August 15th, 2015 marks the 95th anniversary of the greatest military victory in modern Polish history. And before you assholes out there start talking about how they finally built a mosquito-proof submarine because they installed screen door hatches or some other such bullshit, you should know that on August 15, 1920, the battered, war-torn country of Poland defended their capital against the onslaught of Leninist Soviet Russia, halting the progress of Communism across post-World War I Europe despite being outnumbered, outgunned, and almost completely surrounded by hardcore enemy soldiers wanting nothing more than to stomp Polish faces into proletariat borscht with the bootheels of militant Bolshevism. With their own capital city at their backs, the Poles utterly demolished the entire might of the Soviet army during the “Miracle on the Vistula”, and they did it in the most badass way imaginable – by straight-on bayonet charging a superior force in the hopes of breaking their morale with one ultra-brave display of the Polish military’s giant kielbasa dongs.
In their desperate attack, sweeping through the demoralized conscript forces of the Red Army and rolling up their flank, the Poles were led by the greatest military commander in modern Polish History – Marshal Jozel Pilsudski. Take a look at that dude for a second. Honestly, his amazing moustache and badass manly 1900s crew cut alone should convince you of his crippling badassitude, but this guy was a revolutionary, bank robber, guerilla, underground writer, General, and political activist who shanked faces with a razor-sharp saber and survived hardcore imprisonments in everything from Siberian gulags and St. Petersburg Mental Institutions to Polish castles and inescapable German mountain fortresses.
Despite all the lame dad jokes about their military might, Poland has a long and amazing history of hardcore military awesomeness that has been massively underappreciated throughout time. These guys aren’t pussies. They’re hardasses, and anyone who tells you otherwise is woefully underinformed about military history. Unfortunately for the Polish fighting man, they’re completely fucked by having terrible geography: They’re completely squished in between Germany and Russia, two of the most epic military powers to ever exist, and a complete lack of decent warm-water ports means these guys have to basically fight both of these powers on their own without any hope of resupply or reinforcements from outside powers. As a result, Poland ended up spending pretty much all of the 18th century getting conquered alternately by the Prussians, the Austrians, and the Russians, and all those –ussians just kept on carving the country up between them however the fuck they wanted. This shit is known as the “Partitions of Poland”, because various powerful European dictators and monarchs just spent like 150 years carving the place up like a friggin’ ham.
Jozef Pilsudski was born in Poland in 1867, in a place that is nowadays part of Lithuania but at the time was controlled by Russia. If that makes any sense. Pilsudski was descended from the Princes of Lithuania, back in the glory days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but a lot of bad shit had gone down since then and now his family was pretty much broke. Plus they were on Tsar Alexander’s shit-list because Jozef’s dad had participated in an uprising in 1863, and revolutionary activity really isn’t a good way to make friends with the psychotic tyrannical dictator running shit in your country. Jozef went to medical school in Kharkov, where he eventually got involved in a socialist student group that was advocating Polish independence (Pilsudski didn’t really dig on socialist ideology, he just thought it was the best route to take for his people to break free of Russia). Well…. That didn’t work out too well for him. Especially when a couple of his buddies hatched a plot to assassinate the Tsar. Pilsudski was “guilty by association” with the would-be killers, and was sentenced to serve fifteen years in a sub-zero Siberian work camp. He only served five years of his sentence, but spent the entire time getting the shit kicked out of him in -40 degree temperatures, mostly because he kept trying to organize prisoner revolts and kill all the guards.
Well if Pilsudski hated the Tsar before he went to Siberia, you can imagine what five years in a gulag did to his patriotism. He came back to Poland more pissed than ever, and started a secret underground newspaper called Robotnik, which sounds like some awesome sci-fi apocalyptic Asimov shit but is really just translated as “The Worker”. He ran his cool secret blog for 8 years, but was eventually arrested in 1900 for treason and thrown into an inescapable prison castle in Warsaw, Poland. He escaped. He did this in a very badass way – by faking insanity. Basically, he acted like he was goddamn nuts, and was so good at it that he got himself transferred to a mental institution in St. Petersburg, Russia. Apparently a strait jacket was a little easier to escape from, because this guy then immediately broke out of there, hopped a train car, made his way back to Poland, recruited a posse, and then started robbing banks and train cars so he could buy weapons and ammo for his one-man war on the Tsar.
Are you following this shit so far? Medical student spends five years in a gulag, escapes, runs an underground revolutionary newspaper, gets literally thrown into the dungeon of a medieval castle, escapes by faking insanity, breaks out of a mental institution, then becomes a bank robber so he can pay soldiers in a private war against the Tsar of Russia. This is totally what happened, in real life.
Pilsudski (center, leaning like a pimp) with his crew.
