The Polish-Russian War and the Fight for Polish Independence, 1918-1921. A brief overview by A. Mongeon.
Also known as the Russo-Polish War of 1920.

Between 1918 and 1921 Poland had to fight to re-establish itself as a nation.  The most dangerous enemy that Poland faced at the time was Bolshevik Russia, under Lenin.  At the very least Lenin wanted to recapture Poland and other lands (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bialy-Russia and Ukraine) lost as a result of Czarist Russia's defeat by Germany in WW I.  It is now widely believed that Lenin wanted to expand his Bolshevik empire beyond the former Russian boundries, using the Red Army as a tool to accomplish a wider Revolution.  Germany and France were War weary and were experiencing problems such as un-employment and general economic disruption.  Lenin already had political agitators in those countries, but in order for his Revolution to succeed he would need the presence of a military force, the Red Army.  It became apparent that Lenin was begining to win the Civil War in Russia and would soon be able to free up the Red Army for use in Europe.  In a pre-emptive strike intended to stop the Bolsheviks, Jozef Pilsudski, the commander of Polish Forces, attacked the Bolsheviks in force in February 1919.  Pilsudski could not allow the Bolsheviks to gain full strength.  Pilsudski was hoping that the White and Red forces in Russia would weaken each other to the point that neither were a threat.  Pilsudski also hoped that other countries (namely Bialy-Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic States) would form a defensive alliance with Poland against Russia (Red or White).  The alliance never materialized.  The War expanded and reached a critical moment in August, 1920, at the Battle of Warsaw, when the fate of Europe was decided.  This War, and the important events surrounding it, are virtually absent from most history books.  This is surprising given the huge impact on Europe that would have occured had Poland lost this War.

Before WW I.
The Polish state became weak in the late 18th century due to bad leadership, disorganization and the fact that Poland was surrounded by powerful and better organized enemies.  By 1795, the third partition of Poland was complete.  Poland was divided up amongst Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungary and would remain occupied until 1918.  Polish Patriots were determined to regain Independence (or at least some rights) and staged uprisings in 1830, 1844-46, 1848 and 1863.  Although these revolts were crushed, an effective resistance was established and continued to exist as various "Secret Societies".  One of the champions of Independence was Jozef Pilsudski.  Born in 1867, he began underground political resistance activities in the late 1880's, with the goal of an Independent Poland at Russia's expense.  After being imprisoned in Siberia for anti-Czarist activities, he escaped and made his way to Austrian Poland (Galicia).  Because Austria was an enemy of Russia, Pilsudski was permitted to continue his campaign against Russia.  Pilsudski gave valuable intelligence to Austria about Russian positions in Poland and elsewhere.  Pilsudski was able to raise a para-military force in Austria by 1908, know as the Society (or Riflemen) of TIR.  Major locations of activity included Lwow and Krakow.  This force would later form the basis of the Legions.

During WW I.
Pilsudski placed his Legions under Austrian command in 1914.  They were to fight exclusively against Russia, with the goal of an Independent post-war Poland.  After Russia surrendered in 1917, the Germans  wanted to use the Legions against France.  Pilsudski refused to allow the Legions to be used against France and was imprisoned at Magdeburg for the remainder of the War.  Von Bessler was appointed the head of the Legions.  The Legions disbanded instead of accepting Von Bessler as leader.  In April 1917, only men from the 2nd Brigade swore an oath to the Germans.  Most men of the other Brigades were imprisoned at places including Szczypiorna, Lomza and (officers) Benjaminow.  Many Legionnaires that were not imprisoned went underground, joining resistance cells of groups like the POW (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa).

Badge of POW Veterans

Others were assimilated into Austrian (Polish Auxiliary Corps) or German (Polnische Wehrmacht) units or sent to Germany to work.  Yet others fled to Russia to organize units there.

In early 1918 General Jozef Haller, until this time the Commander of the  2nd Brigade of Legions, took some of his troops to Russia after Germany's true motives were revealed following the implementation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.  (Germany, as well as Austro-Hungary had promised a post-war Independent Poland.  The appointment of Von Bessler convinced many Legionnaires that a post war Poland would be a puppet of Germany, not truly Independent.  Haller was finally convinced that Germany had no intention of granting Poland her freedom after Germany settled with Russia with no provision for a Poland of any kind).  Haller crossed the front with his followers at Rarancza in mid February, 1918.  Many who tried to cross the front were captured by the Austrians and were sent to camps in Hungary and Bohemia, including Huszt, Maramaros and Sziget.  The ones that made it through joined the Polish 2nd  Corps in Russia.

Polish units had fought on the Czarist Russian side early in the War, including the Pulawski Legion.
Many Polish units in Russia, including those that were led by General Jozef Haller and General Lucjan Zeligowski, eventually went to France after Russia's surrender.  The Polish Army in France (formed in late 1917-early 1918), made up of many Polish American and Polish Canadian Volunteers, was a substantial fighting force. This force was to be led (starting in late 1918) by General Jozef Haller.  An earlier attempt to organize a Polish unit in France (in 1915) was protested by the Russians, who did not want any Polish nationalistic groups gaining any legitimacy.  After the November 11, 1918 Armistice, much of Haller's Polish Army in France (known as the Blue Army -the colour of their French Uniforms), made its way to Poland to assist in the fight for Polish Independence.

