Poland, August 30, 1920: The Russian General, Semyon Mikhailovich Budyonny and his dreaded Cossack Army, the Konarmiia, faced disaster. Stuck in a 10-mile cul-de-sac, surrounded by resurgent enemy, and with artillery shells coming in from all sides, Budyonny needed to find a means of escape and quickly. Poor weather only compounded the misery: incessant rain had turned the dusty roads into rivers of mud.
An easterly route leading from the village of Czesniki offered a ray of hope. Although the Poles had forces in the area, Budyonny was confident that they lacked the strength and cohesion to offer any firm resistance. The key to success was speed and domination of the high ground between Czesniki and a small hamlet called Komarów as the withdrawal was made. Budyonny’s Cossacks prepared for the next morning’s breakout: an engagement that proved to be Europe’s last grand cavalry battle.
The eagle and the bear
Many of the causes behind the Polish conflict of 1920 can be traced back to the last days of the First World War. As the German Empire collapsed, and under the banner of self-determination, the State of Poland was resurrected (the original Kingdom had been fully carved up between Prussia, Russia and Austria in 1795). While the new country’s western borders were relatively secure, its eastern and south easterly lines were so poorly defined that conflict with its neighbours, particularly Communist Russia, was almost guaranteed.
Marshal Pilsudski, Poland’s founding father and nationalist leader, believed war with expansionist Russia was inevitable. He also knew that Britain and France, Poland’s main guarantors, were unlikely to make a concerted effort to protect his country’s newly won independence. In this he was proved correct; when the time came Britain remained apathetic, while France sent military advisors and some poor quality equipment.
Taking the old maxim that attack is the best form of defence, Polish forces were quickly deployed in preparation for an offensive against the Bolsheviks. The current climate was certainly the right one in which to strike. Retreating German units had left a power vacuum in their wake, one that Russia, in the full throes of civil war, was unable to fill. Pilsudski's primary goals were twofold: secure the eastern borders to their pre-1795 limits (not to their 1772 boundaries as some commentators have suggested), and then liberate Ukraine and, with her, try to form a united front against their common enemy, Bolshevik Russia.
The Polish offensive began in February 1919, and the advance was relatively swift: Wilna (now Vilnius), Minsk and Dvinsk were all taken by 1920. By April 1920, the Poles were advancing deep into Ukraine. On May 6, the Polish Army (aided by the Independent Ukrainian Army) took Kiev. But the Bolsheviks, having now conquered their White opponents – apart from a notable enclave in the Crimea – were now free to mass an army in readiness to crush the Polish incursion. Two Red Army strike groups were prepared: a large northern one, and a small but rapid southern formation, to which the Konarmiia had been assigned. Some commentators predicted that the Bolshevik leadership, gripped by the Marxist dream of international communism, would press for an invasion across Poland and into Germany. They would attempt to comprehensively overturn the defeat suffered by the Spartacists the year before.
These fears, subsequently dismissed by some historians, were actually well grounded; not for nothing did Marshal Tukachevsky, the commander of Russia’s northern strike force, declare in a May proclamation: ‘Turn your eyes to the West. In the West the fate of World Revolution is being decided. Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to World Conflagration. On our bayonets we will bring happiness and peace.’ The dreaded Konarmiia would play a key role with bringing forward this joyous future.
The Konarmiia, known officially as the First Cavalry Army, was created in November 1919 under the auspices of Josef Stalin. Initially its role was to combat White cavalry and Tsarist Cossacks. Calling their troops 'Red Cossacks' was slightly disingenuous as most of the cavalrymen were from peasant stock. Others were urban working class, many of whom had never ridden a horse until joining up. There were also a few members of the communist intelligentsia, including Isaac Babel, the renowned Russian and Jewish author, was assigned to the Konarmiia’s 6th Division during the Polish campaign.
In his 1920 diary, Babel tried to capture the essence of the Red cavalryman, writing: ‘What sort of person is our Cossack? Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.’ Mercenary in nature; the thought of booty, pillage and plunder was never far from their minds. On another occasion Babel admitted ‘we are destroyers… we move like a whirlwind, like a stream of lava hated by everyone.’
The political officer Voroshilov and the military commander General Budyonny, a former Tsarist cavalry corporal, led them. It was to the latter that the Cossacks owed their allegiance. A tall, powerful man with a handlebar moustache, Budyonny looked like a colour sergeant, but behaved like a swashbuckling pirate. He joined the Bolshevik cause during the revolution of 1917; a natural leader with the right class credentials, he shot up the ranks and assumed command of the Konarmiia upon its formation. Although rash and impetuous, Budyonny had an electric charisma. Even his harshest critics have recognised his enormous personal courage and ability to take decisive actions.
