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By Mark Hannamm

In April 1919, Poland`s army mustered around 170,000 men of whom 80,000 were combatants. These consisted of a rag-bag collection of units which had been left over in Poland following the cessation of hostilities in the Great War. The nucleus of the Polish army was formed by the 9,000 strong remnant of the Royal Polish Army (the “Polnische Wehrmacht”). They were joined by 75,000 Legionnaires from Marshal Pilsudski`s Legions which had been fighting for Austria until disbanded in 1917; and various Poznanian units of the German army who had declared for Poland in December 1918, bringing perhaps an additional 50,000 men. The rest were conscripted peasants who were found to be dull, slow to learn and hard to train. Trotsky called them an “army of slaves, held by force, steeped in priests` lies and bourgeois deceit”.

By the end of that summer a vital infusion of trained and experienced combat veterans reached Poland. 50,000 men under General Jozef Haller returned from the famous Polish Legion which had fighting in France. This new influx also included the Bayonne Legion, the Polish company of the Legion Etrangere. Accompanying Haller was a small cadre of French officers including one Major Charles De Gaulle.

More reinforcements bolstered the fledgling Polish army from formations raised among Polish conscripts in the Tsarist army who had caught up in the Russian Revolution. General Lucjan Zeligowski marched his Polish Division from Odessa to Lvov; a Polish brigade arrived from Murmansk, and 34 year old Colonel K. Rumsza brought home 10,000 survivors of the Tsarist Polish Siberian Brigade; who would land at Gdansk following an epic journey by sea which took them three quarters of the way round the world from their embarkation point at Vladivostock.

This was the army which smashed into the Ukraine in May 1920 capturing Kiev. However, it was unceremoniously tumbled out again in a matter of weeks as the Soviet behemoth rolled west in a lightning campaign which had the Poles on the run for a month.

Not surprising though considering the difficulties facing this polyglot force. Units armed with German rifles were issued with French ammunition and ex-Austrian officers argued with ex-Tsarist officers whom they had `defeated previously`. It was also a scarecrow army wearing a polyglot of uniforms that had once clothed half the soldiery from the industrial nations of the world. Field pieces, machine-guns and rifles came from Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy, Japan and the USA. The desperate defenders of the fortress of Modlin even utilised six Napoleonic cannon! Some of the firearms had seen action in the Russo-Turkish War and had help man the defences of Plevna in 1877.

However, as the Red hordes neared Warsaw a Polish ‘New Model Army’ was taking shape. The newly created Polish General Staff under General Lesniewski decided to adopt French organisation, army manuals and tactics. 160,000 volunteers came forward from the ranks of the professional and middle classes to join 150,000 conscripts called up in the summer of 1920. The universities emptied to fill whole battalions with students. The new regiments now either comprised of or were led by men who were keen, intelligent, and above all, well motivated. Trotsky warned the Soviet Central Committee “We have operating against us for the first time, a regular army led by good technicians”. In addition the Polish Socialist Party organised Workers Battalions for local defence and amongst them were women`s Legions.

The new armies received weapons and equipment from French reserves in Salonika, U.S. stockpiles left behind in France, and captured German weapons, clothing and equipment stored in Italy. Aid came too in the form of military advisers headed by the brilliant French General Weygand. A Franco-Polish tank regiment had already seen heavy combat, whilst air cover was provided by Spads and Bristol Fighters. There was even a ‘volunteer’ squadron of American pilots flying Albatrosses.

The creation of this new army did not go without hitch. Divisions varied from 2,000 to 8,000 men, from 40 - 250 machine-guns and from 12 to 70 howitzers. Some units had only one rifle to go between three men. Only Josef Haller`s “Blue Army”, so called due to their French 'Horizon Bleu' uniforms, reached anything near Western Front tables of arms and equipment. Ammunition was always short for both sides and plenty of engagements would be decided by cold steel.

There were reputedly only three squadrons of cavalry at the armistice in 1918, but by August 1920 cavalry formed the principal offensive arm of the Polish army totalling at least seven brigades with 28,000 lances. Each brigade had three or four ‘Tachanki’, horse-drawn carts mounting machine-guns. Every cavalryman was armed with lance, sword and carbine.

The 1st Cavalry Division had six regiments from a polyglot background. The 8th “Royal and Imperial” Uhlans were raised from the sons of Galician gentry. The 9th Uhlans were also Galician but this time, of a more humble background, with officers who`d served in the Austrian Landwehr or Legions. They had British uniforms and equipment.

The 14th Uhlans were largely ‘White’ Russians and had fought first against the Germans on the Eastern Front and then against the Reds in the Kuban. Not surprisingly they intensely disliked the Austrian equipment they had been issued. The 1st “Krechowiecki” Uhlans had previously been in the Russian Pulavy Legion. The 2nd Hussars were ex-Austrian legionaries. The 16th Uhlans were Poznanians who wore Napoleonic style uniforms with the rogatywka caps surmounted by a red rosette, with Prussian horse equipment.

There were 3 batteries of artillery, machine-guns, 1 squadron of cavalry and 650 infantry to defend every mile of defences around Warsaw.

Tanks were principally French Renault FT17`s of the French 505e Regiment / Polish 1st Tank Regiment (1 Pulk Czolgow Poliskich) 75 gun armed and 48 with MGs split into 2 battalions each of 2 companies. Camouflaged in the French three tone sand / red-brown / green with French style ‘playing card’ markings, they saw extensive action.

Railways on this front were vitally important arteries for the supply and concentration of armies over the great distances involved. So their control and maintenance were crucial. Armoured trains were a specialty of the Eastern Front. The early Polish ones were protected by concrete or sandbags, later models with steel plate. In general there would be an armoured locomotive placed between two carriages which were surmounted by machine gun cupolas. Front and back were gun platforms and wagons with track-laying equipment. Each was designed to provide a highly mobile strike force of 2-300 men who could surprise an enemy and bring concentrated firepower to bear at a critical spot. Four armoured trains raced back and forth on the lines ahead of Warsaw giving the Soviets the impression that they were under fire from 30 artillery batteries.


The Polish conduct of military operations was based upon the characteristics of the Polish officer class “wealthy, aristocratic, cosmopolitan, Catholic, heroic and indefatigably foolhardy”. In other words they maintained Napoleonic traditions in the age of the tank and machine-gun. Even the French military mission which provided a cadre of 400 officers to train the Poles in everything from rifle drill to staff work, found it difficult to temper their hot-headedness with such notions that it was ‘unchivalrous’ of the Soviet cavalry to use their Tachanki' in support of a cavalry charge.

General Wladyslaw Sikorski believed that “only an offensive is able to bring about a decision” Pilsudski favoured “strategie de plein air” which was explained as “swiftness of movement, suddenness of concentration, (and) tactics of surprise”. After the war Wladyslaw explained away the Polish strategy: “A passive defense with badly trained soldiers, insufficient strength, and inadequate equipment would have caused the breaking of the front”.

One British observer was astonished to witness a division attack take place on front of one company with an objective 7 1/2 miles distant, starting 2 hours late and to his greater surprise succeeding in it`s mission.

Well, there it is. I make NO claims at being an expert - just hope you found this article gets the creative juices going. Please feel free to E-Mail me with corrections, additional facts etc at: .

Mark Hannam

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