History of Poland during World War I
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While Poland did not exist as an independent state during World War I, its geographical position between the fighting powers 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 was split during the partitions between Austria-Hungary, the German Empire and the Russian Empire, and became the scene of many operations of the Eastern Front of World War I.
Split of Three Empires
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. Russia's foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov proposed to create an autonomous Kingdom of Poland with its own internal administration, religious freedom and Polish language used in schools and administration. Poland would receive eastern area of Poznan region, southern Silesia and Western Galicia
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 June 1914, Józef Piłsudski had correctly predicted that the war would ruin all three of the partitioners, a conclusion often considered 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 them as liberators.
The 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 the process of liberalization that occurred in the Russian Empire after the 1905 Revolution. This was in contrast to Germany which, through its actions of relentless Germanization of Poles within its borders, the Września school strike, persecution of Polish education in Pomerania and Poznań, and in 1914 the Destruction of Kalisz increased pro-Russian and anti-German feelings. This attitude distressed Austrian-orientated Piłsudski. Only in late summer of 1915 after harsh policy of Russian plunder of Polish lands did the sympathy of Poles for Russia wane.
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 new state called the Kingdom of Poland would be created. The new Kingdom in reality was to be a puppet regime under military, economical and political control by the German Reich. Its territory was to be created after the war of only a small part of the old Commonwealth, i.e. the territory of Kingdom of Poland (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 preparation for this, forming a proto-Government, and issuing currency, called the Polish mark. German efforts to create an army serving the Central Powers however met with failure, as it lacked expected volunteers for the 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, declared that a puppet state Kingdom of Poland might be created.
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 Imperial Russian army, trying to emulate the scorched earth policy of 1812; the Russians also evicted and deported hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants suspected of collaborating with the enemy. 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, 450,000 died and close to one million were wounded. Several hundred thousand Polish civilians were moved to labor camps in Germany, and 800,000 were deported by the Tsarist forces to the East. 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.
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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.
- History of Poland (1795–1918)
- History of Poland (1918–1939)
- Diplomatic history of World War I
- Kingdom of Poland (1917–18)
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- German army, 1914–1918: Histories of two hundred and fifty-one divisions, WWI | World War One Resource Centre | Great War History | www.vlib.us/wwi/resources/. Vlib.us. Retrieved on 2011-06-12.
- Cavalry Regiments 1914. Austro-Hungarian Army. Retrieved on 2011-06-12.
- Units of the Polish Army in France, Haller Army, Blue Army. Hallersarmy.com. Retrieved on 2011-06-12.
- Articles relating to Poland at the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
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- Posters of the German Military Government in the Generalgouvernement Warshau (German occupied Poland) from World War I, 1915-1916 From the Collections at the Library of Congress