rifle, a pistol and a sword. He held a whip in his right hand. Only Major Klee could dare attack the Poles from Rava Ruska. Only he knew how to fight so dashingly, to quote from Shevchenko - he turned battle into "a wedding, a happy celebration with bloody wooing."

In all this time of war I hadn't seen any Ukrainian troops who were better disciplined and better equipped than those of Major Klee. They set up camp on the great parade ground under the historic walls of the town. Long into the night burned their campfires. The soldiers talked and sang martial songs. In the morning, the soldiers were billeted in the houses of the townsfolk.


Our joy didn't last very long. No matter how brave, battle ready and fierce individual military units may have been, they could do nothing in the face of the historic events transpiring in that era. Halychyna** was flooded by General Haller's French trained and Entente equipped troops. Having occupied the western Ukrainian lands, they crushed and enslaved the people. My father, they arrested and sent off to an internment camp in Dombi.

*Haydamaky was a pejorative used by the Poles to label Ukrainians. It refers to a series of anti-Polish uprisings by Ukrainian peasants in the mid 1700s. The rebels were known as Haydamaky.


**The Ukrainain spelling of Galicia, a region which covers western Ukraine and eastern Poland.

(*Webmasters note - I came across this interesting historical document while searching for Haller's Army references. It provides a viewpoint from a whole different perspective; that of the Ukrainian people. It merits a special thanks to the author and translator and to Yuriy Diakunchak  for publishing this on the Internet.)


Translated from the original Ukrainian by Yuriy Diakunchak

An Important Historic Footnote About Major Klee

*Webmaster's note - Some important historical facts about Major Klee were brought to my attention by Witold Lawrynowicz. I am providing his comments on Major Klee so that the reader may be aware of "the rest of the story."

Major Klee was a Prussian, not a Galician German as claimed. During the First World War, he was a low ranking officer in the Kaiser's Army and by the end of the war held the rank of Captain. He was advanced by the Ukranian army to the rank of Major and then General.

    The Polish Parliamentary Investigative Commission, working after 1919, placed the name of Major Klee on the wanted war criminals list for his activities during the Polish-Ukranian War. His cruelty and poor treatment of Polish women was particularly well established and documented. (Murder and torture.)

    The fighting described in the article above, most likely took place on 11 February 1919 and Klee’s unit was defeated by a singular company Polish of Infantry. Most likely, the battle took place in the village of Tuszkow. All of the above information is supported by documentation. It is not immediately apparent whether or not Major Klee was ever brought to trial.