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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles and Campaigns

Polish Projects of Napoleon Bonaparte

By Elena I. Fedosova
Moscow State University

Among the problems of external politics during the Napoleonic era, the Polish question occupied an important place in the international relations of the beginning of the 19th century. The problem of Poland as a factor in international relations arose in Europe during the partitions of that country between the three powers - Prussia, Austria and Russia at the end of the 18th century. A nation that had been powerful in the past, with strong political and cultural traditions, ceased to exist.

The Polish problem acquired a special significance during the time of Napoleonic wars, when the map of Europe was rearranged several times and international relations were extremely brittle and unsettled. The geographical location of Polish lands, their strategic significance and political role which an independent Poland might be called to play - all this was taken into account by European powers, and first of all by France in the framework of military and political conflicts of the early 19th century.

The Polish questions was not the key problem in the external political activity of the Napoleonic government, but it attracted Napoleon Bonaparte's attention as early as the end of the 18th century and during the period of 1806-1812 with the expansion of the French Empire to the East, the role of the Polish problem in France's external affairs and diplomacy was already quite significant. It is typical that the two main military campaigns which first foreshadowed the culmination of the might of Napoleon's Empire in 1807 and then the beginning of its demise in 1812 were demographically referred to by Napoleon as the first and second "Polish War."

The first time Napoleon Bonaparte turned to the Polish problem was in 1795 when the Poles submitted to him a project that called for the creation of Polish military units or legions composed of Émigré's and Poles who had deserted from the armies that were opposing France. Bonaparte himself kindled the hopes of the Polish patriots relative to French help in the restoration of their country. He spoke to his adjutant, the Pole Sulkowsky: "I love the Poles and attach great importance to them. The partition of Poland was an unfair act that does not have the right to become a permanent state of affairs. After the conclusion of the hostilities in Italy, I will go myself at the head of the French to defeat Russia and restore Poland. But the Poles must not count on foreign help alone, they must arm themselves...with pretty words alone nothing can be accomplished. A nation destroyed by its neighbors must take up arms herself." [1]

However it was only in 1797 that the French government agreed to the offer of the Poles and agreed to the creation of Polish Legions. Formally the Poles were accepted into service not by France but by the Republic of Lombardy. The Polish units had a rather peculiar appearance: a Polish uniform, Italian-looking epaulets and French cockade. In the course of three months, the legions grew to 3,600 men. The officers and soldiers were convinced that they would march off to galicia, because France and Austria were at war and would become the rallying center of an insurrection that would lead to a rebirth of Poland.

However, these hopes were not to be fulfilled. In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte concluded peace treaties with Austria and Russia. The Polish question did not get resolved. Moreover, Napoleon promised Russia and Austria that he would not sponsor the Émigré's and help them in their efforts, which were directed against the existing order in their territories. This disposition was aimed first of all against the royalists but also had the Poles in mind. After having made use of the Polish legions, the French government lost interest in them and the legions were dissolved and soon afterwards, the Polish soldiers were sent to put down the popular uprising in Haiti. Of the 6,000 men who took part in this expedition, only 600 survived.

In this way, from the very beginning of his political career, Napoleon Bonaparte readily took advantage of the Polish question and the Polish soldiers to his own ends. In 1806, after crushing the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstaedt, Napoleon entered Berlin. Fallen Prussia lay at his feet. He achieved such military successes, the likes of which not one of his predecessors on the French throne could have dreamed about. However, the destruction of Russia did not bring about the end of the war. Russia continued to wage war and Napoleon realized that this new war would be more difficult and bloody. In this situation, the use of Polish lands and Polish population became the military and political aim of the moment, and one of the ways to accomplish military victory over a threatening opponent.

