The Polish Vistula Legion
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This article was published in Napoleon Magazine Number 1 January 1996
The Polish Vistula Legion
This article was written by George Nafziger and Tad I. Kwiatkowski
In 1806,what was left of the old Dabowski and Kniaziewicz’s Danube Legion (established in 1796 and 1799 respectively) was one infantry regiment and one cavalry regiment in the service of Kingdom of Naples.
In February 1807 these remnants became part of the French army and were sent to Silesia. These Polish veterans became the core of a new Polish Legion, assembled in Breslau, and were initially called the Polish-Italian Legion (Italian since they had fought in Italy, not because the unit had Italians in it).
Napoleon's decree of 1807 stated this Legion should consist of three infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment. New recruits came largely from the Posen and Pommeranian regions. In ]une, the formation took part in the siege of Klodzko. From Silesia the Legion moved to service in Westphalia in October 1807, where it was stationed in Kassel. New recruits from Poland arrived daily, eventually filling out three regiments of two battalions each. The cavalry regiment under Col. Konopka arrived there on 11 November.
On 21 February, 1808, Napoleon ordered the Legion to Poitiers in France, where it was formally inducted into the French army. In a letter to Davout dated 31 March, 1808, Napoleon renamed the Polish-Italian Legion (Polacco—Italienne) the ”Vistula Legion.” He also stated that the infantry were to be treated on a par with French line regiments and the cavalry equal with the French chasseur 12 cheval regiments. The legion was still enroute to Paris, so this reorganization had not yet begun.
The Legion and its cavalry regiment went to Metz and Bayonne, where they, and many other Poles transferred from other French units, began organizing the Vistula Legion by the end of May 1808. The depot for the Legion appears to have been Sedan.
On 11 April, 1808 Napoleon issued the organizational decree for the Vistula Legion. It was to contain three infantry regiments, each with two battalions. The number of companies was reduced to six per battalion, forming the Polish battalions along the lines of the French re-organization established by the Decree of 18 February, 1808, which reduced the number of companies in a battalion from nine to six.
The Polish Lancer of the Vistula Legion was organized like a French chasseur 51 cheval regiment. The Decree of 24 June, 1808 did not address the lancers, so they retained their earlier organization of 43 officers and 1,000 rank and file organized into four squadrons. Each squadron had two companies.
These first organizational decrees had the effect of reducing the paper strength of the Vistula Legion from 9,460 men to a more attainable 6,600 men. The Decree of 24 June brought it to an actual strength of 5,959 men. It should also be‘noted that French nationals were not permitted to serve in the Legion, except as the company clerks (fourriers), battalion adjutant non—commissioned officers, and as paymasters. The Poles, apparently, had little concern for administrative duties and, driven to desperation, Napoleon relented on these administrative positions.
Between 27 May and 20 June elements of the Vistula Legion arrived in Bayonne preparing for participation in the Spanish campaign.
On 8 June Napoleon assigned the 2nd and 3rd Vistula Regiments to General Grandjean’s Division, effectively dismantling the Legion concept of a self-contained all—Polish combined arms force. After the battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809), Napoleon found that he was once again in possession of a large number of ethnic Poles amongst his Austrian prisoners of war. The Decree of 8 July, 1809, directed that these men were to form a 2nd Vistula Legion. lts organization began in Saint-Poelten and ethnic Germans and Austrians were also accepted into its ranks. There were, however, insufficient numbers of men to fully form a second legion similar to the first, and in September its strength amounted to two battalions. Both battalions were formed and sent to Sedan in October.
The 2nd Vistula Legion never was able to form completely, so it was disbanded by the Decrees of 12/15 February, 1810. It was incorporated into the 1st Vistula Legion as a 4th Regiment.
The Vistula Legion was sent to Spain where it fought in the sieges of Saragossa and Segunto. In fact, the Vistula Legion seemed particularly destined to participate in sieges, and it fought in all of the major sieges in eastern Spain during the early years of the Peninsular War. The next organizational change was the raising of the 2nd Lancer Regiment on 7 February, 1811. Its organization was identical to the 1st Lancer Regiment.
In preparation for the invasion of Russia the Vistula Legion was withdrawn from Spain in early 1812. The Decree of 3 March, 1812, ordered the transformation of the Legion into a division. This was to be done by supplementing its four regiments with the raising of a 3rd Battalion for each regiment and the assignment of artillery companies. Command of the division was given to General Claparede. Chlopicki served as a brigade commander. On 14 March the Vistula Legion was renamed “La Legion du Grand Duchie de Varsovie.” This was short—lived, and by 5 May it reverted back to "Vistula Legion.”
On 13 March, 1812, Napoleon issued the organizational decrees for the artillery and the third battalions. A regimental artillery company was to have two 3pdr guns to bolster the firepower of each regiment.
These reorganizations brought the theoretical regimental strength from 1,705 men to 2,622 men, and the entire division to a strength of 10,488 men, plus divisional staff. This theoretical strength was never attained.
On 2 April, 1812, Napoleon decided to include the Poles in the Young Guard corps under Marshal Mortier rather than designating them as Guard.
The third battalions were formed, but on 31 May, after reviewing them in Posen, Napoleon directed that they not form elite companies, feeling their soldiers were too young. However, they would follow the main army as far as Smolensk and Gjatsk, joining the main body only during the retreat in the beginning of November.