By the spring of 1920, after a number of successful campaigns against the Whites, the First Cavalry Army had grown to four full divisions of horse, about 18,000 sabers. They were accompanied by 52 field guns, five armoured trains and a squadron of 15 aircraft (still in the packing cases because no one in the Konarmiia could fly). The horseman’s personal equipment was rather basic. An American pilot fighting in the famous Kosciuszko Squadron (a sort of Polish version of the WWI Lafayette Squadron) remembered seeing them from the air. He wrote: ‘each man carried an amazingly long sabre hung not from his saddle, but his belt line, row after row of carbines hung aslant over their backs.’
Their tactics were basic and, out in the sweeping vastness of Russia, well suited to swift-moving horsemen. They tried to avoid charging prepared positions – the machine gun had made such an approach to cavalry warfare virtually suicidal – and looked instead for a weak spot in the enemy's lines. Then attacking en-masse, they would punch through and fan out to create as much havoc as possible. These tactics usually broke their opponent’s will to resist and left the Cossacks victorious. Bathing in the glow of its success and elite reputation, the Konarmiia saw itself as an invincible and inexorable force. Events in Poland would shatter these beliefs.
Breaking the line
Despite some accounts talking of Red Army ‘hordes’, the Polish campaign was on a relatively small scale. At the start of the conflict around 115,000 frontline Bolsheviks opposed approximately 95,000 Poles.
The Soviet counter attack began in mid-May 1920, with the Konarmiia (led by the triumvirate of Stalin, Budyonny and Yegorov, the nominal commander of the southern strike force) fielded in south-central Ukraine. The plan was to smash through their immediate enemy before striking on to Kiev and then joining in with the destruction of the Polish Third Army. Opposing them was a small force of about 3,000 troops led by General Karnicki. Ironically, he had been one of Budyonny’s commanding officers in the Tsarist days.
Hopelessly outnumbered, the Poles made a series of desperate attempts to stall the Konarmiia’s advance and gain time for the withdrawal of the Third Army. Karnicki authorized a number of swift raids to throw the advancing Russians off balance. Other Polish formations were hunkered down in temporary defences, where they waited for the Cossacks to near their positions. Once the Red cavalry was close enough, they would unleash well-aimed and devastating volleys. The tactic required nerves of steel as the Konarmiia was a psychologically-daunting sight. One Polish officer remembered the impact of seeing them for the first time. ‘This swarm of horsemen,’ he wrote, ‘would raise gigantic dust clouds on the horizon, blotting out everything for miles around, and giving the impression of a great, fast-moving and fantastic force pouring into every free gap, and finally kindle a feeling of utter impotence.’
Used to barnstorming advances, Budyonny worried about the impact of Polish resistance upon the morale of his troops. Keen to achieve a decisive result, he personally led an assault on Polish positions. The dangers were considerable as the attack was made across boggy and treacherous ground, yet the gamble paid off. Physically exhausted and faced with a concerted attack, the Polish lines crumpled.
On June 6, Budyonny and his command committed a serious blunder. Instead of swinging north to encircle the Poles at Kiev, they decided to push towards the easier pickings of Zhitomir and Berdichev. The Konarmiia, frustrated by the earlier lack of success, vented their fury upon the local population. The local hospital at Berdichev was torched – over 600 patients and nurses perished. Stalin and Yegorov, with a complete disregard for co-operation with other Bolshevik leaders, let the First Cavalry Army continue with its rampage until June 8. Polish forces in Kiev, now without the threat of encirclement, were given a crucial 48 hours to withdraw in relative order.
The Red Army drive through the Ukraine now began to gather momentum, while the Konarmiia started a concerted advance towards the end of June. On July 2, they crossed the River Horyn and entered the town of Rovno, capturing men, supplies and equipment. By mid-July the Bolsheviks were poised to strike into Poland.
Communist propaganda and literature trumpeting the dawn of global revolution intensified. One pamphlet confidently declared: ‘We shall fight on endlessly. Russia has thrown down the gauntlet. We shall advance into Europe and conquer the world.’ But Marxist dreams were the last thing on the average Cossack’s mind. Time and again in his diary, Babel bemoans their lack of idealism: ‘This isn’t a Marxist revolution,’ he wrote, ‘it’s a Cossack rebellion, out to win all and lose nothing.’ On another occasion he gave a more candid appraisal: ‘Our army is out to line its pockets.’
