By Jaroslaw Centek, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Poland
Hostilities in 1919
The first clash of arms between the Poles and Bolsheviks took place in Vilnius in January 1919, shortly after the Germans had abandoned the city. The Poles had just established their own self-defense troops. Poland had no eastern border and the Bolsheviks wanted to expand their revolution to Western Europe, making war between them inevitable. A short time later the Red Army captured the city.
Poland’s head of state, Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935), decided to launch an offensive in order to recapture the city. This operation proved to be a success because the Bolsheviks were also heavily engaged in fighting against the counterrevolutionary White Russian troops. Polish troops advanced as far as the Beresina River, while their forces to the left remained at the Dvina River. A White victory in the Russian Civil War would have been counterproductive for Poland, since its territory could then have been limited to the Bug River in favor of White Russia. For that reason, the Poles refrained from any further offensive action, allowing the Bolsheviks to overcome the counterrevolutionary threat of the White Russian troops.
|Pilsudski Inspecting His Forces|
Polish-Ukrainian Offensive on Kiev
In 1919, hostilities had been quite limited since the Bolsheviks were heavily engaged in the civil war in Russia. As stated before, the Poles were not interested in a White victory. Furthermore, they made the most of the low activity on the front, using the time to organize their forces. It was obvious that a strong campaign a year later would be decisive for the entire war. Both sides–the Bolsheviks and the Poles–thus prepared for a powerful offensive.
Pilsudski succeeded in forming an alliance with Symon Petliura (1879-1926), president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Petliura wanted to preserve an independent Ukrainian state, albeit at the cost of Eastern Galicia, which he agreed to cede to Poland. The allies started the campaign by attacking Kiev which was finally freed from Bolshevik control in early May 1920. However, they were unable to install an effective Ukrainian administration in the captured territories before a massive counteroffensive began.
At the end of May 1920, the Soviet 1st Horse Army emerged on the Ukrainian front, forcing the Polish troops to retreat. Soon after, Mikhail Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), commander of the northern front, launched his own offensive in the direction of Vilnius, Minsk, and Warsaw. Both forces were approximately equal–the Poles and the Ukrainians had about 110,000 to 120,000 soldiers while Bolsheviks possessed 120,000 to 140,000.
On 5 July 1920, the Polish front in the north collapsed. The Poles, who sought British mediation, were obliged to accept harsh conditions: namely to agree to the River Bug as their eastern border and to grant Vilnius to Lithuania. However, the Bolsheviks were so convinced of their ultimate victory that they rejected the settlement and continued hostilities. At the beginning of August 1920, they had moved the front to the Bug and captured the fortress of Brest Litovsk.
Source: International Encyclopedia of the First World War