Millennium in Arms
Poland enters the 21st century with a 1,000-year history of struggling for its existence, with or without the help of allies.

During its more than 1,000 years of existence, Poland has played a significant role in a wide range of political and military alliances. The Polish army fought alongside many stronger and weaker allies, none of whom did it ever betray, although betrayed it was left on numerous bitter occasions at the mercy of stronger enemies.

966 - 1410 The early period

From the moment the Polish state appeared on the maps of Europe, it became the subject of power plays on the continent between the papal state and the German empire. The Germans were formidable neighbors who sought to make Poland their vassal. In 964, only a year after the first written reference to the state of Prince Mieszko I, the Polish ruler was forced to submit to the empire; he had to pay tribute for the western part of Poland, whose borders were more or less like today's.

The most important state decision of those times, Poland's conversion to Christianity, had great political and diplomatic significance apart from the religious dimension. Mieszko decided to accept the mediation of the southern neighbor, Bohemia, which had been Christian since 847. Before Mieszko and his court were christened in 966, he married Dobrava, daughter of Bohemian Duke Boleslav I. The following year, with the help from his father-in-law, the Polish ruler defeated German Count Wichman and his allies, the Redarii -- a Lutitian tribe -- and the Wolinians. Five years later, after the next military success -- defeating Hodo, the margrave of Eastern Mark in the battle of Cedynia -- Mieszko I annexed Western Pomerania.

His son and successor, Bolesław I, continued to strengthen the country. A crucial recognition of his work was the Congress of Gniezno Convention in 1000 to which Bolesław invited Emperor Otto III. The ruler, who had a universal vision of Europe, recognized the Polish duke's independence by crowning him king, and handed him St. Maurice's spear, which can be found today in the treasury of the Wawel cathedral in Cracow.

The policy of the first Polish king, Bolesław I Chrobry (the Brave, 992-1025) and his successors from the Piast dynasty consisted of opposing domination by the German empire and supporting the anti-German movement in Bohemia and Hungary. For its 11th-century neighbors, a stable Polish state was an important element. When Poland was weakened by invasions and internal crisis in 1037-39, troops sent by the emperor and by Kiev Prince Jaroslav the Wise helped King Kazimierz I Odnowiciel (the Restorer) rebuild a unified state. Nearly 100 years later Poland increased its territory by conquering Western Pomerania in alliance with Denmark.

The division of the country into provinces by King Bolesław III Krzywousty (the Wrymouth, 1102-1138), to be split among his sons according to his will, seriously weakened Poland's sovereignty as well as its position as a partner in political and military alliances. The provinces had different, sometimes opposing or even hostile, goals and policies. The rare moment of unity would only come in times of external threat, such as the first invasion of Tatars in 1241. The Tatars scored a victory in the battle of Legnica, where they were fought by the Polish and German knights, but were stopped from penetrating farther. That battle turned out to be of significance as well for the Teutonic Knights, who had been invited to Poland 15 years earlier by Prince Konrad Mazowiecki in order to fight the pagan Prussians. After merging with two other knights' orders, the Dobrzyń Brothers (1235) and the Knights of Sword (1237), they became a power, building their own state on the conquered Prussian land.

The grandson of Konrad Mazowiecki, Władysław Łokietek (the Short, 1296-1333), who succeeded once more in uniting Polish territory, had every reason to resent his grandfather's decision to welcome the Teutonic Knights. The presence of the order greatly influenced Poland's history, affecting not only the choice of military alliances, but the development of the state in general. As the Order's power grew, Łokietek sought cooperation with neighboring Lithuania, which was gaining influence. The alliance of King Łokietek, who was crowned in 1320, with Grand Duke of Lithuania Gedymin was sealed by the marriage of their children, Duke Kazimierz and Duchess Aldona in 1325. Six years later, the Poles, for the first time, defeated the Teutonic Knights in the battle of Płowce.

