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2023 is the 103rd Commemoration Year

By Frank J. Dmuchowski


On this 103rd anniversary, we remember one of the most significant events for 20th-century Poland: The Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920. It is also known as the Polish-Bolshevik War. For all practical purposes, this was a Polish-Russian War. Its culmination and most well-known event was the battle for Warsaw in 1920 which was fought roughly from August 14-26 of that year. The Polish forces under the Command of Józef Piłsudski managed an overwhelming rout of the Soviet (Bolshevik) forces. How was this possible, given the expectation by the West that the Poles were doomed?

How the Poles did the near impossible is quite a complex question. However, there is a very well-written book available in English and also in Polish translation which is a great read. It is Adam Zamoyski’s book “Warsaw 1920 – Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe (Warszawa 1920 Nieudanny podbój Europy Klęnska Lenina).

The Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-1920 was much more than the Battle for Warsaw

Generally, when speaking of the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-1920 the focus tends to be on the Battle for Warsaw with the commemoration date of August 15th which was also the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. While the Battle for Warsaw was the critical objective of the Soviets/Bolsheviks the war ranged all over of Eastern Kresy (today’s Belarus and Ukraine) as far as Kiev.  It also involved much of the territory of today’s Poland east of Warsaw. What characterized this war was the rapid movement of troops over vast distances. This was unlike the trench warfare of World War I. It is more like some of the engagements of WW II and some of the desert warfare involving the invasion of Iraq.

War comes with a heavy price: death and casualties. It should always be remembered that the success of a military engagement depends so much on the decision of individuals, both civilian and military, to fight and be prepared to die for a cause in which they believe. For Poles, that cause was a “Free and Independent Poland”.  At the beginning of the war, the Polish armed forces numbered around 50,000 soldiers. By the end, there were over 700,000 Poles involved in this war. It was truly an epic struggle in which all Poles were truly able to come together as a nation and a state for the first time since the partition of Poland. It should be remembered that during the 19th century, there were numerous valiant uprisings by Poles against the Russians and the Prussians, but not in the numbers of the Polish-Bolshevik War.

During the Polish-Bolshevik War, over 48,000 Poles lost their lives, 115,000 were wounded, and 51,000 were taken prisoner. This is not counting civilian losses which were considerable since the Bolsheviks had no respect for a civilian or military code of correct behavior. They were murderous. The Poles who detested the Godless Bolsheviks and their masters in Moscow did what was necessary to stop the Bolsheviks.

With so many Poles committed to fight in 1919-1920 virtually every family in Poland was involved in this war for Polish freedom and independence. What is truly unique is that Poles, who suffered devastating civilian and military casualties during WW I because of Russian and German battles,  still had this incredible will to be a free and independent nation and to pay the price of war.

August 14, 1920, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption


The situation for the Poles on August 14, 1920, was quite desperate. However, they did have a plan of counterattack conceived by Piłsudski the night of August 5-6th, when the situation was at its worst.

For Piłsudski’s plan to work it was necessary to implement a remarkable regrouping operation under the noses of the attacking Soviet Armies without them recognizing what the Poles were doing. This operation required incredible stamina on the part of the troops and the counterintuitive weakening of the forces defending Warsaw and the departure of Piłsudski from Warsaw to personally take command of the strike force near Puławy. The regrouping was successful.

Piłsudski has been UNFAIRLY criticized for leaving Warsaw at a critical time to go to Puławy. It needs to be understood that his final order for the beginning of the counterattack required that Polish soldiers not stop after capturing several towns or advancing say 20 miles. After the complex regrouping, his plan entered a very straightforward phase in the Puławvy area and can be summarized roughly to that infantry and cavalry situated there by Drive through the heart of the Bolshevik Armies and DON” T STOP until you reached designated areas such as Białystok and the East Prussian border.Only the force of Piłsudski’s personality and status could motivate his soldiers to do just that: an almost impossible task. They needed to understand that the order was personally from him and it needed to be implemented as he had ordered.

General Rozwadowski, Polish Army Chief-of-Staff, and the French General Weygand who favored a more conventional approach to defending Warsaw realized that Piłsudski’s plan, while highly dangerous could potentially yield spectacular results.

The military situation on August 14th was as follows (Zamoyski’s book has excellent maps)

  • Marshal Piłsudski is located near Puławy about 70 miles southeast of Warsaw. Here he personally commanded the Polish 4th Army which is poised to strike through the sides of the various Soviet Armies. This is the most critical move which will determine Warsaw and Poland’s fate.
  •  General Sikorski’s 5th Army, located between Płock, Płońsk and Modlin (slightly northwest of Warsaw) was in serious danger of being outflanked. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. Retreat was not possible on the one hand and on the other he was confronted with having to fight up to four Soviet armies which were converging near Modlin. Sikorski theoretically had insufficient forces to be successful. However, he and his 5th Army were able to escape the Soviet pressure by August 16th.
  •  Soviet General Sollohub’s army coming from east of Warsaw, was the primary attack force on Warsaw which General Latinik was defending. The situation had become so desperate that Generals Haller and Rozwadowski ordered Polish military police to set up machine guns to prevent Polish soldiers from retreating.

The critical question: Could the exhausted Polish soldiers counterattack the Bolsheviks?

