Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920: Part I, Poland's War in Latvia, Lithuania, & Western Ukraine

Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1921 Part II

Arguably one of the most important “Inter-War” conflicts of 1919-1938, the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 was fought between a newly created and independent Polish Republic (1918-1939) and Bolshevik Russia in Poland, in the Baltic and Galicia and Western Ukraine primarily.

Polish volunteer cavalry, a so-called 'Death Squadron', 1920

Born out of centuries of state warfare and great territorial and population shifts between long gone kingdoms, empires, and states of the medieval, renaissance, and enlightened eras (see the Partitions of Poland and the Border of 1772), the Polish-Soviet Wars’ origins lay most directly in the defeat of the Imperial German army in the West, November 1918. They had occupied Poland and Warsaw as a major fortified soldiercity on the Eastern Front against Imperial Russia from 1914-1917 during World War I. Polish independence was proclaimed immediately after the Armistice between the Entente and Central Powers and provisional government was hastily assembled.
Author Norman Davies in his great volume White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 (Macdonald-Random House UK, 1972-2003), remarks and describes the greater absurdity of war beginning between these two poor and entirely infantile nations in 1919. Both still both struggling to survive another winter let alone attempting to wage a major conflict against one another for the heart of Central Europe beginning in the spring and summer of 1919. 

The bloody and at times truly gargantuan “scuffle” between the Red Army and the Polish army for the independence of Poland involved at varying periods at least four other nations armies and soldiers. The Polish-Soviet conflict is famous for decisively thwarting a Russian advance into the West and Central Europe following the Polish victory at the Battle of Warsaw (Vistula River) in August of 1920. Today it is a still majorly under researched and under-written about conflict that is almost controversial in some military history and warfare studies circles.

War Begins: A stagnant battle on frontier and borders

For Poland, military, major diplomatic, and strategic command was dominated by General Józef Piłsudski (b.1867-1935) as head of state and commander-in-chief. Born in Wilno he was Polish patriot and nationalist with a strong desire to break free of Tsarist control following a swell (if somewhat underground) in a Polish national conscience following the defeated January Uprising of 1863. Piłsudski was raised in a time when merely speaking Polish was a crime punishable by imprisonment by Imperial authorities.

General and later Marshal & Dictator of Poland, Józef Piłsudski 

Raised and educated in the Tsarist school system he was iron-willed man predisposed to military pursuits who had been a journalist in his 20’s. He wore his hair and moustache in the ‘Prussian’ style and was known to have Spartan habits. In the 1890’s and early 1900’s he had been an exile in London and Siberia, he led revolutionary strikes in Poland, and later had been imprisoned by the Russians in a sanitarium having feigned insanity to avoid death or a second exile to Siberia.

In 1908 he led a revolutionary cell that robbed a mail train at Bezdany near what is today Vilnius, Lithuania that netted 200,000 silver rubles (7-8 million dollars today). For years previous he had trained young men (cadets) and older men (officers age) in sport and shooting clubs which had been all but very thinly disguised military cadres and training camps. When World War I began he fought in the Polish Legions for the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary from 1914-1917. In the year 1917 he was arrested for refusing and encouraging many other former Polish Legionnaires to not pledge an oath of loyalty and fraternity to the Central Powers armed forces. By now the events of the Russian Revolution were set in place and Piłsudski eagerly returned to a precarious situation in Poland in 1918 as Lenin had returned to Russia by German train in the same year.

After the November armistice of 1918 brought World War I to close, General Józef Haller (b.1873-1960) brought 50,00 well equipped Polish Legionnaires back to the motherland in 1919. These were fighting men who had been trained by and who had fought alongside French officers on the Western Front from 1915-1918 in the  ‘Blue Army’. Polish Uhlan (German or Austro-Hungarian) cavalry regiments who had fought on the Eastern Front in World War I joined the new Polish national armed services supplied in earnest by the French (who gave generously), the British, and Americans (who prefered all-civilian aid and recovery), all gave weapons and the like but painstakingly slow. The Allied leaders allowed the Poles to also buy or take any surplus Central Powers munitions which could be found though the Germans eventually stopped their transport all together through Germany or Austria to the Polish war front. Only the Free City of Danzig under League of Nations mandate was allowed to send weapons, supplies, and aid to the Polish army through what was now called the “Polish Corridor”.

