I read this book for 2 reasons: firstly, because I had always been fascinated by this episode in Europe's fragmentation after WW1, ever since reading the chapter on it in JFC Fuller's Decisive Battles series whilst still at school (and for once his description of the battle as `decisive' is accurate here- the result of this battle really did change history). More importantly, I thought 2 of Zamoyski's earlier books, `The Last King of Poland' and `Moscow 1812' were models of popular history, being entertaining, well argued and well researched, and, not least, extremely well written.
Whilst this is not a bad book, I was a bit disappointed after finishing Warsaw 1920. The treatment is often very superficial, which is I suppose inevitable in a book of 140 pages. I doubt that Zamoyski is capable of writing badly, but I did wonder what this book is for. Zamoyski acknowledges the help of his friend Norman Davies, who has written a more detailed book on this subject. As far as I know this is still considered the standard work in English, and, given that Davies' prose is typically as elegant as Zamoyski's, is no doubt highly readable as well as scholarly. Zamoyski does not claim to have done original research, and also acknowledges that all the essential documents have been widely available for a long time. I suppose the only rationale is that this book is shorter than Davies' and so provides a useful introduction (and I have to concede that until I read this book I was not aware of Davies' effort, even though I have read several of his books).
The war began when the Poles and their Ukrainian allies attacked the Red Army in the Ukraine in April 1920, whilst the latter was engaged in fighting Denikin's army in the Russian Civil War. Zamoyski concedes that Pilsudski `committed a huge diplomatic blunder' in precipitating the war, but he did so because he realised that a Soviet attack was imminent, & that if Russia was able to mobilise her full potential the Polish Army would be swamped. However, as far as world opinion was concerned this appeared to be an unprovoked attack on the Soviet Union, especially as the Soviets had repudiated the historical partition treaties & recognised all the territory up to the Dneiper as Polish.
This is an event of crucial importance to the interpretation of the conflict, and also to the wider subject of the development of the Soviet Union. Received opinion seems to be that Lenin was bent on exporting revolution as soon as the Civil War in Russia was settled in favour of the Communists. Zamoyski follows this view & on page 13 states that in January 1920 the Politburo resolved to invade Poland within 3 months (with Trotsky & Chicherin demurring). If this is true then Pilsudski was just guilty of poor tactics, rather than of starting a war of aggression. However, Zamoyski only offers references to secondary sources to support his claim (footnote 8), rather than primary evidence. This is disappointing in reference to something so fundamental. I am not a historian, and certainly no expert on this subject, but given that this point drives one's attitude to subsequent events I would like to be sure what the Bolsheviks had resolved to do.
This campaign is fascinating for several reasons, not least the fact that it was so different than the recently ended World War where, albeit to a lesser extent on the Eastern Front than in the West, the war was often static due to the weight of materiel on both sides, and the difficultly of controlling large armies on the battlefield before effective radio communication became available. In the Polish-Soviet War, on the other hand, warfare was very mobile, with relatively small armies covering huge distances, and cavalry made a comeback onto the battlefield, although this was partly because of the Russian innovation of the `tachanka', a heavy machine gun on the back of an open horse drawn buggy. It could gallop up to a line of enemy infantry as an adjunct to the cavalry, & deliver rounds of withering fire as it veered round.
Improvisation generally had to be the order of the day, obviously so for the Poles, who needed to create a new army alongside a new country, but also in the case of the Soviets. As Zamoyski points out, the Bolsheviks were hampered in building a new army by their success in destroying the old one: a pre-condition of their seizure of power in October 1917 was the destruction of the Imperial Russian Army, & the Bolsheviks achieved this by systematically undermining every aspect of military service, inciting mutiny, desertion, and wholesale slaughter of officers. But Trotsky, ever the realist, brushed aside ideological considerations when confronted with the need to win the Civil War, & sought out former Tsarist officers, re-designating them from 'enemies of the people' to 'specialists'. This created problems with existing volunteers, and suspect loyalties, so Trotsky solved this problem by giving each officer a `guardian angel' in the form of a political commissar, both to protect the officer from his troops, and to keep him in line.
