Category Archives: Poland

5 NOVEMBER, 1916: Pandora’s Puppets

Two years back, I spent a few hundred words exhorting us all to remember Poland’s grim First World War – and I’ve been virtually ignoring it ever since.  Today’s a good day to make up for that, because 5 November 1916 saw the proclamation of a new Kingdom of Poland by the Emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

As you might expect, this gesture by two of the three great powers dedicated to carving up Poland was not exactly a gift, and was in fact an act of ruthlessly exploitative self-interest designed in Berlin .  Yet it was welcomed by some Polish nationalists at the time, and is still seen by many Polish commentators as the first step on what would be a tortuous path to modern independent nationhood.  This says a lot about the condition of ethnically Polish territories in late 1916, which can be summed up as catastrophic but merits a more detailed commemoration.

I abandoned Poland at the end of 1914, after unsustainable German and Austro-Hungarian offensives along the central sector of the Eastern Front had been halted by the Russians, leaving the two sides locked in entrenched stalemate on a line east of Warsaw (11 November, 1914: Remember Poland?).  Poles everywhere had been conscripted by whichever side controlled their homeland, and had frequently ended up fighting each other, while the only part of modern Poland that had been spared battlefield devastation and pillage was the northwestern region then in Prussia.

This miserable period of stagnation had come to an end in the summer of 1915.  The huge territorial gains made by the Central Powers’ summer Triple Offensive, and the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ that re-established the frontline 350km further east, eased Poland’s situation in some respects.  For the time being at least, the Russians had been driven out of all but the country’s eastern fringes, and the brunt of the fighting was no longer taking place on Polish soil.

On the other hand, the retreating Russians took a substantial portion of Poland’s heavy industrial plant with them, and Poland was the one place where the Russian Army’s much-vaunted scorched earth policy was carried out with any real efficiency.  Meanwhile economic exploitation of the newly occupied territories by the Central Powers, very much led by Germany, was swift, wide-ranging and ruthless.  The overall effect on Polish life was devastating. Factory closure and unemployment were rife in the cities, despite mass deportations of workers deeper to Germany or Austria-Hungary, while fuel and food shortages, exacerbated by hyperinflation and enforced exports for the German war effort, brought widespread malnutrition and encouraged the spread of diseases.

Amid this chaos, Polish nationalist and independence movements struggled to find common focus.  As had been the case before the War, various political and military groupings adopted positions according to their regional priorities.  In the south, for instance, some Galician nationalists sided with the Russians to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian dominion, and others did the reverse, while nationalist groups further north accepted Russian or German sponsorship on the same basis, and they all raised armed forces to fight for their particular allies.  The most coherent and best known nationalist force, the Polish Legions, was formed in August 1914 as an independent unit of the Austro-Hungarian Army.  Its commanders included Josef Pilsudski, the most prominent anti-Russian agitator in pre-War Galicia and the main focal point for relations between Polish nationalists and the Central Powers.

Cavalry were the poster boys of minor First World War armies, including the Polish Legions.
Cavalry were the poster boys of minor First World War armies, including the Polish Legions.

Poland’s situation worsened from the summer of 1916. The Brusilov Offensive brought the Russians back into Polish Galicia, and economic exploitation by the Central Powers escalated dramatically under the Hindenburg Programme laid down by the new German supreme command.  In October, amid rising popular and industrial unrest in urban areas, Pilsudski resigned his commission in the Polish Legions after a dispute over the number of Polish officers. With the loss of its most influential nationalist figurehead, the German supreme command (and a completely subservient Austro-Hungarian command) felt it prudent to make a token concession to Polish nationalist sentiment.

The ‘Two Emperors’ Proclamation’ issued on 5 November was certainly token.  It declared the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Poland, a hereditary constitutional monarchy allied to the Central Powers and comprising all the ethnically Polish territories formerly under Russian control.  It failed to specify the monarch involved or how he would be chosen, postponing any decisions until after the War, and made no attempt to define the new kingdom’s actual boundaries. Nor was the new state provided with a government, let alone a governmental system, so at first the only tangible proofs of its existence were the immediate establishment of a national army, with Pilsudski as its commander, and a mass outbreak of the national flags, symbols and ceremonies now permitted by the occupying authorities.

Initial popular enthusiasm for the Proclamation was fleeting. January’s announcement of a government – or at least a Provisional Council of State made up of ten German and five Austrian appointees – did nothing to alter the general view of the Kingdom as a puppet state, and Pilsudski soon fell out with his German sponsors, losing his command in March after refusing to have his troops swear allegiance to the Central Powers.  By then, with deportations and forced exports to Germany rising all the time, revolutionary events in Russia were threatening to move the goalposts for Berlin and swamping any prospect of further wartime political development in Poland.

So the Kingdom of Poland remained in limbo, destined for history’s dustbin as soon as the War ended and meanwhile amounting to little more than a name and an idea, treated with contempt at the time by both its subjects and its sponsors. Yet sometimes the expression of an idea to the world at large can give the idea life, and many modern Poles view the Proclamation as a vital moment enabling the eventual establishment of a truly independent Poland.

