Polish-Soviet War 1919-1921: Part II, Battle for Warsaw, Fight for the Zamość Ring, and the Peace of Riga 1921

In early August 1920 the Polish-Soviet conflict had finally arrived at the concluding final months of major combat operations on what the Soviets considered then (and where historians the Western (Polish) Front. Staged to attack and overrun Warsaw the capital of Poland, the Red Army of General Mikhail Tukhachevsky was prepared to conquer Poland with its considerable military might defending the Vistula defenses from north to south. Advancing quickly from Galicia and the South-West Front in the Ukraine in the first week of August the Konarmiya waited to gather strength and for the artillery to be brought up so they could cross the Vistula and take the city for the Proletariat and for comrades Lenin and Trotsky.

Polish machinegun crew during the defense of Warsaw August 1920

For the Red Army on the Western (Polish) Front in early August 1920, a massive shift of armies and fronts occurred in which Poles reformed lines while Tukhachevsky ordered his generals to move into assault positions while attempting to soften the Poles stiff defenses. Voluntary recruitment and outright conscription increased behind Poland's lines as men from the classes (birth year) of 1890-1895 and 1900-1901 were called up to serve. Factory workers formed units to protect the Republic and her industries in the city of Warsaw and elsewhere along the front. Deserters were executed without impunity during the prelude to the battle and striking workers and “loud” Bolshevik sympathizers were executed as well. Before the Battle of Warsaw the Polish army fielded over 370,000 armed men, 28,000 cavalrymen, and 33,000 artillerymen.

On August 2nd the Battle of Brody was fought outside the Central Front in which a Polish commander General Szczepan Sawicki attacked the entire strength of the Soviet Konarmiya, some 15-16,000 ‘sabres’ (cavalry) with a brigade of cavalry and two divisions of infantry. The battle was tactically inconclusive and the Polish Uhlans had to withdraw after taking casualties. This battle fought in the Styr River in Western Ukraine would be the opening of Tukhachevsky’s campaign to cross the Vistula and take Warsaw.

French Military Mission

The Entente powers and the defeated Central Powers took an active interest in the Soviet-Polish conflict from its beginnings in the ‘frontier and borders’ region to its bloody days of World War I like warfare from the invasion of the Ukraine to the Red Army counter attack into Poland which continued in early August 1920. The French sent considerable aid as previously noted and many French soldiers repaid the debt to the Poles who served with General Hallers Blue Army, whose soldiers fought, bled, and died for France on French soil during World War I. Many subsequently  volunteered to fight for Poland’s independence against the Bolsheviks in 1920.

French General Maxime Weygand (b.1867-1965) who served as chief of staff to Marshall Ferdinand Foch during World War I was sent to Warsaw where he believed he would be given command of the Polish forces. Piłsudski thought him joking when Weygand asked for command. The Polish Marshal and rebuffed him and asked in jest, where exactly were the [French] divisions that he wished to command? Weygand stayed on as an advisor and witnessed the great events to come but played little role in battle to come. He suggested to General Piłsudski that the Poles abandon their defenses of Vistula and Warsaw but his advice was unheeded.

Charles de Gaulle as a young French officer during World War I

Nevertheless many French officers and enlisted men did fight for the Polish Army, one such officer was Captain Charles de Gaulle (b.1890-1970) who would fight in several battles in 1919-1920 in West Ukraine. He later served on the Polish front under General Haller where he was eventually promoted to Major and awarded the Virtuti Militari (medal for military valor), the Polish Medal of Honor or Victorian Cross.

His citation for bravery in the battles of August and September outside Warsaw noted, "[Major de Gaulle] gave evidence to judge the situation not afraid of addressing the enemy-carefully using the information of military intelligence, which [proved him to be] a precious collaborator and chief executive officer [demonstrating these abilities] to the fullest advantage. " De Gaulle stayed on in Poland as chief-of-staff of the French military mission until 1922 and was offered a position in the Polish army which he turned down to return to France to teach at the École Militaire (French military academy) in Paris.

