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When the guns on the Western Front fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, nothing of note was happening in Warsaw. No major document was signed, no speech given, nor any building taken. The return of the long-awaited Polish war hero Józef Piłsudski from German custody took place a day earlier. It is for its symbolic power that this date was adopted as a national holiday in the 1920s; the armistice meant that Germany lost the war, while the other two oppressors of Poland - the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary – ceased to exist as effective administrations. A period of 123 years – the time since an independent Poland last existed – marked by romantic martyrdom was seemingly coming to an end. Or was it?
Historiography in Poland tends to oversimplify the difficult situation of the Polish national movement in 1918. Polish lands were devastated by the fighting on the Eastern Front starting from the Russian incursion into Prussia in 1914 until the German reversal of the Brusilov offensive’s success in 1916. The years leading to the defeat of Russia in 1917 could effectively be characterised as a period of civil war in Poland – Poles fought one other as soldiers of both the Central Powers and the Entente. The former became the sole administrators of Polish lands by 1917. It was then that the combatants’ organisations decided to withdraw their loyalty to the two Kaisers, which resulted in their leaders being effectively interned. This however paved way for the Polish activists in Paris, London and Washington to secure a seat at the Versailles Peace Conference among the winning Entente members (with Polish units joining the ranks of the final Entente offensives in 1918).
A War-Waging Nation in a Melting Pot
At least on paper the political situation was favourable, with Poland being recognised as a sovereign entity by the leaders of the victorious Western states, and especially by US President Woodrow Wilson. On the ground the situation was entirely different. In the immediate days after the armistice various local Polish authorities tried to desperately put together a working central government. They exercised control over the immediate surroundings of key cities in Poland: Warsaw; Cracow; Lodz; and Lublin. All the other territories went up for grabs, being contested by either Germany or newly emerging states surrounding the Poles. Germany was effectively forced by the Entente to give up the Polish territories held before 1914, but not without the ‘encouragement’ of two major Polish insurgencies. Border fights broke out with Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and with the Ukrainians in Polish-held Western Ukraine. This situation put considerable pressure on Warsaw, which ran the country on a military footing until 1921. The Polish veterans of the Western Front, known as ‘the Blue Army’, had to be quickly transferred back home to aid the rising numbers of volunteers joining the newly formed Polish army. The Blue Army’s real test was yet to come.
The Polish-Bolshevik War as the Final Act of Hostilities in the East
The rapidly expanding influence of the Bolshevik government in Moscow saw the Red Army striving to reconquer all the territories lost by the Russian Empire during the First World War. By 1919 the German occupation force which separated the Polish Army from the Reds withdrew and the two enormous forces clashed in what was probably the most mobile and dynamic campaign of those years. Although advancing fast and reaching as far as Kiev, by 1920 the Polish army was pushed back to defend a narrow corridor of land between the Czechoslovak border, the outskirts of Warsaw, Eastern Prussia and the Baltic Sea. All changed on 15 August at the Battle of Warsaw, an event which cemented Polish statehood and is consistently ranked as one of the most important battles of all times. The Bolshevik offensive was crushed by a counterattack from the southeastern bank of the Vistula River and in a matter of months the Reds were driven out of Poland. In 1921 the Treaty of Riga was signed – it established a solid Polish-Soviet border, helped bring about the end of the Russian Civil War in Europe and, as many historians argue, the First World War in general.
Poland as an Ally of the West in 1918 and Today
The victory in 1920 could not have been possible had it not been for the Entente’s support and the consequential alignment of Poland with France, Britain and the US. Although the political support from those countries was inconsistent, many soldiers and officers joined the Polish Army to fight the Bolsheviks, or aided Poland as part of official military missions. Such was the case of Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, or Charles de Gaulle who saw the use of manoeuvrable tank units for the first time then. Janusz Cisek, in Kościuszko: We Are Here, details how the Bolsheviks feared the planes piloted by the Americans from the Kościuszko's Escadrille. And there are many more daring-do stories such as these.
It is also important to recall that the decision of the Polish national movement to ally the newly reborn country with the Entente (and its successors) lasted for the next 100 years and remains to this day a cornerstone of the Polish foreign and defence policies. It is for that reason that the Franco-Polish and Anglo-Polish alliances were implemented in the interwar period, leading to the ultimate declarations of war against Germany in 1939. It is for that reason that the identity of the modern Polish state is Western, something which facilitated the collapse of the Warsaw Pact as a military and political alliance in the early 1990s. Today Poland is what it wanted to be as early as 1918: a proud member of Western military and political structures. In the year of the centenary of the Great War’s armistice, Poland’s story is a fine example of how the effects of that conflict still resonate with us today.
Wojciech Pawlus is a Counter-Proliferation Coordinator in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy team at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Zdzislaw Jasinski, Allegory of the 1920 Victory on display in the National Museum, Warsaw
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.