Prof. Andrzej Chwalba, Dr. Dariusz Fabisz and Prof. Janusz Odziemkowski debate over the problems while forming the Polish Army, about eliminating the autonomy inside the army, or boosting the morale of soldiers.
After Poland had been proclaimed independent in 1918, the Polish Army was reborn. Józef Piłsudski became a head of state and its armed forces. Why a soldier who had never completed any military school, was elected the Chief of State? The anecdote says this was what in 1920 startled the officers of the French military mission when they asked the guests in one of Warsaw cafes about Piłsudski.
Janusz Odziemkowski: There were several reasons for Józef Piłsudski to be elected the Chief of State. First of all, he was the only person among contemporary political elite with military experience in command. Let’s keep in mind that at the time Central and Eastern Europe had plunged into chaos. In Russia, there was October Revolution. Germany and Hungary had similar problems. In the pauperized by war Polish society, the atmosphere of revolution was getting rather tense which was confirmed by some alarming news reaching Warsaw from provinces. The German army’s command also feared that, and they didn’t want any problems won their withdrawal from the eastern front. For that reason, the Commander of the Royal Polish Army, gen. Hans von Beseler, who considered Piłsudski a totally useless military ignoramus and populist, tried to win his favor. Germany thought, just as Polish political elites, that Piłsudski, who was a leading personality of the Polish left wing and was very popular in Polish society, is capable of saving Poland from revolution. Temporarily, even some members of National Democracy, who had always been ill-disposed towards him, accepted his candidature. In short, in November 1918, there was no better candidate. In Warsaw, after his return from being interned in Magdeburg, Piłsudski was enthusiastically welcomed as many people saw him to be the one to introduce changes and social reforms.
Andrzej Chwalba: I’d like to refer to those French opinions in 1920 about military amateurishness of Piłsudski. A hundred years before, majority of Napoleon Bonaparte’s marshals had no military education, which by no means depreciate their later successes on battlefield. Piłsudski had a circle of trusted associates, later called “piłsudczycy” [followers of Piłsudski]. However, equally important is also the fact that from dawn of independence, his adversaries were also ready to support him. Well known are the words of Roman Dmowski spoken during the formation of the Blue Army that Piłsudski should be stolen out of Magdeburg fortress and appointed the head of the army. Hence, keeping in mind that Dmowski was one of his greatest political adversaries, these words only confirm extreme popularity of Piłsudski.
Janusz Odziemkowski: There is also one more reason why Józef Piłsudski not only became Commander-in-Chief, but also Chief of State of Poland. Contrary to western democracies, Polish society, since 1794 uprising, in hard times would approve of a dictator who played two roles: political and military. This was the case with the following generals: Tadeusz Kościuszko, Józef Chłopicki, Jan Zygmunt Skrzynecki or Marian Langiewicz.
Andrzej Chwalba: We should add that all authority centers, except for the Supreme People’s Council in Poznań and the Polish National Committee in Paris, recognized Piłsudski’s superior authority.
In Polish political reality, this should be called a miracle.
Janusz Odziemkowski: I wouldn’t call it that. Contemporary reality actually created the figure of Piłsudski, I’d say – luckily for us. If the power had gone to a politician or a military focusing only on political matters or only on military matters, the consequences would have been tragic. This specific dictatorship was simply salutary. Here’s the example of the Vilna offensive: there was once railway congestion as a result of a damaged bridge. If a political authority had been separated from the military one, in order to solve this crisis situation, very time-consuming administrative procedures would have had to be launched (which at that time were only just being developed). Piłsudski solved the problem with just one order. It has to be also emphasized that he never abused his authority.
Let’s talk about the formation of the Polish Army. The situation in November 1918 wasn’t easy. The Corps in the East had been disarmed by Germans, the legionaries interned, and the Blue Army was being formed far from Poland. Could the Royal Polish Army, created by Germans and subordinate to the Regency Council, and the Polish Auxiliary Corps, organized by Austrians, be considered the origins of the Polish Army?
Janusz Odziemkowski: Small organizations had already existed. The biggest problem of the army just being born was however lack of war material: armament, ammunition, uniforms. What was left over after the occupants would be enough to fight only one big battle. On the territory of contemporary Poland there was no arms industry, and the deliveries from France weren’t possible at the time yet.
Who was joining the Polish Army during the first months of independence?
