Poland Against All Odds

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Mary against the Marxists, part II.
Read part I: The Communist Bayonet.

The Plan of Piłsudski

On the night of the 5th of August, 1920, Piłsudski (pictured above) analyzed the Russian formations and realized that their intent was to repeat the strategy of taking Warsaw as they did in the November Uprising of 1831. This allowed him to finalize the military strategy of attack on August 6th. Piłsudski’s wife, Aleksandra, recalls:

In the morning the attack plan was ready and despite doubts and even unbelief in its effectiveness on the part of many staff members, Piłsudski did not allow any changes to be made. He believed that hesitation would be a fatal mistake.

The plan is what it is, and – bad or good – must be carried out.

It was a great risk, true, but can out-of-the-ordinary plans be risk-free? Doubts lurked even in the hearts of many officers. He, however, believed in his plan and if he was afraid of anything, as he later wrote, only the weakness with which he was to strike.[1]

Pilsudski’s plan was to let the oncoming Bolsheviks attack on the outskirts of Warsaw where he would leave a small and poorly equipped force of soldiers and volunteers to hold off the Bolsheviks and keep them busy for three days. Meanwhile, the Soviet communications would be jammed. While this was happening,  he would take the best soldiers that were better equipped for battle to strike from the south on the left side of the Bolsheviks flank. In order to have enough soldiers to do this, the city of Warsaw itself was left completely undefended. This was extremely risky due to the fact that if the smaller force did not hold up, the Bolsheviks would parade into Warsaw completely unhindered and Poland would fall. The strike was planned to occur on August 17th and the small force was expected to hold off until at least then.

On August 6th, Piłsudski signed order 8358/III which was to execute the key part of his plan from August 15th to August 18th. On the same day he asked Cardinal A. Kakowski to send priests to the army. Following the Cardinals appeal, 96 priests have come forward to volunteer, one of them being Father Ignacy Jan Skorupka.[2] A nationwide novena was undertaken for nine days to end at the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 6th-15th). This was the same day that King Jan Sobieski almost 240 years earlier left Krakow to defeat the Muslim invasion of Europe at the Battle of Vienna. At the same time in every church in the country there was daily Eucharistic adoration. On the evening of August 6th Lord D’Abernon recalled in his diary:

The Soviet Army continues to advance rapidly and is now within 30 miles of Warsaw. They have crossed every conceivable frontier, ethnographic or otherwise, and are well within Polish territory. The attitude of the Polish Government towards armistice negotiations does not justify this aggression. Ever since I have been here, 25th July, there has been a genuine and urgent desire for an armistice, and all possible expedition has been used in negotiating. Postponement of meetings has been entirely due to calculated delay on the Russian side.[3]

Bolshevik general Toukhatchevsky recounted the following on their advance towards Warsaw:

Our brilliant successes and the continued retreat of the Polish Army had finally destroyed the latter’s fighting capacity. We were no longer opposed by organised troops; the complete demoral­isation, the absolute want of any confidence and the impossibility of success, had undermined the morale both of leaders and men. The Poles sometimes retired without reason; there were hundreds of deserters; no Provost-Marshal could restore order or discipline, and, above all, there was the antagonism between class and class. Workmen’s centres had been strangled by the mobilisation, but the murmur of revolt continued among them… The continuous successes by [our] western forces left us no doubt as to final victory.[4]

Sometime later, Piłsudski’s secret plan made it into the hands of the Bolsheviks who discovered in on a Polish officer they killed in battle. Piłsudski knew about this, and the Bolshevik generals did not believe it was genuine when they read it, since the plan was so desperate.[5]

August 7th: There was no hope of further western help for Poland, as these countries  were succumbing to Communist propaganda. The French newspaper “Humanité” declared “Not a man, not a halfpenny – nothing for capitalistic Poland.”  

August 10th: The indifference of British politicians was recounted by Lord D’Abernon “In England, even sober political leaders – as was made clear in the House of Commons debate of 10th August – had only one preoccupation: to keep clear whether or not Warsaw fell and Communism triumphed.” Later that day, Anna Kamienska, a nurse in a military hospital on the east side of Warsaw wrote:

At night we heard some weird bangs, we jumped on our feet and called the command asking what is that sound? They replied that it was bangs from Bolshevik artillery fire.[6]

August 11th: Terms that were to be presented to the Polish Government by the Bolsheviks as part of an armistice agreement were given by London to Polish officials via telegram. The nature of these terms is best described by Lord D’Abernon:

