By late 1920, tensions remained high between the Lithuanians and the Poles. The Polish-Soviet war was ending though which allowed Poland to focus on the disputed Vilnius region and specifically the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. 

Despite the constant fighting and upheaval involving all three countries which had resulted in Vilnius changing hands, Lithuania now controlled their own capital.

The Soviets had actually returned Vilnius to the Lithuanians in return for them allowing Soviet troops to travel through Lithuanian territory to engage Polish forces. This Lithuanian cooperation with their enemy was not lost on the Poles.

By October, with the pressure to cease fighting after the Spa Conference and Suwalki Conference, a ceasefire was finally signed but left the issue of Vilnius unresolved and vulnerable. The Poles continued to consider their claim on Vilnius legitimate due to the high amount of Polisy speakers in the city – around 65% of the population (in contrast, Lithuanians only made up about 1-2% of the city’s population.) However, Lithuania considered Vilnius their historical capital and gave little credence to Polish claims.

Map of the Polish population live in Lithuania on the basis of elections to the parliament of Lithuania in 1923, censuses in 1921 and elections to the polish Sejm in 1922.

A different approach

By this stage, the Poles were tired of war, having been involved in several conflicts but Polish Chief of State still wanted to create his unified federation – the Intermarium.

However, he wanted a Lithuania that was friendly to Poland but also agreeable to Vilnius being under Polish influence which, given the events of the last year, seemed an impossible dream.

There was too much bad blood between the two countries at this stage.

Further negotiations regarding the future of the Vilnius region reached a stalemate and Piłsudski feared the current territorial situation would become permanent and Vilnius would remain under Lithuanian control. With both countries agreeing to the ceasefire, direct military action was now out of the question. Instead, Pilsudski focussed on a different approach, one which could be not traced back to the Polish government.

The previous attempt at causing a coup in Lithuania and overthrowing the government had failed (the 1919 Polish coup d’état) and the architects, the Polish Military Organisation, had been dismantled after its failure.

Polish ethnographic map from 1912, according to pre-war censuses.

Lucian Żeligowski

Lucian Żeligowski

Żeligowski was a Lithuanian general in the Polish army who commanded the 1st Lithuanian-Belarusian Infantry Division – made up of former prisoners-of-war, volunteers, and partisans from the territory of modern Belarus and Lithuania. He was certainly no fan of the Suwałki Agreement which he described as: 

Pilsudski had contacted him in September with the suggestion of him pretending to desert from the Polish army and taking control of the Vilnius region, including Vilnius itself. The Polish government would officially deny any involvement and condemn his actions so that its international reputation remined intact.

Preparations for the operation began in early October, and on the 6th, Żeligowski informed his officers of the plan and because none knew of the Polish government’s involvement, some refused to go along with it. In fact, so many were reluctant to get involved that it looked at one point as if the whole operation would collapse, but eventually most relented and agreed to take part.

Żeligowskiaccompanied by Bishop Władysław Bandurski among his soldiers in 1920.

The operation starts

On the morning of 8 October, Żeligowski declared he would "..liberate Wilno from Lithuanian occupation” and “…form a parliament which will decide the fate of the disputed territories”.

He set off with his forces, which numbered 14,000 men and who were supported by the Polish 2nd and 3rd Armies. His forces defeated the 1st Lithuanian–Belarusian Division and the Lithuanian 4th Infantry Regiment near the Rūdininkai Forest and Jašiūnai, before reaching the vicinity of Vilnius, having suffered only low casualties.

For the Lithuanians, Żeligowski's assault fell at a bad time. Not only was it unexpected but they were heavily outnumbered but also had to commit troops to garrison Vilnius itself as the Polish population were becoming restless. Realising that they lacked the troops to successfully hold the city, they evacuated on 8/9 October leaving only a skeleton force to act as a rear-guard. When Żeligowski's forces arrived they were welcomed by the Polish population and a Polish militia rose up and helped them against the increasingly outnumbered Lithuanian defenders.

