Broken lances and bloody sabres (part two)
Most members of the Konarmiya would have been totally unaware of the machinations between their commanders. But even if they had known, few would probably have cared; the advance was going splendidly from their perspective, with battered Polish units pushed pell-mell across the River Bug. By 15 August, the Konarmiya had also crossed the river, carrying the fight into lands that were now increasingly Polish as a percentage of the population. The opposition encountered stiffened accordingly, with the fledgling Polish Air Force playing a notable part. Flying over 200 sorties in three days, Polish pilots would strafe the Red Cossacks until they ran out of ammunition. Even then, several airmen continued their attacks by trying to tip the horsemen with their aircraft’s wheels.
The ferocity of resistance caught many Russians off guard, leaving them angered that the Polish workers and peasants had failed to rise up and welcome them as liberators, just as the Bolshevik propaganda had promised. Ensign Henryk Suchodolski from the 7th Uhlan* Regiment experienced this in extremis. Knocked from his horse and left dazed on the ground, he looked up to find three Russians standing over him: ‘One with a sword stands over my head and lifts it to strike a blow at me. I put my hands up to my head and await the blow. He lowers his sword and, almost nudging my nose with the blade shouts: “What are you fighting for, you son of a bitch, we’ve come to liberate you and you go and attack us!”’ Fortunately for Suchodolski, the coup de grace was botched as the enemy’s sword plunged through his arm and penetrated his lungs. The Pole slid into unconsciousness, still alive but left for dead.
One of the most notable Polish stands against the First Cavalry Army occurred around this time, on 17 August at the village of Zadwórze. Here a contingent of around 330 Poles led by Captain Bolesław Zajączkowski managed to advance and capture a nearby rail station and its immediate environs. In response, Budyonny hurled the 6th Division at them. Amazingly, the Poles fended off several charges, until their ammunition was almost exhausted. Zajączkowski ordered a break out, but cancelled this when it became apparent his men were trapped, with several strafing attacks by enemy aircraft causing additional casualties. The final outcome was swift and grimly predictable. All of the Poles were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, with many of the latter being beaten and then murdered.* Only 12 out of 330 men would eventually make it home. However, the sacrifice had not been in vain as it had slowed the Konarmiya’s advance and gained vital time for Polish units in the rear to bolster their defences.
*Zajączkowski shot himself in order to avoid this fate.
Babel’s diary skims over the fighting that day but dwells on the final hours. It is worth recounting here as it illustrates the Konarmiya’s modus operandi. ‘Before us – terrible events unfold. We have cut through the railway line at Zadwórze. The Poles are advancing along the tracks towards Lwów. It’s a massacre. The military commissar and I ride along the first line and, we beg them not to kill the prisoners. Apanasenko [commander of 6th Division] is unmoved, Szeko [chief-of-staff, 6th Division] mutters – why not? That was like a signal. I couldn’t look at those faces. They cut them down with their swords, shoot at them, body on body, they’re tearing the clothes off one of them, stabbing another to death – the sound of moans, screams, death rattles – that was our squadron going into the attack ... Hell. What is this freedom that we bring, this atrocity?’*
*The entry is muddled, although it ably reflects the confusion of combat and the horrors witnessed that day. It is impossible to tell if these were Zajączkowski’s Poles, although it seems highly likely. If so, the Poles would not have been 'advancing', but attempting to break out of their encirclement.
The wheels come off
As the Konarmyia surged southwest, Tukachevsky’s northern juggernaut found itself in an increasingly precarious position. It had failed to secure its supply lines and its left flank remained open, while reconnaissance remained shambolic and vital support units lagged many miles behind. On 16 August, the day before Zadwórze, Pilsudski ordered his decisive counter-attack, with the Polish advance slamming into the flank and rear of Tukachevsky’s forces. Unaware or heedless of the danger signs, the Russians quickened their pace towards Warsaw. But the tide had already turned and, as the Polish attack started to bite, Red Army soldiers started to retreat or scatter, either back across the River Niemen or, if this proved impossible, into neutral Germany where they were disarmed and interned. There was an irony here: instead of marching into Germany as a victorious Bolshevik vanguard, these men had to wait out the war, stuck in old and miserable prisoner of war camps.