Janusz Odziemkowski: Volunteers, people aware of what they were to fight for. There were the representatives of all social classes. It’s worth noting that there was among them a significant percentage of people with secondary or higher education. They were the basis of the army, and its strength grew larger. Another thing worth mentioning are the differences in the forming process between the Polish and Ukrainian armies at the end of 1918. The Army of the Ukrainian People's Republic of Pavlo Skoropadskyi, which was organized with the support of the Central Powers, at the end of the World War I numbered 200,000 soldiers, mainly conscripts. When the Central Powers withdrew from Ukraine, most of these soldiers returned home.
Dariusz Fabisz: As to volunteers, next to their number, the problem was also their education and training. For example, teenage boys with false birth certificates would apply to join the army.
Andrzej Chwalba: There weren’t many volunteers among the peasants. Village dwellers in Galicia or in the Kingdom of Poland were used to the fact that they had to join the army when called up. In a situation when no such order had been issued, the question of joining the army didn’t exist for them. That’s why Sejm quickly decided to start enlistment to the army.
Did the elite representatives fight with devotion as officers?
Janusz Odziemkowski: Volunteers had to gain their experience on the war front. In 1918 and the first half of 1919, there were too many officers because many of them were trained by the armies of occupants. They were valuable asset as they had fought for many years. There were however not enough private soldiers, which was the reason for forming “the officer legions”. When the army strength increased to 500,000 soldiers, and in 1920 – almost to a million, now officers were lacking.
One should think that the main personnel reserve of the Polish Army were NCOs and private soldiers of the occupants’ armies, where millions of Poles served during the Great War. However, pictures show mostly young soldiers.
Janusz Odziemkowski: Majority of privates and non-commissioned officers returned home after the war. Despite serious efforts of the officers from Galicia, most regiments which came back from the fronts in Ukraine and Italy dispersed. Sometimes officers had to look after the garrisons and magazines themselves.
Volunteers joined the army very enthusiastically, but this enthusiasm soon vanished, juxtaposed with wartime everydayness. How did they do on battlefield?
Janusz Odziemkowski: Soldiers held various attitudes. They did happen to panic, but their morale would be boosted with every victory. Extremely important for the young Polish Army was the victorious Battle of Lviv.
Is it true there were different opinions on whether it should be the army of volunteers or conscripts?
Janusz Odziemkowski: Anybody who seriously perceived the threat from the East couldn’t assume that volunteers only would do. The army strength at the time was estimated at 115,000 people of whom only five divisions could have been formed. With such force, no war could be conducted. The problem was that conscription couldn’t be launched immediately, there wasn’t enough equipment even for volunteers.
Andrzej Chwalba: Enlistment of volunteers was initially a necessity. It was assumed that such an army would be cheaper, because volunteers would come with their own weapons, wear uniform-like clothes, and sometimes even ride their own horse. Where did such an idea come from? During the war, the locals were collecting a lot of rifles left on battlefields. People would own weapons stolen or rebought from soldiers of occupant’s armies. Some kept entire arsenals in their homes. For that reason, Polish authorities had appealed to people to donate their rifles. Conscripting recruits to a greater extent required the existence of strong state structure, including recruiting commissions and local administration and security forces.
At the beginning, the weakness of the Polish Army was a small number of large military units, such as divisions. By the end of 1918, we mostly had infantry regiments which lacked machine guns.
Janusz Odziemkowski: The Polish Army initially operated with battalions, regiments, and groups. The first divisions, apart from those coming from France, were formed in the summer of 1919. Meanwhile, the Red Army, which took over the entire tsarist infrastructure, had such tactical units as early as in 1918.
Andrzej Chwalba: We should remember that forming a division is not only a question of organization. The money is needed to buy necessary armament and specialist equipment. Initially, Polish government in Warsaw hadn’t been recognized internationally, so Poland could not count on any foreign loans or weapon deliveries.
Dariusz Fabisz: Therefore Józef Piłsudski soon announced the founding of the Polish state, which de facto had not yet existed. Keep in mind that November 11, 1918, being the date of regaining independence, is rather symbolic. The official Independence Day was for the first time celebrated on November 11 only at the end of the Second Republic of Poland.
Janusz Odziemkowski: There was no response from Triple Entente at that time. In the West, the Polish National Committee in Paris was recognized as the only political representation of the Polish state.
Did Piłsudski in November 1918 anticipate a great conflict in the East, and was it the reason why he was forming the army?
Janusz Odziemkowski: No, the army was improvised and each armed soldier, capable of fighting, was sent to the war front, wherever there was such need.
Dariusz Fabisz: Piłsudski wasn’t able of making any plans when he was being attacked from all sides by his adversaries, but he knew where to let go and where to throw larger forces – in other words, where we could rely on the Entente’s diplomacy, and where we had to fight on our own. It was obvious from the start that the eastern line would be a “border in flames”. This was most crucial for Piłsudski.
