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  • James Houser

August 12, 1920 - The Battle of Warsaw

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 12, 1920. Eastern Europe swings in the balance as the Red Army comes boiling out from Russia, intent on bringing the Russian Revolution to the European heartland. Against them stand the nationalists of Poland, who have just gotten their country back after 100 years and aren’t about to lose it again. They will collide in the Battle of Warsaw - the miracle on the Vistula.

I’ve mentioned before that the years immediately following World War I were utter chaos in most of Europe and the Middle East. There was a very simple reason for this. When the Great War began in 1914, four ancient empires – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans – controlled almost the whole region and its various ethnic groups, most of whom were not super happy about this whole “empire” business. So when these four empires stopped existing in 1918, it became a free-for-all. A massive power vacuum had opened up in Eastern Europe, where three empires once dominated and now no one was in charge, and everyone tried to take advantage of the anarchy.

The people of Poland, more than anyone else, saw opportunity in this crisis. Ever since it had been carved up by the empires in 1795 following the Kosciuszko Uprising, Poland had been ruled by Germans, Austrians and Russians. Like Palestine, Belgium, or Korea, poor Poland had the great misfortune of being stuck between larger and stronger rivals. The overbearing policies of Poland’s overlords – first and foremost the Russians, who occupied most of the country including the capital of Warsaw – failed to break the Polish spirit, however. Even when the Polish language was banned and Polish intelligentsia were persecuted, the nationalism of this once-great European nation remained bright and powerful. Even if their country no longer existed, great artists like Frederic Chopin and great scientists like Marie Curie kept the flame alive.

Woodrow Wilson (lowkey one of our worst presidents) had sponsored his famous Fourteen Points near the end of World War I, which contained a lot of idealistic ambitions for the postwar world. One point declared his support for an independent Poland, and another supported the notion of “self-determination” for all peoples. These were all very nice thoughts, and the Western Allies approved in principle. But they were militarily exhausted, the American people had no taste for more foreign intervention, and the West really had no ability to impose this dream on reality. Eastern Europe was turning into near anarchy, and the victorious Allies could really do nothing to stop it. Self-determination could only be achieved by force in the years following 1918 – if someone wanted their own country, they had to fight for it.

So even as the Allies met at Versailles to hammer out the peace that would set the world right again, the Poles saw their chance. Even though the Central Powers and the Russians had fought over Polish territory for the last four years, Russia’s collapse into Revolution along with Germany’s final defeat in World War I meant that the oppressors were finally gone. As a bonus, Germany was in the midst of its own political upheavals, and Russia was busy with the chaotic internal conflict of the Russian Civil War. This was a golden opportunity for the Poles to not only reestablish their independence from their oppressors, but to expand beyond their traditional borders and maybe, God be praised, do some oppressing of their own. Poland had once been something of an empire itself, when the famous Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had ruled the Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltic States. With a bit of luck and boldness, this dream could come true again.

The man destined to bring Poland back into the community of European nations for the first time since 1795 was Jozef Pilsudski. Pilsudski had been born and raised in Russian-ruled Poland, and had spent some time in Tsarist exile due to his early pro-independence agitation. This gave him not only a burning passion for his country but a bitter hatred for Russia. Pilsudski armed and led a Polish Legion in the Austro-Hungarian Army throughout the war, since he considered the Habsburgs the least bad of the bunch; when the war ended, his Legions were the only standing military force left in the region. Pilsudski was not going to wait for the diplomats at Versailles; he would take matters into his own hands.

Even as the blood was barely dry on the Western Front, Pilsudski had taken control of Warsaw and sent forces out to secure western Ukraine and Lithuania. By 1919, Polish forces were in control of Lithuania, most of Belorussia, and Galicia. The population of these lands had little love for the Russians, of course, but they didn’t exactly want a Polish overlord either. No matter, Pilsudski thought; the Russians were still occupied with the war between the communist Reds and the conservative Whites. Seize land now, settle matters later. The Western Allies did not agree, though, and in December 1919 announced their plan for the eastern Polish border. To accept this ruling, Pilsudski would have to abandon much of their newly won lands, and Pilsudski was not about to accept this. Plus, who was going to make him? The Western Allies, much as they did in the Middle East, were drawing lines on a map that they could not turn into reality.

