Warsaw 1920 - The War for the Eastern Borderlands

Published: October 27th, 2020     
Product Image
Author: Steven J. Zaloga
Reviewed by: Luke R. Bucci PhD - IPMS# 33549
ISBN #: 978-1-4728-3729-5
Other Publication Information: 96 pages, Softbound Paperback
Price: $24.00
Product / Stock #: Duel Campaign Series 349
Product provided by: Osprey Publishing

Thanks to Osprey Publishing & IPMSUSA for the review copy!

Steven J. Zaloga has a BA in History from Union Collee and a MA from Columbia University. Steven was an analyst on missile systems and international arms trade for the aerospace industry for over 30 years, and served on the Institute for Defense Analyses, a Federal think tank. He is a prolific author on military issues, specializing on WW2 US Army and Poland/Russia/Soviet Union history.

Steve Noon illustrated the book and painted original artwork of battle scenes.

This book is in the Campaign series from Osprey Publishing (#1349). Here is Osprey's description of the Campaign Series: "Books in the Osprey Campaign series span military history from the ancient world to modern times. Napoleonic battles, American Civil War battles, World War I battles and World War II battles are all analysed, as are the major military engagements of the American Revolution, the medieval period, and the 16th to 19th centuries.

With full colour 3-D 'bird's-eye-views', battle scenes and maps as well as colour and black and white photographs the Osprey Campaigns series provides an important reference resource for history enthusiasts, academics and wargamers." I have found Osprey's Campaign Series to be very manageable but thorough length and complexity to understand the important nuances of why short periods of war happened they way they did. Not revisionist, but a fair depictment (usually warts and all) of the winners and losers. Excellent lessons for life.

You get a 9.75 X 7.25 inches size paperback book with nine sections. This book is filled with images - three 2-page, color paintings of battle scenes, 8 full color maps, four color photographs (of museum pieces), and 70 B&W photos. Most pages have a photograph or illustration, making this book an easy read with eye-catching visuals. Most photos appear to be presented for the first time. The prose is easy to follow and efficient.

The importance of the battle for Warsaw in 1920 ( the 'Miracle on the Vistula') cannot be overstated for relevancy in today's world. At the time, the Soviets were rapidly engulfing neighboring areas and intent on taking over the world. Their army was large and appeared unstoppable, and greatly outnumbered their adversaries. If this battle had ended as most of the world thought it would, the world today would be completely different. If Lenin had had his way, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovaia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldava, Romania (all of Eastern Europe) would have been under the Soviet Union before 1930. One can only imagine the repercussions and potential realities if the Soviets had conquered Warsaw in 1920, hell-bent on Sovietization of the world. How about Nazi Commies?

World War Two would have been an earlier certainty, and with the Detente (England and France) war-weary and infiltrated with Communist sympathizers, and USA isolationism, the world today would look a lot different. Even now, news headlines still cover this area of the world, fraught with conflicts that have roots deeper than 1920 and which will probably never be resolved. In reality, much of post-World War I and World War Two and the Cold War history was determined by this series of battles. This book gives a mere glimpse into how the confusing and arcane Eastern Europe countries and geography came to be.

This book is an ideal primer for the Battle of Warsaw and the equally important (and forgotten) preceding actions. The nine book sections are: Origins of the Campaign; Chronology; Opposing Commanders; Opposing Forces; Opposing Plans; The Campaign; Aftermath; Further Reading; and Index. This campaign was merely a continuation of the conflicts of this region, but focused on the World War I prelude and the immediate post-WWI period that brought a short-lived semblance of stability until 1939. The set-up from WWI was covered, setting the stage for local conflicts from peoples displaced and entrenched in the same locations. The conflicts leading up to Warsaw 1920 were covered in some detail, including the White Russian role in distracting the Soviet's Polish intervention. Once again, we see Ukraine get trampled by everyone else, with its military groups switching sides in response to changing fortunes of invaders.

We find out why this conflict was really happening - Lenin's drive to spread Soviet Communism to the entire world, starting with Germany, and solving the Eastern Borderlands problem along the way. This also turned out to be the cause of defeat for the Soviets. Steve Zaloga's analysis is efficient and finds the key points that made history. The factors that defeated the Soviets at Warsaw were many and intertwined.

First was Politics - the overriding principle to spread Sovietization - conflict run by politicians, not generals, focused on the future, not the present. This caused entire armies to be sent away from the area of focus (Warsaw), ruining chances for an easy victory. Second was the structure of the Soviet military, which had commissars (RSVR) in between the military and political leaderships. This practice from a paranoid political leadership fostered slow command decisions, frequent vacillation, and cowered military leaders to serve their personal fortunes and lives first.

Third was logistics. As the invaders, the Soviets had a long supply line and frequently ran out of food, medicine, ammunition, leaving vulnerability to the ever-present peasant uprisings and guerilla warfare, as well turning the locals against them by raping, pillaging and plundering. Both sides were almost completely dependent on the railways since the rivers and harsh landscapes prevented maneuverability. This, in turn, made military movements predictable and easier to interdict. The Poles also had logistical issues, but as they were compressed, and their rear was stable, they concentrated their greatly outnumbered forces at precisely the right time and places to practice concentration of forces and supply.