In the first weeks of independence, the conflict with Ukrainians was the most important.
Janusz Odziemkowski: Piłsudski wanted the agreement with Ukraine. He was even prone to agree to the division of Eastern Galicia on the condition of Poland keeping Lviv and oil field. However, in response he heard: “The Poles for the San River”. Even mediation of the West didn’t help. In the meantime, the Red Army was approaching from the East. Piłsudski, what he wrote in his letters as early as before the war, perceived Russia – regardless of its future status quo – as the main threat to Poland’s independence. That’s why, in the spring of 1919, he sent against the approaching Bolsheviks the first roughly formed divisions: the 1st and 2nd Legions Infantry Division and the 1st Lithuanian-Belarussian Division. However, he never lost sight of the third enemy – Germany. Up to the fall of 1919, two out of five armed Polish soldiers were deployed along the western border.
Andrzej Chwalba: In the spring of 1919 in Paris hard negotiations were ongoing, hence the uncertainty as to the western border. Quite soon there came fear that Germany would not recognize the dictate of the Treaty of Versailles. Piłsudski was forced to create the so-called anti-German front. For some time, no armed activity was held in the East, which was the result of the fact that a large portion of the just being formed Polish Army concentrated on the West. Only after German parliament had ratified the Treaty of Versailles, some of the Polish forces could be deployed to other fronts.
In his diary, the Kościuszko Squadron’s airman expressed his opinion that Americans had to break Piłsudski’s inborn aversion to foreigners in the Polish Army.
Janusz Odziemkowski: As far as I remember, Piłsudski’s emotional distance towards Cooper and the rest stemmed from misunderstanding. Initially, he thought they were hired soldiers, and these he never wanted in his army. However, when American pilots clarified their reasons, he fully approved of them. There were other foreigners in the Polish Army, too. Quite a number of tsarist officers, who had introduced themselves as Poles, joined our army. Their motivations differed: some of them wanted to fight with Bolsheviks, others simply wanted to earn their living. There were foreigners who had Polish roots. Many of them didn’t speak Polish, but the Poles turned a blind eye to this, and let them give orders in Russian.
Andrzej Chwalba: When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Germany lost, and it turned out that many foreigners wanted to join the Polish Army, among them people speaking German or Austrian officers with no Polish roots who had been dismissed from military service in the Austrian Republic and didn’t have anywhere to go. These people, searching to earn their bread, wanted to join the Polish Army – but also the Czechoslovakian army – and asked to be admitted to military service. The Polish Army lacked staff and engineer officers, so they were willingly inducted. This also concerned airmen and panzer weapon specialists. There were officers from Russian – or even German – army who also wanted to join the Polish military. Some of them owned properties on the territory of Poland. A good example here is Vice-Admiral Józef Unruh, who later became Unrug.
What about the minorities in the East?
Janusz Odziemkowski: In Kresy (Eastern Borderlands), national divisions even concerned families. Some people considered themselves Polish, some Lithuanian or Belarussian. Not always this division was the same as religious division.
At the beginning of independence, mass desertions and adversity to join the army among Polish peasants were common. Suddenly, in 1920 it all changed. Why? Because of the army consolidation?
Dariusz Fabisz: I’d say simply because the rumor said Bolsheviks would take their lands, and Polish administration were talking about agricultural reform.
Janusz Odziemkowski: I wouldn’t connect peasants with army consolidation. This is a totally different issue. The army consolidation was a strenuous and underappreciated work. It involved everyday service of low-level command staff officers who accompanied soldiers all the time, trying to explain them why they had to serve in the army. We’re talking here about the entire education system which was significantly financed despite common poverty at the time. Luckily, the military educators understood that if soldiers would only be taught warfare techniques, they would very soon be influenced by revolution propaganda.
Andrzej Chwalba: Professor, it’s hard not to remember the idea of agricultural reform at this point.
Janusz Odziemkowski: I agree, but first, we’re talking about the army consolidation. Once a Polish peasant found himself in the army, he was quite busy with the very hectic military training. He was trained how to fight and told why he could die, if the need arises. Most of our soldiers were country dwellers. About 70% of privates in the Polish Army were peasants. And who held the greatest authority in their villages? A village priest, and his military counterpart was the army chaplain. That’s why chaplains were often employed as educators in very broad sense. They taught soldiers how to write and read, while emphasizing such issues as what Poland is, and why they should fight for it.
As we know, the Polish Army enlisted the officers of different armies. Privates were known to be treated in the worst way in the Russian army, while the volunteer Polish Legions were known for the greatest fraternity in arms. How all of the above affected the relationships between soldiers in the reborn Polish Army?
