The Act of 5 November 1916 and its Consequences

The significance of the state-building of the document

Act of 5 November 1916 proved important for the Polish cause, as for the first time since perhaps 1815, two partitioning powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) sought Polish support against the other (Russia), and bidding began for this support.

by Wojciech Roszkowski


A substantial change in the Central Powers’ attitude to the Polish cause came in late 1916, due to their exhausted economic and human resources. Having suffered enormous casualties at the Battle of Verdun, the Central Powers were in dire need of Polish soldiers to maintain the Eastern Front. On 5 November 1916, the emperors of Germany and Austria decided to increase Polish support by announcing the reconstruction of an independent Kingdom of Poland, which they had just occupied. In a special manifest, they wrote:

His Majesty the German Emperor and His Majesty the Austrian Emperor and Apostolic King of Hungary, sustained by their firm confidence in the final victory of their arms, and guided by the wish to lead to a happy future the Polish districts which by their brave armies were snatched with heavy sacrifices from Russian power, have agreed to form from these districts an independent State with a hereditary Monarchy and a Constitution. The more precise regulation of the frontiers of the Kingdom of Poland remains reserved. In union with both the Allied Powers, the new Kingdom will find the guarantees which it desires for the free development of its strength. In its own Army the glorious traditions of the Polish Army of former times and the memory of our brave Polish fellow-combatants in the great war of the present time will continue to live. Its organization, training and command, will be regulated by mutual agreement. The Allied Monarchs confidently hope that their wishes for the State and national development of the Kingdom of Poland will now be fulfilled with the necessary regard to the general political conditions of Europe and to the welfare and security of their own countries and peoples. The great western neighbors of the Kingdom of Poland will see with pleasure arise again and flourish at their eastern frontier a free and happy State rejoicing in its national life.[1]

Act of 5th November

The alleged independence of the rump Kingdom of Poland, provided with only vague promises of the territory and political system of the new statehood, failed to generate enthusiasm among Russian Poles, especially as recruitment into the German and Austrian armies soon began. That recruitment had to be voluntary, so the military impact of the manifest was very limited for the Central Powers.

In any case, the Act of 5 November 1916 proved important for the Polish cause, as for the first time since perhaps 1815, two partitioning powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) sought Polish support against the other (Russia), and bidding began for this support. Entente countries protested the German-Austro-Hungarian manifest. In his New Year’s Eve order for 1917, Russian Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich responded with a proclamation of good intentions, stating that “reconstruction of free Poland embracing the three thus-far separated parts” was a Russian military objective. Which promised even less than the two other emperors had. In addition, the March Revolution of 1917 soon swept the Russian tsarist government away. The Provisional Government of Yuri Lvov hesitated, then on 27 March 1917, the Petrograd Council of Workers and Soldiers’ Delegates, following a motion by a Polish Socialist, Aleksander Więckowski, passed a resolution in which they confirmed the right of Poland to become an independent state recognized by the international community.[2]

Two days later, pressed by that resolution, Russia’s Provisional Government issued a statement in which it declared:

A Polish statehood, attached to Russia by a free military union, will provide for a strong barrier against the anti-Slavonic pressures by the Central Powers. A free and united Poland will itself determine its form of government expressing its will by means of a Constituent Assembly elected on the principle of universal suffrage.[3]

While the Central Powers had appealed to Poles to fight against “Asiatic hordes”, the Russians utilized a pan-Slavic argument, all the more bravely now that they no longer controlled the new Kingdom of Poland. But their objectives remained similar: to win Polish support at the price of smooth but vague promises.

November 5th, 1916, board 1. from the portfolio “Pro memoria. Prusak in Poland (1915-1918)” by Józef Rapacki, 1919

Nevertheless, the February Revolution of 1917 and the struggle for power in Russia improved the situation of advocates for the Russian solution and of the Polish community of almost three million on the eastern side of the front line. On 28 March 1917, the Polish Conservatives in Russia established a so-called Polish Liquidation Commission (Polska Komisja Likwidacyjna) led by a popular lawyer, Aleksander Lednicki. Numerous Polish organizations were created: charity, political, and even scholarly. In view of about half a million Polish soldiers in the Russian army and a further hundred thousand Polish prisoners of war of the German and Austrian armies, separation of Polish military units from the Russian forces became a feasible project. In April 1917, a Polish Riflemen’s Division was formed in Kiev but was depleted by revolutionary unrest, so typical throughout the Russian military. Soon, a Union of the Polish Military was created in Petrograd (St Petersburg’s new name), coordinating the formation of separate Polish units.