Pilsudski's attack on the Soviet Union was not just a diplomatic mistake, but he soon found himself in the situation faced by many other invaders of that vast country- the Russian armies he defeated disappeared & he found himself having to defend ever larger areas of territory. The Poles were repulsed around Kiev in the south, & then the Soviet commander on their Western Front, the 27 year old nihilistic nobleman Mikhail Tukhachevsky, attacked in the north. With the Soviet armies converging on Warsaw it seemed that nothing could stop them defeating Poland and marching into Germany & beyond.
However, the topography of the front in the Soviet-Polish war gave the Poles an advantage, which became more important the further that Tukhachevsky marched into Poland. The Pripet Marshes in the middle of the front meant that movement had to be down 2 corridors, between Warsaw and Smolensk, or between Lublin and Kiev. The Russian armies had to operate independently from their bases at Smolensk & Kharkov, but the Polish armies could be more cohesive, as they had the common base of Warsaw even though they moved apart as they went east. So as they were pushed back towards Warsaw the Poles could cohere more whilst the wings of the Soviet forces found it ever more difficult to work together, although they didn't really want to either. Yegorov & Stalin, responsible for the southern wings of the Red Army moving out of the Ukraine, were guilty of insubordination on a grand scale during the Polish campaign. Although they cannot be blamed for failing to save the day at Warsaw, (Tukhachevsky knew that Yegorov's forces were too far away & didn't take any account of them in his final orders for the battle of Warsaw), both Yegorov & Stalin ignored Kamenev's orders to support the offensive & transfer forces to Tukhachevsy's front. Once Stalin seized power in the Soviet Union, Tukhachevsky was a marked man; he was killed during the purges in 1937 after the usual show trial.
The Polish situation was desperate and it seemed that the army could disintegrate altogether. Trotsky's ruthless use of `barrier troops' or in the Soviet jargon `anti-retreat detachments,' with orders to shoot those in the front line who deserted, or even retreated without orders is well known. However, I did not know that Polish generals ordered military police to machine gun any retreating troops from positions taken behind the front line. Generals Haller & Rozwadowski resorted to such desperate measures because they were so alarmed by the performance in the defence of Warsaw, and they seemed to work as the troops seemed to show a `change of heart' (who wouldn't?) .
This was the cue for Pilsudski's finest hour & the `Miracle on the Vistula'; he had gathered together 5 divisions and counter-attacked in the centre, south of Warsaw, in August. As is usual in the fog of war, both commanders had drawn up their plans based on false assumptions about the other's intentions: Pilsudski believed Tukhachevsky main attack was to be on the Warsaw bridgeheads, whereas the latter believed the main Polish force left was grouped north of Warsaw & intended to attack there. Tukhachevsky had even been given a copy of Pilsudski's orders for the counter-offensive but ignored them as he thought it was a hoax. This was because the dead officer from whom they were retrieved should not have died where he did due to the unit he was part of being expected to be elsewhere.
Notwithstanding Pilsudski's mistakes, the operation was a complete success & the Soviets were routed & driven back behind the new borders. Zamoyski describes the ebb & flow of the battle well but again one would want more detail here. The focus is just on the commanders: what did it feel to fight in this gruesome, ruthless struggle? How did the ordinary soldiers & civilians cope?
The concluding `Aftermath' chapter again feels a bit light. Zamoyski states that it would be idle to speculate about the consequences of a Soviet victory, but then proceeds to do so, mentioning that the states that ended up behind the iron curtain after the Second World War would have done so before `and maybe Germany' as well. I don't think that these `counterfactuals' are idle speculation, they help to remind us that historical events are not inevitable, that contemporaries had choices and outcomes could have been very different. Zamoyski underplays the significance of the battle here; given the anarchy prevailing in Germany at the time and the strength of the Left, it seems quite likely that Germany would also be overrun, & given the exhaustion of the Western Powers, would the invasion have stopped there? Read more ›