The Western Allies, however, were NOT Pilsudski’s main problem. By early 1920, Vladimir Lenin and his communist forces had finally gained the upper hand over the Whites, and Lenin was prepared to turn his attention to Poland. He ordered his Defense Minister, Leon Trotsky, to begin preparing for operations in the west to regain the territories that Russia had lost to Poland. Pilsudski, meanwhile, had allied himself with anti-communist Ukrainian nationalist Semyon Peltyura, who promised to cede half-Polish, half-Ukrainian Galicia in exchange for Polish aid in setting up an independent Ukraine. On April 25, 1920, Pilsudski launched a large offensive that seized Kiev. For this one shining moment, the old Commonwealth looked like it might be restored.

But the Reds were coming. Trotsky had sent the Red Army west after its victories over the Whites, and Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s 1st Cavalry Army was at the tip of the spear. The Russian cavalry cut the Polish lines of communication and forced a headlong withdrawal from Kiev. Soon 160,000 Red Army troopers and infantry were harassing the Poles out of Ukraine all together, and were soon crossing the Allied-established 1919 Polish border. From their victories in April and May, the Poles had come to a crisis. By July 1920, the Red Army was thundering across the border, destination: Warsaw.

A word on these armies is in order. To a very large extent, almost all the big units running around in Eastern Europe at this time were extremely improvised armies, put together on the spot to fight in a revolution, civil war, war of independence, what have you. Pilsudski had no formal military training, and had lived most of his life as a rabble-rousing freedom fighter; Tukhachevsky had been a Lieutenant in the Russian Army but had spent years in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The armies of both sides were loosely organized groups of armed men swept up into their movements, led by men who had learned how to lead armies through the school of hard knocks instead of the military academy. Without the giant industrial backing of most of World War I’s great powers, they fought in mass infantry armies, with large cavalry units – somewhat surprising for 1920, but cavalry was the only way to achieve mobility on a large scale in that place and time. Each side had only a handful of tanks or armored cars. Leon Trotsky had done heroic work in transforming the Red Army into a usable military instrument, and now it was paying off.

In July 1920, the Red Army was advancing rapidly, and the Poles seemed to be collapsing. Lenin, like Pilsudski, saw opportunity in this crisis. He had previously been focused on just driving the Poles out of “Russian” territory; now, he saw a chance to take the Revolution international. Lenin ordered Trotsky to capture Warsaw and destroy the Poles in preparation…for an assault on Germany. Germany was in the midst of political and social upheaval, with its own failed Communist revolution only a couple of years old. Lenin, full of ruthless revolutionary determination, was set on bringing socialism to the whole of Europe – and this was his moment to do it.

Poland seemed doomed, but at this point the West intervened. In return for Pilsudski accepting the League of Nations-imposed borders, British and French supplies were shipped to the Poles at lightning speed. Pilsudski had no choice but to give up the dream of a Greater Poland in order to have, well, any Poland at all. Soon the Poles had Western tanks, rifles, and artillery – and advisors, including a large cadre of French officers such as young Charles de Gaulle.

While the Poles pressed as many men into military service as they could find, Tukhachevsky’s forces bore down on Warsaw. He advanced across a wide front, threatening so many sectors that Pilsudski became convinced that he had to counterattack somewhere before the Poles were overwhelmed. His lack of military training hurt his decision-making, but Polish intelligence and listening stations had picked up Red Army signals and were able to determine their plans. Pilsudski was able to transfer troops from the less threatened sectors and assemble a large reserve near Warsaw itself. This transfer of men, and the rush of patriotic Poles to the ranks, gave the Polish Army a numeric superiority around Warsaw itself.

Tukhachevsky planned a bold sweep, striking with the 16th Army as a diversionary force at Warsaw’s northeastern approaches while sending the 4th and 15th Armies in a massive lunge north of the city to the Vistula River, where he could double back and attack Warsaw from the unprotected northwest. The Russians had no idea that the Poles had managed to build their forces back up, even though they were only minimally trained and equipped. All they had seen since June were retreating Polish soldiers, and they became convinced that the city would fall easily. Tukhachevsky underestimated his opponent, and took a major risk by leaving the space between his forces unguarded.

