Useful Notes: Polish-Soviet War

"Only the sword now carries any weight in the balance for the destiny of a nation."
-Field Marshal Józef Piłsudski

This was a war in from 1919-1921 over the existence and size of Poland. Since the late XVIIIth Century there had been no such a thing as independent Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth having been partitioned between the neighbouring powers (Prussia, Russia, Austria) and the title of 'King of Poland' ultimately claimed by the Russian tsars. During World War One, the Germans formed a puppet Kingdom of Poland out of Russian territory with King Friedrich Hohenzollern (crowned Wilhelm II) of Germany. Austria-Hungary initially protested this move as they wanted Polish territory for themselves, with some parties wanting to create a new country of Poland to add to the Austro-Hungarian union and so make the country into more of a federation (there also being rumors about the creation of Croatia).

However Russia's mid-1916 Brusilov Offensive destroyed Austria-Hungary's already meagre bargaining power with Germany in the east and they eventually conceded Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg's point in early 1917: Poland would be under Germany's economic and military leadership after the war. And Austria-Hungary would just have to be content with some minor border changes. Unfortunately for the Germans, recruitment for the Polnische Wehrmacht netted fewer than ten thousand volunteers. Germany's refusal to concede Polish independence meant that only people who wanted the wages (or training) and didn't mind the disapproval of their neighbors and family joined up. Later in 1917 Bethman-Hollweg was removed by a Reichstag Vote of No Confidence called in response to the failure of the Unrestricted Submarine Warfare policy (which they'd voted for and he had actually opposed). His removal meant that the leadership of Germany fell to the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, Army High Command) and more specifically Hindeburg and Ludendorff. Germany's vision for the future of eastern Europe accordingly took a turn for the megalomaniacal, envisioning German domination of the entire post-war region.

When the Russian Red faction signed The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in early 1918, Poland's status as a German satellite was affirmed by both sides. However, Germany went on to suffer staggering losses in her 1918 Spring Offensive and her army was shattered by the Entente Cordiale's Hundred Days' Offensive that summer. Faced with a starving populace threatening to rise up in revolution against them, the German Junta gave control over to the civilian government which promptly arranged a cease-fire and promised to formally surrender in the near future. The government of the Kingdom of Poland, under the leadership of Polnische Wehrmacht commander General Józef Piłsudski (pronounced 'piwsudski'), refused to be disarmed alongside the Deutsche-Wehrmacht: instead they started expanding their army, declared full independence, and promptly invaded Austria-Hungary (to occupy mostly-Polish Galicia and mostly-Ukrainian Podolia).

But while Russia had collapsed into Civil War and the Central Powers had been defeated and were being disarmed, the borders of all the new countries of central and eastern Europe were disputed. Poland's border with the de facto successor-state to the Russian Empire, the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR, later reformed into 'the Soviet Union' with the addition of additional republics including Ukraine and Belarus) was particularly contentious. Although the Russian Reds had been swept to power on promises of ending the food-shortages in Petersburg and Moscow, the continued economic crisis and Civil War severely disrupted Russian agriculture and led to the shortages becoming outright famine. Desperate to secure enough food to feed their troops and power-base in the cities, the Red Army began to raid the Russian countryside for food - causing artificial famines. Since the Polish-Soviet border was unclear, Red Army food-raiding parties soon clashed with Polish Army forces who refused to let them plunder 'Polish' villages (though the population in those areas was generally Belorussian or Ukrainian).

In 1919 the anti-Bolshevik forces had finally rallied under Admiral Kolchak's leadership and were waging a furious campaign to attempt to link up their forces in Russian Asia with those in the Caucusus before marching on Moscow. With the Red Army strained to its limits trying to fend them off, the Polish Army saw this as a perfect opportunity to strike against the Reds and launched an offensive/intervention/territorial-consolidation operation into Soviet-held Belorussia and western Ukraine to improve Poland's bargaining position with the Reds in the negotiations over their mutual border. The early phase of the war was more an extended 'incident' (with little government support in terms of reinforcements, food, or ammunition being sent to either side) than a proper war, but in any case things soon got a bit more heated and neither government was particularly fussed about how it started.

With the Red Army otherwise occupied fighting the Whites and Greens, the Polish army occupied territory far in excess of what it could realistically hope to control with the forces and logistical train she had available - the war had devastated the horse-population of near-eastern Europe, but more importantly Poland lacked trains and train-cars she needed to supply such big forces over such incredibly long distances. So when the more-numerous and better-supplied Red Army finally crushed the back of White resistance, regrouped opposite the Polish forces, and launched an offensive operation they met with quick and thorough success. While they captured huge swathes of Polish-occupied territory, they too advanced to the limit of their own supply lines in their haste to advance. In the very heartland of Poland, on the outskirts of Warsaw itself, the Russian offensive was brought to a halt. Worse, their positions on the outskirts of Warsaw were unhinged by a flank attack which caused the lead elements of the Red Army to rout as fast as they could while malnourished. This engagement became an important part of the mythos surrounding Poland's military dictator, Marshall Piłsudski, and Polish national history in general. In both narratives it is called 'the Miracle of the Vistula' (after the river that runs through Warsaw).