The political goals of these initiatives were seriously differentiated, nevertheless. For the Conservatives and the National Democrats, the top priority was Polish independence, while Socialists and POW members linked independence with substantial social and political reform, and the SDKPiL revolutionaries joined Russia’s Bolshevik faction, backing its program of internationalist revolution. The virus of revolution also affected some Polish soldiers who were exhausted with the war and in favor of violent upheaval. The first instance of such a rebellion was a mutiny by a Polish Riflemen’s Division reserve regiment in Belogrod, Ukraine.

These controversies were confronted during the First Congress of the Polish Military in Petrograd in June 1917. Despite vigorous agitation by the revolutionaries, the majority delegates elected a moderate Supreme Polish Military Committee (Naczelny Polski Komitet Wojskowy, or Naczpol) under Władysław Raczkiewicz. In July, Naczpol was given the consent of the Provisional Government to form the First Polish Corps (I Korpus Polski w Rosji) in Belarussian territory, commanded by Gen. Józef Dowbór-Muśnicki. Soon, two other corps were gradually being organized in Russia.

The announcement of the Act on November 5 from the balcony of the Sandomierz Palace in Radom

Various Polish initiatives were given increasing support in the West. The Polish cause received a strong incentive when tireless efforts by the pianist Paderewski won over President Woodrow Wilson, who included the reconstruction of Poland as one of his conditions for peace in his speech “Peace without Victory” on 22 January 1917:

I take it for granted, for instance, if I may venture upon a single example, that statesmen everywhere are agreed that there should be a united, independent, and autonomous Poland, and that henceforth inviolable security of life, of worship, and of industrial and social development should be guaranteed to all peoples who have lived hitherto under the power of governments devoted to a faith and purpose hostile to their own.[4]

The speech was all the more important once the United Stated joined Entente military operations in April 1917. In March 1917, Dmowski submitted to Entente representatives a memorandum demanding the reconstruction of Poland, including the Austrian partition along with Teschen Silesia, the Russian partition also including the provinces of Kaunas, Wilno, Grodno, and Volyhnia, to include part of the Minsk province, and the German partition with Gdańsk, Opole in Silesia, and part of the Mazurian lake region. These postulates were far reaching but still comprised less than the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the first partition, in 1772.

In June 1917, the French president, Raymond Poincaré, agreed to create separate Polish military units. On 15 August 1917, a Polish National Committee (Komitet Narodowy Polski, KNP) was established in Paris under Dmowski’s leadership. That committee received diplomatic recognition as an official representation of Poland – by France in September, by Great Britain and Italy in October, and by the United States in December 1917.

Polish National Committee in Paris, 1918. Sitting: Maurycy Zamoyski, Roman Dmowski, Erazm Piltz, standing: Stanisław Kozicki, Jan Emanuel Rozwadowski, Konstanty Skirmunt, Franciszek Fronczak, Władysław Sobański, Marian Seyda, Józef Wielowieyski

There was also some progress on the side of the Central Powers. On 1 December 1916, German Governor-General of the Kingdom of Poland Hans von Beseler welcomed the Polish legionnaires to Warsaw, and POW put up NO ARMY WITHOUT GOVERNMENT POSTERS.[5] The first step in that direction was made on 15 January 1917, with the creation of the Provisional Council of State (Tymczasowa Rada Stanu). Fledgling departments of finance, political affairs, interior, education, and religion were created along with a military commission. Piłsudski directed the council’s military commission, but the much anticipated Polish draft proved far from German and Austrian expectations. While the deputy chief of staff of the German army, Gen. Erich Ludendorff, expected three hundred and fifty thousand new Polish soldiers, only several thousand volunteered.[6]

