"Few nations in the last 200 years
have seen more military action than the Poles."
- Norman Davies, UK
. . . 1. The Rise of Poland as European Power.
. . . 2. The Fall of Poland.
. . . Poland During the Napoleonic Wars.
. . . 3. Polish Army During The Napoleonic Wars.
. . . . . . . 1806-08 . . . 1809 . . . 1812 . . . 1813 . . . 1814
The Rise of Poland as European Power.
In the Middle Ages and later there persisted a common false belief that the Vandals
barbarians) were ancestors of Poles [or Slavs]. That belief originated because of confusion of the Venedes with Vandals and because both Venedes and
Vandals lived in areas later settled by Poles. In 983 Gerhard of Augsburg in Miracula Sancti Oudalrici
called Mieszko I (heading Polish prince) dux Vandalorum.
In 1240, the Mongol terror from the east invaded Poland, having first decimated many other countries to the east. (For example nearly all Russia became tributary to the Mongols.) The scouts of Khan Ougedei even reached France ! In 1241 the Mongols defeated a combined Polish-German force at Legnica (Leignitz) where the best Polish knights, Teutonic Knights, Templars and the flower of German knights perished. The victors however did not continue their drive westward, Khan Ougedai died suddenly and in 1242 there was trouble about the succession. Thereafter the Mongols concentrated their attention upon their Asiatic conquests
The loss of Poland's access to the Baltic Sea resulted in a 150-year long period of wars
between Poland and the Teutonic Order. The decisive battle took place in 1410 at Grunwald (Tannenberg).
The day-long fierce fighting ended in a complete defeat of the Teutonic Knights and
supporting them Crusaders, handful of Genoese crossbowmen and English longbowmen.
Part of the Order's lands, the so-called Teutonic Prussia, became a fiefdom of Poland.
The XV century was a time of economic development of Poland and military victories.
On map: Europe in 1550.
In 1569 the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania united and formed the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. Poland became an European power: the economy was strong, the army was excellent and the territory was huge (815,000 sq. km) Grain exports to Germany, England and other countries and the resulting trade surplus ensured Poland prosperity and a large natural increase. The XVI Century was the Golden Age in Poland's history.
The Polish army was never large but it was of excellent quality. The infantry and artillery were fine, while the cavalry was arguably the best in Europe. During the Golden Age the Polish troops enjoyed several spectacular victories. Majority of them were due to the husaria or "winged knights", (ext.link) as they are called in English-speaking world, or "Flügelhusaren" in German. It should be remembered that one of the greatest commanders in history, Gustav Adolf (ext.link) admired by Napoleon and many commanders, developed his skills in almost continuous warfare with the Poles. His success in the Thirty Years War was preceded by many years of effort against inferior numbers of Poles who had humiliated the Swedish army at the Battle of Kircholm.
In 1514 at the Battle of Orsha (ext.link) approx. 25.000-30.000-men strong Polish-Lithuanian army under Hetman Prince Ostrogski defeated Russian army of 40.000-80.000 men. In the fighting participated the winged knights. The victors took many prisoners including the Russian commander-in-chief Ivan Cheladin. The Battle of Orsha was one of the biggest battles of XVI Century Europe.
On picture: charge of the winged husaria by Keith Rocco (USA)
In 1605 at the Battle of Kircholm (ext.link) 3.500 men (incl.
2.000 winged-knights) under Hetman Chodkiewicz defeated 14.000 well trained Swedes
(incl. 5.000 veteran cavalry) deployed in an advantageous position. In Swedish army
also served Fins, Germans and Scots. The charge of Winged Knights at Kircholm was one of
the most famous displays of heavy cavalry.
Map of Battle.
In 1672 a powerful army of Ottoman Empire invaded Poland and imposed the treaty of Buczacz on the Poles. The next year Hetman Jan Sobieski gathered his corps and virtually annihilated the Turkish army at Chocim (Khotin). The Turkish army at Chocim consisted of 35.000 men (incl. elite cavalry) and 120 guns. The Turks took positions in a well entreched camp. The Polish forces consisted of 30.000 men (incl. winged knights). The Turks fought well until the winged knights charged and broke the elite Turkish cavalry. The Turkish infantry and gunners panicked and fled, their camp was captured. From then on the Turks called Hetman Sobieski "The Lion of the North." Unable to break into Europe through Poland, the massive Turkish army invaded Austria and Hungary. Approx. 120,000 Turks besieged the city of Vienna and threatened to conquer the western Europe.