General Józef Haller, right, and General Piłsudski in 1920

Former Polish conscripts in the Tsarist and Imperial German or Austrian armies who had also fought for the White warlords and atamans from 1917-1919 in the Russian Civil War, flocked to fight in the Polish Republic’s new army. Conscripts began to flood Warsaw and the other major Polish cities north and south of the Vistula River while volunteer regiments formed in both the heart of Poland and in the ‘frontier and borders’ regions, north nearer to the Russian and the Baltic borders and south into the Ukraine; the grainery and oil reserve of Central and Eastern Europe. In 1919 a Polish army led by Piłsudski and General Edward Rydz-Śmigły (b.1886-1941) marched on Vilnius in Lithuania which had been settled by a Polish speaking majority for many years, taking the city from Lithuania militia and Red Guard detachments who scattered very quickly.

The Poles went to war in the Ukraine from 1919-1920 as well, taking the city of Lwów (Lviv in Western Ukraine) from the Ukrainians in September 1920. Ironically they clashed with ‘Red’, ‘White’, and nationalist elements in many of their major allied states in the Balkans and Cental Europe during this period. Ataman Semyon Petlura, a nationalist politician and warlord already ousted after the Ukrainian Revolution of 1918 attempted to rule a fragmented Ukrainian state again which had been occupied by five or more armies, nations, and/or political movements from 1917-1920. The Polish army won a great deal of fertile lands in their Ukrainian and Lithuanian campaigns but would have to fight tooth-and-nail to hold them. Subsequently these became the first major battlefields in the Polish-Soviet conflict.

Polish cavalry skirmishing and besting some Cossacks during 1919-1920 War

While Lenin had not necessarily wanted war because essentially the Russian Civil War was not over; continuing against the last great pro-Tsarist general Anton Denikin throughout 1919-1920, Piłsudski had agitated for a war which he knew was inevitable against the growing might of ‘Red’ Russia. Soviet command was dominated politically and diplomatically by both the Party Chairman and Soviet Commissar of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov ‘Lenin’ (b.1870-1924) and the Commissar for Military and Defence, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein ‘Leon Trotsky’ (b.1879-1940) during this period.

The famed “gangster” bureaucrat and commanding political commissar on the Lwów front in 1919-1920 during Polish-Soviet conflict, comrade commander Josef Stalin (b.1878-1953), would play a major role in the campaign for Poland and its aftermath as would numerous other major Red Army generals and high ranking party commanders. Many would not survive the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Stalin’s purges of the mid to late 1930s. Stalin enjoyed a swift rise to power just over three years after the Peace of Riga was signed in March of 1921 which officially ended the Polish-Soviet conflict.

Red Army soldiers wearing regulation tartar caps with red star c.1919-1920

The Polish campaign in Ukraine and Soviet Invasion of Poland

The Polish-Soviet War in 1919 into early 1920 was a sporadic border conflict of raids, skirmishes, and running battles fought between cavalry regiments and border infantry garrisons. In a joint-operation with the also newly independent Republic of Latvia the Poles launched Operation Winter in September of 1919 in which General Edward Rydz-Śmigły won the penultimate against Red Guard detachments and Latvian communists at Daugavpils (Dyneburg) in Latvia on 15 January 1920. The Poles changed all this with the Kiev Offensive which began in April of 1920.

Many Western observers who were either indifferent, pro-Poland or pro-White, or pro-Russia were nevertheless shocked by Poland's victory following the campaign through Galicia and West Ukraine and the storming of Kiev. Many others in the international community were outraged by this flagrant violation of newly established internal (League of Nations) law. Fighting in the south and to the east of greater Polish territory increased in the spring as their army moved on into Galicia and Western Ukraine in mid April and May 1920.

Polish defensive line, 1920

By now the Polish army had the use of 49,000-52,000 soldiers whilst the Red Army at this time numbered just 12,500-15,000 troops on the South-Western (Galician) Front, though Moscow quickly saw to reinforcements. These reinforcements came following Poland’s invasion of Western Ukraine which would prove to be the most bizarre and entirely halfhearted venture of the Russo-Polish War. Devolving into a quagmire theatre of operations in which the Polish army attempted to install Ataman Petlura as the leader of an independent and nationalist Ukraine, it was Piłsudski’s idea and his campaign to win or lose.

