The Battle of Komarów / Cześniki

The Myth

During the Soviet-Polish War, which burst into active life in 1920, large cavalry units played very important roles for both sides. Budënniy's 1st Horse Army1 (the Konnaya Armiya) and Gai Khan's KavKor spearheaded the Soviet advance: only for both forces to end up in fairly ignominious retreat. The Polish cavalry was also important, but the Poles' decisive battles were won largely without them – the defence of Warsaw, Piłsudski's right hook on the Vistula and the Battle of the Niemen were led by infantry.

Moreover, for a variety of reasons the opposing cavalry virtually never fought each other. Initially Budënniy wrecked the Polish cavalry after his break-through near Kiev and after that the only occasion they met in any numbers was 31 August 1920. I suspect the status that this last battle has in Poland has as much to do with its "proof" that Polish cavalry was better than Soviet cavalry (the mauling in Ukraine being studiously ignored) as it has to do with any real importance to the campaign. Certainly all sorts of ridiculous assertions are made regarding it.

Here is a typical description of what Poles call the "Battle of Komarów", also known as Cześniki, part of the combats associated with the "Zamość Ring":

"The Battle of Komarów was one of the most important battles of the Polish-Bolshevik War. … . It was the biggest cavalry battle in the history of war since 1813 and the last great battle in which cavalry was used as such and not as mounted infantry.

"The Battle of Komarów was a complete disaster for the Russian 1st Cavalry Army which sustained heavy casualties and barely avoided being totally surrounded. After that battle, the 1st Cavalry Army morale has collapsed and the army which was one the most feared of the Soviet troops was no longer considered an effective fighting force."

The reality is rather less colourful: I'm pretty sure it wasn't the biggest cavalry battle since 1813 and it definitely wasn't the last great cavalry battle2. In fact the Battle of Komarów was not a particularly decisive action at all – the war had already been won in the north by the time it was fought and the Konnaya Armiya was already in retreat in the south. The day's actions formed two distinct parts and the first was only an all-cavalry battle if one chooses to ignore the Polish infantry on the field (admittedly they did not play a major role). The result was nearly a complete disaster for the Soviets, but the Poles lack of coordination and failure to pursue allowed Budënniy to escape. It is true that the day spelled the end of the 1st Horse Army's campaign against the Poles.

The Poles

The Polish 1st Cavalry Division was to bear the brunt of the fighting around the Komarów–Cześniki area. Their 7th Brigade had spent the night in Komarów and the 6th Brigade slightly further east in Wolica Brzozowa and Zubowice. They were ordered to: "Attack in the direction of Wolica-Śniatycka, Cześniki, final objective Sitno."

1st Cavalry Division, Colonel Juliusz Rómmel
Captain Praglowski as operations staff officer:3

6th Cavalry Brigade, Colonel Dunnoski

1st "Krechowiecki" Ulans, 400 "riders", Colonel Dziewicki
12th "Podolian" Ulans, 120 "riders", Captain Komorowski
14th "Jazłowiec" Ulans, 400 "riders", Major Plisowski
2 Batteries, 8 Guns

7th Cavalry Brigade, Colonel Brezezowski

2nd "Rokitna" Light Horse, 200 "riders", Colonel Brezowska
8th "Prince Jozef Poniatowski" Ulans, 270 "riders", Captain Krzeczunowicz
9th "Malopolski" Ulans, 350 "riders", Major Dembinski
2 Batteries, 8 Guns
Supernumerary Cossack Battery, 3 Guns

Each regiment had a tachanka squadron, the 7th CB having about 20 such MG carts in total. I do not know if "riders" means only sabres, or includes any tachanka crews, but I suspect that it means only those men actually fighting with sabres, so tends to underplay the actual number of Polish combatants.

In order to travel quickly the cavalry division deliberately decreased its train, which meant that the artillery did not carry a great deal of ammunition. They expected to supply themselves from abandoned Soviet stocks (both sides using 3" Putilov guns).

The Polish 13th ID was at first to the south of the cavalry, spending the night in the Dąbrowa–Janówka area. It was ordered to: "Attack in the direction of Zamość, the march axis being the Tomaszów to Zamość road."

