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The Vovchukhiv Offensive-a little-known military operation by the Galician Army in the Polish-Ukrainian War 1918-1919

Inauguration of the monument to the Heroes of the Vovchukhiv Offensive in the village of Vovchukhy, Horodok Raion, Lviv Oblast. Courtesy photo: press Service of Lviv Regional Administration
The Vovchukhiv Offensive-a little-known military operation by the Galician Army in the Polish-Ukrainian War 1918-1919
Article by: Halyna Tereshchuk
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
A monument to the Heroes of the Vovchukhiv Offensive was recently unveiled in the village of Vovchukhy, Horodok Raion, Lviv Oblast. One of the most successful offensive operations of the Ukrainian Galician Army took place in this region from February 17 to March 18, 1919 during the Polish-Ukrainian War (1918–1919). At that time, Ukrainians relied on their own strength, their own forces, their own army in order to liberate Lviv and Peremyshl (today’s Przemysl, Poland) and live in their own country, but international political schemes prevented these plans from being fulfilled.

The idea of erecting a monument to commemorate the soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army (UGA) was born almost two years ago.

Today, not many people know about this page of Ukrainian history. Historians say that the Vovchukhiv Offensive was carefully planned and developed by the Ukrainian Supreme Command. The main purpose was to liberate Lviv from Polish troops, seize the strategic railway line Lviv- Przemysl, and take Przemysl.

Archival sources indicate that in January 1919 the Galician Army counted over 43,000 soldiers, and there were about 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers deployed along the Lviv-Przemysl railway line. Ukrainian historians claim that twice during the offensive, the Ukrainian Army could have liberated Lviv, but the actual attack was halted by the intervention of the Entente Powers (Britain, France, Russia), which demanded an end to the war.

On February 14, 1919, Ukrainian forces began another assault on Lviv. On February 17, 1919, the Ukrainian army began shelling the positions of the Polish army around the village of Vovchukhy. The fighting lasted 30 days.

However, a French-led mission from the Entente arrived at the Ukrainian headquarters in February 22 and demanded that the Ukrainian Army cease hostilities under threat of breaking all diplomatic ties between the Entente and the Ukrainian government. On February 25, the Ukrainian military suspended its offensive. The Barthélemy Mission proposed a demarcation line along the Buh River, leaving almost 70% of the East Galician territory to Ukrainians, and Lviv with the Drohobych-Boryslav oil basin to Poland.

Inter-allied diplomatic mission to Poland in Lviv, February 1919. First row from the left: Stanisław Wańkowicz, Robert Howard Lord, General Joseph Barthélemy, General Tadeusz Rozwadowski, General Adrian Carton de Wiart and Major Giuseppe Stabile
Inter-allied diplomatic mission to Poland in Lviv, February 1919. First row from the left: Stanisław Wańkowicz, Robert Howard Lord, General Joseph Barthélemy, General Tadeusz Rozwadowski, General Adrian Carton de Wiart and Major Giuseppe Stabile

The proposal was accepted by the Poles, but the Ukrainian government believed that the agreement excessively favoured Poland. The Ukrainian forces resumed their offensive on March 4. However, during the time of the cease-fire, thanks to the Entente Powers, the Poles had been able to organize a relief force of 8,000-10,000 troops, which reached Przemysl by March 12, and by March 18 drove the Ukrainian forces from the Lviv-Przemysl railroad, permanently securing Lviv.

The monument as a symbol of Lviv under siege

Historian and head of Dolia Memorial Search Centre, Svyatoslav Sheremeta maintains that the Vovchukhiv Offensive was an important page of Ukrainian military history:

“The Vovchukhiv Offensive was of great importance in the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918–1919. That’s why our main idea was to build a war memorial commemorating this historical event. There is a spire, and a ring that symbolizes the siege of Lviv. We have documents signed by the UGA commander-in-chief, General Mykhailo Omelianovich-Pavlenko, where he clearly states that Lviv was put under siege and that Lviv’s surrender was imminent due to the lack of food supplies in the city. But, the Entente intervened, insisted on a ceasefire, and also delivered food, ammunition and weapons to the besieged Poles.

The monument symbolizes the siege of Lviv. Depicted are Galician Army fighters attacking. The monument is important because this is the story of how our grandfathers fought for the independence of their state, which they did heroically, sacrificing their lives to build a unified country.”

Although many articles and a book have been written about the Chortkiv Offensive (surprise military operation by the Ukrainian Galician Army on the newly-founded Second Polish Republic from June 7 to June 29, 1919), very little research has been done on the Vovchukhiv Operation. However, there is an abundance of archival documents that will help researchers and historians to reproduce the events of the operation. Historian Mykola Posivnych explains:

“There are many gaps to be yet explored, and this is a topic that should be studied by government institutions – the military structure, the history of the army, different military units, the generals, etc. The current authorities do not understand that this story, like many others, is a key to the successful development of our country. Because, unlike Poland, Lithuania, we rarely discuss the fights for independence that took place a hundred years ago, but only talk about our current independent state, since 1991, so we’re already losing the fight. The Vovchukhiv Offensive was the first great offensive operation since the time of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a major military operation that threatened the existence of the Polish state. For Ukrainians, Lviv was a strategic city, a testimony to actual Ukrainian life. For the Poles, too, it was a strategic city. Due to foreign diplomatic pressure, the Poles actually managed to steal a great victory from the Ukrainian Galician Army.”

Soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army (UGA). Photo: (official publication)

42 soldiers, who laid down their lives 101 years ago, are buried in the old cemetery of Vovchukhy. Numerous graves of Ukrainian fighters can be found in nearby villages. Many other burial places were destroyed by the Soviet regime in the 1950s and 1960s.

The monument was erected near the Lviv-Przemysl highway. It was funded by the regional budget in the amount of UAH 1 million.

The Vovchukhiv Operation in a nutshell

The first phase of the strategic offensive operation of the Ukrainian Galician Army took place in February-March, 1919. It was planned to take over the Lviv-Przemysl railway line and liberate Lviv and Przemysl. The operation was entrusted to the 3rd Corps of the Ukrainian Galician Army under the command of Colonel Hryhoriy Kossak. The offensive was launched on February 17, 1919. The Ukrainian Army established control over the railroad, but all fighting was suspended at the request of the Entente Mission led by French General Barthélemy. A ceasefire was concluded on February 25, 1919, and negotiations between the Ukrainian-Polish delegations began. The delegation from the West Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR) rejected the demands of the Entente Mission to establish a demarcation line between the warring parties.

The fighting resumed on March 2, 1919. The Ukrainian troops defeated the Polish units under General Bekker and occupied Vovchukhy. However, instead of attacking Przemysl, they were ordered to deploy to Horodok, Lviv Oblast, and then advance on Lviv. At the same time, the Polish troops, which had received considerable supplies and reinforcements during the ceasefire, went over to the counter-offensive. The fighting ended on March 18, 1919 with the defeat of the Galician Army.

Though the UGA initially experienced numerous early victories, the numerical and technical superiority of the Polish forces ended the war. Thus the predominantly Ukrainian provinces of former Austrian Galicia were forcefully integrated into the Polish Republic. However, the proclamation of an independent Ukrainian state and the fight for its independence significantly intensified nationalist sentiment in Halychyna (Galicia).

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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