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|Josef Klemens Pilsudski was born on the 5, December, 1867, in a manor house at Zulow in the Russian Northwestern Province, formerly Lithuania. His was a noble Polish family and raised in austere conditions. First he attended a grammar school in Wilno (Vilnius). He studied at the University of Kharkow and then joined a revolutionary and anti-Tsar organization known as “People’s Will.” In 1887, Pilsudski was arrested by the authorities and exiled to Siberia for five years. His brother, Bronislaw, was found to be in a revolutionary plot, and was an associate of Lenin’s soon-to-be executed brother.
After his release, Pilsudski involved himself in the socialist movement and by 1892 he founded the Polish Socialist Party. In 1900, he was arrested again for being the editor of an underground newspaper called “Robotnik.” At the seemingly escape-proof prison, Pilsudski pretended to be insane in order to be transferred to a mental hospital in St. Petersburg. There he hoped to escape with the help of a Polish doctor, who examined him and noticed right away that Pilsudski was not insane. However, the doctor felt pity for him, because of the tales Pilsudski told him of the circumstances he had withstood in Siberia. Pilsudski was lucky, because the doctor considered himself Siberian, not Russian.
Preparing for a Great Mission
Upon his release from the prison, Pilsudski organized a militia for the party. At that time, he believed in the merits of the guerrilla and carried out bank and train raids against conspicuous Russian targets. With the money he seized, Pilsudski slowly built up an embryonic revolutionary army. The goal of his “army” was to bring independence to Poland.
In 1904, Pilsudski was in Japan, attempting to find support against the Russians, who where at war with the Japanese. During this time, he had set up his militia, which tried to carry out acts of sabotage. That the Russians were being defeated by the Japanese was good for the Poles, but at the same time was difficult, for thousands Polish soldiers were being killed or wounded or imprisoned on behalf of the Tsar.
In Tokyo, Pilsudski proposed the creation of a Polish Legion out of Polish prisoners of war and suggested that a guerrilla war in Poland would be an excellent diversion for the Russians. In return, Japan should supply Polish men with arms and demand the establishment of an independent Poland at the peace negotiations. Tokyo was cautious of Pilsudski’s schemes, for a fight in nearby Manchuria was one thing for Tokyo, but civil war in Poland, some 7,000 miles distant, was quite another. Pilsudski’s Japanese plans were wrecked when his rival, Roman Dmowski, came to Tokyo in order to foil his plans. Dmowski realised that 90 percent of Russia’s armed forces were still stationed in Europe, even at the height of the Russo-Japanese War, and any rebellion fomented in Poland would be swiftly crushed with little mercy. Pilsudski returned home after the war and began conspiring against the Tsar, who government had been weakened by both defeat in the war and the revolution of 1905.
Before World War I, Pilsudski was a figure that centralised several paramilitary or guerrilla groups. All those groups aimed at Polish independence from the Russians. When the war did break out, Pilsudski was prepared to take advantage of the situation. The history of the various Polish armies during World War I is complex. There were usually three or four or five committees, all claiming to be the supreme authority of independent Poland. There was more than one Polish Legion, a Polish Army Corps, a Polish Auxiliary Corps, and an underground Polish Military Organization. Most of these groups switched loyalties and fought against the powers that they had supported, depending on the circumstance of the moment. In addition, there were sizable Polish contingents in the Russian, German, Austrian and French armies. The Russians raised the largest Polish contingents for their armies, and had Princess Radziwill, a Russified noblesse of an ancient Polish family, sing the praises of Russia and the Polish nation that lived beneath the crown of the Tsars. Independent Polish legions were raised to fight alongside the Russians against the Germans, with the promise that Poland would be reunified after the war, though under the Tsar’s crown.
War Provides a New Hope
The most important of the Polish Legions was organised during the first week in August 1914. Acting as if he were the sovereign of a participating combatant, Pilsudski mobilized his underground Riflemen’s Association for active service. His tiny army was christened “Polish Legion,” in memory of the ill-fated Legions that Napoleon raised for his invasion of Russia in 1812.
