** World War I -- Poland First World War

World War I: Poland

Figure 1.--These two Polish brothers lived in Krakow, Poland. They are Stefan (age 12) and Roman age 9). The photograph was taken in 1918 during World War I and are playing with a nice set of toy soldiers. The boys wear military-style school jackets. Stfan has some kind of badge, These may be school uniforms, but we are not sure. Click on the image for a fuller discusion.

The Polish nation once the most powerful in Europe disappeared as a result of three partitions in the 18th century carried out by Austria, Prussia, and Russia with the major share and Warsaw going to Russia. The Poles resisted these empires and in reaction the Russians in particular set out to destroy Polish national identity and Russify the Poles. Polish nationalism was largely preserved by the nobility and the Church. The Polish peasantry was largely a political. Although there was no Polish state, Poles participated in the War as part of the armies of the three empires that had partitioned the country. About 2.0 millions participated in the War. Nearly 0.5 million were killed. Polish nationalists were divided in the conflict. Many right-wing Poles led by Roman Dmowski's National Democrats promoted the Allied cause which on the Eastern Front meant the Russians. Dmowski thought that a grateful Russia might agree to autonomy for Poland, perhaps even independence in the future. Josef Pilsudski led the Polish Socialists. He also commanded the Polish Legion in the Austrian Army. He thought that Russia might be knocked out of the War. Austria which had gained Galicia in the partition had been the most willing to allow a measure of Polish autonomy. The poor performance of the Austrian Army on the Eastern Front resulted the Germans assuming command. Marshal Pilsudski refused to take an an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser. German authorities arrested him and imprisoned him in Magdenburg Castle. Russian collapse changed the political situation in the East. America had joined the war. President Wilson promoted the 14 Points which included national self determination. With Russia no longer in the war Britain and France came out for Polish self-determination. Although the Germans had achieved their goals in the East reverses in the West changed the political landscape. Revolts broke out in German cities. The Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland. German authorities released Pilsudski Magdenburg (November 10, 1918). He immediately headed for Warsaw. He arrived there on the same day the Armistice on the Western Front went into effect (November 11). The Germans had set up a Regency Council in Warsaw. Understanding that a Polish national rising was about to take place, the Regency Council turned to Marshal Pilsudski. The German garrison in Warsaw chose to evacuate by train. The Allies recognized the new Polish state set up by Pilsudski. At Versailles the Poles demanded the boundaries of Poland before the 18th century partitions. The boundaries of the new Polish nation were only established by diplomacy and military engagements (1919-21). Inter-war Poland included a German minority in the west and eastern areas where Lithuanians, White Russians, and Ukrainians outnumbered Poles.


The Polish nation once the most powerful in eastern Europe. It was, however, one of the few states where the monarchy did not become the dominant political force, the other was England. In England the result was democracy. In Poland the result was national disaster. The nobles were able to prevent the monarchy from developing a strong nation state. Poor leadership, disorganization and military defeat weakened Poland (early-18th century. Important nobles often cooperated with foreign powers in struggles with the monarchy. As a result, the country completely disappeared as a result of the three Polish Partitions (1772-95) Austria, Prussia, and Russia partitioned Poland. Russia obtained the major share and Warsaw. The Russian Empire under Tsar Alexander III set out to destroy Polish national identity and Russify the Poles. They received more liberal treatment in Prussia and Austria-Hungry. Despite efforts to suppress Polish national identity, Polish nationalism was largely preserved by the nobility and the Church. The Polish peasantry was largely apolitical. As a result of the French Revolution and ensuing Napoleonic Wars, Polish nationalism began to grow (early-19th century). Napoleon considered reestablishing a Polish State. The Russians established Congress Poland. Polish patriots staged a series uprisings (1830, 1844-46, 1848 and 1863). All failed and were crushed by Tsarist armies. Even so, the Poles continued to resist Secret societies plotted further uprisings.

