Monday, March 24, 2008

European history has a habit of forgetting Poland.

How true... Below an interesting review of Adam Zamoyski's book. Can't wait to see a major movie about it, something akin to "Saving Private Ryan". It would make a lot of sense, given that, unbeknowst to many, "the Vistula Miracle" had a much stronger impact on the history of the world than that of, for instance, D-Day invasion (which Norman Davies in "No Simple Victory" appropriately cuts to size)

Warsaw 1920: Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe by Adam Zamoyski

European history has a habit of forgetting Poland. This is unfortunate, because the Poles have more than once played a crucial role in shaping Europe's fortunes. In 1683, the Polish king Jan III Sobieski checked the Ottoman armies before the gates of Vienna, earning among the Turks the sobriquet “Lion of Lechistan”. And in 1920, as Adam Zamoyski relates in this elegant and fascinating book, it was Poland that checked the westward expansion of Bolshevik Russia.
The two sides were in many respects ill-matched: the Red Army was a determined and experienced fighting force, hardened by a cruel civil war against anti-Bolshevik forces. Russia's manpower reserves dwarfed those of an exhausted post-war Poland ravaged by warfare, malnutrition and epidemic. The Polish army scarcely amounted to a cohesive force, consisting as it did of variously armed contingents that had served with the Germans, the Austrians and the Russians during the first world war, along with a colourful assembly of Lithuanian, Tatar, Cossack, German, Hungarian and Russian auxiliaries, not to mention a squadron of US volunteer pilots led by Major Cedric E Fauntleroy and Captain Merian C Cooper - later famous for co-directing King Kong and flying one of the planes that harass the ape on the Empire State Building.
The bulk of the book is given over to a deft and gripping battle narrative. Initially it was the Poles who had the upper hand, turning the spearheads of the Bolshevik advance, breaking their lines and pushing hundreds of miles eastwards into the Ukraine. But within two weeks, the Russians had mounted a successful counteroffensive, rolling the Poles back until they stood before Warsaw on the River Vistula. It was here, in August 1920, that Polish forces under the command of Jozef Pilsudski counterattacked from the south, checking and turning the offensive and driving the Russians back to the River Niemen.
Warsaw 1920 is battle history of the best kind. The international setting and the political context are gracefully sketched in, and Zamoyski integrates the voices of contemporaries to create a symphonic, three- dimensional chronicle. He conveys with consummate skill the movement of men across terrain, showing how the balance of forces shifted from one week to the next. His account of the two armies is highly textured and enlivened by evocative portraits of the most important personalities, from the Polish supreme commander Pilsudski, who possessed, in the words of one British diplomat, “none of the amenities of civilised intercourse, but all the apparatus of sombre genius”, to the Soviet commander, the melancholic, nihilist and anti-semitic former nobleman Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky.
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This was a war between the ages: massed cavalry played a crucial role in a flat, open land where men on horses with revolvers and raised sabres could still deliver pulverising blows against advancing infantry. Some engagements were preceded by formalised duels, in which individual cavalrymen issued formulaic challenges and hacked at each other in the no-man's-land between two armies. The most effective Russian weapon was the tachanka, a machinegun mounted onto a light carriage that could be galloped into battle, turned and deployed against the enemy. Much of the manoeuvring consisted of old-fashioned wheeling movements designed to cut the enemy's supply lines.
And yet, as Zamoyski shows, the Soviet-Polish war of 1920 also carried the seeds of a terrible future. There was an escalation of atrocities on both sides. Captured officers were routinely tortured to death, and Jews were singled out for reprisals by Russians and Poles alike. Stalin never forgave the Poles for the bitter resistance of 1920, a fact that may help to account for the brutality of the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1940, when army officers, priests, land- owners, doctors, veterinary surgeons and other members of the national intelligentsia were subjected to a campaign of extermination. Few of the commanders, Russian or Polish, who played a role in 1920 died peacefully in their beds - most were caught up in the machinery of terror. And even as they recalled the cavalry movements of the 17th century, the engagements of 1920 also anticipated a new world of mobile warfare, in which battles would be won by deep thrusts and pincer movements - not by horsemen, of course, but by a new generation of mobile armour.
Warsaw 1920: Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe by Adam Zamoyski HarperCollins £14.99 pp160

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