King Kazimierz Wielki (the Great, 1333-1370) was aware of the Teutonic Order's power, so he pursued the policy of peace, seeking recognition of Polish rights through international arbitration. Despite several favorable rulings, the Teutonic Knights did not return the occupied region of Pomerania. Thus, Poland started to look for territorial compensation in Ruthenia, signing a deal with Hungarian King Charles Robert of the Anjou dynasty. The agreement involved support in Poland's fight against the Teutonic Order and cooperation in Ruthenia, where Poles had to fight the Tatars and Lithuanians. As part of the deal, Kazimierz also promised that if he died without a male successor to the throne, Poland would be ruled by Louis, the son of Charles Robert and the Polish king's sister, El˝bieta Łokietkówna.

Ludwik Węgierski (Louis of Anjou) granted the Polish estates, and especially the knights, privileges that formed the foundation of Poland's unique political system: the noblemen's democracy. Independent of that Kazimierz Kazimierz Wielki continued his attempts to expand Polish territory in the west and north, and to improve relations with Lithuania. The Polish court promoted the idea of a peaceful Christianization of the country in order to avoid giving the Teutonic Knights a pretext for invasion. The king succeeded in marrying his grandson Kazimierz with Joanna, the daughter of the Great Duke of Lithuania, Olgierdus. After Kazimierz's death, the throne in Cracow went to Ludwik Węgierski (1370-1382), and then to his daughter, Jadwiga (1384-1399). Her ascension to the throne was a watershed in Polish history. A year after becoming queen, she married Lithuania's Prince Władysław Jagiełło (1386-1434), who was recognized by the general assembly of nobility as king of Poland.

Jagiełło promised to get baptized in the Latin order, to unite Poland with Russian and Lithuanian land, and to win back Pomerania from the Teutonic Order. However, a series of wars, starting with a Teutonic attack in 1401 on Samogitia, which belonged to Lithuania, did not bring a territorial solution favorable to Poland -- despite the spectacular Polish victory in the battle of Grunwald in 1410.

1440 - 1623 Time of prosperity

But 80 years later Jagiełło's son, the third in the Kazimierz dynasty, succeeded in realizing his father's plans. Poland regained the region of Gdańsk Pomerania, which meant control over the Vistula River and easier exports of grain -- which in turn produced many years of prosperity. The achievements were capped by the Peace of Toruń in 1466, but not before Poland had experienced a string of disappointments, some of them caused by the attempts of the young dynasty to get involved in European affairs.

Jagiełło's oldest son, Władysław III, accepted the Hungarian crown in 1440, partly to defend Christianity in the face of the rising Turkish threat. The attempt to withhold the Ottoman empire's expansion into the Balkans ended in failure in the battle of Varna in Bulgaria, where the Turks crushed the Hungarian and Polish armies and killed the young king. His brother and successor, Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk, who ruled over Poland and Lithuania eventually defeated the Teutonic Knights after a 13-year war. He strove to reach peace with Moscow, which was gaining influence and had become one of the main adversaries of the Polish-Lithuanian state. The dynastic links to Hungary and the Turkish conquests in the Balkans and Crimea made the state of Porte another antagonist for Poland for many years. In 1515, the Jagiellonians signed a deal with the Hapsburgs in Vienna, under which the Hapsburgs were entitled to take over the Prague and Budapest thrones should those countries' rulers die without successors. After Louis the Jagiellonian, King of Hungary and Bohemia, was killed in the battle of Mohacs 11 years later, both countries came under domination of the Hapsburg dynasty for the next four centuries.

The Polish-Lithuanian state became a prime opponent of the Turkish state, which it fought almost continuously until the end of the 17th century. Eventually, it was joined by allies who recognized the threat from the east. In 1683, the armies of Poland, Austria and Germany, led by Polish King Jan III Sobieski, defeated the Turks as they were besieging Vienna, the Hapsburg capital. From that date onward, the Turks were on the defensive while much of the rest of Europe sang the praises of the Polish king, who was depicted in literature and song as the defender of Christianity. French King Louis XIV granted Sobieski the Order of the Holy Spirit, which weighs several dozen kilograms and is displayed today in Cracow's Wawel Castle.

