- November 11, 2015
1920: the citizens of Vilnius in the victorious war – Żeligowski’s „mutiny”
“It may be the case that you will have to face the negative opinion both of the world and of Poland.” – the Chief of State Józef Piłsudski warned General Lucjan Żeligowski, while explaining the details of his plan to capture Vilnius. “It may also be the case that even I will be forced to try to stop you. You have to accept it. I cannot order it, I am merely appealing to your good will and your Vilnius roots” – said the future Marshal of the Second Polish Republic, being from Pabradė, to Żeligowski, from near Ashmyany (they were divided by two years in birth year and only 90 kilometres in birthplace!). Żeligowski was not sure. “I did not want to tackle such a big task. I wanted to find out whether there was any other way of capturing Vilnius, the answer was no. If we do not enter the city, it will be lost for ever”
The breakthrough in the Battle of the Neman and the defeat of the Soviet military made the issue of returning to Vilnius, which had to be abandoned by the Poles in July 1920, more and more real. The Commander-in-Chief Józef Piłsudski wanted to return to the “beloved city” even before the decisive battle. On 20th September 1920, i.e. on the first day of the Operation Neman General Lucjan Żeligowski was ordered to appear in person in the Commander-in-Chief’s headquarters. Piłsudski appointed him as leader of a military action which, if successful, would lead to conquering Vilnius. Years later, he admitted that “I chose Żeligowski because, I, as the Chief of State and Commander-in-Chief, was not allowed to contravene my obligations.”
The Spa Conference
It would be useful to mention the obligations that Piłsudski did not want to contravene and explain what he meant. The obligations referred to the Spa conference of July 1920. While Tukhachevsky and his army were launching their Warsaw offensive, Prime Minister Władysław Grabski asked the representatives of the Entente countries to become mediators in the peace talks with the Bolsheviks, on behalf of the Polish government. In response, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George demanded that the Polish army retreat towards the line proposed on 8th December 1919 by the Supreme War Council to be the basis (then in fact considered to be the basis of the basis) of the eastern border of Poland and that the Polish government agree to leave the fate of the Vilnius region, Cieszyn Silesia, so-called Eastern Galicia and Gdańsk in the hands of the European powers. In exchange for the Polish approval, Lloyd George agreed to demand an armistice from the Bolsheviks.
Grabski accepted George’s humiliating and harmful offer. George immediately sent a diplomatic note to Moscow. The Bolsheviks, still believing in their victory over Poland, over whose “corpse” lay the road to world-wide conflagration, rejected the idea of peace talks. Grabski’s government resigned in July 1920 and a few weeks after the Spa conference the situation in the war changed dramatically. The Red Army was beaten in Warsaw and the Polish army launched an offensive.
The question is, did Józef Piłsudski have to respect the outcomes of the Spa conference in September 1920 and to invent Żeligowski’s “putsch” to regain Vilnius? In my opinion – he did not. Formally, the Spa obligation was in force but in fact it was no more than a sheet of paper. Lenin did reject the British Prime Minister’s offer. The Poles also did not receive promised support in the form of guns and ammunition (material support). The support was guaranteed in the case of the Soviet rejection of Lloyd George’s proposal of peace talks. What is important, it was the Hungarians that helped us and provided us with ammunition. The question of the Polish eastern border (known then as the Curzon line, Curzon – the Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s cabinet) was non-existent. At the same time the war was going on and the Polish Army was fighting the Bolsheviks on the Neman…
The Suwałki Agreement
The Chief of State – famous for his adherence to the rule of fait accompli throughout his adult life, probably did not have to worry about the decisions made during the Spa conference. Let us remember – they had no legal force. The real reason for Żeligowski’s action was different: Piłsudski still hoped to make his dream of a Polish-Lithuanian federation come true. Vilnius was supposed to act as a bargaining chip and make the Lithuanian politicians agree to unite with Poland. That was the purpose of the whole plan of creating an “alternative” quasi-state, the Republic of Central Lithuania after the capture of Vilnius by “rebellious” troops led by Żeligowski.
Piłsudski did not want to annexe Lithuania by force, that’s why he rejected Gen Rozwadowski’s idea to encircle the Soviets from the south and chase them towards “Vilnius and Kaunas at the same time”. During the September session of the Council of National Defence the Marshal said: “Declaring war [against Lithuania] is not necessary because we would have to march on Kaunas as well and we do not need it.” After the meeting of Piłsudski and Żeligowski, hectic preparations to the march on Vilnius began. The crucial factor was time, or rather the lack of it. Polish-Lithuanian place were in progress from 30th September and their aim was an armistice. The point was to make the “rebellious” general act before the entry into force of the Polish-Lithuanian armistice.
Indeed, the agreement between “delegations of Polish and Lithuanian governments” was signed on 7th October 1920 in Suwałki. It was supposed to come into force on 10th October at midday. The agreement drew a demarcation line between the Polish and the Lithuanian armies which “did not determine any territorial rights of the Parties”. The line ran through the Suwałki region (from the border with East Prussia) along the Neman river, then it turned eastwards near Orany towards the Bastuny railway station (on the Lida-Vilnius railway line) where it ended.
Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the agreement was only temporary. It clearly said that it was going to be valid “until final clarification of border issues between Poland and Lithuania”. It did not include Vilnius! That detail is important because Lithuanian journalists and even historians sometimes say that Żeligowski’s action contravened the Suwałki Agreement, which was supposed to transfer Vilnius into their hands. It did not.