Meanwhile, the Konarmiya's progress into southwest Poland continued. Budyonny ignored orders sent from a rattled Tukachevsky on 18 August. The following day, further demands from the northern commander arrived but this time accompanied by a telegram from Trotsky, demanding better co-operation between the two Russian armies. Budyonny and Stalin could no longer continue their efforts without fear of handing Trotsky a reason to blame them for endangering a campaign that was starting to fall apart. Under the gaze of Lwów’s spires, the First Cavalry made an about-face and headed northwest.
Pilsudski was concerned that the Konarmiya, while too small to turn the tide back in the Soviet’s favour, was still large enough to cause a serious headache for the next phase of his attack. Luckily for him, General Władysław Sikorski+ and the enigmatic Colonel Juliuz Rómmel,* commander of the Polish First Cavalry Division (comprising two brigades), were already snapping at Budyonny’s heels, determined to shadow, harass and stop the Red Cossacks from disengaging. The goal was simple: if the Konarmiya was held for long enough, and enough Polish reinforcements were brought up in support, then it might prove to be Budyonny’s last stand.
+Later the head of the Polish government-in-exile from 1940 until 1943 when he was killed in an air crash. Some argue foul play was involved, instigated at the behest of Stalin.
*Rómmel’s reputation is controversial. During the September 1939 campaign he commanded the Łódź Army and helped manage the defence of Warsaw before being taken prisoner. He eventually returned to communist-controlled Poland where he was co-opted by the new regime for propaganda purposes. How far he willingly collaborated or was pressured into doing so remains the subject of debate.
Soviet high command, still unaware of the scale of Tukachevsky’s retreat, demanded the Konarmiya make an offensive towards the town of Zamość to help alleviate the pressure. This put Budyonny in a quandary as common sense would have him retreat instead of pushing towards a resurgent enemy. But he could longer disobey direct orders and a drive on Zamość was ordered effective 26 August. The Konarmiya ran into a wall of resistance by the time they neared the town on 30 August, the defenders comprising the Polish 10th Division and three local battalions. Polish gunner Stanislaw Rembek recalled the desperate defensive measures: ‘Second Lieutenant Tarasewicz announced that we would make our last stand here because there was nowhere to withdraw to and he ordered us to fix bayonets. The Bolsheviks sent up flares to light the battleground. In the glare we could see the street behind us where troops, police and civilians were building a barricade and windows were being covered with mattresses.’
Zamość had still refused to yield by the morning of 31 August, although many of the defenders worried time was running out. Morale surged later that day when a Polish aircraft flew over the beleaguered town and dropped leaflets stating relief was at hand. The men of the Polish 13th Division* and several Polish artillery units were fast approaching, the latter shelling the Konarmiya’s positions almost as soon as they came in range. Rómmel’s First Cavalry Division had also caught up and was busy trying to seal off the Konarmiya’s possible escape routes.
*Led by Stanislaw Haller, cousin of Józef Haller, and later murdered during the Katyn massacres of 1940.
Once again, the Konarmyia faced encirclement and destruction. And once again, Budyonny had seen the danger, a fact no doubt emphasised with the destruction of his command quarters by Haller’s artillery on 30 August. His guess that Polish forces would be tired and disorganised in the face of an overwhelming Red Cavalry breakout was also sound, but he knew fresh enemy units were closing in and that time was no longer on his side. In addition, the Konarmiya’s divisions were stretched out across the theatre and all of them could be considered under threat.