In 1683 at Vienna (ext.link) Polish king Sobieski headed the Christian coalition of Polish, German, French and Austrian troops against Ottomans. Approx. 20.000 of winged-knights and light cavalry charged down hill, echelon after echelon, and defeated vastly superior Turkish infantry, cavalry and artillery. Kara_Mustafa, the Turkish commander seeing thousands of the winged knights charging straight at him fled in panic. The Turkish invasion of western Europe was halted. The pope and European dignitaries hailed Sobieski as the "Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization." Sobieski triumphantly entered Vienna (ext.link). In a letter to his wife Sobieski wrote about the freed Austrians "All the common people kissed my hands, my feet, my clothes; others only touched me ..." Pursuing the fleeing Turks Sobieski won also at Parkany (ext. link)
There are numerous articles and books in Poland about the winged knights. The film "With Fire and Sword" drew 7.5 million viewers in Poland in 7 months, outdrawing the film "Titanic" This film portrays Renaissance Poland and the winged knights in several actions.
The winged knights were the terror of infantry and cavalry,
Swedes, Russians, Turks, and the French and British mercenaries
and anyone who met them in battle. They were the tanks of XVI-XVII Century.
The Fall of Poland
On picture: Polish regular infantry (left) and farmers armed with
scytes (right) at the Battle of Raclwice.
The XVIII century is considered the most tragic period in Polish history.
Poland's neighbours, Russia and Prussia were absolute states and their political
systems stood in contradiction to the Polish tradition of self-government low taxes
and civil freedoms of the gentry.
Unfortunately it became increasingly common for Polish parliament's sessions to be
broken up by liberum veto. It was every nobleman's representative's right to
block any legislation, just by uttering his veto.
It was tantamount to an extreme expression of political liberty and conceived as a safeguard against tyranny.
But it also made a reasonable policy virtually impossible as the ambassadors of Poland's
neighbours Russia and Prussia had several Polish noblemen on their payroll, thus influencing the
decisions of Polish parliament. Poland deteriorated from a European power into a state
In 1794 General Kosciuszko, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War pronounced the general
uprising and assumed the powers of the commander in chief of the entire Polish Army.
The great difficulties with providing enough armament for the mobilised troops made Kosciuszko
form units composed of pesants armoured with scythes called
kosynierzy (see picture).
Polish Army During the Napoleonic Wars.
Norman Davies writes: "Few nations in the last 200 years have seen more military action than
In the 18th century, as in the 20th, the Polish lands regularly provided an arena for Europe's wars.
In the 19th century, they supplied the armies of three martial empires with numberless recruits and conscripts.
Yet no European nation has reaped fewer rewards for the sweat and blood expended.
As often as not, the Polish soldier has followed foreign colors. ... It is sad fact, but Poland has been
obliged by circumstances to act as one of Europe's principal nurseries of cannon-fodder.
... Private armies abounded. ... Poland-Lithuania was not short of soldiers. Vast numbers of indigent petty noblemen filled the ranks of a military caste of proportions unequelled
in Europe. But their contempt for state service, their preoccupation with private wars and vendettas, their
perpetuation of the myth of the 'Noble Host', their dislike of drill, their obsession with cavalry to
the detriment of all other branches of warfare, and their opposition to the idea of raising an 'ignoble army' of peasant conscripts,
put them at a marked disadvantage in relation to all their neighbours. ...
By 1781, the ratio of trained soldiers in the service of the state to the adult male population had reached 1:472.
The derisory statistic compared with:
In 1797 in Italy was formed a Polish Legion, fighting for France against Austria.
There is hardly a more touching chapter in the world's history than the story of the Polish Legions. The Poles hoped that by fighting on the French side against Austria, Russia and Prussia, the contries that had partitioned Poland they could free their country.
Two years after the last dismemberment of Poland, a Polish army was formed, in Polish
uniforms, under Polish command, decorated with French cockades and wearing on the
eppaulets the inscription: "Gli uomini liberi sono fratelli." (Free men are brethren.)
The Polish soldiers without the state sung their battle-song: "Poland has not perished yet,
as long as we are alive" and fought in numerous battles and campaigns alongside the French.