On May 7th the Poles and their Ukrainian allies entered Kiev as the Red Army fled to a heavy cost to themselves. However the Ukraine was a deeply divided country and a great national uprising failed to materialize before the Red Army struck back at the Poles who did little to fortify or defend their gained territory on the South-West front. Armies, soldiers, and bandits were everywhere in the Ukraine during this period. 10,000 White cossacks and soldiers who were remnants of Tsarist and anti-revolutionary armies still fought the Bolsheviks. The Polish army fought the Bolsheviks, Communist partisan forces, and the Makhnovist ‘Black’ Army in the Ukraine also. 20-25,000 strong at one time or another before the spring of 1920, the Makhnovist's were led by the anarchist-revolutionary general, ‘Batko’ Nestor Makhno. Click here to read more about Makhno and the War for Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, 1918-1921.

Had the Ukrainian “Directory” of the already once ousted Petlura survived infancy it would have become Poland’s greatest ally against the emerging Soviet Republics. However the Polish army did little to defend or reinforce the Nationalist Ukrainian movement and its army which had once been a large force of well equipped Austrian and German trained troops. The Red Army was stretched gravely thin already when a large Polish and Ukranian army including infantry and cavalry elements from four army divisions attacked Galicia and Western Ukraine. So began the Polish-Ukrainian Campaign of April-June. 

Petlura, right, speaks with the Polish General Litowski

Poland's small air wing was armed with Austrian made Albatros D-3’s and German Fokker D-7’s and with French and Italian planes as well. Undoubtedly the most famous and most successful of the Polish air squadrons during the war was the 7th Air Escadrille which was nicknamed the Kościuszko Squadron. Officered and staffed by American pilots and veterans of the American air service during the Great War, including Air-Major Cedric Fauntleroy and Captain Merian C. Cooper.
This crack unit of volunteers was named after famed Polish and American patriot, Tadeusz Kościuszko (b.1746-1817), flew hundreds of combat missions and sorties during the war. They dropped bombs on occupied Kiev, downed inferior Red Army aircraft (and pilots), and were invaluable for troop cover, reconnaissance, and for attacks against defensive positions and against armored trains. The dreadnoughts of their time and place in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1921 and in the Polish-Soviet conflict as well from 1919 to October 1920, armored trains were invaluable to both sides war efforts.

Captain Merian C. Cooper poses with an unknown officer next to a Kościuszko Squadron plane of Italian origin. Capt. Cooper scored numerous victories during the War and the Russians later put a bounty on his head. He became famous in the 30's for helping to create, direct, produce, and stage the film, King Kong (RKO Radio Pictures, 1933).

Soviet Counter Attack, July & August 1920

By late June and into the month of July 1920 the Red Army was capable and did eventually launch a highly successful series of raids and later a major counterattack offensive against the Polish Republic’s defenses at both the Western (Polish) Front and on the South-Western (Galician, Western Ukraine) Front as well. Trotsky’s new Red Army had over 800,000 men less than half were armed or equipped for campaign and available for front line service in Poland or the Ukraine. Additionally the Russian’s had 595 artillery pieces and guns on the Polish-Western Front. 

The great Konarmiya of Russian Civil War and Polish-Soviet War renown, 1920

Red Army ranks were filled by five cavalry groups with perhaps 15,000 or more cavalry (sabres) commanded by the twenty seven year old cavalry officer and overall Red Army commander in the Polish-Soviet War, General Mikhail Tukhachevsky (b.1893-1937). Politically Trotsky had rallied for a redefined strategy, politically and militarily, on how to prosecute a war in Poland and to justify exactly why they were fighting this war against nationalist Poles. Fiery revolutionary rhetoric was used and eventually the Bolsheviks realized that this Russo-Polish conflict was a national conflict and not a theatre in the Civil War as many politicians and generals had argued before. It was undeniably however an imperialist venture like other preceding Russo-Polish conflicts of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Coupled with Tukhachevsky’s victories from Byelorussia (Belarus), to Galicia and the Ukraine, the Red Army was revitalized going into the month of August 1920. Their commander was ready to send his armies across the “Polish Bridge” to the border with Germany to finally defeat this over-mighty army of Poland led by their bourgeois generals and politicians. A general Red Army breakthrough in the border regions began on 5 June and met feeble resistance for nearly ten weeks.