And the first act before a decisive showdown with the Russian army was to proclaim the coming military campaign of 1807 as the "Polish War," the name itself had a double meaning, but very promising for the Poles, calculated to fire up their patriotic feelings. While warming up the patriotic hopes of the Poles, Napoleon was speaking out about the fate of Poland itself in a meaningful but very careful way, mysteriously limiting himself to vague and conditional promises when he had to respond to enthusiastic calls from the Poles.

In the bulletin of the Grande Armée dated December 1, 1806, he wrote: "Will a great people recover its existence and independence? Will it come back to life? Only God can resolve this great political problem." [2] It is likely that at that time he did not have any well-defined plans towards a future Poland. Especially since at that very time Napoleon was beginning to think about peace and possibly an alliance with Russia. In the words of the great Russian historian, N.K. Shilder, "Napoleon was sparing towards Austria in the present and towards Russia in the future."

The advance of French armies into Polish lands towards the end of 1806 forced Bonaparte to return more often to the Polish question. But even now the re-establishment of Poland as a nation did not enter into his plans. "Poland - that's a difficult question - declared Napoleon at the end of 1806. The Polish nobility plays too great a role there, they allowed the partitions to take place, they ceased to be a people, they lack a public spirit. It is a corpse into which we have to breath life first, before I can even think about what to do with it...I will bring forth from it soldiers, officers and then I'll see." Moreover, the enthusiasm of the Polish people scared him. On the 2nd of January, 1807, he wrote to Davout: "Put the patriots back in their place." [3]

Snuff box
Gold and burl First Empire snuff box showing Napoleon and Tzar Alexander on a raft in the Neimen river 25 June 1807. King Frederick William III of Prussia is seen off to the side.

The victory of the French army over the Russians at Friedland, on the 14 of June, 1807, decided the fate of the fourth coalition. Peace negotiations had begun. In a conversation with Tsar Alexander's representative, prince Lobanov-Rostovsky, on the eve of the Tilsit negotiations, Napoleon declared that the mutual interests of Russia and France dictated the necessity of an alliance between these two powers and underscored that the Vistula river must become a genuine and natural frontier of Russia.4 In this way, Napoleon already outlined in this conversation his program of a peace treaty and alliance with Russia, an idea that he contemplated for sometime which was based on a partition of continental Europe between France and Russia. There was no room left for other independent powers in Europe. And there was no room left for the Polish problem either. The territory of Poland was automatically divided along the Vistula between the two allies. A very simple program, quite advantageous to Napoleon as he was to become the master of all Western and Central Europe. One of the most important elements of this program was to weaken Prussia, and to turn it into a country that had no serious role to play on the political arena.

The Russian emperor could not accept such a division of Europe. His aim was to preserve as much as possible the balance of power in Europe that existed before the war, and to preserve the old system of alliances, and for that it was paramount to keep Prussia as a more or less strong independent nation. With regard to the fate of the Polish lands, as we see it, neither the French side nor the Russian had any concrete plan. In any case, there is no single document extant to outline either on the French or the Russian diplomatic side the possible resolution of the Polish question, on the eve of the Tilsit negotiations. It was an open field for bargaining.

Alexander the 1st could not accept the proposal to partition Europe at the Vistula precisely because it called for the destruction of Prussia as a strong and independent country. At Tilsit, in essence, was to be decided not the question of the Polish Nation, but the question of whose political orbit a given territory was to fall into, how it was to be organized and to what degree this was acceptable to either side. At the same time, both sides could not fail to take into account that on the Polish territory occupied by the French there was a Polish administration and a rather numerous army already in place and actually functioning. To our way of thinking, there has not been due attention given in historic literature to the fact that about this time, Poland had already become a real political power which could not fail to play a significant role in this complicated and strained setting. This factor, of course, was not large enough to bring about the rebirth of independent Poland, but we cannot fail to take it into account.