There was rivalry within the officers and generals between those who had served in the army of the Duchy of Warsaw and those who had joined Polish units in French service. The former often felt the latter had put self interest before patriotic duty, while the latter scorned the former as military amateurs. The rivalry had been largely healthy, and there had in fact been considerable interchange between the two. Chlapowski writes: "It was marvelous to be back in Warsaw. ... there was a great difference between these new regiments and the Polish Guard and Vistula Legion, with which I had recently been in Spain. As well as Col. Krasinski, the entire staff of the Polish Guard Lighthorse were experienced officers ... The Vistula Legion still had officers from Dabrowski's Italian Legion and even Kniaziewicz's Legion of the Rhine. Nearly all the NCOs were older men, so training was steady, severe, and regular. It wasn't like that in the army of the Duchy of Warsaw. The infantry was admittedly first class, but the cavalry still needed a lot of work. ... The artillery had only very few qualified officers, but the gunners were quite well trained. The whole army was learning and its excellent spirit, liveliness and cheerful confidence bade well for the future."
Polish officers and generals communicated in Polish and French language. The troops were organized after the French model and used much of its terminology. Chlapowski writes: "Our drill regulations were provided by General Dabrowski, translated from the French. Knowing the Prussian system, it was easy for me to learn these new regulations, which were far simpler and much better suited to the conduct of war." (Chlapowski/Simmons - p 13)
According to Norman Davies the Polish affairs were subordinated to the rivalry between Napoleon and the Allies.
Any Polish state that was to be created would, of necessity, be an expression more of the Balance of Power than
of the wishes of the people. The Duchy of Warsaw was a child of war.
In the years 1806-1807 Napoleon defeated Austria, Prussia and Russia. Under the Treaty of
Tilsit the Duchy of Warsaw was established on part of the lands of Prussian-annexed Poland.
It was placed under the guardianship of the King of Saxony. The constitution given by
Napoleon in July 1807 established the Polish army at 30,000 men. Prince Poniatowski became
its Minister of War. The Poles joked about the Duchy having "a Saxon king, French laws,
Polish army, and Prussian currency." (Nafziger and Wesolowski - "Poles and Saxons" p 3)
Chlapowski writes: "In Nov 1806, the French armies arrived in Poznan [Posen]. The 1st Chasseurs-Cheval,
under Colonel Exelmans, who would later become a famous general, where the first to enter the [Polish] city as evening fell.
The I Squadron hurried at the trot right through the city with swords drawn, to place pickets on the other side of the Warta River, on the Warsaw and Torun [Thorn] roads.
The rest of the regiment stood peacefully in the market square, where a part of the population
came cheering to welcome them. ... The French ... after talking to the townspeaople pressing around them, they confirmed the impression already gained
from a few days march ... that they were in friendly territory. They billeted themselves peacefully around the city."
(Chlapowski / Simmons - p 8)
In August Marshal Davout selected the best infantry regiment of every division
and Napoleon took these units to Spain. "Napoleon took this force into French service on
much the same basis as the Hessians served the British in the American Revolution."
(Nafziger - "Poles and Saxons" p 12) The chosen troops were: 4th, 7th and 9th
Infantry Regiment, 140-men artillery company and 200-man sapper company.
Several battalions were sent to Prussia. Due to such wide distribution of Polish
troops the divisional organization had become obsolete.
In the end of 1807 the army consisted of:
In February 1808 the Polish Legion du Nord was incorporated into the Polish army.
The Polish troops participated in the campaign of 1807. On 27th January 1807 they fought at Tczew (Dirschau), on 14th February they took Gniew (Mewe) and on 20th captured Slupsk (Stolpen). On 23rd February they took Tczew (Dirschau). Napoleon awarded GdD Dabrowski with cross of the Legion d'Honneur. In March-May 9.000 Polish troops (attached to French divisions) participated in the siege of Gdansk (Danzig). The Poles suffered approx. 2.000 killed and wounded. The Poles also participated in the Battle of Friedland.
In November 1808, Napoleon was in Spain, marching on Madrid. His advance was blocked by Spanish troops.
The Spaniards held the narrow defile of Somosierra, leading on to the lofty plateau where Madrid stands.
Sixteen guns were holding off Napoleon's army. After repeated attempts to force the position
with infantry, the regiment of Polish lighthorsemen were given the order to charge. Approx. 200 men obeyed and eight minutes later, the survivors emerged from the top
of the hill, "a thousand feet and three miles above the admiring Emperor." (Norman Davies p. 301)
In the campaign of 1809, the Poles had a more immediate interest. The Duchy of Warsaw sustained the full weight of the Austrian attack. Austrian corps under Archduke Ferdinand appeared on the Polish borders on April 14, 1809. Taken by surprise, the Polish government ordered general mobilization. Headed by Prince Poniatowski the few Polish troops offered an valiant resistance during the Battle of Raszyn. Poniatowski fought to a standstill an Austrian force more than twice the size. But it was necessary to abandon Warsaw and to withdraw to the right bank of the Vistula.
