The argument of Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe is that “in the summer of 1920, outside the gates of Warsaw, there took place a battle that ranks alongside Marathon and Waterloo for its importance in history.” Zamoyski’s brisk, 148-page narrative sets out to make that argument, describe the campaign that reached its climax just across the river from downtown Warsaw, and sketch the aftermath. Six chapters take up the task, with the longest — fully one-third of the book — devoted to the dramatic August days of the battle for Warsaw itself.
Zamoyski has chosen carefully what to tell, and what to leave out. This is a book that describes fighting, battles and their consequences for a military and political narrative. While the book draws on interviews, memoirs and original documents, its main purpose is not to communicate the experience of fighting one of the sequels to World War I. Instead, as Zamoyski notes in his introduction, he has “concentrated on the military operations, and in particular on providing a synthesis accessible to the general reader and a succinct overview of what happened and how. This necessarily excludes dozens of minor actions and ignores the part played by many lesser actors, some of them of crucial importance. Nor can it give anything but a hint of the horrors and the heroism involved, or of the sense, which comes through all personal accounts and contemporary documents, that this was a crisis of European civilization.”
Another interesting item from the introduction, published in 2007, is Zamoyski noting that he took an interest in the events “some years ago.” He remains vague about exactly how long ago, but it was at a time when he could still interview numerous participants, but none on the Soviet side. The vast majority of his suggestions for further reading and cited sources are pre-1980. I am not sure whether there have been major scholarly revisions of the history of the Polish-Soviet war in the intervening time, so it is just interesting to note this is a somewhat historical history.
For all of that, it is on occasion a surprisingly timely book, as on page 37 where Zamoyski observes that “nobody had much time for the Ukrainians.” That’s part of the stage setting, noting that in the months after the Armistice in the West, fighting had continued in Europe’s east, with the various revolutions feeding the Russian Civil War, and a newly independent Poland springing up in the vacuum left by the collapse of the three empires that had erased Poland from Europe’s map in 1791. “World opinion had forgotten that there was a war on, and that by repudiating the eighteenth-century treaties of partition, the Soviet government had recognized the whole area up to the Dnieper as Polish, and nobody had much time for the Ukrainians. The Polish offensive [in May 1920] therefore appeared to the outside world as an unprovoked invasion of Russia.”
The two uncertain states had been fighting since a first limited engagement in February 1919, a mere four months after the western Armistice. By the spring of 1920, it was clear to both sides that a decisive campaign was on the way. Each made preparations to invade the other, and neither took the ongoing peace talks seriously.
The sides were hardly even: “… the Red Army staked very little in a game in which the Poles were forced to stake all, … it could afford to lose a campaign, while the Poles could not survive the loss of a major battle.” Thus the Poles struck first, aiming to occupy and control what had been the borderlands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Soviet side was forced to counter this maneuver before proceeding with the aim it had had all along: capturing Warsaw and making Poland into a bridge for the world Revolution, or at least for revolution in Europe’s industrial heartland.
Zamoyski writes, “The Red Army … had grown out of revolution. It had evolved doctrines, strategy and tactics adapted to the worst conditions of the Russian Civil War and to the most exacting terrain.” The Bolsheviks saw the war in ideological terms. They made use of Communists to foment discontent behind Polish lines, and incited Polish soldiers to rise up against their “feudal Lords” in the ranks of the officers.
Another contrast to World War I on the Western Front was the extreme mobility of this war. The front moved more than 500 kilometers in both directions within the space of a year. As another book on the subject noted, “We ran all the way to Kiev,” a Polish veteran commented, “and we ran all the way back.” Units disintegrated, reformed, and defected, sometimes more than once. This fluidity had been characteristic of the Russian Civil War in what is now Ukraine, and it held most true in that region of the Polish-Soviet War. The Bolshevik leadership did not put much stock in nationalism, and as the fighting moved closer to Polish citadels such as Warsaw and Lublin, that underestimation caused them to miscalculate.
The war also saw cavalry engagements on a scale not present in Europe for the preceding hundred years, and never again since. Isaac Babel rode with the Red Cavalry in this war, and wrote about it most vividly in his book of the same name. Polish lancers and hussars turned the tides of battles that featured machine guns; the 20th century was still waiting in the wings, as tanks and airpower played no great strategic role in the conflict.