Fourth was intelligence - signals intelligence, mostly. Most Poles spoke Russian, but few Russians spoke Polish, and many Poles were former Russian troops. Russians depended on radio signals for communications, since telegraphs were slow to set up and continuously unreliable because of partisan guerilla actions. The Polish military intelligence routinely 'read the mail' of Soviet strategic and tactical communications, and had the precious advantage of knowing what the enemy was going to do without the enemy knowing. Polish intelligence also relied heavily on air reconnaissance and reports from locals antagonistic to Soviet presence. Time and again, this intelligence saved Polish armies from entrapment and utter defeat, enabling them to survive intact, retreat in order, and always be in the right place to thwart superior Soviet forces. Intelligence also gave Polish forces the advantage of timing of when and where to attack, which was extremely important in this theatre of operations, because the landscape and military logistics forced both sides to depend on maneuver warfare rather than WWI trench tactics, which were indefensible.

Fifth was leadership. The political leadership (Lenin and Trotsky) were focused on the big picture of world domination, and their meddling with positioning armies for political purposes cut the concentration of Soviet forces around Warsaw in half, almost evening the odds for the entrenched, motivated defenders. The Soviets had terrible communications, and were constantly bickering amongst themselves in order to curry personal and political favor. Josef Stalin, in particular, was almost sacked for ignoring and disobeying direct orders to send his troops at the critical phase of the Warsaw battle, sealing the demise of the Soviet armies around Warsaw. This gigantic strategic and tactical blunder merely served his cause to strengthen his position politically, which obviously worked later, for him at least. And which accounts for the Stalinist purges of the 1930s that decimated the fighting capability of Soviet forces when invade by Germany in 1941. Meanwhile, the Polish leadership had fought with the Russians, and were also part of the politics themselves. Marshal Josef Pilsudski was the overall commander and the head of state for Poland. Thus, military strategy was aligned with political needs. The leadership of the Polish armies were experienced, battle-hardened veterans, while their Soviet counterparts, although also battle-hardened, were there by appointment and had more of a personal stake than fighting for their country. These leadership attitudes trickle down to the 'bayonets and sabres' as the Soviets counted their soldiers. It is no surprise the Soviet troops were more easily demoralized and ready to run.

Sixth was disease and famine. About half of military deaths were from disease, and the whole of Eastern Europe was wracked by typhoid, then influenza epidemics, which devastated the countryside inhabitants, decreasing availability of food and goods production. With poor logistics and communications, living off the land became lean pickings.

But perhaps the most important factor was the intangible - the will to win, regardless of odds. The Poles were once again fighting for their very existence, and like Moscow in 1941 when Germany was on the outskirts, the Poles threw every able-bodied person into the fight to save Warsaw, including, priests, students and artists of the 22nd Division. Troops from other nearby areas were fighting with the Poles and played crucial roles in the victory, because they too were fighting to regain their homelands. Americans formed the majority of an aerial squadron. On the other hand, the Soviet forces were ill-equipped, and mostly conscripted under threat of detention or extermination, and always under commissar surveillance and progandizing. Several divisions mutinied and changed sides (even Cossack Cavalrymen) during the campaign.

The Aftermath of the Battle for Warsaw was short and rushed, but saw the Poles extend their boundaries and wait for the Treaties and Armistices to happen - these were equally important military events that were not covered in the same detail as the prelude to and battle of Warsaw itself. The was also the last time horse-mounted cavalry were used in strength - after this campaign, horse cavalry was an anachronism - it was all 'bayonets' instead of 'sabres.' The rise of mechanized cavalry was becoming apparent, as the Poles used French light tanks, armored cars, armored trains and armored rivercraft heavily. So did the Soviets, but their logistics problems prevented their use around Warsaw. But other nations learned that mechanized cavalry was the way of the future (especially Erwin Rommel and George S. Patton).


I enjoyed this book on an almost forgotten topic that changed the course of world history (and from our perspective, for the better). This campaign was a harbinger of military trends used in WW2. It also showed yet again that manpower-intensive, fortified entrenchments were no match for maneuver warfare, something relearned and reinforced in WW2. This campaign was basically a string of Blitzkriegs before that name was coined. Also, airpower showed it could be a game-changer if the logistical problems with aircraft at the time were solved. Ditto for mechanized maneuver warfare. These factors developed into deadly forces in WW2 and beyond. What is lamentable is that this world-changing victory has been overlooked, forgotten, and not given credit for being one of the most important battles in human history for its implications. Anyone interested in any kind of military history will enjoy and learn from reading this book. Highly recommended.

  • Front Cover
    Front Cover
  • Back Cover
    Back Cover
  • Painting of an aerial strafing attack by the Polish Kosciuszko Squadron
    Painting of an aerial strafing attack by the Polish Kosciuszko Squadron
  • A photograph of a Polish armored car carrying a Maxim machinegun
    A photograph of a Polish armored car carrying a Maxim machinegun
  • This photograph from before the Battle for Warsaw in August 1920 shows the hubris of Soviet political planning
    This photograph from before the Battle for Warsaw in August 1920 shows the hubris of Soviet political planning
  • Armored trains, many built in Russia during WWI, were widely used by both sides as mobile artillery, a precursor to tanks.
    Armored trains, many built in Russia during WWI, were widely used by both sides as mobile artillery, a precursor to tanks.

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