Ludwig Podolański had celebrated his 18th birthday on the 2nd August 1939, he could not celebrate with his family, as his unit had been mobilised. By 24th August the 4th Engineers Battalion had been moved to their forward position and on the 1st September he was fighting in the defence of the country he loved. At 18 years old he witnessed horrors we can only imagine, his friends and comrades, some his own age dead, and as they slowly retreated back civilians of all ages killed. He was eventually captured on 19th September, became a prisoner of war, before escaping and rejoining the Polish Army in 1940 now in France.
While Roger Moorhouse does not use Ludwik Podolański, he uses the story of Poland and how they were the first to fight. Drawing out the stories of others, of places and of the Germans too. For far too long the story of the Second World War has been told from a Western perspective, and what actually happened in Poland is ignored. Often, we hear how good Blitzkrieg and the Polish used cavalry to attack the tanks. Moorhouse breaks a few taboos and sets the record straight. Yes, the Poles did use cavalry, but the Germans also happened to fear said cavalry. Blitzkrieg was not all conquering and got held up in places.
There is an excellent chapter ‘The Temerity to Resist’, where Moorhouse lays out what became not only the grim fate of the Polish forces but of the civilians also. Bydgoszcz became a by-word for “ethnic-cleansing”, which all happened away from the cameras and journalists.
This book also highlights how Germany orchestrated the war, using many techniques that are still used today, painting the Germans as innocent victims of Polish aggression, whereas the SS had volunteers trained how to use Polish weapons and a rudimentary grasp of Polish. How they staged the brave German customs officers, dead, forgetting to mention that they were actually concentration camp inmates.
When the German enablers, the Soviet Union, rolled into Eastern Poland on the 17th September, a new type of war was about to begin. The Germans made no distinction between combatants and civilians, and as Moorhouse states “Almost every town and village in Poland witnessed an atrocity in the autumn of 1939, against civilians and prisoners of war, Poles and Jews alike.”
It became clear that Hitler was raging a race war, and everyone already is aware their murderous attitude towards Jews, what people tend not to know is that Poles were murdered en masse. Poland lost six million citizens between 1939 and 1945, three million Jews and three million Poles.
What this book does is shine a light on what happened after the war, how West Germany suggested that the Wehrmacht was in the main honourable and the atrocities were down to the Waffen SS. Pity the evidence presented here shows that to be a lie. But also how Britain and France appeased Stalin at the end of the war, which added to the shame of not coming to Poland’s aid at the beginning of the war. As Moorhouse points out, many post-war historians have never looked in depth at the attack on Poland, as answers would be sought about the failure of the Polish guarantee and the pact of Marxist historians not to look at what the Soviets did in Poland.
While the Germans were conducting a race war in part of Poland, the Soviets were conducting a class war in Eastern Poland. In fact, some of the carriages that the Soviets used to transport Poles to the Kazak Steppe or murder at Katyn would later be used by the Nazis when they decided to exterminate Europe’s Jews on a factory scale.
This is an excellent history that shows you when two totalitarian regimes become allies all those who are unfortunately in their way that will be crushed. Like all children and grandchildren of Polish soldiers, I know my September war, the exile, the continued occupation of Poland between 1939 and 1989. Fifty years of occupation while the world watched and muttered warm words.
This is a story that has needed to be told for many years and thanks to Roger Moorhouse who has shone a light on a subject that has often been ignored. It also helps to shatter the old British lie that we “stood alone” no Britain did not, the only country that stood alone was Poland and you allowed that to happen.
Read this book, there is something to learn on every page.
Paul Diggett 5/5
First to Fight by Roger Moorhouse
Bodley Head 9781847924605 hbk Sep 2019