The Miracle on the Vistula
At the end of the First World War, three great empires collapsed in Eastern Europe: Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Imperial Russia. Out of that chaos, two states, of many, arose: the Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was born in the “Red” October Revolution of 1917 sparked by the initially successful then disastrous Brusilov campaign of 1916. By 1918, Russia was out of the war, and locked in its own brutal civil war between the Anti Bolshevik or “White” armies, and the Bolshevik Socialist i.e. Communist, “Red” armies. In 1919, Vladimir Lenin’s victorious Red Army invaded the newly independent Republic of Poland, formed from the pieces of the Central Powers at the end of World War One. Lenin’s intent was to spread the Communist International (COMINTERN) to a defeated Germany, which was ripe for Communist revolution.
The Polish-Soviet War was the last of an era, with the first glimpses of the next. Trenches, inexperienced peasant militias, armored trains, massed artillery barrages and vast sweeping maneuvers by hordes of lance and saber wielding cavalry coexisted with airplanes, tanks, armored cars, motorized infantry, and highly experienced professional soldiers. By mid-1920, the Red Army, under the brilliant 27 year old Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was poised for a final offensive to capture Warsaw. Warsaw’s fall would end the war and allow Tuchachevsky a clear path to Berlin. Standing in his way was the massively outnumbered remainder of the Polish Army under Marshal Josef Pilsudski.
The advancing Red Army had five million men, Pilsudski had but one million under arms.
Pilsudski knew that his forces could not win in a protracted attritional fight: the Soviets were too many. Only a bold counterattack could disrupt the Bolshevik offensive. Pilsudski planned to make a stand along the Vistula River with Josef Haller’s “Blue Army” reinforced by almost the entire population of Warsaw. The “Blue Army” was named so because they were Poles whom fought for France in the First World War and wore old blue French uniforms. Among the Blue Army was a division of Polish-American volunteers recruited from recent immigrants to the United States. Pilsudski’s plan was for Haller to fix Tuchachevsky in front of Warsaw, as the Red cavalry to the north of the city inevitably took the path of least resistance and raced west on the North German Plain. General Wladyslaw Sikorski’s Fifth Army held the shoulder. Below the city to the south, Pilsudski secretly organized a 20,000 strong “Strike Force” under Gen Edward Smygly-Rydz, for the counterattack.
On 12 August 1920, Tuchachevsky arrogantly launched his armies directly at Warsaw. Despite bitter hand to hand fighting in the trenches against overwhelming odds, and much to the surprise of the French and British observers, Haller held the Wkra/Vistula River lines. The Soviet Cossacks and cavalry raced west as expected, which caused great panic, but they completely overextended themselves. Even worse for the Soviets, the Red cavalry victoriously galloped further away from the important battle in front of Warsaw.
On 14 August, Sikorski counterattacked north of city (in probably the first use of “blitzkrieg” style combined arms breakthrough tactics), cutting off the cavalry to the west and occupying Tuchachevsky’s reserves. Two days later, Pilsudski launched his coup d’eclat – Smigly-Rydz’s cavalry, tanks, and armored cars tore into the Soviet flank, as they were occupied fighting for the city and containing Sikorski. The Polish counterattack threw the Red Army into chaos. Unleashing his division commanders to operate independently in the breakout, the Poles tore deep into the Soviet rear areas. They captured the vital fortress city Brest-Litovsk, 70 miles behind the lines. In order to prevent the complete encirclement and destruction of the Red Army, Tuchachevsky ordered a general retreat. As the Communists withdrew, Pilsudski ordered a general offensive, but it was superfluous: Haller, Sikorski, and the population of Warsaw had already surged forward. The Communist retreat turned into a rout on 18 August.
The COMINTERN was stopped at the Polish border and the Red Army, with its commissars and secret police, wouldn’t advance that far west for another 25 years. The Miracle on the Vistula spared vulnerable western and central Europe, severely weakened by four years of the First World War, from Communism, an ideology so heinous that it is responsible for 150,000,000 deaths and untold suffering by billions.
Had the Poles failed at the gates of Warsaw in August of 1920, we would be living in a different, and darker, world today.
“For our freedom and yours” – The motto of Polish revolutionaries and unofficial motto of Poland
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