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Vilna offensive

Vilna Offensive
Part of the Polish–Soviet War[a]

Polish Army enters Vilnius (Wilno), 1919.
Date early 1919
Location near Vilnius (Wilno), near the borders of Poland and Lithuania
Result Polish victory
Second Polish Republic Bolshevist Russia
Commanders and leaders
Józef Piłsudski
Władysław Belina-Prażmowski
Edward Rydz-Śmigły
For the offensive:[1]
10,000 infantry
1,000 cavalry
16 guns
For Vilnius:[1]
9 cavalry squadrons
3 infantry battalions
artillery support
local population
Polish 1st Legions Infantry Division had 2,500 soldiers
Polish cavalry of colonel Belina had 800 soldiers[2]
For the offensive:[1] Western Rifle Division and other units of Western Army.
12,000 infantry
3,000 cavalry
44 artillery pieces.
For Vilnius:[1]
2,000 soldiers
Casualties and losses
33 soldiers[3] Unknown. Polish military communiques note "more than 1,000 prisoners" taken.[4]
Polish–Soviet & Lithuanian–Soviet Wars in 1919: Polish & Lithuanian counterattacks.

The Vilna offensive was a campaign of the Polish–Soviet War of 1919–1921. The Polish army launched an offensive on April 16, 1919, to take Vilnius (Polish: Wilno) from the Red Army. After three days of street fighting from April 19–21,[4] the city was captured by Polish forces, causing the Red Army to retreat. During the offensive, the Poles also succeeded in securing the nearby cities of Lida, Pinsk, Navahrudak, and Baranovichi.

The Red Army launched a series of counterattacks in late April, all of which ended in failure. The Soviets briefly recaptured the city a year later, in spring 1920, when the Polish army was retreating along the entire front. In the aftermath, the Vilna offensive would cause much turmoil on the political scene in Poland and abroad.


  • Prelude 1
  • The Offensive 2
    • Diversionary attacks 2.1
    • Assault on Vilnius 2.2
    • Jewish deaths 2.3
    • Soviet counteroffensive 2.4
  • Aftermath 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7


Soviet Russia, while at the time publicly supporting Polish and Lithuanian independence, sponsored communist agitators working against the government of the Second Polish Republic, and considered that its eastern borders should approximate those of the defunct Congress Poland. Poles and Lithuanians, on the other hand, inspired by memories of the greatness of the erstwhile Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, saw their borders as lying much farther east.[5] The leader of the Polish forces, Józef Piłsudski, discerned an opportunity for regaining territories that were once the part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and since then were part of the Prussian Empire, shaken by the 1917 Revolution and the ongoing Russian Civil War.[b]

In the first weeks of 1919, following the retreat of the German Ober-Ost forces under Max Hoffmann, Vilnius found itself in a power vacuum. It promptly became the scene of struggles among competing political groups and experienced several internal revolutions.[6]

On January 1, Polish officers, led by generals Władysław Wejtko and Stefan Mokrzecki, attempted to take control of the city by establishing a Samoobrona ("Self-Defense") provisional government. Their aim was to defeat the Communist "Workers' Council", a rival faction within Vilnius plotting to seize the city.[7] Samoobrona rule of Vilnius did not last long. Four days later January 5, 1919, the Polish forces were forced to make a hasty retreat when the Russian Western Army marched in from Smolensk to support the local communists as part of the Russian westward offensive.[6]

Vilnius, the historical capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, became part of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and was soon proclaimed capital of the Lithuanian–Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Lit-Bel) on February 27, 1919. The Lit-Bel became the 8th government to control Vilnius in two years.[8] During the month and a half that the Lit-Bel controlled the city, the new communist government turned Vilnius into a social experiment, testing various applications of left-leaning governmental systems on the city's inhabitants.[9][10]

