Battle for Warsaw

Battle for Warsaw

The Battle for Warsaw in 1920 was the most important engagement of the RussoPolish War of 1920–1921. Poland had disappeared at the end of the 18th century, absorbed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. During World War I (1914–1918) U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s call for a “free and independent Poland with access to the sea” became an Allied war aim, and after the war Poland reappeared as a legal entity. The matter of its future frontiers, especially those to the east, remained open, however.

Many in both Germany and Russia regarded Poland as a temporary state to be eradicated at the first opportunity. Poland’s leaders opted to resolve their security problems through territorial expansion, which was justified in their eyes as recovering the borders before the partitions. Creation of the Polish Corridor, which provided Poland with access to the sea across East Prussia, and the existence of the free city of Danzig led to animosity with Germany, which was exacerbated by Poland’s seizure of Upper Silesia. Eventually the League of Nations awarded the larger part of that province’s population and territory to Germany but gave Poland the area with the greater economic resources. Poland’s seizure of Vilna (Vilnius) caused bitter hostility with Lithuania. Poland also forcibly took eastern Galicia over the opposition of its majority Ukrainian population, and Poland’s seizure of part of Teschen from Czechoslovakia embittered relations with that country.

There were also border disputes with Russia. A Paris Peace Conference commission at the end of 1919 set Poland’s eastern borders along general ethnographic lines (the Curzon Line, named for Lord Curzon, the head of the commission), but Poland took advantage of the civil war in Russia to occupy areas of mixed PolishRussian population in the undefined frontier area bordering Belorussia (presentday Belarus) and the Ukraine. The Poles refused to cooperate with the anti- Bolshevik White opposition, though. Had that occurred, the Bolsheviks might have been overthrown.

In 1920 when the Red (Bolshevik) armies at last triumphed over the Whites, the Bolshevik government turned its attention to the Poles. The government presented an ultimatum that would have meant a Russian protectorate. With General Józef Piłsudski as head of the new Polish state, there was no chance that Poland would accept the Russian terms. When the Russians massed military forces in the west, the Poles decided not to wait to be attacked but instead to seize the initiative.

Russian commander Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky’s Western Front (army) was located north of the Pripet Marshes. Opposing it was a smaller Polish army under General Władysław E. Sikorski. South of the Pripet Marshes was Russian general Alexander I. Yegorov’s Southwestern Front. Opposing it was a Polish force commanded by Piłsudski, the overall Polish commander. Each side fielded about 200,000 troops.

The campaign began on April 25, 1920, when Piłsudski launched an offensive that lasted until May 7. His force drove for Kiev, supported on its right flank by a mixed force of anti-Bolshevik Ukrainians under Simon Petlyura. Capturing Kiev on May 7, Piłsudski prepared to swing north behind the Pripet Marshes to hit Tukhachevsky in the rear, but this proved too ambitious for the forces and logistical support available.

Tukhachevsky’s Western Front meanwhile pushed southwest, pinning back Piłsudski’s left. At the same time, First Cavalry Army commander Semeyon M. Budeyonny of Yegorov’s army drove northwest with a cavalry corps of some 16,000 men and 48 guns against Piłsudski’s right flank. Budeyonny reached Zitomir, southwest of Kiev, almost taking Piłsudski’s right wing. By June 13 the Polish left was also in full retreat, and Cossacks swept to the outskirts of Lwów (Lemberg; today L’viv in Ukraine). North of the Pripet Marshes, Tukhachevsky reached Vilna on July 14 and Grodno on July 19, while Budeyonny kept up pressure on the southern front. By July 25 the Polish forces lay in two groups, one around Lwów and the other near Warsaw, the fall of which appeared imminent. Indeed, Tukhachevsky expected to take the Polish capital on August 14.

France had a major interest in the existence of a strong Poland to guard against a resurgent Germany from the east, and late in July 1920 a French advisory team arrived in Warsaw. General Maxime Weygand, who had been chief of staff to Allied commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch at the close of World War I, headed the group. Piłsudski did not need advice, though. He had the great advantage of being able to read the ciphers used by the Russians to exchange messages.

Weygand advised a counterattack north of Warsaw, launched from behind the defensive line of the Vistula River. Piłsudski knew through radio intercepts, however, that the Russians had outrun their supply lines and were short of almost everything, including food. Thus, while the seemingly irresistible Russian right pushed forward, passing to the north of Warsaw, Piłsudski ordered a daring counterattack against Tukhachevsky’s left. Signal intercepts had revealed that as the Russian weak point.

On the orders of Joseph Stalin, chief political officer of the Southwestern Front’s Revolutionary Military Council, Budeyonny’s army was moving to take L’viv rather than advancing to support Tukhachevsky’s drive on Warsaw. Tukhachevsky desperately needed Budeyonny’s assistance and pleaded with Red Army headquarters to provide reinforcements. Headquarters indeed ordered Budeyonny to join Tukhachevsky, but Stalin directed Budeyonny to ignore the order.

With his weight concentrated at Deblin 50 miles southeast of Warsaw, on August 16, 1920, Piłsudski opened the Battle of Warsaw by driving against the weakly held Russian Western Front’s left along the Warsaw to Brest-Litovsk road. The Polish breakthrough was swift. Piłsudski ignored Russian elements to the south to swing northward and encircle the bulk of the Russian forces by linking with the Polish drive from the north under Sikorski.

Caught between the Polish pincers, Tukhachevsky’s command disintegrated. Some 30,000 Russians made it across the frontier into East Prussia, there to be disarmed by the Germans. Before Tukhachevsky could rally his forces on August 25, the Poles had captured 66,000 prisoners, more than 230 guns, 1,000 machine guns, and 10,000 vehicles. Russian casualties totaled 150,000 men. The stunning Polish victory was one of the decisive battles of the 20th century, marking the first check to westward Bolshevik expansion.

The Russians lost another 100,000 men before agreeing on October 19, 1920, to an armistice. In the Treaty of Riga of March 18, 1921, the Russians accepted an eastern boundary for Poland that gave the Poles large areas of Belorussia and Ukraine, almost 52,000 square miles of territory east of the Curzon Line. Except for the territory that had become the new Republic of Lithuania, this corresponded roughly with Poland’s border just before the final partition of 1795. Nonetheless, Poland’s policies had resulted in borders that one Polish leader identified as 75 percent permanently menaced, 20 percent insecure, and only 5 percent safe.


Davies, Norman. White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919–1920. New York: St. Martin’s, 1972.

Fiddick, Thomas C. Russia’s Retreat from Poland, 1920: From Permanent Revolution to Peaceful Coexistence. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.

Zamoyski, Adam. The Battle for the Marchlands. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.