The 11th of November, 1918

The 11th of November is a special day for Poles, celebrated as the Independence Day meaning the return to the map of sovereign European states after 123 years of foreign rule. Naturally, regaining independence is not an event that could be discussed in terms of one specific date in calendar but rather a long and complex process. This special date, however, marks a series of important events that gave the day a symbolic meaning: the Compiegne armistice is signed, ending long and bloody World War I. Most of German troops deployed in Warsaw since August 5, 1915, have been disarmed; Jozef Pi³sudski, the architect and leader of Legions, the most esteemed politician at that time, holds talks on taking over power and re-creating the Polish state 'from the scrap'.

The Polish State was wiped out of Europe's map after the Third Partition in 1795. The Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) divided the Polish Kingdom among its three powerful neighbours, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. The opportunities for regaining independence emerged only in the end of the World War I when the three conquerors were defeated. The first to collapse was Russia, unprepared to conducting a prolonged war. The abdication of Emperor Nicholas II in February 1917 and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November of the same year lead to the ultimate disintegration of that country's war-machine followed by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) with Germany. Also the second conqueror, Austria, turned out to be incapable of carrying on the war and, with defeats becoming increasingly severe, its former satellite countries started to get independence. The third neighbour, Germany, fought longest.

When independence finally came in 1918, it was not only the result of external circumstances, i.e. dissolution of the Russian, German, and Austrian empires at the end of World War I. An equally important factor was an independence movement both within the divided country and abroad. The dominant political figure in this movement became Jozef Pilsudski. On August 6, 1914, several days after breakout of the World War I, his legionnaires set out from Krakow and crossed the Austrian-Russian border. Pilsudski planned to incite an uprising in the Russian sector of Poland. The plan drew from the traditions of the 1863 January Uprising. Unfortunately, the realities of 1914 were different and the plan was a failure. However, Pilsudski's effort was not completely in vain since the company became the core of Legions (initially allied with Austria), a foundation of the future Polish Armed Forces.

Since the Polish leaders of that time were divided over the means to employ to regain independence, an alternative to Pilsudski’s approach was a pro-Russian and anti-German orientation. The most notable representative of the political right was Roman Dmowski who headed the National Democracy movement that initiated establishment of a National Committee (1914) with an aim of forming - in alliance with Russia - an army capable of defeating Germans. However, because of the hatred felt by Poles to Russia, caused by repressions that followed the 1830, 1863, and 1905 uprisings, Dmowski's plans failed. He and other leaders of the National Democracy migrated to Russia and then to Lausanne where in August 1917 they established the Polish National Committee.

Soon, the organisation moved to Paris. The Polish National Committee had the ambitions to form a provisional Polish government, it represented Poland to the Allies, formed the Polish Armed Forces in France under command of General Jozef Haller, offered assistance to Poles residing in the Western countries and contributed to advancing the Polish case in the West.

Since the very beginning of the World War I, the three Poland's conquerors tried to buy a sanction for their case from Poles. On August 7 and 8, 1914, Germans distributed brochures with a proclamation addressed to Poles, assuring them of 'German friendship' and calling for joint action against Russia. On August 9, Austrians issued similar declaration. On August 14, the Russian commander-in-chief, Prince Nicholas Nicholaevich issued a manifesto promising unification of Poland under the rule of the Russian emperor. All these declarations were basically aimed at one goal: recruiting soldiers while the political offers were very dim, being rather promises with no real meaning. The Polish case drew international attention again in 1916 when the Allied states started to gain advantage on the Central Powers.

Forced by the situation, seeking to attract Polish recruits, the emperors of Austria and Germany proclaimed formation of "an independent state from the Polish territories recovered from under the Russian rule, with hereditary constitutional monarchy " on November 5, 1916. However, the manifest did not make specific either the issue of borders, Polish army, or foreign policy, and did not answer the question: who would be the king? Instead, several days later, volunteers were called for joining a Polish army.

Several weeks later, on January 22, 1917, U.S. President Thomas Woodrow Wilson acknowledged as a matter of fact 'the emergence of Poland united, independent, and sovereign'.