Józef Piłsudski, Polish commander-in-chief,[11] determined that regaining control of Vilnius, whose population consisted mostly of Poles and Jews,[c] should be a priority of the renascent Polish state.[12] He had been working on plans to take control of Vilnius since at least March; he gave preliminary orders to prepare a push in that direction—and counter an expected Soviet westward push—on March 26.[1] One of Piłsudski's objectives was to take control of Vilnius before Western diplomats at the Paris Peace Conference could rule on whom the city, demanded by various factions, should be given to.[13] The action was not discussed with Polish politicians or the government,[13] who at that time were more concerned with the situation on the southern Polish–Ukrainian front.[14] By early April, when members of the Kresy Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Kresów) Michał Pius Römer, Aleksander Prystor, Witold Abramowicz, and Kazimierz Świtalski met with Pilsudski, stressing the plight of occupied Vilnius and its inhabitants' need for self-government, Piłsudski was ready to move.[15]

The Offensive

Diversionary attacks

Piłsudski arrived at the front near Lida on 15 April, bringing reinforcements from Warsaw. His plan called for exploitation of the gap in the Soviet lines between Vilnius and Lida by an advance towards Vilnius using the road and railway. Amidst diversionary attacks, designed to draw Russian attention away from the main Polish thrust towards Vilnius, the main Polish attack began at dawn on 16 April.[2] The forces moving on Vilnius included the cavalry group of Colonel Wladyslaw Belina-Prazmowski, composed of 800 men in nine cavalry squadrons and a battery of horse artillery; and infantry under General Edward Rydz-Smigly, composed of 2,500 men in three battalions of the Polish 1st Legions Infantry Division and two batteries of heavy artillery.[2]

Soviet forces in the area were composed of the Western Rifle Division, a unit which had many pro-communist Polish volunteers,[16] and other units of the Western Army. The Soviet garrison of Vilnius numbered about 2,000 newly trained troops. Soviet forces in the area around Vilnius are estimated at 7,000 infantry, a few hundred cavalry, and 10 artillery pieces.[1] These forces were to be engaged and thus prevented from coming to the aid of the Vilnius garrison.

The diversionary attacks went well, with Soviet forces acting under the impression that the Poles had targets other than Vilnius. Despite their diversionary intent, these attacks succeeded in their own right, with Generał Józef Adam Lasocki taking Lida in two days despite unexpectedly strong resistance,[14] and Generał Stefan Mokrzecki taking Nowogrodek in three days and Baranowicze in four.[2]

Assault on Vilnius

Battle of Vilnius and related operations.

On 18 April, Colonel Belina decided to use the element of surprise and move into Vilnius without waiting for the slower infantry units.[17] Polish forces left the village of Myto in early morning.[1] At 03:30 on 19 April, Maj. Zaruski took Lipówka near Vilnius.[1] Belina's cavalry bypassed Vilnius and attacked from behind, taking the train station on the night of 18 to 19 April;[18] on 19 April, cavalry under lieutenant Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer—future Polish general—charged into the suburbs, spreading panic among the confused garrison. He seized the train station and sent a train down the line to collect infantry.[14][17] In this surprise raid about 400 prisoners, 13 trains, and various military supplies were captured.[1] Piłsudski would declare Belina's cavalry action the "most exquisite military action carried out by Polish cavalry in this war".[1]

Cavalrymen fought for control of the center of Vilnius and took

  • Przemysław Różański, Wilno, 19-21 kwietnia 1919 roku (Vilna, April 19–21, 1919), Jewish History Quarterly (01/2006), C.E.E.O.L.
  • Мельтюхов, Михаил Иванович (  