The Tilsit treaty of 1807 declared the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw from "provinces that were part of Prussia" and their switch into "complete ownership and possession of his royal highness, the king of Saxony." The creation of the Duchy of Warsaw undoubtedly gave some advantages to Napoleon. He received the means to exert pressure on Russia, Austria and Prussia and to keep them within the confines of the Tilsit treaty. The creation of this Duchy appeared to the Poles to signal the beginning of the rebirth of the Polish nation, which tied them further to the French Emperor and made them into a weapon in his hands. The king of Saxony receiving now the title of "grand Duke of Warsaw" was an ally and a vassal of Napoleon. Thus France acquired a vassal territory which could become the advance post for a new military campaign. The creation of the grand Duchy of Warsaw did not resolve the Polish problem - it was a temporary, shaky structure, of the same sort that had arisen several times during that tumultuous epoch. Besides, the Tilsit peace treaty itself was not very stable a structure and encompassed within itself almost all the elements of a future war. The international situation in Eastern Europe brought about the Tilsit treaty could not be stable and the creation of the new Duchy of Warsaw was only one of the elements in this instability. The peace treaty had not solved the Polish problem. However in order to prop up the alliance with Russia and assure its participation in the continental system, the French Emperor continued to avoid any kind of promises and declarations regarding the Polish question. It was not due to chance that the newly formed government entity received the title of Duchy of Warsaw, which, according to the French historian A. Vandal, contained "neither recollections nor promises."

However the peace of Tilsit gave a new ring to the Polish problem: a small and vassal-like but purely Polish Duchy had become a real factor in international relations. We can hold out two basic features of Napoleon's policy toward the new government entity - the Duchy of Warsaw.

  1. The aim to give such a political organization that would correspond to governmental order set up in France, so as to tie it closer to his empire, to force it to serve his interests and to turn it into an advance post in Eastern Europe. The new Duchy is placed into direct dependence of the French government, whose agents - the French Residents - were the real masters of the situation.
  2. The aim to put to maximum use the manpower and the economic resources of this territory in the interests of France and to consolidate thereby his hegemony over the continent of Europe. Already in the fall of 1808, Polish regiments were put to use in military operations in Spain.

The war of 1809 between France and Austria, which ended in a new complete rout of the latter, brought about certain changes in the approach of Napoleon's government towards the Polish problem. During the course of the France-Austrian war, there arose a real crisis in the relations between France and Russia, and therefore in the whole system of international politics created by the Tilsit accord - and as a result the enlargement of the territory of the Duchy of Warsaw at the expense of Western Galicia which had been apportioned to Austria during the former partition of Poland. On the eve of the Schoenbrunn peace treaty, the French Foreign Minister, Champagny, wrote to Napoleon: "Poland will begin its rebirth, all the course of the Vistula river will belong to the Duchy of Warsaw, both Polish capitals will be Polish again. Time will bring about the rest." [5] Champagny sketched this way, of course still in vague terms, a plan to create Poland a vassal state (no longer a small duchy) as a weapon of war in the event of a military conflict with Russia.

The Franco-Austrian war thus became the boundary line in the approach to the Polish problem by Napoleon's government. The unfolding of events in military action, the successes of Polish troops in Galicia and the obvious passivity of the Russian army convinced Napoleon that his plan to turn Russia into an obedient defender of his interests had failed - and forced him to seek a new resolution to the Polish problem.

In 1810, it was becoming apparent that the Tilsit system had outlived its course and that a new European war may ignite precisely in Eastern Europe. The French government began, apparently right after the war of 1809, to work out the details of a new course of their international policy and received a completed sketch of it in the report from Champagny "A view of continental affairs and the rapprochement between Russia and great Britain" presented to Napoleon on March 16, 1810. The main idea of this report came down to this, that the alliance with Russia has entered its last phase - and that war was inevitable. In this sketch Champagny felt that Poland was one of the most faithful allies of France. Therefore in this report a premise was brought forth that it is imperative to unite all the portions of Poland and make it possible to create on the Vistula "an opposing barrier" against Russia. At the same time Champagny felt that Poland itself should be used as a link in the traditional bloc for French external policy - Turkey, Sweden, Poland. This report sketched out in essence a program of diplomatic preparations for the war, in which the question regarding Poland was spelled out very broadly. [6]

