The Great War part II
Russians make great soldiers – as long as they know what they are fighting for. The peasant conscripts of 1914 lacked that knowledge. According to an old anecdote, a Russian soldier once asked: “So who will win the war?”, to which another one replied: “We’ll both lose it”. 270 thousand Russian soldiers died in the first year of the Great War alone, and 1.2 million surrendered. In comparison, in the British Army, there was one prisoner of war for every five soldiers killed in battle. By the end of 1914, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces, General Polivanov, was already reporting to Tsar Nicholas II: “Dangerous signs of demoralisation are becoming more and more visible.”
In Germany, on the other hand, the atmosphere was euphoric. It even engendered enthusiasm in an unfulfilled Austrian painter known as Hitler (there is a photograph of a cheering crowd after Germany joined the war, in which his face can be spotted). Kaiser Wilhelm II enjoined his soldiers, as they set off to invade France, to “Come back home before the leaves fall off the trees!” The Generals believed in the brilliance of the Schlieffen Plan, assuming a lightening occupation of Paris, as in spring 1870, but this time something went wrong. It is said that Generals are always prepared for war, if only for the previous one. The Western Front stalled, and soon a terrible trench war commenced, in which thousands of soldiers lost their lives to gain ten metres of land, only to retreat again the following day. The title of E. M. Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front remains a symbol of those days.
Meanwhile – on the Eastern Front – the Germans were faring somewhat better. In winning the Battle of Tannenberg, they thwarted the Russian attempt to conquer East Prussia, taking so many prisoners that sixty trains were required to transport them. The Russians proceeded to invade Galicia, still under Austrian jurisdiction, and nearly reached Kraków (it was then that the City Council prohibited the old Polish tradition of painting Easter eggs, so as not to squander provisions), but they were pushed back by the Austro-German Army. In order to recruit more Poles, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich of Russia issued a proclamation, promising a unification of Polish territories under the Tsar, while granting the new entity a broad autonomy. The appeal was laughed down, in particular given that, upon posters carrying the proclamation, the colours of the Polish flag were upside-down.
By 1917, all the Polish territories were in German hands. Piłsudski’s Legions fought bravely in the name of the Central Powers (the Charge of Rokitna in June 1915 deserves special mention). General Von Beseler installed himself in Warsaw as would-be governor of a future Kingdom of Poland, which was to emerge from the official unification of the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies. However, Piłsudski was seeking a total victory over neither Germany nor Russia. He forbade his legionnaires to swear an oath to Wilhelm II, which resulted in him being imprisoned by the Germans. His answer to Von Beseler, who attempted to change his mind, was: “Excellency, if I accepted your proposition, Germany would gain one man, whereas I would lose an entire nation”. The outstanding commander General Józef Haller succeeded in reaching France, where he began forming his famous Blue Army on the initiative of Roman Dmowski.
In the meantime, the February Revolution broke out in Russia, sweeping aside the worn-out Tsarist regime and giving rise to democratic rule. Alas, this only lasted a few months, after which the Bolsheviks seized power in an armed Coup d’état (still mistakenly referred to today as ‘The October Revolution’). Comrade Lenin publicly guaranteed independence to Poland, as he had to Georgia, Ukraine, and the other constituent nations of the Russian Empire. And, since he had guaranteed it – he had guaranteed it – so be it.
In April 1917, the USA declared war on Germany. The Germans laughed. Until then, Europe had always been the hub of the universe. They stopped laughing at the sight of over 1.1 million soldiers brought by General Pershing to France. Earlier, in January, the great Polish pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, had met the US President Woodrow Wilson, handing him a memorandum on the issue of Polish independence. On 8 January 1918, the President made a speech to the United States Congress, presenting his famous Fourteen Points to end the war and bring about lasting world order. The thirteenth read:
“An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.”
Paderewski, indefatigable in his diplomatic undertakings, later said: “Everybody should realise that good and lasting results can only be achieved through small but continuous, daily efforts. A one-time effort is completely barren. True skill, in both science and art, can only be acquired through daily work and daily effort. And that is absolutely certain.”
11 November 1918 was approaching. The day of Poland’s Resurrection.