All Austrian efforts to cross the Vistula River were in vain. While the Austrians
were exhausting themselves in their attempts to get at the right bank of the Vistula,
Poniatowski crossed the Austrian frontier to liberate Galicia. On May 14 the city of Lublin
was taken and on the 18th the city of
Sandomierz (ext.link) with its only major Vistula bridge.
On the 20th, in a night attack, the
Zamosc fortress (ext.link) was captured together with 2,000
prisoners and 40 cannons. These developments compelled the Austrians to withdraw from
Warsaw. Everywhere enthusiastically received by the Poles, Poniatowski was able to liberate
large areas of Galicia.
After the victorious war against Austria and annexation of Galicia the Poles raised 6 new infantry regiments and 10 cavalry regiments (1 cuirassiers, 2 hussars and 7 uhlans).
Strength of the Polish army in the end of 1809:
TOTAL = approx. 72,000 men.
Part of the army served in France, Germany and Spain under French and Polish generals.
The year of 1812 saw the climacteric of the Napoleonic era. For the French it was just another campaign, for the Russians it presented
the supreme test for the integrity and durability of their mighty empire.
For the Poles alone, it was a war of liberation.
The command structure of the Polish army in the second half of 1812:
Minister of War - Prince Jozef Poniatowski
Commander-in-Chief of the Army Prince Jozef Poniatowski
One of the causes of the war of 1812 was the existence of the Duchy. In spite of Napoleon's continuous assurances that "the dangerous Polish dreams" as Alexander called them, would never be permitted realization, the Russian monarch was forever restive. He demanded that the word "Poles" be not used in public documents, that Polish orders be abolished and that the Polish army be considered as a part of that of Saxony. Meanwhile, the "second Polish war," as Napoleon called it, broke out. According to Adam Zamojski Napoleon was determined to hold the possibility of the reunification of the Kingdom of Poland as a carrot before the Poles, a semi-sincere promise to ensure loyalty. He avoided any concessions toward Poland having in mind further negotations with Russia. Poniatowski talked with Napoleon about forming the Kingdom of Poland and thus mobilizing the entire country. "Poniatowski has had to appeal to Davout to put in a word on his behalf. And now standing there by the roadside as Colbert's lancers again file by, he's urging Napoleon to mobilize Poland and thus consolidate the army's rear, instead of marching on Moscow. But the Polish prince, who'd turned down the Tsar's handsome offers of advancement if he had side with him, gets nowehere. Napoleon simply tells him he doesn't matters of high policy." (Britten-Austin - "1812 The March on Moscow" p 173)
In June of 1812, Poniatowski together with 100,000 of his fellow Poles are part of Napoleon's
expedition. The Poles formed the largest of the contingents provided by any of the
states allied with France. The dispersion, however, of the Polish regiments among the
various French corps was strongly resented.
For nowhere else had Napoleon a more loyal and devoted ally than the Poles who stood by him through thick and
thin. They formed a striking contrast to the Prussians under Yorck, who as soon as
Napoleon's defeat became known joined the Russians, as did also the Austrians. In 1812 the
Polish troops carried the fame of Polish heroism along the same roads which two and three centuries before, in the times of King
Stefan Batory and King Wladyslav IV saw the Polish banners of the White Eagle in a triumphant
march to Moscow. The memories of Hetman Zolkiewski and Gosiewski came back.
The initial period of the offensive was wasted, because Poniatowski was placed under the direction of Napoleon's incompetent brother Jerome, who criticized by Napoleon eventually left, but for Poniatowski, then put in charge of Grande Armee's right wing, it was too late to make up for the lost opportunities (Later on St. Helena, the dethroned emperor reflected back on the 1812 war with Russia and expressed his belief, that if he had given Poniatowski Jerome's right wing command from the beginning, Bagration's army would have been destroyed early, and the campaign would have followed a different course.
In the very end of 1812 the Polish forces consisted of less than 10.000 men.
The splendid Vistula Legion had only 500 survivors. The campaign ended in a disaster.
Davies writes: "The last act of independent will was carried out in the Duchy's behalf by Jozef Poniatowski.
