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Poniatowski Josef Antuan

Poniatowski Josef Antuan (1763—1813)

Prince Józef Antoni Poniatowski was a Polish leader, general, minister of war and army chief, who became a Marshal of France.

Prince Józef Antoni Poniatowski was born in Vienna, Austria in the Palais Kinsky (others say he was actually born in Warsaw), the son of Andrzej Poniatowski, brother of the last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski and a field marshal in Austrian service. His mother was Theresia von Kinsky, a lady from the court of Maria Theresa and from the Czech-Austrian aristocratic family. His father died when Józef was 10, Stanisław August then became his guardian and the two enjoyed a close personal relationship that lasted for the duration of their common life span. Maria Theresa was a godmother of Józef's older sister, who was named Maria Teresa, after the Empress. Józef was born and raised in Vienna, but was also spending time with his mother in Prague and later with his uncle the king in Warsaw. Brought up in the "ancient regime" society, he early learned to be fluent in French (in fact that's how he talked with his mother), as well as in Polish and German. From the childhood years Prince Pepi (so called from the Czech diminutive form of Joseph) was trained for the military service, but also learned how to play keyboard instruments and had a portable one carried for him later even during military campaigns. It was because of Stanisław August's influence that Poniatowski chose to consider himself a Pole, even though he transferred to the Polish army only at the age of 26. In Vienna, he represented the Polish king at the funeral of Maria Theresa. In 1787 went with Stanisław August to Kaniov and Kiev, to meet with Catherine the Great.

Adopting for the rest of his life a military career, Poniatowski joined the Austrian imperial army where he was commissioned Lieutenant in 1780, in 1786/1788 promoted to Colonel and when Austria declared war against Turkey in 1788 became an aide to Emperor Joseph II. Poniatowski fought in that war and distinguished himself at the storming of Sabac on April 25, 1788, where he was seriously wounded. Reportedly at Sabac also he saved the life of a younger colleague, Prince Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg. Later their military paths crossed repeatedly, as allies or as foes, and at the end of Poniatowski's road Schwarzenberg came back to deliver the crushing blow at Leipzig.

Summoned by his uncle, King Stanisław August Poniatowski and the Sejm, when the Polish Army was reorganized, Poniatowski moved to Poland. The King had made previous arrangements with the Austrian authorities for such transfer, which of course in the end depended on his nephew's willingness to make the move, but this, despite the "sacrifice" involved on his part (career in the imperial army looked promising), turned out not to be a problem. In October 1789, together with Tadeusz Kościuszko and three others, Poniatowski received the rank of Major-General, was appointed commander of a division in the Ukraine and devoted himself zealously to the improvement of the small and for a long time neglected Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's military.

It was the period of deliberations by the Four-Year Sejm, which ended with the proclamation of the May 3 Constitution in 1791. Poniatowski was an enthusiastic supporter of the reform and a member of the Friends of the Constitution Association. The passage of the document was assured partially by the military forces under the Prince's command, which surrounded the Royal Castle during the final proceedings; he himself was standing in the room with a group of soldiers.

On May 6, 1792 Poniatowski was appointed Lieutenant-General and commander of the Polish army in the Ukraine, with the task of defending the country against the imminent Russian attack. There Prince Józef, as he is affectionately referred to by the Poles, aided by Kościuszko and Michał Wielhorski, a friend from the Austrian service, displayed great ability. Badly outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy, obliged constantly to retreat, but disputing every point of vantage, he turned on the pursuer whenever he pressed too closely, and won several notable victories. The Battle of Zieleńce on June 18 was the first major victorious engagement of the Polish forces since Jan III Sobieski. Poniatowski personally got involved in the fighting when one of the Polish columns was faltering, as he had the habit of doing. Stanisław August marveled at the victory and to commemorate the occasion established the famous Virtuti Militari order, with which he decorated Poniatowski and Kościuszko first - unfortunately his enthusiasm did not last long. At the Battle of Dubienka fought by Kościuszko and his soldiers on July 18 the line of the Bug River was defended for five days against fourfold odds. Finally the undefeated Polish armies converged on Warsaw and were preparing for a general engagement, when a courier from the capital informed the Commander in Chief that King Stanisław August had acceded to the pro-Russian Targowica Confederation and had pledged the adherence of the Polish Army. All hostilities were therefore to be suspended. The army remaining loyal to Prince Józef, he was offered a coup d'état option that involved kidnapping of the King, but he, after issuing contradictory orders, decided finally not to do so. Distressed, at the last skirmish at Markuszew on July 26 was supposedly seeking death, but was saved. After an indignant but fruitless protest, Poniatowski and most of the other Polish generals resigned their commissions and, the King's pleading notwithstanding, left the army.