The Poland's right to independence was also acknowledged after the February revolution in Russia in the proclamation by Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and the Provisional Government. In December 1916, the German and Austrian authorities established a Provisional Council of State. It was expected to co-operate with occupying forces in 'developing further state administration facilities'. However, the conquerors did not hurry with rebuilding an independent Polish state and establishing a Polish army under Polish commanders. In these circumstances, Pilsudski banned the legionnaires from giving an oath of allegiance while recruitment to the so-called 'Polnische Wermaht'. For this reason he and other legionnaires were interned in Magdeburg prison on July 22, 1917.

Meanwhile, Pilsudski's fame and prestige have reached the peak. The legend surrounding Pilsudski allowed him to take over the government later in November 1918 with consent of the majority of the Polish society. Another attempt to fill the political vacuum by the occupying powers was establishing of the Regency Council on October 15, 1917, composed of Warsaw Archbishop, Aleksander Kakowski; Prince Zdzislaw Lubomirski; and landed proprietor, Jozef Ostrowski. The Regents had their office in the Warsaw Royal Castle where a Polish flag was hang up. The Council was intended as a foundation of the future Polish government.

A major support for the re-born Polish State was Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, a peace program announced by the U.S. President before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 8, 1918. The entire point 13 was devoted to Poland, proposing establishment of an independent Polish state that incorporates Polish native land inhabited by indisputably Polish population, enjoys free and secure access to the sea, the political and territorial integrity of which should be guaranteed under an international treaty.

Since Fall of 1918, the process of decay of the occupying States's administration on the Polish territories was proceeding rapidly. The Regency Council was forming Polish army and maintained the Polish Military Organisation counting approximately 20 thousand men. The occupying states were preparing to withdrawal. In such circumstances, the first centres of Polish government started to emerge in several locations, such as Polish Liquidation Commission under leadership of Colonel Boleslaw Roja in Krakow (October 28, 1918) aiming to take over the administration from Austria; the National Council of Cieszyn Duchy (October 19); or the Provisional People's Government of the Polish Republic in Lublin (November 7) led by Ignacy Daszynski as the Prime Minister. The government issued a Proclamation, a very revolutionary document, envisaging radical reforms, i.e. 8 hour work day.

On November 10, Pilsudski, the only man at that time able to take over the government, returned to Warsaw by a special train. He was coming back from Magdeburg prison where he had spent 16 months. He was welcomed at the railway station by Regent Lubomirski and the Commander of the Polish Military Organisation, Adam Koc, but he wanted to meet with representatives of political parties first to get an update of the situation. The return of the Commander made Warsaw enthusiastic; "Warsaw Courier" published a special addition; the house where Pilsudski stopped was surrounded by cheering crowds. On the following day, the last German garrison was disarmed and the capital was free. On November 11, the Regency Council turned the military power to Pilsudski. Three days later, the Council dissolved and Pilsudski were left with all prerogatives. On November 16, the Allied states received a message signed by Pilsudski: "As the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, I wish to notify the belligerent and neutral governments and nations of the existence of an Independent Polish State incorporating all territories of the united Poland". The 11th of November marked a beginning of a difficult phase of re-establishing the state from the three separate pieces with their unique characteristics.

In January 1919, elections to the Legislative Parliament were held and on February 10, the Head of State, Jozef Pilsudski, opened the first session with the words: "The Polish Parliament will again be the sole sovereign and governor in its home".

The 11th of November was celebrated in the inter-war Poland as a national holiday. After the World War II, under communist regime, the holiday was repudiated. In line with the doctrine, the communist governments put an emphasis on the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the decisive factor in regaining independence by Poland. The first serious historical publications on Jozef Pilsudski and his contribution to the re-emergence of the Polish state started to appear only in the 1970-ties. In the end of the 1980-ties, people opposed to the communist system started to lay flowers on the Unknown Soldier Tomb on the 11th of November 11. In 1989, the 11th of November was re-established as the Independence Day.

- Polish Information Agency

"The Polish State has arisen by the will of the whole Nation"
- Jozef Pilsudski

A story for...

