The advance in 1919 of the Polish Northern Attack Group was effectively an invasion of Lithuania, but it was only part of an ongoing dispute between the two countries. The city of Vilnius, just north of the Niemen battlefield, had also been the focus of a Polish operation.
Vilnius was Lithuania’s historical capital, but after more than 600 years of common history with Poland, had become ethnically Polish. Independence came to both countries at the end of World War I, but the Poles took control of the city, arguing (along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points) that it properly belonged in Poland. The Lithuanians were given a choice: reestablish the Medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and keep Vilnius as a capital, or refuse and leave the city in Polish hands. Fearing Polish domination of the commonwealth the Lithuanians refused. When Soviet armies rolled west during the summer of 1920, the Poles abandoned Vilnius; the Lithuanians took control of it with Soviet blessing.
Marshal Pilsudski refused to accept the situation, and after the Niemen battle ended looked to regain the city. Taking it by force would be an act of international aggression, so he resorted to a ruse. He asked Gen. Lucjan Zeligowski to simulate a rebellion by Polish units hailing from the region around the city. The “rebels,” refusing to allow their homes to be outside Poland, were to march on Vilnius and take it by force. Poland would not have openly committed an act of war, and if necessary all the blame could be shifted on Zeligowski and his “co-conspirators.”
The 1st Lithuanian-Byelorussian Division was the core of Zeligowski’s force. Exhausted by combat, the division was resupplied and rearmed in Lida during the pursuit phase of the Niemen battle. On 2 October Pilsudski inspected the division and met with its officers, telling them “[Y]ou are from [Vilnius], you have weapons, go home. Vilnius’ youth will understand and will help you. I, as the commander-in-chief, cannot take responsibility for this or order you to do this. You will do it on your own risk. General Zeligowski will come and take command.” To Zeligowski he said “[I]f we don’t save Vilnius now then historians will not forgive us…We must remember that [the Allies of the Great War are against us. The time may come…when you will have the public opinion of the world, and maybe even of Poland, against you. Maybe even I will be forced to move against you. You have to take everything on your own shoulders. I cannot order this. These kinds of things cannot be ordered.”
Pilsudski was unsure of Lithuanian strength and their determination to hold the city, so he reinforced the “rebels” with volunteers from central Poland. The 201st Volunteer Regiment from Warsaw was renamed the 6th Vilnius (Wilno) Regiment, and the men instructed to say that they came from there. An air force squadron was also attached, the Polish Air Force checkerboard symbols replaced by red and white stripes.
The “rebel” advance started on 8 October. It easily cut through the Lithuanian outpost line and took the city the next day. The city’s garrison did not put up much of a fight and withdrew, followed by part of its Lithuanian population and 300 prisoners taken by the Poles during the fight and later released. An attempt to counterattack failed and retaliatory cavalry and air raids convinced the Lithuanians to cease hostilities and accept the territorial loss. The “rebels” later proclaimed an independent republic—Central Lithuania—and in February 1922 organized a referendum that incorporated it into Poland.
Lithuania formally acquiesced to Polish control in 1938, when Poland made it a condition of renewed diplomatic relations in the face of the common threat of Hitler’s Germany. Hitler later offered Vilnius to the Lithuanians in return for assistance in the 1939 invasion; the Lithuanians refused. The Soviets finally returned the city to Lithuania after their invasion.
This blog is part of the analysis of the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, written by Maciej Jonasz. Look for more information regarding the Polish-Soviet War in the upcoming Strategy & Tactics issue #302 article “Poland Restored: The Battle of the Niemen, 1920” and join the conversation on Facebook!