The Battle of Zadwórze: “The Polish Thermopylae”

During the Polish-Soviet War immediately following the First World War, Marshal Pilsudski stripped the Southern Front in the Ukraine of many Polish units to prepare for the upcoming Battle of Warsaw. In mid-August, 1920, the Communists of Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army broke through the front and threatened the Polish city of Lwów (now part of the Ukraine). The remaining Polish forces of the Southern Front streamed back to Lwów to hold the city.

On 18 August, 1920, 500 mounted Polish volunteers from Lwow under Captain Bolesław Zajączkowski were sent to reinforce the Polish soldiers that were withdrawing in the face of Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army, known simply as the “Konarmiya” or “Horse Army”. As they approached the village of Zadwórze, they received fire; the unit they were looking for was destroyed there the day before. The victorious Communists were the lead elements of the Red 6th Cavalry Division and were happy to see more Poles to kill before they resumed their advance.

Before the Communists could form, Zajączkowski ordered his men on line, and charged the village. They took the train station, but could not seize the entirety of the village. The village of Zadwórze became a vortex for the Red Cavalry, as the Communists committed more and more of the division to break the Polish resistance at the train station. Zajączkowski’s men fought off six successive cavalry charges from their stronghold in the station over the next six hours, while continuing to fight for the rest of the village. With dusk fast approaching and ammunition dangerously low, Zajączkowski ordered what remained his command to fall back to Lwów.

On the way out of the village, Zajączkowski’s men were strafed and bombed by three Communist airplanes, which broke up his formation. Zajączkowski gathered what men he could, and made a last stand in a lineman’s hut just on the outskirts of the village. In the dark, the Poles and Communists battled with bayonets, rifle butts, sabers, and fists. Just after midnight on 18 August, 1920, the hut was overrun, and the last of Polish defenders were dead, or had escaped. The seriously wounded Zajączkowski killed himself rather than be captured and endure the inevitable torture and execution at the hands of the Communists. Of the Zajączkowski’s original 500 men who attacked Zadwórze that morning, only 12 reached Lwów.

The 11 hour battle for Zadwórze consumed the entire 6th Cavalry Division, and held up the advance of the Konarmiya toward Lwów for more than a day. Zajączkowski’s stand gave time for the Polish defense of the city. Not only was Lwów saved, the Budyonny became fixed in front of the city, and could not extricate the Konarmiya quickly enough to ride northwest to affect the decisive Battle of Warsaw.

The Battle of Zadwórze was nicknamed “The Polish Thermopylae” after the Greek stand against the Persians 2400 years before.

(The Poles seem to have an obsession for the Greek Battle of Thermopylae. Zadwórze is one of at least six battles throughout Polish history known as “The Polish Thermopylae”)

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