In part, this refers to the reappearance and widespread adoption of Polish national symbols from November 1916, but the Proclamation is also credited with bringing the question of Polish independence into the international diplomatic arena, because it demanded a response from the western Allies.  What had been a debate conducted within three empires hostile to Polish ambitions now included Britain, France and Italy, and would soon include the United States.  By the time the War ended full Polish independence would be enshrined as one of US President Wilson’s prerequisites for peace, and the Treaty of Versailles would create an enlarged, independent Poland led by Pilsudski as head of state.

We may have forgotten Poland's First World War now, but we knew about it then.
We may have forgotten Poland’s First World War now, but we knew about it then.

The Proclamation of 5 November didn’t mark any kind of end to Poland’s wartime suffering, and the Poland it helped create was not long for this world, but for all its illusory nature the puppet Kingdom created in 1916 was a reminder of the power of ideas, even when the military overkill gets mind-boggling.  The German regime tried deploying an idea to douse the fire of Polish nationalism, and though the tactic failed the idea, released into the ether with a coating of official status, developed an indestructible life and will of its own… one of those small lessons from history worth remembering the next time someone floats a racial stereotype or a Mexican wall idea.

11 NOVEMBER, 1914: Remember Poland?

It’s Armistice Day, 2014, and something with a Last Post atmosphere seems appropriate.  In 1914, 11 November marked the beginning of a German offensive against Russian positions around the Polish city of Łódź, so today let’s spare a little commemoration for Poland’s suffering during the First World War.

During the last 250 years or so, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a European country more mistreated by war than Poland, or a people more martially abused than the Poles. Since the latter part of the seventeenth century – at which point it was a reasonably successful sovereign state, joined to neighbouring Lithuania by a shared monarchy – Poland has been a prime battleground of choice for anyone going to war in central or Eastern Europe. Time and again the armies of empires have invaded, fought over, occupied and partitioned Poland. Time and again the Poles have been conquered, annexed, suppressed and slaughtered.

There’s a long, sad story to be told about the decline of Poland in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I’ll try to keep it brief.  The country was partitioned three times between 1772 and 1795 as Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia got into the habit of invading, putting down nationalist uprisings as they went, and coming to mutual agreement about which parts to keep for themselves. The last of these partitions removed independent Poland from the map altogether, with mineral-rich Silesia in the northwest becoming part of Prussia, the southern region around Krakow falling under Austro-Hungarian rule and the rest becoming part of the Russian Tsar’s empire.

This was roughly the situation in 1914, despite Napoleon’s temporary occupation of the region early in the nineteenth century and further territorial adjustments in the 1803s, 1840s and 1860s, when the usual suspects intervened to put down nationalist or political uprisings. Here’s a map, lifted from net as ever and instantly removable if anyone minds.


The First World War conformed to the pattern of modern warfare by devastating Poland.  By late in 1914 the country had become the main focus of fighting between Russia and the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, and an estimated 3.5 million Poles were conscripted into the armed forces of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary during the next four years. A few Poles also fought with the French army as an independent unit, and hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians died as collateral damage. Though accurate casualty figures are impossible to establish, estimates of Polish deaths during the First World War vary between about 700,000 and one million.

The German offensive around the Silesian city of Łódź in mid-November enjoyed initial success against ill-prepared Russian forces and inflicted serious casualties, but was halted once the Russians abandoned their own plans to attack into Silesia and concentrated for defence. Heavily outnumbered, but committed to repeated attacks by front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the German Ninth Army did eventually take Łódź after a Russian withdrawal on 6 December, but despite Hindenburg’s claims of a great strategic victory no decisive breakthrough was achieved. German attempts to push further east slackened after 13 December, by which time both sides had lost around 100,000 men, leaving the central sector of the Eastern Front in a state of entrenched stalemate west of Warsaw by the end of the year. Poland’s suffering was just beginning.

This has been a sketchy post, delivered late. My apologies to anyone reading the blog in real time, but every now and then real life takes over and prevents me from playing historian for a few days. Never mind, the point I’m trying to make is fairly simple: the First World War wasn’t only, or even largely about Britain. Ask any Pole.

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

A hundred years ago today, German and Russian forces fought the first engagement of the War on the Eastern Front.  The fight took place at Stallupönen, a German village near the frontier between the two empires.  It wasn’t much of a battle, an unauthorised attack by a small portion of the regionally-based German army against the southern flank of an invading Russian army that forced a division (about 10,000 men) of Russian troops to retreat and took some 3,000 prisoners – but it was the start of a long and vastly important campaign that changed the world, changed the War and is almost completely forgotten by the heritage version as seen from the West.

I’ll be checking into the Eastern Front on a regular basis during the next few years, but for now here’s the start-up picture of a theatre of war that raged for more than four years and ultimately stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Given that an alliance dating back to 1892 committed Russia to fighting in support of France, and that Germany was tied to Austria-Hungary by defensive alliance, a glance at a basic map of Europe in 1914 makes the opening battle lines fairly clear.  I’ve pinched the one below from the net, and I’ll be glad to remove it if anyone minds.


