Vistula River Victory

Bozenna Kirkpatrick

Upon the outbreak of hostilities between Poland and Soviet Russia in April 1920 the 110 000 strong Polish Army faced the 160 000 Soviet force. By the end of August the Polish Army reached 370 000 (much of it poorly trained volunteers) with 330 000 more recruits being potentially available. The Soviets not only matched the Poles in sheer numbers (the Red Army totaled 5 000 000 at that time) - their reserves were virtually limitless. Surprisingly, even the Lithuanians, liberated in 1919 from the Soviet occupation by the Polish Army, joined the Soviets in their anti-Polish crusade.




The Soviets had at their disposal countless military depots handed down to them by German armies withdrawing from Eastern Europe in 1918/19 and modern French armament (including armoured cars, trucks and artillery) captured in great numbers from the "Whites" following their collapse. Poland, on the other hand, fought with whatever was left after the World War I. In addition, shipments of military supplies, materials and armament sent as a form of military assistance by the Allies (most of it by France) were sabotaged by some countries (Germany, Czecho-Slovakia) under the pretence of neutrality, and by British and German workers converted to communism and manipulated by Soviet infiltrators. Britain's Prime Minister of the time, David Lloyd George, once a strong supporter of the tsarist Russia on the international stage, suddenly became a Soviet devotee and devil's advocate for the Polish cause. His pro-Soviet sympathies resulted in large quantities of armament (including modern tanks) being shipped by Great Britain hurriedly to fill the urgent Soviet order. The British working class cooperated with enthusiasm.

The Soviet counter-offensive began in the north on May 14 and from the very beginning it aimed straight at Poland's capital - Warsaw. Initially, it suffered some setbacks but in general the Soviets advanced steadily westward. In the beginning of July it became obvious to the Poles that the Polish - Soviet conflict was not about Byelorussian and Ukrainian right to self-determination anymore. Poland's own independence was at stake. In the first days of August the Soviets were almost on the banks of the Vistula River and approaching the outskirts of Warsaw.

In Ukraine, despite the success of the joint Polish - Ukrainian political campaign to raise the patriotic spirits among the population the plans to form a strong Ukrainian army capable of taking over the positions against the Soviets had to be abandoned due to lack of time. On May 24, the Polish - Ukrainian expeditionary force was engaged by the enemy (Semyon Budenny's Konarmiya) for the first time. Despite beating the Soviets on several occasions, the willingness to defend Dnieper Ukraine and confidence in their ability to withstand the Soviet offensive, they were ordered to retreat. They managed to withdraw in order and relatively unscathed but it was a bitter day for the Poles and Ukrainians on June 13 when Kiev was evacuated and left to the Soviets. Petlyura's Ukrainians, although small in numbers fought bravely and with fierce determination throughout the campaign.

The Soviet strategy called for encircling Warsaw from the north after crossing the Vistula River. The capture of Warsaw would have a tremendous propaganda effect for the Soviets and undermine the morale of the Poles.

Despite growing resistance of the Polish armies the political and military establishment in Moscow as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the invading Soviet forces, Marshal Mikhayl Tukhachevsky considered the capture of Warsaw to be a fact. A communist, quasi-Polish government composed by the Soviets of Polish renegades stayed in waiting, eager to represent the would be Polish Soviet Republic within the Soviet Federation. The same feelings that Poland was near her imminent collapse prevailed also in the West to the extent that most Western leaders used all available means of political pressure to force Poland into signing the peace with the Soviets at any cost to Poland. Fortunately, the Polish negotiators did not bend to the Soviet "peace" demands which clearly bordered on requesting Poland's capitulation. The Soviets, certain of their military victory, were apparently not interested in resigning from the fruits of that victory.

The final Soviet assault on Warsaw began on August 12 at Radzymin (only 23 km east of Warsaw) and its initial success prompted Pilsudski to hasten the execution of his meticulously worked out defence plan. A plan, which by all military strategy standards of the day was highly unorthodox and risky. It required that two armies under Gen. Jozef Haller, facing the Soviet frontal attack on Warsaw from the east, keep their entrenched positions at any cost. At the same time one army under Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski strikes north from behind Warsaw thus cutting off the Soviet forces attempting to "envelope" Warsaw from the north. The most important role, however, was assigned to a relatively small (20 000), newly assembled Strike Force composed of battle hardened and most determined army units. Their task was to spearhead a lightning northward offensive from the Vistula-Wieprz triangle south of Warsaw, through a weak spot identified by Polish intelligence between Soviet Western and South-Western Fronts. That offensive would separate the Western Front from its reserves and disorganize its movements. Eventually, the gap between Gen. Sikorski's army and the Strike Force lead offensive would close near the East Prussian border, and result in the destruction of the "trapped in a sack" Soviet offensive.

