Miracle on the Vistula-the 1920 Battle of Warsaw


The Fatherland is in need! All men of good will and capable of carrying arms are called to the colours. The entire nation must resist like a solid, immovable barrier. It is on our breasts that the flood of Bolshevism will be broken. May unity, amity, and undying toll bring us together for the common cause. All for victory! To arms![1]

-Council of National Defense, July 3, 1920




On July 4, 1920, Tukhachevsky announced a new northern offensive with a massive artillery barrage, followed by a multipronged advance by five Russian army groups.[1] After several days of relentless pressure, the Poles were forced to retreat. By July 12, they had reestablished a defensive position one hundred kilometers west in the sprawling complex of World War I trenches recently abandoned by the Germans. But this position became almost immediately compromised when Gai led his horsemen north of the trenches, and then paralleled the border of East Prussia, where the neutral Germans passively protected his right flank. Gai was then able to locate a lightly defended portion of the Polish line and force his cavalry through. On July 14, he captured Wilno, which had been left virtually undefended. In a diplomatic coup, the Russians immediately awarded the city to Lithuania, hoping that this act would persuade other Baltic states to side with the Bolsheviks.[2] After securing Lithuanian cooperation, Gai launched a series of ferocious raids in the Polish rear, disrupting communications and slaughtering isolated detachments of Polish soldiers. His actions made the new defensive position untenable, and Poles were forced to abandon their excellent defensive works and retreat west. After just over a year of freedom, Poland was again threatened with national annihilation. The summer of 1920 would decide Poland’s fate, and it was up to Pilsudski to save her.

The situation was grim. Several Russian army groups were attacking Polish positions along the collapsing eastern frontier. The Red Army had an overwhelming manpower advantage and was operating in an area where the lack of natural defenses made a determined stand by Polish troops unlikely. Although in general fighting more effectively than their Russian opponents, by sheer weight of numbers Poles were being systematically pushed back to Warsaw. Poland had seen this bad movie before, as both Kościuszko’s brave army and the rebels of 1831 had reluctantly followed the same script. The parallel did not escape the attention of the hyperhistorically sensitive Poles, who feared a repetition of the worst elements from the past.

At home, the prospect of defeat inflamed partisan passions, and initiated a new round of bitter debate. Many on the left openly prepared for a communist government, which they assumed was mere weeks away, while some on the right seemed more determined to deflect blame for the impending disaster than prevent it.

As military conditions deteriorated, the new government in Warsaw sent out an appeal for help. On June 24, 1920, Prime Minister Grabski asked for the “good offices” of the Western powers to intervene on Poland’s behalf. Although the West had been eager to send men and material to assist the White Russians, by the summer of 1920 their enthusiasm for adventurism in the east had clearly waned. Nevertheless, their numerous declarations of opposition to communism and support of Poland meant they could not simply ignore Grabski’s request. While remaining noncommittal, members of the Entente were already scheduled to meet in the Belgium town of Spa on July 5, 1920, coincidentally one day after Tukhachevsky opened his offensive, to discuss problems associated with German reparations, and they agreed to add Poland to the agenda.[3]

Ignoring Pilsudski’s wishes, Grabski appeared in person at the conference on July 8 and declared in an impassioned speech that Poland was fighting for her existence and that her resistance was key to preventing the Bolshevik hordes from invading Europe. He was willing to accept peace terms limiting Polish territory in the east, but only if the Wilsonian principle of self-determination was honored. Specifically, Grabski asked for implementation of the policy of “disannexation,” in which all prepartition Polish-Lithuanian territories would be freed from Russian claims and that the people inhabiting these lands would be free to choose their own government.[4] Failing that, Poland would fight to the end, but would need material and moral support from the Allies to assure victory.

The Polish request for assistance was particularly bothersome to British prime minister Lloyd George, who appeared to prefer that Poles simply accept their fate. During the discussions, Grabski had made several remarks critical of Pilsudski that only reinforced Lloyd George’s deep-rooted distrust of the Marshal and lessened his desire to save what he considered an illegitimate Polish government. Moreover, George was receptive to rumors of Polish anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. During the negotiations at Versailles in 1919, he had expressed concern that Poland would abuse non-Polish minorities incorporated into the new republic, and had insisted that Pilsudski’s government sign a “Minorities Treaty” as a requirement for recognizing Polish independence. While it is true that Polish soldiers had killed Jews in Lwow in 1918 and that some Poles held anti-Semitic views, Jews suffered much worse under Ukrainian and Russian occupation. And while Pilsudski had been questioned about his policy towards Jews, it was only because he was considered too supportive. Nonetheless, the Minorities Treaty stipulated that the Polish government must “protect the interests of those inhabitants of Poland who differ from the majority of the population in race, language, or religion.” The fact that Poland had been one of the most tolerant societies of the last millennium seemed to have escaped the prime minister, who was prone to believe the exaggerated claims of Poland’s opponents.[5]

As far as British military action in Eastern Europe, George had spent much of the last year discrediting the policy of intervention advocated by Churchill, and had no desire to reverse this hard-won political victory. Lloyd George preferred to rein in the Poles, whom he thought might disrupt British trade with Russia, rather than protect them. The trade policy was considered the cornerstone of British efforts to civilize the Bolsheviks, a peaceful alternative to Churchill’s demands for more aggressive counter-communist measures. Consequently, instead of addressing the existential threat to the Polish nation, the prime minister rather pedantically complained about the technical difficulty of ascertaining just when and if Polish territory had been invaded, since after all, there were no established borders to violate. The only unequivocal Polish border was the Vistula, but if the Entente waited until the Russians arrived on its banks, it would be too late to send meaningful aid. This may have been Lloyd George’s plan.[6]

The delegates dithered for the next few days, but when news of Tukhachevsky’s offensive reached Spa, the Allies became convinced that Poland had little hope of staving off the attack. Rather than rush to Poland’s aid, they decided to force her to accept harsh terms in exchange for a vague promise of limited assistance. It was hoped that by offering the Russians substantial concessions, Lenin would be satisfied, or at least limit his offensive, making it unnecessary for the West to actively participate in the struggle. Grabski was told he must accept the Supreme Council’s pronouncements on Polish territorial disputes in exchange for an Allied agreement to protect Warsaw. During this time, Grabski was persuaded to sign a note with Czech foreign minister Benes consenting to Allied arbitration over Teschen, unaware that the British had already secretly agreed to give most of the disputed land, without a plebiscite, to their Czechoslovakian friends. Even the meaning of “protect” was so watered down as to seem meaningless to Poles. While Poland begged for arms, munitions, credit, and troops, the Allies promised only that Great Britain would mediate the dispute with Russia and that all reasonable efforts would be made to assure that the armistice line in East Galicia would conform to the line of actual fighting.[7] Particularly galling, Lloyd George, a man so ignorant of Eastern Europe that prior to 1919 had never heard of Teschen and whom believed Kharkov (a Ukrainian city) was a Russian general, lectured Grabski on Polish history.[8] The prime minister then forced Grabski to sign a document that disclaimed Wilno, which the factually challenged prime minister insisted was inhabited by 20-30 million Russians.[9] The agreement further stipulated that Poland must acknowledge the Soviet desire to make peace, a position Polish intelligence knew to be false. As a final insult, Lloyd George proclaimed that “the Poles have quarreled with all their neighbors and they are a menace to the peace of Europe.”[10]

After browbeating Grabski, the Allies turned on the Russians, but in a decidedly more benign fashion. On July 11, 1920, British foreign secretary Lord Curzon sent a telegram to Moscow, suggesting a cease-fire along a “minimum Polish frontier,” roughly defined by the Curzon Line, pending a final peace treaty to be mediated by Great Britain in London.[11] Lenin did not take the proposal seriously, calculating that the Red Army would occupy Warsaw in a matter of weeks. As he correctly surmised, neither the French nor the British planned on sending troops to Poland. Lenin was also encouraged by the curious contradiction between what he knew the Spa Conference had recommended and the actual content of the British note, the latter of which conceded the city of Lwow to the Russians while the former denied it. (see Fig. 13, page 240) The Allies were essentially under-bidding themselves, a clear indication of weak resolve.