Żeligowski and the commander of the city. Major Stanisław Bobiatyński after the Polish troops entered Vilniu.

Republic of Central Lithuania

On 12 October, Żeligowski now in control of the Vilnius, declared it as the capital city of the new Republic of Central Lithuania – essentially a puppet state of Poland.

Map of the Republic of Central Lithuania with Wilno (Vilnius) as its capital.

Reinforcements arrived – the 13th Wilno Uhlan (light cavalry) Regiment led by Col. Butkiewicz, and 20 military aircraft. However, Polish forces were careful not engage any Lithuanian units due to the Suwalki agreement.

There was further fighting on 20-21 October between Żeligowski’s forces and the Lithuanians near Pikeliškiai.

On the 7 November, Żeligowski's army continued their advance to secure the area and moved upon Giedraičiai, Širvintos and Kėdainiai.

Lithuania ignored Żeligowski’s offer of a ceasefire and he in turn ignored the League of Nations's proposals that his forces withdraw to their positions as of 20/21 October.

Once again, the League of Nations struggled to resolve a conflict occurring within its sphere of influence. This would become an increasingly regular occurrence. On 17 November, the Soviets offered to intercede in the conflict, although the Lithuanians declined to accept their offer, probably at least partly motivated by the general distrust of Soviet intentions.

On 17 November, Żeligowski's army broke through the Lithuanian defences and on 18 November, reached Kavarskas, a city in Lithuania. The Lithuanians did experience some success though, their forces pushing the Poles back at Giedraičiai and Širvintos on 19-21 November.

Gen. Lucjan Żeligowski with soldiers in Vilnius, 1920.


Finally, with both sides exhausted, the League of Nations managed to implement a ceasefire for 21 November at 9 in the morning. Even though both sides had agreed to rein in any offensive action until it came into effect, the Lithuanian 7th Infantry division nonetheless attacked a few hours before (the assault not finishing until after the ceasefire was already in effect – provoking strong words from the League of Nations) gaining the town of Giedraičiai. A truce was finally signed on 29 November 1920.

Polish military celebrates the incorporation of Vilnius Region in Poland, 1922.


With the signing of the truce, Żeligowski essentially became dictator of the new puppet state, although unlike other dictators, he relinquished his powers and handed over the running of the country to the newly elected government.

The League of Nations requested that Poland withdraw but this was – again – ignored, and there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm from other European countries to get involved. France wanted to retain Poland as an ally in the event of conflict with Germany and without France’s support, Britain had no interest in acting alone.

Therefore, the Poles were able to retain control of Vilnius – much to the obvious displeasure of the Lithuanians. On 20 February 1922, the provisional government voted for the countries incorporation into Poland, although this vote was not recognised by the increasingly powerless League of Nations, who eventually accepted the situation in 1923 – the same year that Pilsudski would admit that the Polish Government had not only known about the ‘mutiny’ all along but had taken an active role in planning and organising it.

Extract from The New York Times. October 18, 1920.


Although the mutiny was popular in Poland, not everyone supported it.  Right-wing national democrats were opposed, and it caused a major rift between Pilsudski and former Polish Prime minister Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Żeligowski’s actions violated international agreements and were the direct cause of armed conflict breaking out, but some historians think that had he not intervened in the region in such a way, an armed rebellion of Polish residents may well have broken out anyway – primarily due to the shifting and ongoing tensions and the high number of ethnic Poles in the region.

Anti-Polish 1925 Lithuanian poster with Gediminas' Tower and a snake (Poland) wrapped around it (illustrating the Żeligowski's Mutiny).

The poster requests Lithuanians to pay a toll to support the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union and urges to recapture Vilnius (Lithuanian: Vaduokime Vilnių!).

Yellow howling wolf in the sky is the Iron Wolf, one of the symbols of Vilnius. Printed in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1925.

To say that Lithuania was displeased with the situation would of course be a massive understatement. They refused to recognise the new, Republic of Central Lithuania and relations between the two countries remained hostile for decades to come.