Two dear little ones are sitting by me and begging for a tale. So I will tell the ladies and gentlemen a tale for children and grown-ups alike. "As much happiness as in a dream, as much truth as in a song." So one man wrote, and we who read sometimes believe him and sometimes not. But today I tell you truly that there are charms and spells, so long as we are happy. Once I saw a crowd of children bending over something on the ground. Wondering what they could find to look at in a dirty courtyard, I espied a little frog. Filthy and frightened the frog hopped clumsily on its long legs and glared at the children with its goggle eyes.

"What are you gazing at?" I asked the little ones. One lad answered that he had read of a frog which was jumping about in the dirt, but suddenly by charms and spells, there came a great golden chariot drawn by six big horses. Six big lackeys held their bridles, and from the chariot ladies alighted dressed too gorgeously for words. They took a box from the chariot, and – oh! Charms and spells! – the frog turned suddenly into a magic maiden, with lovely eyes and countenance.

The maiden looked at herself and marvelled. For her robes were gleaming with pearly-white and rose colour shot with gold and silver. Snow-white stockings covered her legs, which had been red with gold, but now were so warm that they gleamed like white marble through the silk. The dirty frog, transformed into a charming maiden took her place in the chariot and drove to a great white palace. The parquet mirrored her beauty, and maidens yellow with envy, whispered that she was an evil changeling. So there are charms and spells when a maiden is happy. They say that on earth there are no such tales.

I do not know if fairy-tales are true, but it is true that there are charms and spells when one is happy. I have heard with my own ears, I have seen with my own eyes, I have touched with my own fingers such charms and spells that of them I fear to speak. None of us, indeed, may have seen the dear child who was picking strawberries and suddenly espied a forest where, instead of branches, the trees grew cakes, ready to break off and eat. Who has seen the child who, as he hopped, found himself in an enchanted garden where magic birds chirped joyously between themselves? Or the dear girl in that garden where big juicy pears came of their own accord to her lips, and red apples dropped into her pocket? Such, I believe, exist, and I will tell you about the wonder of wonders that I have touched and seen.

On a bright November day, not many years ago, along a road drowned everywhere in mud, a short grey serpent of lads big and small pressed forward. Like the clumsy frog, they wearily stumbled on, often stamping with frozen legs on the grey and marshy track. Poor fellows! They were hunched up and trembling with cold, their eyes dimmed by a toilsome night and many toilsome days. Their feet, soaked through their worn-out, mud-caked shoes, stumbled over the ground, lingering as though they clung to it for a moment’s rest. On the eleventh of November, they found themselves somewhere under the walls of Krakow. Before them rode another lad – rode on a young chestnut with a white-starred head.

The chestnut, daughter of the meadows, went mincingly into the town whence came those ragged lads, who now, as dirty as the earth itself, marched in. They had marched the whole night long, with death always staring them in the face. They had marched through the gate of death, through its strait and stifling portal. Like the frog, they longed to stumble into safety – safety within the walls of Krakow. But the country chestnut with the hairless head gazed on the city with disgust. When she reached the first houses, a scarecrow lorry came along, groaning and hissing, and she jibbed in terror. The lad upon her back caressed her and began to tell her of charms and spells. "Fear not, chestnut," he murmured, "you are going into the capital, where thousands will gaze upon your lovely neck and golden hair." For in Krakow there are charms and spells when a lad is happy, whether they be in the twin-towered church, or in the mighty bell, or in the crypt where kings for ever sleep, or in the hero’s or the poet’s tomb.

Not many years passed by, and the same chestnut gazed upon the same city on a new eleventh of November. Charm on charm and spell on spell – where were the grey and dirty lads, and where their leader? The same leader, but see how he has changed! On his breast as many stars as there are countries in the world. Trumpets and drums sounded as the infantry, in their steel helmets, marched firmly by, and the heavy guns made the windows rattle as they passed. An enchanted world, transformed!

But my time is up, and I must close with a wish for the next eleventh of November. Even if the month brings storms which roar in the chimney and shriek of death and terror, I know that restoration of the body and the soul’s rebirth give strength and beauty. In them we find an inward warmth which baffles the damp and poison. And may you smile then as on the magic eleventh of November in 1918! May the autumn sun burn your cheeks and a gentle breeze cool them, and may we laugh together from happiness at being great-souled and reborn! This, men and women and dear children, I wish you all.

