Poland, 30 August 1920: the Russian General Semyon Budyonny and his dreaded First Cavalry Army, the Konarmiya, are facing disaster. Stuck in a 10-mile cul-de-sac, surrounded by resurgent enemy, and with artillery shells falling in all directions, Budyonny needs to find a quick means of escape. Poor weather compounds the misery, with incessant rain turning the dusty roads into rivers of mud. However, an easterly route leading from the village of Czesniki offers a ray of hope and, although the Poles have forces in the area, Budyonny is confident they lack the strength and cohesion to offer firm resistance. The key to success would be speed and dominating the high ground between Czesniki and a hamlet called Komarów. Hold this and a rapid withdrawal could be made in relatively good order. Budyonny’s Cossacks are told to prepare for a breakout the next morning and, in the event, would end up fighting one of Europe’s last grand cavalry battles.
The eagle and the bear
Most of the causes behind the Polish-Russian conflict of 1920 can be traced to the final days of the First World War and its immediate aftermath. The Polish state had been resurrected as Imperial Germany and Austro-Hungary collapsed, the original Kingdom having been finally carved up between Prussia, Russia and Austria in 1795. Poland’s western borders were comparatively secure, albeit witnessing smallscale and vicious fighting against Germany over the ownership of Silesian territory. By contrast, its eastern and south-easterly lines were so poorly defined that broader conflict with its neighbours was almost guaranteed. Indeed, fighting between Poles and Ukrainians erupted even before the First World War ended, with both sides vying for control of eastern Galicia and the main prize of Lemberg, a city the Poles called Lwów (now Lviv).
The Poles had gained the upper hand by summer 1919, relieving Lwów from a siege that had lasted from November 1918 until May 1919. They also seized other territory, including the important Drohobycz oil fields, and slowly forced the Ukrainians to the negotiating table. The animosity had faded somewhat by the time terms were reached, primarily because of the growing threat of Russia to both sides. That country's civil war was moving towards its climax and neither the Bolsheviks nor the Whites* had expressed any willingness to accommodate the national hopes of Ukraine or Poland. Indeed, it was likely that the winner of the Civil War, White or Red, would seek to reassert Russian domination over Ukraine,+ plus regions Poland considered integral, such as Lwów.
*Primarily Tsarists and democrats.
+The Russian Empire's traditional breadbasket.
If the Bolsheviks won, there was also concern they might try to export revolution across Eastern and Central Europe and recast its new nations in their own image. That included Poland and the Polish chief of state, Jozef Pilsidski, was almost certain this would be the case. In his memoirs he wrote: ‘Soviet Russia was conforming to a set plan, namely the plan of setting up in Poland an organisation identical with its own, which is to say, a Soviet one. This objective was christened “Exporting the Revolution”. It was well known to me that this was the war aim of the Soviets … So far as I personally was concerned, I made war with the sole object of warding off from Poland this “Revolution” which was being “exported” at the point of bayonets.’
Pilsudski eventually reached a deal with his Ukrainian counterpart Symon Petliura in the first half of 1920. Both sought an independent Ukraine and both agreed to form a united front to contain any aggressive moves by a resurgent Russia. This dovetailed into the Marshal’s nascent political vision dubbed Prometheism, which sought to align Poland alongside other nations asserting their sovereignty in the wake of the Tsarist collapse, including Azerbaijan, Estonia, Finland, Georgia and Latvia. In addition, Pilsudski was wary of the Western Allies’ guarantees; he suspected they had little understanding of Poland's eastern borderlands and that they would fail to assist if Poland was threatened with a crisis. His hunch was almost correct: Britain remained largely apathetic at the height of the Bolshevik advance in summer 1920, calling for both side to recognise the Curzon line,* while France was more pro-active, sending military advisors and important war materiel to Poland.
Finally, the situation was the most opportune one for Poland to start a pre-emptive war as the Bolsheviks were still battling against some notable White enclaves. If enough gains were made, it was hoped Poland could negotiate from a position of strength. Thus Pilsudski ordered his forces to attack east in spring 1920. They advanced relatively swiftly across the borderlands, taking Wilno, Minsk and Dvinsk, with the Poles then pushing deep into Ukraine. Kiev was taken on 6 May with assistance from the Independent Ukrainian Army led by Petliura. However, the successes belied a growing and grave problem: the Bolsheviks were stamping out the embers of opposition at a rate that suprised almost all onlookers. This included bottling up Anton Denikin – whose forces had been a serious threat to them – into a small but notable Crimean enclave. The Red Army was now free to start massing forces to strike west, recapture Ukraine and crush the Poles.
