• October 9, 2015
  • 260

1920: the citizens of Vilnius in the victorious war

Exactly 95 years ago, Polish troops commanded by General Lucjan Żeligowski entered, or rather returned to Vilnius. The citizens of the city received them as warmly as 1,5 year before, when on Easter 1919 the Poles had saved them from the Bolshevik occupation and put an end to the Lithuanian-Belarussian Soviet Republic.

“Rebellious” Żeligowski wanted to revive the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in a different way – he wanted it to be a part of a modern union (federation) with Poland and Ukraine which was a dream of Józef Piłsudski. He entered Vilnius which was theoretically ruled by the Lithuanians who a month before had regained it from the Soviet Russia, when after the lost Battle of Warsaw of 1920 the dishevelled Red Army was retreating into their country. Lithuania still regards this event as the beginning of the “Polish occupation of the Vilnius region” even though the annexation of the Republic of Central Lithuania (a quasi-state established in the Vilnius region by Żeligowski) into the Second Polish Republic took place two years later.

The Poles in Lithuania do not celebrate this anniversary either – out of fear of being politically incorrect and being accused of reactionism, revisionism and disloyalty (they are accused of the latter anyway). Embarrassed silence, or rather no formal recognition of the importance of events of 1920 could turn out to have disastrous consequences: young generations gradually lose their memory and attachment to their roots, they even accept the version of the Lithuanian nationalists – the theory of the Great Harm (occupation, Polonisation) inflicted by the Poles on the Lithuanians – without any criticism even though many historians claim that it was an internecine conflict between the ethnic and the historical Lithuanians. It is often forgotten that thanks to Piłsudski’s idea (and Żeligowski who put it into practice) the foundations for the modern Polish community in the Vilnius region, connected both with Lithuania and with Poland – the direct descendant and continuator of the multi-ethnic tradition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania destroyed by nationalism and nation states – were laid.

The Żeligowski’s action was only a part of a big fight for the new shape of our part of Europe and it is worth remembering the active participation of the inhabitants of the Vilnius region – our grandfathers and great-grandfathers – in it. Their dedication and bravery made them choose but not during any elections but through a uniform they put on, flags and badges they fought with. It is not surprising that it was during the war of 1919-1920 that the Eagle and the Pahonia were represented on one flag, it was the last time in history. We would like to invite the readers of “Wilnoteka” to read a series of articles by our colleague, a historian and “a citizen of the Grand Duchy” Michał Wołłejko, which are going to describe the broader context of the events of 1920 and the bravery of the citizens of the Vilnius region in their fight for their future

Walenty Wojniłło

In the autumn of 1920 the Polish Army were chasing panicked Bolsheviks. On 30th September they conquered Baranovichi (Belarus, Polish: Baranowicze) and two weeks later soldiers donning rogatywkas entered Minsk. The chase after Bolsheviks was the last stage of the Neman Operation, the last victorious Polish campaign was drawing to a close. Almost two years of fighting of newly reborn Polish state with aggressive Bolsheviks attempting to get to Western Europe and, unfortunately, also with the pro-Bolshevik Lithuanians, were over. For the Moscow and Petrograd (today: St. Petersburg) communists the annihilation of Poland was their primary goal. Mikhail Tukhachevsky pointed it out that “over the corpse of white Poland lies the road to world-wide conflagration”.

The triumph of the Polish army in that war was made possible thanks to brilliant successes in two battles of 1920: in the Battle of Warsaw and in the aforementioned Battle of the Neman. On the Vistula, the Poles stopped the Bolshevik invasion but they did not destroy it. Only on the Neman did the Polish Army crush the Western Front of Red Army which was crucial for the result of the whole war. Many citizens of Vilnius and the north-eastern parts of the Eastern Borderlands – inhabitants of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, from the Vitebsk and Minsk regions in the east to Samogitia and Courland in the north and the west – took part in the war. There were thousands of them during the two-year-long war, and the contribution of “an Eastern Borderlands soldier”, nowadays forgotten or at least underestimated, was immense, even crucial, in the long run. Despite 95 years passing from the time of the war, it is worth reminding about the work of the Eastern Borderlands army.