On July 17, Lenin responded dismissively to the British request, expressing shock that the Allies would claim to be a neutral third party, given that they had spent much of the prior year fighting Bolshevik troops. He instead declared that Russia would concentrate on improving “relations between the working classes of the two countries” to “guarantee that Poland would cease to be an instrument of aggression and intrigue against the Russians.”[12] In other words, the problem would be solved as soon as Poland was absorbed into a communist regime. For good measure, the Bolshevik reply mocked the League of Nations as a pompous, self-righteous association of imperial states that presumed it could take on “the functions of a supreme court over all the states on earth.”[13]

Lenin correctly interpreted the meek response as an indication that the Allies would not meaningfully intervene and that the Poles were desperate. Therefore, instead of arranging a ceasefire, he accelerated the offensive. Nonetheless, Lenin believed that superficial relations with the West were advantageous, particularly because they could be bought so cheaply, and so for appearances sake he agreed to begin negotiations with the Poles, confident that terms would soon be dictated to a prostrate foe. Technical issues postponed the talks for several weeks, a development welcomed by the Bolsheviks who believed that any delay played to their advantage.[14] To make sure the negotiations got off to a slow start, the Russians sent three slightly different radio dispatches to the Poles, each the product of a different branch of the Soviet government that claimed responsibility for the talks, causing enough confusion to delay talks for at least a week.[15]

The Soviets were delighted that Poland consented to talks, not because they wanted peace, but because it signaled weakness. As Russian commander in chief Kamenev astutely observed, “If the Poles agree to negotiate with us, it will mean that they cannot count on serious support and that we shall have the freedom to attack deep into the heart of Poland.”[16]

Lloyd George, employing the trademark sophistry of a deft politician, somehow took the dismissive Russian response as a victory, pointing to the dialog between the belligerents and the continuation of English-Russian trade as proof of his masterful diplomacy. Of course, the British prime minster, safely ensconced in his London office, could afford to be optimistic.

With the exception of the talks, Russia had resoundingly rejected the British terms. This was actually a relief to Pilsudski; the abandonment of Poland’s peripheral territories agreed upon under duress by Grabski would have doomed his federation concept and fatally weakened Poland. He bristled at the thought that Polish sovereignty would be decided in London and Moscow, and rejected the concept that these discussions fairly represented Poles.[17] In all likelihood, Pilsudski would have refused to abide by the British rules, but because Russia had balked first, he was spared further estrangement from the West.

While the Soviets steadily advanced, a plebiscite, planned the year before, was held in East Prussia to determine if the area would remain German or be incorporated into the Polish state. When the vote was held on July 11, 1920, the residents unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly chose to side with Germany, not solely because of ethnicity, but because Poland seemed on the verge of becoming a Soviet state. Perhaps also because of the Soviet threat, later in the month the Allies at the Spa Conference, as agreed upon during secret negotaiations with Benes, gave the disputed land in Teschen Silesia, up to the left bank of Olza River, to Czechoslovakia. While Poles were an overall minority in the Duchy of Teschen, the awarded area contained a Polish majority, and, perhaps more importantly, an abundance of coal.[18] Anger over this decision, coupled with Czech interference with Polish supplies, helped to disrupt Polish-Czech relations throughout the interwar years.[19]

Despite the tepid telegram to Moscow and unfavorable territorial rulings, the Allies did not completely abandon Poland. France organized large shipments of military supplies for Poland; unfortunately these were delivered well after the decisive fighting, delayed by Czech and British obstructionism. In addition, Russia was informed, rather unconvincingly, that if she continued the offensive, Allied troops might be dispatched to Poland, or at minimum enforce a blockade. Although not specified, it was implied that the Curzon Line would be the West’s line in the sand. The Soviets did not take this warning seriously, as there was no evidence that the Allies were mobilizing an eastern expedition. The drawing up of false ultimatums became somewhat of a bad habit for the West, a policy that would have severe repercussions in the following decades.

While hesitant to defend Poland in combat, the Entente decided that the situation needed their paternal supervision. Consequently, Lloyd George recommended expanding the West’s advisory role by dispatching a prestigious group of technical experts to Warsaw. The Inter-Allied Mission was led by Lord D’Abernon, a well-known retired member of the British Parliament and current British ambassador in Berlin, and Jean Jules Juserand, a famous author and seasoned French diplomat. The mission included General Maxime Weygand, Marshal Foch’s former chief of staff, who gained fame as the man who read the armistice terms to the Germans in the railway carriage at Compiegne, as well as a sizeable staff of diplomatic, technical, and military advisors from numerous Western countries.[20]

The Inter-Allied Mission was a combination of incompetence and intrigue, with a sprinkling of goodwill thrown in to confuse the matter. Lloyd George secretly instructed the British mission to attempt to replace the Pilsudski regime with one more amenable to Allied interests, and even asked Paderewski to come up with a list of potential replacements for Poland’s current leaders. Paderewski had returned to Switzerland after resigning as prime minister, but still served as Poland’s representative to the League of Nations. Since leaving office, he had come to blame his political failings on Pilsudski, and therefore not surprisingly, he endorsed Dmowski and a host of right-wing officers for leadership positions. But the British soon determined that attempting to oust Pilsudski would be met with violent resistance from the Polish people, and therefore decided to wait for a more propitious time.

The worse aspect of the British mission was the falsehoods spread by Sir Maurice Hankey, an otherwise able civil servant who served as Lloyd George’s personal representative in Warsaw. Hankey, who received much of this deliberate misinformation from the National Democrats, sent secret reports to the prime minister, filled with inaccuracies confirming what Lloyd George already believed.[21] Hankey incorrectly described Pilsudski as an Austrian Pole, the president of Poland and leader of the Socialist Party, a friend of Lenin who undoubtedly was planning a Bolshevik coup, and “singularly cadaverous…narrow-minded, tricky, and intensely vain.”[22] He told Lloyd George to abandon Poland as a lost cause, and instead “to avoid military obligations in Europe and concentrate on Overseas Trade,” a policy he knew to be dear to the prime minister’s heart. Armed with this poor advice, it is little wonder Lloyd George offered such lackluster support to Poland.[23] Fortunately, D’Abernon was less subjective and more sympathetic. Soon after arriving in Warsaw, he realized the true picture and recommended on August 4, 1920, that the Allies declare war on Russia. His advice was ignored.[24]

The French mission was better, though also not particularly helpful. Weygand was considered a bona fide military genius who might be able to direct the unschooled Pilsudski. At their first meeting, Pilsudski politely listened to the august French general, but informed him that instead of advice, Poland needed reinforcements. Weygand had to admit that French troops were not currently an option, but promised to do what he could to assure that supplies reached Warsaw as expeditiously as possible. Pilsudski recognized that Weygand possessed genuine expertise, sincerely wished to help Poland, and might be able to secure French arms; consequently, he appointed him assistant chief of staff.[25] Unfortunately, Weygand developed a knack of giving the wrong advice at the wrong time. He recommended promoting officers whom Pilsudski distrusted, and consistently argued that Poles should form a defensive line akin to France’s western front, apparently unaware that Poland possessed nowhere near the manpower and resources necessary for such an enterprise. Although Weygand was helpful in organizational issues and Sikorski credited him with some timely suggestions during battle, the French general was largely irrelevant to the prosecution of the war.[26]

As Western diplomats continued to access the situation, the Red Army continued to advance, capturing Grodno on July 20, 1920. By July 23, the Bolsheviks had reached the Curzon Line. For some reason the Allies believed, or at least hoped, the Russians would be reluctant to violate this undefended imaginary line. Tukhachevsky considered this boundary more of a ruse than a Rubicon, and did not hesitate to cross it. As he suspected, the West gave no serious response, although Lloyd George did briefly threaten to abandon the trade agreement and to renew aid to (White Russian) General Wrangel.[27] It would have been far better had the Allies not drawn a line in the sand, as its violation destroyed what little remained of their credibility. As Curzon himself exclaimed, “We are beating the air and attempting to hide our impotence.”[28]

The crossing of the Curzon Line created a whirlwind of activity in Warsaw. Many Poles had believed that a diplomatic solution was possible, and had been disappointed by Pilsudski’s rejection of Allied terms. Now that the Bolsheviks were clearly bent on destroying Poland and the Allies were totally discredited, Poles were more willing to rally around Pilsudski’s call to arms. The crossing of the Curzon Line, and later the Bug River, meant that the Bolsheviks were invading what Poles considered their homeland, and this event served to rally the Polish people.