In a farewell gesture, Prince Józef's soldiers expressed their gratitude by having a memorial medal minted, and even writing to the Prince's mother in Prague, thanking her for such a great son. Poniatowski left Warsaw for Vienna, from where he repeatedly challenged the Targowica leader Szczęsny Potocki to a duel. But the Russian authorities wanted him removed from Poland even further, and the fearful king pressured him to comply, so he left Vienna to travel in western Europe, traumatized at that time by the violent events of the French Revolution.

In 1792 in a letter to the King Prince Józef expressed his opinion, that in order to save the country and preserve the great power of Poland, he should had, already at the outset of this campaign (since it was not properly prepared militarily) moved the whole country, led the nobility on a horse, armed the towns and given freedom to the peasants.

The Polish-Russian War was followed by the Second Partition of Poland. It gave rise to four decades of intense warfare aimed at preserving Poland's independence. It included several major wars (1792, 1794, 1807, 1809, 1812, 1813, 1830) and a great deal of other fighting. It ranged from San Domingo to Moscow, and included Dąbrowski's Polish Legions, as well as famous exploits, such as Somosierra, Fuengirola, and Albuera.

Stanisław August Poniatowski wrote to his nephew in the spring of 1794, urging him to return to Poland and volunteer for service under his former subordinate Kościuszko, in the uprising which now bears his name. Possibly without much enthusiasm for the undertaking in which he had not been up to that point involved, Poniatowski came with Wielhorski again and reported for duty at Kościuszko's camp near Jędrzejów on May 27. Kościuszko proposed that Prince Józef leads the Insurrection in Lithuania, where he was demoting the radical and successful leader Jakub Jasiński, but Poniatowski, not wanting to be so far from his uncle, who needed him, declined. He suggested instead Wielhorski, which the Naczelnik accepted. He himself participated in combat in and around Warsaw - as a division commander fought at Błonie July 7 – July 10 and led cavalry in anti-Prussian diversion at Marymont July 26 – July 27. When during the Prussian siege of the city Mokronowski was sent to Lithuania to replace ailing Wielhorski, Poniatowski was given his post in Warsaw's defense parameter. There as always he fought valiantly. August 5 – August 10 in a victorious and promising series of confrontations he took from the Prussians the Góry Szwedzkie region, then lost it after a couple of weeks in a counterattack, for which, despite Kościuszko's warnings, he did't properly prepare. Trying to recover the lost ground was injured, when his horse was shot under him. In October he led his outnumbered troops in attacks against Prussian entrenchments at the Bzura River, which at the cost of heavy losses tied up the Prussians and saved Dąbrowski's corps, by allowing its return to Warsaw. During the course of this war and revolution the Prince felt alienated by the actions and influence of the radical wing led by Hugo Kołłątaj, while the military cooperation between him, Dąbrowski and Józef Zajączek was not what it should had been, and things had gotten worse after Kościuszko's capture at Maciejowice.

The Insurrection having failed, Poniatowski stayed for a while in Warsaw, his estates were confiscated, but having refused a position in the Russian army and unwilling to comply with the loyalty conditions that the Russian authorities wanted to impose on him, was ordered to leave the Polish capital and in April 1795 moved once more to Vienna. The Kościuszko Rising led to the Third (and final) Partition of Poland.

In 1796 died Catherine II and her son, tsar Paul I returned Poniatowski's estates and again tried to hire him in the Russian army. To excuse himself Prince Józef claimed being (as a result of past wounds) in an extremely poor health. But in 1798 died in St. Petersburg his uncle, the former king Stanisław August. Poniatowski left Vienna for his funeral and to arrange for the proper disposition of the late king's finances, inheritance and obligations. He stayed in St. Petersburg for several months, and then, being on good terms with Tsar Paul and his court, returned to Poland, into his estates in Warsaw (Pod Blachą and Łazienki palaces) and in Jabłonna. Warsaw at that time was under Prussian rule.

There until 1806 Poniatowski lived a private life of parties and play, politically not very active, often shocking the public opinion by the conduct of himself and his friends. His household was managed strictly by one Henrietta Vauban, an older woman whom he brought from Vienna and who was apparently able to exert a great deal of influence over the Prince. His residences were open to various personalities, and from 1801 the future Louis XVIII, brother of the executed by the Revolution Louis XVI, who with his family and court needed a place to stay, was Poniatowski's guest at the Łazienki Palace for a few years. In 1802, beset by legal troubles stemming from Stanisław August's succession, Poniatowski made a trip to Berlin, where he stayed for months and established cordial personal relations with the Prussian royal family. Prince Józef never married; had two sons with two of his unmarried partners, of which the last and most important was Zofia Czosnowska from the Potocki family, mother of his younger son Karol Józef Poniatowski.

