Born May 7, 1763 in Vienna, died October 19, 1813 near Leipzig. Polish patriot and statesman, general and army chief, national leader and military hero of the independence wars period. He fought under Napoleon and became a marshal of France.
Poniatowski was a Pole by choice rather than necessity, but became Poland's most glamorous warrior. "An archetypal Polish military-Romantic hero... one of the most brilliant military commanders of the day... Cornered by the Prussians and Russians near Leipzig, Poniatowski refused to surrender, preferring to lead his troops to a heroic, suicidal defeat. The choice faced by Poniatowski encapsulated the nation's hopeless plight, and his act of self-sacrifice was to serve as a potent symbol to Polish patriots for the rest of the century".
Early years in Austria and the war with Turkey.
Prince Jozef Antoni Poniatowski, the nephew of the last king of Poland Stanislaw August Poniatowski, was born and raised in Vienna. His father, Andrzej Poniatowski, a field marshal in Austrian service, died when Jozef was 10. Stanislaw August became his guardian, and throughout their common life span these two great members of the Poniatowski family enjoyed a close, father-son like relationship. His mother, Teresa Kinsky-Herula, of a prominent Austrian family of Bohemian origin, was from the court of Maria Theresa, who was a godmother of Jozef's older sister (who was named Maria Teresa, after the empress). With his mother young Jozef spent some of his time in Prague, and later with his uncle the king in Warsaw. Represented the Polish king at the funeral of Maria Theresa. In 1787 with Stanislaw August and historian Adam Naruszewicz participated in a trip to Kaniov and Kiev, to meet Catherine the Great.
Among the Poles Prince Jozef Poniatowski has been known in a more familiar way as Prince Jozef, and by his family and friends he was called Pepi, from the Czech diminutive form of Joseph.
Trained for military service, Poniatowski remained foremost a soldier for the rest of his life. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Austrian army in 1780 (mentored by Field Marshal Lascy), in 1788 promoted to colonel and aide to Emperor Joseph II, who paid personal attention to Poniatowski's advancement and encouraged him to stay in Austria and to follow in his father's footsteps. In 1788 fought in the Russo-Austro-Turkish War and was seriously wounded at the Sava River on April 24, during the siege of Sabatch, as he was leading an assault on the fortress. During Vienna years a close personal friendship developed between Poniatowski and Prince Karl de Ligne, which lasted until de Ligne's death in the war with France in 1793, and the future womanizer experienced the one and only idealized love of his life (Maria Thun). Prince Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg was also Poniatowski's friend and colleague at that time (at Sabatch Poniatowski saved his life); due to the changing fortunes and allegiances, in the future they will meet many times as allies or as foes, and at the end Schwarzenberg will come back to deliver the crushing blow at Leipzig.
Defender of the Constitution: Polish-Russian War of 1792.
Despite such promising military career, at 26 Poniatowski left the Austrian army (his progress and prospects there were envied by his Austrian colleagues and he considered his departure a sacrifice; later sometimes he will bring this subject up) and was transferred to the Polish army in 1789, following the wishes of his uncle, King Stanislaw August. In October, together with Kosciuszko (Kosciuszko's military experience dated from the United States War of Independence, where his role was significant, along with that of Kazimierz Pulaski), was named general in the Polish army. He found this small force to be in a sorry state of neglect and corruption, and leading up to 1792 made a considerable effort to upgrade it to the current European military standards.
On May 6, 1792 Poniatowski became commander of the Polish army in the Ukraine, which was about to defend the country and its newly established May 3 Constitution (of 1791, the second oldest after the United States Constitution, a modern, progressive work, written largely by the King himself) against the Russian invasion. There, notwithstanding the constant retreat in which the overwhelmed Polish forces (three to one outnumbered by the Turkish war hardened enemy, while barely if at all supplied by the ambivalent, lacking conviction and will to stay the course leaders in Warsaw) found themselves, he was decorated for his role in the victorious Zielence battle (on June 18, after which the Virtuti Militari cross was established to commemorate the victory), where he led one of his early bayonet attacks that were to become his trademark (Stanislaw August marveled at the first pitched battle won by the Polish army since John III Sobieski, but it did not make him get on a horse and lead the army and the nation, as his nephew was imploring him to do). Also at Zielence distinguished himself Stanislaw Mokronowski, a general connected to the Poniatowski family, who after the Prince's death will raise funds for his monument, while in the meantime oppose Kosciuszko during the Insurrection (in which he will play a major military role). Together with Poniatowski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who on July 18 led his soldiers into another victory at Dubienka, and many of the nation's other future military leaders also made their Polish battleground debuts in the war of 1792, and Michal Wielhorski, who had served with Poniatowski in Austria, was after Kosciuszko his most important general here.
The whole defensive effort failed anyway when the King, who did not believe in the possibility of defeating the Russians, joined the pro-Russian Targowica Confederation. Many officers responded by declaring their loyalty to the army commander alone and demanded that the army takes over and keeps on fighting (now being closer to Warsaw, Poniatowski and his commanders were planning to establish shorter, more manageable defense lines, and with active support from the large population center behind, hoping to reverse the fortunes of the war). The Prince was furious; he didn't mince words and atypically lashed out at his respected and beloved uncle (whose intellectual superiority he normally recognized), accusing him of baseness. But when it came to action, Poniatowski vacillated: He issued orders to take the King into custody (the intention was to persuade him to rejoin the patriotic camp) and then rescinded them, in the end deciding not to move against his uncle. Distressed, in the last skirmish at Markuszew (July 26) he charged the enemy troops and was barely saved by his friend, Prince Eustachy Sanguszko, and his soldiers. In the years to come and for the rest of their lives both Sanguszko and Poniatowski will endlessly reexamine the Zielence battle in their minds, each seeking ways in which they might have been able to take advantage of the situation back then...
In protest of the King's acquiescence (it was commonly regarded as treason) and despite his pleas to the contrary, Poniatowski resigned his commission with Kosciuszko and other officers and went into exile. He issued a touching farewell address to his soldiers, who in turn collectively expressed their gratitude by having a memorial medal minted and even writing to Prince's mother in Prague, thanking her for such great son. The young general challenged the Targowica leaders to a duel (especially the marshal of the alliance Szczesny Potocki, which caused the fearful king extreme worry), but none of them took him up on the offer.
Prince Jozef's patriotic demeanor and his eloquent facility with the Polish language are revealed well in the following reply to Seweryn Rzewuski of the Targowica Confederation, issued on June 3 and signed enthusiastically by many of his officers and soldiers: "Mr. Rzewuski, I have received your writing, over which I've been long pondering, as to what it means and whether I should respond to it, sir. But a decent man does not hide his thoughts - contempt for the vile is his rule! So that's how I'm treating you today. As a sworn soldier, honor loving and fulfilling my obligation, I know of no power other than that established by the entire nation, I know of no law other than the order of the King and of the Honorable Military Commission, of no duty other than to live with the beloved fatherland or to die for her. As a citizen I cannot follow your advice, which under the pretense of freedom, embellished by numerous fables, is based on foreign aggression and violence. Those who had the audacity, for the sake of their own conceit and selfishness, to sell out their fellow countrymen, are national abomination and traitors of the fatherland! These are my own sentiments and the sentiments of all of my subordinates, beginning with the common foot soldier. Therefore I'm asking you, sir, to forgo from now on the needless writings, which are not capable of misleading anyone, and to be assured of the following: That the fatherland is our God, that an armed foreign soldier found on the Polish soil, not allied, cannot bring us friendship, and that such will be sought by the soldier of the Republic, to defeat him or to die in glory". The rules by which Poniatowski the soldier himself lived and died could not have been more explicitly and forcefully stated.
The Polish-Russian War was the immediate cause of the second partition of Poland, but it gave rise to the finest and most heroic period in all of Polish military history: The four decades during which several major independence wars were waged (1792, 1794, 1809, 1812, 1813, 1830) and a great deal of other fighting was done. It ranged from San Domingo to Pomerania, and included Dabrowski's Polish Legions as well as famous exploits, such as Samosierra, Fuengirola, and Albuera.
Kosciuszko Insurrection of 1794.
In 1794 Poniatowski, encouraged by the King, returned to Warsaw to join the Kosciuszko Rising (Stanislaw August, while surely motivated by hoping for his nephew's protection, perhaps wasn't that much of a traitor after all: Calling on Prince Jozef to come from abroad and to join Kosciuszko, who took his own executive powers, was a personal gesture as well as a significant political statement; in the course of the revolution the King also declared his own participation), but the family relation with the flawed king made Poniatowski's participation in this endeavor difficult. After all it was the result of the King's surrender, together with Poniatowski's unwillingness to counter his moves more decisively, that the Prince this time was not chosen to lead (and did not support the efforts of those who sought his candidacy).
Poniatowski volunteered as an ordinary soldier (reported for duty at Kosciuszko's camp near Jedrzejow on May 27) and did not want to lead the Insurrection in Lithuania, which was what Kosciuszko proposed (he recommended his friend Wielhorski for that job; Wielhorski replaced the demoted radical Jakub Jasinski, but his tenure in Lithuania was not successful). Instead participated in combat around Warsaw, where he could stay close to his uncle (as a division commander fought at Blonie July 7-10 and led cavalry in anti-Prussian diversion at Marymont July 26-27) and commanded the northern sector during the siege of the city (urged by Kosciuszko, Poniatowski, happy in his role as volunteer-soldier, in early August reluctantly accepted Mokronowski's post in Warsaw's defense perimeter, Mokronowski being sent to Lithuania), where he was wounded. A citizen-general during the Insurrection, at times like Kosciuszko he wore the sukmana, a traditional peasant overcoat. Poniatowski as always fought valiantly (At Gory Szwedzkie, which in a victorious and promising series of confrontations he took from the Prussians August 5-10, disregarded Kosciuszko's warnings and did not properly prepare for a counterattack that was coming a couple of weeks afterwards; his hat and his uniform were pierced by bullets, and his horse was shot under him, as he was trying to recover the lost ground. Before the end of the war, in October he personally led his hopelessly outnumbered troops in determined attacks against Prussian entrenchments at the Bzura River, which at the cost of heavy losses tied up the Prussians and saved Dabrowski's corps by allowing its return to Warsaw.), but the uprising was marred by infighting and bickering among the various factions and generals. The actions and influence of the radical wing (led by Hugo Kollataj, co-author of the Constitution) alienated the Prince, while differences with his principal (in historical perspective) fellow fighters Kosciuszko, Jan Henryk Dabrowski (who was first placed under Poniatowski's command, but soon turned out to be a major player in his own right), and Jozef Zajaczek (military leader of the radicals) on several occasions proved detrimental to military cooperation, and to the final outcome. Supposedly Kosciuszko when leaving for Maciejowice put Poniatowski in charge of the defense of Warsaw, but the new (after Kosciuszko's capture) Jacobin leadership ignored this, and in any case Poniatowski, at that time largely preoccupied with the King's safety, made no use of any such authority. Without Kosciuszko the "court" faction of the insurrectionists regarded Poniatowski as their chief commander, animosities flared, and at one time it looked like fighting was going to break out between the forces of Zajaczek and the new formal dictator of the Rising Tomasz Wawrzecki on one hand, and those loyal to Poniatowski and Mokronowski on the other (among important at that time friends of the Prince were also Ludwik Kamieniecki, who had fought in 1792 and will stay with him all the way to the end at Leipzig, Sanguszko, Wielhorski, and Jozef Wybicki, a prominent patriot, who defended him when Poniatowski was accused of dereliction of duty by his detractors).
The Insurrection having failed (the 1792 and 1794 experiences must have left him with an impression of futility of Polish armed struggles waged alone, without external alliances), Poniatowski refused Catherine the Great's offer of a commission in the Russian army, retired from public life, and for a while stayed in Warsaw, but unwilling to comply with the loyalty conditions that the Russian authorities wanted to impose on him, was ordered to leave the Polish capital, and in April of 1795 moved to Vienna. The Kosciuszko Rising (or its fall) led to the third partition of Poland, which took place on October 24 of that year.
In 1796 Catherine died, and her son, Tsar Paul, more favorably disposed toward the Poles, freed Kosciuszko, one of the top Insurrection leaders Ignacy Potocki, and thousands of others. Without consulting Poniatowski he "graciously" hired him as general in the Russian army, together with a prestigious military unit ready at his command. Prince Jozef had a hard time disengaging himself from this unwanted advance, especially because Paul was also offering to return his Polish land holdings, previously confiscated as punishment for his participation in the Insurrection. Health problems resulting from his past wounds left him in no shape for any military duty whatsoever, he claimed to excuse himself. But in January of 1797 the third and final partition of Poland was confirmed, and the country disappeared from the map of Europe.
In 1798 died Stanislaw August, the former king, who in the aftermath of the Insurrection abdicated (he resisted the pressure to do so until he learned of the last partition), and lived in Grodno and later in St. Petersburg. Poniatowski, who previously refused to accompany or visit him there, now left Vienna for his funeral and in order to arrange for the proper disposition of the late king's finances, inheritance, and obligations. He stayed in St. Petersburg for several months, nurtured good relations with Tsar Paul and his court, and then returned to Poland, into his estates in Warsaw (Pod Blacha and Lazienki palaces) and Jablonna (Warsaw at that time was under Prussian rule).
There until 1806 Poniatowski lived an idle life of aristocratic parties and play, oftentimes shocking the public opinion by the conduct of himself and his friends. From Vienna he brought with him one Henrietta Vauban (he first met her in 1793 at his sister's home in Brussels) - an important person it turned out (Napoleon will advise worried Davout to ignore this "vain" woman), because, with an iron fist, she was to run his household for the rest of his life, and according to some, himself as well. She did not seem to control or significantly influence his public life though, and he willed the bulk of his inheritance to his sister, Maria Teresa Tyszkiewiczowa, and her daughter, Anetka Potocka, with whom he was very close (remembering of his soldiers, who through a lottery were given his arms and horses, and of his peasants, who had their debts and obligations forgiven). His residences were open to various personalities, local or passing through Warsaw, and from 1801 the future Louis XVIII, brother of the executed Louis XVI, who with his family and court needed a place to stay, was Poniatowski's guest for a few years. Always extremely popular with women, Poniatowski never married; had two sons with two of his partners (out of which the last and most important one was Zofia Czosnowska, maiden Potocka, mother of Prince's younger son, Jozef Poniatycki, who was later properly renamed Jozef Poniatowski by his aunt and guardian Tyszkiewiczowa, and whose life in France, Poland and Algiers is a colorful story in itself; his other son was Jozef Chmielnicki, "an Austrian officer").
Duchy of Warsaw and the victorious Austro-Polish War of 1809.
In 1806 Poniatowski was courted by the Prussians (cordial personal relations with the Prussian royals had already been established before - beset by legal troubles stemming from Stanislaw August's succession, in 1802 Poniatowski made a trip to Berlin, which also lasted for months), who were threatened by Napoleon, and Frederick William III was then referring to him as "cousin". In November Poniatowski accepted from the King of Prussia (upon expressed support of Warsaw's prominent representatives) the governorship of Warsaw and the command of the city's municipal guard and citizen militia forces, in the provisional Polish government. At the end of the same year, after much soul-searching, Wybicki's persuasion and protracted negotiations, which involved Murat, who liked Poniatowski from the beginning, Davout, who then and for some time to come distrusted him, and Napoleon, who was looking for a high profile Polish leader (himself Poniatowski's guest, Napoleon may have also been impressed by his talents as a host), but despite Poniatowski's insistence was for political reasons not ready to commit himself to the restoration of Poland, he was already declared by Murat "chief of the military force" and leading the military department on behalf of the French authorities (Napoleon bypassed Dabrowski and Zajaczek, both of whom had served under him when Poniatowski was inactive; Dabrowski's record in particular was of highest distinction, and Poniatowski's take-over caused initially considerable resentment) and in January became officially Director of the Department of War (Murat and Poniatowski became friends and exchanged gifts of royal grandeur; Talleyrand, who had also stayed at Poniatowski's house for long periods and befriended his sister for life, became the other invaluable protector and supporter). This followed immediately Emperor's decree of January 14, which created the Warsaw Governing Commission, a temporary government chaired by Stanislaw Malachowski, who as its marshal had led the last Polish parliament, the Four Year Sejm, into passing of the May 3 Constitution.
In the aftermath of the Prussian defeat, in July of 1807 Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. He chose Poniatowski to manage the military matters of that new entity, on October 7 making him Minister of War (Davout kept the supreme military command in the Duchy until summer of 1808), and on March 21, 1809 Commander in Chief of the army. Under difficult circumstances (financing was insufficient permanently and severely, which urged Poniatowski to argue skillfully when still further reductions were proposed by Stanislaw Staszic, a great scientific mind), this new army (Polish national in character and apparition - numerous Polish army traditions that last to this day originated there) was nurtured with great skill, determination, compassion, and political savvy on the part of the chief; it was truly his labor of love. All males were subjected to the draft, regardless of social status, profession, or denomination, public teachers only being exempted (kind to their leaders and sympathetic with their concerns, in 1812 Poniatowski also excused the Jews, whom in 1809 he already defended against government sanctioned expulsion from Warsaw's major streets). Soon the infrastructure was greatly improved, technical and engineering expertise and facilities were developed, military schools and hospitals were established (the Physician's School the Minister of War created became one of the two major components which made up the University of Warsaw, when it was established in 1816); all in all solid foundations for an army that was both modern and highly motivated were laid.
In spring of 1809 Poniatowski led the Polish forces against an Austrian invasion under the Archduke Ferdinand d'Este, in the war that was regarded by Austrian high command as a crucial element of their struggle with Napoleonic France. At Raszyn near Warsaw, on April 19, personally leading his men in the battle (where the most famous of the bayonet charges took place), he fought to a standstill an Austrian force more than twice the size of his (of the 37,000 strong army raised in the Duchy by Poniatowski, Napoleon took 22,000 out of the country, and only 15,000 were left there for its defense). Convinced that with the forces at his disposal it was not feasible to defend Warsaw, Poniatowski then tactically withdrew from the city, into the east bank of the Vistula River, to the fortified Praga suburb, which the Austrians attacked but were defeated at Grochowo on April 26. Ferdinand split his forces, sending part of them into western Poland (Great Poland) and to Torun, to connect with the Prussians, but they were repelled by Dabrowski and Zajaczek, dispatched there by the Prince. Earlier another division crossed the Vistula to pursue Poniatowski's main force, but was routed on May 2 at Gora Kalwaria and 1800 prisoners were taken (in a daring attack led by General Michal Sokolnicki, the future Grande Armee's intelligence chief, who will take over the Polish army after Prince Jozef's death). Having so discouraged the main enemy force from trying to cross the river, in a bold offensive, with a lightening speed Prince Jozef kept advancing south, driving the Austrians before him (seeing a new opportunity and possibly having learned their lesson from the past failures, during this Austro-Polish War Poniatowski, Dabrowski, and Zajaczek, at least initially, worked together well). To foil further attempts by Ferdinand to establish a bridgehead (he did unsuccessfully try a couple more times), the main Duchy force stayed close to the Vistula. On May 14 Lublin was taken, on the 18th Sandomierz with its only major Vistula bridge (fortified and vigorously defended, to be retaken by Ferdinand on June 18), on the 20th, in a night attack, the Zamosc fortress was overpowered, together with 2000 prisoners and 40 cannons (by the first days of June these military developments compelled the Austrians to withdraw from Warsaw - a counteroffensive by their main force resulted in the fall of Sandomierz). Everywhere enthusiastically received by the Poles, Poniatowski was thus able to liberate large areas of Galicia (for a while as far as Lvov on May 27 and beyond) and by July (in a separate, masterful raid, intended to preempt the Russians, already after Austria was dealt by Napoleon the defeat at Wagram), Cracow.
Before that, in the first days of July, Poniatowski concentrated his main forces west of the Vistula, near Radom, and began his new southbound offensive there on July 5, the day of the Wagram battle. The demoralized Austrian corps was now limited to only stalling. Their commander tried to arrange for a Russian, rather than Polish takeover of Cracow.
To Cracow Poniatowski hurried from Pulawy, but the Russians, stationed in Tarnow, were much closer. The Austrian commander in Cracow signed surrender papers when the most advanced detachment of Poniatowski's party reached the city on July 14 (Austrian last resistance was broken by General Aleksander Rozniecki, a gifted and accomplished cavalry man, Grande Armee's division commander in 1812, but later tsarist secret police chief and persecutor of his own), but negotiated a twelve-hour cessation of hostilities and notified of it his Russian counterpart. When Poniatowski arrived on the 15th, he found the street leading to the bridge on the Vistula (the Podgorze suburb on the other side of the river was still in Austrian hands) blocked by Russian hussar cavalry in attack formation. Later on the same day he reported to Napoleon in writing: "Their commanding officer didn't want to let me through and I had to make an opening myself. I raised up my horse and came down on the unit, so that several of them flipped in the air as they were falling..."
As a result of Napoleon's victory over Austria (to which Poniatowski also contributed by tying up Ferdinand's forces in Poland), as well as of this Polish offensive, and of the fact that Poniatowski had Polish administration and military structure in place there for some time, making it difficult for Napoleon to compromise the Polish gains for political expediency, most of the liberated lands became then incorporated into the Duchy through the peace treaty of October 14, 1809.
It was the only militarily successful campaign of Polish forces in all of the 18th and 19th centuries, the period of national decline and progressive loss of independence (actually between Sobieski's relief of Vienna from the Turks in 1683 and Pilsudski's victory over the Bolsheviks in 1920) and it made Poniatowski's name reverberate throughout Europe. The victory was preceded and followed by Russian and Austrian offers of high position for Poniatowski (the Polish crown was tantalizingly being mentioned) and autonomy for Poland, in return for him and his army switching to their side.
The liberation of Cracow was the high point in the great warrior's career and one of the brightest moments during the tragic period of partitions in Poland. Leaving to Dabrowski a triumphant return of the army to Warsaw (December 18), himself celebrated by the residents of the ancient royal capital of Poland, as the head of the Galician provisional government (in existence June 2 - December 28) Poniatowski remained in Cracow until the end of December. Felt that his presence there, with his ever more powerful army, was the best assurance that Cracow, still demanded by the Austrians, will remain in Polish hands. He refused to receive in person Hugo Kollataj, who wanted to present his proposed legislation concerning revival of the medieval Jagiellonian University and reform of the school system, but working through intermediaries signed and praised this important document. In still another involvement with educational affairs supported Polish candidates for faculty positions.
In 1810 there was a conspiracy among those Polish military officers, who believed that the alliance with Napoleon was not going to lead Poland to a fully restored statehood; they were in contact with German conspiracies of that time. They unsuccessfully tried to persuade Poniatowski to join their cause, and so did soon afterwards Tsar Alexander, preparing for a war with France, on whose behalf Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, the Tsar's friend and adviser, spoke with Poniatowski in February of 1811. Alexander wanted an allegiance of the Polish army, which was combat tested, well equipped, and by then counted over 65,000 and growing (even if underfunded and dispersed, with large segments outside of the country); he was offering an autonomous Polish state, considerably larger than the Duchy of Warsaw (some or all of the lands held by Russia were to be added, and if successful, the alliance could lead to further border changes at the expense of the other partitioning powers). In Poniatowski's hands rested his nation's destiny: Had he negotiated with the Tsar (at this one moment the Polish bargaining position was strong) and abandoned Napoleon, for the better or worse the history of Poland would have taken a different route (the Polish crown was to be offered by Alexander once more, right before the onset of the Moscow campaign).
The legacy - part one.
Poniatowski's (and Napoleon's) contribution had a long lasting and fundamental historical effect: The Duchy of Warsaw remained, through its future incarnations, as a residual Polish state to the end of the partitions period. From 1815 (after the Congress of Vienna) as an autonomous Kingdom of Poland, after the November Rising of 1830 as a nominal Kingdom of Poland, and after the January Rising of 1863 as an administrative territory. It was resurrected again as the Kingdom of Poland in 1916, to become an embryonic structure for the independent Polish state, the Second Republic, which came into existence in 1918. Had Poniatowski not defended the Duchy against the Austrians, there would have been no Kingdom of Poland and no historic chance of the November Rising (for the participants of which the tradition of his heroism provided a major source of inspiration). Although in a greatly reduced form, Napoleon and Poniatowski did return Poland to the map of Europe.
Prince Jozef Poniatowski thus links the past of nobles and elected kings, of which he was a part, with the modern future of national independence, for which he provided whatever continuity was attainable. That became possible because unlike Kosciuszko, who by making unrealistic (and unnecessary) demands first on Napoleon, and later on Tsar Alexander, effectively removed himself from participation in Poland's affairs, Poniatowski was willing to compromise, and to work on what was a practical opportunity, but one that was limited in scope, and therefore not satisfactory from the point of view of the Polish history and aspirations (he considered the Duchy a transitional solution and his final objective was the same as Kosciuszko's).
There was the old Poland, which Stanislaw August and briefly Kosciuszko led when she was lost, and the new Poland, which Pilsudski led when she was regained. The framework of what happened during the over one hundred years in between (in particular from 1806 to 1918) was determined to a large extend by Jozef Poniatowski's actions. This historical perspective and this historic role make him the central figure of the (broadly understood) Polish independence movement.
Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812.
Frederick Augustus I, king of Saxony, was also the duke of Warsaw. Poniatowski was loyal and on good terms with him, but no closeness developed here (Offered the title of field marshal in the Saxon army, showed no interest. More importantly however, the feasibility of his marriage with Frederick's only daughter Maria Augusta Nepomucena, whose affection for the Prince, twenty years her senior, lasted for the duration of her maiden life, was also considered by the King. Augusta remained single not for the lack of suitors, the Austrian emperor being one of them, but Poniatowski did not pursue this opportunity either.) In April of 1811 Poniatowski went to Paris, where he represented the monarch at Napoleon's son's baptism ceremonies. He stayed there for four months and worked with Napoleon and his generals on plans for the campaign against Russia (in addition to reporting on the Russian designs on France and Poland and attempting to get him to outbid the Alexander's offer). Tried but failed to convince the French leaders that the southern route, through the Ukraine, where the climate was warmer, supplies would be easier, Polish gentry from the Russian partition would join in, and Turkish action against Russia could be supported, was the most advantageous theater for the upcoming war. (Barring this favored scenario, Poniatowski's second choice was to have his Polish corps sent into Wolyn and the Ukraine alone, and to take these areas over with the expected help from a Polish uprising planned there. Such course of action was however opposed by the Duchy's treasury minister, Tadeusz Matuszewicz, who favored Prince Adam Czartoryski as the future leader of Poland, wanted to keep Poniatowski out of Czartoryski's territory, and on the eve of the war, together with the leaders of the conservative Galician and Ukrainian Polish nobility, gained some influence with Napoleon. Here the Emperor made one of his fatal errors, because the Russians were quick to fill the resulting southeastern vacuum with their own forces and went on the offensive there, moving north deeply into the Grande Armee's rear end, eventually also threatening Warsaw, by then largely devoid of troops: Only 1500 auxiliaries under the ill Deputy Minister of War, General Jozef Wielhorski were left there.) In France though, for Poniatowski it was not only work and official duties - romantically involved, he frequently visited Napoleon's beautiful sister, Pauline Borghese, at her Neuilly residence.
In June of 1812, together with 100,000 of his fellow Poles (the largest of the contingents provided by any of the states allied with France and the greatest Polish military effort before the 20th century), Poniatowski joined Napoleon's great Moscow expedition as commander of the V Corps of the Grande Armee, composed of nearly 40,000 soldiers, mostly Poles and Saxons, and divided into three divisions, under generals Zajaczek, Dabrowski, and Kamieniecki (later Karol Kniaziewicz, distinguished veteran leader of the Polish Legions and a moral authority). 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 (he typically commented the nomination as being "well beyond his strength and abilities"), 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. For now however, Poniatowski saw himself as "Running like a poisoned rat... while the enemy forces are retreating very well... their maneuver being intelligently designed and flawlessly implemented" and compared the entire French led undertaking to that of Xerxes in antiquity.) Fighting on the avant-garde on the advance to Moscow Poniatowski participated in many battles and distinguished himself at Smolensk (August 17), where he personally led his corps' assault on the city, which lasted more than a day under murderous artillery fire.
At Borodino, where the V Corps fought a major battle of its own, Poniatowski led his men from preliminary actions (September 4) and through the final onslaught again, overcame the enemy, and decisively contributed to the defeat of the Russian left flank (it took a whole day of fighting until the Utitza Mound was taken in the evening of September 7, and it happened only after Poniatowski, having put his infantry in tight formation at the center, cavalry on the sides, and himself in front, led them up the hill; the Russians withdrew a distance of "several cannon shots" and in good order, taking with them their dead and wounded). Afterwards however, fearing a catastrophic setback, recommended that further offensive be suspended. Again and again Poniatowski insisted on opening a new southern front using the Polish forces, and each time Napoleon strongly rejected his ideas, during one such exchange threatening him with court marshal for insubordination. Resumed active participation within Murat's great advance, heading for and entering Moscow (Polish units moved into the Russian capital first, on September 14), by which time unlike Napoleon, Poniatowski had no illusions as to the final conclusion. But he never lost his fighter's spirit and in the following weeks demonstrated repeatedly both the physical prowess and mental stamina, soundness and quickness of mind in the middle of a melee, self-sufficiency and good judgment, as he personally led cavalry assaults that on occasions rescued French units in great difficulty. Ordered to open up the Moscow-Kaluga highway, at Chirikovo on September 29 Poniatowski and only the Polish corps (by then reduced to seven thousand) fought a victorious battle with a superior Russian force, and stayed there the next two weeks guarding the passage. On October 18 Kutuzov surprised and attacked Murat at Vinkovo. In one of his finest battles Poniatowski with his corps saved Murat from a complete rout, paying for it with the death of one of his most trusted generals and an embodiment of soldierly virtues, Chief of Staff of the Duchy army, Stanislaw Fiszer. He himself, surrounded by the Cossacks, was saved by his closest aides, Kicki and Kamieniecki.
Rearguarding the retreat of the Grande Armee (or what was left of it) Poniatowski became badly wounded during the Viazma battle on October 29, but still participated in heavy combat. On November 2 and 3 helped redeem an almost surrounded Davout. On November 3 his condition forced him to give up his command (it was handed over to Zajaczek).
Disabled continued the westward trip in a carriage (for which the Emperor, himself securely protected by elite Polish lancer formations, specified particular escort arrangements), meeting on November 16 Napoleon, who traveled on foot with a cane and stopped to chat. A few days later Poniatowski barely survived the Berezina crossing, where the Polish forces stopped a major Russian attack, saving Napoleon from a final defeat. His carriage bogged down in traffic 3/4 of a mile before the bridge, with the Russians quickly approaching, one of his aides begged and bribed Napoleon's guards, who then shouting "per Emperor's order", pushed off the road all the vehicles ahead.
Joining Napoleon's 1813 Campaign.
On December 12 Poniatowski returned to Warsaw, where, while recovering from his injuries, he energetically commenced the rebuilding of the Polish army. With its formation only partially completed (total forces of the Duchy of Warsaw were brought back to over 30,000, despite the fact that only about 20% of the Polish soldiers, mostly wounded or sick, lived through the Russian campaign, and just a few hundred survived and returned as the V Corps; unlike any of the other corps, they managed to bring back all of their standards and cannons), on February 5, as the Russian army was about to enter Warsaw, Poniatowski with his forces moved out and proceeded eventually to Cracow (From Cracow he'll take with him the Krakusi - peasant cavalry regiments which he was the first one to create and which he'll call his "front guard regiments". They rode small peasant horses and were soon to gain fame for fighting fiercely and with bravado at Lobau, Leipzig, where one of their units, under Captain Puzyna, served as Poniatowski's last escort before his death, and beyond; highly useful to Napoleon and highly decorated by him). Cracow gave him a hero's welcome again, and Poniatowski spent there the last few happy weeks in his life, seemingly untroubled by the gravity of rapidly approaching events. On May 7, as the Russians were getting close again, while the previously allied Austria moved toward neutrality and allowed Prince Jozef's army only a passage through its territory, he went from Cracow through Bohemia to Saxony, to join Napoleon and his 1813 offensive in Germany. The total strength of the Polish troops brought there was 22,000, which included Dabrowski's division, formally under Poniatowski's command, but geographically separated and operationally independent.
Throughout this period he refused several offers of clemency and pro-Russian involvement from Tsar Alexander, again often communicated through Prince Adam Czartoryski, who as the leader of the Polish pro-Russian faction was an intermediary, as well as initiator and promoter of such contacts (oddly, it was Czartoryski, who after Poniatowski's death initiated the statue building undertaking, a project that it took many decades to complete; today the monument, by the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen, is prominently displayed in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw).
As the Polish VIII Corps (infantry) and IV Corps (reserve cavalry led by Sokolnicki), from mid-August they became entangled in numerous battles and skirmishes. On September 9 at Lobau, where Sergeant Godlewski of the Krakusi regiment got the main Cossack banner (fighting the feared Cossacks became Krakusi's specialty) the corps gained ground and withstood attacks from an overwhelming force. Their role, from then and until the end, was to slow down enemy progress, or at times of better fortune pursue its retreating units (on one such occasion in early September they found themselves near Prague again), while protecting the main French force, which in effect was gradually withdrawing toward the location of an inevitable showdown. In late September the Polish corps was for a number of days involved in heavy combat near Dresden. In the first half of October the combined Russian and Austrian forces, aiming at Leipzig, opened a major offensive from the south. On October 10 at Zedtlitz General Pahlen attempted to stop the Polish columns marching toward Borna. In response Poniatowski led a cavalry attack and in bloody fight lost 300 men, but took 500 prisoners, for the time being broke the enemy advance, and allowed himself further movement in the direction of Leipzig. This time Napoleon (apparently touched by his uphill, but effective struggle to rejoin the Emperor's forces on his own) honored Poniatowski publicly, corresponded with him and consulted him frequently, and in one of the Grande Armee Bulletins he wrote "In all of these encounters Poniatowski gained glory for himself".
On October 12 Poniatowski rescued Murat from a dangerous predicament. They were both just about to sit down at the breakfast table, when Poniatowski realized that enemy units were approaching them. He got on his horse, broke through, and returned with a timely and successful cavalry charge (during which display of valor and camaraderie Poniatowski got wounded in the arm). It was the King of Naples, who then recommended to Napoleon that Poniatowski be named Marshal of the Empire.
The Battle of Nations.
The nomination was announced on the Leipzig battlefield by the Emperor on October 16, and it was the only such rank granted a foreigner. By the end of that first day of the battle Poniatowski lost one third of his soldiers and as many officers, and he himself was wounded twice, but the corps stood its ground, and by defending its sector against attacks from the enemy of threefold the corps' manpower, prevented their attempts to cut off the main French force from Leipzig. In a counterattack by the Polish corps together with Napoleon's Old Guard 2000 prisoners were taken, including the Austrian general Merveldt, whose division was destroyed. The general was quickly used by Napoleon as a liaison, sent to the allied forces Schwarzenberg's camp with an armistice offer, which however received no reply. On October 17 the allied forces gained a clear upper hand and on the 18th undertook a general attack (strengthened by the Saxons and other Germans, who at this crucial moment switched to their side).
Poniatowski counterattacked, leading into the action each of his battalions in turn (Tsar Alexander watched this from one of the nearby hills), but with the rest of the French army was compelled to withdraw toward the city. His staff was now mostly wiped out, and when early on October 19 he was told by Napoleon to cover the rearguard and protect general evacuation (the Poles were ordered to reverse their own withdrawal in progress, and to go on the counteroffensive), he complained that he had only 800 men left, but assured of his will to fight to the last one (Better 800 brave, than 8000 other - replied the Emperor). His forces augmented to some 3000, Poniatowski formed the first line of defense, with Augereau, Macdonald and Victor behind him, but the effort, faced with an overwhelming at this point superiority of the enemy, became chaotic after only two hours. With the handful of his Polish lancers left he led repeated counterattacks, and in his last, victorious charge against a Prussian battalion, rescued retreating Macdonald's units.
Around noon, together with Macdonald, with one thousand soldiers left, they made the last attempt to stabilize the defense. Poniatowski led his last bayonet attack, and received a bayonet thrust wound above the heart. He managed to cross the Pleisse River (his horse drowned under him, but he made it to the other side with help, and was given another one). The Prince, by that time wounded many times and getting very weak, even then encouraged those few who still accompanied him to persevere, refused the last advice and pleas to surrender himself, and expressed his determination not to be taken a prisoner alive.
The Lindenau Bridge on the Elster River, which was the only evacuation route in the area, set to be destroyed when the evacuation was complete was exploded prematurely, trapping behind thousands of soldiers. Poniatowski was among them, and as he was riding along the Elster (young Ludwik Kicki was one of the last of his aides wounded and fallen behind - Kicki will die at forty as general in the November Rising) looking for a suitable crossing point, he saw approaching enemy soldiers and spurred his horse into the overflowing river, full of debris and bodies. Just short of reaching the other bank, the dying marshal slipped off his horse and fell into the murky water. As it all took place under heavy sniper fire (he already had several bullet wounds in him), some believe that Poniatowski was shot once more before his final fall.
A French aide, Captain Hippolytus Blechamps, who was one of those assisting the Prince through the Pleisse just before and who remained nearby, rushed in to help him again, and for a short while this heroic individual struggled to keep Poniatowski's head above the water, until the powerful current submerged them both.
Assessment and Polish historical context.
Having always paid extreme attention to matters of appearance, this grand finale of his life Poniatowski executed with an almost theatrical gallantry - at the end of the road history was clearly on his mind. But no one had an interest in killing him, and before departing for his final campaign Poniatowski expressed his doubts and misgivings about his own survival and return. There are indications that - as the negative outcome was shaping up - he arrived at the point of seeing no further role for himself, and from that time on he intended only to "perish with honor".
A courageous fighter himself, Poniatowski was a cautious commander and tended to avoid confrontation with a stronger enemy (rejected Kosciuszko's advice on engaging the Russians in a decisive battle in 1792, while letting him fight "his own" Dubienka battle; would not defend Warsaw directly in 1809). At other times he moved aggressively, on many occasions joining the fight in person, leading infantry bayonet attacks as well as cavalry charges. During military campaigns, preoccupied with combat, he often became neglectful of the support, infrastructure, supply, and also of the organizational and operational aspects of active warfare, for which he was criticized by Napoleon (in particular he balked at "supplying" his troops at the expense of local civilian populations).
A child of the "ancien regime" society, Poniatowski accepted social change of the revolutionary times, although in his younger years at times grudgingly, and became a centrist politician representing moderate nobility as well as non-nobility (two of his generals, Maurycy Hauke and Jozef Rautenstrauch, a personal friend, were from burgher families). He was an enthusiastic supporter of the May 3 Constitution and a member of the Friends of the Constitution Association - an early political party. During the passage of the document by the Sejm Poniatowski stood in the room with a group of uhlans (in his role as commander of the Royal Infantry Guard) to prevent an armed intervention by its opponents. That aim was also served by the military forces under young prince's command, that surrounded the royal palace where constitutional proceedings took place. Unlike most members of the Polish nobility, he could not have objected to Kosciuszko's efforts to emancipate the serfs, since he himself, already back in 1792, wrote the following: "If Your Royal Highness in the beginning of this campaign - since it was not being anticipated (prepared) militarily - had moved the whole country, mounting a horse with the nobility, arming the towns, and giving freedom to the peasants, we would have either perished with honor, or Poland would have been retained as a great power..." (young Prince Jozef's prescription for saving Poland was simple, correctly identified the country's basic ills, and could very well be effective, except that it required the one thing that he was not going to get: The King's active participation). As a member of the Duchy of Warsaw government on October 28, 1808 he spoke of "oppression by the landlords", insisted that peasants should be made eligible for the post of wojt (chief officer of a rural township; all such offices were in the hands of local nobles at that time), and prevailed on this point. Similarly earlier, in 1807, when working on a projected Polish regiment of the French guard, proposed that nobles, townsmen, and farming village dwellers alike should be allowed, excluding only persons of bad record or reputation. For his services in the Duchy's government and army Poniatowski chose not to be paid, and in fact significantly contributed from his private resources.
On the eve of the 1812 war a heated debate took place, concerning the shape of the future (expected) Poland (Napoleon already allowed the Kingdom of Poland to be proclaimed). The upper nobility wanted a return of the May 3 Constitution, which many of them had opposed at the time of its creation as too radical, but which seemed rather conservative now. The lower classes favored the more progressive provisions of the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw Constitution. Poniatowski sided unequivocally with the latter and back in March of 1809 also argued against allowing the courts to apply any other code. His social views were apparently close to Kosciuszko's (probably influenced by him), and not to those of the mainstream Polish establishment, of which, possibly because of his foreign origin, Poniatowski never really became a part.
Not at all megalomanic or assuming, quite to the contrary modest and kind, had a sense of his own limitations, and when confronted with a task that he believed was beyond his means, would appeal (to no avail) to whoever issued the orders to choose "a greater man" for the assignment. A cosmopolitan aristocrat of his time, he spoke and wrote fluently in French (in that language he talked to his mother and corresponded with Stanislaw August), German, and Polish, which for a person brought up abroad he picked up from the father's family and servants surprisingly well. Had a sense of humor, and the members of the Duchy government (of which Stanislaw Kostka Potocki, Ignacy's brother, was the chief and most prominent one), most of whom were older than Poniatowski, were sometimes the subjects of his jokes, or caricatures drawn during government meetings. Had an interest in theater and music; regularly attended spectacles including the premiere of Mozart's opera "Don Juan" in Vienna, played keyboard instruments and a portable one was carried for him during military campaigns. Suffered from occasional spells of mild depression.
His relationships with the more radical generals (and especially with Kollataj's radical wing), such as Kosciuszko (their interactions were cool, but mutually courteous and respectful, and at times there was more to it than that: Kosciuszko made repeated attempts to get Poniatowski more wholeheartedly involved in his Insurrection effort, while Poniatowski never allowed himself or his supporters to oppose the former subordinate) and Zajaczek (his rivalry was of a rather hostile nature and he challenged Poniatowski's authority, despite Prince's occasional conciliatory gestures) were not easy, and he had to cope with the ambitions of another great fighter and Napoleon's faithful, Dabrowski (after Poniatowski's death Napoleon made Dabrowski chief commander of the Polish forces that were still remaining loyal at his side - an overdue recognition for the man, who spent his lifetime fighting tirelessly for Poland and for the Emperor at every opportunity; ironically, he and Poniatowski were both native German speakers). However, in a memorial written for Napoleon early in 1807, Poniatowski defended Kosciuszko's unwillingness to get involved under the French emperor, blaming it on his great rival's past patriotic disappointments and stressing the heavy burden of his unique moral responsibility. There he argued that restoration of Poland's independence is essential to Europe's (not just Poland's) interests.
Poniatowski took an extraordinary interest in the welfare of those, who fought with him, including especially those of the lowest ranks. Even during the last hours of his life he was reported to be making arrangements for helping the families of his fallen comrades out of his estate.
He remained faithful to Napoleon, on a number of occasions refusing the temptation of Prussian, Austrian, and Russian offers, even when it became apparent that these powers were going to gain the upper hand in Poland. However, by that late time of the final decision to leave Cracow in May of 1813, the chief had not received any political guarantees from the Russians or anybody else, that would justify a radical change of direction by a realistic assessment of the national interest. The overriding importance of this last factor and his own ultimate independence Poniatowski at that time expressed clearly when speaking to France's representative Bignon: "I pay homage to the greatness and might of the Emperor, but if he required me to take steps contrary to the salvation of my fatherland, I could not obey him." It was a well known controversy, raised back then by those seeking reconciliation with Russia, whether the taking of the army out of Poland was done to further the case of Polish independence, or whether it was mainly an expression of Poniatowski's personal ambition or obligation. He himself long agonized over the decision, in the end having the reasons to believe that following Napoleon, while possibly a long shot, was the only chance. While others advocated a local offensive, national insurrection or alternate military moves, the Prince had a small army and a plan in his head, and would not be swayed.
Poniatowski was a noble character and a glorious man. In Napoleon's words "brimming with honor and bravery" ("God, honor and fatherland" was his motto), he was highly regarded not only by the Emperor (who after the Prince's death wrote "The grief that the entire army feels is beyond description...") and others whom he served, but also by his adversaries, including Tsar Alexander. The latter, a year after Poniatowski's death (Mokronowski, Dabrowski, Sokolnicki, and most importantly Czartoryski prompted the Tsar and helped with bringing the body from Leipzig and funeral arrangements; famous Krakusi peasant cavalrymen provided honorary escort for the returning casket, and Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a national sage of utmost moral authority, wrote the elegies) allowed a funeral in Warsaw with full military honors. A legend already in his own time, Poniatowski's cult developed in the 19th century in Poland and abroad, and was in part promoted by the faction of Adam Czartoryski and other conservative circles, who adopted him as their symbol, while in fact were opposed to him when he was alive.
In 1817 Prince Jozef Poniatowski was permanently laid to rest in St. Leonard's Crypt of the Wawel Cathedral in Cracow, among the Polish kings and in the same crypt with John III Sobieski, where he was soon joined (next to him) by Kosciuszko, and later by Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Pilsudski, and Sikorski, who were also buried in the Cathedral.
Napoleon Bonaparte characterized Poniatowski as follows: "He was a real king, had all the necessary traits of character. Had nobleness of a chief, magnificence, humanity, the same in seriousness and in play, soul". And as historian and Poniatowski's biographer Jerzy Skowronek aptly put it, "By his heroism, determination and death Prince Jozef Poniatowski came to symbolize the dramatic era of selfless yearnings and Polish disasters, and in some measure by his name he lifted the nation and added luster to it..."
The legacy - part two.
Jozef Poniatowski's first legacy was that of the positive result on the ground. This second one is of the example he set, of the minds he inspired, and of the spirit he helped sustain during an over a century of struggle, darkness, and hardship, which in Poland followed the time of his death.
(Quotations in the second paragraph taken from POLAND THE ROUGH GUIDE book by Mark Salter and Gordon McLachlan)
Andrew Gugalo's Home Page | Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org | Revised on 210th anniversary of May 3 Constitution.