Josef Pilsudski (1867-1935)

One of the great champions of Polish independence was Josef Pilsudski. He was born (1867) and as a teenager began underground resistance (late-1880s). He was arrested by the Tsarist police and imprisoned in Siberia. . He managed to escape and reached Austrian-controlled Poland (Galicia). Austria-Hungary had more accommodating policies toward ethnic minorities than the Tsarist regime. And because tensions between Austria and Russia were growing, the Austrians allowed Pilsudski to plpt against the Russians. Pilsudski was able to provide the Austrians information on Russian military deployment and fortifications in Poland. He was allowed to raise a small para-military force in Austria which he named the Society (or Riflemen) of TIR (1908). Men were recruited primarily in Lwow and Krakow. The Society would become the core of the World War I Polish Legions.

Outbreak of World War I (August 1914)

Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia was committed to defend the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas exchanged telegrams, but their personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy. The Tsar ordered a mobilization. France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once mobilized posed a formidable danger to Germany. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. German armies crossed the Belgian birder (August 4). This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, into the War. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany's decision to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of bringing Britain and the Empire with its immense military and material resources into the War.

Polish Participation

Poland had been a great European power during ghe medieval and early modern era. Then Austria, Prussians Russia in a series of actions known as the Polish Partitions erased Poland from the European map (18th century). Most of Poland was seized by Tsarist Russia, but Austria and Prussia got their share. As a result, when World War I. broke out Poles would be involved on both sides. Poland was an important battlefield in the first years of the War (1914-15). Although there was no Polish state, Poles participated in the the World War. Poles fought Poles as part of the armies of the three empires that had partitioned the country. About 2.0 million Poles fought in the War. Poles were conscripted in to the Tsarist Army. Poles were also conscripted into the German and Austrian Armies and fought with the Central Powers. As far as we know, the only Polish units organized were fielded by the Austrians who formed the Polish Legion. Forming Polish units was seen as dangerous, as such units once armed might be influenced by Polish nationalism more than imperial power and this is precisely what occurred, albeit only in the final months of the war. Poles as the War continued began to think about autonomy or even independence. But there was no consensus as to whether the allies or the Central Powers offered the greatest advantages to Poland. Polish nationalists were divided by the conflict. Many right-wing Poles led by Roman Dmowski's National Democrats promoted the Allied cause which on the Eastern Front meant the Russians. Dmowski thought that a grateful Russia might agree to autonomy for Poland, perhaps even independence in the future. Josef Pilsudski led the Polish Socialists. He commanded the Polish Legion in the Austrian Army. He had no confidence in a Russian victory and thought that Russia might well be knocked out of the War. Austria which had gained Galicia in the Partitions had been the most willing to allow a measure of Polish autonomy. Thus he fought with the Austrians.