Everything was more or less in place. However, there was one question key to Polish success that could only be answered on the day of the counterattack. “Would the Polish soldier who had retreated for almost 50 days under very difficult conditions be capable of psychologically altering his mindset to aggressively counterattack”?  This was no idle question as it consumed the concerns of Marshal Piłsudski, Generals Rozwadowski, Sikorski, Haller, etc. This was a war in which you killed your enemy or they killed you. It was that simple. Often no quarter was given. The Bolsheviks were notorious for torturing and executing Polish prisoners of war.

The battles near Modlin, northwest of Warsaw, were the main focus of the Soviet attack –

General Sikorski’s heroic defense and counterattack

Piłsudski’s plan for a counterattack was based on the Soviet armies primarily converging directly on Warsaw.  However his plan was flexible enough to handle other contingencies such as the main thrust of the Soviet attack being near Modlin which was slightly northwest of Warsaw. Unfortunately, General Sikorski’s 5th Army near Modlin which bore the brunt of the Soviet attack was undermanned for such a task. However, they did pull off a major victory which certainly cemented Sikorski’s reputation as a military leader.

During this period, Sikorski and the 5th Army has to be greatly admired for handling a very difficult situation. This was a situation in which General Sikorski had to rely on the Napoleonic tactic of focusing on one target army at a time, while realizing that all of them could not be defeated at the same time.

Warsaw: the defense, remembering the future Pope Pius XI who stayed with the Poles -Haller’s Blue Army Included Detroit Polonians

The situation near Warsaw during the period August 14-15th was slightly better than in the Modlin area although certain forward positions were held by several weak Polish military groups. The Soviets under General Sollohub were moving on Warsaw. Most of the upper class and the various embassy staffs had fled the capital. Among those staying was the Papal Nuncio Cardinal Ratti who was later to become Pope Pius XI, and Major Charles De Gaulle. The French General Weygand and his staff remained in Warsaw. This battle was going to be a strictly Polish affair with little help from abroad. The United States provided material and some diplomatic support. The French did provide some material and French military advisers who were generally disregarded.

Outside of General Haller’s Blue Army, which was initially supplied by the French and which among its 70,000 volunteers included 20,000 men from the United States. Most of the volunteers in Haller’s Army were of Polish descent.  There was no other significant manpower coming from outside of Poland.  Approximately 2,000 soldiers in Haller’s army were volunteers from the Detroit and Michigan area. Most of them were sworn in at Saint Josephat’s Church on Canfield in Detroit. This is Detroit’s historical connection to the Battle of Warsaw.

The Polish advantage which the Soviets/Bolsheviks never understood

The Poles had one advantage that the Soviets never understood. Poland was a fairly cohesive society with consistent cultural values and a strong sense of Polish identity. Also most ethnic Poles were Roman Catholic. During this period the Church played a major role in motivating people to support the defense of Poland. It was also rumored that the Virgin Mary had appeared over the battlefield near Warsaw on August 15th which is the feast of her Assumption.  All of this helped to change the Polish mindset from having to retreat to aggressively counterattacking.

On August 15th on virtually all sectors the tide was beginning to turn very gradually in favor of the Poles although it was very precarious especially for Sikorski’s Fifth Army in the Modlin area. The Polish military was beginning to counter attack. There was a definite change in the psychological states of the Polish and Soviet soldiers.

Piłsudski launches his brilliantly conceived and devastating counterattack into the southern side (flank) of the Soviet/Bolshevik armies attacking Warsaw

On August 16th Piłsudski launched his Fourth Army which crossed the Wieprz and moved northward with amazing speed. Its first target was that of General Sollohub in order to relieve Warsaw. Simultaneously the Northern Armies which were under the command of General Józef Haller began to move. From August 16th-26nd the Poles were able to destroy the Soviet armies under the supreme command of General Tukhachevsky. The fighting was often quite fierce but the Poles had the upper hand.  The Piłsudski Counterstroke launched near Puławy and the performance of Sikorski’s Fifth Army in the Modlin area saved Warsaw and saved Poland.

By August 18th the Bolsheviks had been crushed and were being driven steadily north and north-east. One of the major reasons by Piłsudski was able to launch an effective counterstroke was the failure of troops under the “command” of Joseph Stalin to give up the siege of Lwów.  Stalin wanted personal glory which he would not get if he went to Warsaw in a support role.

Stalin’s actions meant that the southern flank of the Bolshevik/Soviet Army which was attacking Warsaw head-on was virtually undefended.  This situation was so unbelievable that when Piłsudski was told this he personally confirmed it by riding his staff car behind Soviet lines. Piłsudski, who admired and studied Napoleon, realized the magnitude of the opportunity and he took full advantage of it. In passing, if Stalin had done what he was ordered to do the Poles would have had a greater challenge, perhaps an impossible challenge, in defeating the Soviets/Bolsheviks.

“Our Poles Have Grown Wings” – “Complete Victory”

When the worst of the fighting for Warsaw was over, then Major Charles De Gaulle wrote in his diary of August 17, 1920

“Our Poles have grown wings. The soldiers who were physically and morally exhausted only a week ago are now racing forward in leaps of 40 kilometers (25 miles) per day.

                 Yes, it is Victory, Complete triumphant Victory!”


My reference sources include Norman Davies “White Eagle Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 and “The Miracle on the Vistula”     Piłsudski’s “Rok 1920” and two books by Adam Zamoyski: “Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe” and “Battle for the Marchlands.

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