Russo-Polish War - 1919 Operations
A Polish-Bolshevik war had been going on almost from the time of the formation of the new Polish state. Until the Polish invasion in South Russia, however, it was an insignificant affair. Early in February 1919, Soviet Russia proposed to the Polish government a cessation of hostilities pending a discussion of peace terms. Yet, notwithstanding the conciliatory nature of the peace note, the Bolheviki even then were strengthening their forces in preparation for a new attack on Poland in the event that the peace offer should be rejected.
On February 24th, the Polish Diet notified the Soviet government that a peace might be arranged if the Bolshevik regime would agree to five principal Polish demands. These were (1) that the Polish frontier as it existed in 1772 be recognized by Russia; (2) Russia must also recognize the independence of the Baltic countries and leave them free to conclude with Poland such treaties as they might decide upon; (3) that if a stable government should be organized in the Ukraine, Poland would not concern herself further .with Ukrainian affairs; (4) that Bolshevist propaganda in Poland must cease; (5) that Russia must pay Poland a war indemnity for devastations committed by the Russian Army in Poland, as well as for damages done to Polish citizens in Russia under the Bolshevist regime.
Notwithstanding the many overtures of peace, war between Poland and Russia was resumed when, on March 7th, a Polish division, led by Col. Sikorski, attacked a body of Bolshevik troops southeast of Minsk, capturing the important railway junctions at Mozir and Kolenkovitz, together with 1000 prisoners and much war material, including several armored boats on the Pripet River.
In accordance with their pledge to the Ukrainians, the Poles on April 28th 1919 launched a whirlwind campaign against the Bolsheviki on a 250-mile front, extending from the Pripet River southward to the Dniester. The Russians, wholly unprepared for so vigorous an assault, gave ground everywhere. Advancing rapidly into the Ukraine, the Poles in 48 hours captured 15,000 Russian prisoners and much rolling stock. Mohilev capitulated on April 30th, and the Polish cavalry reached the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on May 1st.
After the liberation of Kiev, the Polish and Ukrainian troops turned southward with Odessa as their objective. There they expected to form a liaison with the remnant of Denekine's army which Gen. Wrangel was reassembling in the Crimea. While the Poles were advancing southward, with victory apparently in sight, a sudden and sensational transformation had taken place in the military situation. In response to the Soviet government's appeal for nation-wide support in resisting the Polish invasion, 500,000 Russians had rallied to the Red standard.
With the arrival of these additional troops on the battle front, the Bolsheviki launched two powerful drives on widely separated parts of the Polish battle line. The first, a mass offensive, was directed against the Polish Army of the North, then holding a front along the Beresina River, east and west of Borysov. Aided by airplanes, tanks, artillery and armored trains, the Russians, on May 18th, hurled 200,000 men against the slimly defended Polish line.
Determined at all costs to recover Kiev, the Soviet high command had summoned Gen. Budenny, the same idolized cavalry commander who had destroyed Denekine's army the previous winter, to take over the supreme command on the Southern front. When the call issued, Budenny was resting in far-away Caucasia. With a corps of 50,000 mounted Cossacks, all splendidly equipped from the immense stores of British arms and uniforms they had seized at Novorissusk after Denekine's retreat, Budenny set forth on his long journey from the Caucasus, riding day and night. From every side reinforcements nocked to his colors. Thousands of peasants, urged on by the prospect of booty, unhitched their horses from their plows and joined the daring leader. Before the end of his journey Budenny found himself in command of a mounted army of 100,000 men.
By order of Marshal Pilsudski, the Polish army on June 13th evacuated Kiev, taking up a strong position west of Jitomir. Two days later the new Polish battle lines were again consolidated from the Dvina southward. The mobilization of the new Bolshevist Armies was completed early in June, with the concentration of 600,000 troops on the Polish front, which extended from Vilna 800 miles southward to Odessa. The Russians, in addition to their two-fold superiority in numbers, were splendidly equipped with those perfected instruments of war which had been supplied by the Allies to the armies of Denekine, Kolchak and Yudenitch, and which were seized by the Bolsheviki during the respective retreats of these armies. Included in this panoply of warfare were many armored automobiles, tanks, machine guns, airplanes, heavy artillery, and an unlimited supply of ammunition. Against this formidable force, the Poles were able to oppose fewer than 250,000 first line troops.
Of no avail was the subsequent desperate resistance of the Poles; nothing could stem the onrushing Bolshevist current. Scores of villages and towns were hurriedly evacuated, the populations fleeing westward in panic flight. With the fall of Mozir on July 1st the whole Polish line was compelled to fall back. Disaster followed disaster in rapid succession.
The capture of Warsaw seemed imminent on August 13th. The Soviet forces, then within 20 miles of its northern gates, were encircling the city from three directions. General Haller's Polish army, now reduced to 100,000 men, was falling back upon the capital. Munitions unloaded at Danzig by the British were being rushed to the front and preparations to defend the capital were being pushed. New defenses were hastily constructed on the east bank of the Vistula.
Poland's dire plight brought many proffers of aid from friendly nations. Overtures of assistance were received from France, Finland, Latvia, Roumania, and, curiously, from Hungary. The Hungarians, in fact, volunteered to put a large army in the field. Scores of eminent officers from the various Allied armies arrived in Poland to organize the Polish defences. Among these was Gen. Maxime Weygand, the brilliant strategist and efficient Chief of Staff of the French Army, under Marshal Foch. Too long the Poles neglected to engage the services of Gen. Weygand, but at last, when the spectre of Bolshevism appeared at their very gates, they asked Gen. Weygand to assume command of their armies. With Gen. Weygand were associated two other eminent French strategists, Gen. Henrys and Gen. Billette and 400 lesser French officers.
With the accession of Gen. Weygand to the supreme command of the Polish armies, the tide of battle abruptly turned. The further pursuit of the Bolsheviki beyond the provisional eastern frontier of Poland was strictly forbidden by order of the Supreme War'Council. Protesting against this decision, Marshal Pilsudski declared on August 31st that it was impossible for the Polish armies to halt abruptly on the eastern front and there maintain a solely defensive attitude, as the Allies desired, since to stop at this line "would be to affirm by deed that this illusory eastern frontier corresponds to our aspirations." Now, he urged, was the time to deal Bolshevism its death blow, since the Soviet armies already had lost 100,000 men and their recuperation would be slow. The Allies nevertheless stayed the hand of Poland, giving Bolshevism a new lease of life.
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