These terms were so extravagant that I cannot conceive any Polish Government taking them into consideration. I should have expected London to have refused them without further parley… The view we all take here is that to accept terms of this nature would amount to a disastrous capitulation. …For the proposed armistice terms are so humiliating that they are in themselves sufficient to prove that safety is only to be found in fighting to the last. They slam the door on compromise and negotiation. [7]

The terms were effectively to accept a smaller territory and a virtually complete demilitarization of Poland while leaving only a negligibly small-armed force. It also meant the prohibition of Poland producing its own arms and accepting Soviet access to Polish territory. Regardless of the absurdity of these terms, the British Prime minister advised the Polish government to surrender because Bolshevik victory was virtually certain. Up to August 11th Poland had tried to negotiate with the Bolsheviks at least five times for an armistice agreement for peace.

The red army entered Wyszków, a small city about 25 miles from Warsaw.

August 12th: as the Bolsheviks were marching towards Warsaw, three men who were designated by the Kremlin to form the government of the “Polish Soviet Republic” invited themselves in as guests at a rectory in Wyszków. They told the priest not to worry because they would not stay there very long. They planned to triumphantly enter Warsaw on the 16th after it was conquered on the 15th. They had with them posters ready to be posted in the streets declaring victory and were already dated to August 15th. They told their host that awaiting them in Warsaw was a “welcoming committee” of 40,000 Polish Socialists who were to provoke a “spontaneous” revolution.

That same morning in Warsaw, the sound of artillery fire began to thunder even louder. At that time Vladimir Lenin publicly called on the Communist cause at the session of the Bolshevik Political Bureau: “from the political standpoint, it is of utmost importance to finish Poland off.” General Toukhatchevsky recalled:

In the meantime, our offensive operations were pursued without interruption. There was no time for hesitation or rest; the final solution had to be achieved. Instructions were repeatedly given in this sense, and were finally endorsed on 12th August by instructions from the Commander-in-Chief to capture Warsaw as soon as possible.[8]

The Soviets used one frequency for radio communications that was known to Polish intelligence. In order to jam their communications without signaling that their codes were broken, radio jammers in Warsaw recited the book of Genesis in Polish and Latin on their frequency.

At the same time, the Bolsheviks reached Radzymin, a distant suburb of Warsaw, and began the attack. Meanwhile, a very delayed line of defense for Warsaw was being hectically prepared under the sound of the advancing Bolsheviks attacking Radzymin. There was a severe lack of hands to dig the trenches and stretch out the barbed wire. The incoming reinforcements comprised of conscripts and volunteers did not join the preparatory work, as they were busy getting last minute training on how to use their rifles. The arrival of a detachment of 700 deserters fleeing the defense of Radzymin ahead only added to the panic and further degraded morale. Chaos reigned.[9]

In Warsaw the loud sound of detonations in the distance could be clearly heard. One of the generals from the French diplomatic mission was asked by the Aposolic Nuncio if he counted on victory. He replied, “Today your prayers will help more than then art of war.”[10]

General Piłsudski left Warsaw to go south with his army and execute the attack plan. The defense of Warsaw was left to the volunteer Army commanded by Genaral Haller. The wife of Piłsudski described the moment of parting with her husband:

When he said goodbye to us, before leaving for Puławy, he was tired and gloomy. The burden of an enormous responsibility for the fate of the country overwhelmed and tormented him … he said goodbye to his children and to me, as if he were going to his death. The outcome of any war, my husband told me before parting, is uncertain until it’s over. Everything is in God’s hands.

In his own words:

I left Warsaw on the evening of the 12th, I left with a deep feeling of the absurdity of the situation. And even with a certain disgust of myself because the weakness and powerlessness of the Poles forced me to go against all sense of logic and all the sane laws of warfare.

When Piłsudski met up with his troops, he recalled:

I noted, moreover, the very poor state of the equipment and uniforms of the troops. I had never in all my experience of warfare seen such ragamuffins, as I called them… In the 21st Division, almost half of the soldiers paraded in front of me barefoot.

The artillery and rifles of the newly created Polish army were produced in at least six countries which each used different ammunition.

August 13: The main battle of Radzymin took place and the Bolszeviks entered the town for the first time. The mayor of Radzymin described the entry of the Bolszeviks as follows: “They acted like robbers. They did not spare anyone.” A reporter for “Kuriero Polskiego” said,  “They took everything that can be eaten and drunk. People cried. If anyone asked them to spare some flour for the children he got punched in the face… They robbed stores, broke windows, raped and murdered many women, the city came out of the battle completely destroyed.”[11] Still the Poles fought bitterly against the invaders. The battle was so intense that the town exchanged hands between the Poles and Bolsheviks seven times before finally being conquered by the latter, leaving the town in ruins.