Refusing offers of clemency from the Russians, he determined to fight to the last at
Napoleon's side. He gathered the reserves of his army together and retreated into Germany."
(Davies, Vol II, p 304)
Near Zittau in Saxony Prince Poniatowski ordered intensive and large scale "war games" for his troops. The quarters were excellent and the food was pretty good.
Many soldiers received new uniforms, shoes, shirts, and headwears.
Morale of the troops was very high despite of lack of weapons. According to General Sokolnicki
only 20 % of men in IV Cavalry Corps had carbines. The average cavalryman was armed with
lance, saber and one pistol.
In May 1813 Napoleon formed so-called Grenadier Corps, which became part of the French Imperial Guard. It consisted of three battalions (each of 4 companies); the 1st Battalion of Poles, 2nd of Saxons and 3rd of Westphalians. It was Napoleon's attempt to establish closer ties to the Poles and Germans. The grenadiers were selected by Prince Poniatowski from the infantry of VIII Army Corps. They were brave men, at least 23-years old and with 2 years' service.
After Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig the majority of Poles were either killed,
wounded and taken prisoner, others wandered back to Poland. Only few followed
the French. Napoleon entertained thoughts of completely disbanding
Polish infantry and organizing four uhlan and two Polish-Cossack regiments.
(Nafziger and Wesolowski - "Poles and Saxons of the Napoleonic Wars" p 28)
In December Napoleon formed so-called Polish Corps, it consisted of the following
troops (strength on 1st January 1814):
There were in France other Polish units, but all were cavalry:
When the Napoleonic Wars ended and Poland was under Russia’s rule,
Grand Duke Constantine became commander of the Polish army. He was highly unpopular among Poles for his rigors.
It was a shock for many whom earlier served in the French army.
Neither merit, nor virtues salvage praise and acknowledgment that depended entirely on his
News circulated that he was insane and during the Congress in Vienna entertained himself by giving hot enemas to stray dogs. Only after Constantine married Polish countess in 1820 his behaviour changed and corporal punishment was abolished. The severity of his administration, the activity of secret police and the discontent of the army led in 1830-1831 to anti-tsarist “November Uprising.” In the beginning of the hostilities, Constantine only narrowly escaped the capture by young officers who ran into his palace with drawn sabers. He never returned.
Sources and Links.
Kukiel - "Wojny Napoleonskie"
Bielecki - "Grand Army" 1995
Elting - "Swords Around a Throne"
Davies - "God's Playground. A History of Poland." Vol II, 1982
Pawlowski - "Polish-Austrian War of 1809" 1999
Lukasiewicz - "Armia Ksiecia Jozefa 1813" MON, 1986
Salter and McLachlan - "Poland the Rough Guide."
Kukiel - "Wojna 1812", tom 1-2, Kraków 1937
Kukiel - "Dzieje Oreza Polskiego w Epoce Napoleonskiej, 1795-1815" 1912
Pachonski - "General Jan Henryk Dabrowski", Warszawa 1981
Gembarzewski - "Wojsko Polskie. Ksiestwo Warszawskie 1807-1814" 1912
Gembarzewski - "Rodowody pulków i oddzialów równorzednych" 1925
Sokolnicki - "Journal historique de la 7-e div. de cav. legere polonaise"
Napier - "History of the War in the Peninsula 1807-1814"
Domange - "Garde Imperiale, bataillon de Grenadiers Polonais" Uniform Plate from the Series on the "Legions Polonaises et l'Armée du Grand-Duche de Varsovie."
Legiony i Wojsko Ksiestwa w latach 1797 - 1814
Napoleon - nadzieja Polaków
Polish Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery.
Some would doubt the bravery of the Polish troops. Their opinion is based on what they heard and read about World War 2. In 1939, Germans with 2,500 tanks invaded Poland and defeated Polish troops with 500 tanks. Despite being so outgunned and outmaned Poland fought for almost one month.
Although Britain and France declared war on Germany the Poles received no help - French and British troops sat on their asses doing the "phoney war" in the west while their wimpy politicians feared Hitler. Poland had been forced by Britain and France to delay mobilization which they claimed might be interpreted as aggressive behavior.
And as one of our visitors (Andrew of USA) put it: "not only did no aid arrive, but Poland was attacked by and from two sides, Germany and Russia! And Poland still managed to give both a workout." Despite the fact that France and Britain fielded 1.500 tanks, more than the Germans (!), the invaders rolled over them and within one month France capitualated and the Brits fled to Dunkirk.