Review: First to Fight – The Polish War 1939, by Roger Moorhouse

Here is what I think of when I imagine the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: brave Polish cavalrymen with sabres drawn, charging against modern German tanks. Horses versus steel. The problem with that image, as Roger Moorhouse makes clear repeatedly in this book, is that it’s not true. It’s an invention of the German Nazi propaganda machine.

That’s not to say that the Germans didn’t start their campaign with huge advantages. They did. They had much more money and a bigger army that was more modern. And yet the Poles had a large army too, one that fought bravely for five weeks before capitulating.

And those cavalry charges? When they did happen, it often led to German defeat — because for German infantry, a mass of armed men charging at them on horseback was as terrifying in 1939 as it was for hundred of years before that. Moorhouse even finds an example of Polish cavalry clashing with German cavalry, because in 1939, both sides still relied on horses.

As in his previous book about the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Moorhouse in unsparing in his description of the role played by Stalin and the Red Army. He doesn’t even need to mention Katyn — its shadow hangs over the whole story.

The book is a story about two tragedies — the crushing of independent Poland between two totalitarian powers, and the obliteration of the real history of the country by both sides. The Soviets claimed that their intervention was merely to restore order once Poland had “collapsed”; they even lied to the Poles claiming that they would fight the Germans. And the Germans began lying about the Polish war even before it started, with their staged “atrocities” carried out by Poles against innocent Germans.

This is another excellent book by Moorhouse, and one hopes that next time someone mentions German tanks crushing Polish cavalry, this book will be cited to set the record straight.