Military history


By the middle of August the military conversations in Moscow between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union had come to a virtual standstill—and for this the intransigence of the Poles was largely to blame. The Anglo–French military missions, it will be remembered, after taking a slow boat to Leningrad, had arrived in Moscow on August 11, exactly one week after the frustrated Mr. Strang had left the Russian capital, obviously relieved to be able to turn over to the generals and admirals the difficult and unpleasant job of trying to negotiate with the Russians. *

What now had to be worked out hurriedly was a military convention which would spell out in detail just how and where, and with what, Nazi armed force could be met. But as the confidential British minutes of the day-to-day military conversations and the reports of the British negotiators reveal29 the Anglo–French military team had been sent to Moscow to discuss not details but rather “general principles.” The Russians, however, insisted on getting down at once to hard, specific and—in the Allied view—awkward facts, and Voroshilov’s response to the Allied declaration of principles made at the first meeting by General Doumenc was that they were “too abstract and immaterial and do not oblige anyone to do anything … We are not gathered here,” he declared coolly, “to make abstract declarations, but to work out a complete military convention.”

The Soviet Marshal posed some very definite questions: Was there any treaty which defined what action Poland would take? How many British troops could reinforce the French Army on the outbreak of the war? What would Belgium do? The answers he got were not very reassuring. Doumenc said he had no knowledge of Polish plans. General Heywood answered that the British envisaged “a first contingent of sixteen divisions, ready for service in the early stages of a war, followed later by a second contingent of sixteen divisions.” Pressed by Voroshilov to reveal how many British troops there would be immediately on the outbreak of war, Heywood replied, “At the moment there are five regular divisions and one mechanized division in England.” These paltry figures came as an unpleasant surprise to the Russians, who were prepared, they said, to deploy 120 infantry divisions against an aggressor in the west at the very outbreak of hostilities.

As for Belgium, General Doumenc answered the Russian question by saying that “French troops cannot enter unless and until they are asked to, but France is ready to answer any call.”

This reply led to the crucial question before the military negotiators in Moscow and one which the British and French had been anxious to avoid. During the very first meeting and again at a critical session on August 14, Marshal Voroshilov insisted that the essential question was whether Poland was willing to permit Soviet troops to enter her territory to meet the Germans. If not, how could the Allies prevent the German Army from quickly overrunning Poland? Specifically—on the fourteenth—he asked, “Do the British and French general staffs think that the Red Army can move across Poland, and in particular through the Vilna gap and across Galicia in order to make contact with the enemy?”

This was the core of the matter. As Seeds wired London, the Russians had now

raised the fundamental problem, on which the military talks will succeed or fail and which has indeed been at the bottom of all our difficulties since the very beginning of the political conversations, namely, how to reach any useful agreement with the Soviet Union as long as this country’s neighbors maintain a sort of boycott which is only to be broken … when it is too late.

If the question came up—and how could it help coming up?—Admiral Drax had been instructed by the British government on how to handle it. The instructions, revealed in the confidential British papers, seem unbelievably naïve when read today. The “line of argument” he was to take in view of the refusal of Poland and Rumania “even to consider plans for possible co-operation” was:

An invasion of Poland and Rumania would greatly alter their outlook. Moreover, it would be greatly to Russia’s disadvantage that Germany should occupy a position right up to the Russian frontier … It is in Russia’s own interest therefore that she should have plans ready to help both Poland and Rumania should these countries be invaded.

If the Russians propose that the British and French governments should communicate to the Polish, Roumanian or Baltic States proposals involving co-operation with the Soviet Government or General Staff, the Delegation should not commit themselves but refer home.

And this is what they did.

At the August 14 session Voroshilov demanded “straightforward answers” to his questions. “Without an exact and unequivocal answer,” he said, “continuance of the military conversations would be useless … The Soviet Military Mission,” he added, “cannot recommend to its Government to take part in an enterprise so obviously doomed to failure.”

From Paris General Gamelin counseled General Doumenc to try to steer the Russians off the subject. But they were not to be put off.30

The meeting of August 14, as General Doumenc later reported, was dramatic. The British and French delegates were cornered and they knew it. They tried to evade the issue as best they could. Drax and Doumenc asserted they were sure the Poles and Rumanians would ask for Russian aid as soon as they were attacked. Doumenc was confident they would “implore the Marshal to support them.” Drax thought it was “inconceivable” that they should not ask for Soviet help. He added—not very diplomatically, it would seem—that “if they did not ask for help when necessary and allow themselves to be overrun, it may be expected that they would become German provinces.” This was the last thing the Russians wanted, for it meant the presence of the Nazi armies on the Soviet border, and Voroshilov made a special point of the Admiral’s unfortunate remark.

Finally, the uncomfortable Anglo–French representatives contended that Voroshilov had raised political questions which they were not competent to handle. Drax declared that since Poland was a sovereign state, its government would first have to sanction the entry of Russian troops. But since this was a political matter, it would have to be settled by the governments. He suggested that the Soviet government put its questions to the Polish government. The Russian delegation agreed that this was a political matter. But it insisted that the British and French governments must put the question to the Poles and pressure them to come to reason.

Were the Russians, in view of their dealings with the Germans at this moment, negotiating in good faith with the Franco–British military representatives? Or did they, as the British and French foreign offices, not to mention Admiral Drax, later concluded, insist on the right to deploy their troops through Poland merely to stall the talks until they saw whether they could make a deal with Hitler?*

In the beginning, the British and French confidential sources reveal, the Western Allies did think that the Soviet military delegation was negotiating in good faith—in fact, that it took its job much too seriously. On August 13, after two days of staff talks, Ambassador Seeds wired London that the Russian military chiefs seemed really “to be out for business.” As a result, Admiral Drax’s instructions to “go very slowly” were changed and on August 15 he was told by the British government to support Doumenc in bringing the military talks to a conclusion “as soon as possible.” His restrictions on confiding confidential military information to the Russians were partially lifted.