In the middle of the crisis, Pilsudski’s opponents, led by the outspoken Roman Dmowski, called for his resignation. Incensed at open accusations of incompetence and treason, on July 19, 1920, Pilsudski offered his resignation as head of state, contingent on a vote of confidence by the Council of National Defense. Every member but one confirmed their trust in Pilsudski, and although the ballot was secret, it was obvious that Dmowski cast the dissenting vote. As a result, Dmowski refused to attend future council meetings and was regarded as having resigned.[29]

Even though the council supported Pilsudski, they did not necessarily agree on all matters. On July 22, against Pilsudski’s wishes, the government proposed a ceasefire to the Soviets, signaling they were willing to accept territorial losses to that point. The Russians rejected the offer out of hand.[30] The public was outraged by the defeatism of their government, and as a result of the turmoil, Grabski, who had been prime minister for just over a month, was demoted to minister of finance in a coalition government. The new administration, supported by parliamentary parties across the political spectrum, was led by Wincenty Witos (1874–1945), leader of the Piast Party, as prime minister, and the Socialist Ignacy Daszynski as his deputy. The “government of national unity” took office on July 24, 1920.[31]

The Allied mission finally fully assembled in Warsaw on July 25, and was flabbergasted by the equanimity with which Poles were preparing for the siege. D’Abernon noted “there is singularly little alarm among the mass of the population. Warsaw has been so often occupied by foreign troops that the event in itself causes neither the excitement nor the alarm which would be produced in a less experienced city.”[32] Prime Minister Witos astounded the foreigners when, on July 27, he took some time off from his official duties to travel to his small land holding to assist in the harvest. Nor were there the incessant meetings of government officials that commonly occur in the West during crises, perhaps because Poles knew that the time for a political solution had passed.[33]

Meanwhile, communist agitation in the rear threatened to disrupt the Polish government. On July 31, 1920, a “Spartacist” demonstration in Danzig, organized by communist sympathizers, some no doubt sent from Moscow, brought 8,000 angry protesters into the streets. Although Danzig did not erupt into full-fledged revolt, dock workers refused to unload French military supplies sent to Poland.

As Tukhachevsky’s armies drove to within fifty kilometers of Warsaw, the Allies called an emergency meeting in the English coastal town of Hythe to discuss the dire situation. British prime minister Lloyd George, French premier Millerand, Lord Curzon, and Marshal Foch, among others, were in attendance. Curiously, the Bolsheviks were permitted to attend the conference, and their representatives continued preaching peace as their troops steadily advanced.[34] After sifting through the available information, including Czechoslovakia’s helpful suggestion to cut off all aid to Poland since the situation was hopeless, the Allies decided that Poland must accept large territorial concessions or face complete isolation from the West.[35] Only if the Poles agreed to these drastic terms and the Russians “failed to respect the ethnographic independence of the Polish state,” whatever that meant, would the Entente provide assistance to Poland, with the monumental exception of actually sending troops.

The proposal differed very little from that rejected by the Russians only weeks before—and they were even less likely to accept it now, as their position had only strengthened. Poles knew that for all practical purposes they were already isolated from the West, as it was now too late to send troops. It was embarrassingly clear that Allied threats and promises were without backing, and therefore Russians and Poles alike ignored the Allied proclamation.

As the Russians closed in for the kill, Pilsudski made several organizational and strategic changes. Polish forces along the northern front (the Russian’s western front) had been led by General Szeptycki, but after weeks of continual defeat, he had become despondent and advised Pilsudski to arrange peace talks. General Haller, the current chief of staff, was appointed to take his place, presiding over Polish forces opposing Tukhachevsky. General Tadeusz Rozwadowski, a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and Legion commander, took Haller’s place. The move was technically a demotion for Haller, but in fact reflected Pilsudski’s confidence in his abilities. Poland needed an energized, optimistic, and competent commander in the field to stabilize the defensive line and lead a planned flanking maneuver on the Bug River. Despite the fact that Haller and Pilsudski differed on political matters, the situation was too dire for partisan concerns. In addition, a new Polish force was created (designated the Fifth Army) and placed under the command of General Wladyslaw Sikorski. In 1920, he was thirty-nine years old and only recently promoted to general, but was assigned the critical task of protecting the Polish left flank, north of Warsaw, which Pilsudski feared would be threatened by Gai’s horsemen.[36]

While the northern command reorganized, Polish forces in the south under General Rydz-Smigly were ordered to begin a counteroffensive against Budionny’s cavalry, in part to prevent them from venturing north to assist in the capture of Warsaw. According to the plan, once the Konarmia were defeated, Rydz-Smigly’s men would position themselves between the two Russian fronts in preparation for a counterattack designed to roll up Tukhachevsky’s left flank.

For a while the new strategy seemed to work, helped by growing local resistance to the Bolsheviks, who during their Ukrainian adventures had raped and murdered civilians, defiled churches, and killed priests and other “enemies of the people.” What the Cossacks could not eat or steal, they destroyed, burning whole towns. One of the Red raiders commented that every Russian soldier had syphilis, and the vast majority dysentery, which they put to good use. Their universal crude calling card was excrement, which they displayed creatively on furniture, family pictures, books, eating utensils, or their unfortunate victims.[37]

The Polish campaign was designed to encircle Budionny with two pincers, anchored by a solid defensive line around the Ukrainian city of Brody. The Konarmia were used to enemy troops fleeing as they approached, and were surprised to see the Poles hold their positions. The determined Poles, who had learned to allow the enemy horsemen to advance before unleashing deadly volleys at close range, repulsed wave after wave of Russian attacks. While the Reds bled themselves white, other Polish troops formed defensive boundaries on the north and south, creating an anvil that needed only the hammer of the Polish cavalry to complete its work. As the trap closed, the Russians finally realized they were vulnerable and began to panic, and even the normally unflappable Budionny was heard to exclaim, “The vermin are choking us!”[38]

By August 1, 1920, the Poles had hemmed in the Konarmia on three sides, and a large cavalry force was ready to swing into action to crush the Russians against the entrenched Polish infantry. As the Poles began the assault, the Polish commander received a message from Pilsudski ordering the horsemen to disengage and immediately head north. The order seemed to make no sense, as Budionny, his troops surrounded, exhausted, and lacking supplies, was surely doomed if the maneuver could be allowed to go forward. But Pilsudski had spent years infusing reflexive obedience to orders, and the Polish commander, while frustrated and confused with the command, dutifully complied. As the Polish cavalry swung unexpectedly north, Budionny recognized the opportunity and led what was left of his men in a hasty retreat east.

Pilsudski had intended to annihilate the Konarmia before attending to matters in the north, but by the end of the July, priorities abruptly changed. Haller had been unable to stop the Russian juggernaut, and therefore, the strategy of a major flanking operation became a moot point. On August 1, 1920, the Soviets crossed the Bug River, the last natural line of defense in the borderlands. Tukhachevsky’s next stop was Warsaw, and Pilsudski would need every available man for this last-ditch battle.[39]

The continuing Polish retreat was not Haller’s fault. The front was simply too wide for the Poles to defend. Therefore, Russian breakthroughs were largely a matter of random local factors, resulting in spasmodic advances by disconnected pockets of soldiers. Pilsudski described the offensive as “this incessant wormlike movement by large numbers of enemy troops, punctuated now and again by a sudden leap forward, a movement continuing for weeks on end, [which] gave the impression of a something irresistible rolling on like some heavy monstrous cloud.”[40] Making the impression worse, the Russian soldiers were a motley collection of mostly dull-eyed, unkempt peasants. The Russian philosopher Dmitri Merezhkovsky described this unholy procession as “something like the kingdom of the AntiChrist moving upon the whole Christian World.”[41]

Pilsudski was frustrated by his inability to stop the Russian offensive, a “horrific kaleidoscope [which] gave rise to a chaotic jumble of unfinished counter-measures, unfulfilled orders and outdated reports, all totally irrelevant to the new situation as it crystallized.”[42] Each time Poles dug in for a stand, the Russians outflanked them, compromising the new defensive lines. There was nothing to do but retreat. Due to the vastness of the front, men often operated in individual units, rarely in contact with their comrades and in constant fear of being left behind. Isolated pockets of Poles who were captured were subject to brutal conditions, their officers often tortured or killed. Before surrendering, some Polish units stripped to their underwear to prevent the Russians from identifying officers, a ruse that usually resulted in only equal mistreatment.

For weeks, Polish forces moved only west, developing a habit of withdrawing after every engagement, win or lose. Surrounded by the sound of artillery and small-arms fire, enduring the stifling summer heat amidst the stench of rotting corpses, lacking food, water, and coherent command, Polish soldiers were increasingly driven by survival instinct alone as they raced toward the Vistula on the heels of the howling Red hooligans. The breakdown in Polish forces did not go unnoticed in the West, and in July 1920, the London New Statesmen claimed, “The Polish Army seems for the time being almost to have ceased to exist as a coherent force.”[43]

In Moscow, Lenin could smell blood and ordered the Red Army, which had already advanced five hundred kilometers in five weeks, to take Warsaw without delay. Bolshevik leaders meeting in Moscow for the Second Congress of the Communist International were so confident of the imminent demise of the Pilsudski government that on July 23, 1920, they created the Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee (Polrevkom), essentially a Soviet government in waiting. The Polish government was to be nominally headed by Julian Marchlewski, the leader of the Russian negotiating team, but real power was to be handed to Feliks Dzierzynski (1877–1926), the founder of Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. The Polrevkom was assigned a special train equipped with a printing press, office facilities, and a direct line to Lenin in Moscow, stationed just behind the advancing Red Army. In a matter of weeks the committee fully expected to steam triumphantly into Warsaw, the vanguard of a new communist government in Eastern Europe.[44] As Lord D’Abernon observed, “Secret preparations had been made by the communist agents―a definite programme had been prepared―leaders had been chosen, lists of victims had been drawn up, undermining intrigue would have been followed by ruthless assassination and murder.”[45]

Dzierzynski and Pilsudski had much in common. Both grew up in Wilno and had attended its gymnasium. Both were fond of quoting the poems of Mickiewicz, and both served time in the Warsaw Citadel. Like Pilsudski, Dzierzynski was punished for speaking Polish at school and joined an underground socialist organization as a teenager. While both he and Pilsudski were Socialists, Dzierzynski was of the internationalist bent and joined Rosa Luxemburg’s party. Also like Pilsudski, he was eventually arrested and exiled to Siberia, an experience he would endure three times, and he lost most of his teeth during an incident in a Russian jail, forcing him to sport a flowing mustache to hide the disfigurement.

