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Text Box: Polish-Soviet War



An Excerpt from “White Eagle Red Star”

By Norman Davies

(Pages  4I - 47)



           The Polish army was even less prepared for war. The Soviets did at least possess a central command and a year's experience in co-coordinating operations. The Poles had neither. The law which formalized the structure of the armed forces was not passed in the Sejm (parliament) until 6 February 1919, two weeks after the fighting with Soviet Russia had already begun. Up to that time the country was defended by a rag-bag of units left over in Poland from the World War and having nothing in common except their allegiance to the Republic and to Pilsudski as Commander-in-Chief.


           At the moment of the Army Law, Poland possessed 110,000 serving soldiers. These were increased to 170,000 in April of whom 80,000 were combatants. A nucleus had been formed from the Polnische Wehrmacht, 9,000 strong, the remnant of a force raised by the Germans in 1917-I8. Some 75,000 volunteers were added in the first weeks of independence, mainly from members of Pilsudski's Legions, who had fought for Austria until disbanded in 1917. In December 1918, the Poznanian regiments of the German army declared for Poland. Conscription, introduced on 7 March 1919, doubled the men available, but in practice very few of the draftees saw service in 1919. Polish military expenditure in 1919 absorbed forty-nine per cent of the national income and was proportionately greater than that of any country in the world, with the sole exception of Soviet Russia.


     In the course of the following months, various Polish units arrived from abroad. In April, the Polish army in France commanded by General Jozef Haller arrived, 50,000 well-armed veterans who had been instructed by French officers. They included elements of the Bayonne Legion, a Polish company attached to the Legion Etrangere. In June, the Polish division of General Lucjan Zeligowski tramped into Lwow after a historic three-month march round the Balkans from Odessa, where it had been campaigning with the Russian Whites. A Polish detachment from Murmansk reached Poland at the end of 1919, and one from Vladivostok consisting of 10,000 survivors of the Polish Siberian Brigade of-Colonel Rumsza, sailed into Danzig in July I920. These last three formations had been raised among Polish conscripts in the Tsarist army stranded in Russia by the outbreak of Revolution.


     A number of independent units were formed by the Poles of the Borders. The Samoobrona of Wilno had had its counterparts in Minsk and Grodno. Most of their recruits, surprised by the pace of the Soviet advance into the Ober-Ost, found their own way to the Polish lines. In the first week of Polish independence a Committee for the Defence of the Borders (Komitet Obrony Kresow) was formed in Warsaw. Its first president, Prince Eustachy Sapieha was representative of the  other members, mainly aristocrats, whose main aim was to recover their occupied marcher properties. It organized and financed the so-called Lithuanian-Byelorussian Division under General Iwaszkiewicz which began recruiting in Szczucyn, Zambrow and Lapy; in the event it attracted fewer volunteers from the Borders than from the cities of central Poland.


     The process of amalgamating these different units and their commands was long and difficult. Most of the ranking officers had seen service in the Austrian army. General Szeptycki had been Governor of the Austrian zone of occupation of southern Poland, Tadeusz Rozwadowski a full General in 19I 3, Inspector of Sappers in the Royal and Imperial Army, Commander of the Polnische Wehrmacht in 1918, and Minister of Military Affairs under the German-sponsored Regency Council. Pilsudski obviously preferred the men who had served with him in the Legions Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Smigly-Rydz, commander of the secret 'POW', (Polish Military Organization), Colonel Wladyslaw Sikorski, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski. A number of officers had seen Tsarist service, notably General Waclaw Iwaszkiewicz, General Dowbor-Musnicki, leader of the anti-Bolshevik cause in Byelorussia and one-time commander of the I Polish Corps, General Aleksander Osinski, commander of the III Polish Corps. No Poles rose to the highest levels of the Tsarist Staff, owing to a clause excluding Roman Catholics, nor to the upper echelons of the Prussian Staff owing to sheer prejudice. The Poznanians provided the best NCO’s but few officers. Some Poles succeeded in serving in several armies. General Jozef Haller changed sides three times. In March I918, he took his Austrian Legionary Regiment over to the Russians in protest against the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk; he fought with a Polish corps in Russia against the Bolsheviks, before escaping via Murmansk to take command of the Polish army in France.


    All these men were forced in 1919 to forget their old military habits and adapt to the new order. In February a Ministry of Military Affairs under General Lesniewski was created; also a General Staff under General Szeptycki, later under General Stanislaw Haller, which took charge of operations. General Rozwadowski was sent to Paris to liaise with the Allied governments. Drill books, weapon training, language of command, rules of seniority, all the details which make an army move, had to be re-organized. Friction was inevitable. Units with French rifles were issued with German ammunition; Austrian officers resented serving under Tsarist colleagues whom they had defeated; Poznanian units disliked serving in the east when Poznan was still threatened by the Germans in the west. Only in July 1919 was it decided to rely exclusively on French army manuals and procedures, and to submit to the instruction of General Henrys and his military mission. Somehow, despite the obstacles, patriotism triumphed, and the Polish army, defunct since 1831, was reborn.