Pilsudski's plan, although based on deep knowledge of the situation, reliable information provided by Polish intelligence and intercepted Soviet wireless communications, was so "amateurish" in the opinion of military experts (some high ranking army officers were quick to use the term "amateurish" to underline Pilsudski's lack of formal military education) that when a copy of it fell accidentally into Soviet hands it was considered to be a deception attempt and ...ignored. Only days later the Soviets paid dearly for that mistake.

On August 14 Gen. Sikorski's army began its operation which was nothing short of a blitzkrieg. His units supported by tanks, armoured cars and artillery of two armoured trains advanced at the speed of thirty kilometers a day shredding literally within few days the Soviet "enveloping" manoeuvre in the north.

On August 15 Pilsudski inspected the Strike Force which remained under his personal command and on the next day it went into action slicing through the soft spot of the Soviet front - the Mozyr Group. Pilsudski's amazement grew steadily as his unit covered about seventy kilometers in 36 hours splitting the Soviet offensive and meeting virtually no resistance. Consequently executing his plan he continued his northward offensive with two armies following and wiping out the surprised and confused enemy. When the Soviets realized what happened to them, it was too late. Within two days the victorious Red Army underwent a dramatic metamorphosis into a disorganized, panic stricken horde running for cover.

On August 18 Tukhachevsky was fully aware of the extent of his defeat and in the evening that day he ordered the remnants of his armies to withdraw, what in practice amounted to a stampede. Chased relentlessly he managed to escape, but two thirds of his armies were lost either as casualties or taken prisoners of war. Some of his decimated units crossed in despair the East Prussian border to be briefly interned by the friendly Germans. Tukhachevsky also lost most of his armament. As if he not had enough, on September 15, after receiving new armies under his command he mounted another offensive from the Niemen River region. By September 21 he was wiped out again, this time for good.

As soon, as the siege of Warsaw was relieved, large Polish army units were dispatched with great haste to Galicia to deal with the Soviet South-Western Front besieging the city of Lwow. By August 31 the Soviet South-Western Front ceased to exist. The survivors of the Budenny's infamous Konarmiya, feared for barbaric excesses rather than valorous conduct on the battle-field, fled back to Russia after being badly mauled by Polish cavalry in battles at Zamosc and Komarow.

Finally, the Soviet Russia was on her knees, defenceless and expecting the worst from the Poles. This time the Soviet political and military establishment really had enough. Never before, and never after the Soviets were begging so eagerly for peace. The armistice was signed in October 1920, and the peace treaty (Treaty of Riga) on March 21, 1921.


In retrospect, the failure to establish an independent Ukrainian state in 1920, which is clearly attributed to malevolence of Pilsudski's political opponents (Dmowski et consortes) leading the team of Poland's peace negotiators at Riga, brought far reaching consequences upon Europe and the world. Russia, whether "white" or "red", without Ukraine's natural resources, agricultural, industrial and human potential would remain for many decades an underdeveloped wasteland on the periphery of the world. Not only unable to wage a war against the countries of Central Europe, but also incapable of playing the role of an opportunistic scavenger that she had played in September 1939 when World War II broke out.

As to the Polish Vistula River Victory of 1920 - Sir Edgar V. d'Abernon, who as a member of the Anglo-French mission to Poland at that time had a full scope of events including the Vistula River Victory, and understood well the possible implications of Bolshevik victory, wrote:

The history of contemporary civilization knows no event of greater importance than the Battle of Warsaw, 1920, and none of which the significance is less appreciated. The danger menacing Europe at that moment was parried, and the whole episode was forgotten. Had the battle been a Bolshevik victory, it would have been a turning point in European history, for there is no doubt at all that the whole of Central Europe would at that moment have been opened to the influence of Communist propaganda and to Soviet invasion, which it could with difficulty have resisted. It is evident from speeches made in Russia during the war against Poland that the Soviet plans were very far-reaching. In the more industrialized German towns plans were made on a large scale to proclaim a Soviet regime a few days after Warsaw had fallen... Several times Poland has been the bulwark of Europe against Asiatic invasion, yet never had Poland's services been greater, never had the danger been more imminent. The events of 1920 also deserve attention for another reason: victory was attained above all thanks to the strategical genius of one man and thanks to the carrying through of a manoeuvre so dangerous as to necessitate not only genius, but heroism... It should be the task of political writers to explain to European opinion that Poland saved Europe in 1920...




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