On 15 June the Vistula Legion, sans 3rd Battalions, had a total of 112 officers and 4,910 men, 94 percent of the theoretical strength of 150 officers and 5,175 rank and file. The 4th Regiment was still in Spain while the other regiments went to Russia.
In July 1812, when the Vistula Legion accompanied the Grande Armée into Russia, it had the distinction and honor to be attached to the Imperial Guard. As such, they were among the first troops to enter Moscow. The Legion still mustered 5,341 men on 15 October, 1812. But of the almost 7,000 Vistula Legionnaires that entered Russia less than 1,500 escaped between December 1812 and February 1813. These men had fought bravely at Smolensk, Borodino, Tarutino, Krasnoe and at the Berezina Crossing.
On 18 Iune, 1813, a ”Vistula Regiment” was organized from the renants of the Vistula Legion. It consisted of only two battalions. On 27 ]une it left Erfurt and moved on to Wittenberg, taking part in a large military revue there on 11 July.
When the armistice ended the Spring 1813 Campaign (Napoleon's last successful campaign), the Vistula Legion moved on 1O August, 1813, south through Dresden and joined the VIII Polish Corps under Prince Pontiatowski in the vicinity of Zittau. On 15 September the Legion fought the Russians in a bloody engagement at Neustadt (near Dresden). The Legion, which participated in several small engagements and skirmishes, was virtually destroyed at the Battles of Leipzig on 15-19 October, and at Hanau, where they helped sweep aside the Bavarian army blocking the retreat route to France. The Legion was reformed at Sedan in early 1814. All the Poles remaining in French service were utilized in an effort to bring it up to strength.
At Soissons, on 2 March, 1814, it fought valiantly against the blockading Russian forces. After earning 23 Legions d ’honneur (two officers and 21 soldiers) at Soissons, the Legion moved to the Compiégne. They fought at Rheims (2 March) and Arcis-sur-Aube (20 March) where Napoleon sought shelter in one of its battalions as it formed square. The Legion then went on to fight at the battle at St. Dizier. When the war ended the survivors returned to Poland.
During the 1815 campaign, 325 men under a Colonel Golaszewski appear to have been the last of the Vistula Legion to serve under Napoleon.
About the Authors: Captain George Nafziger, LlSNR—Ret, is the author of twenty five hooks on the Napoleonic era and World War Two, including Napoleon at Dresden: The Battles of August 1813. Nafziger is a Fellow of Le Souvenir Napoléonien International and a director of the NSA. Tad I. Kwiatkowski is a native of Poland and a graduate of the Naval Academy in Gdynia. His family has maintained a long tradition of fighting in Poland’s many wars for independence. Kwiatkowski received political asylum from the former Polish communist government. He now resides in the LISA where he is the current President of the Polish Military Collectors Association.
This article was published in Napoleon Magazine #1 January 1996
Storming the Ramparts in Spain:
Baron Lejeune's Account of the taking
the convent of Santa Engracia by the
"The Poles of the Second Vistula Regiment, commanded by Chopliski and directed by Rogniat, colonel of engineers, had been divided into several small detachments, which were taken, into action one after the other, to avoid confusion. These heads of colurrms traversed at a run some 200 exposed yards, and dashed impetuously on to the ruins of the first wall of the enclosure, which had been flung down for a considerable length. A second Wall behind the first had only been damaged by the breaking open of the breach some eight or ten feet wide, and the guns of the 1,200 defenders of the convent were all pointed on it and pouring forth a hot fire.
The first of our brave fellows to arrive, Captain Segond, of the engineers, and Captain Negrodski, ﬂung themselves head foremost upon the breach, and were followed by all the men of the Vistula Regiment, who came on like enraged lions, flung themselves into the opening and defile beyond it. A terrible struggle now took place in every part of thecconvent, monks, soldiers, peasants, even women and children, urging each other on, and disputing every inch of ground, defending themselves from the top to the bottom of the stairs, from corridor to corridor, from room to room, entrenching themselves behind bales of wood or even piles of books, and from every point pouring out a murderous ﬁre. One of the Poles was actually killed on the stairs by a monk with blows from a crucifix. For all that, however, the Spanish were driven back beyond the Capuchin Convent, of which we remained the masters."
Lejeune continues in his praise of the Poles: “The Poles of the three regiments of the Vistula acquired incredible skill in this service sentinel watch on besieged portions of Spanish towns. They would at once notice every, little opening made by the enemy in the walls, even if it were no bigger than a pennyipiece, and would point it out to any of us who happened to approach it, warning us to be on our guard. These warnings were generally given by signs, as very few of us understood Polish, and they were not only very valuable but also quite comic on account of the quaint pantomine with whichour eagerly benevolent friends enforced them. Looking at us with eyes full of meaning, they would point to the dangerous little hole or hidden loop—hole with one hand, whilst they placed a finger of the other on their lips to enjoin silence; any one who neglected to obey these expressive signals was sure to be immediately shot down, for apparently insignificant little holes were so close to us that every bullet from them found its billet... ”...the skill and unwearied watchfulness of our Poles saved the lives of a good many Frenchmen, who were too much disposed to despise the caution which they thought detracted fron their courage. I myself twice owed my life to our Poles, and I am very certain that but for them our loss would have been very much greater.”
Vistula Legion in Spain
Voltigeur, 16th Régiment
Voltigeur Bugler, Duchy of Warsaw
Images by Keith Rocco
printed in Napoleon Magazine #1 January 1996