A year later, Poland helped revive the anti-Turkish Holy League, which included the papal state, Venice and Austria. That was a true triumph for Austria, as it also made Polish policy pro-Hapsburg. And although Vienna twice failed in its attempts to put a Hapsburg to the Polish throne after the Jagiellonian dynasty died out in 1572, it was not unhappy to see the Swedish Vasa dynasty ruling in Warsaw. The first Vasa in particular, Sigismund III (1587-1632), due to his avid Catholicism which prevented him from ruling in his homeland, became a natural ally for the Hapsburg house during the period of counter-reformation. In 1613, Sigismund signed a mutual assistance agreement with the Hapsburgs that permitted military recruitment on the territories of the signatory states. On basis of that agreement, despite opposition from the Sejm, the Polish king supported Vienna in the initial stage of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), sending troops of light cavalry, the so-called lisowczycy. Their exploits are depicted in a painting by Rembrandt.

1625 - 1813 Wars with Sweden

At that time, the Polish-Lithuanian republic was fighting wars with Moscow and with the king's homeland, Sweden. The Swedes did not accept the aspirations of Sigismund or his sons for the Swedish crown. And for Poland which had no maritime ambitions, Swedish supremacy on the Baltic meant worse conditions for trade with western Europe. A Swedish invasion by sea started the 1625-1629 war, in which Poland recorded two victories, in a sea battle near Oliwa (1627) and in a battle at Trzciana in 1629, where it was supported by the Austrians. The Hapsburgs backed Poland as well during the next war (1655-1660), which was called the northern war. At that time Denmark, which earlier had supported Poland against Sweden, joined the anti-Swedish alliance. The Danes were fighting alongside a Polish corps of Stefan Czarniecki, the most famous Polish commander of the time.

The wars with Sweden, which for a short time occupied the entire Polish territory, were compounded by skirmishes with Moscow and Moscow-supported Cossack revolts in Ukraine, all of which exhausted and destroyed the country. The powerful gentry, which opposed internal reforms, added to the state's political and military weakness. During the next northern war, (1700-1721), the Polish Republic -- at the time in a personal union with Saxony and ruled by Augustus II of the house of Wettin -- was no longer a party in the fight for supremacy in this part of Europe, but its subject. In a formal alliance with Russia and Denmark against Sweden, Poland was invaded and occupied by the Swedes, and also experienced a civil war between the followers of Augustus II and a Polish candidate supported by Sweden, Stanisław Leszczyński.

That war ended in 1717 with an agreement guaranteed by Czar Peter I; Russia thus became Poland's " protector." Striving to keep Poland permanently weak, Petersburg signed a treaty with Prussia at Potsdam in 1720. The two countries promised to sustain the degenerated institutions of the noblemen's democracy in Poland, which prevented any reforms -- the liberum veto, or the right to disrupt a Sejm assembly with a single dissenting vote, and the free election of the king by a general assembly of nobility. Complemented by a similar agreement with Austria, the treaty was a sinister augury of the liquidation of the Polish state through a partition of Poland among its neighbors.

Before its ultimate demise, Poland had made both peaceful and armed attempts to regain its sovereignty. Polish reformers succeeded in the passing of the world's second written constitution, after the American one, on May 3, 1791. Unfortunately, their hopes that agreements with Prussia or Russia would provide time for introducing the necessary changes proved unrealistic. Russia intervened the following year and within a few months, together with Prussia, it carried out a second partition of Poland (the first one, with Prussian and Austrian participation, was in 1772). The powerful neighbors forced the last Polish Sejm in 1793 to accept the partition. In The following spring a national insurrection started, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817), a hero of the American war of independence.

The Kościuszko insurrection was crushed by Russia and Prussia. France became a destination for Polish political emigration after the insurrection and the third and final partition, in 1795.