Battle of Warsaw

The Battle of Warsaw or the Battle of the Vistula River began on 12 August and ended on 16-18 August depending on where and when the Polish counterattack began and the Soviet offensive into the West officially ended. As Davies brilliantly describes in his book, White Eagle, Red Star, the Battle of Warsaw was fought on four fronts in four main battles before the Polish counterattack against the Red Army had begun from North and Central Warsaw. The (1) Vistula Bridgehead, the (2) Wkra (North Warsaw), the (3) Wieprz, and the (4) East Prussian Frontier, were all the major fronts in the Battle of Warsaw.

Young Polish Uhlans during the Polish-Soviet War

The Vistula Bridgehead had an impressively formidable line of defensive fortifications. Davies notes that they neared World War I concentrations by the time the Red Army attacked on 12 August. The defenses of Warsaw and the Vistula were not static defenses however like the No Man’s Land of Western Europe 1914-1918. Mobility was key to the overwhelming strength and armaments of the Polish defense against the over 150,000 or less, hungry and tired Red Army. Some 43 miles of the Vistula's defenses were covered by three rows of barbed wire, double trenches, and thousands of entrenchments and defensive emplacements.

Captured Red Army and party standards. They read "Proletarians of all countries unite" and "All hail to the October Revolution" (Davies, White Eagle, Red Star)

Defending the bridgehead itself were 46,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 730 machineguns, and 192 artillery pieces. Some of the most experienced and well known Polish commanders held Vistula until 18 August including General Haller and General Władysław Sikorski, the later who commanded a wing of 26,000 infantry and 4,000 sabres to the north of Warsaw that were well equipped and supported by tanks, half a dozen or so armored cars, and two armored trains (armed with machine guns, artillery, and mortars) running on the Modlin-Ciechanów line. The Central Front was commanded by General Piłsudski and General Edward Rydz-Śmigły who commanded a strike-force of 20,000, two divisions of infantry and two brigades of Polish sabres. 

General Edward Rydz-Śmigły, left, and Piłsudski in 1919

The Southern Front was commanded by General Waclaw Iwaszkiewicz, a Tsarist veteran of the Boxer Rebellion 1900-1901, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and World War I. A mixed force comprised of Ukrainians, Poles, and French, the most important division to the Southern Front was the semi-independent cavalry division under Colonel Juliusz Karol Wilhelm Rómmel (b.1881-1967), a distant relative of the famous German soldier and general of World War I and II, Erwin Rommel (b.1891-1944). The Soviets would lose many men attacking and attempting to take Warsaw in simultaneous frontal and flanking attacks.

At least 100,000 Red Army soldiers were lost in the battle, 60,000 or more were made POW’s in Poland or Germany. If both sides combine their losses, at least 45-65,000 were killed or wounded when the Red Army retreat began in late August 1920.

Red Army POW's in Polish custody

Concluding Campaign: From the Zamość Ring to the Battle of the Niemen River, September 1920

After the Poles great victory on the Vistula a “strike-force” of 20,000 men, Polish Legionnaires, tanks, armoured cars, and cavalry led by General Rydz-Śmigły moved from the the defense of central Warsaw (2) to pursue and annihilate General Tukhachevsky’s army. A series of bloody battles ensued as the doomed Red Army attempted to retreat from the Polish ring of defenses in Lublin known as the “Zamość Ring” between 18-22 August. General Sikorski attacked with fury on 16-17 August clearing the Vistula bridgehead and destroying and sending into retreat any Red Army resistance with tanks, armored cars, and artillery shelling from his two armored trains in a major counterattack by way Wieprz (3). His men fought with desperation and later captured the Soviets heavy artillery which had been destined for the siege of Warsaw on the night 18 August. Piłsudski had moved ahead with his own strike force at dawn of 16 August, completely unaware of the successful defense of Warsaw to north until the 18th of August.

One notable battle fought during the Red Army’s withdrawal from outside the Zamość Ring was fought near Komarów and Wolica Śniatycka on the outside sector of the Ring on 31 August. In what Davie’s calls an indecisive but massive cavalry battle that was arguably “the last pure cavalry battle fought in European history”, the Polish command were eager to press their advantage and sent Colonel Rómmel and his cavalrymen looking for fight.