The leviathan stirs
Two strike groups were prepared: a large northern one and a smaller but rapid southern formation to which the Konarmiya had been assigned. Confidence was high, with many Bolsheviks hoping the march westwards would topple the new governments of Eastern and Central Europe, just as Pilsudski had feared. However, Poland was merely an appetiser: Germany was to be the entrée. Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky, the commander of the northern strike force, underscored this in May. ‘Turn your eyes to the West. In the West the fate of World Revolution is being decided,’ he proclaimed. ‘Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to World Conflagration. On our bayonets we will bring happiness and peace.’ The dreaded Konarmiya would play a central role in bringing about this joyous future.
Known officially as the First Cavalry Army, the Konarmiya was created in November 1919 under the auspices of Josef Stalin, whose star was in the ascendant. Initially, its role was to combat White cavalry and Tsarist Cossacks. Calling their troops ‘Red Cossacks’ was disingenuous as most of the cavalrymen were hastily-enlisted Russian peasants. Others were from the urban working class, many of whom had never ridden a horse until joining up. There were also some members of the communist intelligentsia, including Isaac Babel* who was assigned to the Konarmiya’s 6th Division during the Polish campaign. Babel tried to capture the essence of the Red Cossack in his diary of the campaign, writing: ‘What sort of person is our Cossack? Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.’ Mercenary in nature, the thought of booty, pillage and plunder was never far from their minds. On another occasion Babel admitted: ‘we are destroyers… we move like a whirlwind, like a stream of lava hated by everyone.’
*A protégé of the famed Russian novelist Maxim Gorky, he would become a renowned author in his own right. His book Red Cavalry was heavily based on his experiences in the Polish war and its candid portrayal of the Konarmiya’s brutality infuriated Budyonny. He was executed by the Stalinist regime early on 27 January 1940.
The Konarmiya’s political officer Kliment Voroshilov and the military commander was Budyonny, a former Tsarist cavalry corporal. It was to Budyonny the Red Cossacks owed their allegiance; a tall, powerful man with a handlebar moustache, he had the air of a swashbuckling pirate. He had joined the Bolshevik cause during the revolution of 1917 and, as a natural leader with the right class credentials, shot up the ranks to assume command of the Konarmiya upon its formation. Although often rash and impetuous, Budyonny was charismatic and even the harshest critics of his performance in 1920 have recognised his enormous personal courage and ability to take decisive actions in the face of great danger.
By the spring of 1920, after a number of successful campaigns against the Whites, the First Cavalry Army had grown to four full divisions of horse, or about 18,000 sabres. They were accompanied by 52 field guns, five armoured trains and a squadron of 15 aircraft, although these were still in the packing cases because nobody in the Konarmiya could fly. The horseman’s personal equipment was rather basic, with an American pilot fighting in the famous Kosciuszko Squadron* noting this after seeing them from the air. He wrote: ‘Each man carried an amazingly long sabre hung not from his saddle but his belt line, [while] row after row of carbines hung aslant over their backs.’
*A unit similar in concept to the First World War’s Lafayette Squadron and including a sizable contingent of Americans and Polish-Americans.
The Konarmiya’s tactics were basic and, out in the sweeping vastness of Russia, entirely suitable for swift-moving horse formations. They tried to avoid charging prepared positions, as the machine gun had made such an approach virtually suicidal. Instead, they would look for a weak spot in the enemy’s lines and punch through this by attacking en masse. They would then fan out to create havoc in the rear lines, normally breaking their opponent’s will to resist and leaving the Konarmiya victorious. Bathing in the glow of its success and elite reputation, many in the Konarmiya saw themselves as a near-invincible force. Events in Poland would shatter these beliefs.
Break on through
Despite several accounts at the time describing Red Army ‘hordes’, the Polish campaign in its starting phase was on a relatively small scale, with roughly 115,000 frontline Bolsheviks opposing around 95,000 Poles. The numbers would mushroom as the conflict progressed and peaked in August 1920, with both nations fielding armies of more than 700,000. However, not all of these men were combat ready and many performed supporting roles or were dedicated to logistics.