To ensure there was no re-run of the retreat at Brody, Budyonny decided to secure his flanks first, with Hill 255 to the south of Komarów central to this. He chose the 6th Division to clear the way, the task falling to its 7th Brigade. Other Red Calvary reconnaissance units had been sent north to find an alternative escape route, while a large segment of the 11th Division was dispatched south to stall Haller. The Konarmyia would beat a hasty retreat under the 6th Division’s protective screen once all this was done. But unbeknown to Budyonny, he had finally been second-guessed: Rómmel had already ordered Colonel Brzezowski to move his brigade towards Komarów on the evening of 30 August. Brzezowski also appreciated that Hill 255 was a key to the area and, early on the morning of 31 August, he ordered his nearest regiment, the 2nd Hussars (only 200 sabres), to take up positions there.
Europe’s last grand cavalry battle was about to begin, although conditions that day were hardly ideal as the ground had been saturated by earlier rainfall. It is also worth noting that accounts of the battle vary in emphasis and are sometimes contradictory, illustrative of its pace and confusion. However, one can easily imagine how the day started for the tired and dishevelled men of the Konarymia’s 7th Brigade. Gathering together in the early-morning dank, they probably uttered more than a few curses about Poles and the war in general. Eventually readied for action, 7th Brigade set off and neared Hill 255 at around 7.45 am. If they were surprised to see Poles already there, they would have been shocked at the enemy’s audacity in charging them. The 2nd Hussars were able to inflict heavy casualties before being overwhelmed by the weight of Russian numbers.
Having dispatched this enemy, efforts to advance beyond Hill 255 were halted either by Polish machine gun fire or through the efforts of the 8th Prince Jozef Poniatowski Lancers, which had rushed into the fray soon afterwards. Brzezowski then committed the 9th Galician Lancers in a bid to swing the battle back in his favour, the charge starting near the village of Niewirków and its impetus sending the enemy reeling back to the forests outside of Czesniki. Hill 255 was back in Polish hands. The dead and wounded littered the field, with the 9th reporting the loss of all squadron leaders. The injuries inflicted were grisly as the men suffered lacerations or deep gashes. One Polish witness remembered the fighting: ‘There was no mercy here. Minds ceased to react to the danger, and men grew oblivious to the moans of their dying and wounded comrades being trampled under the hooves.’
Budyonny was able to commit fresh troops as the Konarmiya’s 11th Division and the Soviet Independent Brigade arrived on the field having broken off from skirmishing with Haller’s forces. Their orders were to make a double pincer attack, although this was thwarted by Brzezowski throwing in his last reserves, the 12th Poldolian Lancers. Weapons raised, they also plunged into the attacking Russians’ flanks and were sucked into the maelstrom. The Polish lines started to waver and, again, they were saved in the nick of time as two regiments sent by Rómmel arrived and charged in. These new forces helped push the Red Cavalry back to Czenicki once more.
Fearful that the prolonged fighting was starting to waste valuable time, Budyonny ordered three of his divisions to retreat via the northerly route, passing through the hamlet of Werbkowice. However, the Konarmiya’s pride as an undefeated cavalry unit was now at stake. Although no longer a tactical concern, taking Hill 255 had become a matter of honour and reputation, and the 6th Division was given one last chance to secure it. This done, they too would retreat via Werbkowice. Rómmel was well aware that the Russians might have found another means of escape and so decided to use other reserve regiments in a frantic attempt to stall the Red Cavalry. Brzezowski’s shattered men were ordered to follow at 5.30 pm. Exhausted, the 8th Prince Jozef Poniatowski Lancers and the 9th Galician Lancers were running half an hour late and were about to leave when the Konarmiya’s 6th Division launched its final attack. Captain Praglowski, remembered the scene: ‘At a distance of perhaps seven hundred yards, dark waves of Cossacks were pouring out the woods, one after another.’