General Mikhail Tukhachevsky (b.1893-1937), supreme commander of the Red Army in the Polish-Soviet War

It was clear that the Konarmiya was nearing closer to Lwów (Lviv in Western Ukraine) which was put to siege by Commander Alexander Yegorov and Stalin himself; whose actions as impromptu commander in August of 1920 were later heavily criticized by both military and party leaders. The Poles held out for the remainder of the conflict and prevented Yegorov and Stalin’s army from linking up with Tukhachevsky’s armies on the Western (Polish) Front.

The Red Army counterattack was very fierce and pushed the defeated Poles out of the Ukraine back into Poland nearer to the Vistula River and Warsaw. Over 20,000 Polish soldiers were captured as a direct result of the counterattack which continued with heavy artillery salvos on 4 July. Some of these unfortunate captured soldiers were infamously slain by the Red Army Konarmiya (1st Bolshevik cavalry) of the ‘Don [Red] Cossack’ General Semyon Budyonny (b.1883-1973).

Budyonny as a young commander. He joined the Red Army in 1918 and later received an education at the Frunze Military Academy in 1932. Named Hero of the Soviet Union after World War II.

Some were enlisted by force into the Polish Red Army which would defend a conquered Poland under Moscow directive and led by Red Army officers after an independent Polish state was “liberated” and pacified by the Red Army. Wilno fell to a large Red Army assault on 14 July and the Poles soon fell back from the once conquered territories in Ukraine, Byelorussia, Galicia, and Lithuania under the crushing weight of the infantry and cavalry superiority of the Russians. One notable battle fought during the Soviet counterattack and the Polish withdrawal from western Ukraine was the Battle of Grodno (Belarus) fought on 19-20th of July in which a Soviet cavalry division was pushed back by four French Renault tanks (there were thirty in the battalion) supporting an infantry battalion made up of Grodno military academy cadets on the first day of skirmishing. A Konarmiya commander later complained in personal dispatches, “How can one sabre them when they're made of steel?” 

Of the thirty Polish Renaults just two survived the Battle of Grodno to retreat further west, the rest were destroyed by artillery shelling or armored train fire. The commander of cavalry in this battle, Ghai Dmitriyevich (b.1887-1937, aka Hayk Bzhishkyan) commented that “an armoured tank is nothing to frighten a skilled cavalrymen” following their victory over the Polish tank regiment at Grodno. The Soviet-Polish War of 1919-1920 was very much the last conflict of the 20th century where cavalry played a major, indeed a decisive role in the fighting. (N. Davies, White Eagle, Red Star).

Polish Renault FT-17 tanks during Operation Winter, Poland's joint operation with the Republic of Latvia, Autumn of 1919

General Tukhachevsky sent orders and communiques to both military and party leaders on the Western front that Warsaw shall be taken and occupied by the Red Army no later than 12 August. Fierce and bloody fighting engulfed Polish retreat lines as Piłsudski’s army fought scattered rearguard actions to delay the Red army’s amazingly fast cavalry advance which was disorganized to say the least. Daily and sometimes hourly skirmishes were fought between cavalry regiments and divisions during the massive retreat which formed in mid to late July. Numerous international news outfits and foreign military advisers at the time criticized the Polish defense as haphazard and weak as the Bolsheviks still were outnumbered yet they gained great deals of territory storming through Polish defenses with ease of mobility.

Suggested Further Reading
Davies, Norman White Eagles, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 & the ‘The Miracle on the Vistula’ (Pimlico-Random House, UK-Macdonald, 1972-2003)

The Art of Battle, The Battle of Warsaw, 1920

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  1. Hi,
    the aircraft in the picture is not an Albatross D III though. It's an Italian Ansaldo A 1 Balilla.

  2. How were the records kept and were are they of the Polish Conscripts...heard there was also conscripts in the china soviet conflicts