In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Polish Armed Forces, 1918-present

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Russian Organized Polish People’s Army
  • Post-Communist Polish Armed Forces

Military History Polish Armed Forces, 1918-present
Michael Alfred Peszke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0150


The military history of Poland in the 20th century reflects the country’s experiences, both the highs and the lows. In 1918 seemingly out of nowhere Poland’s military rose like a phoenix from the pyre of the defeat of the two remaining partitioning powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Imperial Russia had already been driven out of pre-partitioned lands by the Germans and had dropped out of the war following the Russian Revolution. In less than two years, the nascent Polish army successfully defended Polish sovereignty and was victorious over the Soviet Union in 1920. However, in September 1939, the Polish army suffered a cataclysmic defeat at the hands of its two neighbors, Germany and Soviet Russia. The Polish constitutional government continued in exile as a coalition cabinet under Prime Minister general Władysław Sikorski. Financial and legal agreements with France and the United Kingdom enabled the creation of an ever-growing armed force in exile. In addition, an underground state was formed in occupied Poland with allegiance to the Polish government in exile. The military wing was called the Polish Home Army, or Armia Krajowa (AK). In late 1943 the Soviet government began its long-term plans to subjugate Poland after the war. One of the first steps was the creation of a so-called Polish army officered by Russians. The conclusion of World War II left Poland under Soviet occupation. The Polish army became an integral member army of the Warsaw Pact. All senior posts were occupied by Soviet officers, and Marshal Konstanty Rokossowski became the overall commander. After the death of Stalin in 1952 and the internal changes in Warsaw in 1956, Rokossowski was sent back to the Soviet Union, and the country secured some leeway in internal policies. During the Soviet era the Polish People’s Army distinguished itself, most especially, in serving in more than seventy United Nations peacekeeping operations. In 1989 the Soviet monolith began to crumble and the Polish Communist government was forced to accede to the popular Solidarity Union movement, which demanded free elections. Shortly thereafter the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. The Polish army, in looking back to many old traditions that had been eradicated by the Communists, was now strictly under the control of civilians in a nation with a freely elected government. Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999. With freedom once again achieved, no constraints were placed on publishing, except for those based on economic considerations. The military bibliography of Poland written in Polish is rich and of a high scholarly level, albeit the works published during the Communist regime (1945–1989) maintain discretion in treating the Soviet Union. English-language works, if written by non-Poles, suffer from insufficient research into Polish archives. The exceptions are the studies on the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, which are distinguished by a high quality of research and excellent objective analysis but which were all published outside of Poland, though they have now been translated and are available to the Polish reader. To accommodate the English-language reader an attempt has been made in this entry to include as many English-language studies as possible.

Historical Background

During the more than one hundred years when Poland was partitioned, Poles on more than one occasion resorted to open revolt. The dream of independence was nourished by many pre-partition military successes, including the great victories over the Swedes and Turks. These traditions were treasured. The selection of monographs illustrates the uniforms of the Polish royal armies during that time. All are in English and reasonably accessible.

  • Brzezinski, Richard. Polish Armies, 1569–1696. 2 vols. Men-at Arms 184. London: Osprey, 1987.

    This volume continues the story of the Polish royal armies to the event that marked the final acme of Polish arms, the relief of Vienna in 1683.

  • Brzezinski, Richard. Polish Winged Hussar, 1576–1775. Oxford: Osprey, 2006.

    The iconic and fabled Polish heavy cavalry were famous for the wings that were attached either to the back of the saddle or to the back of the armor. The hussar wings became so much a part of Polish tradition that in 1936, when the Polish air force was outfitted with its own steel blue uniform, the crowned eagle on the cap was surrounded by the hussar stylized wings.

  • Pawly, Ronald. Napoleon’s Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard. Men-at-Arms 440. Oxford: Opsrey, 2007.

    Patriotic Poles flocked to Napoleon, since he was fighting Poland’s oppressors and offered the hope that an independent Poland would be restored. In the end, only the Duchy of Warsaw was formed.

  • Rospond, Vincent W. Polish Armies of the Partitions, 1770–1794. Men-at-Arms 485. Oxford: Osprey, 2013.

    Uniforms of the final years of the kingdom of Poland, including the uniforms of the Kościuszko Revolt.

  • Sarnecki, Witold, and Nicolle David. Medieval Polish Armies, 966–1500. Men-at-Arms 445. Oxford: Osprey, 2008.

    Includes many black-and-white photographs and colored prints of the beginning of the royal armies of Poland.

  • Wandycz, Piotr S. The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795–1918. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974.

    Wandycz is the premier historian of Polish diplomacy, and this is the eminent study of that era of Polish history. This monograph is suitable for most interested readers, from the intrigued beginner to the graduate student.

  • Żygulski, Zdzisław, Jr. Odsiecz Wiedeńska/ Relief of Vienna, 1683. Krakόw, Poland: Krajowa Agancja Wydawnicza, 1988.

    A bilingual album commemorating the anniversary of the last great Polish victory. Magnificently illustrated.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.