     The 1st Polish Cavalry Division serves as an admirable illustration of the motley origins of the army as a whole. It consisted of six regiments. The 8th Uhlans were entirely 'Royal and Imperial' and were raised from the sons of the Galician gentry. The 9th Uhlans were also Galicians, although they boasted a more democratic tradition. Many of their officers had served in the Austrian Landwehr or in the Legions. They were fitted out with English uniforms. The I4th Uhlans were still more exotic. They were Russian by training and in large measure Russian by blood. They had been in the saddle for five years already, having fought in the World War on the Eastern Front and in the Russian Civil War in the Kuban. They came to Poland with General Zeligowski. They intensely disliked the Austrian equipment with which they were issued. The officers retained their high Caucasian saddles, long reins, short stirrups, and steeplechase style. The 1st (Krechowiecki) Uhlans had seen Russian service in the Pulavy Legion. The 2nd Hussars were former Austrian legionaries. The 16th Uhlans were Poznanians. They wore antique uniforms, including high rogatywka hats surmounted by a red rosette. Their horses were unusually large and their Prussian equipment unusually heavy. Every man carried lance, sabre, bayonet, mask, entrenching tool, and canteen. On the move they clanked and rattled like a company of medieval knights. In all these regiments local traditions were strong, and national patriotism relatively weak. They were like six prodigal sons, born of the one Polish mother from three different fathers. They were first sent into battle in April 1920.


        The central figure in the organization of the Polish army was Kazimierz Sosnkowski. He was the Deputy Minister for Military Affairs. Although not yet thirty-four years of age, he had already the creation of several armies to his credit. In 1908, whilst still a student in Lwow, he founded on his own initiative the Zwiazek Walki Czynnej (Union of Active Struggle), the predecessor of many similar, Para-military, nationalist organizations. In I914, he was the Chief of Staff of Pilsudski's Legions. In I917, he succeeded Pilsudski at the War Department of the Regency Council, and founded the Polnische Wehrmacht. In I918, after a spell in Spandau prison, he joined Pilsudski in Magdeburg Castle. Pilsudski called him his 'conscience' and his 'guardian angel'. He possessed the political tact and personal ease which Pilsudski lacked. In 1919, he was given the task of reconciling Pilsudski’s consuming military interests with the democratic institutions of the new Republic. His speeches to the Sejm, his detailed supervision of the Army Bills, provided the confidence, will, and expertise which overcame the politicians' reluctance. This young man, whose tall frame and commanding presence were complemented by a modest disposition and precise habits, performed a feat, comparable to that of Trotsky or Carnot, which has rarely been recognized outside Polish circles.


        At first, only a small proportion of the Polish army could be spared for the Soviet front. At no time in 1919 was the Red Army capable of mounting a major offensive, and the largest part of the Polish army was used for more urgent tasks on the Ukrainian, Czechoslovak, or German fronts. In February the 'Ten Thousand' who moved into the Ober-Ost were organized in two groups. The Northern Group under General Iwaszkiewicz was at Wolkowysk, and the Southern Group under General Listowski at Brest-Litovsk. The commander of this Byelorussian Front, General Wejtko, was replaced by General Szeptycki, whose twelve battalions of infantry, twelve squadrons of cavalry, and three artillery companies fairly matched the quality but not the numbers of the Soviet Western Army across the line.