Isaac Babel was probably in this last assault. According to the diary, his unit had spent most of the day destroying beehives in some local orchards. He noted Budyonny and Voroshilov were present just before the last assault, with the latter trying to rouse the troops. Waving his revolver in the air, Voroshilov shouted: ‘Show the Polish gents no mercy!’ Cantering forward, many of the fresh troops were staggered by their opponents’ refusal to scatter. Even Babel was dumbfounded, writing: ‘They’re waiting for us on the hill, drawn up in columns. Amazing – not one man budges.’
Although there were fewer men involved, this last melee was just as furious and bloodthirsty as the ones before. The 9th Galician Lancers, now only 200 sabres, galloped down the hill and disappeared among the ranks of the Red Cavalry, hacking and slashing. Most of the Poles were cut to pieces. But the 9th’s sacrifice was not an empty one. Crucially, they had had taken the wind out of the Russian onslaught and the 8th Prince Poniatowski Lancers, charging behind the 9th, now had momentum on its side. Slamming into the Russians, their lances took a heavy toll. Used to making but unused to facing such charges, the 6th Division promptly cracked and fled – this time for good.
Amazingly, Brzezowski’s brigade had engaged the bulk of the Konarmiya, emerging victorious but badly mauled. Knowing of the Red Cossacks’ earlier crimes, the Poles were unwilling to give quarter. Rómmel later wrote: ‘I began to examine the prisoners. Unfortunately, there were only about a dozen or so left – I had not been able to tear them out of the hands of our troops. The cruelty and atrocities committed by Budyonny’s troops were still fresh in everyone’s minds... It was now up to us to go in immediate pursuit and smash the remainder of his mounted army.’
But Budyonny, the escapologist, was too wily to fall into any other traps and his men outpaced the Poles. He was helped by Sikorski’s reticence on the offensive. ‘He was too slow and too cautious,’ the historian Norman Davis wrote of him. Nonetheless, the Konarmiya was shadowed all the way back to Równe from which it was forced out on 18 September. The First Cavalry Army was then withdrawn from the theatre as Red Army high command decided to send it to assist in the destruction of White Crimea. However, the Konarmiya was in a poor state and its casualties had been enormous. For example, the 11th Division had started the campaign with 3,500 men and was left with 1,180. Although they were to fight more battles, Poland 1920 signalled the start of the Konarmiya’s demise.
War is over
Pilsudski was in the midst of savaging Tukashevsky’s hastily-formed defence lines as the Konarmyia retreated from Równe. The Battle of the Neiman River lasted from September 15 to September 25 and focussed on Grodno (now Hrodna). It proved to be another hammer blow for Russian forces, with many Red Army units desperately holding out in the remnants of old First World War trench and defensive systems. Morale was at rock bottom and supplies were running low. Lenin, furious at the poor performance and state of the logistics, thundered: ‘I don’t care if they have to fight in their underpants, but fight they must!’ But rhetorical threats did little to secure the situation; by 15 October, the Poles had recaptured Minsk, while the Russians had already sent out peace feelers. An armistice came into effect on 18 October, with the Poles withdrawing from Minsk and several other towns along the length of the front, creating what would become the basis of Poland’s new eastern border. An official peace agreement was signed in Riga in 1921.
Against considerable odds, Poland had secured its independence while retaining control over large swathes of the eastern borderlands. But Pilsudski’s goal of creating a viable Ukraine and a united front had been shelved. Why had the Poles halted their advance and not forced an entirely favourable decision? Partly this was due international pressure headed by the newly-formed League of Nations, but primarily because Poland’s leading National Democrat party rejected Pilsudski’s vision of a Commonwealth, fearing the Polish voice would become diluted within it. Because of this, the National Democrats refrained from pressing the Bolsheviks too hard at the negotiating table. For example, they readily agreed with the request Ukrainian nationalists be barred from sending representatives. Poles from across the political spectrum also knew their country would struggle to continue the fight: her public was war weary* and the nation limited in its ability to supply the resources needed for offensives in great depth. Still, many commentators consider Riga a lost opportunity and one that poisoned the well of Polish-Ukrainian relations with disastrous results.