Communication between the large Bolshevik army in the north and the supporting Bolshevik army in the south was unravelling. This was primarily due to distance, an inflexible command structure, and the clash of personalities. Dispatches, rather than going directly to the leaders in the field, went through the hands of the Russians’ supreme commander, Kamieniev, and thence from him back down the chain of corresponding leaders. Information, intelligence, and orders crucial to joint planning were often out-dated and, in a fast-moving campaign, obsolete by the time they were received. It was a recipe for disaster.
Under a rather hastily-formed plan, the Konarmiia was tasked with sweeping through the Galician provinces, before linking up with the northern forces under Tukachevsky aiming for Warsaw. But once again Stalin, Yegorov and Budyonny had other ideas; their goal lay in the conquest of the former lands of Austro-Hungary. Many historians consider their objectives as an insatiable effort to grab glory and prestige at the expense of their colleagues. However, one could make an argument that the former Austro-Hungarian states were a far sounder target than Warsaw. But whatever their reasoning, the judgement severed vital co-operation between the northern forces and the Konarmiia.
Scourge of Galicia
The First Cavalry Army sallied forth from Rovno in late July. The advance was rapid, but unorganised. With supply lines becoming stretched or at times non-existent, the Cossacks were forced to pillage (or in the party language, ‘expropriate’) rations, which inflicted yet more hardship upon the region’s people. Violence by both sides towards the domestic population had become increasingly common. The brunt of aggression, however, was often borne by local Jews.
Steaming ahead, the Konarmiia created a long, narrow salient that the Poles started to close up once the Russians had reached the town of Brody. Budyonny, realising the threat, desperately sought to extricate his forces from the pocket. His brilliant leadership carried the day; even Voroshilov upped his game. The Polish historian Zamoyski wrote: ‘He and Voroshilov hardly slept at all during those days; they were always to be found at any point where morale was beginning to flag, Voroshilov exhorting, Budyonny leading charges.’ The Cossacks escaped, although only by the skin of their teeth. Budyonny himself admitted that the affair had taken his men to ‘the outer limits human resources’.
But events soon turned in the Konarmiia’s favour when Pilsudski moved a large portion of his southern forces to the north in preparation for a masterstroke against Tukachevsky (whose army was now rushing towards the Polish capital).
Kamieniev was keen to succeed before the eyes of his political masters and decided to offer all available support Tukachevsky. He ordered the Cossacks to proceed to the town of Lublin and await Tukachevsky’s command. But Stalin and Yegorov held the Konarmiia back and, along with Budyonny, made plans for an onslaught to the southwest via Lvov.
On August 12, Kamieniev issued another directive instructing Stalin and Yegorov to place the Konarmiia under Tukachevsky’s control. Holding onto the order for as long as possible, the pair eventually forwarded it to Budyonny on August 15 – long after the drive towards Lvov had started. Budyonny, when he learned of Kamieniev’s latest wishes, simply disregarded them. His excuse was simple: the commander-in-chief’s orders had failed to mention any specific locations. It was a pedantic technicality that allowed him to ask for further ‘clarification’. While waiting for this ‘clarification’, Budyonny had the Konarmiia’s advance on Lvov continue.
The Cossacks forced the remaining Polish units across the River Bug. By August 15, they had also crossed the river, carrying the fight into the Polish heartlands. Resistance stiffened accordingly. Armed schoolboys helped defend the village of Zadworze. One determined Polish commander visited his men’s positions bolstering their morale armed only with a stick and a bottle of vodka.
The fledgling Polish Air Force also played its part. Flying over 200 sorties in three days, pilots would strafe the Cossacks until they ran out of ammunition. Even then, some airmen continued their attacks by trying to tip the horsemen with their aircraft’s wheels; desperate stuff, maybe, but the ferocity of resistance caught many Russians off guard.
While its advance on the map had looked impressive, the Russian juggernaut was in a precarious position. Tukachevsky’s northern army had roared into Polish territory without bothering to secure its supply lines. Russian reconnaissance was at best a shambles and vital support units lagged many miles behind.
On August 16, Pilsudski ordered a decisive counter-attack against Tukachevsky. The Polish attack force slammed into the flank and rear of the Red Army. Oblivious to the danger, Tukachevsky demanded his men quicken their pace towards Warsaw. Battered and broken, the troops ignored their commander, fleeing either into neutral Germany or back towards Soviet territory across the River Niemen.
Meanwhile, the Konarmiia was making slow progress in its southerly advance. On August 18, Budyonny ignored orders from a rattled Tukachevsky. The following day, further demands from the northern commander arrived. But this time they were accompanied with a telegram from Trotsky, the supreme commander-in-chief of the Red Army. He demanded better co-operation between the two Russian armies and Budyonny was in no position to ignore Lenin’s heir apparent. Under the gaze of Lvov’s spires, the Cossacks made an about-face and headed north.