The 13th was part of the "Blue Army" commanded by General Stanislaw Haller.4 It was formed from the 43rd, 44th, 45th and 50th infantry regiments and included a lot of US volunteers. It appears to have been one of the larger Polish divisions, perhaps 6,800 bayonets, 230 sabres, 289 MGs and 35 guns5 and had a good reputation.

The Soviets

The Soviets were from the 1st Horse Army under Budënniy, with Stalin's other great mate Voroshilov as its Commissar.6 None of its infantry divisions seem to have been present. The cavalry unit strengths for the period are given as:7

Separate Cavalry Brigade

1,099 cavalry, 1,132 "eaters", 36 MGs, 2 guns (1,109 horses)

4th Cavalry Division

3,028 cavalry, 132 infantry, 4,936 "eaters", 98 MGs, 14 guns (5,605 horses)
KomDiv S.K. Timoshenko, Military Commissar V.I. Berlov
10th to 12th Cavalry Brigades (19th to 24th Cavalry Regiments)

6th Cavalry Division

4,663 cavalry, 4,914 "eaters", 60 MGs, 12 guns (5,008 horses)
KomDiv I.R. Apanasenko, Military Commissar Vinokurov
1st to 3rd Invincible Cavalry Brigades (31st to 36th Cavalry Regiments)

11th Cavalry Division

997 cavalry8, 638 infantry, 2,664 "eaters", 34 MGs, 11 guns (2,827 horses)
KomDiv F.M. Morosov, Military Commissar P.V. Bakhturov
29th to 31st Cavalry Brigades (57th to 62nd Cavalry Regiments)

The 14th Cavalry Division was part of the army, but never present at Cześniki. It had 1,900 sabres, 648 infantry, 2,713 "eaters" and 2,065 horses.

These strengths seem very high, considering that by mid-October the units could only muster 6,000 cavalry total and they had not fought in the interim (although desertion in those 6 weeks was likely extremely high). Soviet numbers usually cited all men in a unit, regardless of whether they were actually fighting men or not, and since they were on the retreat, were starting to suffer the effects of a long campaign and were somewhat disorganised, I feel using half the above strengths for the number of actual "sabres" is probably closer to the mark. Ammunition supply was a major problem. The infantry was almost certainly mounted on carts (locally requisitioned) to allow it to move at something like the speed of the cavalry.

The Soviets had realised that they were in danger of being caught in a trap and considered the Polish Sixth Army (Haller and Rómmel) to their south as their main concern. The Separate Brigade was with Budënniy in the Niewirków area but was very tired after fighting during the night, the 4th CD had been moved from the north to face the Polish cavalry and was around Cześniki, the 6th CD was outside Zamość, the 11th was facing the Polish 13th ID (linking the 4th and 6th) and the 14th was left trying to hold off the enemy to the north.

Soviet history has pumped up the Konnaya Armiya to be an all-conquering force – having Stalin's buddy as a commander was a pretty sure way to ensure any defects were omitted – and this tends to wash over into wargames rules. My reading of their combat record suggests that the Horse Army was a wonderful strategic weapon but that close quarter fighting was its weakest point. Therefore I would not rate its divisions as better than normal Red cavalry for this battle,9 though the Separate Brigade was decidedly better. This is not a dig at Budënniy's men but merely a reflection that table-top rules do not allow for its special characteristics – unrivaled mobility, both tactical and strategic, and a great resilience. Regardless of what one considers the normal Konnaya Armiya morale to be, the Polish campaign was not popular from the start with the troopers, and by Cześniki they had turned even more sour – hungry and realising that the campaign was going badly.10

The Events

Each version of the battle I have seen gives a different version of events, so this is a general outline only. I have reconstructed as best I can a map of the area as it was around 1920. (The small red squares are farm houses). This is a Polish military map from the same approximate period.

On the previous night the Polish artillery had shelled the Konnaya Armiya headquarters in Antoniówka, causing a great deal of destruction and forcing Budënniy to move his HQ to the Niewirków area.