Tukhachevsky’s advance began on August 12, 1920, which marks the beginning of the battle of Warsaw. The communist armies crushed forward on all fronts, their horse cavalry flooding around Polish hardpoints and driving deep penetrations into their foes’ rear areas. The 16th Army began driving in on the outskirts of Warsaw, but ran into heavy fighting at the suburb of Radzymin. As the sound of guns reached the Warsaw city center, most foreign diplomats left, and the Russians managed to overrun Radzymin. The situation was saved when a unit of Polish cavalry managed to slip through the Soviet lines and trash one of the radio stations, severing communications between the attacking forces. Within days, Radzymin was recaptured.

Meanwhile, Pilsudski was planning his counterstroke. His French advisors considered it folly, but they were used to the Western Front, where firepower could break up concentrated and unplanned attacks; in the more fluid fighting in front of Warsaw, a quick reaction meant much more than the trenches of France. Pilsudski started marching his reserve force northwards, planning to hit the Bolshevik weak point like a knife sliding between ribs. As his troops passed in front of him, Pilsudski was saddened to see that half of them were barefoot. They carried rifles from six different countries, and many were just teenagers.

Tukhachevsky was certain that all was going to plan, but squabbles between his commanders had caused some issues. Semyon Budyonny’s cavalry units on the southern flank disobeyed orders from the Soviet high command and refused to attack Warsaw from the south, which allowed Pilsudski to transfer troops north for the counterattack; Budyonny’s political advisor, a little-known Georgian named Joseph Stalin, happily played these political shell games as part of his broader plan to rise to power. Thus, Tukhachevsky’s army was exposed and without support as it marched west, right into Pilsudski’s trap.

Pilsudski struck on August 16. He hit the Soviets in two places, his miniscule tank force breaking the 16th Army at Radzymin and dashing to the east while his reserve and cavalry units broke north. By August 18, Tukhachevsky was nearly encircled, and had to order his 16th Army to retreat as he struggled to extricate the forces of his great lunge. Troops ran as fast as they could to escape the closing ring; those that did not run found themselves confronted by superior numbers of resurgent Polish conscripts fighting desperately for their home. The entire 4th Army was separated from the rest of the Russian forces and had to surrender; the 16th was out of action entirely.

The victory at Warsaw had cost the Poles 50,000 casualties, against nearly 100,000 Red Army dead and wounded, 70,000 captured, and 1000 machine guns and 200 cannon lost. Pilsudski was not done; he struck south against Budyonny’s passive forces, and on August 31 a massive cavalry battle at Komarow took place, the likes of which the world will never see again. Budyonny was almost annihilated, and soon Russian forces were retreating from Poland in every direction as Pilsudski and his nationalists clobbered Red armies left and right.

Even after this magnificent victory, Pilsudski knew that his armies were completely worn out – and he had sold out the hope of future conquests in order to save his nation. On October 12, 1920, the Poles and Lenin’s Communists signed an armistice, granting Poland much of what Pilsudski had asked for, including vast stripes of Lithuanian, Belorussian and Ukrainian territory. This treaty, coupled with the Versailles Treaty of 1919, ended up granting Poland extensive territories in Germany as well – including the coveted port of Danzig, which would…cause trouble later. And the Soviets would not soon forget their defeat at Warsaw, or their loss of territories. Stalin certainly would not forget.

The Battle of Warsaw confirmed an independent Polish nation for the first time in 150 years, and even if there was a great deal of tragedy in Poland’s immediate future under Nazi and Soviet rule, Poland itself would survive, and remains to this day. The "Miracle on the Vistula" had determined that.

More importantly for the rest of Europe, the Red Army’s defeat at Warsaw stopped the westward drive of Communism, which would not resume for 25 years. If Lenin had been able to set up a Communist government in Poland, would Germany, with its large and influential socialist movement, have been next? A successful Communist invasion of Germany may well have prompted intervention by the allies, or resulted in an enlarged Comintern with strange consequences for the 1920s and 1930s. Could Lenin-style Communism come to dominate all of Europe, well before the Warsaw Pact?

There certainly would have been a very different 20th Century had the Poles not stopped the Reds in front of Warsaw.

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