Pilsudski was concerned that the Konarmiia, although too small to turn the tide back in the Soviet’s favour, was large enough to thwart his goal to crush the fleeing opposition. To hamper their progress he appointed the enigmatic Colonel Juliuz Rómmel to lead the Polish cavalry in the south. They were commanded to shadow, harass and, above all, stop the Cossacks from disengaging. If held for long enough, Polish reinforcements could be brought up and the Red Cavalry destroyed once and for all.
Soviet high command, unaware of the complete disaster that had befallen Tukachevsky’s army, now demanded the Konarmiia make an offensive towards the town of Zamosc in order to alleviate the pressure on the forces to the north. Budyonny knew that he could no longer disobey direct orders, despite the dangerous task put before him. A blind assault was scheduled for August 26.
Arriving at Zamosc, vanguard units of the First Cavalry Army found the town stubbornly held by the Polish 10th Division and three local battalions. By August 30, Zamosc had still refused to yield. The defenders clung on, fully aware that relief was nearing: the 13th Division, led by Stanislaw Haller, was approaching from the south. Polish artillery units were nearing too: their shelling of enemy positions was becoming thicker with every passing hour. Rómmel’s cavalry was also catching up, trying to seal off the slim salient that the Konarmiia were now in. Once again, the First Cavalry Army faced encirclement and destruction.
And yet again Budyonny had seen the threat. His guess that the Poles would be tired and disorganised was correct, but the he also knew that it was only a matter of time before fresh and more effective units would be brought up against him. It was essential the Konarmiia withdraw and do so with all possible haste. He and Voroshilov decided to evacuate eastwards via Czesniki. To ensure that there was no re-run of the Brody debacle, Budyonny decided to secure his flanks by taking the high ground near the village of Komarów. With this covered, and with their natural speed, the withdrawal could be made in comparative order. Unfortunately for the Konarmiia, Rómmel’s men had arrived there first.
Fearing a Russian breakout near Komarów, Rómmel ordered Colonel Brzezowski to move his little brigade to the village on the evening of August 30. Brzezowski, aware that the Konarmiia was nearby, and that the high ground (Hill 255) was the key to the area, rushed his nearest regiment, the 2nd Hussars (only 200 sabres), to positions there. The orders they received were simple: hold out until reinforcements arrive.
Informed that a small Polish presence was defending the high ground on his flank, Budyonny chose the elite 6th Division to clear the way. Once in possession of Hill 255, the 6th would act as a rearguard for the rest of the Konarmiia. As a precaution, other Cossack units had been sent north to find an alternative escape route, while a large segment of the 11th Division had been dispatched to the south to stall Haller. Once this was done, they too would retreat under the 6th Division’s protective screen.
The Battle of Komarów was fought in atrocious conditions: the ground had been saturated with rainwater. At 07:45 the fight began when the Soviet 7th Brigade enveloped the tiny regiment of Hussars. Despite being swamped, the Poles fought hard and bravely. The 8th Prince Jozef Poniatowski Lancers arrived and raced into the melee just as the Russians were about to break through. The ancient sound of clashing swords was intermittently broken by the blasts of revolvers and carbines.
Desperate, Brzezowski, who had raced to the field with the rest of his brigade, committed the 9th Galician Lancers. The impetus of their charge sent the Konarmiia reeling back to the forests outside of Czesniki. Casualties had been heavy, especially on the outnumbered Poles. For example, the 9th had lost all of its squadron leaders.
But the battle was far from over. The Russians, rallied and reinforced, made another dash for the hill. The melee began again, but this time the fighting was more vicious than before. One Polish witness remembered the terrible scene: ‘There was no mercy here. Minds ceased to react to the danger, and men grew oblivious to the moans of their dying and wounded comrades being trampled under the hooves.’ The injuries were horrific; men fell out with lacerated features or deep gashes to the torso and limbs, or both.
Torn and tired, both sides eventually disengaged. As they stood eyeballing each other, two opposing squadron leaders came out of the ranks and, somewhat surreally, began a dual. But these latter-day knights used pistols instead of swords. However, the distance was too great for any degree of accuracy and both combatants’ shots flew harmlessly wide. Suddenly a tempestuous Pole sprung forth from his ranks and cut the Russian officer down. Furious and insulted by this lack of chivalry, the Cossacks launched another assault.