Fighting in the East

World War began in the west when the German Army stormed across the border of neutral Belgium. Russia honored its treaty with France and with forces assembled in Poland invaded East Prussia. The Russians forced the Germans to deploy substantial forces inthe East, essentially dividing their forces in a two front War. (Corporal Adolf Hitler would later insist that he would never commit a similar mistake.) The massive Russian armies were stopped in their tracks, first with the disaster at Tannenberg (late- August 1914). It was a great victory for the Germans, but won at the cost of moving two corps from the Western Front to the Eastern. This was a major in the Miracle on the Marne (September 1914). Depleting the western forces contributed to opening a gaping hole in the German advance that the French were able to exploit. With the destruction of two Russian armies in East Prussia (1914), the war in the East became essentially a battle over Poland. Unlike World War II, almost all of the fighting on the Eastern Front during World War I was fought in Poland and the Baltics, at the time also part of the Russian Empire. Civilians suffered terribly. Relief efforts were inadequate are entirely unavailable. The Austrians launched the Battle of Galicia, but in the course of the fighting the Austro-Hungarian armies without German support were defeated and forced out of Galicia and the Russians captured Lemberg, The Russian advanced toward Kraków, but were finally beaten back by the Germans (late-1914). The Russian offensive caught the Austrians by surprise in an area unsupported by the Germans and achieved some initial success. The Russians had poor communications and logistical capabilities and were unable to exploit their initial success. They did, however, severely weaken the Austrian Army. The Germans launched a massive Spring offensive (1915). Heavy fighting occurred around Gorlice and Przemyśl east of Kraków in Galicia. The retreating Russian army emulated the scorched earth policy employed against Napoleon in 1812. Some 1 million Polish civilians fled east with the retreating Russian Army. Neither the Russians or the Germans were sure of the loyalties of the Eastern ethnic groups (Balts, Jews, Belorussians, Poles, Ukrainians, and others). Russian troops abandoning their positions looted the towns and villages they passed through. [Horne and Kramer] The Russians also evicted and deported huge numbers of people suspected of collaborating with the Germans Austrians. [Chickering and Förster] After very difficult fighting, the Germans finally entered Warsaw (late-1915). The Russian army assembled massive forces and launched an attack to resume the offensive. A large attack on the southwestern front. General Aleksey Brusilov led the offensive (June 1916). It would be the last important Russian offensive of the War. The Russians attacked the Austro-Hungarian sector of the front and achieved considerable success against the demoralized Austrian forces. The Germans shifted reinforcements from the Western Front. Romania entered the War, but was quickly defeated. The Western Allies were unable to make any progress in penetrating the Western Front and the Russian advance ground to a hault (September). After the Brusilov offensive the fighting moved east of Poland and the poorly led and supplied Russian Army begins to crack. The Russian Revolution overthrew the Tsar (February 1917). At the end of the War after the Russian Revolution, the Germans entered the Ukraine, but most of the hardest fighting had been in Poland and the Baltics.

Government General (1915)

Much of the fighting in the East during 1914-15 after the files Russian offensive was a German drive into Tsaridst controlled Poland focused on a drive toward Warsaw. By the end of 1915 the Central Powers ere in control, primarily because of German offensives. The Austrian Army prived much less effective. The Central Powers divided up Poland. The Germans took control of Warsaw and the north. The Austrians took control of southern Poland. The Germans set up the Government General in their sector. Those readers familiar with the German Government General in World war II, would be surprised at what the Germans did in the Government General during World War I. The Russians had suppressed Polish nationalist movements even more severely than the Germans before the War. The Germans moved to reopen the University of Warsaw. They allowed the Poles to open Polish language schools that the Russians had suppressed after moving against Congress Poland in the early-19th century. The Germans set up municipal governments and permitted elections--something unheard of in Tsarist Russia. The German military government permitted a Jewish press and permitted Jewish self government at the local level. The German policy was to demonstrate that they were both liberators and enlightened rulers. The Allies in the early stage of the war could not present themselves as either democratic or promoting national self determination because Tsarist Russia was such an important part of the Allied war effort. This could have strongly turned Poland toward the Central Powers. Russian looting and destruction as they retreated alienated many Poles. The behavior of the German Army, however, undermined the effort of the Central Powers to gain the allegiance of the Poles. German arrogance and rough, treatment of the Poles and other occupied people created a great deal of ill will. While nothing like the NAZI actions, the Germans did pursue some of the same policies. There were seizures of prosperity and land justified by military necessity. There were also forced population transfers. The Germans wanted to set up a buffer of German settlement along the eastern marches. The World War II General Government is why the NAZIs called the area of Poland they occupied rather than annexing the General Government in World War II.