From Vilnius Self-defence to Lithuanian-Belarussian Division

On 11th November 1918 Germany surrendered in the West. At the same time, they still occupied most of the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Chaos and violence reigned in the occupied lands. On the one hand, the demoralised German troops were unable to restore peace and order. On the other hand, the Bolshevik rebellion was spreading from the East. Communist-inspired groups looted, murdered and set fire to everything they could find. In such circumstances, groups of Polish Self-Defence were being established. General Władysław Wejtko admitted that apart from protecting people, their aim was to “fight with the occupants for the rebirth of Poland.” Actually, the aim was to seize power from the retreating Germans on the basis of Polish military formations and to annexe the Eastern Borderlands to Poland. Self-Defence units were established in Minsk, Vilnius, Lida, Grodno  Shchuchyn (Polish: Szczuczyn) and Navahrudak (Nowogródek). On 28th October 1918 the director of the General Staff of the Regency Council General Tadeusz Rozwadowski issued a decree which appointed General Władysław Wejtko as “a leader of all self-defence formations in Lithuania and Belarus”.

Establishment of a strong military organisation of Poles in the Eastern Borderlands did not work out. One of the causes was the activity of the Germans who, on the one hand, made the formation of Self-Defence more difficult and on the other hand, overtly supported the Bolsheviks (German Soldier Councils were supportive towards them). While leaving Minsk at the beginning of December 1919, the German Army gave the weapons and military equipment to the Bolsheviks. In such situation, 1 000-strong units of the local Minsk Self-Defence, unable to face the Communists, retreated to the West.

Meanwhile, the situation in Vilnius was completely different. At the end of December the German city garrison began the procedure of evacuation, the Germans leaving Vilnius were accompanied by the Lithuanian Politicians from The State Council of Lithuania (known in Poland as Taryba) established by the occupant. At the same time, the local Communists attempted to seize the city before the approaching Red Army. They took a house on Crow Street (Polish: ulica Wronia) and barricaded themselves inside. The house, dubbed “The Crow Nest” by the citizens, was taken by the units of Polish Self-Defence of New Year’s Day 1919. Another groups of Poles pushed the last German troops out of the railway station and a few houses in Pohulanka. Fights, or rather squabbles, lasting a few days, stopped on 3rd January 1919. Vilnius became Polish. Not for a long time…

Strong troops of the Red Army were approaching from Nemenčinė and Naujoji Vilnia. It was impossible to stop them at least make them slow down in their march on Vilnius. On 5th January the Bolsheviks took the Three Crosses hill and the railway station. The leaders of the Vilnius Self-Defence decided to move westwards. In Baltoji Vokė near Vilnius (today: Wojdaty) the majority of Polish troops surrendered to the German soldiers living there in exchange for allowing them to travel by train to Łapy in the Białystok region. So it happened: the citizens of Vilnius along with previously moved units of Minsk Self-Defence were included in the Lithuanian-Belorussian Division which was being formed then. The unit was officially established by Józef Piłsudski in his order dated 26th November 1918. During the war of independence and borders the unit was staffed only by the soldiers from north-eastern parts of the Eastern Borderlands. It quickly became ready for fighting and the 2nd Lithuanian-Belorussian Division was formed on its basis in the autumn of 1919. Both units made a valuable contribution to the fight for independence and borders, especially during the battles of 1920.

Within the Vilnius Self-Defence, a cavalry regiment was formed – the 1st Regiment of Wilno Uhlans. Its Leader became Cavalry Captain Władysław Dąmbrowski* and its Deputy Leader – his brother Jerzy, also known as Żorż or Łupaszka. The Uhlans came primarily from the Vilnius region, but there was also a big group of volunteers from ethnically Lithuanian areas, the Lauda region, the vicinity of Panevėžys . The group was recruited by Walerian Meysztowicz, a 25-year-old cavalry soldier who after the Second World War became a Canon at the St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican! Years later, he recollected the circumstances of formation of this Eastern Borderlands cavalry units and introduced his brothers in arms.