France served as a magnet for Polish dreams. In 1797, Polish Gen. Jan Henryk Dąbrowski received permission from the head of the French forces in Italy, Napoléon Bonaparte, to form a Polish legion. At that time, the Polish national anthem, Mazurek Dąbrowskiego, was written. The hopes aroused through Napoléon made Poland the only country cultivating Napoléonic traditions. The French general, then consul, then emperor, was almost always fighting with one of the countries occupying Poland, and the Duchy of Warsaw he created in 1807 was welcomed by Poles. In return, Polish soldiers fought in the numerous wars staged by the Republic and the Empire, from San Domingo to Spain to Moscow. They stayed by him even when he could express his gratitude only symbolically: In 1813, he named Polish Prince Józef Poniatowski a marshal of France, the only foreigner ever honored.

1815 - 1917 The Polish Kingdom

The Congress of Vienna in 1815 accepted the autonomous Duchy of Warsaw, which, as a result of wars, increased its territory and was renamed the Polish Kingdom. But the new protector, Russia, soon started to limit the kingdom's freedoms, which led to the 1830 November Uprising. It was started by the Polish army, which was made to stand in readiness because the czar was planning an intervention against the Belgian insurrection. That gave rise to the bitter joke that the Poles' only success in the 19th century was Belgium, which could not be crushed by a czar busy with the insurrection in Poland.

During the Springtime of Nations in 1848, Poles fought all over Europe. Gens. Henryk Dembiński and Józef Bem commanded Hungarian forces supported by a Polish legion, and similar units fought in Italy, where Gen. Wojciech Chrzanowski was head of the Piedmont army, and in Baden, where Ludwik Mierosławski was commander general. A unit in Italy was formed by the Polish national poet, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). He died seven years later in 1855 in Constantinople, while creating a Polish unit intended to fight Russia in the Crimean War, in a Turkish-French-English alliance. However, Mickiewicz's hope that the western allies would also support the Polish question proved in vain. The words of the poet who prayed for "a universal war of nations" became a national credo.

On the eve of World War I, with Poland still divided, the politically active Poles predicted the victory of Austria-Hungary, and so, the Central Powers. The Polish Legions in the Austrian army went to battle, as well as the Puławy Legion within the Russian army. Polish volunteers in France made up a Bayonne company, which was almost entirely erased during an attack on German trenches near Arras in 1915.

Two million Poles drafted into occupant armies often had to fight one other, and 385,000 were killed. Germans and Austrians pushed the Russian armies out to the pre-partition borders of the Polish Republic. On Nov. 5, 1916, Emperors William II and Francis Joseph promulgated an act promising quasi-independence for the Polish Kingdom.

The Russian revolution in 1917 again mobilized the supporters of the Triple Entente. A Polish army was formed in Italy, consisting mainly of Polish prisoners of war from the German and Austrian armies, and of volunteers, mainly Polish emigrants to the United States. In Russia, three Polish corps were created, and one of them was joined by the II Brigade of the Legions which didn't want to fight together with the Central Powers. Nine months later, the only Poles who were fighting under the Polish flag were commanded by the French.

1921 - 1939 A Natural Ally

France was a natural ally of Poland after the Treaty of Versailles. On Feb. 19, 1921, the two countries signed a mutual defense pact aimed at Germany. On that occasion French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who was visiting Warsaw, was named marshal of Poland. The friendly atmosphere was spoiled by the " spirit of [the Treaty of] Locarno" in 1925, when Germany guaranteed its border with France, without a similar promise to Poland. Polish fears of being treated roughly by its neighbors were reinforced by conflicts with all of them except Romania.

Polish intelligence was well aware of the fact that Germany was violating the Versailles limitations on arms, thanks partly to the Soviet Union which allowed its territory to be used for military training. Poland succeeded in penetrating German military secrets to such an extent that it managed to break the newest German code in 1929. That was done thanks to a machine called Enigma and three mathematics students at Poznań University: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zegalski. It was considered a brilliant success, as both German and Allied code experts had been convinced the machine, which could produce millions of combinations, was impossible to crack.

