The Standards of the Vístula Lancers
By Luis Sorando
The Vístula Lancers Regiment
This prestigious body of light cavalry was made up of about 1000 men, all of Polish nationality, distributed in four squadrons of two companies, commanded by Colonel J. Konopka. Although the name of Vistula Legion was given to them by the Emperor on the 2nd March 1808, in fact its origins went back to the 8th September 1799 when it was created as the "Regiment of Lancers of the Polish Legion of the Danube", which in 1801 took the name of the "Regiment of Polish Lancers" and in 1807 that of "Lancers of the Italian Polish Legion".
Its showy and unmistakable uniform consisted of trousers and short jacket of turquoise-blue cloth, with yellow collar, facings and lapels and silver-plated buttons. Their helmets were the typical Polish chatska, in this case yellow, and each lancer carried a small arsenal consisting of his lance with red and white guidon, sabre, two pistols and a carbine.
As far as the regiment’s standards went, it continued using the four republican standards of the Polish Legion which it had received in 1800 in Italy from the hands of the then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. They had refused to replace them in 1805 with new ones which were in conformity with the new imperial iconography.
The Lancers in Spain
The Lancers entered the Peninsula via Roncesvalles on the 28th May 1808, arriving at Pamplona on the 31st. They left on the 5th June, heading in the direction of Zaragoza with the French punitive column detailed to occupy this city and punish its rebellious inhabitants. En route they overcame the Aragonese successively at Tudela, Mallén and Alagón on the 8th, 13th and 14th of June, and on the 15th were able to gallop into the city of Zaragoza, but were ejected from the city the same day. They then joined the beseiging troops until the 14th August, when they all withdrew in the direction of Navarre. On the 23rd November they fought again at Tudela, and after this victory the bulk of the regiment was transferred towards the centre of the country, leaving before Zaragoza, during its second siege, only a detachment of thirty-three men and horses who were detailed to form Junot’s escort and later Lannes’.
The Disaster of Los Yébenes
On the 20th March 1809 the Lancers left Toledo with the rest of General Sebastiani’s troops en route for the Sierra Morena, and on the afternoon of the 23rd they arrived at the town of Los Yébenes, while the infantry and artillery were near Mora.
That night the sentries heard suspicious sounds and informed the Colonel, "but he calmed all his officers, assuring them that the enemy was several days march from here, near the Guadiana river", but he was mistaken, since facing him and hidden by the fog was the new Army of La Mancha, commanded by Count de Cartaojal, who at seven in the morning mounted an attacking front against the Lancers, who at that moment had just got out of bed.
The Colonel managed to form his men at the entrance to the town, but as soon as he realised his clear numerical inferiority he ordered the withdrawal of the whole regiment by the only road possible, which was a climbing, narrow and winding track which led to Orgaz. Shortly before this the carts and baggage of the Regiment had started to retreat along this road, being unaware that that the Carabineros Reales of the Vizconde de Zolina’s cavalry had been posted on this road, waiting for them.
Their march had hardly begun when the Lancers encountered their own wagons returning in disorder pursued by the Carabineros, and in this situation, attacked at the front and in the rear on a narrow road, the Colonel had his men make a desperate charge, managing to break the ranks of the Spanish cavalry who blocked their route, and saved a good number of his men, although not their carts, which were left on the road. Shortly afterwards General Valence’s Polish infantry arrived from Mora to help him. At the moment both forces met, the following scene took place, which is related by one of its direct participants, the officer Wojciechowski:
Indeed, the Regiment had lost its four standards, which was serious enough in itself, but to make matters worse we had disobeyed a superior order, according to which they should have been left in Madrid in a safe place. As a result of this the Regiment was deprived of the right to receive new standards, even after Albuera (16-V-1811), at which it managed "heroically" to take six British infantry flags in the course of a “legendary" charge.
The Regiment merely existed in this way in Seville, by Imperial decree of the 18th June 1811 serving as base for the new 7th Lancers Regiment (Chevaux-Légers-Lanciers).
Destiny of the trophies
The official report of the action, written by Cartaojal on the 29th and published in the Gazette of the 1st of April, related the losses suffered by the Lancers:
And a later note directed by Cartaojal to the Supreme Junta of Seville added
We see that Cartaojal took three of the four standards and that two of them were in the possession of an officer who, knowing of their presence, had tried to save them, dying in the attempt. The rest must have been destroyed, hidden among the rest of the convoy, without anybody being aware of their existence.
What happened to these three standards between then and the reappearance of two of them in the Royal Chapel of San Fernando in Seville Cathedral is not clear, but with the support of the few existing documents I will venture the following hypothesis:
The three must have remained in the hands of the Army Staff, without being deposited in a church or making some such special show of them, until the battle of Albuera (16-V-1811). In this famous action the infantry of our English allies was “massacred" by the Vístula Lancers – exactly the Regiment which had lost their standards at Los Yébenes and which since then had been without emblems. It must have been then that the Spanish command decided to bring those forgotten trophies to light, turning them into trophies of Albuera, with the consequent boost to morale for our troops, who had been unfairly forgotten by our allies in their official reports.
In this respect we can see that “the taking of the Polish standard by the Regiment of Murcia” which Lardizabal mentions in his report of the battle, is unbelievable, because there was no standard and the General Staff spoke of the taking of a total of three trophies, but it does not explain the circumstances in which these were taken, nor were we able to find any reference to the lost standard in any of the detailed French regimental information.
Seven days later D. Sebastian Llano, General Blake’s aide-de-camp, appeared before the Cortes of Cadiz with one of these trophies – the standard of the third squadron, according to our hypothesis - saying that "of three flags that were taken by the enemy, I have the honor to present this to Your Excellencies as a tribute due to the Nation that you represent". This was deposited in the church of San Felipe Neri, and its trail is lost soon afterwards.
As far as the two remaining, they must have been offered to the Royal Chapel of San Fernando as soon as this city was reconquered in 1812, and must be the standards of the 1st and 2nd Squadrons, but up to now our attempts to finding the record of their deposit in the Chapel's office have been fruitless.
In 1889, J. Gestoso, under the title "National Glories", published a color plate of the standard of the first squadron "that is kept in the Royal Chapel of San Fernando of this city", but he erroneously identifies it as "coming from the battle of Bailén" . The following year the same author, in his "Tourist and Monumental Seville", mentions the two Polish standards in the Royal Chapel, but again connects them to Bailén, not knowing that the Lancers did not fight in that battle, and that in addition, all those trophies were recaptured by King Joseph when he occupied the city in 1810.
At the moment only the standard of the 2nd Squadron is kept in the Main Office of the Seville Cathedral, because that of the 1st passed, by bloodthirsty means, around 1910, to the Musée de l'Armee (Paris), in whose stores it is at the moment, framed between two panes of glass and lacking any reference to its having been taken by the Spanish.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2006
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