White Eagle Rising
By William Sariego
September 2015

Few nations have as tumultuous a history as Poland. Once a great nation and empire, it had been carved up between the surrounding Imperial states of Austria-Hungary, German and Tsarist Russia. Only in the wake of the Great War was Poland able to reconstitute itself as an independent country. After the demise of Imperial Russia, Poland and the Baltic States gained independence, which was in line with the pre-war Bolshevik policy on autonomy of subject peoples.

For some, however, mere independence was not enough. Such an individual was the dynamic Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Pilsudski dreamed of Poland becoming a dominant power in the region and would use any means diplomatic or military to fulfill this aim. Pilsudski hoped to take advantage of the Civil War in Russia to further expand Polish borders. As part of this vision he wished an independent Ukraine, indebted to Poland for its autonomy, as a buffer to whatever side emerged victorious in Russia. To this end he cultivated the friendship of Atman Simon Petlura, leader of the pro-independence forces in Ukraine. On April 24th 1920, just two days after a military agreement was signed between them, Polish military forces entered Ukraine.

Ukrainian nationalist army recruiting poster. This may explain why they attracted few volunteers.

The offensive was well-timed. The Red Army was poorly placed to repel the Poles, and its better elements were tied up in the Crimea. The Polish “liberation” of the Ukraine may have succeeded, but it appeared more of a conquest as Petlura could only contribute a weak cavalry regiment and infantry battalion and lacked much popular support. Soon Pilsudski would charge him with building up a full Ukrainian army by the end of May. The Bolsheviks were quick to react and he would have precious little time to train a large force to be cannon fodder for the Poles.

The counter attack on the Southern front was lead by the Buddenny’s Konarmiya. This massive cavalry force, a relic of another age, was still a powerful fighting machine on the steppes. Covering up to 25 miles a day, they shattered the allies' resistance south of the Pripet Marshes. The Poles managed to retreat with a measure of good order while the Ukrainians melted away. Attacks north of the Pripet Marshes would begin in early June, with the Poles falling back on interior lines toward Warsaw. The wide front, separated by near impassable terrain and the friction between the Red Army commanders of the North-Western (Tukachevsky) Front north of the Marshes and South-Western Front (Yegorov, with Stalin) in the south hampered coordination and a decisive conclusion to the initial counter-offensive.

Troopers of the Konarmiya.

As the Poles were steadily pushed back on both fronts the diplomats attempted to intervene, with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George taking special interest in the matter. Bolshevik confidence was high, however, following both their success in this campaign and their defeat of the latest White threat in the Crimea. In the end diplomacy amounted to nothing, and aid to Poland from the Western Powers was scant, as many Unions and working organizations delayed or refused shipment of goods. France did send some military advisors, chief among them General Maxime Weygand.

Poland thus would live or die on its own. Retreating to interior lines, they made their stand on the Vistula River. Helped by lack of over all strategic direction of the Red Army (the South-Western Front especially fragmenting its efforts towards differing objectives) Pilsudski found himself in a good position militarily, despite conventional wisdom writing off Poland’s chance of survival.

The Miracle on the Vistula.

The battles that became “The Miracle on the Vistula” opened on August 10th when Cossacks crossed the river in order to attack Warsaw from the rear. Initial attacks from the east were repulsed on the 13th. The counterattack by the Polish 5th Army under Sikorski began the following day. The exhausted Reds were pushed back and on the 16th the weakly-held gap between the two Fronts was exposed and exploited by Pilsudki’s reserves. Once more it was the Poles advancing across the frontlines steadily until late September when negotiations for peace began in earnest by both sides. An armistice went into effect on October 18th. While the peace negotiations were in progress between Poland and Russia, Petlura was still fighting in the Ukraine. His army would finally be crushed and retreat into Poland in late November.

A peace treaty would be signed at Riga on October 25th, 1920. Poland would fulfill most of her territorial ambitions, including Vilnius, effectively stolen from Lithuania. The separate peace left the Ukrainians out to dry, a sore point of honor for Pilsudski who would be displeased by the entire treaty, wanting even more territory. Poland would have her independence but not security. This point would be amply driven home by Hitler and Stalin in 1939.

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