Polish survivors of the Battle of Komarów

He eventually clashed with the Konarmiya of General Semyon Budyonny who had four brigades of sabres, around 10-12,000 men after the defeat at Warsaw and the Vistula. Budyonny had orders to attack the enemy cavalry and annihilate them once and for all and still had the strength to do so. Colonel Rómmel had just two brigades of Polish Uhlans, Hussars, and what amounted most probably to mounted infantrymen. His men bravely clashed with the flank of Budyonny’s Konarmiya and many were wounded, lost their mounts when they were shot out from underneath them, or killed in the first clash of the battle which took place with a ‘hell-fire’ charge that began at 7:45 AM.

After they regrouped, Colonel Rómmel charged with another brigade to save his men who he could hear fighting desperately nearby. His men could hear and see the Red cossacks of the Konarmiya singing and rattling their sabres as they charged through a nearby forest to renew their attack. It was a brutal fight and most men got close enough to kill and maim one another with sword and revolver. Charge and counter-charge ensued and by the end of the day the Konarmiya was forced to withdraw having suffered 4-5,000 casualties in the battle to 500 Polish men and horses lost. Sikorsky’s army was unable to crush the Konarmiya and Budyonnny escaped back into Russia.

"SLASH THE BLOODY BOLSHEVIK SCUM! HURRAH!" A painting by Wojciech Kossak (1928).

The Polish-Soviet Wars’ last great battle was fought along the Niemen River near Grodno. Tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers, some with no weapons at all, were fleeing back into Russia, occupied Ukraine, or went over the border with Prussia where they were interned for several months by the Germans. Reprisals were brutal in this period and many captured soldiers could face death. Especially Polish soldiers caught by the Red Army who had no way of feeding or caring for them. In many cases surrendering men were shot, bayoneted, or killed by swords. Particularly brutal treatments of civilians in the last phase of the war including anti-Jewish violence which reached shockingly high levels during the Soviet withdrawal in September and October 1920. Jews were killed by vengeful Poles (who thought many were Bolshevik sympathizers), Catholic and Jewish Poles were killed by vengeful Bolsheviks in return. Retreating Red Army cavalry patrols were known to be particularly brutal.

Peace and Consequences

After the armistice of October 1920, scattered, very low intensity skirmishes and cavalry clashes were fought until the Peace of Riga was signed at Riga, Latvia by Polish and Soviet representatives on 18 March 1921. It confirmed the border between the two nations until the first days of World War Two in September 1939 when first the army of Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia invaded Poland, partitioning the young nation yet again.

The Poles won numerous pieces of territory including land in Belarus and Western Ukraine though not as much as they had taken in their Ukrainian campaign in April-May 1920. Now Marshal, Piłsudski became the champion of Polish sovereignty and would hold a variety of roles in the post-war government including Prime Minister (twice) and inspector general & director of military affairs. He led a somewhat bloody coup in 1926 which returned power to the military and chief of state-though he retired soon after and would die of cancer in May 1935.

Piłsudski with his mare Kasztanka

General Mikhail Tukhachevsky continued his already remarkable career soon after the Polish-Soviet War when he was named Chief of the Red Army Military Academy after the Polish-Soviet conflict in 1921. He was named the Soviet military’s Chief of Staff serving in that capacity from 1925-1928 and later became the Deputy Minister for Defense.

At just 42 years of age, Tukhachevsky was named Marshal of the Soviet Union (the first ever for the young Soviet nation). Only two years later he was arrested, given a show trial, and then executed by Stalin’s NKVD assassins (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) with a bullet to the back to the head, as were many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of other Soviet citizens, soldiers, and politicians during the Great Purge of 1936-1939.

Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky

Leon Trotsky, the People's Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs of the Soviet Union before and during the Polish-Soviet was exiled from the Soviet Union earlier in 1929. His life ended in assassination by a Stalinist agent whilst living in Mexico in the year 1940. General Sikorski served in Poland’s post-war government until Piłsudski's May Coup of 1926. He escaped Poland before the the German and Soviet invasions and later organized the Polish government-in-exile’s military participation as a part of the Allied War effort from 1939-1943. Tragically Sikorski perished in a plane crash off Gibraltar in July 1943 under circumstances which are still suspicious.

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