“It was like royal messages” – Walerian Meysztowicz wrote – “as if I were a standard-bearer: a group of more than twenty young men gathered throughout the day, the old ones allowed them to do so without much fuss. They dispersed in order to return on the next day with their horses and ammunition. Strange it was, this little army of ours. I became a leader, nobody questioned it nor did they asked whom did we answer to. We were supposed to find out later on. We were walking towards Vilnius. It was the last moment. […] During more than ten days of marching through roads and wilderness, fields and forests, we were careful not to enter any village or town occupied by the Germans or Bolsheviks; we became very good friends as well. What fine lads those men were! My brother Zygmunt was among them, always calm and full of ideas; there was Jaś Hołownia, honest, righteous, and childishly brave; there was also sullen, quiet and decisive Antek Downarowicz. We also walked with little Kubski, Dziamarski and Maciejewski. And then, in the Lida area, close to Nacza, we were joined by red-haired, cheerful and sometimes reckless Oleś Kucewicz. […] And to cut the story short – we were all ready to serve in order not to let the Bolsheviks take over our country and to rebuild the Republic. It was an important trait of all of those people, among whom only my brother and I were educated to some extent and could express our general opinions. The others did not have it. They were not “young masters” – they were poor noblemen and peasants.”

The Dąmbrowski brothers and their Uhlans did not surrender to the Germans. They assumed a different direction of retreat from Vilnius – southwards, towards Lida. They made a mad decision to force their way through the Bolshevik-occupied country to cross the German lines and join the regular units of the Polish army. They made it! They reached Brest, having gone through the Lida area (where they were joined by the groups of Polish self-defence from Lida and Shchuchyn), the Lipiczany Forest and the swamps of the northern Polesie. Having travelled a few hundred kilometres, in February 1919 they joined the units of the Podlasie Division of General Antoni Listowski. When they were on their way, they successfully fought the Bolsheviks several times and in the city of Brest they met Germans who did not want the Poles to take over the city. The 13th Regiment of Wilno Uhlans was formed within the ranks of the regular army and it comprised the cavalrymen of self-defence groups. The regiment turned out to be the longest fighting formation of the whole army. It was they who shot the last shots of the 1919-1920 war…

The Vilnius troops retreating and attacking

From April 1919 Vilnius was under Polish control – Józef Piłsudski still hoped to reach a compromise with the Lithuanian government, located in Kaunas and supported by the Germans, on the issue of cooperation and rebirth of the historical Lithuania without limiting it to the ethnical framework. The offensive of the Bolshevik Army, commanded by Mikhail Tukhachevsky, started on 4th July 1920. The Polish positions were attacked by four Soviet armies and the Cavalry Corps led by Gai (an Armenian, Gai Dmitrievich Gai alias Gaik Bzhishkyan, also called Gai-Khan). The Soviets, in much better situation regarding the Belorussian front, literally decimated the units of the 1st Polish Army who did not however let itself be bottled up. The retreat of the Polish Army began. In the meantime, the Red Army was approaching Vilnius which on 14th July had been deserted by the Polish troops.

The desperate situation of the Polish troops in the Vilnius and Suwałki regions was made even worse by “brothers Lithuanians” who in July 1920 decided to join the fight against the Poles, frantically defending themselves and to extend the already forming territory of Lithuania east- and southwards by supporting the attack of the Red Army. Mikhail Tukhachevsky in his book “The March Across the Vistula River” described the Lithuanian action in the following way: “When the Lithuanians found out that the Red Army was really successful, their formerly neutral attitude towards Poland immediately changed into a hostile one. The Lithuanian troops attacked the Polish forces and took over Trakai and the station of Landwarów. A quick movement of the cavalry corps and the help of the Lithuanian army made it impossible for the Poles to retreat towards Grodno and Orany.”