The Russian and German Empires faced each other along the borders of East Prussia to the north.  Austria-Hungary lined up along a disputed frontier with Russia further south, across the then Russian (now Ukrainian) province of Galicia, and all three empires were clustered hungrily round Poland, then ruled by Russia as a semi-autonomous and very turbulent province.  Still further south, the independent kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria remained neutral for now, but both were looking to expand and both would enter the fighting once they’d juggled inducements from both sides and decided which represented the man chance.

All three main protagonists had plans in place for the outbreak of war.  Germany had left an army on its eastern frontier as part of the wider Schlieffen Plan, expecting to have beaten France and sent reinforcements during the anticipated six-week delay while Russian forces got organised.  Austria-Hungary’s battle plan defied both logistical realities (like most plans conjured up in Vienna) and the demands of war against Serbia on its southern frontiers to call for an immediate invasion of Galicia.  The latest of many Russian plans, known as Plan 19, was equally ambitious and smacked of autocratic fantasy.  Originally conceived as a simple, massed attack against the relatively small German force defending East Prussia (the eastern spur of Germany stretching up to what became the Lithuanian border), it was repeatedly doctored to satisfy squabbling court factions until it encompassed a smaller attack on East Prussia, a major attack on Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia and the maintenance of strongly defended fortresses inside the frontiers.

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

From a German viewpoint, the big surprise was that two Russian armies invaded East Prussia as early as 15 August.  They didn’t get far, not least because although Russia possessed hordes of troops – perhaps 25 million men of military age to call upon – and had performed miracles to get men to battle so quickly, its retarded industrial condition meant that uniforms and equipment were an altogether different matter.  The preliminary battle at Stallupönen set a pattern of well-equipped and well-trained German forces routing their more numerous opponents, but that didn’t prevent a certain amount of initial panic in Berlin at this unexpectedly early development.  Reinforcements under the newly paired team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff were diverted from the west to meet the situation, a move that had momentous consequences for the Western Front and opened floodgates to a campaign that would absorb more and more German attention and resources during the next four years.  A comprehensive German victory against superior numbers at Tannenberg on 26 August then forced the Russians to fall back and reinforce, bringing the invasion to an end.

Russian attacks in Galicia took longer to get going but met greater success against 10 shambolic Austro-Hungarian forces that were neither up to strength nor ready for operations, but which were carrying out their own planned invasion anyway.  The Austrians won the first skirmish, and forced the Russians back across their frontier when the two armies, each about half a million strong, collided in late August along a line centred on the small (now Ukrainian) town of Komarov.  Austrian optimism, never remotely justified by the performance of its armies in 1914, brought immediate attempts to push further east, but they collapsed against defensive positions and turned into a full-scale retreat, first to the city of Lvov and then into the sanctuary of the Carpathian Mountains.

As autumn began, the Germans were preparing an advance against the Russians in the north while the Russians planned an attack into the Carpathians, but deteriorating weather and the strength of defensive positions brought temporary stalemate to both fronts, and for the rest of the year all three empires focused their campaigns on the cherry in the middle, Poland.

That was just an outline sketch of the opening phase of the War on the Eastern Front.  Much, much more was to come.  For long periods, the Front achieved its own forms of gruesome stagnation, sometimes locked into trench warfare around strong defensive positions, sometimes involving huge advances by either side that moved the lines hundreds of miles across vast wildernesses without inflicting any sort of knockout blow.  Like the Western Front, the Eastern Front would see strategists and field commanders struggling and failing to find ways of making offensive land warfare actually work, and losing millions of lives in the process.

The total numbers killed in the theatre defy accurate calculation – Russian figures were often guesses and Austrian records were lost when its empire collapsed, to name just two of the problems faced by historians – but estimates of military deaths start above three million, and in most of the regions involved nobody bothered counting civilian deaths after about 1915.  Even by the standards we understand from the Western Front, fighting conditions were unspeakably horrible, with whole units freezing to death overnight amid desperate shortages of basic equipment and medicines, especially on the Russian side but also among multiracial Austro-Hungarian forces.

Unlike the Western Front, the War in the east did have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the world at large.  Russian involvement ended with the collapse of the regime to Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution; Austria-Hungary’s unproductive effort drained and eventually helped destroy its empire; Germany filled the void, took control over great swathes of territory, and then propelled its overall war effort towards disaster by attempting to administer them and exploit their economies.  And although a host of newly independent states sprang into existence all across the theatre in the War’s aftermath, many of them still faced prolonged struggles for survival as revolutions and civil wars raged across the region.  One way or another every part of the Eastern Front remained at war until the 1920s.

Even slammed together in a few paragraphs the Eastern Front makes quite a story, worth remembering as a human tragedy in itself and because it gave birth to so much of modern Europe.  You won’t hear much about it from the heritage industries in the West, and that’s a shame, because attempting to tell the story of the First World War without it can only be poppycock.