• October 21, 2015
  • 421

1920: the citizens of Vilnius in the victorious war – the Battle of the Neman

As a result of the Polish victory in the Battle of Warsaw, the armies of Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s Western Front were forced to leave the outskirts of the capital far in the north-eastern direction. Meanwhile, in the south, in the Battles of Zamość and Komarowo the 1st Cavalry Army commanded by Semyon Budyonny  was defeated. The northern part of the Polish-Soviet front ran to the west of the rivers Neman and Shchara. Despite of the Poles’ success in August 1920, the Bolsheviks were still not completely defeated. Within a few weeks Mikhail Tukhachevsky managed to rebuild the destroyed units and was preparing for another offensive. His plans did not work out because of a bold offensive manoeuvre of the Polish Army which became crucial for the overall victory of Poland over the Soviet Russia. It is referred to as the Battle or the Operation Neman.

Initially, the Polish command wanted to attack the Soviet forces from the south and to flank them. According to a prominent historian and an expert on Polish-Lithuanian relationships in the 20th century Professor Piotr Łossowski, “the director of the Staff [General Staff of the Polish Army – author’s note] General Tadeusz Rozwadowski proposed moving the main offensive to the right flank and executing a pincer manoeuvre through Slonim, Lida and Vilnius which would push the Soviet troops to the west, into Lithuania. “It will be possible” – General Rozwadowski said – “to march behind the defeated Bolsheviks both to Kaunas and to Vilnius at the same time”. It is worth reminding here that the Lithuanians actively supported the Bolsheviks (from July 1920) in their fight against Poland and they began fighting themselves in July (in the Vilnius region) and in September (in the Suwałki region) 1920.

The plan was never carried out. Józef Piłsudski made a completely different decision (did he want to save Lithuania from the Bolsheviks?) which included striking the left flank, from the north and through the territory of the Suwałki region (occupied by the Lithuanian army from July 1920), and an attack carried out by an assault group from the 2nd Polish Army on the rear of the Soviet troops near Lida. At the same time, the Polish troops were supposed to attack the Bolsheviks in the central part of the front and to invade Grodno and Vawkavysk. The tasks waiting for the Polish units preparing for the offensive in the north were made clear in an order issued by General Edward Śmigły-Rydz on 17th September 1920 which said: “Break the Lithuanian front near Augustów, make the Lithuanians move northwards, take control over fords on the Neman near Druskininkai with the help of 2nd Cavalry Brigade and execute a manoeuvre to the rear of the Russian troops, attacking their units in Lida”.

Witold Pilecki charges at Lithuanian machine guns

On 22nd September 1920 the troops of the Northern Assault Group, comprising the 1st Legions Infantry Division, the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division (aka the 19th Infantry Division), and the 2nd and the 4th Cavalry Brigades attacked the Lithuanian positions. The first to charge was the elite division of the legions which, despite the resistance of the Lithuanians (the 2nd division of the Lithuanian army), managed to conquer Sejny and chased the retreating enemy towards the town of Lazdijai. The report of the Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief from the first day of the battle said: “Having crushed the strong resistance, especially between the lakes Białe and Birżenie, the 1st Legions Division invaded Giby and Zelwa. In the evening they entered Sejny. 6 soldiers from the 6th Lithuanian Infantry Regiment were taken hostage. Cannons and machine guns were seized, no details”. Lithuanian losses were indeed severe: it was estimated that about 1 700 Lithuanian soldiers became prisoners of war in Poland. The Poles also won a dozen cannons and machine guns while losing fewer than a hundred soldiers in the fight in the Suwałki region. According to Lech Wyszczelski, a historian, Lithuanian losses included “2 killed officers, 20 privates, several dozen wounded and 130 prisoners of war” only in the offensive sector of the 1st Legions Division.

On the next day, after pushing the Lithuanian troops out of the Suwałki region (in Lithuanian terminology – the southern, i.e. the Polish part of the region, its northern part, called “Zaniemnie” (English: beyond the Neman) by the Poles, belongs to Lithuania and extends almost to Kaunas), the Polish cavalry squadrons reached Druskininkai. Their aim was to capture a bridge on the Neman. It worked out thanks to a brave charge of the 211th Volunteer Uhlan Regiment (formed in summer 1920 on the basis of the Vilnius Uhlans).  Tomasz Zan’s (he’s a great-grandson of the famous Philomath, with the same name and surname) description of the event is very vivid. He said: “In Druskininkai we were moving towards machine guns on the other side of the bridge. Luckily, one of them got jammed and the operator of the second one got hit by a bullet right in the centre of his forehead. The charge moved like a hurricane, the planks of the bridge were broken, people and horses from the first lines were falling, the Uhlans jumped and eventually captured the bridge. […] The view from the steep bank of the river was splendid but I was among the charging ones. The first platoon of the 2nd squadron was honoured to lead the charge. The whole charge was led by Cavalry Captain Dąmbrowski, Doctor Aleksandrowicz and the chaplain without a sabre, but with a cross in his hand. The other three people were Olek Żeligowski, Corporal Józef Czapski and I. Czapski’s huge grey mare broke a plank in the bridge with its hoof and fell on its head. A commotion broke out, we had to jump over the horse. Czapski crawled beyond the railing of the bridge and he was all right.”