The Bolshevik counter-attack started in mid-May 1920, with the Konarmiya fielded in south-central Ukraine. Budyonny was in command at the sharp end and reported to Yegorov, the nominal commander of the southern strike force. In practise, it was the chief political commissar for the south and de facto commander-in-chief of the southwestern front, Joseph Stalin, who determined immediate strategy. Militarily, all three were meant to be subordinate to the Red Army’s supreme command, which was headed by Sergey Kamenev. The overall plan at this stage was for the Konarmyia to smash through its immediate enemy before striking towards Kiev, where it would help cut off the Polish Third Army and join in with its destruction. Opposing them was a small force of about 3,000 troops led by General Aleksander Karnicki. Ironically, he had been one of Budyonny’s commanding officers in the Tsarist days.
Hopelessly outnumbered, the Poles made a series of desperate attempts to stall the Konarmiya’s advance and gain time for the Third Army’s withdrawal. Karnicki also authorised a number of swift raids to throw the advancing Russians off balance. Other Polish formations were hunkered down in temporary defences, waiting for the Cossacks to near their positions before unleashing devastating volleys once the enemy was close enough. The tactic required nerves of steel as the Konarmiya was a psychologically-daunting sight. One Polish officer remembered the impact of seeing them for the first time: ‘This swarm of horsemen would raise gigantic dust clouds on the horizon, blotting out everything for miles around, and giving the impression of a great, fast-moving and fantastic force pouring into every free gap. Finally, it would kindle a feeling of utter impotence.’
Budyonny was worried about the impact Polish resistance was having on the morale of his troops, most of whom were used to barnstorming advances. He was also keen to achieve a quick and decisive breakthrough and so personally led an assault on the enemy’s positions. The dangers were considerable as the attack was made across boggy and treacherous ground, but the gamble paid off. Physically exhausted and faced with a concerted attack, the Polish lines crumpled.
Flushed with victory, the Konarmiya’s commanders now made their first important mistake. On 6 June, instead of ordering the First Cavalry Army to swing north, they decided it should press on towards the easier pickings of Zhitomir and Berdychiv. Frustrated by the earlier lack of success, the Red Cossacks vented their fury on the local population and torched the local hospital in Berdychiv, with more than 600 patients and nurses murdered. Stalin and Yegorov let the First Cavalry Army continue its rampage until 8 June, affording Polish forces in Kiev a crucial 48 hours to withdraw in relative order and without the threat of encirclement. The outcome would have been disastrous for the Poles if the Konarmiya had followed its orders and helped block their enemy's exit routes.
Despite this notable failure, the Red Army’s drive through Ukraine gathered momentum, pushing back any opposition and poised to strike into Poland by mid-July. The Konarmiya, still to the south of the main strike force, had kept pace. A few weeks earlier, on 2 July, it had crossed the River Horyn and seized the town of Równe (now Rivne), capturing prisoners, supplies and equipment. Communist propaganda responded to the successes by trumpeting the dawn of global revolution, with one pamphlet confidently declaring: ‘We shall fight on endlessly. Russia has thrown down the gauntlet. We shall advance into Europe and conquer the world.’ But Marxist dreams were the last thing on the average Cossack’s mind. Time and again in his diary, Babel bemoans their lack of idealism: ‘This isn’t a Marxist revolution,’ he wrote, ‘it’s a Cossack rebellion, out to win all and lose nothing.’ On another occasion he gave a more candid appraisal: ‘Our army is out to line its pockets.’
With the advance moving so swiftly, few in Russian high command paid much attention to unravelling communications between the northern and southern strike forces. This was primarily due to distance, an inflexible command structure, and a clash of personalities. Dispatches, rather than going directly to the leaders in the field, went first through the hands of the supreme commander, Kamenev, and then back down the chain of corresponding leaders. Information, intelligence and orders crucial to joint planning were frequently out-of-date by the time they were received. It was a recipe for disaster.
Scourge of Galicia
Under a rather hastily-formed plan, the Konarmiya was now ordered to sweep southwest before heading northwest to re-link with Tukachevsky’s forces, which were forging ahead on an east-to-west axis and directly aiming for Warsaw. But Stalin, Yegorov and Budyonny started to have other ideas; their eyes were straying much further southwest than high command intended, with the triumvirate considering an effort to conquer the Poles in Galicia and to seize Lwów.
Historians and commentators have hotly debated their reasoning. Was it simply an insatiable effort to grab military glory? Perhaps so, although one must also consider the political climate of the time, which was steeped in Machiavellian intrigue and strong-arm jostling. From Stalin’s perspective, the Polish edifice was crumbling at a rapid pace and it was only a matter of time before Tukachevsky stole the limelight with the inevitable capture of Warsaw. Tukachevsky was affiliated with Stalin’s bête noire, Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s heir-apparent and the Red Army’s supreme commander-in-chief. It was Trotsky who had given Tukachevsky command of the 5th Army in Siberia the year before, setting him on the path to ascendancy that culminated in the Polish campaign.
