Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics



Polish Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, 1813

By Yves Martin

The state of Polish units was a constant worry throughout 1813 for Napoleon. The natural base for them, the Grand Duchy, was in enemy hands. Their ruling sovereign, the King of Saxony, could hardly bear their cost. Yet at the same time, Napoleon desperately needed the support of the Poles.

Napoleon's past indecisiveness on the Polish question was indeed catching up with him as the Polish leaders were starting to question their commitment to the Empire. Similarly, the minor states of the Confederation of the Rhine were also wavering in their support to the French.

On the 14th September 1813, Napoleon issued an order in the camp at Dresden organizing the "new" division of the Old Guard.

The second division under General Curial, was to formed with the two battalions of Velites from Florence and from Turin, one battalion of the Saxon Guard and one battalion of Polish Guard. The Italian Velites were not new units and had been already part of the Old Guard. In the case of the Saxons, these were already part of the Saxon Royal Leibgrenadiergarde and were transferred from the 7th Corps. Unfortunately for the King of Saxony, these ultimately remained at his cost.

The Poles were to be taken from Poniatowski's 8th Corps, for there had been no such 'Guard' unit up to now. The only Guard units of Polish recruitment had been the 1st Chevau-Légers Lanciers and the Tartares Lithuaniens.

Articles 12 and 13 of the order specified both the recruitment and equipment of this new unit. Poniatowski was to pick chosen men of more than 23 years of age and two years service. The uniform was to be that of the Polish infantry along with a bearskin. The troops would be paid by France. In addition to these organized battalions, Hessians and Westphalians were also chosen for guard duty with the Artillery and Baggage Train.

By this order Napoleon had a clear political aim: to honor his 'best' allies and ensure their trust during the coming campaign. A decree signed on 5 October confirmed this - but recruiting had already started. Despite the rough times, recruiting was brisk. The fact that this meant transfer to French service (not an easy decision in the fall of 1813), plus the history of Polish units under direct French command, save for the Guard Lancers (not exactly the best postings in the Grande Armée), and the attraction of the Imperial Guard was such that Poniatowski had to involve himself to choose the 22 officers from the numerous applicants.

The commander was an unchallenged and unanimous choice: Stanislaw Kurcyusz. At 29 years of age, he was one of the most decorated soldiers of the Polish forces, participating in the campaigns of 1807, 1809, and 1812, and having earned the Virtuti Militari medal and Legion of Honor. This was to prove most ironic, given his fate.

Only one officer was French: Echandi the paymaster. Traditionally Polish units had shown a total disdain for this practice and the French had quickly undertsood that it was best to entrust this duty to a non-Pole.

On the 16th October, the 2nd Division of the Old Guard attacked the Austrian corps under General Merveldt. The Poles captured the wounded general.

On 18th October, the Polish battalion fought in the village of Prolostheyda coming to the help of the Polish troops under Poniatowski and the French troops under Victor and Lauriston.

On the 19th October, in Leipzig, the 2nd Division paraded for the last time - the Saxon battalion was still within its ranks (whereas the rest of the Saxon troops had defected the day before). The Poles crossed the Pleisse and headed towards Lindenau. Meanwhile Poniatowski died while crossing the Elster.

The quasi-destruction of the 8th corps and the death of Prince Poniatowski had a decisive impact on the morale of all Polish units - including the Guard battalion. Both its commander, Kurcyusz and Captain Loski surrendered near Weissenfels. Given this example from high above, the ranks are depleted by desertion.

On 30th October, the remnants of the battalion under its new commander, Captain Smett, took part in the battle of Hanau. Finally on November 1st, the battalion reaches Mainz, where a report states that only 15 officers (!) and 82 men and NCO's. The desertion has stopped and by mid-December in Sedan, the unit is about the same size. Many of the missing troops eventually turn up in other Polish units - seemingly the impact of the defeat in Leipzig being overcome, they joined national units.

At the end of 1813, the battalion is disbanded and its men are transferred to Paris to become part of the 3rd Eclaireurs (linked to the 1st Chevau-Legers and also dressed in Polish outfit).

As for the commander of the battalion, Kurcyusz? His surrender had tarnished his reputation for the rest of his life. He did not dare pick up a command in the army of the 'Krolestwa' - the little kingdom between 1815 and 1830. Furthermore, he was refused the right to levy and command a unit during the insurrection of 1830. He died an inspector of the Treasury in 1850.

The uniform: The uniform was most probably of the same quality as that of the Guard. Its colors being identical to that of the fusiliers-grenadiers de la Garde, but of Polish cut: a Kurtka with short tails: blue jacket and collar with white facings, red cuffs, probably white or blue trousers. There were not enough bearskins, so the grenadiers actually wore Saxon (French) shakos with no plates - the intent having been to replace the Saxon coat of arms with an eagle, but time was too short. It is possible that on the third day of Leipzig, the unit picked up Polish bearskins from the battlefield.

Bibliography

Pattyn, Jean-Jacques and Andrei Nieuwazny. "Le bataillon Polonais de la 2eme Division de la Vieille Garde Imperiale" La Sabretache 1st Quarter 1992.

Domange, Jacques. "Garde Imperiale, bataillon de Grenadiers Polonais" Uniform Plate from the Series on the "Legions Polonaises et l'Armée du Grand-Duche de Varsovie."

 

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