The war with Poland in 1920 shows the Red Army at the height of its capability after a full two and a half years in existence and extensive combat experience, although by mid- 1920, when there was little danger of a White victory with the Volunteer Army bottled up in the Crimea, the Red Army at over four million strong was unable to defeat a smaller, ill-equipped and uncertain Polish army. A close look at the Red Army in this war shows not only how far it had come, but also how far it still had to go to become a competent, unified fighting force.
The simultaneous collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires led to the resurrection of independent Poland and the Polish romantic and emotional attachment to the historic (pre-1795) eastern borderlands. These borderlands consisted primarily of the western Ukraine. Hence the Polish motivation to secure as much Ukrainian territory as possible before the victorious Allies began redrawing the map of Europe at Versailles and before the Red Army could defeat the Whites and turn all its attentions to the disputed region. The Bolsheviks naturally wanted to preserve as much former imperial territory as possible but also saw the borderlands as the land link to a Europe they needed to flare up in revolution. When the Germans withdrew from Poland and the Ukraine the borderlands acted as a magnet pulling both Polish and Soviet forces into it.
The Polish Army made the first move attacking a small Soviet detachment on 14 February 1919. The “war” lapsed into a lull until the Poles went on the offensive in April with the aim of capturing or “liberating” Vilno, Lvov and Minsk, which they accomplished by the end of August 1919. At that point Josef Pilsudski, leader of Poland, was willing to negotiate with the Soviets who refused. The front remained static for another nine months.
Pilsudski ordered the resumption of hostilities and attacked on 25 April 1920. The Red Army had two armies facing the Poles, the 12th and 14th armies both outnumbered at the outset. More pressing problems than the numerical superiority of the Poles were the mutinies of two brigades made up of Galicians, one of which went over to the Poles in its entirety, and the attacks of Makhno’s bands on the Soviet rear area destroying supplies and bridges and disrupting transportation and communication.
The Red Army fell back in fairly good order after some fierce engagements, giving up Kiev on 7 May without a fight. To meet the emergency, the RVSR reinforced both armies and transferred the Konarmiia from the Kuban to the Polish front. The Konarmiia rode its horses rather than trains. It covered roughly 750 miles in thirty days at a pace that crippled or killed fifty horses per day – rather a lot of wear and tear on a unit expected to be thrown into the fray on arrival.
Trotsky and the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, S. S. Kamenev reorganized the enlarged forces into two fronts, the Western (in the north) and the Southwestern (to the south – on the left – of the Western Front). Mikhail Tukhachevskii was assigned to command the Western Front RVS and its four armies, the 15th Army, 3rd Army, 16th Army and 4th Army, all of which were commanded by former tsarist colonels. Tukhachevskii created his own version of the Konarmiia by combining two cavalry divisions and a rifle brigade into III Cavalry Corps (Kavkor). The RVS of Aleksandr I. Egorov, a voenspets, Stalin and Voroshilov commanded the Southwestern Front. It consisted of the 12th Army, the 14th Army and the Konarmiia.
The Red offensive to regain the Ukraine, and possibly more, began on 26 May with the Southwestern Front’s attack followed by the Western Front on 4 July. From the start, Egorov intended that the Konarmiia, headed by Budenny and Voroshilov, with its mobility and shock power, would be the key to success. After ten days of fighting the Konarmiia finally broke through the Polish lines and began to advance uninterrupted for ten weeks. The Polish army abandoned Kiev and by 10 July 1920 were back at the lines they had held in August 1919. The key to the advance turned out to be the Konarmiia’s ability to continually find the Polish weak spots and penetrate quickly into their rear or to turn the Polish flank in the flat wide open country. Budenny defeated Polish counterattacks by holding in the middle and sending horsemen around the flanks of the attackers. Nothing the Poles did seemed to work, nothing the Reds did seemed to fail.
By mid-August the Southwestern Front had penetrated deep into eastern Poland but Egorov’s three armies had spread out from each other. The 12th Army on the right faced west alongside the Western Front but had been bogged down in marshy terrain; the Konarmiia was moving in a southwesterly direction having been ordered to take Lvov, and the 14th Army was oriented more to the south expecting to be ordered to invade Romania. All three armies had lost their momentum, suffered significant losses, and the front was beginning to lose its cohesion.
Tukhachevskii opened the Western Front’s offensive on 4 July after extensive material and ideological preparation. Tukhachevskii went to great lengths to convince the soldiers of the significance of the forthcoming offensive. For example, the 33rd Division, over a period of three weeks, was subjected to a course of political education consisting of eleven meetings, one hundred reading sessions, one thousand discussions, twenty-five lectures, 104 cell meetings, thirty-seven general meetings, and twenty “spectacles”.
The Kavkor spearheaded the Western Front’s offensive. The first main objective was Vilno. The offensive had great success at first, breaking the first Polish defense line in a matter of days. Vilno fell on 14 July. At the end of July, after very heavy fighting, Tukhachevskii’s forces took Grodno. Yet, Tukhachevskii’s attack on Poland failed to smash and surround the Polish forces as planned because they fought stubbornly and counterattacked consistently which took some of the fight out of the Russians. The Poles then retreated to avoid encirclement unhindered by Tukhachevskii’s forces, eventually falling back to a line on the Bug and Narew rivers, roughly the recently pronounced Curzon line (established by Lloyd George of Great Britain on 11 July in consultation with the Polish Government as a pre-condition for opening peace talks with the Russians).
The Curzon line lay just beyond Grodno. To cross it and invade Poland would be to challenge Britain and France. Sensing total victory and perhaps a march on Berlin, the Soviet government rejected the appeal for peace talks. Tukhachevskii ordered his forces to cross the Curzon line and take Warsaw no later than 12 August 1920. The Kavkor reached the Vistula in the second week of August. Of his four armies, however, Tukhachevskii had only one rather weakened army in position to attack Warsaw, the others he optimistically oriented in the direction of East Prussia.