But while Pilsudski could be brutal, Dzierzynski was a murderous psychopath. Pilsudski was bound by a strict code of honor; in contrast, Dzierzynski, although uncomfortable doing the dirty work personally, did not hesitate to order the torture or execution of his enemies. Both men looked to the eighteenth-century French Republic as an inspiration, but Pilsudski envisioned himself a modern Napoleon, while Dzierzynski fancied himself a Robespierre. These strangely similar but diametrically opposed alter egos were both in a position to rule the Polish state in the fall of 1920; which would assume a leadership role depended on events at the front.[46]

The same day that the Second International gleefully prepared plans for the new Polish government, Lenin, confident that Tukhachevsky was on the verge of spreading the revolution to the German border, wrote to Stalin and asked that the southern command evaluate the feasibility of a campaign into Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Italy.

From meeting rooms in Moscow, world revolution appeared to be a foregone conclusion, and communist theorists began to talk of extending the Red Army’s campaign to Berlin, Paris, and London. But at the front, things were not nearly as rosy as Lenin imagined. Moving so far, so fast, had exhausted the underfed Russian troops, many of whom made the journey without shoes, sick, and under constant fear for their lives, both from the Poles and from the political officers embedded in their units. The rapid advance had been achieved at a high cost, as over a third of the Bolshevik horde had been lost through casualties or desertion.[47]

In prior campaigns against the White Russians, the Red Army had grown as it moved into enemy territory, converting local peasants to the cause. But as in the Ukraine, the Russian armies were not winning the hearts and minds of the Byelorussian, Lithuanian, and Polish populations. Unlike White Russians, captured Polish soldiers steadfastly refused to change sides, creating a logistical problem as valuable resources were diverted to address thousands of prisoners. Hastily arranged “people’s governments” found little support among the people, who found communism no more appealing than czarism. Feliks Dzierzynski, interrogating prisoners, refugees, and peasants as he waited to be installed as the new leader of the Polish state, warned Lenin that acceptance of Bolshevik principles might not be as universal as Marxist theory had predicted.[48]

The inability of the Bolsheviks to foster revolution among the Polish masses was a crucial factor in the war, as Lenin had assumed his invasion would gain momentum as the workers turned on their Polish lords. Although the Bolsheviks possessed enough men to capture Poland, Lenin knew the success of the revolution hinged on popular support, as he had insufficient resources to conquer Europe by military means alone.[49]

By early August, the Russian advance was beginning to slow. As the Bolsheviks entered indisputably ethnic Poland, resistance intensified, and Poles’ savage rearguard actions slowed their pursuers. Polish troops destroyed railways and telegraph lines as they retreated, delaying reinforcements and forcing the Russians to transport supplies on carts commandeered from peasants.

But the Russian’s greatest disadvantage was the disposition of their armies. As long as the two main Bolshevik forces were separated by the Pripet Marshes and sandwiched to the north by German forces in East Prussia and to the south by the Carpathians, natural barriers protected their flanks. But when Tukhachevsky raced west past the marshes, he outran his supply line and dangerously exposed his left flank.[50] This was initially not a matter of great concern, as the disintegrating Polish Army was thought incapable of counterattack, and in any case the southwest front could simply shift north to fill the gap. In fact, Tukhachevsky issued orders to this effect, but was stymied when Stalin refused, ostensibly because the order lacked the proper countersignatures, and Red Army commander in chief Kamenev refused to take sides in the dispute. Tukhachevsky believed that reserves from the south would eventually be forthcoming, but was irritated by the internecine squabble that threatened to slow down his campaign.

This confusion was partly the fault of Moscow, which had sent mixed messages to the Russian field commanders. In particular, Lenin’s letter to Stalin had fueled his ambitions. Stalin had no wish to establish Tukhachevsky as Russia’s foremost hero, but rather preferred to withhold his men and lead them on a career making crusade in Central Europe. Consequently Stalin, Yegorov, and Budionny essentially ignored, or at least delayed implementing, Tukhachevsky’s orders, refusing to send their men north to play a bit role.

Lenin was aware of the friction, but in the euphoria of the moment did not see the harm of two great crusades instead of one. In any case, he subtly encouraged his underlings to fight among themselves as a way of making sure that none obtained too much power. Moreover, from a purely practical standpoint, Tukhachevsky’s orders would be difficult to implement, as it is doubtful that the battered southern troops would have been able to trudge north fast enough to participate in the rapidly developing battle for Warsaw.

Given an increasingly exposed flank, a supply line stretched to the logistical limits, fatigue, and lack of support from other elements in the Red Army, Tukhachevsky would have been wise to halt the headlong advance, at least long enough to replenish his forces with the Russian recruits streaming west. But he was determined to keep the momentum. Glory beckoned, with only a handful of Poles standing in the way.

While Tukhachevsky struggled to push forward, Pilsudski prepared for the onslaught. He knew the final battle would be fought near Warsaw, so he planned accordingly. While the Russian advance lengthened and thinned their supply lines, by falling back to Warsaw, the Poles were able to concentrate their own supply base and gather strength. To facilitate this process as efficiently as possible, Pilsudski assigned General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, the officer who had assembled and trained the Polish army, to coordinate defensive efforts in the capital. Sosnkowski had been evaluating the situation since July 2, before the Russian offensive even began, and had concluded that Warsaw would soon face “the concentrated might of all Russia.”[51] Although hampered by supply interruptions caused by strikes by anti-Polish workers, he was able to assemble large stockpiles at the capital, made possible in part by the cooperation of Hungary, Poland’s longtime friend. In July alone he added two hundred field pieces, one thousand machine guns, and twenty thousand horses to the city’s defenses.[52] Sosnkowski also made efforts to raise Polish morale, which he believed would be the decisive element in the coming battle. As evidence of his success, a mid-July call for volunteers yielded 164,615 enthusiastic men and women, some of whom were organized into a volunteer division. Women helped dig trenches and were even incorporated into defensive battalions as the town frantically prepared for the inevitable siege. Within a matter of weeks, a defensive line had been established, consisting of a semicircle facing north and east about twenty kilometers from Warsaw.[53] Sosnkowski’s organizational skills would soon put the Polish Army on a near par with the Red Army in manpower, and would exceed it in terms of material support and morale.

Meanwhile, tactical plans were being devised to counter the Russian onslaught. General Weygand collaborated with the Polish chief of staff, General Tadeusz Rozwadowski, to strengthen Polish defensives in the path of the Russian advance, hopefully delaying the Soviets long enough to build up forces for an eventual counterattack. Weygand advised that after halting the Russian advance in front of Warsaw, the Poles should assault their right flank, along the Vistula north of Warsaw. The plan was a virtual carbon copy of the 1914 French victory on the Marne, when Joffre turned back the German armies threatening Paris.[54] As it turns out, this plan would have exposed Poles to the main concentration of Russian soldiers, almost certainly resulting in a cataclysmic defeat, but as the exact locations of enemy troops were unclear, the Polish staff had no way of knowing this was the case.

Both Weygand and Rozwadowski thought outright defeat of Russia unlikely; their plans called for pushing the Red Army as far from Warsaw as possible, hopefully inflicting enough casualties to persuade Lenin to accept a ceasefire. Subsequent negotiations, hopefully mediated by the West, might lock in these modest territorial adjustments and preserve the Polish nation.

