15 August 2017
The Polish-Bolshevik War and Miracle on the Vistula
In March 1920 the Bolsheviks developed a plan for destroying Poland. They aimed to open an offensive with the Western Front forces of Mikhail Tukhachevsky advancing on the Minsk-Vilnius-Warsaw line.
To force the enemy into a decisive battle before they concentrated their forces, Józef Piłsudski made an alliance with the head of the Ukrainian nation, Symon Petlura, promising the Ukrainians to help build their sovereign nation, and to conduct an offensive against Kiev. On 7 May, the Poles took the city but the major part of the Red Army escaped over the Dnieper River. In response, Lenin ordered Tukhachevsky to strike from the north. The Bolshevik offensive was halted at the cost of part of the Ukrainian forces brought from Belarus. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks reinforced the Ukrainian front with the First Cavalry Army of Semyon Budyonny, then opened the offensive, overrunning the weakened Polish lines on 6 June.
Tukhachevsky, certain the main Polish forces concentrated for defense of the capital and north of the Bug, sent a wire to his army on 10 August to force the Vistula and take Warsaw.
Europe didn’t believe there was any rescue for Poland. The prime minister of Great Britain, Lloyd George, lamented in the House of Commons that with the defeat of Poland the fruits of the Versailles Treaty would be lost. The Czech press published illustrations showing Polish nobility fleeing from the Bolsheviks and a Cossack with a whip running after a soldier in a Polish cap. In Germany, posters appeared with a Red Army soldier freeing the country from chains. Lord Edgar d’Albernon, member of the Interallied Mission to Poland, noted that nothing seemed more sure than that the Soviet Army would conquer Warsaw…
Piłsudski rejected the counsel of Gen. Maxime Wegand from the French Military Mission, who thought that after 600 kilometers of retreat, the army wasn't capable of attacking the enemy as “even the French soldier can’t do it,” and the suggestion of Entente advisers to defend the Vistula line. He didn’t mean to stop the Bolsheviks, but to crush them between the Vistula and Bug by a decisive maneuver and rapid action. He believed the Polish soldier was capable of doing it. Extremely helpful in this was fantastic work by counterespionage, which intercepted and decoded enemy wires.
The government initiated negotiations, but the Bolsheviks, certain of victory, set conditions degrading Poland to the role of a vassal country and preparing to transform the nation into a new Soviet Republic (including a reduction of the army to 50,000 men).
Tukhachevsky downplayed an order to counterattack found on a Polish soldier, taking it for disinformation aimed at drawing the Bolsheviks off their objective of Warsaw. He understood the dread of the situation on the evening of 17 August, with Poles advancing in the Sixteenth Army's rear areas. The next day, the Polish First Army also launched an attack. Polish soldiers, carried by enthusiasm, managed to make an effort that couldn't be met or challenged even by their very durable enemy.
The shattering defeat of the Bolsheviks facilitated Poles in continuing the war and led to its victorious end. On 20 September, Lenin said “Piłsudski and his Poles triggered a gigantic, astonishing disaster for the world revolution.”
The catastrophe of the Red Army is often called the Miracle on the Vistula.