When WW I ends, Poland begins the 2nd Republic.
Upon the Armistice with Germany and Austria on November 11, 1918, the forces of Polish Independence were already in motion.  Declarations were already made before November 11th in Lublin, New York, Paris and other places.  Based on parts of President Wilson's 14 Points Speech (as conditions for Armistice), Poland was to become an Independent Nation with access to the Baltic Sea.  This was later to be confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles.  President Wilson was made aware of Poland's plight by such activists as Ignacy Paderewski, who lived in the USA during WW I.  Pilsudski was released on November 10, 1918 and went to Warsaw the next day to take command of the Army of a new Poland.

The Defense of Lwow and the War with the Ukraine 1918-1919.
On October 31st and November 1st, 1918 (almost 2 weeks before the WW I armistice) Ukrainian units (Sich Riflemen) of the rapidly disintegrating Austrian Army took advantage of the circumstances and occupied the predominately Polish City of Lwow in Galicia, procaiming it a part of a Socialist Ukrainian Republic.  The citizens of Lwow, many of them children, fought off the Ukrainians.  Polish army units arrived in a few days to assist the citizens.  The fight lasted until November 22nd, when the Ukrainians were repelled.  Many school children died in this fight and a cemetery in Lwow was created in their honor.  The children are known as Orleta (Eaglets).  The fighting against Ukrainian forces continued until July, 1919 when the Polish army finally pushed back the Ukrainians (who were weakened by fighting the Bolsheviks on another front) beyond the Zbrucz River.

Defence of Lwow Cross, Orleta Badge

The Wielkopolski Uprisings against the Germans.
By December 1918, Polish populations in the Polish areas of the former German Empire began to assert their desire to have these areas declared as part of Poland.  By January, 1919 there was large scale and bitter fighting against the Germans around Poznan. A peace treaty officially ended the fighting in February, 1919 with France being the overseer of the treaty.

The Silesian Uprisings.
Silesia (Slask) was a disputed area under the Treaty of Versailles and its fate was to be determined by a plebiscite.  A multi-national armed force (France, England, Italy and USA) was sent there during the voting process to keep order.  The vote proved inconclusive. The German Police authorities in the disputed zone were causing a great deal of friction by harassing and intimidating Poles in the area.  Violence erupted.  Eventually a total of 3 Polish armed uprisings took place, with Wojciech Korfanty emerging as the leader of the Poles.  The Allied Commission was instrumental in implementing an armistice treaty by June, 1921.  Fighting with the newly formed Czechoslovakian State also occurred, which resulted in a plebiscite in 1920 over Teschen (Cieszyn). The dispute flared again when Poland occupied an area around Cieszyn in 1938.

Silesian Cross on Ribbon of Merit.

Upper Silesian Star.  Awarded to those who distinguished themselves during the struggle for Upper Silesia (Un-official decoration).  Photo courtesy of Auctions H.D. Rauch , used by permission.

Wilno and Central Lithuania and Bialy Russia.
Wilno (Vilnius) and the surrounding area had a high number of residents of Polish heritage.  With the proclamation of Independence from Russia of the Baltic Republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) as well as Bialy-Russia, came fears of the Bolshevik's desire to retake these areas and install Soviet puppet governments.  The initial plan at the end of WW I was to allow the German army to remain in these areas after the war in order to protect the region from Bolshevik expansion.  The Germans resented the imposition of the Allies to continue to fight after the War and consequently had no desire to remain in these areas for long.  As they left, a dangerous "back door" to Poland was created for the Bolsheviks.  Pilsudski hoped that the Baltic States, Bialy-Russia and the Ukraine would unite with Poland in a defensive alliance against Russia.  This defensive alliance never materialized.  Polish units were formed in the area of Wilno, but were soon overpowered by the Bolsheviks.  The Bolsheviks occupied the area from January 1919 and proclaimed it a Soviet Republic.  In April 1919, Polish units under General Rydz-Smigly re-occupied the area.  The area again fell into Bolshevik hands in the summer of 1920 and a puppet Soviet government was installed.  Fighting in the area during 1919 and 1920 continued between Polish forces and the Bolshevik forces, which led to an expanding front that extended into Bialy-Russia.  After the Polish victory at Warsaw in 1920, the Bolsheviks retreated.  A volunteer force mainly of Poles from Lithuanian and Bialy-Russian regions was formed under General Lucjan Zeligowski.  This force recaptured Wilno and the surrounding area during October, 1920.  A plebiscite was held in 1922, and the area of Central Lithuania (Litwa Srodkowa) was incorporated into Poland.

Cross of Merit of the Central Lithuanian Army.