While Pilsudski was kept informed of Weygand and Rozwadowski’s deliberations, his unprofessional advice did not always appear welcome. He noted that, “At times I could really hear something sneering and gibbering at me from the corners of the room as I sat there making decisions and calculations based on the absurd and the ridiculous.”[55]

Despite his lack of formal military training, Pilsudski quickly surmised that his generals’ pedestrian plans would not do, so he retired to an inner sanctum to devise his own plan. Early August 1920 was a dark time for Pilsudski, arguably the worst period of his life. His earlier trials had occurred against the backdrop of a lost cause, more a test of faith than practical planning. But in 1920, Poland had been liberated and he was the head of the new nation, and hence responsible for its continued existence. Only two months before, he had been riding a wave of popular adulation, a living legend immersed in a sea of glory. Now, many Poles were beginning to wonder if he was irrelevant, a temporary figurehead destined to become a mere footnote in Polish history. With the Russian thundercloud on the verge of enveloping Poland, Pilsudski was suddenly isolated, scorned, and ridiculed. He wrote that “everything looked black and hopeless,” and began to question the wisdom of his campaign to secure the borderlands, which many claimed had precipitated the crisis.[56]

Pilsudski determined that for maximum psychological effect, he would announce his new plan on August 6, the sixth anniversary of the day he had marched into the maelstrom of World War I as head of the Polish liberating force. Despite being a realist, Pilsudski was a great believer in symbols and more than a little superstitious. He was convinced that important dates in Polish history brought inspiration and luck, and he would need large quantities of both factors if his plan was to succeed.[57]

As the deadline approached, Pilsudski was having trouble making up his mind, uncharacteristically paralyzed by doubt. In earlier situations he had not been reluctant to stake “a great deal on a single card,” but in the past he had little to lose.[58] In 1920, he was in a position to lose a great deal, a perspective conducive to a conservative viewpoint. Following the conventional advice of military experts on his staff would have been a safe choice, and would have at least allowed him to deflect criticism for failure. But Pilsudski knew that a defensive stand would only invite a war of attrition. The Russians could replace any losses from their endless supply of peasant stock, and their leaders had never shown reluctance to suffer even staggering casualties. There could be no doubt that a protracted war would be won by the Russians, even if they suffered grossly disproportional losses, as Hitler would later learn. Once overrun by the Russians, Poland would be destroyed. It was therefore necessary to make a bold stroke that could not only defeat the Russians, but do it quickly, decisively, before internal and external enemies could join forces.

On the night of August 5, 1920, Pilsudski retreated to his study in Belvedere Palace and gave orders not to be disturbed. Struggling to come up with the proper strategy, he compared the agonizing night of August 5 to the pain of giving birth.[59] He later wrote:


There is on record an admirable expression made by the greatest authority on the human soul in war time―Napoleon―who said of himself that when about to take an important decision in the war, he was like a girl giving birth to a child…He used to say of himself that in those moments he was pusillanimous. I, myself, a prey to the same pusillanimity, could not overcome the absurdity of the theme of battle, which condemns the bulk of my forces gathered at Warsaw to passive resistance.[60]


In the days leading up to his decision, he had been barraged by advice, most of it bad, yet Pilsudski could not settle on which path to take. But he still had an inner faith, a belief that he was born for a special purpose. As he wrote during his Siberian exile over thirty years earlier, his parents had “inculcated in me confidence in my ability and recognition of an unusual assignment or special destiny.” [61]

Sometime during the night of the fifth, he made up his mind, and once committed to the course, became calm. It is possible that his mind once again turned to his youth, specifically to his mother, Maria, who remained his inspiration. Long after she had died, he had written, “When I am at a loss to know what to do, when the world is against me, when people are angry and ready to accuse me, when circumstances seem to be working against my plans, then I ask myself what would have been my mother’s advice, and I act as I think she would have counseled me without regard to anything else.”[62] During that fateful night, Pilsudski perhaps found in his mother’s counsel the resolve to execute a daring plan to save Poland.

The plan was what might be expected of an amateur. Conventional military wisdom dictates that an army should concentrate into a locally superior force, allowing it to destroy smaller, isolated enemy forces one at a time, a process known as “defeating in detail.” In the face of a superior force, it is especially important not to divide limited resources, as the smaller the individual unit, the more likely its destruction. While Pilsudski was aware of this general guideline, he recognized that the deployment of Russian forces presented a unique and fleeting opportunity. Tukhachevsky’s rapid advance had left his left flank hanging, and he made a bad situation worse by ordering his cavalry to circle around Warsaw, bypassing it to the north. Instead of advancing steadily westward in an evenly populated north-south oriented front, the Red Army was now spread out, elongated along a northwest-southeast axis, exposing its soft underbelly to attack. Tukhachevsky knew this disposition was not ideal, particularly since he was beginning to understand that Russian troops in the southwestern front would not be rushing north to help him. But for the last month the Polish Army had always retreated, making any concerted assault to his exposed left flank laughably unlikely. Tukhachevsky reported that “the combat strength of the Polish Army was completely destroyed by its steady misfortunes and continuous retreats…Crushed and despondent, the officers and men lacked the morale to resist.”[63]

Perhaps Pilsudski remembered the hubris of the Ottoman grand vizier, who, believing that the Christian West was incapable of mounting a credible offensive, had left his flank only weakly defended during the 1683 Siege of Vienna. When Polish King Sobieski and his Winged Hussars unexpectedly materialized at the Turkish weak point, the ensuing slaughter marked the end of Ottoman expansionist plans in Europe. In 1920, Pilsudski decided that, while leaving sufficient forces around Warsaw to temporarily hold off the expected Russian onslaught, he would assemble an elite group of Polish soldiers, as many as could be spared, for a major assault on the Russian left flank. Pilsudski believed that the Great War had entrenched in military minds the concept of positional warfare, of linear, immobile defense that led only to massive attrition. In searching for a mobile, fluid solution to the Polish dilemma, he believed he was imitating his hero, Napoleon.[64]

The plan was risky; if the Russians did not discern his intent, the Poles could rip the belly of the Bolshevik beast wide open, destroying communication and causing a panicked rout. Conversely, if the Russians were alert to the danger, they would easily be able to foil Pilsudski’s plans. Pilsudski’s men, stymied by superior Soviet forces, would then be vulnerable to assault from the south by the Konarmia, and would be unavailable to stop the fall of Warsaw, which would have ended the whole affair.

On the morning of August 6, 1920, Pilsudski gathered his staff to outline the new strategy. He made it clear that he was abandoning the linear defense style recommended by the French military advisors. This tactic may have been appropriate along the First World War’s western front, where millions of Allied soldiers were available to man the positions, but given the relatively small number of Poles and the vastness of the Polish-Soviet frontier, it was inappropriate for the current situation. While Pilsudski would form a concentrated defensive line protecting Warsaw, he would now adopt an “open air” strategy based on surprise, maneuverability, and speed designed to counter the Russians by attacking them at their weakest points. This strategy was more in line with Pilsudski’s aggressive temperament; he was a man who, when threatened, was more likely to charge in rage than assume a defensive posture.[65]

While the basic concept was Pilsudski’s brainchild, he consulted extensively with his staff over the operational details, which were complex in the extreme. The plan required the simultaneous repositioning of large numbers of Polish soldiers and equipment from the northern and southern fronts. Given Poland’s limited resources, it was critical that this operation achieve a delicate balance, accumulating a strike force in sufficient strength for an effective offensive while leaving just enough men to defend the capital for a week or two. The men assigned to the strike force were expected to disengage the enemy and move laterally along the face of the Russian Army undetected, and then rendezvous at a new central front, where they would in many cases be assigned new units and commanders. These men were exhausted from six weeks of combat, but were expected to cover up to 300 kilometers within five days and then immediately launch a major offensive.[66] The plan was an audacious affront to standard military procedures, temporarily scattering isolated formations along a front where enemy dispositions were unknown, and would require daunting operational difficulties that even the most experienced staff under peacetime conditions would find challenging. Pilsudski described the logistics as “beyond human capacity,” perhaps relying on the Madonna as some Poles later supposed.[67]

Some historians have pointed out that the plan to attack Tukhachevsky’s flank was an obvious counterstroke, ignoring the overwhelming difficulties of arranging this enterprise in the context of a double invasion. Pilsudski could not be sure where the Russian forces were and, in fact, many of his suppositions turned out to be wrong. He knew that it was only a matter of time before the Russians closed the opportunity by shoring up the exposed flank with reinforcements, which were indeed streaming into the area. The mere formation of the central front in sufficient numbers to be effective threatened to collapse the other two, an eventuality that virtually ensured the destruction of the Polish state. The Polish general staff had in fact conceived of a similar strategy in late July along the Bug River, but as the line never stabilized, the Poles had been forced to abandon the plan.[68]