Unlike the British Admiral’s original instructions to stall, those given General Doumenc by Premier Daladier personally had been to try to conclude a military convention with Russia at the earliest possible moment. Despite British fears of leaks to the Germans, Doumenc on the second day of the meetings had confided to the Russians such “highly secret figures,” as he termed them, on the strength of the French Army that the Soviet members promised “to forget” them as soon as the meeting was concluded.

As late as August 17, after he and Drax had waited vainly for three days for instructions from their governments as to how to reply to the Polish question, General Doumenc telegraphed Paris: “The U.S.S.R. wants a military pact … She does not want us to give her a piece of paper without substantial undertakings. Marshal Voroshilov has stated that all problems … would be tackled without difficulty as soon as what he called the crucial question was settled.” Doumenc strongly urged Paris to get Warsaw to agree to accepting Russian help.

Contrary to a widespread belief at the time, not only in Moscow but in the Western capitals, that the British and French governments did nothing to induce the Poles to agree to Soviet troops meeting the Germans on Polish soil, it is clear from documents recently released that London and Paris went quite far—but not quite far enough. It is also clear that the Poles reacted with unbelievable stupidity.31

On August 18, after the first Anglo–French attempt was made in Warsaw to open the eyes of the Poles, Foreign Minister Beck told the French ambassador, Léon Noël, that the Russians were “of no military value,” and General Stachiewicz, Chief of the Polish General Staff, backed him up by declaring that he saw “no benefit to be gained by Red Army troops operating in Poland.”

The next day both the British and French ambassadors saw Beck again and urged him to agree to the Russian proposal. The Polish Foreign Minister stalled, but promised to give them a formal reply the next day. The Anglo–French démarche in Warsaw came as the result of a conversation earlier on the nineteenth in Paris between Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister, and the British chargé d’affaires. Somewhat to the Briton’s surprise, this archappeaser of Hitler was now quite aroused at the prospect of losing Russia as an ally because of Polish stubbornness.

It would be disastrous [Bonnet told him] if, in consequence of a Polish refusal, the Russian negotiations were to break down … It was an untenable position for the Poles to take up in refusing the only immediate efficacious help that could reach them in the event of a German attack. It would put the British and French Governments in an almost impossible position if we had to ask our respective countries to go to war in defense of Poland, which had refused this help.

If this were so—and there is no doubt that it was—why then did not the British and French governments at this crucial moment put the ultimate pressure on Warsaw and simply say that unless the Polish government agreed to accept Russian help Britain and France could see no use of themselves going to war to aid Poland? The formal Anglo–Polish mutual-security treaty had not yet been signed. Could Warsaw’s acceptance of Russian military backing not be made a condition of concluding that pact?*

In his talk with the British chargé in Paris on August 19, Bonnet suggested this, but the government in London frowned upon such a “maneuver,” as Downing Street called it. To such an extreme Chamberlain and Halifax would not go.

On the morning of August 20 the Polish Chief of Staff informed the British military attaché in Warsaw that “in no case would the admission of Soviet troops into Poland be agreed to.” And that evening Beck formally rejected the Anglo–French request. The same evening Halifax, through his ambassador in Warsaw, urged the Polish Foreign Minister to reconsider, emphasizing in strong terms that the Polish stand was “wrecking” the military talks in Moscow. But Beck was obdurate. “I do not admit,” he told the French ambassador, “that there can be any kind of discussion whatsoever concerning the use of part of our territory by foreign troops. We have not got a military agreement with the U.S.S.R. We do not want one.”

Desperate at such a display of blind stubbornness on the part of the Polish government, Premier Daladier, according to an account he gave to the French Constituent Assembly on July 18, 1946, took matters in his own hands. After once more appealing to the Poles to be realistic, he telegraphed General Doumenc on the morning of August 21 authorizing him to sign a military convention with Russia on the best terms he could get, with the provision, however, that it must be approved by the French government. The French ambassador, Paul-Emile Naggiar, was at the same time instructed by Bonnet, according to the latter’s subsequent account, to tell Molotov that France agreed “in principle” to the passage of Soviet troops through Poland if the Germans attacked.

But this was only an idle gesture, as long as the Poles had not agreed—and, as we know now, a futile gesture in view of the state of Russo–German dealings. Doumenc did not receive Daladier’s telegram until late in the evening of August 21. When he brought it to the attention of Voroshilov on the evening of the next day—the eve of Ribbentrop’s departure for Moscow—the Soviet Marshal was highly skeptical. He demanded to see the French General’s authorization for saying—as Doumenc had—that the French government had empowered him to sign a military pact permitting the passage of Russian troops through Poland. Doumenc, obviously, declined. Voroshilov next wanted to know what the British response was and whether the consent of Poland had been obtained. These were embarrassing questions and Doumenc merely answered that he had no information.

But neither the questions nor the answers had by this time any reality. They were being put too late. Ribbentrop was already on his way to Moscow. The trip had been announced publicly the night before, and also its purpose: to conclude a nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Voroshilov, who seems to have developed a genuine liking for the French General, tried gently to let him know that their contacts were about to end.

I fear one thing [Voroshilov said]. The French and English sides have allowed the political and military discussions to drag on too long. That is why we must not exclude the possibility, during this time, of certain political events.*

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