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While Poland did not exist as an independent state during World War I, its geographical position between the fighting powers had meant that much fighting and terrific human and material losses occurred on the Polish lands between 1914 and 1918.

When World War I started, Polish territory, split during partitions between Austro-Hungary, German Empire and Russian Empire, became the scene of much of the operations of the Eastern Front of World War I.

After World War I and the collapse of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, Poland became an independent republic.


War on the Polish lands

Сontemporary French postcard by Sergey Solomko
Eastern Front on the verge of conflict in 1914. Polish territories were located roughly in the northern part of the front. Notably, the entire German-Russian frontier, and northern Austrian-Russian frontier passed through those lands.
Col. Józef Piłsudski with his staff in front of the Governor's Palace in Kielce, 1914

The war split the ranks of the three partitioning empires, pitting Russia as defender of Serbia and ally of Britain and France against the leading members of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Conflicting Aims of Empires

This circumstance afforded the Poles political leverage as both sides offered pledges of concessions and future autonomy in exchange for Polish loyalty and army recruits.

The Austrians wanted to incorporate the Russian territory of Privislinsky Krai into their territory of Galicia, so even before the war they allowed nationalist organizations to form there (for example, Związek Strzelecki).

The Russians recognized the Polish right to autonomy and allowed formation of the Polish National Committee, which supported the Russian side.

As the war settled into a long stalemate, the issue of Polish self-rule gained greater urgency. Roman Dmowski spent the war years in Western Europe, hoping to persuade the Allies to unify the Polish lands under Russian rule as an initial step toward liberation.

In the meantime, Piłsudski had correctly predicted that the war would ruin all three of the partitioners, a conclusion most people thought highly unlikely before 1918. Piłsudski therefore formed the Polish Legions to assist the Central Powers in defeating Russia as the first step toward full independence for Poland.

The encroaching German forces were met with hostility and distrust. Unlike the Napoleonic forces a century earlier Poles didn't see in them liberators.

Russians were bid farewell often with sadness, grief and uncertainty. There was no harassment of retreating Russian soldiers, nor attacks on wounded. For many Poles Russians at that time were seen as "ours" due to process of liberalization that occurred in Russian Empire after 1905 Revolution and in contrast to Germany which through its actions as relentless Germanization of Poles within its borders, Września schoolstrike, persecution of Polish education in Pomerania na Poznań and in 1914 the Destruction of Kalisz damaged their image, in favour of Russians.

This attitude confused and was a problem for Austrian-orientated Piłsudski. Only in late summer of 1915 after harsh policy of plunder by Russian Empire towards Polish lands the sympathy of Poles towards Russians in the conflict waned.

Kingdom of Poland (1916-1918)

In 1916, attempting to increase Polish support for the Central Powers and to raise a Polish army the German and Austrian emperors declared that a state called new Kingdom of Poland would be created. The new Kingdom in reality was to be a client state under military, economical and political control by the German Reich and its territory was to be created after the war of only of a small part of the old Commonwealth, i.e. the territory of Privislinsky Krai, with around 30,000 square kilometers of its western areas to be annexed by Germany. Polish and Jewish population in those areas was to be expelled and replaced by German colonists. A Regency Council was established in preparations of this, forming a proto-Government, and issuing currency, called the Polish mark. German efforts to create an army serving Central Powers however met with failure, as it lacked expected volunteers for German cause.

After peace in the East was assured by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany and Austria-Hungary started a policy of creating a "Mitteleuropa" ("Central Europe") and on November 5, 1917, proclaimed a client Kingdom of Poland.


Poniatowski Bridge in Warsaw after being blown up by the retreating Russian Army in 1915.

Much of the heavy fighting on the war's Eastern Front took place on the territory of the former Polish state. In 1914 Russian forces advanced very close to Kraków before being beaten back. The next spring, heavy fighting occurred around Gorlice and Przemyśl, to the east of Kraków in Galicia. In 1915 Polish territories were looted and abandoned by the retreating Russian army, trying to emulate the scorched earth policy of 1812;[1][2] the Russians also evicted and deported hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants suspected of collaborating with the enemy.[1][3][4] By the end of 1915, the Germans had occupied the entire Russian sector, including Warsaw. In 1916 another Russian offensive in Galicia exacerbated the already desperate situation of civilians in the war zone; about 1 million Polish refugees fled eastward behind Russian lines during the war. Although the Russian offensive of 1916 caught the Germans and Austrians by surprise, poor communications and logistics prevented the Russians from taking full advantage of their situation.

A total of 2 million Polish troops fought with the armies of the three occupying powers, and 450,000 died. Several hundred thousand Polish civilians were moved to labor camps in Germany. The scorched-earth retreat strategies of both sides left much of the war zone uninhabitable. Total deaths from 1914-18, military and civilian, within the 1919-1939 borders, were estimated at 1,128,000.[5]

Recovery of statehood

In 1917 two separate events decisively changed the character of the war and set it on a course toward the rebirth of Poland. The United States entered the conflict on the Allied side, while a process of revolutionary upheaval in Russia weakened her and then removed the Russians from the Eastern Front, finally bringing the Bolsheviks to power in that country. After the last Russian advance into Galicia failed in mid-1917, the Germans went on the offensive again; the army of revolutionary Russia ceased to be a factor, and Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in which she ceded all formerly Polish lands to the Central Powers.

The defection of Russia from the Allied coalition gave free rein to the calls of Woodrow Wilson, the American president, to transform the war into a crusade to spread democracy and liberate the Poles and other peoples from the suzerainty of the Central Powers. The thirteenth of his Fourteen Points adopted the resurrection of Poland as one of the main aims of World War I. Polish opinion crystallized in support of the Allied cause.

Józef Piłsudski became a popular hero when Berlin jailed him for insubordination. The Allies broke the resistance of the Central Powers by autumn 1918, as the Habsburg monarchy disintegrated and the German imperial government collapsed. In October 1918, Polish authorities took over Galicia and Cieszyn Silesia. In November 1918, Piłsudski was released from internment in Germany by the revolutionaries and returned to Warsaw. Upon his arrival, on November 11, 1918 the Regency Council of the Kingdom of Poland ceded all responsibilities to him and Piłsudski took control over the newly created state as its provisional Chief of State. Soon all the local governments that had been created in the last months of the war pledged allegiance to the central government in Warsaw. Independent Poland, which had been absent from the map of Europe for 123 years, was reborn.

The newly created state initially consisted of former Privislinsky Krai, western Galicia (with Lwów besieged by the Ukrainians) and part of Cieszyn Silesia.


  1. ^ a b John N. Horne, Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial, Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN 0300107919, Google Print, p. 83
  2. ^ Roger Chickering, Stig Förster, Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914-1918, Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0521773520, Google Print, p.160
  3. ^ Barnett R. Rubin, Jack L. Snyder, Post-Soviet Political Order: Conflict and State Building, Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0415170699, Google Print, p.43
  4. ^ Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0192803425, Google Print, p.151
  5. ^ Andrzej Gawryszewski (2005). Ludnosc Polski w XX wieku. Warsaw.  


See also



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