    The military equipment available in Eastern Europe in 1919 was extremely limited. The Polish-Soviet War was fought on First World War surplus. Both sides had to depend on what they could beg or capture. The Soviet Western Army benefited from its share of Civil War trophies--Japanese rifles from Siberia, English guns from Archangel and the Caucasus. In the later stages, the Poles gained an advantage in that they received direct supplies from the Allied powers, especially from France. Distribution of the armaments was uneven. Infantry divisions, which varied in strength between 2,000 and 8,000 men, might possess anything from forty to 250 machine-guns, and from twelve to seventy howitzers. Only Jozef Haller's army, fully equipped in France, was up to First World War standards. Cavalry divisions trailed three or four heavy machine-guns mounted on horse-drawn pachinko. Transport was effected mainly by horse-wagons, of which the Polish furmanka, a long, V-shaped contraption, amazed Western observers by its speed and efficiency. Motor cars were only used by the most fortunate staff officers. Signaling was rudimentary; radios only existed at the chief command posts. It was not unknown for units to have one rifle between three men. For want of anything better, both sides often resorted to cold steel. Uniforms were as multifarious as the weapons. In theory, the Red Army wore blanket capes and Tartar caps with a star, the officers not distinguished from the men. In practice they wore whatever was at hand. Babel mentions Cossacks wearing bast bandages on their feet and captured bowler hats on their heads. Tsarist uniforms stripped of their insignia were very common. The Poles looked no better. The Poznanians wore Prussian outfits; Haller's 'Blue Army' was entirely French. A small white eagle pinned onto Austrian or Tsarist uniforms, or German helmets painted red and white, caused confusion to friend and foe alike. When facing the enemy, one had to see not just the whites of their eyes but the shape of the eagle on their caps before knowing whether to shoot. Only the Polish officer corps, resplendent in their gold braid and distinctively shaped hats were obviously dressed for the part.


Artillery fell far short of World War standards. The Polish 1st Light Artillery (Legionary) Regiment, for instance, was originally equipped with Austrian recoilless 9-cm. guns dating from 1875, found in the fortress at Cracow and pulled by horses from the Animal Shelter. In May 1919, it received an assignment of Russian three-inchers, captured from the Ukrainians, followed by an assortment of Austrian, Italian, and French howitzers. Consistent training and efficient performance were not possible.


     Armoured trains soon became a speciality. The early models were armoured with concrete or with sandbags, the 'advanced' types with steel plating. They were propelled by an armoured locomotive placed between personnel cars, which were surmounted by revolving machine gun turrets. At front and back were heavy gun platforms and wagons carrying track-laying equipment. The trains could carry a strike force of two or three hundred men, and represented the only arm disposing of mobile and concentrated fire-power. In campaigns where control of the railways was vital, they provided a morale and surprise element of the first importance. Their operations were restricted however to the railway network and to track of their own gauge. Although in the first half of 1919 the Polish sappers converted the main routes to standard European gauge, most of the lines in the eastern areas kept the wide Russian gauge.


    Cavalry remained the principal offensive arm. In this respect, the war which started in 1919 was no different from those of previous centuries. The Poles preferred heavy lancers, the Soviets sabre-swinging horsemen of the Cossack variety. Even so, cavalry was not immediately available. The Red Army could not concentrate a large cavalry force on the Polish front until May 1920. The Polish army did not match them till August of the same year.


    Sophisticated equipment did not make its appearance until the end of the war, and then only in small quantities. Aeroplanes, tanks, and motor lorries were new-fangled devices which suffered more from mechanical breakdown than from enemy attacks.


    The first months of hostilities saw little more than manoeuvrings for position. Gradually a front was established, from the Niemen at Mosty, down the Szczara River, the Oginski Canal, and the Jasiolda River to the Privet east of pinsk. Its 300-mile length straddled the northern upland zone, and was bounded in the north-west by the rump of the Ober-Ost in Grodno and in the south-east by the lands of the Ukrainian Directory. On average, each side could only field one soldier for every fifty yards of front, which meant that huge stretches, especially in the south, could be patrolled but not defended. Attention was concentrated on the northern sector, where the Soviets had the advantage of a lateral railway. Wilno, the only city in the area, and Baranowicze, a six-point railway junction, were both under Soviet control. The Soviets held the superior position, and a Polish offensive would be needed to wrest it from them. In the spring floods, this was out of the question. The only event of any strategic importance was the establishment of a Polish bridgehead across the Niemen. And so for six weeks the front rested.


    The Soviet authorities were distracted by a counter-revolutionary rising in Byelorussia. Two regiments of the Red Army holding the line against the Ukrainians in the area of Ovruch mutinied, crossed the Pripet, and marched on Gomel' which they occupied from 24 to 29 March in the name of a 'free republic'. The suppression of the rising absorbed the attention of the Soviet Western Command for several weeks at the end of March and the beginning of April, and took their minds off the activities of the Poles.


    The Poles, too, had their troubles. An ugly incident occurred at Pinsk, held by the company of a Major Luzynski. In Pinsk, as in other towns held by the Poles, all public meetings had been banned for fear of civil disturbance. A guard of only thirty men was posted. On 5 April, the soldiers were called to a meeting taking place behind closed doors. They assumed it to be a Bolshevik meeting. When resistance was offered and a crowd formed, they feared a trap. They seized thirty-five people as hostages, whom Luzynski then ordered to be summarily shot to make an example. The town was pacified. But the incident was to have international repercussions. Pinsk was a Jewish town. 20,000 of its 24,000 inhabitants were Jews.