In the aforementioned account, Cavalry Captain Dąmbrowski appears[1]. He is the same officer who in September 1918 helped form the 1st Uhlan Regiment in Vilnius, comprising volunteers from the Vilnius Self-Defence. His name was Jerzy, his soldiers called him “Łupaszka” or “Żorż”. He was an extraordinary man. An officer of the Russian army, during the First World War he was decorated with medals 17 times! He served in the cavalry but he also has a flying episode in his career. In August 1917 he was awarded the Cross of St George for an air fight. It is worth noting that he was in charge of the first fight of the Vilnius Self-Defence against the Bolsheviks. Let us not forget that on the New Year’s Day 1919 they took a fortified house on Crow Street in Vilnius. On 8th December 1918 Józef Piłsudski issued a decree which “accepted General Władysław Wejtko in the Polish Army” and he also appointed him as a leader of “all self-defence formations of Lithuania and Belarus” which meant that the Vilnius volunteers became soldiers of the Polish Army. It is assumed that the fight on Crow Street marks the beginning of the Polish-Soviet war of independence.

In 1919 Jerzy Dąmbrowski was the Deputy Leader of the 13th Regiment of Wilno Uhlans (the Leader was his own brother Władysław). At the beginning of July 1920 he was entrusted with a task of forming the 4th Division of the 3rd Cavalry Rifles Regiment. A mixed troop, comprising of the Tartars led by Lt Jan Kałłakur and cavalry scouts of the Navahrudak Rifles Regiment of Lt Franciszek Zasadzki was joined by a group of volunteers, for instance the Vilnius youth. The unit was formed in Kazbėjai (Polish: Chazbijewicze) near Vilnius and it took only 3 (!) days. On 13th July 1920 Łupaszka and his Uhlans went to war. Having bravely fought the attacking Soviets, the unit went from the vicinity of Vilnius to Warsaw, where in the last decade of July, the 211th Volunteer Regiment of Vistula Uhlans was formed on its basis.

One of the soldiers of the unit was Witold Pilecki. “The volunteer to Auschwitz”, a hero of the Polish Underground movement, a soldier in the Warsaw Uprising and a martyr, murdered by Communists in 1948. He is widely known, and along Danuta Siedzikówna “Inka”, a brave nurse of the 5th Brigade of the Home Army and Major Zygmunt Szendzielarz “ Łupaszka” (his nom de guerre was a tribute to Jerzy Dąmbrowski, killed by the NKVD in 1940) he is one of the icons of anti-Communist resistance. Despite that fact, the knowledge that Witold Pilecki came from the Vilnius region[2] and fought against the Bolsheviks and the Lithuanians to make it stay within the borders of the reborn Poland, is still not common among the Poles.

Pilecki came from an old noble family residing in the Eastern Borderlands, partly in the Lida province. In 1918, as a 17-year-old scout, he joined the Vilnius Self-Defence. He joined the Łupaszka’s cavalry unit which was later changed into the 13th Regiment of the Wilno Uhlans. He served there until the autumn of 1919. During the Tukhachevsky’s offensive he stayed in Vilnius. He was allocated to a scout company, he defended Grodno there. Eventually, he reached Warsaw when he met his former commander Jerzy Dąmbrowski again. Dąmbrowski was forming the 211th volunteer regiment then. In August Pilecki was an Uhlan of the 2nd squadron again and a few weeks later – on 23rd September 1920 – he galloped towards the Lithuanian machine guns on the bridge in Druskininkai. He survived.

Nobody took prisoners in Krwawy Bór…

The infantry troops of the Northern Assault Group (1st Division of the Legions and the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division) were following in the cavalry’s footsteps. Having reached Druskininkai, they crossed an unscathed bridge on the Neman. On 27th September 1920 a fight between the soldiers of the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division and of the 2nd and the 7th Lithuanian infantry regiments took place in the region of Porzecze (today’s Belarus). At the local railway station the Poles surprised the battalion of the 7th regiment, leaving their train carriages. The Lithuanians were defeated. At the same time a difficult fight for Grodno, abandoned by the Bolsheviks at night on 25th-26th September, was going on. The soldiers of the Soviet 3rd Army were rushing eastwards, towards Lida, where in the afternoon of 27th September 1920 4 rifle divisions met the 1st Brigade of the Lithuanian-Belorussian Division.

At dawn of 27th September 1920 Minsk and Vilnius Rifle Regiments located near Bakszty were ordered to march in the south-eastern direction, towards the Lebioda river where they were supposed to take control over crossings on the river and cut off the Bolsheviks. In the village of Wasiliszki the Minsk soldiers dispersed the Bolshevik sub-unit from the 2nd Rifle Division. Then, the battalion of the Minsk regiment surprised another Soviet unit in the village of Feliksów, while heading towards crossings on the Lebioda. It turned out that the staff of the 3rd Army of Vladimir Lazarevich who had left Grodno before, was located there. The Soviet officer and his companions were forced to run away (to Lida) and lost contact with the divisions which were approaching the crossing from the east.