For the Bolsheviks, the skyline of Warsaw was now in view, the “Paris of the East” was now within their grasp. They were promised that upon parading into Warsaw they were to receive a big financial bonus for this achievement and to celebrate they were to be given three days to do whatever they would want without punishment, meaning rob, rape, murder and pillage. The people of Warsaw had no idea what was awaiting them. The Minister of War for the Bolsheviks quickly sent the news to Vladimir Lenin that the last obstacle to Europe (Radzymin) had been destroyed.[12] The fate of Poland, Europe and the world was already decided, as if it belonged to them. The transformation of Poland from the Second Polish Republic to the Socialist Republic of Poland was only days away. It was clear that only a miracle could save Poland, which stood no chance.

All diplomats evacuated the capital except for the Italian, Danish, and American Diplomats who were to remain until the main Polish government evacuated Warsaw. The Apostolic Nuncio Cardinal Achille Ratti decided to stay till the end as he wanted to stand eye to eye with the Antichrist.[13] Lord D’Abernon describes the scene as follows:

There is singularly little alarm among the mass of the population. The upper classes have already left the town, in many cases having placed their pictures and other valuables in charge of the Museum authori­ties. Warsaw has been so often occupied by foreign troops that the event in itself causes neither the ex­citement nor alarm which would be produced in a less experienced city. Even the fact that the invaders are Bolsheviks with no sympathy for White Poles, as they call the squirearchy of this country, fails to cause the terror which would be felt elsewhere in such circumstances.[14]

Around noon between Warsaw and the Bolshevik front in a town called Ząbki, Father Ignacy Skorupko said his last Mass in a wooden church with his young battalion, many of whom were his former students. From the altar he said prophetically, “Heavy casualties await us, but soon, on the 15th, on the day of Our Lady, fate will turn in our favor.”[15]

After taking Radzimyn, the commander of the 79th Brigade of the Bolsheviks decided to take the shortest direct route to Warsaw which meant going through the village of Ossów. He had under his command selected soldiers experienced in battle and as they were approaching Ossów, they were met with the young inexperienced volunteer army of General Haller, the weakest in the entire Polish Army. The sight of the Bolshevik army frightened the inexperienced soldiers and over half of them abandoned the trenches, leaving their rifles behind. They were meat for the Bolshevik machine guns and were ruthlessly slaughtered. At night a battalion of the volunteer army comprised of 500 young teenagers were sent to the battlefront at the village of Leśniakowizna in order to supplement the forces decimated by the Bolsheviks.[16]

The nurse Anna Kamienska from Warsaw described the situation:

On Thursday morning, cannon shots began to thunder more and more loudly, the enemy approached the gates of Warsaw, war bulletins brought more and more dark news. On Friday morning (August 13th), we received an order to empty the hospital when the cannon shots started to arrive in the vicinity of Warsaw. The wounded, who came from the vicinity of Radzymin, said that the Bolsheviks would certainly enter Warsaw around Saturday (August 14). …In the evening the most heavily wounded were sent on further, but at night a new group began to arrive. And if you could see whom they brought to us on the carriers! Not old soldiers, but kids and teenagers, all not even in uniforms, many without shoes, with stab wounds in many cases, which means that these little ones had even been in hand-to-hand combat. [17]

Read part III: The Miracle on the Vistula


Photo: Józef Piłsudski, public domain.

[1] Ewa J.P. Storożyńska and Józef M. Bartnik, SJ., Matka Boża Łaskawa A Cud Nad Wisłą (Krakow: Wydawnictwo AA, 2020), 194.

[2] Ibid., 210.

[3] Viscount D’Abernon, The Eighteenth Decisive Battle of the World: Warsaw 1920 (London: Hyperion Press, 1977), 60.

[4] Ibid., 155.

[5] Ibid., 137.

[6] Storożyńska and Bartnik, 218.

[7] D’Abernon, 71-71.

[8] Ibid., 156-157.

[9] Storożyńska and Bartnik SJ, 226-227.

[10] Ibid., 214.

[11] Ibid., 222-223.

[12] Ibid., 47.

[13] Ibid., 205.

[14] D’Abernon, op. cit., 79.

[15] Storożyńska and Bartnik, 63, 234.

[16] Ibid., 228.

[17] Ibid., 219.

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