On 31 August the orders to advance arrived late at the Polish Cavalry. So instead of starting at 0600, as ordered, they set out about 0800, with the 6th Brigade some distance back from the 7th. From the start their movements were poorly co-ordinated with the infantry division to their left.

Initially the 7th Brigade moved up to through Wolica-Śniatycka and into the open ground to the north where it fought a hard combat with a the 10th and 11th Brigades of the Soviet 4th Cavalry Division.11 In the meantime the Red 11th CD was facing a portion of the Polish infantry and artillery, who had moved up to face them in the Łabunki–Brudek area (while the bulk of the infantry attacked towards Zamość).

The advance of the Poles was halted when a brigade of the Soviet 11th CD left the Polish infantry and tried to work around the left flank of the Polish cavalry, while the Separate Brigade, starting from somewhere in the Niewirków area, tried to do the same to their right flank. This forced the Poles back to Wolica-Śniatycka, but by this time the Polish 6th Brigade was starting to arrive. The Separate Brigade ran into trouble (a surprise flank charge of the 12th Ulans or unexpected boggy ground are variously given as reasons) and retired hastily. This left the whole Polish cavalry division – and threatening Polish infantry – facing the 11th CD and a portion of the 4th, already fairly battered by the previous fighting. The Soviets retired along the whole front at about 1100, covered by their artillery and MGs firing from the forests around Cześniki, pursued rather listlessly by the Polish 6th CB – the 7th having been quite badly mauled (it had lost a lot of officers and later walked its horses to give them a rest).

When the Poles reached the ridge overlooking Cześniki they could see the baggage train of the Soviet Horse Army working its way eastwards along the Zamość road. Their appearance threw some panic into the Reds, especially as the Poles placed their artillery overlooking the town – though apparently it did not fire much, in order to conserve ammunition. If the Ulans had linked with their 10th Infantry Division advancing from the north, who were only a few kilometres away, the Konnaya Armiya would have been cut off. However to do this safely would have required the 13th ID to keep advancing and move on Cześniki to protect the flank of the cavalry, but Haller had achieved the relief of Zamość, moving up the main road as ordered, and did not advance to protect the neighbouring cavalry.

Some accounts include some other fighting in the area during the middle of the day, but it appears to have been mostly quite light. The Poles did not show a great deal of energy, presumably a combination of the weather, the lack of information and fatigue from the morning's battle: the Soviets were mainly concerned with avoiding encirclement. At some stage the Reds moved east, to start the general retirement away from the encircling Poles. It may be that Niewirków and Cześniki were defended during the afternoon (perhaps even the infantry otherwise unaccounted for) but since the towns weren't attacked it is not specifically mentioned.

Still with their orders to advance further north, the Polish Ulans set out late in the day even though the slowness of their advancing infantry left their left flank uncovered and they knew that the Soviet 6th CD was somewhere on that flank. That Soviet division, whose attack on Zamość had been repulsed, was threatened with having its retirement completely cut off. At 1800 Budënniy therefore attacked with it out of Cześniki, through the woods south of that town before turning eastwards to charge the 6th CB south-west of Majdan.12 The 7th CB, which was advancing northwards in the Niewirków area, turned around and came their rescue. The Soviets were beaten fairly quickly and left the field but there was no pursuit. At this point the infantry of the 13th ID also made an appearance, too late.13 I have drawn a map of this phase of the battle (taken from Moslard's account).

Although often portrayed as a great Polish victory, the battle had left the Konnaya Armiya intact, and they broke out of the Polish trap at Werbkowice. Certainly the Polish cavalry had performed very well in physical combat, but their lack of energetic manoeuvre throughout the day let them down. Possession of the field was of sentimental value only – the aim had been to trap the Soviet Horse Army and this was not achieved because the Poles were unable to maintain a pursuit.

The battle as a wargame

Although the battle as a whole, taking place over an enormous area and with units mostly not in contact, would be too difficult for most gamers to replay, certain portions would seem possible.

I have made notes on how I would do it in my scenario section: Komarów/Cześniki as a wargame.

Notes to the text