Polish Insurgency

The battle of Grochow, fought on 25 February 1831. Painted in 1887, and improved in 1928, by Wojciech Kossak (1856–1942), the scene depicts the 4th regiment of the line of the Polish army in action. General Chłopicki, the overall Polish commander, can be seen on horseback in civilian dress. Observing the battle on the Russian side was Grand Duke Constantine, who had commanded the Polish army in 1815–30 with brutal discipline. He expressed perverse but understandable delight at seeing ‘his’ soldiers perform so well.

The well-trained Polish army, which reached 80,000 effectives, gave a good account of itself. On 25 February, popular Napoleonic veteran General Józef Chłopicki halted the Russian advance on Warsaw at Grochόw, the largest land battle fought in Europe between Waterloo and the Crimean War. A string of subsequent Polish successes in the spring alarmed St Petersburg, but the defeat of the indecisive General Skrzynecki at Ostrołęka on 26 May turned the scales of the war against the Poles. Commanded by the experienced campaigner Paskevich, the Russian army was able to cross the Vistula near the Prussian border and approached Warsaw from the west. The prospect of defeat led to vicious street unrest in Warsaw in mid-August and to recriminations within the National Government. Czartoryski’s suggestion that the Poles should seek Austrian protection infuriated Lelewel and the radicals who now pressed for the creation of an egalitarian republic. The government resigned and full power was finally conferred on one man, General Jan Krukowiecki, who restored order. But by then it was all too late. Conscious of the ignominious behaviour of the Targowica Confederacy in 1792, the Polish civilian and military leadership refused to capitulate to the tsar and went into exile.

On the night of 29 November 1830 a group of officer cadets broke into the Belvedere Palace to assassinate Grand Duke Constantine while another attacked a nearby Russian cavalry barracks. Everything went wrong. The Russians were alerted in time and the Grand Duke escaped the knives of the assassins. An attack on the Arsenal was more successful, with fatal consequences. Armed gangs roamed the streets lynching Russians and Polish collaborators, and, by mistake, two of the best Polish generals.

The Polish authorities moved swiftly to bring the situation under control and avoid confrontation with Russia. Prince Franciszek Ksawery Drucki-Lubecki, the Minister of Finance, took the initiative of coopting Czartoryski and other figures of standing to join him in a National Council. In an attempt to keep the army together and restore order the popular General Chłopicki was proclaimed Dictator on 5 December. He hoped to be able to deal with the whole matter as an internal Polish problem. He granted Constantine safe-conduct out of Warsaw, along with his court, his troops, even his police spies and political prisoners, and he despatched Lubecki to St Petersburg to negotiate.

But the Tsar refused to receive the Prince, and on 7 January 1831 sent him a note demanding unconditional surrender as a precondition to any negotiations. This inflamed patriotic fervour throughout the country. Talk of accommodation was branded as defeatist, and, seeing no other way out, Chłopicki resigned. The Sejm acknowledged a state of insurrection, and under pressure from below, on 25 January 1831 burnt its bridges by voting the dethronement of Nicholas as King of Poland. A new government was formed under Czartoryski with Michał Radziwiłł as commander-in-chief. The Kingdom of Poland had seceded from Russia.

In February a force of 115,000 Russian troops under General Diebitsch marched into Poland. The Polish army, consisting of 30,000 men, blocked his advance successfully at Grochów [Olszynka Grochowska] on 25 February. At the end of March General Jan Skrzynecki sallied forth and routed the Russian corps separately in the three battles of Wawer, Dębe Wielkie and Iganie, obliging Diebitsch to withdraw eastwards. The position of the Russian forces was parlous, with Diebitsch isolated and the Guard Corps on its way to reinforce him easy for the Poles to intercept. General Dwernicki had been sent with a small force to Volhynia to raise a revolt there, while Generals Chłapowski and Giełgud marched into Lithuania with the same intention. The Poles were well set to win the campaign. They called up reserves of 80,000, and with the Lithuanian and other contingents, they could count on up to 200,000 in total. The Russian forces in Poland numbered some 250,000, but the Polish soldier was more motivated and the officer corps more experienced. The insurrection also attracted valuable volunteers from abroad. Hundreds of Napoleonic officers took part, including General Ramorino, the son of Marshal Lannes (Marshal Grouchy wanted to come, but insisted on too high a rank). The next largest contingent were Germans, who also supplied over a hundred military surgeons, and there were volunteers from Hungary, Italy and Britain.

But none of those standing at the helm approved of the rising or believed in its chances of success. Czartoryski was convinced that the only solution was a diplomatic one. He sent missions to London, Paris and Vienna in order to secure support and finance, and to offer the throne of Poland to a Habsburg archduke or a member of the British royal family in return for assistance. The commander-in-chief, General Jan Skrzynecki, felt that the less blood was spilled before negotiations were resumed the better. He therefore dragged his heels and failed to intercept the Guard Corps. When this joined up with Diebitsch’s army, he was attacked and defeated on 26 May at Ostrołęka. Diebitsch died of the cholera epidemic raging in the Russian army, but Skrzynecki failed to exploit the situation. General Paskevich took over command of the Russian forces and prepared for a new advance.