From the most important moves of the French government, we must highlight the attempt to bring the Duchy of Warsaw into the system of European alliances directed against Russia. On April 24, 1810, Napoleon approved Champagny's decision to send to the French representative in Copenhagen, Didelot, a secret letter outlining the intention of the French emperor to create a secret alliance between Sweden, Denmark and the Duchy of Warsaw. [7] Champagny wrote to Didelot in this regard: "Sweden already fears Russia. Does Denmark experience the same fear? Common interests must force Sweden, Denmark and the Duchy of Warsaw to unite in a secret alliance, which can absolutely and really be guaranteed by France." [8] At the same time, he rushed to add "all this is no more than plans." M. Oginsky, an important Polish magnate living in Paris until 1811, has very accurately noted in his memoirs the true character of Napoleon's plans in this regard. He wrote: "that the French emperor was striving to create a Northern confederation, similar to the Rhine Confederation, of which he wanted to become also her protector." [9]

Didelot did not make an official offer to the Danish government in this regard, but initiated it into the plans of the French emperor. However, the idea of the alliance was not pursued. Sweden and Denmark had no wish to get involved in "too big an adventure," they feared that they would be saddled with specific obligations towards the Duchy of Warsaw, whose position was still very precarious, dangerous and uncertain from the geographical point of view. It is true that in the fall of 1811, France again offered a tripartite alliance as a "trial balloon." But in 1811 Napoleon's offer was turned down again. Sweden preferred an alliance with Russia. This lack of success became a link in a chain of setbacks dealt to Napoleon in his diplomatic preparations for a war with Russia.

However, given the military conflict that was looming with Russia, Napoleon did not want to and could not lose the advantages that the Polish territories could bring him. Moreover, already by the end of 1811, Napoleon was thinking how to best put to use the patriotic feelings of the Poles. In a letter to his step-son dated December 30, 1811, he referred to for the first time in a demagogic way to the new aggression being prepared, as "the Polish War." [10]

As a whole, the problem of Poland was never really spelled out by Napoleon. In the military treaty between France and Prussia (February 24, 1812) this problem was not alluded to, and in the alliance treaty with Austria (March 14, 1812) only very carefully.

The limitations and the narrow scope of the polish problem as tackled by Napoleon in the international arena can be explained not only by the absence of favorable conditions, but first of all by the fact that the French emperor did not have any kind of program to deal with this issue. This became apparent in the struggle for the Polish people between France and Russia, which grew sharper in the years before the conflict. [11]

On the eve of, and in the period of the war of 1812 with Russia, the Duchy of Warsaw became a military bastion of France, and the 100,000 Polish Army fought bravely for his interests. The Poles waited, as the French Resident reported from Warsaw, for the moment when Napoleon would pronounce "the sacred word - Poland." However, he never uttered this word.


  1. Mémoires de M. Oginsky, (Paris 1826), 2: 229-230
  2. Correspondance de Napoléon I, 3: 14, 13. Hereafter Correspondance.
  3. Ibid., 14, 14.
  4. Foreign policy of Russia XIX - XX century. Documents of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ser. 1, T. 3, Moscow, 1962.
  5. Archives des affaires étrangères. Fonds de la correspondance politique - Autriche, 384, 373.
  6. Shilder N.K., The Emperor Alexander I, His Life and Reign, St. Petersburg, 1898, T. 3, 477-483.
  7. Correspondance, 20, 305.
  8. 8.Bignon E., Histoire de France sous Napoléon, 8, Paris, 1838, 230.
  9. Oginsky, 3, 123.
  10. Margueron, Campagne de Russie, 2: 468.
  11. E. I. Fedosova. The Polish Question in the External Policy of the First Empire in France, Moscow, 1980.