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Janusz Odziemkowski, Leksykon Wojny Polsko-Rosyjskiej 1919-1920' (Lexicon of Polish-Russian War of 1919-1920), Oficyna Wydawnica RYTM, 2004, ISBN 83-7399-096-8
  2. ^ a b c d Davies (2003), p.49
  3. ^ a b c d Mission of The United States to Poland, Henry Morgenthau, Sr. Report
  4. ^ a b c d Collection of Polish military comminiques, 1919-1921, "O niepodległą i granice", Wyższa Szkoła Humanistyczna, Pułtusk, 1999. Pages - 168-172.Part available online in this letter to Rzeczpospolita.
  5. ^ Davies (2003), p.30
  6. ^ a b Davies (2003), p.25–26
  7. ^ Davies (2003), p.25
  8. ^ Davies (2003), p.48
  9. ^ Davies (2003), p.48-49
  10. ^ THE REBIRTH OF POLAND. University of Kansas, lecture notes by professor Anna M. Cienciala, 2004. Last accessed on 2 June 2006.
  11. ^ MacMillan, Margaret, Paris 1919 : Six Months That Changed the World, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003, ISBN 0-375-76052-0, p. 213-214.
  12. ^ Davies (2003), pp.48, 53–54
  13. ^ a b Antoni Czubiński, Walka o granice wschodnie polski w latach 1918-1921 Instytut Slaski w Opolu, 1993 p.83
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Adam Przybylski, 1928, Poland in the Fight for its Borders, April – July 1919 - this chapter contains an account of the battle, mostly identical with the one presented by Davies
  15. ^ Grzegorz Lukowski, Rafal E. Stolarski, Walka o Wilno, Oficyna Wydawnicza Audiutor, 1994, ISBN 83-900085-0-5
  16. ^ (Polish) Zachodnia Dywizja Strzelców. WIEM Encyklopedia. Last accessed on 9 April 2007
  17. ^ a b c d e Davies (2003), p.50
  18. ^ a b c (Polish) Bohdan Urbankowski, Józef Piłsudski: marzyciel i strateg (Józef Piłsudski: Dreamer and Strategist), Wydawnictwo ALFA, Warsaw, 1997, ISBN 83-7001-914-5, p. 296
  19. ^ LEMBERG POGROMS WERE NOT BY POLES - Caused, Paderewski Says, by Ukrainians Who Opened Jails and Armed CRiminals, The New York Times, June 2, 1919
  20. ^  
  21. ^ a b Davies (2003, p. 240) cites a death toll of 65 under Polish rule, and 2,000 under the brief 1920 Soviet reoccupation)
  22. ^ Piotr Łossowski, Konflikt polsko-litewski 1918-1920, Książka i Wiedza, 1995, ISBN 83-05-12769-9, p.11
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h Joseph W. Bendersky, The "Jewish Threat": Anti-semitic Politics of the American Arm, Basic Books, 2000, ISBN 0-465-00618-3, Google Print, p.84-86
  24. ^ Michlic, Joanna Beata (2006). Poland's Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 117–118.  
  25. ^ Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, Columbia University Press, 2005, ISBN ISBN 0-231-12819-3, Google Print, p.192
  26. ^ a b c d  
  27. ^ Words to Outlive Us: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto. Michał Grynberg, 2002.
  28. ^ Gintautas Ereminas, Ochrona toru Wilno - Lida
  29. ^ a b Davies (2003), p.53–54
  30. ^ Davies (2003), p.51
  31. ^ a b Czubiński, p.92
  32. ^ Davies (2003), p.57
  33. ^ George J. Lerski. Historical Dictionary of Poland, 966-1945. 1996, p.309
  34. ^ Davies (2003), p.51–53
  35. ^ Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919 : Six Months That Changed the World, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003, ISBN 0-375-76052-0, p.212"
  36. ^ Ezra Mendelsohn, On Modern Jewish Politics, Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-19-508319-9, Google Print, p.8 and Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2003, ISBN 0-618-23649-X, Google Print, p.205


c ^ Jews of Vilnius had their own complex identity, and labels of Polish Jews, Lithuanian Jews or Russian Jews are all applicable only in part.[36]

b ^ Speaking of Poland's frontiers Piłsudski said: "All that we can gain in the west depends on the Entente — on the extent to which it may wish to squeeze Germany," while in the east "there are doors that open and close, and it depends on who forces them open and how far."[35]

a ^ For controversies about the naming and dating of this conflict, refer to the section devoted to this subject in the Polish-Soviet War article.