“Mutineers” take over their “hometown of Vilnius”
The crucial role in the plan was to be played by the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division supported by a volunteer unit led by Major Zyndram-Kościałkowski and the cavalry unit of the 3rd Cavalry Rifle Regiment (the 13th Regiment of Wilno Uhlans did not take part in the direct action because of their involvement in the Battle of Koydanava – they “rebelled” a bit later and joined the fight against the Lithuanians only on 18th October). Żeligowski had about 14 000 soldiers at his service. The vast majority of them came from the Vilnius region, the former Vilnius governorate, to be precise, which is also sometimes denied by the Lithuanian historians.
For the citizens of Vilnius, the involvement in the action, even in the role of mutineers, was not a problem: they wanted their homeland to became a part of Poland as soon as possible. They remembered the Lithuanians’ treachery in July 1920 and their support for the Bolshevik troops attacking Vilnius. However, some of the officers from other parts of Poland had their reservations about being involved in the “mutiny”. The military and state loyalism factor came into play.
One of the “hesitant” ones was the commander of the Lithuanian-Belorussian Division, General Rządkowski himself. In August 1920 he led his Eastern Borderlands soldiers during the attack on bayonets near Radzymin. His attitude was later recollected by Major Stanisław Bobiatyński, the commander of the 1st Vilnius Rifle Regiment: “I was ordered to come to Eišiškės where I met Gen Żeligowski who told me that the plan of capturing Vilnius existed but it was necessary to “rebel”. Well, if you want me to rebel, I’ll do it, I thought. We will enter Vilnius under any pretext and we will never give it back. […] After the meeting, in which Gen Rządkowski was present, we drove to Voranava together. He was very frustrated about the “rebellion”: “I’ve been in the Army for thirty years and now they want me to ‘rebel’? I have nothing to do with your Vilnius, I’m from Congress Poland!” Then he asked me: “Is your regiment going to agree to march on Vilnius?” I was surprised […] and I said that I did not understand why I was supposed to ask whether they wanted to march on Vilnius or not if such question was not applicable before other operations. Then Gen Rządkowski asked me how I am going to gauge my soldiers’ morale and whether I am going to find out during the briefing whether the officers are going to join the “rebellion”. I answered with irritation: “Why didn’t you ask me, General, whether I wanted to conquer Radzymin and why do you want me to conduct a plebiscite now? I am going to Voranava to join my regiment tomorrow and I am not going to ask any of my officers or enlisted soldiers for their permission. I am going to issue an operation order tomorrow, according to recommendations received a few hours ago and I’d like to see who dares refuse to take part!” ” Indeed, nobody refused! General Żeligowski wrote later on: “Everybody understood me. They supported me morally”.
Before the Vilnius operation Lucjan Żeligowski sent a dispatch to his superior, Gen Władysław Sikorski in which he claimed that he “decided to defend the right of his Fatherland to self-determination and to assume leadership over the soldiers coming from those lands”. Simultaneously, he informed about his decision to leave the Polish Armed Forces. Then, the mutineers’ leader proclaimed himself the Chief Commander of the Republic of Central Lithuania. At the same time the soldiers from the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division issued an appeal to the Nation and the Government of the Republic of Poland which said: “ Today, when your freedom is already secure, and you do not have any material worries, you are trying to stop us in our victorious march on dear Vilnius, to our own families and homes. We do not blame you. Our power and spirit are great and we are going to get justice and will by ourselves. […] Keep off our land. We are going to struggle for life and death. We swear to Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn that when even one of us is able to carry a gun, no Lithuanian, Bolshevik or a German will ever rule over the graves of our forefathers.” The die was cast. On 8th October troops of Central Lithuanian soldiers started their march towards Vilnius. They had 50 kilometres to walk.
“Mutineers” moved forward without any problems, Lithuanian resistance on the outskirts of the city was very weak. Short fights and an exchange of fire took place near Jašiūnai. On 9th October at 2.15 p.m. front-end troops entered Vilnius. The first to march in was the Minsk Regiment. Even before the arrival of the Poles, the soldiers of the 7th Infantry Regiment of the Lithuanian Army decided to leave the city. During the Lithuanians’ retreat, groups of an underground organisation called the Association of Fatherland Defenders were shooting the retreating soldiers.
When inhabitants of the city heard about the arrival of the Poles, they were ecstatic. The atmosphere in Vilnius was later described by Corporal Wacław Kotowski from the Vilnius Regiment: “In the evening, we were met by a huge crowd, people were hugging us and kissing us heartily. A young and “pretty” lady with two children in her arms flung herself into the arms of a soldier, dirty of dust, with a squeal: “My dear husband!”. He took the children into his arms and with this lovely burden marched through the city. The crowd followed the soldiers, shouting “Long live the children of Vilnius!” enthusiastically and throwing flowers on us. The soldiers were putting the flowers inside their guns.”
General Żeligowski remembered that “men, women and children were crying and laughing at the same time, they were clinging to the soldiers and their horses.” It was the evening of 9th October 1920. The Poles ruled over Vilnius, which after the retreat of the military was still inhabited by the Lithuanian officials, diplomats, and members of military missions of the Allied countries. General Żeligowski met the latter and was so annoyed with their question: “Why did you invade Vilnius?” and the assumption that he had breached the Suwałki Agreement that he ordered them to leave the city by midday of the following day. He did the same to the delegation of the League of Nations: he ordered them to leave the area under his control. Its northern border was supposed to run along the Daugava (Polish: Dźwina) river, and the western border was to be the Polish-Lithuanian demarcation line of June 1920. Another dramatic stage of the history of the Vilnius region was beginning: the Republic of Central Lithuania.
To be continued
Translated by Natalia Skowronek within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.