Military history


Red Cavalry

Crossing into Poland

Another form of cavalry warfare was fought out on the eastern flank of the First World War as it drew to a close, a warfare quite without honour or any other form of moral restraint. When the Imperial Russian army collapsed at the end of 1917, those contending for power in the deposed, soon to be murdered Tsar’s empire, and they included Red revolutionaries and White reactionaries, as well as subject nationalities — Baits, Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians — struggling for independence, were rapidly caught up in a ferocious civil war.

One of its bitterest subsidiaries was the campaign on Russia’s western frontier, where a newly re-established Poland, whose independence had been recognized by the victor nations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, attempted to pitch its eastern border on territory that the Russian Bolsheviks would not recognize as historically Polish. In the ensuing Russo-Polish War of 1920 — 1, large cavalry armies locked in combat, which swayed back and forth across the plains of Poland, White Russia and the Ukraine; at one point, the Polish army threatened Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, at another, the Red Army menaced Warsaw, Poland’s capital. The soldiers engaged were desperate men, on the Russian side veterans of the Imperial army, on the other the survivors from the national contingents enlisted in the Austrian, German and Russian armies who had been conscripted by Poland’s new leaders in the aftermath of those armies’ collapse. Brutalized by the First World War, further brutalized by the disintegration of civil order throughout their homelands, they murdered and pillaged wherever the war took them. Isaac Babel’s account of the Red cavalry’s invasion of Poland, though written as a short story, captures the horror of a war fought without respect for military law, or even for the rules of common humanity. There have been many other such wars in the twentieth century.


The Commander of the VI Division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest[ — Litovsk] to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.

Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; at noontide the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery. The Volyn’s peaceful stream moved away from us in sinuous curves and was lost in the pearly haze of the birch-groves; crawling between flowery slopes, it wound weary arms through a wilderness of hops. The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud-gorges. The standards of the sunset flew above our heads. Into the cool of evening dripped the smell of yesterday’s blood, of slaughtered horses. The blackened Zbruch roared, twisting itself into foamy knots at the falls. The bridges were down, and we waded across the river. On the waves rested a majestic moon. The horses were in to the cruppers, and the noisy torrent gurgled among hundreds of horses’ legs. Somebody sank, loudly defaming the Mother of God. The river was dotted with the square black patches of the wagons, and was full of confused sounds, of whistling and singing that rose above the gleaming hollows, the serpentine trails of the moon.

Far on in the night we reached Novograd. In the house where I was billeted I found a pregnant woman and two redhaired, scraggy-necked Jews. A third, huddled to the wall with his head covered up, was already asleep. In the room I was given I discovered turned-out wardrobes; scraps of breeze played in women’s fur coats on the floor, human filth, fragments of the occult crockery the Jews use only once a year, at Eastertime.

‘Clear this up,’ I said to the woman. ‘What a filthy way to live!’ The two Jews rose from their places and, hopping on their felt soles, cleared the mess from the floor. They skipped about noiselessly, monkey-fashion, like Japs in a circus act, their necks swelling and twisting. They put down for me a feather bed that had been disembowelled, and I lay down by the wall next to the third Jew, the one who was asleep. Fainthearted poverty closed in over my couch.

Silence overcame all. Only the moon, clasping in her blue hands her round, bright, carefree face, wandered like a vagrant outside the window.

I kneaded my numbed legs and, lying on the ripped-open mattress, fell asleep. And in my sleep the Commander of the VI Division appeared to me; he was pursuing the Brigade Commander on a heavy stallion, fired at him twice between the eyes. The bullets pierced the Brigade Commander’s head, and both his eyes dropped to the ground. ‘Why did you turn back the brigade?’ shouted Savitsky, the Divisional Commander, to the wounded man — and here I woke up, for the pregnant woman was groping over my face with her fingers.

‘Good sir,’ she said, ‘you’re calling out in your sleep and you’re tossing to and fro. I’ll make you a bed in another corner, for you’re pushing my father about.’

She raised her thin legs and rounded belly from the floor and removed the blanket from the sleeper. Lying on his back was an old man, a dead old man. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two; in his beard blue blood was clotted like a lump of lead.

‘Good sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking up the feather bed, ‘the Poles cut his throat, and he begging them: “Kill me in the yard so that my daughter shan’t see me die.” But they did as suited them. He passed away in this room, thinking of me. — And now I should wish to know,’ cried the woman with sudden and terrible violence, ‘I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?’

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