The 1919–21 Polish-Soviet War should be considered one of the most consequential conflicts in history, yet outside of Eastern Europe it is relatively unknown. Some historians believe it was merely an aftermath or continuation of the First World War, part of Churchill’s “war of the pygmies.” Others classify the fighting as a chapter in the Russian Civil War, or more commonly, ignore it altogether. At the time, Western powers viewed it as a minor irritation between two immature states, neither of which were expected to survive for any significant length of time.
Perhaps another reason for the war’s relative obscurity is that it is commonly viewed from a counterfactual perspective. It was a historical turning point that refused to turn, significant only because it prevented or delayed what might have happened. But in truth, if history had turned, Europe could have been radically altered. If the Red Army had entered war-torn, revolution-prone Germany in the aftermath of the Great War—an event requiring no fantastic assumptions—a Soviet dictatorship may well have spread to the Atlantic shore.
What-ifs aside, the outcome of the war dictated the course of European history for the next two decades and beyond, in some ways as decisive for the twentieth century as Waterloo was for the nineteenth.
The conflict began in a rather unspectacular fashion, a minor skirmish at an inconsequential crossroads, but it soon pitted two diametrically opposed ideologies in a life-or-death struggle for mastery of Eastern Europe. Poland believed that losing the war would doom its homeland and that of its neighbors to enslavement and expose Western civilization to the horror of Marxist Socialism. Russia, or at least its Bolshevik masters, did not see Poland as a bastion of freedom, but as an impediment to their literally unholy (the Communists were atheists) mission to spread the revolution. Lenin believed that if bottled up in backward Russia, communism would slowly die, but if exposed to the fertile proletariat masses in the West, would develop into an unstoppable force of history. It was therefore necessary to create a Soviet Poland linking Russia to Europe, creating a red bridge to the proletariat. Although both leaders dabbled in each others’ dogma, Pilsudski believed that nationalism was the predominant political force of the age, while Lenin believed that class struggle would ultimately prove decisive.
The Polish-Soviet War saw the first action of a truly Polish Army since the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794, and the first advance of the Red Army into Europe, a dress rehearsal for a more massive invasion during World War II. The war was the first major miscalculation by Lenin, and initiated a feud between his likely successors, Trotsky and Stalin. Other actors in this drama included not only Polish and Russian leaders, but Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Maxime Weygand, with bit parts played by George Clemenceau, Ferdinand Foch, and Douglas MacArthur, who briefly stopped in Poland in 1919 to be awarded the Grand Cordon of Polonia Restituta by Pilsudski himself. Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler all studied the war, drawing conclusions that would profoundly affect future events.
Yet the war has never received lavish historic attention. The Russians, embarrassed that the only unredeemed defeat in the history of the Red Army should come at the hands of the lowly Poles and the despised Pilsudski, wanted to distort the record of the conflict as much as possible, and the Allies, determined to claim credit for the victory they had largely impeded, perhaps thought a too-careful analysis might undermine their case. After World War II, the record of Pilsudski’s victory was essentially expunged in Eastern Europe by the Soviets, who were for more than half a century in a position to rewrite history. Although recent books, such as White Eagle, Red Star (1972) by Norman Davies and Warsaw 1920 (2008) by Adam Zamoyski, provide excellent histories of the war, many in the West seem uninterested in the subject, largely because they do not understand the context in which the conflict arose or appreciate its significance. Those who confused the war with merely one of the numerous border conflicts, or perhaps an outgrowth of conflicts with the Ukraine and Lithuania, fail to recognize that, instead of a territorial squabble, the battle with the Soviets was a centuries-old clash of ideologies. Poland, with its historical emphasis on constitutionalism, Western culture, and liberty, was pitted against Russia, with its tradition of despotism and state control. The war would determine whether classic Western liberalism or communism would prevail in Eastern Europe.
Lord D’Abernon, who headed the British delegation to the Inter-Allied Mission in 1920, recognized that the Polish-Soviet War was “in such a category of greater magnitude. The civilizations in conflict were radically different, the objectives and methods of the combatants were violently opposed; it was in no sense an intertribal squabble, but rather a trial of arms between two fundamentally divergent systems.”