In Paris, King Louis-Philippe made sonorous speeches hinting at French military support, and there was a moment when it looked as though Czartoryski’s diplomatic efforts might yield fruit. Events in Poland aroused strong international sympathy and engaged the poetic fancy. In Germany, this gave rise to a genre of Polenlieder. In America, Nathan Parker Willis wrote odes to Poland, while in England the young Tennyson wrote what he termed ‘a beautiful poem on Poland, hundreds of lines long’ (which was used by his housemaid to light the fire). In France, Delavigne, Béranger, Musset, Vigny, Lamartine and Hugo glorified the Poles’ struggle in verse. On 23 May 1831 the Aldermen and Council of New York made a strong declaration of support, while Boston offered standards for the Polish regiments. In Paris, James Fenimore Cooper started a Polish-American Committee to gather funds for the rising.

Given time, some of this feeling might have been brought to bear. But the lack of political determination at the top allowed Paskevich to seize the initiative. He marched westwards, bypassing Warsaw to the north, and swept round to attack it from its least defensible western side. Instead of delivering a flank attack on the moving Russian columns, Skrzynecki sent two army corps off in different directions to create diversions. On 6 September 1831 Paskevich attacked Warsaw. After two days of determined but costly fighting, the new commander General Krukowiecki capitulated and withdrew with the rest of his forces. The Poles still had some 70,000 troops in the field but these were dispersed around the country, and continued resistance seemed pointless. On 5 October the main army crossed the border into Prussia to avoid capture by the Russians, while other units sought refuge behind the Austrian cordon, followed by most of the political leadership.

Nicholas abolished the constitution of the Kingdom and closed down the universities of Wilno and Warsaw, along with the Warsaw Polytechnic, the Krzemieniec High School, the Society of Friends of Learning and other educational establishments. In exchange, Warsaw was endowed with a citadel from which Nicholas promised to bombard the city to rubble if there was any more trouble. General Paskevich was named Prince of Warsaw, and Russian generals and officials were given estates confiscated from Polish families.

Ten people, with Adam Czartoryski at the head of the list, were condemned to death by decapitation, and a further 350 to hanging (most of them had already left the country). While a generous amnesty was trumpeted to the world, 10,000 officers were sent off to hard labour or service as simple soldiers in Russian regiments in the Caucasus. Over eight hundred ‘orphans’ (children whose fathers had been killed or gone into exile) were taken from their mothers and given to Russian infantry regiments to bring up. In the Kingdom, countless families of minor szlachta were degraded and 3,176 had their estates confiscated. In the province of Podolia, 5,000 families of minor szlachta were dispossessed of everything, reduced to peasant status and transported to the Caucasus. A few years later 40,000 families of szlachta from Lithuania and Volhynia were conveyed to Siberia. Prince Roman Sanguszko, who was of Rurik’s royal blood and might have qualified for some respect, was sentenced to hard labour for life in Siberia and made to walk there chained to a gang of convicts. When his mother, a friend and former lady-in-waiting to the Empress, begged for leniency, she was told she could go too.

The fate of the exiles was less lurid but no more enviable. Some 8,000 senior officers, political figures, writers and artists found themselves consigned to a life of hopeless anticipation. Theirs was supposed to be a tactical withdrawal. To keep themselves in shape, many of the soldiers took service in the new Belgian army, and the French tried to pack as many as they could into a Foreign Legion created for the purpose. Others converged on Paris, which became a focal point of Polish political and cultural life. It was there, amid bitterness and mutual recrimination, that the next moves in the struggle to recapture Poland were planned and discussed.

Two principal groupings emerged: the Czartoryski party and the Polish Democratic Society. The first pinned its hopes on diplomacy. Adam Czartoryski, referred to even by his political opponents as the de facto king of Poland, lobbied British Members of Parliament and French Deputies, wrote memoranda and petitions, and maintained unofficial diplomatic relations with the Vatican and the Porte. He set up a network with offices in several capitals which sprang into frenetic activity whenever a crisis loomed in Europe.

The Democratic Society, whose nerve centre, the Centralizacja, was based at Versailles, was committed to starting a mass rising in Poland at the earliest possible moment. It also built up strong links with similar movements in other countries, such as Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy; like the French in the 1790s, the Poles had begun to see themselves as universal champions of freedom, obliged to assist sister nations in their struggles, and thousands of them conspired, fought and died for the causes of others.

In 1837 the Russians uncovered the network the Centralizacja had carefully organised throughout the Kingdom and Lithuania, and cut a swathe through it with shootings, hangings and deportations to Siberia. The Democrats then shifted their activities to the less perilous Austrian and Prussian sectors, where they agitated throughout the 1840s, often playing on anti-manor sentiments in order to gain support among the politically passive peasantry.

A peasant rising was planned in both Galicia and Poznania for 22 February 1846. But premature action alerted the Austrian authorities, which reacted with speed and perfidy. They appealed to the Galician peasantry, explaining that the Polish lords were plotting a rising which would enslave them and offering cash for every ‘conspirator’ brought in dead or alive. There followed three days of mob violence in which bands of peasants attacked some seven hundred country houses, killing about a thousand people, few of them conspirators. On 4 March Austrian and Russian troops crushed the Socialist Republic which had meanwhile been proclaimed in Kraków and abolished the free status of the city, which was incorporated into the Austrian Empire. In Poznania the Prussian authorities arrested the entire leadership before the planned local rising had time to break out.


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