This Legion was increased to a few thousand soldiers and placed under the umbrella of General von Kummer of the Austrian Army, who was to march into westernmost Poland and raise rebellion. Pilsudski hoped to raise even more brigades for the Polish Legion out of the inevitable volunteers. To Kummer’s left, German General von Woyrsch also invaded Poland with the same purpose. However, the first weeks of the war showed that the Russians were quite adept at their governance in Poland, and succeeded in forcing the evacuation of much of the population in the threatened areas and using propaganda to stir discontent against the invading Germans. Thus, there was no reception for Pilsudski’s Polish Legion, as it was seen as a puppet society of the Germans and Austrians. It fell back out of Poland and into Galicia and Silesia with the rest of the Austrians in autumn 1914, as the Russians turned the tables on Austria.
Spring and summer 1915 saw the Russians cleared out of Poland in a slow, methodical, and devastating campaign that flattened one out of every three buildings in the entire country and damaged the rest. Pilsudski’s Polish Legion was soon situated on the front lines well beyond Congress Poland, in the old Polish territories now comprising Russia proper. The evacuation of the Russian armies in the summer of 1915 also saw a refugee train of millions of people out of Poland to escape the German onslaught, but their fate was no better in Russia, where mistrust of non-Russians was becoming endemic. 1916 saw a brief reversal for the Austrians, which convinced many Czechs to desert to the other side, but the Poles’ loyalties were as divided as ever. The declaration of an independent Polish kingdom in December 1916 was welcomed by the average Pole, but Pilsudski loathed the scheme, rightly seeing it to be a German puppet solely for the purpose of raising a Polish national army that would fight and die for Germany.
In the late spring of 1917, the Germans announced that members of the Polish Legion would be required to take an oath of loyalty upon their induction into the new Polish national army. Included with this oath was to be a commitment to a “brotherhood-in-arms with the German and Austrian armed forces.” Pitsudski knew he could not permit his troops to make this pledge. He passed word to his subcommanders to refuse to take the oath. On 9 July 1917, all members of the First and Third Brigades of the Polish Legion who were not Austrian citizens paraded in Warsaw for the administration of the oath of loyalty. The matter had now become a sensation, for the oath was read, and those who refused to accept it were ordered to take two steps forward. As a result, five out of six soldiers stepped forward. Their officers threw down their swords as a sign of defiance. All soldiers who refused to swear the oath were arrested and marched off to POW camps. Pilsudski’s role in this debacle was soon learned and on 22 July 1916, the German authorities arrested Pilsudski himself and sent him to a military prison in Magdeburg.
Shorly before his arrest, Pilsudski had formed the Polska Organizacja Wojskowa (Polish Military Organization, or P.O.W.), a secret paramilitary organization by diverting into it additional volunteers for his First Brigade, whom he knew would not take the upcoming oath of loyalty to Germany. At the time of Pilsudski’s arrest, the P.O.W. was already an underground army, specializing in intelligence work and totaling almost 30,000 members. They pledged personal loyalty to Pitsudski, who promised them the day of Polish independence, and their formation into a genuine Polish National Army. Just before his arrest, Pitsudski had entrusted the command of the P.O.W. to Edward Rydz-Smigly, who was to keep the P.O.W. intact, armed, and ready for orders from Pitsudski.
The Polish National Army under the command of the Germans was much smaller and less effective than Pilsudski’s Polish Legion, but it continued to see action even after the Russo-German peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, when it was sent into the Ukraine for policing action. After the armistice was declared in November 1918, Pilsudski was released from prison in Magdeburg and raced to Poland in order to secure his loyal troops. Roman Dmowski was preparing to defeat him again by taking charge of the new Polish state, but Pilsudski succeeded in taking control of the most important militias and declared them the Polish National Army.