Following Napoleon Bonaparte's victory at the Battle of Jena and the ensuing evacuation by Prussia of her Polish provinces, in November 1806 Poniatowski was asked by the Prussian king Frederick William III to assume the governorship of Warsaw, to which he agreed; he also assumed the command of the city's municipal guard and citizen militia forces organized by local residents. All of this turned out to be a short-lived Polish provisional authority, because quick succession of events on the European scene presented the Poles with new opportunities and forced upon them new choices.

At the end of that year Joachim Murat and his forces entered Warsaw and Poniatowski had to define his role within this new political reality. It took protracted negotiations with Murat (they liked each other and quickly became friends) and persuasion by Józef Wybicki (who urged the Prince to get on board, before the window of historic opportunity closes), but before the year was over Poniatowski was declared by Murat to be "chief of the military force" and was leading the military department on behalf of the French authorities. Dąbrowski, who was the choice of many Polish veterans of the Polish Legions and of the Insurrection, as well as Zajączek were bypassed, even though they both had served under Napoleon when Poniatowski was inactive. On January 14, 1807 by the Emperor's decree the Warsaw Governing Commission was created under Stanisław Małachowski, and within this structure Poniatowski became officially Director of the Department of War and set about organizing the Polish army.

In July 1807 the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was created. In its government Poniatowski on October 7 became Minister of War and Head of Army of Warsaw County (minister wojny i naczelny wódz wojsk Ks. Warszawskiego), while Napoleon, not yet quite trusting him, left the supreme military command in Davout's hands until summer of 1808. Poniatowski officially became Commander in Chief on March 21, 1809.

The Minister of War became completely devoted to the creation and development of this new, ostentatiously Polish army. The Duchy's army existed and operated under most difficult circumstances and its success depended largely on the military and political skills of the chief commander. For example, it was severely underfunded and most of the military units were kept by Napoleon outside of the country, to be used in numerous campaigns, which is why Prince Józef had a rather small force at his disposal during the war of 1809.

In spring of 1809 Poniatowski led his army against an Austrian invasion under the Archduke Ferdinand Karl Joseph of Austria-Este, in the war that was regarded by Austrian high command as a crucial element of their struggle with Napoleonic France. At the bloody Battle of Raszyn near Warsaw on April 19, where he personally led his men in an infantry bayonet charge (throughout his career he did a number of these), Polish forces under Poniatowski's command fought to a standstill an Austrian force twice their number. Afterwards however decided not to defend Warsaw and withdrew with his units to the east bank of the Vistula River, to the fortified Praga suburb, which the Austrians attacked, but were defeated at Grochowo on April 26. An Austrian division then crossed the Vistula again trying to pursue the Poles, but was routed on May 2 at Góra Kalwaria in a daring attack led by General Michał Sokolnicki. Ferdinand made a couple of attempts more, trying to establish a bridgehead on the other side of the Vistula, but those were defeated, which left the initiative in Poniatowski's hands. From there he quickly advanced south, staying close to the Vistula to control the situation and taking over large areas of Galicia, that is southern Poland that was controlled by Austria under the partitioning arrangement. On May 14 Lublin was taken, on the 18th fortified and vigorously defended Sandomierz. On the 20th the Zamość fortress was overpowered, where 2000 prisoners and 40 cannons were taken, and even further east Lvov was taken on May 27. These military developments compelled the Austrians to withdraw from Warsaw - a counteroffensive by their main force resulted in the retaking of Sandomierz on June 18.

But Poniatowski in the meantime moved west of the Vistula and on July 5, the day of the Battle of Wagram, began from Radom his new southbound offensive aimed at Kraków. He arrived there on July 15, and while the demoralized and not capable of effective defense Austrians tried to turn the city over to the Russians, Poniatowski at this point was not to be outmaneuvered or intimidated: Seeing a Russian hussar cavalry unit in attack formation blocking the street leading to the bridge on the Vistula, he rode his raised up horse into them, so that several flipped as they were falling.

Most of the liberated lands, with the exception of the Lvov region, became incorporated into the Duchy through the peace treaty of October 14, 1809. Prince Józef himself, celebrated by the residents of the old royal capital of Poland, remained in Kraków until the end of December, supervising the provisional Galician government in existence from June 2 to December 28. The Austrians kept demanding the return of Kraków and he felt that his presence there was the best assurance that the city remains in Polish hands.