In the afternoon of 27th September the 2nd battalion and the rest of the Minsk regiment found themselves in a very difficult situation. They were surrounded by the Bolshevik troops of the 2nd and the 5th divisions from the west, and by the 6th division, who had managed to cross the river, from the east. In the evening the Poles gave in and retreated to a forest complex called “Krwawy Bór” (English: Bloody Forest). In the meantime, the Vilnius regiment came to help. The Eastern Borderlands soldiers started attacking in order to regain control over the crossing. The attack was successful, but a few dozen minutes later the 56th Rifle Division, coming from Grodno, arrived on the Lebioda. Thousands of Bolsheviks invaded the Polish posts…

At night bayonet fight broke out. Mingled units, divided into smaller groups fought with each other continuously. Nobody took prisoners. The Soviet superiority was undeniable. A tough Eastern Borderlands soldier, despite his heroic attempts, was forced to run into the forests of Krwawy Bór. 130 soldiers died, 230 were wounded and 410 missed in action (some of them were found at dawn). Both regiments –Minsk and Vilnius – had 2300 people before the battle.

Although lost, the Battle of Krwawy Bór was crucial to the overall success of the Battle of the Neman. The heroic defence of the crossing delayed the retreat of the Soviet 3rd Army towards Lida, which was then conquered by the 1st Legions Infantry Division, and the Soviet retreat route was blocked. In the battles of Krwawy Bór and Lida the Red Army sustained severe losses. The commander of the 3rd army could not coordinate his activities any longer which disorganised the activity of the Soviet forces for the next few days. The Red Amy soldiers’ morale was falling. After the defeat in the battle of Lida, the main commander of the Western Front Mikhail Tukhachevsky issued an order to retreat. Another phase of the battle began – pursuit fights with disorganised Soviets. The 13th Regiment of Wilno Uhlans took part in them.

On 29th September 1920 the operational order no. 63 of the command of the 2nd army of the Polish Army was issued and said as follows: “In order to destroy three Soviet armies, two infantry divisions […] and the whole cavalry (4th Brigade, 2nd Brigade and the 13th Uhlan Regiment) are to carry out an offensive towards Navahrudak-Mir and Nowojelnia and to simultaneously secure the Lida-Radun’-Marcinkonys direction.” It was in the final phase of the war against the Soviet Russia that the famous 13th Regiment of the Wilno Uhlans, considered the elite of the Polish cavalry, took part. They fought with the Bolsheviks near Koydanava (now known as Dzyarzhynsk, Belarus, because it was the homeland of Felix Edmundovich).

This is how the fights were remembered by Józef Fiedorowicz, an officer of the 13th Regiment, also quoted above: “On 3rd October the regiment conquered and passed Koydanava and spent the night about 5 kilometres to the east of the village. The 3rd squadron of the regiment, being in the front guard, started marching towards Minsk after a few hours of rest. The technical squadron was ordered to blow up a railway bridge on the Ptsich river – on the Minsk line. The next morning, the regiment became alarmed by the approach of the enemy from the west. These were strong forces of the Soviet infantry. The regiment formed a line of two squadrons and a machine gun squadron and opened fire to the advancing Soviet line who responded with a heavy fire as well. The Soviet forces were much stronger than ours and despite our fire, the enemy’s line kept moving forward. We thought that other regiments of the [cavalry] group would come and help us but the response to our report to the command was an order to retreat and take a position in the immediate vicinity of Koydanava. When we did as we were ordered to, […] a new wave of Soviet forces arrived, comprising the regiments of the Petrograd Communist Brigade who were moving eastwards through Koydanava. Our fight with the soldiers, whose ranks were much bigger than ours was not supported again, an order to retreat, leave the village and move towards Stowbtsy”

On 15th October 1920 a group led by Col Gustaw Paszkiewicz conquered Minsk. Unfortunately, on the very next day they were ordered to leave the city. It was the last episode of the Polish-Soviet war. The Poles from the Minsk region, soldiers who fought bravely in two-year-long war with the Bolsheviks, especially in the Battle of Krwawy Bór, never returned to their homes in Minsk (before the First World War – Lithuanian, after 1920 – Belorussian) and nearby villages. Unfortunately, the majority of those grand old family estates was burnt down…

To be continued

[1] In Polish historiography the correct spelling of his surname, Dąbrowski, is more common, the version “Dombrowski” is also known but his family (he was born in Suwałki) used the spelling Dąmbrowski. On the military lists from the time of the Second Polish Republic he is listed as Jerzy III Dąbrowski (III – to distinguish him from other officers with the same name and surname).

[2] Witold Pilecki spent most of his life in the Eastern Borderlands – in Vilnius and in his family estate in Sukurcze near Lida. Undoubtedly, he considered himself a citizen of Vilnius. When he came to Auschwitz one of prisoners asked him whether he had come in the Warsaw transport, which was met with a positive answer. Asked about his place of birth because of his Eastern Borderlands accent, Pilecki answered that his homeland was the Vilnius region.

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…