Polish-Ukranian War: Lwów Eaglets (1918-19)

Polish-Ukranian War Lwów Eaglets
Figure 1.--This painting depicts the stand by Polish youngsters in Lwów (Lemberg/Lviv) against Ukranian units of the desintegrating Austro-Hungarian Army. It was the beginning of the Polish-Ukranian War in Galacia at the end of World War I (1918-1919). The children became known as the Lwów Orletas (Eaglets). The painting is by Wojciech Kossak who focused on historical works, especilly military scenes associated with the struggle fot Polish independence. He painted this in 1926 and entitled it, 'Lwów Eaglets: Defenders of the Cemetery'.

Even before Poland was officially independent, fighting broke out between Poles and Ukranians over future national borders. This began at Lwów / Lviv. At the time the city within the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire was known by its German name--Lemberg. It was the capital of one of the Habsburg provinces--the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Poles were the dominasnt ethnic group in the province overall, but in some localities, namely eastern Galician Ukrainians were the majority group. In this area the Ukranians were the majority group (65 percent) and the Poles a much smaller minority (about 20 oercent). They did, however, along with the Jews make up a majority in the cities. Thanks to reasonably accurate Austro-Hungarian statistics, we have a good view of Lemberrg which became a flash point for the developing conflict between the Poles and Ukranians. At the time, the Ukranians were hoping to create an independent country as Poland was doing. Slightly over half of Lemberg were Polish Roman Catholics, Jews (nearly 30 percent) and Ukrainian Greek Catholics (nealy 20 percent). In language terms, most of the city's population spoke Polish (about 85 percent). [Austrian census of 1910] Fighting had ceased in the East with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but borders had not been set or political arrangements confirmed. And the apparent settlment was thrown into turmoil as the Austrians and Germans prepared to sign an Armistice which would invalidate the Treaty. Ukrainian (called Ruthenians by the Austrians) soldiers from disentegrating Austro-Hungarian Armyy unannounced moved into Lemberg and occupied public buildings and military depots, raised Ukrainian flags, and proclaimed a new Socialist Ukrainian Republic (October 31/November 1, 1918). The Ukrainians in Lemberg were estatic and the Jews who were among the most loyal supporters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were uncommitted. The majority Polish cutizends were shocked at finding themselves in a new Ukrainian nation. [Subtelny, pp. 367-68.] Poles in the city reacted violently, alythough they had few arms and no actual military units in place. The initial resistance was a group of about 200 men who organized in a school at the western outskirts. They were organized by veterans from the Polish Military Organization who collected 64 outdated rifles and a small cache of amunition. They clashed with the well-armed Ukranians. Soon this small group was joined by hundreds of largely unarmef volunteers, mostly young people including boys. They included Boy Scouts, students, and other youngsters. Over 1,000 people joined the Polish resistance in the first day of the escalating fighting. This was the beginning of the War with the Ukraine fought in Galacia (1918-19). Ukrainian units (Sich Riflemen) fought running battles with the growing Polish resistance--the mostly poorly armed school children. Polish Army units soon arrived in Lwów to aid in the struggle. Fighting continued until the Ukranians fell back from the city (Novenber 22). Fighting had swirled around a cemetery where after the war the school children killed in the fight were honored (figure 1). They became known as the Lwów Orleta (Eaglets). The Poles won out, largely because the Ukranians unlike the Poles split with many supporting the Bolsheviks in the developing Russian Civil War. The ethnic tensions, stoked by the NAZIs would breakout again in World War II.


Austrian census of 1910.

Davies, Norman. White Eagle, Red Star.

Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History (University of Toronto Press: 2000).


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Created: 5:39 PM 10/25/2016
Last updated: 8:32 AM 8/12/2019