The Józef Piłsudski Institute of America in New York stores a document called “A Paper on Lithuanian-Soviet Cooperation in July 1920” The text, probably (it is undated) prepared right after the events of 1920 in the Vilnius region, reveals interesting information about the Lithuanian involvement against the Poles. According to the authors of the document, “the Lithuanians started fighting with the Polish troops on 7th July 1920, so only 3 days after the beginning of the offensive. “ (…) The 1st battalion of the Słuck Rifles Regiment [forming a part of the 2nd Lithuanian-Belorussian Division – author’s note] was attacked by the Soviet cavalry from the east and the Lithuanians from the west. Northwards of Kozaczyna village, the Lithuanians took hostage six people from a Polish post. As a result of their action, the Słuck regiment began to retreat, however a lonely 2nd company of the regiment (over 100 people) was interned by the Lithuanians in Domogały village.”

An encounter with the Lithuanians took place also on 12th July 1920, according to the authors of the text quoted above, “the 1st Lithuanian Division attacked the 1st battalion of the Lida Regiment near Vievis. On the next day, that battalion had to force its way through near Jateluny, and it lost part of its supply trains, one officer, 13 privates, 27 soldiers were wounded and one officer and 11 privates became prisoners of war.” Another form of Lithuanian-Soviet cooperation was letting the Soviets go through the Lithuanian territory. As a result, Polish troops harassed  by the Soviets, had to resists their attacks also from the other side. The units of the 2nd Lithuanian-Belorussian Division were especially affected by the attacks (for example near Landwarów and Orany). The formation sustained severe losses, and some of its soldiers were forced to surrender to the Lithuanians who later interned them.

It is worth adding, that apart from Lithuanian-Soviet cooperation during the war, the two countries signed a peace treaty of Kaunas dated 12th July 1920. The treaty guaranteed Soviet recognition of Lithuanian territory as extending to the area of Grodno, Lida, Ashmyany, Smorgon and Braslaw. In exchange, the Lithuanians agreed to let the Soviets go through their territories to fight with the Poles. That was the content of a secret annexe to the treaty.

The Red Army marched westwards. After a month, the Soviet divisions reached Warsaw. They were met by determination and bravery of retreating Polish troops. Józef Fiedorowicz, an officer of the 13th Regiment of Wilno Uhlans, whose military career began within the ranks of the Vilnius Self-Defence, mentions that in his yet unpublished eyewitness account. Let him speak:

“Our security troops started shooting at the approaching Soviet patrols. The alarmed 2nd squadron left Janów and was retreating slowly across an open field and a hill. Lieutenant Colonel Butkiewicz [Mścisław, the then leader of the 13th regiment- author’s note], an orderly Second Lieutenant Andrzej Brochocki and I were riding behind the squadron, that is between the squadron and the side from which the enemy was approaching. When we approached the hill, we could see a broad line of the Soviet cavalry. Lt Col Butkiewicz ordered: “Charge!” and took his sabre. The officers repeated the order. Among our old Uhlans there were also newly enlisted ones, demoralised by the defeat of the 113th regiment near Grodno and not yet integrated with the rest of the squadron. They constituted the majority in the line and because of them a moment of hesitation occurred: the loosely formed line of the squadron, with their backs on the enemy, did not turn around and begin the charge. Lt Col Butkiewicz, the squadron officers and we charged forward with our sabres in hands. There was about a dozen of us, while there were several hundreds of the enemy soldiers which made us feel tense. […] The moment of hesitation among the Uhlans was gone, the old Uhlans made the new ones go with them and the squadron, a few dozen steps behind us, charged. The enemy started running away. The first to catch them was Lt Col Butkiewicz, riding a splendid full-blooded mare and started cutting them with his family karabela. The hilt was visibly old and weakened, it was only loosely attached to the blade, his sabre broke. He took his revolver, pulled the trigger… and nothing happened. He was so angry that he threw his revolver in the back of a Cossack soldier, the Cossack shrank a little in his saddle but did not fall off his horse. […] The enemy approached in a broad line, the other squadrons of the regiment, located in other villages, charged a few times. The last charge of the 1st squadron, which took place in the evening, changed into a fight between the Polish and the Soviet soldiers with the use of white arms. […] Stubbornness and determination of our squadrons made the enemy stop its advance for 24 hours.”