The recent failure of a similar but much simpler plan, which had proved impossible to execute, weighed on Pilsudski’s mind, especially because the new plan was in some ways more risky. This movement would have to be accomplished with complete secrecy and at a greater speed than the Polish Army had been able to accomplish in the past. Polish troops, who had known nothing but demoralizing retreat for the past six weeks, were expected to launch a major offensive against an enemy who, Pilsudski noted, “up till now, had constantly broken the resistance of the great part of our army.”[69] If any significant Red Army force broke through the weakly defended Wieprz River assembly points, or simply held their lines, the whole flanking maneuver would be in jeopardy. As an added concern, Pilsudski knew his strategy was an all-or-nothing gamble; he had no reserves to rely on in the event of failure.[70] Risk is the probability of failure times the consequences of failure, and given the overwhelming magnitude of the latter, Pilsudski’s strategy was anything but obvious. Pilsudski was taking a huge gamble, but he assumed full responsibility for the mission, and accordingly announced that he would personally lead the counteroffensive, to succeed or die in the attempt. He later wrote:


I decided in advance that, since I was unable to ask any of my subordinates to take this nonsense on his shoulders, and since, as Commander in Chief, I had to accept the nonsense in principle, I also had to accept the most nonsensical part. That is why from the beginning I stuck to the idea that, whether it be weak or strong, I had to command the attacking group myself.[71]


To his credit, General Weygand recognized that, while risky, Pilsudski’s plan was brilliant and could win the war in one fell swoop, a Polish Sedan capable of changing the landscape for generations.[72] Weygand cabled his old boss Marshal Foch and enthusiastically endorsed the plan, a communication that some would later point to when giving credit to the French for the results of the campaign. This misunderstanding was reinforced by an incident on August 10, 1920, when Pilsudski unexpectedly offered Weygand a share in command. Although the post was never described in detail, Weygand turned down the offer, citing his insufficient familiarity with the Polish Army. Pilsudski later claimed that he “decided to halve the responsibility which weighed upon my shoulders” because Poles were showing signs of defeatism, and he was “worn out by my knowledge of the extent to which Poland lacked internal strength.”[73]  Another explanation may be that Pilsudski, on the eve of an improbable adventure, wanted to place some French skin in the game as a means of insuring their continued support. Weygand, who was presumably sent to Poland the month before to assume such a position, may have been less than confident about a Polish victory and therefore, uncomfortable with assuming responsibly.[74] In any case, Weygand remained an advisor only, and did not play any role in Pilsudski’s attack on the Soviet flank.

The controversy over Weygand was not new, as representatives from the West had been pushing for the French general to assume command since their arrival in Warsaw the month before. Pilsudski had consistently insisted on retaining complete control, and even encouraged his officers to speak Polish in Weygand’s presence to demonstrate the Frenchman’s irrelevance.

But Pilsudski’s more accommodating attitude may have been due not only to the Soviet threat, but because the Allies had made a not-so-subtle threat of their own. On August 10, 1920, the Polish government received a telegram from London, which, in the name of the British and French governments, urged Poland to conclude an armistice with Russia. Should the Soviets refuse reasonable terms, which was widely expected, the Allies pledged supplies and diplomatic pressure (but no troops), but only if the Poles appointed a new commander in chief who would “accept and act on military advice tendered by the Allies.” Since Western leaders understood that Pilsudski did not meet this criterion, it was implied that aid from the Allies was contingent on removing Pilsudski from overall command. Lloyd George was particularly vocal about this precondition, as his distrust of Pilsudski had reached grotesque proportions. Although the Polish government was in no mood to make an abrupt change in command on the eve of a desperate battle for their capital, Pilsudski may have taken the hint and offered Weygand a significant position in response.[75]

Even before hatching his plan, Pilsudski had decided to buy time with space, withdrawing his men as fast as possible, and this tactic was accelerated just before the planned flanking maneuver. The Soviets were surprised that Poles along the western front abandoned all Bug River defenses, the last natural barrier in the borderlands, without much of a fight, but attributed the retreat to general panic. In reality, the fleeing Poles were part of an orderly withdrawal, preserving Pilsudski’s forces for the coming battles. Fewer than 20,000 Poles were captured during the six-week retreat, and almost none of these soldiers converted to communism, as had so many White Russian prisoners.[76] The Russians did not notice that many of the Polish forces in the south, which at the moment were in a dominate position, were abruptly racing north. A skeleton force, less than 30,000 men, was left in the south to defend the important city of Lwow and to prevent Red forces in Galicia from assisting Tukhachevsky, but luckily the Bolsheviks were too battered and politically disharmonious for coordinated action. Some Polish soldiers from the southern command headed to Warsaw to defend the capital, while Pilsudski handpicked his favorite divisions for the strike force assembling near Lublin. The new central front would also include selected units from the northern front, which were ordered to disengage the enemy and head south along the Wieprz River. As soon as the repositioning could be completed and the men supplied, Pilsudski’s counterattack would begin, scheduled for August 17, 1920.[77]

While Polish forces surreptitiously wheeled into position, stealthily moving along the 300-kilometer front in small groups under the cover of heavy fog, the Russians were executing plans of their own, lacking finesse but rich in resources. Tukhachevsky believed the Poles would concentrate their forces on the defense of Warsaw, particularly around the eastern bridges on the Vistula. While Moscow advised attacking the Poles head on, willing to accept large numbers of Russian casualties in exchange for destroying the bulk of the Polish Army, Tukhachevsky convinced the Russian high command to adopt another strategy. Soviet intelligence confirmed that the approach to the Vistula was protected by triple lines of barbed wire, a double trench system, and large numbers of tanks, artillery, machine guns, and airplanes; therefore assaulting the capital from the east would be a costly venture.[78] While keeping a modest force on the east bank of the Vistula facing Warsaw to give the impression that this was to be the main avenue of attack, Tukhachevsky sent the bulk of his troops north to intercept Polish forces before they could retreat into the city defenses. He hoped to engage the Poles near the Modlin Fortress, and after inflicting severe losses, enter Warsaw from the northeast. The Russian cavalry under Gai had by this time swung around the city from the northwest, cutting off Polish forces in Warsaw from the port of Danzig.

Tukhachevsky had also read his history, and knew that Warsaw had been captured in 1831 by a Russian army invading not from the east as the Poles anticipated, but from the north and northwest. After Warsaw fell, the November Uprising collapsed, leading to a new era of Russian domination. If Tukhachevsky’s forces could pull off a similar campaign, it would be highly unlikely the Polish nation would survive, and the history of Russian control would in all likelihood repeat itself.[79] According to Tukhachevsky’s plan, the attack was to begin on August 8, and Warsaw would be in Russian hands by August 14. Although he did not know it, if enacted as planned, the Soviet offensive would have in effect ended the war three days before Pilsudski’s counterattack was scheduled to begin.

Although the Poles enjoyed a distinct advantage in intelligence, the Russians had a tremendous stroke of luck when a detailed copy of Pilsudski’s plans was found on the body of a dead Polish liaison officer. The officer had been ordered to leave his front-line position to join Pilsudski’s stealth central front, but could not resist one more shot at his Russian enemies. Unfortunately, he had been killed in a valiant but reckless raid near Chelm, giving the Russians the means to destroy the Polish Army. But Tukhachevsky could not believe that such valuable information would be put into harm’s way, and was convinced that the plan was a fake designed to pull his forces away from Warsaw. He therefore completely ignored the report.

Fortunately for Pilsudski’s plan, Tukhachevsky was finding it difficult to position his exhausted troops as fast as his ambitious timetable called for. While daunting logistical problems caused much of the delay, the advance was significantly held up by desperate rearguard action by the Poles, who hoped to stall the main Russian assault until Pilsudski was able to begin his flanking maneuver. It took until August 12, 1920, four days behind schedule, before the Russians finally managed to assemble a credible strike force in the vicinity of Warsaw. Those unable to make the assembly points on time were left stung along the southern portion of the front, hastily preparing to move forward and giving little thought to defending their temporary positions. Still, the Red Army fielded over 100,000 men for the Battle of Warsaw, a force thought more than adequate. About 70,000 of these troops were sent to the northeast suburbs for the main assault, while the remaining Reds were positioned east and slightly south of the capital. The Poles had assembled approximately twenty divisions in and around Warsaw, secured behind an inferno of barbed wire, barricades, and trenches. Most of the Polish forces were placed along the Vistula, blocking the Russians from invading from the east. Although not as extensive as the eastern approach to the city, the Polish Army had prepared defenses on the north and northeast sectors, including three defensive perimeters guarded by 275 pieces of artillery centered on the suburb of Radzymin.[80]

The fact that Poles had not better prepared the northern defenses is something of a mystery. Polish intelligence had received reports of large Russian troop movements north of Warsaw, and this information was confirmed by air reconnaissance. But like Tukhachevsky, Pilsudski was convinced that the enemy was trying to deceive him, and believed that the main blow would be directly east of Warsaw. He planned his defense of the capital accordingly.

