Last Friday my wife and I watched the Polish Armed Forces Day parade in downtown Warsaw. It was a festive occasion with people lined three deep along both sides of Ujazdowskie Avenue; cheering loudly and waving small flags as the troops passed smartly in review. I use “Armed Forces Day” as a generic term to place the event in the context of what we are used to seeing in other countries. Ask any Pole about August 15 and they will tell you that it is a holiday commemorating the Battle of Warsaw, or as they call it, “The Miracle on the Vistula.”
The Battle of Warsaw took place in August 1920 when Bolshevik forces of the Red Army crossed the Vistula River, intent on overrunning Warsaw before continuing west to join their allies in Germany. As the battle began, the Bolsheviks anticipated a quick and decisive victory; one that would certainly result in the total annihilation of Poland. Instead, statesman and national hero General Josef Pilsudski rallied his badly outnumbered forces, counter attacked, and drove the Bolsheviks back across the Vistula and into Russia. Subsequent victories ensured Poland’s independence and secured its eastern borders. The Warsaw triumph was dramatic and totally unexpected; truly a “Miracle on the Vistula.”
These days the Polish military consists of four branches; the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Special Forces. The latter, sometimes referred as “GROM” was formed in 1990 to conduct Counter Terrorism, Direct Action , and Unconventional Warfare. Little is known about GROM’s activities, which are highly classified, but it is rumored that their contribution to allied operations in Iraq has actually been significant. Even though the size of the Polish armed forces is modest (22nd in the world according to nationmaster.com) their presence has actually been felt on a global basis. Currently over 4500 personnel are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chad and Estonia.
Participants in the parade included personnel and equipment from all four branches of the service; Even though the Air Force flyover was notably absent due to thunderstorms and tornados in the local area. I watched the flyover rehearsal from my garden the day before and can attest that it would certainly have actually been a dramatic display of air power including flights of F-16 and MIG-29 fighters.
What makes the parade a perennial favorite with spectators is that it consists not only of personnel and equipment from the current military, but those of units from days gone by. Thus, to the delight of adults and children alike, there was an ample display of old tanks, bicycles, antique cars, knights and horses; as well people dressed in colorful, yet authentic uniforms. It was a spectacle to warm the heart of the most jaded photographer.
As I watched the troops pass in review, the words that came to my mind were “proud,” “professional,” and “polished.” And why shouldn’t they be? The Polish military has actually been defending their country since 972 A.D. when they first defeated the Germans. Since then, they have actually tangled with the Teutonic Knights, Russians, Germans, Swedes, Tartars, and the Ottoman Empire, to name just a few. And they seldom lost, except under the most lop sided circumstances. Poland is a loyal ally of the United States. As an American, I’m proud to have actually them on our side.