With the support of Yegorov and Budyonny, Stalin was determined the Konarmiya should seize whatever prizes were in reach and do so with haste. While not on the scale of capturing Warsaw, taking Lwów and possibly Krakow (Poland’s spiritual heart) would still rank as prestigious victories. Besides, few people would bother arguing about disobeyed orders once the dust had settled and the victory laurels were being handed out. The worst outcome was for the Konarmyia and its commanders to be considered little more than Tukachevsky’s supporting wing.
Stalin unleashed the First Cavalry Army in late July. It sallied forth from Równe at a rapid pace, pushing well beyond the supply lines. The Red Cossacks were forced to pillage or, in the party language, ‘expropriate’ rations from villages and market towns. Pilsudski considered Budyonny’s enterprise akin to a modern-day Mongol horde. ‘Cavalry covering great distances almost without organising its rear; men and horses living off the country like locusts… such cavalry, I say, constituted as an independent army [seemed] then, and still seems to me to be, strategically speaking, a nonsensical conception.’ Nonetheless, Pilsudski later recognised the Konarmiya’s fearsome reputation had eroded Polish morale. ‘Budienny’s* cavalry became a legendary invincible force in the eyes of our troops, which lacked the necessary preparation to deal with it. The further one went from the front, the more powerful and irresistible was the effect of this unreasoning fear.’
*The Polish spelling of their opponent’s name.
However, the rapid and awe-inspiring advance carried a grave risk: the formation of a pocket that the enemy would try to seal, leading to encirclement and the strong possibility of being destroyed. This is exactly what happened, with most of the Konarmiya almost lost after creating a deep and narrow salient near the town of Brody that the Poles endeavoured to close. Realising the threat, Budyonny desperately sought to extricate his forces and, along with Voroshilov, his brilliant leadership helped carry the day. The historian Adam Zamoyski wrote: ‘He and Voroshilov hardly slept at all during those days; they were always to be found at any point where morale was beginning to flag, Voroshilov exhorting, Budyonny leading charges.’ The Red Cossacks escaped by the skin of their teeth and Budyonny later admitted that the affair took his men to ‘the outer limits of human resources’.
The fighting turned to the Konarmiya’s favour when Pilsudski started denuding the southern theatre of men in order to bolster Warsaw’s defences and, unbeknown to the Russians, make preparations for a bold counterstroke that would flow from the Polish centre into and around Tukachevsky’s exposed left flank. Pilsudski’s opposite, Kamenev, had already identified this as a potential danger, although underestimated its eventual scale. He was also concerned the Konarmiya seemed to be drifting away from the northern forces and deemed it vital for the First Cavalry Army to now assist Tukachevsky and cover his left. Erring on the side of caution, Kamenev ordered the Konarmyia to proceed to Lublin and await Tukachevsky’s direct command.
Stalin, Yegorov and Budyonny responded by disregarding these orders and making preparations for an onslaught southwest towards Lwów. Increasingly frustrated, Kamenev issued another directive on 12 August and again instructed Stalin and Yegorov to place the Konarmiya under Tukachevsky’s control. The pair sat on the order almost to the point of dereliction before forwarding it to Budyonny on 15 August – long after the drive towards Lwów had started. Budyonny’s response was cruder than Stalin and Yegorov’s: he simply disregarded Kamenev’s instructions, arguing the orders failed to mention any specific locations, a technicality that allowed him to seek further ‘clarification’. In the meantime, the advance on Lwów continued.
Endnote: The Curzon Line was delineated in 1919 by the Supreme Council’s commission for Polish affairs. The Supreme Council was responsible for voicing the will of the Allied victors in the aftermath of the First World War. The line became forever associated with British foreign secretary Lord Curzon after he suggested using it as a ceasefire boundary in his telegram to Lenin’s government in July 1920. The population west of the line was majority Polish, while the territory to the east was mixed, becoming increasingly Ukrainian in the southeast and central east, and Belorussian and Lithuanian in the northeast. However, many of the eastern cities were majority Polish, including Wilno, Pilsudski’s native home. Both sides ignored the Curzon Line when their forces appeared victorious but supported it when on the back foot. The line had second lease of life when it was used as the Soviet Union’s guiding principle in redrawing Poland’s borders after the Second World War.