Insurgent Troops

The military aspects of the Greater Poland Uprising 1918-1919

Zbigniew Pilarczyk

Select Pages

In one of his texts devoted to the Greater Poland Uprising 1918-1919, Professor Jerzy Karwat used the term “irridentism” to characterise this event. Let us recall, it means the struggle for national liberation. However, the context of this term related to the liberation movements from Italy, which were active at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, is more important. The aim of these movements was the unification of all of the Italian territories into one state. I mention this because in the case of any attempt at characterising the Greater Poland uprising 1918-1919 from a military perspective, the aspect of the spontaneous fight of the Poles inhabiting the German state was the one which emphasised the uprising’s character and dimension. Finally, this was the shape of the relations between Greater Poland and Germany, which combined the political and military dimensions of the Greater Poland uprising. 

It must be remembered that the events which took place at the end of 1918, both on the local and the European scale, made any hope of regaining independence by way of an international agreement futile. This was due to the differences among the main negotiators of the peace conference, that is, Great Britain and France. A new element of this discussion was the idea of liberation of the territories of the Prussian partition by means of a landing of the “Blue Army” commanded by General Józef Haller. A military uprising on the territories of the partition was to be an important element of this operation. The date of commencement of the offensive was event set to 19 December 1918. What is interesting is that the objectives of the uprising were to be accomplished using the forces of the Polish Military Organisation of the Prussian Partition. Deficiencies in preparations and, above all, pressure from the British diplomats caused the cancellation of this action. It can be said that this was fortunate as the involvement of external forces, and Haller’s army was such a force, could have had unpredictable consequences, and the most important of these would be an internationalisation of the conflict, which could destabilise the ceasefire achieved with such difficulty on 11 November 1918. In my opinion, this notion was proof that any awareness of the true situation in the Poznań province was far from the reality. This equally referred to France and the Polish National Committee and also the leaders of the Polish Military Organisation of the Prussian Partition. Taking into account the appearance of more or less realistic concepts for the military restoration of Polish independence, the leaders of the Supreme People’s Council began to realise that the situation had become complex enough - not to say “tense” that they began to consider variants with the outbreak of an uprising. Evidence of such thinking was the establishment of the Military Division and then the Security Division. Military affairs in the Commissariat were handled by Wojciech Korfanty, who, together with Jan Maciaszek, conducted talks in Warsaw in December 1918 with representatives of the General Staff of the Polish Army. A fundamental issue was the bringing of a higher-ranked officer to Poznań, a person who was appropriately experienced in commanding soldiers and in staff work. There was an awareness that the officers with the highest ranks among the Polish conspirators were second lieutenants of the German Army, this was a consequence of the principle applicable in that army that soldiers of Polish nationality could not be promoted to higher ranks. From the point of view of military practice, these officers could, at best, take command of companies. One candidate for future commander of the uprising was to be Gen. Eugeniusz de Henning-Michaelis. These aforementioned facts contradict the claim, which is sometimes put forward, that the Supreme People's Council definitely opposed the military uprising and it was only the development of the situation at the end of December 1918 and the beginning of January 1919 which forced it to take overall control over the uprising. As the Commissariat of the Supreme People’s Council had good knowledge of the situation in Poznań and Greater Poland, it must have been aware that the level of political emotions threatened to create the potential for an outbreak of military operations. Perhaps it is also still possible that an awareness of the dynamics and range of these operations was not present.

In October, the process of the development of elements of the future insurgent army was initiated. The first of these was the People’s Guard, which was modelled on the Citizen’s Guard, established in October 1918. Given the circumstances, when there was an escalation of revolutionary sentiments throughout the territory of Germany, the task of this formation was to maintain order. From the very beginning, the commandant of the Guard was Julian Lange. Initially, Germans also served in the Guard, but as time passed, Poles definitely dominated the composition of the respective sub-units. In Poznań, Karol Rzepecki became its commandant, and at the beginning of November, it consisted of 2130 volunteers. The units were provided with uniforms, armed and even paid by the German authorities from beginning to end. On 27 November 1918, the Citizens’ Guard changed its name to the People’s Guard. An instruction was given to form units of the Guard throughout the Prussian partition. The existence of this service was reinforced by a relevant resolution of the Partition Sejm of Poznań, and on 8 December, the Public Security Division of the Supreme People’s Council published the “Guidelines for the People’s Guard”. The units were subordinated to the Supreme People's Council and served to maintain order and protect the property of citizens, regardless of their nationality or denomination. Members of the Guard also protected the activities of the poviat people's councils. The Guard was a voluntary formation and its members treated their service as an additional activity performed in addition to their professional work, and to distinguish themselves, the members wore blue rims on their military caps. It was observed that during Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s visit to Poznań, over 2000 members of the Guard were on duty. If we add those who served in other cities, this figure in December 1918 could almost reach 5000 people. The units of the Guard were mainly recruited from members of the ”Sokół” organisation [Falcons], but also members of the reserves, people on leave, deserters and members of other organisations. The information that the Guard units were organised in 30 out of 42 poviats of the Poznań province is very important. The full military potential of these units was revealed during the first hours and days of the uprising, being, on many occasions, the only organised insurgent forces.

This was during such a period that almost any bigger organisation or institution would establish its own military forces, whose aim was to provide protection to its members, or garrison service. Such objectives accompanied the foundation of the Guard and Security Service, which was an organism formed under the patronage of the worker and soldier councils. These units were to be equally composed of Germans and Poles. Members of these units were to strengthen the gravely deficient garrisons of the German army. The leading role in the recruitment action was played by Mieczysław Paluch and his collaborators. They persuaded German members of reserves, wishing to join the ranks of the Guard, to rather go home to meet their families. A way to circumvent the parities was found very quickly, Poles with German-sounding names were sought and officially they filled the “German” quota. As an ultimate recourse, Polish names were germanised. The recruited members were barracked in two Poznań forts: Prittwitz and Rauch. Of particular interest was one company which consisted of 117 German seamen, later on complemented by Poles who had served in the German navy. All in all there were 3000 members of the Guard in Poznań alone, and another 3000 members in other cities. This was yet another force which joined the uprising in an organised manner.

15 February 1918 marked the date of the foundation of the Polish Military Organisation of the Prussian partition (PMOPP), possibly the most radical organisation when it came to the methods being planned for the regaining of independence. Wincenty Wierzejewski, the initiator and leader of this organisation gathered around himself a group of senior scouts and deserters from the German army. The organisation was deeply covert, which, from the current perspective, is the reason that there is a shortage of information about it, for instance, the number of its members. However, it is known that it was not designed as a mass organisation but rather an organisation that would ensure a large pool of professional personnel resources. Members of the PMOPP demonstrated extraordinary activity and the most dominant among them were the following persons: Mieczysław Paluch, Henryk Śniegocki, Arkady Fiedler and Mieczysław Andrzejewski, who later on played a very important role in the uprising. The members of the PMOPP organised activities which consisted of the acquisition of weapons and other military equipment and attacks on warehouses (e.g. the action in the Poznań Arsenal). In the middle of November, a special unit also called the executive-intelligence division, with Jan Kalinowski as its leader, was established. One of the most well known fighters was Stanisław Nogaj, a controversial figure about whom opinions are very diversified. The members of the PMOPP held many important positions both in the administration and in the army, perhaps not the most prominent ones, but owing to this, they had an insight into the current situation. This helped them react rapidly, as was the case with the action of blocking the removal of almost 300 military aeroplanes from the Ławica airport. 

Select Pages