- Marshal Jozef Pilsudski

Radio broadcast to the Polish people,
November 11th 1926

"let all - all our enemies - know and remember what the Pole is able to do"...


As the nation by its political maturity and strength of organization and self help exhibited its remarkable fortitude and virility, so the Legions by their heroism and devotion to the cause of independence revealed once more Poland's readiness and determination to reach her cherished goal.

Though equipped and provided less adequately than the soldiers of other armies, they were fighting under the banner of the White Eagle, in Polish uniforms and under Polish command, and they bore cheerfully all the hardships of the Eastern campaigns. Their deeds have brought back all the martial glory of old Poland - the conqueror of Moscow, the challenger of mighty Sweden and the saviour of Vienna when the hosts of the Crescent threatened Christendom. Whether the snow-capped peaks of the Carpathians or on the sun-scorched plains of Bessarabia, the Legions have fought with such bravery as only men dedicated to a great ideal can fight. Snubbed at first by the Germans because of the improvised character of their army, they soon won respect and earned the admiration of the highest military commanders.

Because of their bravery, the Poles were often ordered to the most dangerous positions and though exposed to murderous fire they never faltered. The evident resolve on the part of the general staffs of the Teutonic armies never to mention the accomplishments of the Legions in the daily war bulletins had at times to be abandoned in view of the stupendous feats performed, and on several occasions "Polish days" were proclaimed claimed by the Austrian supreme command.

One such day was June 13, 1915. In the recently published diary of Berthold Merwin an officer of the Polish Legions, one can read the description of a Polish cavalry charge, which caused this special mention:

"Not only we who lived through it but all Poland will remember this day of glory and sorrow. A century ago Somo-Sierra came to be written in letters of gold on the pages of the history of Polish arms, and now our children will learn the of this day and our bards will sing of the charge upon the heights of Rokitna led by Captain Zbigniew Dunin-Wonsowicz.

“At dawn our infantry carried an assault upon the heights They reached the outskirts of the village and stopped. As long as the Russian infantry with a large umber of machine guns and cannons, well hidden in their trenches, occupied the crest of the hill, all attacks were doomed to drown in blood.

"Then the cavalry-was ordered to charge the hill. The squadron fell into line. The horses whinnied, on them our daring boys... and they rode through the fields, four platoons of them. Within three kilometers of the enemy they formed a line, and the trot gave way to a gallop, faster and, wilder and wilder Like a hurricane they swept up hill-behind them a cloud, before them the glitter of drawn swords. The enemy line gained, the first empty trenches taken at a leap, and the second line was reached.

"Suddenly the thunder of the Muscovite guns shook the air - the horrible noise of machine gun and the shrapnel. But Wonsowicz with his uhlans never faltered. Here one has fallen, here a horse is running wild without a rider - here another is rearing in fright and somebody has slid into a rampart - and here are some trampled in the wild onrush of cavalry. And still like a scythe the machine guns mowed down the ranks and the shrapnel burst overhead. But the second trench is taken and on they sweep. More riderless horses. The glittering, charging wave of glory is over the works and then gone. The volleys quiet down, the rattling of the machine guns stops and the grey clouds of shrapnel smoke drift lightly in the air. A terrible moment of dead silence, our hearts beating as if trying to tear through our breasts-something grips us by the throat, strangling and choking. I looked at my fellow officers through a mist and did not recognize their eyes.

"Is it an apparition or a reality.

"Down the village road tide they who went through this Gehenna, bringing with them their, dead, and wounded.

"And the road lay open for the infantry!

Two days later at the funeral exercises of those, who perished in the charge of Rokitna a surviving member of the squadron, swathed in bandages, made, the following speech:

"Here are our comrades... Sent to death, they rode with a full realization of their fate, yet none of them turned back his horse. They renewed the traditions of the Polish uhlan of a century ago. They met with a heroic death. Seeing this, let all - all our enemies - know and remember what the Pole is able to do. Let us hope that this blood is not shed in vain, that it will turn the scale, already overbalanced with so many victims, and that thanks to them our national ideals will be realized."

Independence Day 2000...

Independence Day 1999...

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