 The Ukraine, Petlura and General Bulak-Balachowicz.
In an attempt to help set up a non-Soviet Ukrainian State, Pilsudski formed an alliance with the Ukrainian Symon Petlura.  A combined force of Poles and Ukrainians made it to Kiev in May, 1920, but could not hold the area.  General Bulak-Balachowicz was originally from the Wilno area.  He was in the Czarist Russian army until the Bolshevik revolution, when he formed units determined to fight the Bolsheviks.  He became an ally of Pilsudski and organized units of volunteers made up of Poles from the eastern border areas, which fought in Russia against the Bolsheviks.  One of the terms of the 1921 Riga peace treaty between Poland and Russia was the removal of official Polish support for any nationalist groups from Ukraine or Bialy Russia.  As a result, Petlura lost Polish support and was defeated by the Bolsheviks.  General Bulak-Balachowicz remained in Poland after the War.  He died in Warsaw in 1940.  He was reputed to have organized a undergroung unit in Warsaw to fight against the Germans.

Cross of Valour of General Bulak-Balachowicz, WW I Legion Cap Badge,
(General) Haller Swords.

Wolyn and the East
A fighting force comprised of Polish soldiers and local Polish Insurgents fought in the Ukrainian/ Polish area north of Lwow.  Led originally by Major Leopold Lis-Kula (until his death in 1919), then by Captain Feliks Jaworowski, this force fought against Ukrainians and later the Bolsheviks.  It later became incorporated into the Polish Army.

The advance of the Red army 1920.
Until the spring of 1920, Poland was pushing or at least holding the Bolsheviks back.  By the summer of 1920 however, the Bolsheviks began to gain strength as they were winning their civil war in Russia.  By the summer of 1920, the Bolsheviks were advancing into Poland.  It indeed looked as if Poland would be totally defeated.  Fearing a total Bolshevik victory, the Western Allies (most notably France) begged Pilsudski to accept peace with Lenin, thereby granting Russia much territory (the Curzon Line).  Pilsudski refused, and the Red Army approached Warsaw by August.  Peace overtures made by Lenin were not sincere. Lenin felt that he had already won the war and would soon be able to continue the Bolshevik Revolution westward.  Pilsudski knew that Lenin could not be trusted.

The Battle of Warsaw, 1920.
Between the 13th and 16th of August, 1920, a battle raged in and around Warsaw between Polish and Bolshevik forces.  At stake was the future of Poland as well as the future of Europe.  Red Army commanders made a tactical error when a large part of their force diverted north of Warsaw in order to cut Polish supply lines from the Baltic Sea.  Pilsudski had set a trap and sprung it, taking full advantage of the Russian error.  The result was the diverted Red Army force itself became cut off from their supply line, and the remaining Red Army force was decimated.  General Wladyslaw Sikorski commanded a force (including some French tanks) that defended the city of Warsaw.  This turn in the tide was regarded by many as a miracle, and became known as the "Miracle on the Wistula".  So badly defeated was the Red Army, that it began a general retreat on all fronts.  The Polish forces pursued the retreating Red Army, defeating them again at the Niemen River in September.  Sikorski had chased the Red army with some armour, showing that tanks could play a role in rapid advances on the battlefield (a lesson that Heinz Guderian used later, during WW II).  On October 12, 1920, an Armistice was signed, ending the fighting.

With the October 12, 1920 Armistice in Place, it was made official by the Peace Treaty of Riga, signed on March 18, 1921 and ratified in Minsk on April 30, 1921, thus ending the Polish-Russian War of 1918-1921, with the peace to last less than 20 years.

1918-1921 War Medal, awarded to Veterans of the Polish Soviet War.

Stalin's Revenge.
In 1939, Stalin and Hitler agreed to partition Poland between themselves.  A little later than 2 weeks after Hitler invaded Poland in September, 1939, the Red Army under Stalin invaded the eastern side of Poland.  In Russian controlled Poland any Poles who fought against the Bolsheviks in the 1918-1921 War were hunted down and executed or sent to labour camps.  The Poles in the German controlled section who fought in Upper Silesia or the Wielkopolski Uprisings were similarly singled out by the Germans for reprisals.  During and after WW II, an additional injury was done to the Poles who fought in the 1918-1921 War.  The Soviets tried to erase the 1918-21 War from the history books, especially the Battle of Warsaw, which was a key event responsible for keeping much of Europe free of the Communist Revolution.  During WW II Stalin tried to erase every reminder that Poles defeated the Red Army in 1920.  Stalin personally ordered the execution of thousands of Polish Officers (a majority were veterans of the 1918-21 War), a crime that occured in 1940 at Katyn and other places.  The Communists continued the persecution and murder of Polish Veterans of the 1918-21 War after WW II.  The post-WW II Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe did not inspire Revolution.  The opportunity for Soviet Revolution had been lost in 1920 at Warsaw, and the taste of Independence that Poland (and other countries) had before WW II lasted long enough to help inspire the overthrow of the Communist regimes in Europe by 1990.

References and readings:
Polish Honor and Commemorative Badges 1914-1918 & 1918-1921) by Wojciech Stela.
White Eagle, Red Star by Norman Davies

Internet sources
Polish Western Border 1918, Professor Cienciala, University of Kansas:

AND EASTERN EUROPE (Chapters  2 - 5 most relevant) Professor Cienciala:

Haller's Army page:

Defenders of Lwow:

Russo-Polish War 1918-1921 Bibliography:

Jozef Pilsudski Page

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