Numbers and distance shaped the conflict. The Soviets had superiority nearly everywhere, and they covered hundreds of kilometers as they pressed their Polish enemies relentlessly backward. But the turning point, the crux of the war remains elusive and a bit mysterious not only to Zamoyski but to other historians of the conflict. The chapter on the battle for Warsaw is called “The Miracle on the Vistula,” and so it seemed at the time, and indeed since.
An even graver crisis had been weathered that day outside Warsaw, where Sollohub’s XVI [Soviet] Army had resumed its assault. Undeterred by the intervention of Zeligowski’s 10th [Polish] Division, which had reoccupied Radzymin in the morning, the Russians had gone over to the attack once more, and Radzymin had changed hands for the fifth time in two days. Latinik and his divisional commanders appeared to have lost control of the situation entirely. Haller and Rozwadowski were so alarmed that they ordered a cordon of military police to take up positions behind the front line and to machine-gun any retreating troops. These measures apparently did the trick, as observers noted a sudden change of heart and even a new self-assurance in the men who had been abandoning their positions only that morning [August 15th]. This would be borne out by the heavy losses in the ensuing struggle for Radzymin, which was duly retaken by the Poles that evening. Towards the end of the day a rumour began to circulate that the Virgin Mary had appeared in the heavens above the Polish lines and led them to victory. This may have had something to do with the fact that priests were noticeably to the fore, and much was made of the death of Father Ignacy Skorupka, who fell leading the attack, crucifix in hand.
Vitovt Putna, whose 27th [Soviet] Omsk Rifle division had once again taken Radzymin in the morning, also felt that something had changed in the afternoon of 15 August. ‘The moment had come when not only individual units but the whole mass of the army suddenly lost faith in the possibility of success against the enemy,’ he writes. ‘It was as though a cord that we had been stretching since [crossing] the Bug had suddenly snapped.’
The next day, the fortuitous and last-minute arrival of cavalry reinforcements saved a crucial Polish position on the northern outskirts of Warsaw. From that point on, the Soviet forces never seriously regained the initiative. Poland’s commander in chief had been gathering divisions south of the main battle, and sent them perpendicular to Soviet lines of retreat and support. Soviet units retreating from Warsaw encountered as many as four separate Polish thrusts through the area; many Soviet formations either disintegrated entirely or fled across the border with East Prussia, where they were disarmed and interred by the Germans.
A ceasefire on October 16 stopped the fighting, with Poles on the advance everywhere along the country’s eastern borders and Soviet forces offering little resistance. Peace negotiations continued until March 1921, World War I might be said finally to have ended in that part of eastern Europe.
The settlement brought an independent and reasonably democratic Poland into 20th century Europe. It secured the interwar independence of the three Baltic republics. One of the figures of the French observer mission in Poland was a young Charles De Gaulle. On the Soviet side, Stalin had been engaged in political machinations in the southeastern sector of the war. During the purges, he settled scores with Soviet generals who had disagreed with him during that time.
Another interesting footnote in this conflict:
During the Great War all the combatants had developed receivers that could eavesdrop on the other side’s communications, none more so than the Austrians, who found it difficult to obtain intelligence on what was happening on the other side of their eastern front by more conventional means. They invested more resources than any other participant into developing their monitoring technology; and they employed officers of Polish origin, who were both more familiar with the Russian language and had a long tradition of encryption and decryption reaching back through a century of conspiracy and resistance. Polish officers had also served in the monitoring services of the Russian, German and French armies, and as a result the intelligence-gathering unit set up by the Polish army at the beginning of 1919 had a wide knowledge of existing techniques and an unsurpassed range of skills. By the summer of that year it had broken the Russian codes, and by the beginning of 1920 it was listening in to every radio station in western Russia, and intercepting and decrypting 50 per cent of all communications reaching and leaving the Red Army’s Western and South-Western Fronts.
Nearly 20 years later, these same Poles and their colleagues defeated the German Enigma code machines, giving the Allies in World War II a crucial edge in their struggle against the Axis.
It’s very debatable whether a Polish defeat in Warsaw in 1920 would have led to Communist revolution in Germany and more of Western Europe as Lenin had hoped — for one thing, Germany’s revolutionary moment of late 1918 had long passed — but there’s no doubt that the Polish-Soviet war had wider repercussions. Zamoyski’s book gives the basic story of the conflict with verve, clarity and vividness, and his overall argument is a sound one.