With the Poles looking like an un-palatably tough nut to crack at a time when the Soviet economy was teetering on the brink of collapse under the strain of (by that point) seven years of non-stop warfare - and Red Army forces needed elsewhere to crush the last White, Green, and Black holdouts - the Soviets resigned themselves to the reality of Polish independence and signed a ceasefire soon afterward. The French, taking advantage of their numerous contacts within both Poland and Russia and the high regard in which they were held by both, mediated at the peace-talks that followed and the border the three agreed upon remained in-place until 1939. The Soviets later coughed up the money to fortify their half with the so-called 'Stalin Line', but the Poles were too poor to reciprocate.

At the time the Battle of Warsaw was credited with saving Europe from the Bolsheviks, who've been stating their intention to carry the Revolution to the West, especially Germany. The basis for this claim is the heavily turbulent political climate in Germany and other countries of the region (Hungary had its own failed Red revolution), which might've been tipped to the favour of local Communists if the Red Army appeared on the doorstep. Of course, opinions vary on reality of that. What is clear, anyhow, is that the battle kept Poland from becoming a Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union.

The Polish-Soviet War contains tropes such as:

  • Aristocrats Are Evil: What the Soviet Russians said about Poles. Conversely, Poles didn't support remaining Russian tsarist loyalists because the latter were overt that they were planning to recreate Tsarist Russia, Poland included (funnily enough, Soviet propaganda claimed that White general Wrangel was in league with Poland). However, the Russian General Tuchachevsky actually was a nihilist aristocrat who used poison gas against civilians in the Russian Civil War.
  • Badass Moustache: Semyon Budionny, who came to prominence during the war, sported an extremely flamboyant version of those. As in, even in comparison to all the others in the war.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Semyon Budionny, who was described as being closer in spirit to a leader of a Cossack warbandnote  than modern military commander.
  • The Cavalry: The "miracle of the Vistula", which as it happens was done with actual cavalry.
    • Large cavalry armies were more like norm than exception, due to the configuration of the land: very flat ground, large distances to be made on horseback due to sparse rail heads, abundant grass for foraging, the vast majority of recruits were countryside people who were accustomed to horses since childhood. Isaac Babel lampshaded it by saying about the Ukrainian leader Makhno: "he could raise an army with mounted riflemen and tachanka machine guns in one hour, and dismount it and hide it throughout farms in another hour, how are people supposed to fight that?"
  • The Chessmaster: Lenin, Trotsky, and Piłsudski.
  • Church Militant: The Polish Catholic Church. Poles were very devout Catholics as well as being very nationalistic and sometimes you get the impression that it is really Poland that is a Church Militant.
    • Slightly averted as Piłsudski, the head of state/dictator/commander-in-chief at this time, was Protestant (he converted from Catholicism in 1899 note ). He proposed a federation of independent states on the Soviet border - unfortunately it didn't succeed. While it is true that he had opposition and Poland was Catholic, it is less black and white.
    • The future Pope Pius XI, papal nuncio to Poland, gave services in the trenches outside Warsaw, becoming the first representative of the Vatican to face Christendom's enemies on the battlefield since the Battle of Vienna.
    • The Tatar Cavalry Regiment was a Polish unit of Muslim soldiers, members of the small Tatar community which had lived in Poland and Lithuania at least since 15th century. In order to find more recruits, the regiment issued an appeal to the Tatar population, calling them to arms in the name of Allah and under the green banner of the Prophet.
  • Crazy Awesome: Adrian Carton de Viart, a Belgian officer of the British Army who came to Poland as a military advisor and stayed for random saber combats with the Cossacks, big game hunting and wars with half of the neighbors.
  • Crowning Moment of Awesome: Battle of Warsaw. As a state-level example of Heroic Resolve, it was dubbed "The Miracle of the Vistula". Ironically, it was also intended as an Embarrassing Nickname for the Polish victory by Piłsudski's enemies.
    • Also of note: Battle of Komarów, "the last great cavalry battle of the world", and the fact that Polish radio operators jammed Soviet communications by spamming the aether with The Bible.
      • Of course, "Last Great Cavalry Battle" is subjective, and probably subject to spin. A lot of the hype about it (largest cavalry battle in the 20th century, pure cavalry battle, etc) are basically overhyped nationalist chest-thumping. Of course, this does not detract from Polish cavalry gaining revenge for what happened in the Ukraine and effectively knocking the main Soviet cavalry Army out of the war.
    • To the other side, this could be the battle of Kiev, where the Russians swiftly defeated the invading Polish army.
  • Dirty Communists: What Poles said about Russians.
  • Eagle Squadron: The Kosciuszko Squadron, a band of American Volunteers who flew for Poland, named after a Polish volunteer officer in The American Revolution.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: The Blue Army, led by General Józef Haller, which had previously fought on the Western Front as a part of the French army, distinguished itself from other Polish units with excellent equipment and training, high morale and the iconic light-blue uniforms.