The war was a study in contrasts in other ways. While the Red Army relied on numbers and terror, the Polish Army relied on training and tactics. The Russians, buoyed by their centuries-old strategy of “we have a lot of people,” could field millions of raw recruits, a hodgepodge horde of poorly armed and largely untrained conscripts. But the vast steppes and the thousand-kilometer-wide front were well suited for a mass approach. The Russians were spearheaded by a merciless cavalry composed of renegade Cossacks, heirs to the tradition of terror their forefathers had so proudly forged. Fierce, highly skilled, and absolutely ruthless, once these men broke through Polish lines they would wreak havoc in the rear areas, disrupting communication and spreading panic. The Russian horsemen carried carbines and revolvers, but their weapon of choice was the saber, which they wielded with deadly efficiency. One modern improvement to this force was the introduction of a tachanka, a heavy machine gun mounted on a horse-drawn cart. Sometimes the cavalry would taunt their opponent’s horsemen to attack, and then rather unchivalrously wheel away and let the tachanka do the work.
The Polish cavalry, which sometimes relied on the lance like the Winged Hussars of old, was man for man more than a match for their Russian opponents, but was usually outnumbered. Pilsudski’s experience in World War I led him to believe that cavalry was no longer a significant offensive force, and hence he preferred to concentrate on improvements in infantry and artillery. In general, Polish troops were better trained, equipped, and motivated than their more numerous Russian counterparts. Although both sides suffered from inadequate communication capabilities, the Poles inherited some Russian-speaking former Austrian intelligence officers who were able to break the Bolsheviks’ code, intercepting and deciphering almost half of all communications emanating from the Red Army command. Also benefiting from information gathered by women scouts who infiltrated the Russian camps, the Poles were much better prepared for their enemy’s moves. Most importantly, Polish officers, particularly Pilsudski, proved better battlefield leaders, and in the end it was their bold strategy, backed up by tactical expertise, that would save the day.
The Polish-Russian front bisected an area that had been the battleground between east and west for hundreds of years. Perhaps with this epic history in mind, Pilsudski would “not contradict” his detractors who described the 1919–20 conflict as “a half-war, a quarter-war even; a kind of childish scuffle, a mere brawl, unworthy to be considered in the light of the high theories of military art.” But he added wryly that “this so-called brawl affected the destinies of two states numbering between them a hundred and fifty million persons,” and indeed in some ways “the destinies of the entire civilized world.” Much of the fighting, at least in the first part of the war, was local, uncoordinated, small-scale skirmishes between isolated groups of poorly armed men scattered along the endless horizon. The war began in obscurity in an almost accidental encounter between two small contingents of the Polish and Soviet armies at the strategically inconsequential Byelorussian village of Bereza Kartuska on February 14, 1919, and at no point afterward did either side bother to issue a formal declaration of war.
The grand strategies envisioned at headquarters rarely translated into action on the field, filtered by the pathetic communication network or rendered obsolete by rapidly changing conditions on the ground. Geography also made set-piece battles difficult. Virtually the entire front, with the exception of a central area of marshes and some semimountainous terrain in the south, consisted of wide-open plains, making advances and retreats entirely too easy, particularly for men on horses. The only inhibiting factor was the galling lack of good roads and bridges, which made movement of heavy equipment difficult. The railroads were the best way to transport armies, and both sides developed special armored trains designed to seize key junctions. But during WWI, the Germans had blown up much of the rail infrastructure, including over nine hundred rail stations, and the tracks that were not destroyed were spread thin and of different gauge when one crossed between Russian and Polish territory. West of the Urals the only natural east-west barriers were rivers, and much of the fighting would occur along these strategic boundaries. But the most significant obstacle was the sheer size of the theatre of operation. The vast stretches of open land forced armies to concentrate on limited objectives: bridges, small towns, and railways. It was impossible to hold broad fronts, as the terrain was simply too porous. Nor was it physically possible to garrison all or most captured areas. Offensives were initially easy, because invariably an open area could be found, and therefore flanks were always to some degree exposed. But defenders rarely had a problem simply running away, as the availability of open spaces made sealing off the enemy difficult. Pilsudski referred to the fighting as “the strategy of the wolf,” a running battle between scout and skirmisher.
It was not until the end of 1919, after Poland had subdued or reached an arrangement with her Ukrainian, Czech, German, Lithuanian, and Latvian neighbors, and after the Bolsheviks had largely defeated their domestic foes, that the two sides turned to face each other in earnest.