Domestic Situation

Much of the fighting on the Eastern Front occurred in Poland. The Russians launched an offensive from Poland into East Prussia. The Austro-Hungarian Army launched an attack from their area of Poland (Galicia). The After the defeat of the Russian offensive at Tannenberg, the fighting on the Eastern Front turned into a fight for Poland. Civilians suffered desperately in the intensive fighting that occurred. Unlike the Western Front , the fighting was not confined to what proved to be the relatively narrow area of opposing trenches. As a result, large numbers of civilians were displaced. Some 1 million Poles apparently followed the retreating Russian Army east. Some suffered forced removals. Relief agencies were overwhelmed and the Germans controlled food supplies which were badly need in . And unlike Belgium there was no way of getting food aid from neutral America to the Poles. Only after the War was America able to get relief supplies to the Poles. Poland had been partitioned by Austria, Germany, and Poland in the 18th century. Most of Poland including Warsaw was seized by the Russians, the rest went to Prussia and Austria to placate them. The Poles had generally seen the French as liberators during the Napoleonic Wars. This was not the same with the Central Powers. Polish attitudes varied and we have seen different assessments. Some sources suggest that the Poles sympathized with the Russians. There was some support for the Russians who were fellow Slavs. The Russians had been the primary mover in dismantling the independent Polish Kingdom (18th century) and brutally suppressed the Polish nationalist movement after the Napoleonic Wars (19th century). And Tsar Alexander III has begun a Russification effort. This had changed with a liberalization effort began after 1905 Revolution. German policy toward the Poles was one of relentless Germanization and there was no liberalization effort. Instead the Września school strike, severe restrictions on Polish education in Pomerania (Poznań), and the Destruction of Kalisz all inspired anti-German feelings. Even Pilsuski who was oriented toward the Austrians was disturbed by German policies. The Poles did not harassment retreating Russian soldiers. Some attempted to care for the wounded. Russian behavior, however, especially the behavior of undisciplined Russian troops and the scorched earth policies of retreating Russian forces began to change attitudes toward the Germans. The Germans a new kingdom in Poland in an effort to win over the Poles. There was widespread destruction throughout Poland. Some cities were badly damaged. The Central Powers exploited Eastern European Region for its resources. We are not sure just what resources occupied Poland provided the Germans. Food was certainly one of these resources. Until late in the War, the primary area occupied in the East was Poland and the Baltics. Jews were among the people most affected. The area of the Russian Empire occupied had nearly half the Empire's Jews--the heartland of Eastern European Jewey.

Polish Legions

With the outbreak of World War I, Pilsudski placed his Legions under Austrian command (1914). He insisted that the Legions be used only to fight the Russians with the objective of creating an independent Polish nation after the War. After Austrian Emperor Karl attempted to exit the War, the Germans took control of Austria. Thus Pilsudski anf the Legions had to deal with the Germans. When the Bolsheviks quit the War (1917), the Germans became a new impediment to a Polish state. They began preparing a massive Western offensive to end the War. And they wanted to use the Legions in the West against the French and other Allies. Pilsudski refused to allow the Legions to be used against France and to take an an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser. Not only would that not help establish a Polish state, but the French were sympathetic to the Polish cause as were the Americans who had entered the War. The Germans arrested Pilsdudski and held him at Magdeburg Castle. They appointed a German commander, Von Bessler, to command the Legions. The Legions refused to accept this and most of the units simply disbanded. The only unit to join the Germans were the 2nd Brigade. They swore an oath to join the Germans (April 1917). The Germans arrested many Legionnaires and held them at Szczypiorna, Lomza and (officers) Benjaminow. Many Legionnaires escaped internment and went underground. Some joined resistance groups like Polska Organizacja Wojskowa (POW). Others joined the Austrian Polish Auxiliary Corps or German Polnische Wehrmacht units. The Germans transported others to Germany to labor in war work. Some escaped the German net and reached Russian controlled areas where they organized resistance groups. . Yet others fled to Russia to organize units there.

German Control--Polish Kingdom (1916)

The poor performance of the Austrian Army on the Eastern Front and Emperor Karl's attempt to exit the War, resulted in the Germans assuming command. The Central Powers primarily as the result of German forces had seized Warsaw (1915) and much of eastern Poland (1916). The Central Powers proceeded to proclaim a Polish Kingdom. While a Council of State was organized, the Germans retained effective control. The Germans with the Russians defeated, formed a Regency Council as the governing authority of the Polish Kingdom they claimed to have created. German military authorities, however, continued to exercise full control. The Russians had been the principal target of Polish resistance. Now the Germans held most of Poland. And the Allies now firmly endorsed Polish self-determination dramatically changing the political dynamic.

