The Polish-Soviet War was fought between the newly formed Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1921. The result of the war ensured that Poland would remain independent and non-Communist until World War II.
An independent Poland was one of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and was confirmed in the Versailles Treaty. The new republic’s first head of state was Marshall Jozef Pilsudski, a World War I veteran and ardent Polish nationalist. The government, especially Pilsudski, considered Soviet Russia to be the greatest threat to Poland’s security. The Soviet government was not a participant in the Versailles negotiations, so the Polish-Soviet border was never fixed, making a confrontation almost inevitable. Both sides hoped to expand their territory. The Soviets had a larger army, but most of it was involved in the Russian Civil War against the Western-supported White Army.
In addition, Vladimir Lenin, seeking to expand Communism abroad and ultimately aid the German Communists in their own revolution in Germany, sought to invade Germany in order to fully ensure Western Germany fell to Communism, with Poland ultimately being in the way.
In March, 1920, the Bolsheviks launched an offensive against Poland. This was soon pushed back, and by May, Polish forces had advanced as far east as Kiev. Red Army reinforcements turned the tide, however, and the Soviets retook Kiev on June 12. Now in retreat, the Poles attempted to negotiate a peace while they still could, but the Soviets delayed talks, and continued their drive west. By August 1, the Red Army was only 75 miles from Warsaw, and the Allies rushed aid to the beleaguered Poles.
Victory at Warsaw
What saved Poland was not aid or Western intervention, however, but a serious strategic error in the part of the Bolsheviks. The Red Army facing the Poles was split into two parts, the Western Army Group in front of Warsaw and the Southern Army Group facing the city of Lvov. On August 16, Pilsudski launched a surprise attack into the gap between the two Red Army Groups, catching the Northern group in a pincer movement and smashing three divisions. The Poles took 60,000 prisoners, and the Red Army fell back. Both sides agreed to an armistice in October.
On March 18, 1921, the war formally ended with the Treaty of Riga. The treaty included a recognition of Polish sovereignty, a return of Polish national treasures, and a halt to Bolshevik propaganda in Poland. Polish territorial gains included the city of Lvov.
When Poland became independent, a group of American pilots volunteered to join the Polish forces. They formed the 7th squadron of the Polish Air Force, dubbed the Kosciuszko Squadron after the Polish national hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The unit served with distinction throughout the war, and the unit’s founder, Merian Cooper, was awarded Poland’s highest honor, the Virtuti Militari. In aerial combat, 7th Squadron pilots downed two Soviet airplanes and an observation balloon.
- Battle, by R.G. Grant, DK Publishing, 2005
- Chronicle of the 20th Century, ed. by Clifton Daniel, Chronicle Publications, 1987
- Kosciuszko Squadron
- Polish Order of the Virtuti Militari Recipients
- Polish Air Force claims in the Polish-Soviet War
- The Polish fight for independence 1919-21
- Polish-Soviet War: Battle for Warsaw
- Time article on Kosciuszko Squadron
- White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-20 and the “Miracle on the Vistula”, by Norman Davies, Random House, 2004