Insurgent Troops

The military aspects of the Greater Poland Uprising 1918-1919

Zbigniew Pilarczyk

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On the second day of the uprising, several spectacular activities took place. The Citadel (Fort Winiary), where a strong radio-station was present, was seized. Its seizure offered the possibility of uninterrupted communication to the Poles. Another action was the seizure of Fort Grolman. Here, the main role was played by Poznań scouts under the command of Wincenty Wierzejewski. The action at Fort Grolman was the beginning of the legend of the 1st Scout Company - an insurgent unit composed of scouts. The barracks of the 47th Infantry Regiment, the 5th Heavy Artillery Regiment, the 20th Light Artillery Regiment, and also the barracks of the army service units were taken without any fighting. An attempt at taking control of the barracks of the 6th Grenadier Regiment ended much worse. The first attack, also conducted on 29 December, failed. Finally, the barracks were seized on 31 December. A smart move on the part of the insurgents was to arrest the German command, including: Hans von Eisenhardt-Rothe, the supreme president of the province, General Fritz von Bock und Polach, commander of the 5th Corps and his deputy, General Schimmelpfening. This resulted in a deadlock amongst the Germans. In the evening hours of 28 December, a meeting of all the leaders of the national and independence movement took place at the ””Bazar” Hotel. The main objective was an agreement on how to proceed. The Commissariat of the Supreme People’s Council and the Worker and Soldier Council rather advocated the limitation of military operations in favour of intensification of talks with representatives of the German authorities. On the other hand, Mieczysław Paluch and Bohdan Hulewicz were firm supporters of the maximum expansion of the military struggle. During this meeting there was a dramatic turns of events when Roman Wilkanowicz and members of the PMOPP appeared in the room during a meeting and strongly demanded the continuation of fighting.

The dynamics of the events seemed to strengthen the position of the latter party. The Commissariat of the Supreme People’s Council was aware that it had to take determined political action in order to not lose its leading position. However, this was not a problem of who was to manage the fighting, but who was to be responsible for it. The events of 27 December 1918 clearly exposed the shortcomings in the military preparation of the Poles from a strategic and tactical point of view. 

The insurgent fighting was continued. Local insurgent units organised themselves spontaneously and also chose their commanders in the same manner. This situation proved, in the best possible way, that the programme of self-modernisation was successful. The general society in Greater Poland demonstrated a high level of national awareness at this time, and also the ties between these small communities. When we take a look at the process of the formation of the “insurgent army”, it is difficult to believe that it ended successfully. If the insurgent outbreaks, dates and directions in which the fighting spread were to be mapped, they would remind the observer of the effect which appears when a stone is thrown into water. In this situation, that proverbial stone was the events which took place in Poznań on 27 December and then the fighting spread like ripples throughout the Greater Poland region. Certainly, strategic thinking and a general plan whose precise implementation could lead to the regaining of power were missing, but more importantly the same was true about the regaining of freedom. Greater Poland, at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, still remained one of the provinces of Germany. The uprising, or rather the military operations, resembled methods used during guerilla warfare, thus the units were relatively small, as the then insurgent staff was only able to command such units.

The only deviation from the principle of spontaneous fighting was the operation aimed at the seizure of the Air Base in Ławica. Both the insurgents and the Germans were aware of the importance of being in possession of this site. Above all, this was the last military outpost remaining in German hands. Perhaps the base, which played the role of a training-service centre, did not represent much in the way of combat value, but the threat per se that it would be possible to organise air-raids using the aeroplanes stationed there, was sufficient reason to capture them. The action in Ławica was one example of a well prepared military operation using different units and services. Unfortunately such examples in the subsequent period of the uprising were few. 

As the framework of this text does not allow for a detailed analysis of the military operations, I would like to draw attention to several issues important from the point of view of the ongoing events. The decision which definitely allowed for operations to be ordered was a decision taken at the plenary meeting of the Supreme People’s Council of 3 January 1919, regarding the seizure of power. It was published as late as 8 January. 

Activities related to the willingness of putting military operations into order were contained in the day order of 5 January 1919, regarding the subordination of all units fighting in the Greater Poland territory, including Poznań, to Central Command, and the establishment of 7 military districts, based on day order of 7 January. These decisions certainly had a positive impact on the organisation of the military forces and in some way coordinated their field activities. This, also confirmed the existence of the insurgent army, i.e. these were no longer just some unspecified grassroots groups organising themselves without the knowledge of the Command. The army consisted of voluntary units, the People’s Guard and gendarmerie - again also volunteers. It was discovered very quickly that, in order to maintain the dynamics of the activities and guarantee a force necessary to accomplish the set objectives, it was necessary to introduce a conscription apparatus. Major Stanisław Taczak was aware, however, that at that stage of the uprising, universal conscription was impossible, due to the fact that the population of people of German nationality was prevalent in many regions of Greater Poland. Limited conscription of young men born in 1900 was 1901 considered, but the implementation of this idea was too difficult and delicate for political reasons. All in all, it was postponed to a later time. However this problem resurfaced when command was taken by General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki. A temporary resolution of this issue was the establishment of regional military draft offices, whose task was to conduct the recruitment of volunteers and draw up registers. This issue required the introduction of a certain order, as the previous “system” of participation in the uprising was not based on any conventions. As a consequence of this, starting from the interwar period until practically the present day, it is difficult to really determine an accurate number of insurgents. It was almost customary for insurgents to change their respective units or to not get signed into the register. Evidence of the existence of military structures was the fact that insurgents received pay for their service, amounting to 30-300 German marks. Additionally, for each day on the front they would get 1 German mark (married men would receive 2 German marks). Also, a child allowance of up to 13 German marks per child was paid. On top of this, all the insurgents received guaranteed board and accommodation. These decisions, in a way, ended the period of spontaneous development of the uprising and on the other hand, they introduced a clear set of principles for the operation of the military forces. When we talk about organisational issues, here it is worth noting the attempt at introducing the institution of the soldier council to insurgent units. This initiative met with the kind reception of the Commissariat of the Supreme People’s Council. Regulation of the organisational issues at a central level was followed by a necessity to standardise the uniforms of the soldiers and the symbols worn by them. In the majority of cases, the uniform of the German infantry and cavalry, from the 1910 model, became the insurgent uniform. In the day order dated 8 January 1919, Central Command issued an instruction to place metal eagles on the caps (produced for the most part in a factory in... Berlin) and also red and white cockades. Additionally, a red-and-white stripe should be visible on the collar. Obviously due to the restraining conditions and possibilities, by the time an official uniform of the Greater Poland Army was introduced, the margin of discretion in this regard was quite significant. Despite all the action taken by Central Command, the military operations were of a spontaneous nature and occurred without overly extensive preparations, often the lack of coordination of the respective components taking part in a given activity was more than noticeable. In this context, the credit should go to Central Command, and personally Stanisław Taczak, for the preparation of various tactical instructions drawn up in writing and communicated by phone. In December 1918 / January 1919, an instruction was provided to the commands of the respective garrisons, with regards to the manning of their cities and railways. Attention was drawn in them to the necessity of providing posts at particularly sensitive areas like railway stations, tunnels and bridges. It was still emphasised that attempts at negotiations should be made before any possible military action. While reading the texts of these instructions, one cannot escape the overall impression that what we are really dealing with a crash course in command where theory could be quickly verified in practice. Absolutely fascinating was the idea of the formation of an insurgent army starting from the smallest tactical units (battalions, squadrons, batteries) to switch at a later stage to more complex units (regiments, brigades, divisions). At the same time, organisational work was performed with the aim of forming the respective types of arms and services. 

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