Russian Collapse (March 1917)

Russian collapse changed the political situation in the East. With the fall of the Tsar, the Provisional Government which contuinued to pursue the War, recognized the right of Poland to national self-determination. That was anot as advantageous for the Poles as it may sound. because it was the Germnans who now controlled Poland not the Russians. And as the Russiab Army began to disolve, the Germans seized vast swaths of territitory in Eastern Europe, not only Poland, but the Baltiucs and the Ukraine. And German plans ewhile not fully chrystalized were not to create fully indepoendent states in the former Tsarist territories they now occupied, but German controlled buffer states. [Tuchman, p. 321.] The future of Poland now layed with the outcoime of the war in the West. And to further comolicate the issue, theRussians werevhardly out if the picture. The Bolsheviks who would seize power from the Privusional Russian Governmernt would after the War want Poland back.

America Enters the War (April 1917)

America by 1917 had joined the war on the Allied side. While the United States only fought on the Western Front, American involvement was very important for Poland. President Wilson promoted the 14 Points which included as a key point national self determination. This of course appealed to the ethnic minorities in the United States that had fled Russian and tom a lesser extent and Austro-Hungarian oppression. Poles were an important ethnic minority in the United States. Most Polish-Americans had emigrated from Russian-controlled areas of Poland. Britain and France were less enthusiastic, because Russia and the Tsar was a key part of the Allied war effort. With Russian knocked out of the War, the British and French also endorsed Polish self-determination. The French then allowed the Poles to form a provisional government in Paris.

Polish Units Unite

General Jozef Haller commanded the Legions Second Brigade. He had accepted Austrian and German claims that they wiuld establish an independent Poland after the War. Thus unlike Pilsudski, he swore and oath to the Kaiser and agred to fight in the West in the German Spring 1918 offensive designed to end the War. General Lucjan Zeligowski also agreed to fight with the Ger\mans. The Polish Army formed under German command was a sizeable force (late 1917-early 1918). The provisions of the Brest Litovsk Treaty which the Germans had begun to implement, convinced the Poles that the Germans were not being honest. It for example transferred Chełm to the German-controlled Ukrainian state. In addition, Von Bessler's appointment confirmed to most Poles that the Polish state the Germans were establishing would be a puppet state and not a real independent Poland. Thus Haller with the 2nd and 3rd Regiment in Bessarabia attempted to break through the Austrian lines s at Rarancza (mid-February 1918). Many were captured by the Austrians and interned at camps in Hungary and Bohemia, including Huszt, Maramaros and Sziget. Haller and others who managed to cross the border joined the Polish 2nd Corps in Russia. This was the remains of the Polish units which had fought on the Tsarist side, including the Pulawski Legion. There was also a Polish Army in France fighting with the Allies--the Blue Army. It was composed of American and Polish Canadian Volunteers, mostly recent emigrants, who had traveled to Europe to fight for Poland before America entered the War. After the Armistice, they made their way to Poland to help establish an independent Poland.

The Armistice (November 1918)

Although the Germans had achieved their goals in the East, reverses in the West changed the political landscape. The Germans had hoped that victory in the East would enable to move sizeable forces west and once and for all defeat the British and French. But a new American Army was now reinforcing the Allied lines in the West. The Germans failed in their great spring offensive (1918). The Allied Armies launched the 100 Days Campaign led by the Americans and British. The Allies by the Fall cracked the Siegfried Line and were pushing the Germans back toward the borders of Germany itself. Revolts broke out in German cities. The Allies made it clear that they would not negotiate an armistice with the Kaiser or the German High Command. The High Command informed the the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. The Kaiser abdigated and fled to Holland. A civilian Goverment was formed and an Armistice was finally signed.