  • Enemy Mine: Subverted. Many notable figures among the Russian White emigration rooted for their bitter enemies, the Bolsheviks, viewing the war as a yet another installment of the 500-year long Poland vs. Russia struggle. For them, it was Communist Russia - but Russia nonetheless.
    • Also played with by Piłsudski, who saw Soviet Russia as an enemy of his primary enemy — that is, Imperial Russia who had claims to Polish territory — and never got into close cooperation with the Whites despite fighting against the Reds.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: what Poles started out as, and Petliura's Ukrainians.
  • Gambit Pileup: Seriously, the Russian Civil War had almost a dozen sides with various agendas. The Polish-Soviet War itself wasn't as bad, but still had its share.
  • Glorious Leader: Piłsudski was a less nasty version of this then some.
  • The Horde: How the Red Army was depicted by the Poles. Aside from obvious propaganda, Budionny's Horse Army had at least some features of a Cossack host.
  • Improvised Weapon : As odd as it sounds, scythes and pitchforks were often used en masse as makeshift polearms against Russian cavalry (mainly by the countryside militias).
    • Somewhat of a traditional weapon of polish peasants ever since the 19th-century uprisings, a straigh-mounted scythe was described by the people who happened to find themselves at the wrong end of it (i.e. Imperial Russia soldiers) as one of the most horrifyingly efficient weapons ever in the skilled peasant hands.
  • Modern Major General: Stalin's interference seriously undermined the Soviet war effort and presaged his later bungling against Nazi Germany in World War II, which nearly led to the USSR's destruction.
    • Some blame Tukhachevsky instead, who also fits the trope (often hailed as a visionary of tank warfare, but his published works mainly show a lot of demagoguery with little actual military theory).
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: The Bolshevik leadership hoped that Polish workers and peasants would rebel against the ruling class and turn to their side in the war. However, Polish propaganda successfully invoked this trope, managing to quell class struggle and unite the country's society under the banner of nationalism.
  • Near Villain Victory: Again, by the middle of 1920, Poland had lost over half of its territory, was considerably outnumbered, was on the verge of losing both Lwow and Warsaw, and generally had no fat left to burn while Western shipments were being delayed by the Fifth Column elsewhere and it was even feared that a limited capitulation would be necessary to prevent outright Communist revolution throughout Central Europe. Then the Battle of Warsaw happened.
    • From the other side of the barricade, this could be said of the war's beginning period, when the Polish army pulled a Curb-Stomp Battle on the fledgling and still rather rag-tag Red Army and advanced as far as Kiev.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: What Poles said about Russians.
  • Poles with Poleaxes: Nearly literally, if you count the Improvised Weapon entry above.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Played with. The Poles started without an army as they hadn't gotten around to forming one. What they did have was lots and lots of soldiers for recent events had left Europe with more soldiers then it knew what to do with. Enough of these were ethnic Poles or Polish sympathizers for the Poles to put together a reasonably proficient army in time to take the field.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: all sides involved committed atrocities. Isaac Babel, as a Russian Jewish correspondent, talked with great pity and sympathy of the way Poles and Russians ravaged the countryside, wantonly killing, and how Jews were furiously hated and hunted by both.
  • Reds with Rockets: One of the first wars of the Communist Russia's army, besides the ongoing Russian Civil War.
  • Rebel Leader: many on both sides were, once were, or claimed to be this. Notably, Symon Petliura and Semyon Budyonny, two former rebel leaders in the Ukraine, joined separate sides in the war.
  • Schizo Tech: radio jamming, machine guns mounted on peasant carts, war scythes, tanks, cavalry sabres and lances, airplanes. Military theorists drew literally contradictory conclusions from this war's experiences.
  • Spinoff: This can be considered a spinoff of the Russian Civil War, which itself was a spinoff of World War One. And the spinoff of it was Polish conquest of (then Lithuanian-held) city of Vilnius/Wilno. It raised Unfortunate Implications by fueling a maniacal hatred of Polish aristocracy among Russian Bolsheviks and the atrocities of World War II and of immediate afterwards years were themselves a spinoff of the conflict.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Tukhachevsky claimed that his forces advanced through Poland for five weeks... without knowing where the enemy forces are.
  • We ARE Struggling Together
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace: The Polish government was dominated by the Nationalists, who wanted only as much territory as it could be assimilated into Poland, as opposed to Piłsudski, who wanted as much ground as he could to make it into allied buffer states. So, the Poles took less than the Reds were willing to offer, screwing their Ukrainian allies in the process.

The Polish-Soviet War in fiction :

  • Perhaps the most well-known work of fiction set in this era is the Red Cavalry cycle by Russian author Isaac Babel.
  • The war has unsurprisingly been also covered by several Polish works, among them the recent 3D film.

Alternative Title(s):

Polish Soviet War