Pilsudski’s biggest heist came in 1908, when he knocked out a Russian mail train carrying 200,000 rubles in cash and bonds. He used this to buy more explosives and weapons, and also started traveling to see if he could get help for his cause. First he went to Japan (who was fighting the Russo-Japanese war against Russia), but they told him to get lost. So he went to Austria, met with the generals there, and was able to get a little aid for his unit. This aid became a hell of a lot bigger in 1914, when World War I broke out and Austria went to war with Russia – Pilsudski’s little group of revolutionary Jesse Jamses became known as the “Polish Legion,” three brigades strong, and Pilsudski himself was commissioned as a Brigadier General.
He spent the next two years fighting World War I, leading Polish troops in battle after battle against the Russians as he fought to retake his homeland from the Tsar.
Poland performed well in the war, and by 1916 the combined might of the Austro-Hungarian and German armies had thrown the Tsar’s men completely out of Poland. Germany declared the Kingdom of Poland in November 1916, which was great and all, but then the Kaiser demanded that Pilsudski and his men swear an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser for “liberating” them from the Russians. Fuck that. Pilsudski refused. He saw the writing on the wall, knew this Kingdom of Poland thing was just a bullshit minor concession, and figured it was only a matter of time before the country he just liberated from Russia would become a province of Germany. He refused to take the oath. He ordered his men not to either.
So he got thrown in Magdeburg Prison, a mountain castle in central Germany that is basically inescapable to anyone not named von der Trenck. He missed the rest of the war, but returned to Poland as a national hero when the fighting ended in 1918. He was immediately made commander of the Polish military and their de facto dictator/state leader. Which ain’t bad considering the fact that this guy was an unemployed doctor knocking over banks a few years earlier.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all roses and parades for Jozef Pilsudski when he got back to Poland. The war had flattened his country, and it was now in complete disarray. There were five different types of currency, and four different sizes of railroad tracks running through his country. Germany was defeated, but Russia was in Civil War, and Lenin’s Soviet forces were winning. Pilsudski finally had his dream of a free Poland, but now he needed to get it back together, defend it, and re-build it back to what it used to be in the glory days of the Winged Hussars. He made treaties with Ukraine and Lithuania. He pushed Russian forces out of the Polish lands they still held. He helped the Ukrainians re-take Kiev. He stabilized the population and worked on rebuilding the Polish national identity.
Things were looking pretty good, but it wasn’t long before Pilsudski started really pissing off the Soviets. The Red Army had won their army, taken control of the government, and now they were all about enacting World Communism with the points of their bayonets. In 1919, on the heels of Pilsudski’s victory in Kiev, they decided to fuck him up for real. Led by Leon Trotsky (yes, Trotsky), the Red Army launched an all-out counter-attack across an 800-mile-wide front that completely overwhelmed the Polish forces and sent them driving back in full retreat. Within just a few weeks, Poland had been backed up against the Vistula River, just outside the capital of Warsaw, with roughly the entire Red Army staring out across them.
But Jozef Pilsudski had a plan.
“My long experience with the Bolsheviki makes me confident of the future.
Their soldiers are poorly commanded, poorly led, and irresolute.
Some small advance parties will fight well.
The great bulk of the troops behind them are hardly soldiers at all.”
Marshal Pilsudski was a brilliant military mind, and this guy had been fighting the Russkies for over twenty years by this point. He knew his enemy. He knew the front-line Russian forces were tough as nails, hardened fighters who wouldn’t back down, but he also knew that the reserve forces in the back were made out of conscripts and mercenaries and other people who weren’t going to stand there and fight to the death when it looked like the battle wasn’t going in their favor. So Pilsudski did something insane. Something no military commander would ever recommend.
He marched around the front-line Russian forces and attacked the reserves directly.
Commanding just five divisions, Pilsudski personally led his forces on an utterly balls-out encircling move and charged his men screaming head-on into the Red Army’s reserves with bayonets, rifles, and machine guns blasting. They broke almost immediately. Seventy thousand men surrendered. Another thirty thousand ran the wrong way, ended up in Germany, and were captured there.
Their flank completely crumbling, the rest of the front-line Russian forces made a break for it. Jozef pursued and drove them from Poland. They didn’t return, and the borders of Russia and Poland marked by Pilsudski’s victory would be the border that would last until the end of World War II.
Jozef Pilsudski retired not long after the “Miracle on the Vistula”, but after watching a bunch of dumbass politicians fuck everything up for three years he un-retired and appointed himself military dictator of Poland. He tried to negotiate a treaty with France so both countries would attack Hitler simultaneously in 1933 – back when the Nazis were still building up their forces – but France unwisely refused. So, dying of liver cancer and desperate to protect his country, he signed 10-year non-aggressions pacts with Hitler and Stalin in 1934 and concentrated on building up his army for the war he knew was coming.
Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the greatest warrior in modern Polish history, died in 1935 at the age of 67. He was buried alongside the medieval Kings of Poland, and to this day, his victory over the Russians is the national holiday of his country.
"He was the King of our Hearts and the Sovereign of our Will. During a half
century of his lifes' travails, he captured heart after heart, soul after soul,
until he had drawn the whole of Poland within the purple of his royal spirit...
He gave Poland Freedom, Boundaries, Power, and Respect."
San Jose State University
Interview with Pilsudski