Outnumbered, the Polish squadrons continued to fight on regardless of casualties. The Konarmiia’s 11th Division and the Soviet Independent Brigade had arrived, having broken off skirmishing with Haller’s forces. These relatively fresh troops were promptly used to make a double pincer attack Hill 255. To meet this new danger, Brzezowski threw in his last reserves, the 12th Poldolian Lancers. Weapons raised, they plunged into the attacking Russian’s flanks, only to be sucked into the swirling mass. Again the Polish lines wavered. Fortunately for the Poles, two regiments sent by Rómmel arrived in the nick of time. Their intervention was enough to push the Cossacks back to Czenicki again.
A question of honour
Budyonny, fearful that the prolonged fighting was now wasting valuable time, sent three of his divisions to retreat via a northerly route through the hamlet of Werbkowice. However, the Konarmiia’s pride as an undefeated cavalry unit was now at stake. Taking Hill 255, although no longer a tactical concern, was now a matter of honour and reputation. The 6th Division was given one last chance to secure it. This done, they too would retreat via Werbkowice.
Rómmel was aware that the Russians were attempting to find another means of escape. In a frantic attempt to stall the Cossacks, the he decided to use his relief regiments to seal off their escape route. Brzezowski’s shattered men were ordered to follow at 5.30pm. Exhausted, the 8th Prince Jozef Poniatowski Lancers and the 9th Galician Lancers were running half an hour late and just about to ready to leave when the 6th Division launched its final attack. The Polish captain, Praglowski, remembered the scene: ‘At a distance of perhaps seven hundred yards, dark waves of Cossacks were pouring out the woods one after another.’
Isaac Babel was probably in this last assault. According to his diary, Babel's unit had spent most of the day destroying beehives in the local orchards. Budyonny and Voroshilov were both present at the last assault, with the latter trying to rouse the troops. Waving his revolver in the air, Voroshilov shouted, ‘Show the Polish gents no mercy!’ Keyed up, the Cossacks were unleashed. The fresh troops among them were staggered by their opponents' refusal to scatter in the face of a fearsome Red Cavalry charge. Dumbfounded, Babel wrote: ‘They’re waiting for us on the hill, drawn up in columns. Amazing – not one man budges.’
Although there were fewer men involved, this last melee was just as furious and bloodthirsty as the ones beforehand. The 9th Galician Lancers, now only 200 sabres, galloped down the hill and disappeared among the ranks of Cossacks hacking and slashing. Most of the Poles were cut to pieces.
But the 9th’s sacrifice was not an empty one. Crucially, they had had taken the wind out of the Russian onslaught and the 8th Prince Poniatowski Lancers, charging behind the 9th, now had the momentum on their side. Slamming into the Russians, their lances began to take a heavy toll on the Cossacks. The 6th Division (used to making, but unused to facing, such a charge), promptly cracked and fled – for good. Amazingly, Brzezowski’s brigade had battled with three quarters of the Konarmiia, emerging bloodied, but victorious.
Budyonny, something of an escapologist, was too wily to fall into any other Polish traps and the pace of his army still outstripped that of the enemy’s. However, they were shadowed all the way back to Rovno. Bolshevik high command now decided to send them to help in the destruction of White Crimea. But the Konarmiia was now in a poor state and its casualties had been enormous. The 11th Division, for example, had started the campaign with 3,500 men. It was left with 1,180. Although they were to fight more battles, Poland 1920 signalled the start of the Konarmiia’s demise.
As for the rest of the war, Pilsudski cut the remnants of Tukachevsky’s army to pieces at the Battle of Neiman. By late September, the Red Army was desperately holding out in the remnants of old WWI trench systems with morale at rock bottom and supplies precarious. Lenin, furious at the poor performance of the troops and the state of the logistics, thundered: ‘I don’t care if they have to fight in their underpants, but fight they must!’ Rhetorical threats did little to secure the situation. On October 15, the Poles recaptured Minsk and the Russians sent out peace feelers. In 1921 an official peace agreement was signed and Poland had secured its eastern borders against all of the odds.
The Battle of Komarów was an unusual event. Cossacks and lancers belonged to an age long lost, an age of chivalry perhaps. As a battle in a campaign already decided, Kamorów was fairly unimportant when considering the war’s final outcome. However, its post war impact was great. Grizzled and sentimental cavalrymen, blinded by its romantic overtones, staunchly claimed that Kamorów had proven the necessity of horse cavalry, regardless of the Great War’s lessons and the steady development of armoured cars and tank design.
Short-sighted but influential planners on both sides, and even some in the West, agreed. They emphasised that while machines like tanks and armoured cars broke down, cavalrymen could carry on regardless. Over the next two decades a number of vital mechanisation programmes in Poland stagnated, which was to prove disastrous when the nation faced its next fight for survival against Hitler’s war machine.
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