The Polish Legion and the Gnatowskis

The Beginning

On 25 November 1795 the kingdom of Poland fell prey to her stronger neighbors Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and the third partition ended the existence of the sovereign state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The elected King of Poland, Stanislaus Augustus, was forced to abdicate and retired to Russia.

250px-Henryk_Dabrowski_2 France alone had opposed Poland's treatment and became the natural refuge of all Polish exiles. Among those in Paris was General Jean-Henri Dombrowski (Jan Henryk Dąbrowski) who on 11 October 1796 formed the "Polish Legion" with Napoleon's aid. On 20 January 1797 Dombrowski published a proclamation in four languages calling on Poles to enter his new legion. Two weeks later the Legion consisted of 1,200 men in Polish uniform. By April 1797, 5,000 men had enrolled.

As Article 287 of the French Constitution did not permit the presence of foreign troops on French soil, Dombrowski was sent to Italy. It is here that the Polish Legion first organized and then engaged in various campaigns. Initially against the Armies of the Italian States (Polish-Italian Legion) then later Austo-Russian forces (The Danube Legion).

The Treaty of Lunéville was signed on February 9, 1801 between the French Republic and the Holy Roman Empire by Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon's younger brother) and Count Ludwig von Cobenzl, respectively. The end of the war did not bring about the much hoped for liberation of Poland. In response, General Kniaziewicz of the Legion of the Danube resigned his commission. With the new peace, both Polish Legions were disbanded and converted into three "demi-brigades". Two of these "demi-brigades" were forcibly sent to the French West Indian colony of Saint Domingue (today part of Haiti) at the beginning of February 1803. Of these two demi-brigades only about 15 officers and 150 men returned to Europe.

The remaining demi-brigade was incorporated into Napoleon's 1st Italian Division of the army of the newly formed Cisalpine Republic. They were present at the blockade of Venice, fought the Austrians at the Battle of Castel-Franco, entered Naples for the new Italian king, Joseph Bonaparte, and finally when the Prussians were crushed at Jena and Auerstadt on 14 October 1806.

The Duchy of Warsaw - The Gnatowskis join the Legion


Dombrowski now set about recruiting men for the new forces of the duchy. By 30 December 1806 Dombrowski had 30,000 men including 600 cavalry concentrated at Posen. Napoleon's progress through the old Polish areas was a series of delirious triumphs and the Posen 'Garde d'honneur' replaced the Emporer's own French troups. The French advanced guard entered Warsaw on 28 November, and Napoleon followed on 19 December 1806.

By decreee on 14 January 1807, Napoleon established in Warsaw a temporary Polish governing commission with Stanislaw Malachowski as president. At this time the Posen 'Garde d'honneur' was now attached to the Imperial Guard as the "1st Regiment of Polish Chevau-Légers (Polish Light Cavalry)". On 6 April 1807, this regiment was incorporated into the elite body of the French Army by imperial decree from Napoleon's headquarters at Finkenstein as the "Regiment de Chevau-Légers polonaise de la garde (Regiment of Polish Light Cavalry of the Guard)".

After destroying the Prussians and forcing Saxony to become allies, Napoleon proceeded to defeat the Russian Army at the battles of Preussisch Eylau (7 and 8 February 1807) and Friedland (14 June 1807). The culmination of which resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807 and the formation of the "Duchy of Warsaw" - under the control of the King of Saxony, Frederick Augustus I.

In 1807 the army of the Duchy of Warsaw comprised 31,713 infantry, 6,035 cavalry and 95 guns. At the same time the regiment of Chevau-Légers of the Guard was organized in the camp at Mir. Its colonel was the Count Vincent Krasinski and the four squadron commanders were Count Thomas Lubiensky, Count Jan Kuzietulski, Ignace Stolowski, and Henri Kamienski.

It is at this time (1807) that Jan Gnatowski joins the Legion and eventually becomes an officer in the Chevau-Légers of the Guard then transferred to the 'Legion of the Vistula'. Pawel Tytus Gnatowski also joins and is appointed captain in the infantry and he, too, is transferred to the 'Legion of the Vistula'.

The Vistula Legion

In 1806, what was left of the old Dabowski and Kniaziewicz's Danube Legion was one infantry regiment and one cavalry regiment in the service of Kingdom of Naples.

In February 1807 these remnants became part of the French army and were sent to Silesia with General Grabinski and remained in the kingdom of Westfalia to reorganize. These Polish veterans became the core of a new Polish Legion, assembled in Breslau, and were initially called the Polish-Italian Legion (Italian since they had fought in Italy, not because the unit had Italians in it). Comprising 6,000 men, it received the name of the 'Legion of the Vistula' or 'Vistula Legion' on 31 March 1808. The cavalry of the Legion (Polish Lancers of the Vistula Legion) served separately from the infantry.


The Vistula Legion was sent to Spain where it fought in the sieges of Saragossa, Talavera, Almonacid, Ocana and Sagunto. In fact, the Vistula Legion seemed particularly destined to participate in sieges, and it fought in all of the major sieges in eastern Spain during the early years of the Peninsular War. The lancers of the Legion fought at Medina del Rio Seco. The most famous action of the Vistual lancers in Spain was their devastating charge at Albuera on 16 May 1811.

In February 1812 all Polish units serving in Spain were concentrated on the Ebro. Together the four regiments of the vistula Legion had 3,000 men; the four infantry regiments of the duchy - the 4th, 7th, and 9th - totalled 2,400; and the 7th, 8th, and 9th Lancers totalled 1,000. In preparation for the invasion of Russia the Vistula Legion was withdrawn from Spain in early 1812.

In July 1812, when the Vistula Legion accompanied the Grande Armee into Russia, it had the distinction and honor to be attached to the Imperial Guard. As such, they were among the first troops to enter Moscow. The Legion still mustered 5,341 men on 15 October, 1812. But of the almost 7,000 Vistula Legionnaires that entered Russia less than 1,500 escaped between December 1812 and February 1813. These men had fought bravely at Smolensk, Borodino, Tarutino, Krasnoe and at the Berezina Crossing.

When the armistice ended the Spring 1813 Campaign (Napoleon's last successful campaign), the Vistula Legion moved on 10 August, 1813, south through Dresden and joined the VIII Polish Corps under Prince Poniatowski in the vicinity of Zittau. On 15 September the Legion fought the Russians in a bloody engagement at Neustadt (near Dresden). The Legion, which participated in several small engagements and skirmishes, was virtually destroyed at the Battles of Leipzig on 15-19 October, and at Hanau, where they helped sweep aside the Bavarian army blocking the retreat route to France.

The Legion was reformed at Sedan in early 1814. All the Poles remaining in French service were utilized in an effort to bring it up to strength.

At Soissons, on 2 March, 1814, it fought valiantly against the blockading Russian forces. After earning 23 Legions d 'honneur (two officers and 21 soldiers) at Soissons, the Legion moved to the Compiegne. They fought at Rheims (2 March) and Arcis-sur-Aube (20 March) where Napoleon sought shelter in one of its battalions as it formed square. The Legion then went on to fight at the battle at St. Dizier. When the war ended, the survivors returned to Poland.