Despite initial confidence in his plan, Pilsudski was becoming concerned about the coming battle. One observer commented that his “face looked terribly tired and haggard, and his eyes shone with an ominous light,” while Haller described him as being “in a state of depression.” [81] On August 12, 1920, Pilsudski, relieved to escape the constant second-guessing and political intrigue rampant in the capital, left Warsaw to join his strike force. This was a highly unusual move, as the commander in chief was leaving the scene of what could be the decisive battle in the war. He left the responsibility for overall command to Rozwadowski, but trusted the critical defense of the capital to Haller, whom he had grown to admire. But Pilsudski took time to pull aside his old friend and former co-inmate in Magdeburg, General Sosnkowski, recalling:


I drew his attention to the disorder which prevailed both in the command of the troops and in their organization, and I requested him to do his utmost to eliminate the groupings―groups, subgroups, advance groups and rear groups―which, notwithstanding my efforts, existed in such numbers that there were leaders and staff without troops, and on certain points 100 soldiers were divided into three groups each commanded by a general. I further urged him to be a tutelary guide for generals who were perpetually disputed with one another and to put an end to the anarchy of command which I feared.[82]


Pilsudski knew his political opponents, who were not informed of his destination or plans, would point to his absence at this moment of crisis as evidence of cowardice or incompetence. But just as in the 1908 Bezdany raid, Pilsudski sensed that it was important to take a personal role in the ensuing drama. He believed his plan could succeed only with enthusiastic men inspired by his presence, and his 1914 maneuvering of Polish troops in the face of the Russian army at Ulina (Galicia) gave him confidence that he would be capable of leading a complex, covert operation.

Still, as a precaution in case his gamble failed, Pilsudski wrote out his resignation as commander in chief and head of state.[83] Concerned that he might be captured or killed in the coming action, he gave the note to Prime Minister Witos and asked that he use it at his discretion.[84] Pilsudski privately confided to the prime minister that he felt responsible for Poland’s predicament, but was reluctant to enter into negotiations with the Russians, as he did not believe they would honor their word. He was determined to save Poland in the only way possible, by force of arms, but should he fail, he was confident Witos would do his best to secure the best possible terms.[85] As he left Warsaw, Pilsudski stopped briefly to visit Aleksandra and their two children, no doubt wondering if this would be their last meeting.[86] But he put on a brave face, telling Aleksandra, “The issue of every war is uncertain until it has actually been fought, but I believe that it is [in] the hands of God.”[87]

The day Pilsudski left Warsaw, August 12, 1920, the Russians began an assault on the city. The attack was somewhat disorganized, with Bolshevik forces advancing from the southeast and northeast. Tukhachevsky was unable to bring to bear the entire weight of the northern strike force, and Russians attacking the heavily fortified positions were not able to make much headway. These initial forays were somewhat of a probing action designed to find weak points, and were to be followed by a constant ratcheting up of pressure until a breakthrough could be achieved. But somewhat unexpectedly, the Russians were able to storm the barbed wire and trenches protecting Radzymin, a suburb twenty-three kilometers northeast of Warsaw that was considered the most fortified northern Polish position.[88]

The loss of Radzymin was alarming to the Polish high command, not only because of its key location, but because the morale of Polish troops had proved to be shockingly low. After only minor skirmishing, Polish forces simply ran away, just as they had for the previous six weeks. Pilsudski had assumed that, with their backs to the wall, his men would be more inspired, and when news of the defeat reached headquarters, many doubted whether modern Poles would fare any better against the Russians than had past generations.

The fear of defeat was so palpable that Pilsudski’s enemies, briefly subdued by the July vote of confidence, renewed efforts to form a new government. Dmowski, who had effectively resigned from the Council of National Defense just weeks before, went to Poznan, the heart of conservative Poland, to form a “Government of National Salvation.” To prevent the Polish government from falling apart, Prime Minister Witos made a quick trip to Poznan on August 13, where he gave an impassioned plea for national unity. For the moment, Dmowski was thwarted, but there could be little doubt that if Warsaw fell, whatever was left of Poland would be hopelessly fractured.[89]

On August 13, the Russians renewed their attack, this time concentrating on the Praga bridgehead on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw. While concerned about the attack on the center, Polish chief of staff Rozwadowski realized that the Russians must be prevented from invading Warsaw from the north, and ordered Radzymin be retaken. The job fell to General Haller, who managed to scrape together about 25,000 men, but this included many untrained new recruits. Many of the men lacked rifles or uniforms, and ammunition was low; therefore, only a small portion of these men were capable of offensive action. Hoping to impress upon the soldiers the significance of the coming action, Haller issued an order declaring, “Tomorrow, 14 August, we shall do battle for Warsaw, a battle for the freedom of Poland.” [90]

Apparently outside observers were not confident that Haller could rally the Polish troops, as in the middle of the night a special train carrying almost the entire foreign diplomatic corps left Warsaw and headed for Poznan. Only generals Weygand and Radcliff remained in the city, but both had automobiles on standby should it be necessary to flee.[91]

As dawn broke on the morning of August 14, about 8,000 Polish soldiers launched a counterattack on Russian positions around Radzymin. They managed to briefly retake the suburb, but within a matter of hours were thrown back. Meanwhile Russian forces were on the move, capturing some outposts southeast and northwest of Warsaw, tightening their grip on the capital. Everywhere Poles were in retreat, and the Russian artillery, pounding away within twenty kilometers of the town center, could be heard by the frightened civilians in Warsaw.

The scene in the capital had taken on surreal proportions. The city was swollen with refugees from the east, camped out in public parks amid the hastily prepared defenses. The Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI, was one of the few foreigners who dared remain in Warsaw. He was asked to pray for Polish victory, and he dutifully complied by organizing almost constant religious ceremonies, leading believers around the city in a public profession of faith. D’Abernon commented on the “extreme frequency of religious processions” which held up traffic “at every street corner.” [92] Although important in terms of morale, these demonstrations clogged the streets, making it difficult for the army to prepare defenses.[93] Communist sympathizers, certain their time had arrived, began openly agitating in the streets, and some committed arson and other acts of sabotage to add to the chaos. Meanwhile, former POW members began stockpiling grenades at strategic locations in the city to facilitate the expected urban warfare. Battalions of heavily armed women patrolled the city, while other civilians frantically dug trenches by the light of campfires strung along the river.

Rozwadowski, concerned that Warsaw could not hold on long enough to allow the flanking maneuver to take place, telegraphed Pilsudski and urged him to attack as soon as possible. Pilsudski was shocked by the rapid deterioration of conditions in the capital, and agreed to launch his assault on August 16, one day earlier than planned.[94]

The following morning, August 15, 1920, the Russians continued their offensive. Perhaps the religious ceremonies had an effect, as the Poles were miraculously able to blunt the attack, even managing to retake Radzymin. But the most significant counterattack was made under the command of General Sikorski, who although badly outnumbered, led a devastating raid on Russian positions in the north, near the Modlin Fortress. His men, spearheaded by an experienced uhlan regiment but including the brand-new volunteer division, captured several high-ranking Russian officers and key communication equipment, ciphers, and copies of Soviet plans. Despite a fierce counterattack, the Reds were unable to dislodge these troops. The Russians were dumbfounded that this group of amateurs could sortie out of the trenches to wreak havoc on a numerically superior foe, and the news of their success led to a precipitous decline in Soviet morale.[95] D’Abernon believed that “the vigorous defense put up by Sikorski” was a decisive factor in the defense of the capital:


Failure by the Russian right to drive Sikorski back was perhaps one of the greatest surprises of the whole campaign, for it was known to the Russian commander that the Fifth Army (Sikorski’s men) was badly equipped, composed of discordant elements, and to a considerable degree demoralized. The stand made by them may be attributable to the military talents of their commander.[96]


Polish soldiers were fighting with more determination than before, perhaps partly due to an order issued by Generals Haller and Rozwadowski to machine-gun any retreating troops. But there was clearly a more intangible element to their new perspective, perhaps because the battle occurred on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. A rumor began to circulate that the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Holy Mother of Poland, was seen above the Polish lines, an image made more believable by the fact that several priests were known to be leading the Polish counterattack, armed only with crucifix in hand.[97] The scene was reminiscent of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, in which a prominent Polish padre on a mule was among the first to pierce the Ottoman lines.

While the Poles appeared to have found faith, the Russians were losing theirs. One Russian rifleman commented that by the afternoon of August 15, “The moment had come when not only individual units but the whole mass of the army suddenly lost faith in the possibility of success against the enemy. It was as though a cord that we had been stretching since the Bug had suddenly snapped.”[98]

The Reds renewed the attack the next morning, August 16, but made no headway, particularly after the serendipitous, late arrival of Polish reinforcements from Siberia. Tukhachevsky was not overly concerned by the lack of progress along the front, as he knew the Poles were losing irreplaceable men in the slugfest, while he could count on a steady stream of reinforcements in the coming weeks. Unaware of the threat to his left flank, Tukhachevsky was willing to trade blows while preparing for the final assault.

