Insurgent Troops

The military aspects of the Greater Poland Uprising 1918-1919

Zbigniew Pilarczyk

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Taking into account the fiasco of the talks between the representatives of Greater Poland and Germany, which were supposed to lead to the cessation of military operations, the superpowers that assembled in Paris decided to investigate the situation in Greater Poland on their own. For this purpose, they appointed a special arbitration commission on 22 January 1919 which was to travel to Poland and bring about a definite end to the Polish-German conflict based on its own observations and information obtained from both parties. The commission started its work in Warsaw, where it arrived on 12 February 1919. Meanwhile the Armistice Commission discussed the issue of prolongation of the armistice treaty on 14-16 February 1919 in Trier. The German delegation was invited to the meetings of the Commission too. The negotiations which lasted many hours were finalised by the signing of a treaty on 16 February, which formally stopped military activities within the disputed area and allowed the territories occupied by the Poles to be kept by them. An assumption was made that a demarcation line would be delineated, which both armies would not be allowed to cross. The decision was also made that the number of military units on the front should be limited to 50 soldiers per kilometre of the front. Also, the number of artillery units was reduced to twelve four-cannon batteries. A front-line belt, 20km wide, from which all heavy artillery, armoured trains, tanks and flame throwers were to be withdrawn was also established. No firearms training was allowed within that belt. The decision was also taken with regards to the necessity of exchanging prisoners-of-war. Unfortunately, the Germans did not accept these conditions and bilateral talks were broken off. The talks, which were to determine the future of the territories constituting the Prussian partition, were held until all the provisions of the peace treaty that ended World War I were arranged. On 28 June 1919, the German delegation signed the peace treaty of Versailles. From the legal point of view, all obstacles allowing for the return of the Poznań administrative district to the Republic of Poland were removed. In reality, this process still lasted much longer. It may be symbolically assumed that it ended on 25-27 October 1919, when the Chief-of-State Józef Piłsudski, during his visit to Poznań, seized civil and military power on the liberated territories of Greater Poland. How complex the situation was on the front, at both the diplomatic level and the military level, can be demonstrated by the fact that, in the course of the most heated debates between the Polish and German delegation aimed at the establishment of peace on the front-line, there were regular battles which could significantly affect the situation. Despite the official ceasefire, fighting was still going on. Although its intensity was decreased and it did not involve such great forces any more, the situation was still far from peaceful. The activities undertaken near Rynarzewo, Międzychód, Kargowa and Kępno were certainly among those which could have contributed to a change in the situation. Despite the existence of the Greater Poland Army, whose organisation and manner of command were definitely at a higher level, the tactics were still based on guerilla operations. The Greater Poland front was still too long to effectively fill it with combat units along its entire length. The pre-calculated method of the transfer of respective companies and battalions, which had previously turned out to be successful, still served its purpose effectively. 

When we analyse the situation before the uprising today, and also analysing the events which occurred during its course, both at the political level and the military level, we have the right to formulate certain reflections. At the moment of the outbreak of the uprising on 27 December 1918, there was no plan for it whatsoever. Dreams of the arrival of the “Blue Army” or vague projects presented by radical independence activists cannot be regarded as such a plan. Perhaps, it could be said that fortunately these ambitious but not too realistic plans collided with the attitude of the activists of the Supreme People's Council which was based on waiting for decisions to be taken at the peace conference in Paris. When the uprising became a fact, it turned out that there was an army, but its commanders were missing. The insurgent armies and their commanders came into the picture only during military operations, which sometimes entailed tragic consequences. There is one common agreement, that the uprising should be divided into two periods. The first one, from 27 December 1918 till 10 January 1919, is often called the authentic uprising, the grassroots movement which is opposed by the political power. It is also the time of the birth of local commanders able to win over hundreds of people ready to fight for the uprising. The second period, from 10 January 1919 till 16 February 1919, is the time of war on the Greater Poland Front, implemented by the Greater Poland Armed Forces, a modern and well organised army.

The success of the uprising must primarily be attributable to the fact that it occurred, more or less accidentally, in very favourable circumstances, both on a European and Polish scale. A vitally important element of this equation was the morale of the fighting parties. However, I do not agree with the unambiguous division that it was higher on the side of the insurgents and lower on the side of the German soldiers. The truth lies somewhere in between - as always. Cases of lack of discipline and waywardness could be encountered on both sides, but also the moral attitude compensated for any deficiencies in military training or poor command. However we would mythologise the Greater Poland uprising, a thorough analysis could make us claim, that in the long run, there was no chance of victory. In spring 1919, the military operations in Greater Poland could have become a cause of open war between Poland and Germany. The revealed plans of both parties regarding such a conflict allow such a thesis to be put forward. Ultimately, the armistice in Trier and then the peace treaty signed in Versailles meant that all the territories of the Republic of Poland (with a few exceptions) could enjoy independence. 


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