Expanding Poland into an Empire
Immediately he demanded munitions and supplies to fight the Germans in the north and west, the Ruthenians in the south, the bolsheviks in the northeast, and the whites and greens and blacks scattered in the east. Lord Curzon based the Polish Eastern frontier on the River Bug, but in reality, many Polish contingents were fighting well beyond this line throughout 1919. The Polish National Army attacked the Germans in West Prussia and Posen, driving tens of thousands from the big cities. Hindenburg planned an offensive in spring 1919 to recapture territory lost to Pilsudski’s forces, but General von Seeckt advised the German President to disarm Hindenburg and end the fighting in the east lest the Entente use it as an excuse to resume war against Germany.
Throughout 1918/1919, Pilsudski focused his attention on defeating the Ruthenian independence movement in Eastern Galicia, led by Simeon Petrushevich. Having been armed by Governor Graf von Huyn at war’s end, the Ruthenes raised rebellion and tried to take over Przemysl, even capturing General Stanislaw Puchalski, whom Pilsudski had appointed commander of all Polish forces in Galicia. The move was countered by mid-November 1918 and Lemberg was quickly taken by the Polish army thanks to help from the local majourity Polish population. The government of Petrushevich declared union with the Ukraine and moved to Stanislau in the winter of 1919, holding out until early summer, after which time the Ruthenian government crossed into Ukrainian national territory and the rebellion was finished. Later, Pilsudski promised by treaty to conduct a plebiscite in Eastern Galicia after 25 years of Polish administration to determine the territory’s future, but all knew this vote would never take place.
The Ukrainian situation worsened for the Nationalists when in spring 1919 the bolshevik reds attacked, followed by the Russian whites in the late summer. Simeon Petlyura, now leader of the Ukrainian state, discovered by October that his authority was reduced to only 15 percent of the country and there was little hope for him as the reds defeated the whites, driving through the Ukraine and into South Russia. Petlyura disavowed the Ruthenian declaration of union, cast Petrushevich aside, and proposed to Pilsudski a commonwealth union of Poland and the Ukraine, much like pre-partitioned Poland. In January 1920, Pilsudski accepted the proposal and began a march against bolshevik Russia with two armies. One in the north occupied Minsk in March, driving more than 10 different bolshevik, white, and national armies from Belorussian lands. In the south, the Polish National Army reached Kiev, occupying it in May 1920 and proclaiming the union of Poland and Ukraine as a commonwealth. Pilsudski planned to unify Belorussia and Lithuania to Poland as well, and proposed to the bolsheviks a peace treaty based on the Polish borders of 1772.
Naturally, the bolsheviks rejected this proposal and the Red Army under Generals Tukhachevsky and Budënny attacked the Poles at both Minsk and Kiev. Both armies folded with shocking speed, and by July, all of Poland’s gains beyond the Bug were lost. The Red army surged toward Warsaw, crossing into Congress Poland by mid-July. The Entente was immobilised; their handling of the Russian civil war throughout 1919 was a sham and they did not want to tangle with the victorious Red Army any further. Finally in late July 1920, the French sent some officers to advise the defeated and demoralised Polish armies. Pilsudski swore that the Reds should not advance beyond the Vistula, and preparations for a defense and counteroffensive based on this line were made.
On 4 August 1920, the “Miracle of the Vistula” was fought, whereby the Red army was split and sent stumbling into a confused rout. Pilsudski personally commanded the southern flank, driving the Red cossacks out of Galicia. By the end of the month, the Curzon Line was reached and surpassed, and by the middle of autumn, an armistice line was reached. Realising that Poland was utterly exhausted, Pilsudski happily signed an armistice, and the line became the eastern frontier of Poland according to the Peace Treaty of Riga, signed a few months later in January 1921.