In April 1811 Poniatowski went to Paris, where he represented the king of Saxony and duke of Warsaw Frederick Augustus I at the baptism ceremonies of Napoleon's son. He stayed there for four months and worked with the Emperor and his generals on plans for the campaign against Russia. He tried to convince the French leaders that the southern route, through the current day Ukraine would provide the most benefits. Not only was the region warmer, Polish gentry from the Russian partition would join in, and possible Turkish action against Russia could be supported, which was the most advantageous theater for the upcoming war. Napoleon rejected the idea, as well as the back-up scenario, according to which Poniatowski would follow such a route alone with the Polish corps, hoping to take over these formerly Polish areas with the expected help from a Polish uprising planned there. For the Moscow expedition Poniatowski became commander of the part of the nearly 100,000 strong Polish forces (the greatest Polish military effort before the 20th century), namely the V Corps of the Grande Armée.

The initial period of the offensive, when Poniatowski was placed under the direction of Jérôme Bonaparte, was wasted, but after Napoleon's brother left Poniatowski was briefly put in charge of Grande Armée's right wing. Fighting on the avant-garde on the advance to Moscow he distinguished himself at a number of battles. On August 17 at Smolensk he personally led his corps' assault on the city. On September 7 at Borodino the V Corps was involved in the daylong fight over the Utitza Mound, which was finally taken toward the evening, stormed by the entire corps led by Prince Józef again. On September 14 the Polish soldiers were the first ones to enter the Russian capital; by that time however Poniatowski, unlike Napoleon, was convinced that the campaign was doomed. The Polish corps fought then the battles at Chirikovo on September 29 and Vinkovo on October 18, where Poniatowski saved Murat from a complete defeat by Kutuzov's forces.

Rearguarding the retreat of the Grande Armée, Poniatowski was badly injured during the Viazma battle on October 29. He continued in active service for a few days, but on November 3 his condition forced him to give up his command. He then continued the westbound trip in a carriage with two wounded aides. At the Berezina crossing they barely avoided being captured by the Russians, but finally on December 12 arrived in Warsaw.

After the disastrous retreat of Napoleon's army, while recovering from his injuries, Poniatowski quickly undertook the rebuilding of the Polish army, to replace the forces almost completely devastated as the result of the Moscow campaign. When many Polish leaders began to waver in their allegiance to the French Emperor, Poniatowski resisted this sway of opinion and remained faithful to him, even as tsar Alexander I was offering him amnesty and proposed future cooperation. With the formation of this new army only partially completed, on February 5, as the Russian army was about to enter Warsaw, the Polish units moved out, not sure of their immediate purpose, but eventually they reached Kraków, where they stayed for a few weeks getting ready for their final trial. On May 7, as the Russians were getting close again, Prince Józef and his army left Kraków, to go through Bohemia, where, as the VIII Corps, they guarded the passes of the Bohemian mountains and defended the left bank of the Elbe River, to Saxony. The total forces with which he joined Napoleon during armistice numbered 22,000, which included a small, separately operating Dąbrowski's division.

The corps fought major successful battles at Löbau on September 9, and at Zedtlitz on October 10, where General Pahlen attempted to stop their movement toward Leipzig, but was defeated in a cavalry charge led by Poniatowski. On October 12 he was about to sit down with Murat at the breakfast table, when they were surprised by enemy units. Poniatowski got on his horse, broke through (received a superficial wound in the arm) and returning with another timely cavalry charge saved the situation.

As a reward for his brilliant services, on October 16 during the Battle of Leipzig, Poniatowski was made a Marshal of France and entrusted with the dangerous duty of covering the French Army's retreat. He heroically defended Leipzig, losing half his corps in the attempt, finally falling back slowly upon a bridge over the Weisse Elster River, near Leipzig. In the general confusion, the French blew up the bridge before he could reach it. Contesting every step with the overwhelming forces of his pursuers, Prince Józef refused to surrender, and covered with wounds plunged into the river. There he died, probably shot by French troops' friendly fire from the opposite bank of the Elster River.

His remains were transported to Poland in 1817 and buried in the cathedral on Kraków's Wawel Hill, where he lies beside Tadeusz Kościuszko and Jan III Sobieski. In 1829 his monument by Bertel Thorvaldsen was placed in Warsaw. It went through a rather turbulent history and was destroyed during World War II, but a more recent copy is still standing in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw. Poniatowski's cult developed after his death - it was a Polish version of the Napoleon's legend. He never married and had illegitimate issue.

Ajman, 1972, Napoleon and Poniatowski

Guinea Bissau, 2010, Lech Kaczynski, monument of Poniatowski

Manama, 1972, Napoleon and Poniatowski

Poland, 1938, Kosciuszko, Poniatowski and Dabrovski

Poland, 1945, Monument to Poniatowski

Poland, 1956, Poniatowski Monument

Poland, 1991, Constitution of 3 May 1791

Poland, 1992, Josef Poniatowski


© 2003-2022 Dmitry Karasyuk. Idea, preparation, drawing up
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