Janusz Odziemkowski: Officers’ attitudes towards their subordinates differed a lot. We know of some good as well as of very bad behaviors. Old orders of high officers which prohibit beating soldiers show that initially beating actually took place. Every officer joining the Polish Army introduced his own habits and methods of handling soldiers characteristic for the army in which he served during the world war. For a long time, the units formed in different post-partition districts maintained their specificity, so the army was very much diverse. In fact, the unification of the Polish Army, although officially took place in the autumn of 1919, occurred after the Polish-Soviet War. At that time, very consistently unified regulations and nomenclature were introduced into every military unit. Only at this point we can speak about unification of the army. In the 1930s, the Polish Army was the uniform army, in spite of the differences between soldiers of specific post-partition districts.
Prof. Janusz Odziemkowski
Professor in historical sciences. His area of interest covers military history, history of the 19th century, and contemporary armed conflicts. He lectures at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw and at the Wars Studies Academy in Rembertów. His work includes: “Armia i społeczeństwo II Rzeczypospolitej” [Army and Society of the Second Republic of Poland] (1996), “Józef Piłsudski. Wódz i polityk” [Józef Piłsudski. Chief and Politician](2007).
Prof. Andrzej Chwalba
Historian and essayist. He is a professor at the Jagiellonian University, a scholar and expert in the history of Poland and Europe of 19th and 20th century, as well as an author of 30 books. Recently, he published the so-called triplets on 1914-1918 war: “Samobójstwo Europy” [Europe’s Suicide] (2014), “Legiony Polskie 1914–1918” [Polish Legions 1914-1918] (2018), “Wielka Wojna Polaków 1914–1918” [Great War of Poles] (2018).
Dr. Dariusz Fabisz
Assistant Professor at History Institute of University of Zielona Góra. He is an author of a published in 2007 biography: “Generał Lucjan Żeligowski (1865–1947). Działalność wojskowa i polityczna” [General Lucjan Żeligowski (1865-19470: Military and political activity] (2007). His critical work includes “Pamiętniki generała broni Lucjana Żeligowskiego” [Memoirs of General Lucjan Żeligowski].
Blue Army, Haller’s Army (Błęktitna Armia) – common name of the Polish Army in France referring to the color of French uniforms worn by its soldiers. This volunteer formation, appointed by decree of President of France Raymond Poincaré on June 4, 1917, was commanded by General Józef Haller.
Supreme People’s Council (Naczelna Rada Ludowa) – until November 11, 1918 illegal political organization founded in 1916 by politicians of Polish territory under Prussian occupation. It counted on the victory of the Entente from the very start and recognized the Polish National Committee in Paris. In December 1918, it controlled the Greater Poland Rising.
Royal Polish Army (Polska Siła Zbrojna, also: Polnische Wehrmacht) – the army of the Kingdom of Poland by the Act of November 5, also called Polnische Wehrmacht. Its commander-in-chief was Warsaw’s general-governor Hans Hartwig von Beseler, which he remained until October 13, 1918, when the Polish Army sworn an oath of allegiance to the Regency Council.
Polish Legions (Legiony Polskie) – Polish military force created on August 27, 1914. The predecessor of the Legions was the First Cadre Company (Pierwsza Kompania Kadrowa) formed in Kraków on August 3, 1914 by Józef Piłsudski.
Battle of Lviv 1918 (Odsiecz Lwowa) – help for Lviv organized and planned by the commander of the Polish Armies in Eastern Galicia, General Tadeusz Rozwadowski. On November 19, 1918 the forces commanded by LtCol Michał Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski marched away from Przemyśl. The fights continued until November 22, when the Ukrainians were forced to leave the town.
Polish National Committee in Paris (Komitet Narodowy Polski) – founded on August 15, 1917 in Lausanne by Roman Dmowski Polish political organization active during 1917-1919, with its head office in Paris. The aim of the Committee was to rebuild the Polish state with the help of Triple Entente. The Committee was recognized by the governments of France, Great Britain and Italy as an ersatz of Polish government in exile.
Treaty of Versailles (Traktat wersalski) – the main peace treaty ending World War I. It was signed on June 28, 1919 by Germany, the Entente powers, allied and associated states. The document was ratified and entered into force on January 10, 1920 in Paris.
Kościuszko Squadron (Eskadra Kościuszkowska) – commonly used name of the 7th Fighter Squadron of Tadeusz Kościuszko, in which the US volunteer airmen served during the Polish-Soviet War. The squadron existed during 1918-1925.
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz