In the Polish calendar of anniversaries, which is excessively full of tragic events, we can also find victories. Unfortunately, in the media and in the speeches of politicians, our military successes usually remain in the shadow of pompously celebrated defeats.
But let’s not be fooled by the professional “tear-jerkers” and the anti-myth chanters about Poles supposedly doomed only to defeats! So, as part of a historical detox, let’s take a look – on the bicentennial – at one of the most brilliant military campaigns in the history of the struggle for the freedom of the Republic, all the more difficult because it was fought simultaneously against enemies and allies.
The small Duchy of Warsaw and the great policy of Vienna
The Duchy of Warsaw, established in 1807, had many shortcomings from the Polish point of view. Emperor Napoleon created it exclusively from the lands of the second and third Prussian partitions, so the state covered only a small part of the pre-partition Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (104,000 square kilometers with a population of 2.6 million), and due to the protests of Tsar Alexander I it could not even bear the name of the “forever liquidated” Polish State. A foreign monarch, King Frederick Augustus Wettin of Saxony (grandson of Augustus III of Saxony), became the Prince of Warsaw.
The economy of the duchy was burdened with excessive charges to the allied French army, and much of the small armed forces were diverted to Spain to perform what was then a kind of stabilization mission in a country gripped by unrest and anti-French partisanship. All these shortcomings, however, were overshadowed by the fact that the Duchy of Warsaw was – despite everything – a Polish State, brought back to life against the will of the majority of European powers.
The reforms forced by the failures
To defeat them all at once was an impossibility even for the brilliant Corsican. He could, however, beat our partitioners one by one. And he did so, in France’s best interests. In 1806 Napoleon defeated Prussia, and just a few years later it was Austria’s turn. The Habsburg Empire, despite its recent severe defeat (1805) and “degradation” through the formal dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (1806), was still a power both militarily and politically.
The military reforms enforced by the defeats in the wars with France had greatly improved the numbers and quality of the imperial armed forces, and developments in Spain unfavorable to Paris (an English-backed uprising against the new king, Joseph Bonaparte) gave reason to believe in victory over France. In February 1809 the government of the Most Reverend Francis I, having been promised financial support by London, decided to initiate hostilities.
In Vienna it was well known that in view of the neutrality of Russia (then at war with Turkey and Sweden) one of the decisive factors for victory would be the attitude of Prussia, a country with every reason to seek retaliation against the French. However, the fear of another, perhaps final, defeat was still strong in Berlin. The wavering attitude of Frederick William III demanded that extraordinary measures be taken. It was decided in Vienna to take the Duchy of Warsaw by force of arms, and then to return its territory to Prussia, thus sealing the anti-Napoleonic alliance at the expense of Poland.
Third Front of the Fifth Coalition
The Austrian leadership took a serious approach to the campaign on the “Northern Front”. To fight against the armed forces of the Duchy of Warsaw VII Corps was sent, created in March 1809 in Galicia, commanded by Archduke Ferdinand Karl Habsburg d’Este, despite his young age (28 years) an experienced officer, participant in the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz. Under his command were about 24,500 infantry soldiers and 4,500 cavalrymen and 94 guns in 14 batteries, forming an infantry division (6 regiments in 3 brigades), a reinforced cavalry division (5 horse regiments and 2 light infantry battalions) and a strong detachment brigade (3 infantry regiments and 1 horse regiment). It is worth mentioning that a significant part of the infantry (perhaps even as much as one-fourth) consisted of Poles from Galicia, who were compulsorily conscripted into the Imperial Army.
Strike towards the capital
The defenders’ forces were much more modest. Commander-in-Chief, the then 46-year-old Major General Prince Józef Poniatowski, a former colonel in the Habsburg army and adjutant to Emperor Joseph II, had only 15,500 soldiers in seven infantry and five cavalry regiments and 27 guns at his disposal. The Saxon king rushed to the aid of the Poles, sending to the Duchy, however, rather symbolic forces: 3 infantry battalions, two cavalry squadrons and 12 cannons. Russia, formally allied with France, also became the nominal ally of the Duchy, but Russian “help” had, as usual, dire consequences for the Poles.
The Austro-French War broke out on 10 April 1809 on two fronts – the German and the Italian. The Habsburg army took the strategic initiative and struck first, entering Bavaria, allied with France. Surprised, the French went into retreat, awaiting the arrival of the Emperor and his assumption of command. The initial successes encouraged Vienna to attack in the north as well. In mid-April the Austrian corps opened its third war front. It crossed the border Pilica river and entered the territory of the Duchy of Warsaw, heading towards its capital. After a few days the enemy arrived in the vicinity of Warsaw, panic-stricken because of the significant advantage of the enemy and the expected defeat. Against all circumstances prince Józef decided to resist the invader, although he did not delude himself that it would be possible to repel the enemy from the capital. What might have seemed defeatism, however, turned out to be a deeply thought-out strategy leading to victory.
Raszyn: a draw with an indication
In the morning of April 19th, Austrian reconnaissance detected Polish units prepared for defense in the vicinity of Falenty and Raszyn, at the junction of Krakow and Wroclaw routes, i.e. the expected direction of the Austrians’ arrival. The defensive positions were chosen correctly. The nearby creek and wide floodplains, along with the wooded area, made it difficult for the attackers to engage in maneuverable combat, forcing the Austrians to attack through narrow, easily blocked dikes. This effectively reduced the enemy’s numerical superiority.
At the critical moment he personally stood at the head of the soldiers and with a rifle in his hands, not letting go of his favorite pipe, led the assault column to a counterattack that prevented the defense from being broken. Inspired by this Napoleonic bravado of their commander, the soldiers continued to hold the key positions blocking the way to Warsaw. Before nightfall however the bloodied and exhausted Polish battalions were forced to retreat from the causeway. The Austrians approached Raszyn, over which a fierce battle ensued. The attackers were outnumbered and the town was captured by the Austrians.
A difficult and unpopular decision
Their further attack was stopped by a heavy fire of Saxon and Polish artillery. Poles and Saxon infantrymen also launched a fatal counterattack and recaptured Raszyn, or rather its ruins. Colonel Cyprian Godebski, an officer, intellectual, famous poet and prose writer, who had been wounded earlier, died at that time. Before midnight the fighting stopped. The bloodied forces of the Duchy, which that day suffered over 10% losses in killed and wounded, were weakened by the departure of Saxon troops, called back to their threatened homeland. In this situation Prince Poniatowski made a difficult and unpopular decision. He decided to retreat to Warsaw under cover of darkness.
The Austrians realized that the defenders had left only on the morning of the next day. Although they won a tactical victory, taking part of the battlefield, they paid a high price for it, losing nearly 2,500 dead and wounded. They did not manage to finally crush the Poles or turn their retreat into a panicked escape. Still, VII Corps remained a formidable fighting force, capable of dealing a heavy blow to the Duchy’s troops in the field.
An indicator of who had won the war
Despite his awareness of his own superiority, Archduke Ferdinand feared the siege of Warsaw because he lacked heavy artillery and engineering troops. So he agreed to start negotiations on surrender of the city. The negotiations started already the next day after the Battle of Raszyn. Rather unexpectedly, they brought very favorable conditions for the Poles. In the plans of the commanders of the opposing armies there were quite different accents. Archduke Ferdinand decided that political considerations were more important and that capturing the enemy’s capital was an excellent indicator of who was winning the war.
General Poniatowski, on the other hand, thought that strategic motives were more important, and above all, preserving the chances of continuing the fight until the expected victory of the French on the main fronts. By leaving the capital without a fight, Prince Joseph exposed himself to criticism and public dislike, but he gained freedom of manoeuvre and, most importantly, gave the enemy a “poisoned apple”, since the occupation of Warsaw itself required the commitment of some troops, and at the same time could not bring military benefits because the fortified Praga district remained in Polish hands, and the Vistula crossings were held in check by artillery.
As early as a week after the battle of Raszyn (April 26), Poles dispersed the enemy troops participating in the siege of Praga near Grochów, and encouraging news reached Poland from the main war front, where Napoleon’s army defeated the Austrians at Eckmühl. In the following days VII Corps units unsuccessfully tried to break through to the Prussian border in order to gain such a necessary ally. In May, the Austrians attempted to occupy Płock and Toruń (the temporary seat of the Duchy’s civil authorities) with separate forces, and an attempt to cross the Vistula near Żerań was thwarted by the Poles. The main forces of the Duchy of Warsaw were already elsewhere.
The Galician Spring of Freedom
While the Archduke d’Este decided to set off downstream, the Polish commander-in-chief chose the opposite direction. During the night of May 7-8, Prince Joseph crossed the border of the Third Austrian Partition, heading for Lublin. The city was captured already on May 10, and Deblin was liberated the next day. The capture of Sandomierz and Zamość was of crucial importance; on the one hand it broke the connection of VII Corps with the Austrian “rear” and on the other opened the way to Eastern Galicia for the Poles.
Sandomierz capitulated on May 18, and the fighting for heavily fortified Zamosc lasted until May 20. The first attack, which was bloodily repulsed by the soldiers of the Duchy, showed that a thorough reconnaissance of the enemy positions was necessary. This was done by Captain Strzelecki, a graduate of the Austrian Academy of Engineering, who disguised as a peasant, with a hoe on his shoulder, unhindered, went around and inspected the enemy fortifications.
The information he gained contributed to the capture of the town together with considerable war supplies and a substantial sum of one million florins, found in the cashier’s office of the fortress command. The siege would probably have lasted longer had it not been for the attitude of the Galician recruits in the imperial service, who were not enthusiastic about the fratricidal battle.
The news of the successes in Galicia was certainly mitigated by the unfavorable news from Vienna, where Archduke Charles managed to defeat the French under Napoleon himself in a bloody battle at Aspern and Essling (May 16-17). The Polish cavalry set off in droves deep into Galicia, greeted enthusiastically by their compatriots, who had been awaiting liberation from the heavy hand of the Habsburgs since 1772. It should be remembered that the Austrian regime was the most severe one at that time, combining political repression and extensive Germanization of the country with ruthless tax drain and conscription of recruits for service on the distant frontiers of the Empire.
In the face of serious problems of the Grand Army gathering forces for the decisive battle with difficulty, no clear instructions were sent. Therefore, the Commander-in-Chief decided to apply the accomplished facts method and ordered General Rożniecki to form a civil administration, and de facto a provisional government of the liberated Galician lands. A military intendant’s office was also organized to supply not only the regiments of the Duchy of Warsaw, but also newly formed volunteer formations. Poles from Volhynia and Podolia, which were under Russian annexation, also joined them in large numbers. This was too much for the “allies” from the East.
False ally – true enemy
Russia, having fought against France twice in the space of a few years (1805, 1806-7) and at the same time engaged in wars in the north and south, could not afford an open conflict with Napoleon. It remained formally his ally, thus becoming – against its will – an ally of the Duchy of Warsaw, a state regarded as a dangerous breach in the “final solution of the Polish question”, in force since 1795. A test of the value of this alliance was the entry of Austrian troops into the Duchy of Warsaw. Even before the Battle of Raszyn, letters were sent from Warsaw to the French and Saxon ambassadors in St. Petersburg with a request to obtain military assistance from the Russians against the aggressors.
Tsar Alexander personally assured diplomats that his army would enter Galicia and Russia would break off diplomatic relations with Austria. In reality, in accordance with the secret treaty with Vienna, he exercised far-reaching restraint, ordering Prince Golitsyn, commander of a 70,000-strong corps stationed on the western border of the empire, not to take military steps too hastily.
However, the spontaneous actions of Poles in the Austrian partition, which even took insurrectionary forms, greatly alarmed the Russian ruling elite. They feared, and not without justification, that the Duchy united with Galicia would in the future strive to regain the eastern lands of the former Republic. It was therefore necessary to take up arms, officially against Austria, but in reality against the Poles.
The protests went unheeded
The Russians were well aware of the difficult strategic position of France, still far from triumphing in the war and practically unable to support the Poles with military force. Poniatowski, rightly fearing the ill intentions of his false ally, decided to take another step towards the actual integration of Galician lands into the Duchy of Warsaw.
On 2 June 1809, allegedly on Napoleon’s orders, he set up the Central Government of both Galicia, with its seat in Lwów, acting as host to Russian troops. At the same time he initiated correspondence with Prince Golitsyn, whom he tried to persuade to start military action against Archduke Ferdinand’s corps, still remaining in the Duchy. The next day the Russians marched west, but not towards Warsaw, but towards Lvov. The Austrians left the capital of the Duchy and went on the offensive, defeating weak Polish troops in successive clashes and recapturing Sandomierz on June 18 and Lviv on June 21.
A week later the Russian army entered the capital of Galicia, welcomed friendly by the Austrian authorities. General Müller-Zakomelski soon announced to the Polish allies that he had just been appointed “military governor of Lvov and the country occupied by the Russian army”, and that “persons elected to the government by the Polish army may no longer hold office”. General Poniatowski’s protests went unheeded. The Duchy’s army, reinforced by numerous Galician volunteers, launched an offensive against the Austrians on July 5, attacking from the vicinity of Radom in a southerly direction in order to pre-empt the Russians from occupying the rest of Galicia. On the following day, Emperor Napoleon broke Austrian resistance in a murderous battle at Wagram, and with the armistice signed a week later at Znojmo, he victoriously ended his most difficult campaign yet.
A reward for the allied infidelity
Prince Joseph, buoyed up by the good news from Vienna, set off for Krakow. At its gates he was stopped by Russians to whom Austrians hastily handed over the city, but with typical for him bravado he smashed a hussar patrol, not sparing his fists. The Russians, accustomed to the idea that if someone takes a beating, you can see they have the right, stepped aside.
In the middle of October France and Austria concluded a peace treaty at Schönbrunn, by which the Duchy of Warsaw was rewarded for its allied fidelity to the Emperor. The country was enlarged by the lands of New Galicia (the third partition) and part of Old Galicia, together covering 52,000 square kilometers and 1700 million inhabitants. The Polish armed forces also increased considerably, as the so-called “Polish Army” was formed. The Galician-French formations formed during the 1809 campaign were integrated into the “old army,” now reinforced by three infantry and six cavalry regiments.
This was a huge step towards the restoration of the Republic, even though Lvov was left under Austrian rule, and the land of Tarnopol was given to Russia, apparently as a reward for allied infidelity. But the time of the “Second Polish War,” or the crackdown on the empire of the czars, in Napoleon’s plan to create a united Europe was yet to come.