See also

The Polish capture of Vilnius set the stage for further escalation of Polish conflicts with Soviet Russia and Lithuania. In coming months, Polish forces would push steadily eastward, launching Operation Minsk in August.[34]

The Lithuanian government in Kaunas, which viewed the city as the historic capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, saw the Polish incursion as an occupation. The Lithuanian government demanded Vilnius back. Relations between the Polish and Lithuanian governments, unable to reach a compromise over Vilnius, continued to worsen, destroying the prospects for Piłsudski's plan of the Międzymorze federation and leading to open hostilities in the ensuing Polish–Lithuanian War.[32] In 1920, the Soviets recaptured Vilnius, followed by the Poles' establishment of the short-lived Republic of Central Lithuania.[33]

Acting in accordance with his vision of a Polish-led "Międzymorze" federation of East-Central European states, Piłsudski on April 22, 1919, issued a bilingual statement, in Polish and Lithuanian, of his political intentions — the "Proclamation to the inhabitants of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania," pledging to provide "elections [which will] take place on the basis of secret, universal and direct voting, without distinction between the sexes" and to "create an opportunity for settling your nationality problems and religious affairs in a manner that you yourself will determine, without any kind of force or pressure from Poland."[30] Piłsudski's proclamation was aimed at showing good will both to Lithuanians and international diplomats; the latter succeeded as the proclamation dealt a blow to the image of 'Polish conquest' and replaced it with the image of 'Poland fighting with Bolsheviks dictatorship and liberating other nations'; however the Lithuanians who demanded exclusive control over the city were much less convinced.[31] Piłsudski's words also caused significant controversy on the Polish political scene; as they had not been discussed with the Sejm and caused much anger among Piłsudski's National-Democratic opponents; Polish People's Party "Piast" deputies demanded incorporation of the Vilnius Region into Poland and even accused Piłsudski of treason. However, Piłsudski's supporters in the Polish Socialist Party managed to deflect those attacks.[31]

Funeral of the Polish soldiers who died fighting over Wilno (Vilnius), April 1919

Because of the successful surprise attack, the Polish army in Vilnius managed to appropriate sizable stocks of supplies and take hundreds of prisoners.[4] When Piłsudski entered the city, a victory parade was held in his honour. The city's Polish citizens on the whole were delighted; their politicians envisaged a separate Lithuanian state closely allied with Poland.[29] Representatives from the city were immediately sent to the Paris Peace Conference, and the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, which had been closed in 1832 following the November 1830 Uprising, was reopened.[29]

Victory parade of Polish Army in Wilno (Vilnius) Cathedral Square, in April 1919
Polish Army badge commemorating the fighting over Wilno in the spring of 1919


Near the end of the month about 12,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 210 Narocz lake – HoduciszkiIgnalinaLyngniany, leaving Vilnius well behind the frontline.[1]

The Polish victory infuriated the Soviets, leading to dozens of arrests and several executions among those connected to the Lit-Bel.;[21] the former Lit-Bel leaders began accusing one another of culpability for the loss of their capital. Lenin considered the city vital to his plans, and ordered its immediate recapture, with the Red Army attempting several counteroffensives in April 1919.[28]

Soviet counteroffensive

The [3]

There was a common belief among the Poles that most Jews were Bolsheviks and Communists, in league with the enemy of the Polish state, [3][23][26]

As the Polish troops entered the city, the first pogrom in modern [3] Joseph W. Bendersky counted over a hundred.[23]

Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Prime Minister of Poland, 1919[19]
Reports also have been circulated about pogroms in Vilna. They are absolutely false. Nothing of the sort has happened there. That is a sample of the exaggeration German agents are giving to the situation to poison public opinion against us in America.

Jewish deaths

[17] Piłsudski arrived in Vilnius on the same day.[17], the city was in Polish hands.urban battle During the afternoon of that day, after a three-day-long [1] On April 20, the bridges were in the hands of the Poles, and more of the city fell under their control.[1] The Polish infantry was able to reinforce the cavalry in the city center, and during the night, with help of local guides, Polish forces crossed the river and took one of the bridges.[14] Only upon the arrival of the main force of Polish infantry under Generał Śmigły on 21 April did the Poles gain the upper hand, attacking those parts of the town still held by the Red Army.[14] however, the Red Army troops and supporters were putting up a stubborn and coordinated defence.[17] By the evening of 19 April half of Vilnius was under Polish control,[14] to aid them.militia At around 8:00 in the evening the train he had sent in the morning returned with the first infantry reinforcements. The Polish troops were also supported by the city's predominantly Polish population which formed a [18] and asking for immediate reinforcements.[4] Belina sent a message reporting that "enemy is resisting with extreme strength"[14]

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