Pilsudski had left the capital on the eve of these dramatic events, but was kept well informed. His plan called for leaving just enough Polish forces in Warsaw to delay the Russians while he executed his plan. After receiving the grim reports, he began to worry that he might have left too slim a margin for safety. But when on August 13 he arrived at Pulawy, a small town just northwest of Lublin, he was pleasantly surprised to find the morale of his troops exceedingly high, noting that they sang lustily as they marched, even though close to half of them lacked shoes. Pilsudski observed that “never in the whole course of the campaign had I seen such ragamuffins as I saw now,” but he knew that this force was Poland’s only hope.[99] He set up a review of every unit in the planned attack, hoping that his presence would steel the men for the task. Weygand later reported that Pilsudski’s speech to the troops, given in a direct, sincere manner by a man who shared all the risks, inspired the soldiers more than could have any other commander. The men assembled on the banks of the Wieprz River knew the fate of the Polish nation rested on the success or failure of their mission, and that no other period of their life would matter more.[100]

Three days later, on the morning of August 16, as Poles in the north were engaged in desperate fighting to save the capital, Pilsudski launched five divisions across the Wieprz River. In all, his “Assault Group” (Grupa Uderzeniowa) numbered a little over 50,000 men, half of whom he personally commanded, and half led by General Rydz-Smigly, recently removed from fighting in the south. The two units were to act independently, specifically instructed not to come to each other’s aid. The idea was to stab a knife into the side of the Russian army, and if one thrust was parried, not to let this setback impede the other stroke.

Pilsudski knew he was taking a great risk, as he could not be certain where the Soviets were and in what force. In his journal on August 16, D’Abernon nervously wrote that “everything depends on the Polish counter-offensive on the Wieprz. This starts today. It is a gambler’s throw. A bold stroke in the unorthodox Pilsudski manner.”[101]

Pilsudski was aware of the uncertainty, but his experience in WWI had taught him that “many magnificent deeds of war owe their origin to false hypotheses,” which nonetheless “facilitate the taking of the decision.” Echoing Napoleon, he believed that “boldness is always effective, but especially in war. It compels men to make a false estimate of the forces involved, to the advantage of the bold.” [102]

Expecting to encounter a significant Russian force at any moment, the Poles were surprised to find their path almost completely unblocked. Instead of large concentrations of soldiers, Tukhachevsky had scattered only a token force to protect his flank and guard the vital link between Russian fronts. The Mozyr Group, which had run the Poles out of Kiev earlier in the summer, had been reduced to only 800 men, but was ordered to defend a 150-kilometer frontier. These men considered their assignment more R & R (rest and recreation) than a frontline posting, and had made no special efforts to secure their positions. As the Poles advanced virtually unopposed, Pilsudski, “menaced by mysteries,” worried that the Russians were merely allowing his men to advance into a trap, planning to envelope them with a superior force once escape was impossible. For almost two days, Polish forces raced to the north and northeast, brushing aside only a few unimpressive Bolshevik outposts. Pilsudski could hardly believe the Soviets had left their flank so exposed, and wondered, “This was a happy dream, but could it be real?” [103] Still, it was imperative for his strike force to engage the enemy before they overran the capital, and he began to worry that his maneuver had been executed too late.

            On the night of August 17, Polish forces finally made contact with significant concentrations of Soviet troops. Pilsudski, sipping one of his late-night cups of tea, was relieved to hear the sound of a major battle, exclaiming, “So there was an enemy after all!”[104] The Poles were bumping into Tukhachevsky’s southernmost troops, who were completely surprised by the sudden appearance of a major Polish force on their unprepared flanks. For the most part, the Russians had not bothered to prepare trenches, artillery, or machine gun nests to impede an enemy offensive, and therefore the Poles were able to infiltrate the Soviet camps en masse without warning. The results were catastrophic: many Russian soldiers were killed, as well as disproportionately large numbers of high-ranking officers, who had congregated in what they believed to be a safe rear area. The Polish strike so effectively demolished the Bolsheviks in their path that there was no time to warn adjoining Russian troops, allowing Pilsudski’s men to slaughter one isolated, locally outnumbered unit after another. Besides eliminating many Soviet troops, the assault managed to definitively separate the Russian fronts, disrupt communications, and prevent incoming Russian reserves from reaching Warsaw. Pilsudski was obviously pleased, describing the action as “my revenge and my triumph- not a mere counter-movement but a mad gallop to the intoxicating music of war.”[105]  

[1]     Zamoyski, Polish Way, 337.

[2]     Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 147.

[3]     Dziewanowski, Piłsudski: A European Federalist, 300.

[4]     Ibid., 196–97.

[5]     Reddaway et al., Cambridge History of Poland, 506. New nations created by the Peace Conference were required to sign the Minorities Treaty, but the great powers were not, creating an understandable source of resentment.

[6]     Dziewanowski, Piłsudski: A European Federalist, 167–68.

[7]     Ibid., 300.

[8]     Kitchen, Europe Between the Wars, 32.

[9] Wandycz, France and Her Eastern Allies, 155.

[10]    Zamoyski, Polish Way, 337.

[11]    Dziewanowski, Piłsudski: A European Federalist, 168–69.

[12]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 171.

[13]    Ibid.

[14]    Ibid., 168–69.

[15]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 136.

[16]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 172.

[17]    Zamoyski, Polish Way, 337.

[18]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 162.

[19]    Leslie et al., Poland since 1863, 134–35.

[20]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 114. Although Henrys was the highest-ranking French general in Warsaw, the French high command considered him excessively pro-Pilsudski, and lobbied for Weygand to assume a more senior role in the mission.

[21]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 16.

[22]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 174.

[23]    Ibid., 174–75.

[24]    Ibid., 221.

[25]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 115. Although Weygand was qualified, Pilsudski was under intense Allied pressure to appoint the French general to a high position.

[26]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 222.

[27]    Steiner, Lights that Failed, 150.

[28]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star 243.

[29]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 141.

[30]    Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 102.

[31]    Piłsudski, Year 1920, 16. In July 1945, the Potsdam Conference resurrected the name, and declared a “Provisional Polish Government of National Unity.”

[32]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 79.

[33]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 138.

[34]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 115.

[35]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 21.

[36]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 142-43.

[37]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 58–60.

[38]    Ibid., 63.

[39]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 148–149.

[40]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 65.

[41]    Ibid.

[42]    Ibid.

[43]    Ibid., 67.

[44]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 140.

[45]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 12.

[46]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 155.

[47]    Ibid., 186.

[48]    Ibid.,155–157.

[49]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 144.

[50]    Worrell, “Report: The Battle of Warsaw 1920,” 43.

[51]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 190–194.

[52]    Worrell., “Report: The Battle of Warsaw 1920,” 33.

[53]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 141.

[54]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 116.

[55]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 76.

[56]    Ibid., 75.

[57]    Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 103.

[58]    Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 217–218.

[59]    Ibid., 300.

[60]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 125–126.

[61]    Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 8.

[62]    Humphrey, Pilsudski: Builder of Poland, 22–23.

[63]    Worrell, Jr., “Report: The Battle of Warsaw 1920,” 33.

[64]    Piłsudski, Year 1920, 107–109.

[65]    Worrell, “Report: The Battle of Warsaw 1920,” 28.

[66]    Ibid., 38.

[67]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 199.

[68]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 116.

[69]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 145–46.

[70]    Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 102.

[71]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 118.

[72]    The Battle of Sedan, fought on September 1, 1870, was such a decisive victory by the Prussians over the French that it effectively decided the Franco-Prussian War.

[73] Piłsudski, Year 1920, 207.

[74]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 142.

[75]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 68–69.

[76]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 143.

[77]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 70–78.

[78]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 199-200.

[79]    Worrell, “Report: The Battle of Warsaw 1920,” 35–37.

[80]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 80-86.

[81]    Ibid., 82.

[82]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 84–85.

[83]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 82. Eisenhower drafted a similar letter on the eve of the 1944 D-Day Invasion.

[84]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 119.

[85]    Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 103.

[86]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 83.

[87]    Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 301.

[88]    Worrell, “Report: The Battle of Warsaw 1920,” 39.

[89]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 190.

[90]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 84.

[91]    Watt, Bitter Glory, 142.

[92]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 33.

[93]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 83.

[94]    Ibid., 88.

[95]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 202.

[96]    D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 151.

[97]    Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 223.

[98]    Zamoyski, Warsaw, 1920, 91.

[99]    Piłsudski, Year 1920, 173.

[100] Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 119–21.

[101] D’Abernon, Decisive Battle, 89.

[102] Gillie, Pilsudski: Revolutionary and Soldier, 342.

[103] Davies, White Eagle Red Star, 204.

[104] Piłsudski, Year 1920, 177.

[105] Piłsudski, Year 1920, 198.