While Piłsudski’s pressures had contributed to the Act of 5 November, his strategizing now reached a new stage. He sabotaged the Germans’ formation of the Polish army and, at the same time, attacked the Provisional Council of State for its insufficient political efforts. In German and Austrian eyes, he was a real troublemaker—but they feared his influence would become even more troublesome if he was removed. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1917, Piłsudski established a Convention of Organization A (Konwent Organizacji A, or Convention A), a clandestine circle of the POW leadership that was planned to be a catalyst for leadership of a leftist party. He also planned to create a Convention B, for leading rightist leaders, but that plan never materialized. Piłsudski’s election as honorary chairman of the convention of the Association of Polish Soldiers in St Petersburg let him wield a new tool. In a conversation with the German representative at the Provisional Council of State, Count Bogdan Hutten-Czapski, he remarked: “Let me go to Russia and see what happens.”[7] He went into hiding for some time, but finally made another decision.

On 2 July 1917, Piłsudski took part in the meeting of the Provisional Council for the last time, stepping down from its military commission. In a closed meeting, he told his top legionnaires: “Our common road with the Germans has ended (…). It is in the German interest to defeat the Allies; it is in our interest for the Allies to defeat the Germans.”[8] Having refused an oath of loyalty to the Austrian and German emperors, he was arrested on 22 July 1917, with his top aide, Kazimierz Sosnkowski. Two of the three Polish Legion brigades followed Piłsudski’s example. One First Brigade soldier recalled that when the order to step forward was given to mark refusals, his entire regiment stepped forward unanimously, showing unexpected discipline.[9] Soldiers from those two brigades were consequently put in internment camps. The Second Brigade swore the loyalty oath, and continued fighting. After Piłsudski’s arrest, the fifteen-man Convention A, which included Bogusław Miedziński, Edward Rydz-Śmigły, Tadeusz Kasprzycki, Juliusz Poniatowski, and Leon Wasilewski, met and appointed Jędrzej Moraczewski as their leader.

First meeting of the Provisional Council of State

As Piłsudski and Sosnkowski were transported via Gdańsk and Spandau to the Magdeburg Fortress, the Entente’s support for the KNP along with the creation in Russia of separate Polish Corps in summer 1917 forced the Central Powers into agreeing to establish a sort of Polish government in the occupied Kingdom of Poland. By a decree of 12 October 1917, they established a Regency Council (Rada Regencyjna) of the future Polish state. The three regents—Prince Zdzisław Lubomirski, Archbishop of Warsaw Aleksander Kakowski, and Count Józef Ostrowski—appointed Jan Kucharzewski as head of the cabinet on 7 December 1917. The two relatively independent ministries were those of justice and education (under Stanisław Bukowiecki and Antoni Ponikowski, respectively), as in September 1917, the Germans and Austrians had already agreed to turn the judiciary and schools in the new Kingdom of Poland over to Poles.

The text is an excerpt from Wojciech Roszkowski’s book Master Game. Józef Piłsudski and the Rebirth of Poland, (Warsaw: Polish History Museum, 2021).


Author: Prof. Wojciech Roszkowski
Translation: Alan Lockwood


[1] This text was published in the London Times on 6 November 1916; [last accessed: 16/11/2016].

[2] Its text can be found in: Powstanie II Rzeczpospolitej. Wybór dokumentów 1866/1925 (Warsaw: Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawncza, 1981), p. 332.

[3] Ibid. pp. 332–333.

[4] Quoted according to: [last acessed: 6/11/2016].

[5] Piotr Wandycz, The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795–1918 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974), p. 353.

[6] Souvenirs de guerre de M. Erzberger (Paris, 1921), pp. 205, 242, quoted in Mieczysław Pruszyński, Tajemnica Piłsudskiego (Warsaw: Polska Oficyna Wydawnicza BGW, 1996), p. 65.

[7] Leon Wasilewski, Piłsudski jakim go znałem (Warsaw: Muzeum Historii Polski, 2013), p. 201.

[8] Wacław Jędrzejewicz, Kronika życia Józefa Piłsudskiego (London: Polska Fundacja Kulturalna, 1986), p. 362.

[9] According to Władysław Kęcik; cf.: Tomasz Łysiak, “Za Polskę do więzienia”, Gazeta Polska, 19 July 2017.