But more was to come for Pilsudski. He armed rebels led by Korfanty in Upper Silesia to carry out sabotage, and between 1919 and 1921, thousands of engagements between Polish and German volunteers were fought. This issue was not solved until a plebiscite was conducted in April 1921, which won the cities for Germany but the rural areas for Poland. The Entente assigned most of the cities to Poland on the basis that the industries therein were inexorably tied to the coal mines in the countryside, and all were critical for the new Polish state. In this, Pilsudski made enemies with the Czechs under Tomas Masaryk, who wanted all of Austrian Silesia for Czechoslovakia, but Pilsudski demanded all of the city of Teschen for Poland. The city was divided between them in late 1920.
Finally, Pilsudski armed the volunteer army of General Zeligowski, added numerous Polish national army contingents, and ordered them to occupy Vilnius. This city, close to Pilsudski’s birthplace and boasting a Polish plurality in its municipal boundaries, had been declared the capital first of Lithuania, then of Belorussia, and briefly of the Litbel Soviet Republic. Zeligowski had driven the Reds out of Vilnius in 1920, only to have the Lithuanian national government take over the city. Pilsudski sent Zeligowski back in the city and he declared his own state, called Central Lithuania. Zeligowski remained there for two years, until a petition by the Polish people of Vilnius asked Pilsudski to annex the city to Poland outright. After this, Lithuania refused to renew ties to Poland, having cut all communications and transportation between the two states.
The Heights of Power
Pilsudski’s power within Poland had grown tremendously, not only because of his conquests but also because he was able to thwart his old hated rival Roman Dmowski. Now Dmowski had spent the World War in France raising Polish Legions from emigres, and openly professed his support for the Tsar's plans for a unified Poland under the Romanov crown, mostly because Dmowski was convinced the Entente would win the war and Russia would be supreme in the world. Until, of course, the Tsar had abdicated and an independent Polish Kingdom declared by the Germans. Once the war ended, Pilsudski managed to use Dmowski's overly friendly attitude toward the Russians against his rival, and although Dmowski was highly regarded by the world community, Pilsudski succeeded in wrecking his image at home. Dmowski did receive a government job as Polish Foreign Minister, but this was a few steps below Pilsudski's spot.
Although Pilsudski was to retire from the army shortly after his triumph in Wilno, he was able to roar back two years later, suspend the constitution, and become supreme dictator of the country in 1925. He remained in this capacity until 1935, when he died. Until this time, he was extremely suspicious of his neighbours, and was quite agitated by the rise of the Nazis in Germany. While his foreign minister General Beck was relieved by Hitler’s apparent accommodation of Polish independence with the signing of special pacts in 1934, Pilsudski offered France with a joint invasion of Germany in early 1935, once it was apparent that Germany was rebuilding its army in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. By this time, France had lost the sort of fire that was still in Pilsudski’s belly. Hindsight proves that Pilsudski could have been victorious and ended the possibility of World War II more than four years before it began.
Jozef Klemens Pilsudski died on 12 May 1935.
GWS, 9/00 [rev. 10/03]
|Orders of Battle: Eastern Front, May 1915
Immediately preceding the Dunajec offensive
I. Armee, Gen. d. Kav. Viktor Dankl
II. Korps, Feldmlt. Johann Frh. v. Kirchbach
Chief of Staff, Stanislaus Graf v. Szeptycki
4. inf. div., Genmj. Edl. v. Bellmond
8. inf. brig., Oberst Mietzl
4. field art. brig., Oberst Machaczek
1. brig. d. poln. Legion: Oberst Josef Pilsudski
|Orders of Battle: Polish Legion in 1915
Polish Legion, FML Karl v. Trzaska-Durski
1. Brigade, Obst. Joszef Pilsudski
Chief of Staff, Kazimierz Sosnowski (*1885 †1969)
1. Battalion, Albin Satyr-Fleszar (*1888 †1916)
2. Battalion, Mieczyslaw Norwid-Neugebauer (*1884 †1954)
3. Battalion, Edward Smigly-Rydz (*1886 †1943)
4. Battalion, Tadeusz Wywra-Furgalski (*1890 †1916)
5. Battalion, Michal Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski (*1893 †1964)
6. Battalion (reserve), Franciszek Grudzinski-Pekszyc