Polish Republic (November 1918)

The Poles as the German position in the West deteriorated moved to seize control of the country. The German established Regency Council in Warsaw became the de facto authority in Poland (October 12). The Poles proclaimed a new Republic (November 3). German authorities released Pilsudski from Magdenburg Castle (November 10, 1918). He immediately headed for Warsaw. He arrived there on the same day the Armistice on the Western Front went into effect (November 11). Understanding that a Polish national rising was about to take place, the German-appointed Regency Council resigned in favor of Marshal Pilsudski (November 14). The German garrison in Warsaw chose to evacuate by train. Pilsudski assumed dictatorial powers. The Allies recognized the new Polish state set up by Pilsudski. He proceeded to form a coalition government with the different Polish factions, including the provisional government in Paris. A coalition government with Pilsudki as president and famed pianist Ignace Paderewski as premier (January 17, 1919). The Poles than elected a constituent assembly which drafted a provisional constitution.

Versailles (1919)

At Versailles the Poles demanded the boundaries of Poland before the 18th century partitions. They had already seized Galicia and Posen in the west (1918). The Allies at Versailles were very generous with the Poles (June 28, 1919). The Poles were granted a corridor along the Vistula through former German territory to give them access to the Baltic. They also received substantial areas in Posen and West Prussia. Danzig was made a free city and the Poles given rights they could use it as a port. The border in Silesia was to be determined by plebiscite. Poland's more difficult eastern border was turned over to the new League of Nations.


Europe before World War I was domnated by four great empires (Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottokan, and Russian). The disolution if these empires ineviably mean major border issues. n a comolicatingbfactor that within large empires there would be more mixing of popoulatins than would be the case among samll nation states. As a newly constituted country after a century and a half of foreign control, borders began a huge issue. The major problem was the eastern border with the new Soviet Union and the eastern border with Germany. This meant one of many episode resulting from the country's major geograophic dilemma--being located between the two European giants--Germany and Russia. The Allies and the League of Nations could help mediate the German border. Poland would be on its own with the Soviet border. These were the major border poblems, but there were also issues with Liuanians in the north and Czechs in th south. The shorter Latvin and Romania borders were solved without major incident.

Inter-War Poland

Inter-war Poland included a German minority in the west and eastern areas where Lithuanians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians often out numbered Poles. There was also a sizeable Jewish minority, the largest in Europe outside of Russia.

World War II

No country suffered during World War II more than Poland. Of all the terrible situations during World War II, Poland was the worst place to be and the Polish people suffered terribly. Poland was part of an alliance with Britain and France that confronted the NAZIs in World War II. Both Poland and France were defeated and occupied. Unlike the French, Poland continued to resist and was a valiant and valued ally throughout the War. World War II began with the German invasion of Poland (1939). The Soviets of course also invaded Poland in 1939, but Britain and France wisely only declared war on Germany. The subsequent Cold War between the Soviets and the western Allies also had its origins in Poland. Stalin's repressive measures in Poland, especially the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forrest was revealed by the NAZIs in 1942. Soon Soviet measures against the Polish Government in exile, the creation of a rival Polish Government, and the abandonment of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw (1944) were some of the major issues which began the separation of the Soviet and Western Allies even before the end of World War II. Poland was a major issue at both Yalta and Potsdam. Many critics have charged that that President Roosevelt in particular abandoned Poland to the Soviets. [Olson and Cloud] The simple fact is, however, that the Red Army destroyed the Wehrmacht. If it had not been for the relentless pressure of the Red Army in the East, D-Day would have never been possible. The Soviet domination of Poland and Eastern Europe after the War was a simple reflection of that basic fact. America and the Western Allies could not have rescued Poland from the Soviets without war. In the end it was the Polish people who would prevail. It was in Poland with Solidarity in the 1980s that the Soviet empire began to unravel.


Chickering, Roger and Stig Förster. Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914–1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Horne, John N. Horne and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (Yale University Press, 2001).

Olson, Lynne and Stanley Cloud. A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II (Knopf, 2003).

Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August (New York, New York: Macmillan Co., 1962)..


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