In mid-August 1920 difficult battles also took place on the outskirts of Warsaw – the Battle of Warsaw was going on. The units from the Eastern Borderlands also took part in it. A company of Vilnius scouts (a part of the 201st volunteer infantry regiment) who had left the city in July, was fighting on the Wkra river. The leader of the scouts from the Eastern Borderlands, Lieutenant Tadeusz Kawalec recollected later on: “The crucial moment is approaching. The 3rd battalion of the 201st regiment is supposed to attack from the right flank, in the direction of the Ciekszyna village [Cieksyn – author’s note]. Our task is to support the attack of neighbouring units and to attack the enemy’s right flank. […] The boys leave their hiding place and run into the forest. An unexpected surprise! Two machine guns welcomed the advancing line of the soldiers with a crossfire. As a result, Lt Col Wacław Cywiński ordered the platoon to retreat to its original position The platoon retreated but sustained severe losses, scouts Roman Hryniewiecki and Mirosław Władysław die from the enemy’s bullet. They die without making a single sound […] I look at them… Their young faces make me think that they are only asleep if it wasn’t for a mortal wound…”

At the same time, the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division took part in the Battle of Radzymin (13th – 17th August). The bravery of its soldiers was noticed by the commanders’ reports. The report of the Command of the Northern Front, written before 16th August said: “The city of Radzymin changed hands twice. The counter-action of the troops of the 19th Infantry Division [the Lithuanian-Belorussian Division was renamed as the 19th Infantry Division – author’s note], led by General Rządkowski on the both sides of the Praga – Radzymin road met the resistance of the enemy who was put under enormous pressure and forced to retreat. […]”

The report of the Command of the 1st Army said as follows: “Thanks to its attack on bayonets, the Vilnius regiment conquered Helenów, and got 30 prisoners of war and, 7 machine guns and 3 trunks with ammunition.” The Soviet attacks on the Eastern Borderlands soldiers’ position did not show signs of stopping. According to the reports of the Command of the Front, dated 17th August 1920, “On the stretch defended by the 19th Infantry Division, the enemy attacked twice, at 10.15 a.m.: it attacked the posts of the Vilnius regiment in the vicinity of Helenów and the Minsk regiment in the Czarna region on the right flank, having previously made it through a wired fence. The attack was fought successfully.” On 16th August 1920 the Polish counter-offensive on the Wieprz river began. 6-week-long Soviet attack was brought to a halt and the Soviets themselves were forced to retreat. Although beaten in the Battle of Warsaw, the Army was not defeated. They received their final blow in the Battle of the Neman.

To be continued

* The traditional, historical spelling of the surname, used by their family in Suwałki, where both brothers were born. In the Russian documents and other files based on them – Dombrowski, in the Polish documents after 1919 – Dąbrowski. On the military lists of the Second Republic of Poland he was listed as Jerzy III Dąbrowski, to distinguish him from other officers with the same name and surname.

Translated by Natalia Skowronek within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

Related post

‘Half a loaf is better than none’? New national minorities bill.

Up until now, the Lithuanian national minorities’ rights have been regulated partially by special laws (e.g.…

White-and-red march through Vilnius and a rally in schools’ defence. ‘Poles want normalcy’.

A two thousandth white-and-red march passed through the streets of Vilnius on Saturday, March 23. Participants…

Issues of Polish education have been raised in front of parents and teachers.

The discussion on current issues in Polish education in Lithuania was initiated by the Forum of…