THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Part 3 of 4 – STRUGGLES for the VILNIUS REGION
Map of the (Polish) Republic of Central Lithuania (in green).
Su pagarbe Vincas Karnila, Associate editor
Polish chief of state Jozef Pilsudski ordered his subordinate, General Lucjan Zeligowski, to stage a mutiny with his 1st Lithuanian–Belarusian Division (16 battalions with 14,000 soldiers) in Lida and capture Vilnius in fait accompli.
The rebellion had two main goals, capture Vilnius and preserve Polish international reputation. The League of Nations was mediating other Polish disputes, notably over the Free City of Danzig and Upper Silesia, and direct aggression against Lithuania could have hampered Polish bargaining positions. While the Polish side officially stated Żeligowski to be a deserter and did not support him, Poland provided logistic support, including munitions and food rations, to his units. Żeligowski also received reinforcements when, according to the official version, the mutiny spread further among the Polish troops. His initial attack was secured on both sides by two Polish Armies.
The Żeligowski's Mutiny, in planning since mid-September, began in the early morning on October 8, 1920, just few hours after the signing of the Suwałki Agreement. A provisional agreement was made in the Polish–Soviet War, which freed up Polish units for the attack on Lithuania. As part of the rouse, Żeligowski wrote a note to Polish command announcing his mutiny and expressing his disappointment with the Suwałki Agreement. He claimed that his troops marched to defend the right of self-determination of the local Polish population.
CAPTURE of VILNIUS and other MILITARY ATTACKS
Lithuanians were not prepared for the assault. They had only two battalions, stationed near Jašiūnai and Rūdninkai along the Merkys River, shielding the city from Poland’s troops. Their main forces were still in the Suwałki Region and to the west from Druskininkai and Varėna. Without the railway, Lithuanian units could not be easily redeployed to protect Vilnius. After it became clear that Żeligowski would not stop in Vilnius, Commander of the Lithuanian Army Silvestras Žukauskas, who took the position only on October 6, ordered to evacuate the city in the afternoon on October 8.
They left the city's administration to Entente official Constantin Reboul. Żeligowski entered Vilnius the following evening. He did not recognize Reboul's authority and Entente officials left the city in protest. On October 12, Żeligowski proclaimed the independence of the (Polish) Republic of Central Lithuania, with Vilnius as its capital. The name was inline with Piłsudski's vision of historical Lithuania, divided into three cantons: Lithuanian-inhabited Western Lithuania with its capital in Kaunas, Polish-inhabited Central Lithuania with its capital in Vilnius, and Belarusian-inhabited Eastern Lithuania with its capital in Minsk. Further developments of other cantons was prevented by the Polish National Democracy, a party opposed to Piłsudski's federalist ideas.
Żeligowski's units continued to advance. Territories east of the city were taken without resistance while Lithuanians defended in the west. Żeligowski took Švenčionys and Rūdiškės on October 10, Nemenčinė on October 11, Lentvaris on October 13 and Rykantai on October 15. The front somewhat stabilized on the southern (left) side of the Neris River, but fighting continued on the northern (right) side of Neris. When Polish cavalry maneuvered towards Riešė, it learned from the local population the location of the command of the Lithuanian 1st Riflemen Regiment. On October 21, the cavalry raided the village and took the entire command prisoners. Left without their commanders, the Lithuanians retreated and Poles took Maišiagala and Paberšė. On October 26, another cavalry raid captured Dubingiai, Giedraičiai, Želva and threatened Ukmergė. However, Lithuanians counterattacked and took back Želva on October 30 and Giedraičiai on November 1. For a while the front stabilized.
On November 17, the mutineers began a major attack. They planned to capture Kaunas, thus threatening Lithuanian independence, by encircling the city from north through Širvintos-Ukmergė-Jonava and Giedraičiai –Kavarskas–Kėdainiai. Żeligowski's forces were about three times larger, 15 Polish battalions against 5 Lithuanian battalions. One cavalry brigade managed to break through the Lithuanian defense lines near Dubingiai, reached Kavarskas, and continued towards Kėdainiai. However, Lithuanians were successful in stopping an attack towards Ukmergė near Širvintos on November 19. About 200 Lithuanians maneuvered through swaps to the rear of three Polish battalions. Attacked from front and rear, some 200 Poles were taken prisoners while others retreated. Lithuanians continued to attack and captured Giedraičiai on November 21. On the same day a ceasefire was signed under pressure from the League of Nations. The Polish cavalry brigade, pushed from Kėdainiai and cut off from its main forces, retreated through Ramygala–Troškūnai–Andrioniškis–Lėliūnai and rejoined other Żeligowski units on November 24. These were the last military movements in the Polish–Lithuanian conflict.
MEDIATION and DIPLOMATIC MEASURES
On October 11, 1920, Lithuanian envoy in Paris Oscar Milosz asked the League of Nations to intervene in the renewed conflict with Poland. On October 14, Chairman of the League Léon Bourgeois issued a note condemning the aggression and asking Polish units to retreat. Politicians in London even considered expelling Poland from the League.
When the League heard both arguments on October 26–28, Polish envoy Szymon Askenazy claimed that there was no conflict between Poland and Lithuania to mediate. He maintained that the old conflict ended with signing ceasefires with Lithuania on October 7 and with Soviet Russia on October 12 and the new conflict was caused by Żeligowski, who acted without approval from the Polish command, but with moral support of the entire Polish nation. Lithuanian envoy Augustinas Voldemaras argued that Poland orchestrated the mutiny and demanded strict sanctions against Poland. The League refused to validate Żeligowski's action. It suggested to hold a referendum vote in the contested areas. On November 6 and 7, both sides agreed and Lithuanians began preparatory work.
On November 19, Żeligowski proposed the Control Commission, led by Chardigny, to cease hostilities. Lithuanians agreed and a ceasefire was signed on November 21. Later this episode was criticized by Lithuanian commentators as at the time the Lithuanian Army had initiative in the front and had a chance of marching on Vilnius. However, the Lithuanians trusted the League of Nations would resolve the dispute in their favor and were also afraid that in the case of their attack on Vilnius regular Polish forces would arrive to reinforce Żeligowski's units.
Negotiations for a more permanent armistice, under mediation of the Control Commission, began on November 27 in Kaunas. Lithuania did not agree to negotiate directly with Żeligowski and thus legitimizing his actions therefore, Poland stepped in as a mediator. Lithuania agreed as it hoped to put the talks back into the context of the Suwałki Agreement. Poles rejected any withdrawal of Żeligowski's forces. No agreement could be reached regarding a demarcation line and on November 29, 1920, it was agreed only to cease hostilities on November 30, to entrust the Control Commission with establishment of a 6 km (3.7 mi) wide neutral zone and to exchange prisoners. This neutral zone existed until February 1923.
In part 4 of 4 - The Aftermath
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