The Poles were not only getting Germany's biggest secrets through Enigma; they even built a copy of the German machine in order to get to know its properties and predict the development of codes. The information was handed over to both French and British intelligence. Meanwhile, Hitler was on the move, and hopes for peace were fading. First came the anschluss [annexation] of Austria and then the Munich Treaty in 1938 which led to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Those gains served only to increase his demands for more.

The West tried to prevent disaster with guarantees for potential victims of the Third Reich, such as those extended to Poland on March 31, 1939 by Great Britain and France. However, after the German attack on Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 and the French-British declaration of war, Poland got no material help from its allies. To the Poles' great disappointment and to the Germans' surprise, France didn't launch a " general offensive" on the 15th day of war as promised under the treaty. Neither did it act later, although Gen. Maurice Gamelin assured the Polish commanders in a cable on Sept. 10 about " large German forces tied up by fighting." Two days later a Supreme Council of the Allies, meeting in Abbeville, decided Poland would receive no help. No Polish representative was allowed at the meeting.

Only a few months later, France had been routed. It had received the support of the Polish army made up of the 40,000 officers and soldiers who had left Poland after September 1939, as well as numerous Polish emigrants. Polish troops formed over a short time included air units as well as the First Division of Grenadiers, Second Division of Infantry Riflemen, the Light Motor Brigade and the Podhale Brigade, the last of which was sent in April 1940 to help Norway. Its successes in the fight for Narvik could not alter the fate of the overall campaign, however. The senseless order to return to chaotic France ended the history of this unit, which was originally meant to fight against the Russian invasion of Finland.

1940 - 1945 The Polish army

Compared with the 5-million-strong, but completely demoralized, French army, the Polish contingent of less than 90,000 stood out with its courage and discipline. When France capitulated in 1940, some Polish soldiers managed to escape to England or neutral countries to continue the fight.

In 1939, England hosted most of the Polish fleet, and after France's defeat almost all Polish pilots escaped there, along with 1,200 officers and 5,000 troops. The 28,000-strong Polish military was Great Britain's largest ally. The emigrant government of Norway and the Netherlands had only about 1,000 soldiers each, and in the rest of anti-fascist Europe there were about 8,000 people capable of and willing to fight.

On Aug. 8, 1940, the Battle of Britain began. It involved four Polish divisions including three fighter divisions, and 590 pilots commanded by the British. The 151 pilots from Polish divisions shot down 203 German planes, probably destroyed a further 35, and damaged 36 of them -- 12 percent of Luftwaffe's losses in all. The shootdown/own loss ratio was 9 to 1. As British Marshal Hugh Dowding said after the battle, " the Polish Division 303 shot down more Germans than any other British unit over a month."

The success of the Battle of Britain was influenced by the fact that Poles had earlier handed over the secrets of Enigma. By studying secret German orders, the British command knew both about Hitler's order of invasion, Operation Sea Lion, and about revoking it; they also knew day-to-day orders to air fleets. That, for example, set the groundwork for attacking German bombers flying from Norway on Aug. 14, at the height of the battle, before they reached the British Isles. The three Polish code experts, Rejewski, Ró˝ycki and Zegalski, continued their work in Free France, continually sending fresh information to the Allies.

Over that time, Polish ground troops started to form again, the first being the First Corps in Scotland. The next year the Carpathian Brigade, a unit made up only of volunteers, which after France's capitulation left Syria and sought British command, fought in Tobruk, Libya. Contemptuously called the " rats of Tobruk" by German Gen. Erwin Rommel, they not only successfully defended the city, but even launched a counterattack. Earlier, the Polish destroyer Piorun took part in the famous hunt for the German armored ship Bismarck. It tracked down the vessel and started a fight, which aided the Royal Navy sink the Bismarck in retaliation for the loss of its own armored shop Hood.