+It had experienced just over six years of conflict when one recalls much of the fighting on the Eastern Front during the First World War had been across Poland and that many Poles had been enlisted in the belligerents’ armies.
And what of Kamorów? As a battle it was fairly unimportant in determining the war’s final outcome; Budyonny had already been compromised before Zamość and the Konarymia was going to withdraw regardless. However, the legacy proved greater once the swords were sheathed. For Poland, a country always proud of good horsemanship and stirring feats of cavalry, Kamorów was yet another battle to excite the imagination and bolster the narrative of independence won through daring deeds. And that was important as the fledgling nation needed narratives of this sort to help bind people together. On the negative side, the battle became an example for those within the military who resisted urgently-needed (and expensive) mechanisation programmes, allowing them to insist cavalry used in this fashion still had a place in modern warfare. It was a view that lasted well into the 1930s, until the growth of Hitler’s panzer fleets and rapid advances in military technology necessitated urgent change.
As for the Soviets, the war against Poland in 1919/1920 fettered their desire to spread global revolution by force. It also meant Russia could start looking inwards and begin to rebuild. For military planners, the Konarmiya’s campaign underlined the inherent weakness of using massed cavalry armies and the need for combined-arms initiatives instead. Tukachevsky certainly heeded this lesson, having survived the fallout of defeat. He would assist with the development of deep operations warfare, emphasising the use of tanks and aircraft as vital tools for any modern army. As for Stalin and Budyonny, they found themselves on the receiving end of several embarrassing broadsides by Trotsky, who later wrote: ‘If Stalin, Voroshilov* and that illiterate Budyonny had not carried on their personal war in Galicia, and the Red Cavalry had reached Lublin on time, then the Red Army would not have been faced with defeat.’
*Trotsky overplays Voroshilov’s role and forgets Yegorov’s position, possibly because Voroshilov was one of Stalin's most important yes men.
Stalin’s revenge came many years later. Trotsky, exiled and living in Mexico, was murdered by a Soviet agent in 1940, while Tukachevsky was purged and shot in 1937. Budyonny willingly assisted at the show trial, accusing Tukashevsky of being a ‘wrecker’ because he sought the introduction of tanks when horses were clearly superior. Revenge on Poland and its people was served in September 1939 and again in 1944-45, when the USSR embedded a clique obedient to Moscow, which was the exact format Pilsudski had predicted. And while there were tactical concerns in pushing the post-war borders of Poland westward to act as a buffer for the USSR, one also suspects Stalin took grim, personal satisfaction in awarding Lwów to Ukraine and having its majority Polish population turfed out. The city that had defied Stalin and Budyonny all those years ago – the Polish city that should have fallen to the victorious Red Cossacks – was snuffed out and consigned to history.
Babel I, 1920 Diary, edited by Avins C J, Yale Nota Bene, 2002
Banyard P, Poland 1920, War Monthly, Issue 29, Marshall Cavendish Ltd, 1976
Conquest R, Stalin; Breaker of Nations, Weidenfeld, 1993
Davies N, God’s Playground: A History of Poland Volume II, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1981
Ibid, Heart of Poland, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1984
Ibid, White Eagle Red Star, Pimlico, 2003
De Jonge A, Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union, Fontana, 1987
Knyt, A, The Year 1920: the war between Poland and Bolshevik Russia, KARTA, City of Warsaw History Museum, 2005
Official History, Dzieje Pulku Ulanów Podolskich 1809 – 1947, London 1982
Pilsudska A, Memoirs, Jryf Publications Ltd, publication date unknown
Pilsudski J, Year 1920, Pilsudski Institute London/New York, 1972
Radzinsky E, Stalin, Hodder and Stoughton, 1996
Ure J, The Cossacks, Constable and Company Ltd, London, 1999
Zamoyski A, The Battle for the Marchlands, Columbia University Press, 1981