The year 1941 brought about a complete change in the balance of power. Germany attacked the Soviet Union, its former ally, with whom it had carved up Poland two years earlier. Hundreds of thousands of Poles imprisoned or deported to Russia became candidates for military service. The Polish army was formed thanks to an agreement signed on July 30, 1941 by the Polish Prime Minister Gen. Władysław Sikorski with the Soviet government. Poles received an amnesty and were promised help in creating Polish units in the Soviet Union. Originally, they were intended to battle on the eastern front, but the Russians came up with an increasing number of political and military conditions, and harassed the soldiers, draftees and their families. So the Polish government accepted with relief the plan agreed on by Churchill and Stalin, calling for sending those troops to Iran and Iraq, where they became occupational forces in place of the Commonwealth troops transferred to the far East to battle the Japanese.

1939 - 1945 Occupied Poland

The German-Russian war also gave a new dimension to the efforts of the underground in occupied Poland. Despite the reign of terror introduced by the Germans, Polish conspiracy activists managed to create Europe's only underground state structure, complete with a judiciary system, education, culture and an army. The exceptional nature of the Polish resistance movement was described by a British government report of March 1941. It noted, for example, the Polish tradition of independence and conspiracy, the large amounts of arms preserved after the German attack in September 1939, and a unique institution among exile governments in London: a special unit in the Polish Main Headquarters for communications with the occupied country.

For the western allies, Polish intelligence operations were especially important. Already in 1942 Poles had informed London about German tests of a new rocket. At first the information obtained from forced laborers and other sources was met with skepticism, regarded as rumors spread by the Germans. But when British air intelligence confirmed the reports, the RAF launched one of the biggest bombing raids of the war, attacking the German military ground in Peenemünde on Uznam Island on the night of Aug. 17-18, 1943. The losses delayed the German rocket program by several months.

Despite special safety measures introduced by the Germans, the underground Home Army (AK) seized detailed descriptions of the V-2 rocket, as well as reports on the tests and names and locations of the German companies participating in the program. London also received analyses of seized equipment made by the well-known Polish scientists, Prof. Janusz Groszkowski and engineer Antoni Kocjan. Finally, in May 1944 the AK found an unexploded missile shot from the Blizne grounds; it had fallen at the Bug River, near Sarnaki village. Two months later, thanks to the work of hundreds of people, large parts of the rocket, together with conspiracy documents, were transferred to England on board the aircraft Dakota, which landed on the partisans' airfield near Tarnów to pick up the priceless cargo. Although the Germans eventually managed to use the V-2 against London and Antwerp, knowledge of the rocket helped reduce the losses.

In 1944, Poles fought on several European fronts. On May 18, the Second Corps, formed in Russia and in the Middle East and commanded by Gen. Władysław Anders, seized after heavy fighting the Monte Cassino monastery in central Italy, opening the road to Rome for the allies -- a task attempted unsuccessfully previously by American, French, Indian and New Zealand troops. Poles fought in Italy until the end of the war, liberating, among others, Ancona and Bologna.

In France, the Polish First Tank Division played a decisive role in the battle of Falaise in August 1944. As Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery put it, it was like " a cork in the bottle of Germans." Later that unit liberated, for example, Ghent in Belgium and Breda in the Netherlands. It finished the war by taking over Wilhelmshaven, the main base of the Kriegsmarine, or German navy. In the Netherlands, during the Market Garden operation near Arnhem, the First Independent Airborne Brigade took part in the battle under the command of Gen. Stanisław Sosabowski.

Since 1943, soldiers from troops formed under the patronage of the pro-Soviet Union of Polish Patriots had fought in the eastern front. After crossing the Bug River, the units grew into two armies, and ended their campaigns in Germany and western Bohemia. Apart from the Russians, Poles were the only coalition members to take over the capital of the Third Reich. However, that was a bitter victory for Poland, and not only because of the loss of 6 million of its people and 38 percent of the pre-war national territory. After the war, the fate of the first country to fight Hitler was sealed by the " Big Three" in Teheran and Yalta. A communist political, social and economic system, not accepted by the majority of Poles, was imposed on the country, along with alliance with the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact, founded in 1955, prevented Poland from participating in any form of Euro-Atlantic alliance until 1991, two years after the communist system was swept out of Poland.

Piotr Golik

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