Prince Jozef Poniatowski was a nephew of the last king of Poland-Lithuania. Born into an affluent family, he was raised to be a soldier. He spent a large part of his life fighting for Poland: first against the Russians in the war of 1792-1794, then as one of Napoleon’s generals, and finally as a Marshal of the French Empire. As the head of the Polish force of the Duchy of Warsaw, Poniatowski served throughout the campaign in Russia in 1812 and stood by Napoleon until his death at the Battle of Leipzig the following year.
Poniatowski was born on 7 May 1763 in Vienna to Andrzej Poniatowski, a general in the Austrian Army, and Teresa Kinsky, a descendant of an old Czech family. On the election to the Polish-Lithuanian throne of Jozef’s uncle Stanissaw August, Jozef and the other members of his family received a princely title. A year later his father received the hereditary title of a Czech prince from the Austrian empress, Maria Theresa. After the loss of his father, young Jozef enjoyed the patronage and assistance of his crowned uncle in Poland, who wished to raise his nephew to be a true Pole.
In February 1780 Jozef joined the Austrian Army with the rank of second lieutenant of the 2nd Regiment of Carabiniers of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. His exceptional talents for military service and his hard work led to rapid advancement. In 1784, already holding the rank of major, he was sent to Galicia to organize a Polish uhlan (lancer) regiment, of which he served as commander for the next two years. In 1786 Poniatowski transferred to the elite light cavalry regiment at Moravia that bore the name of the Emperor Joseph II, and of which Poniatowski was appointed lieutenant colonel.
In January 1788 the Emperor appointed Poniatowski as his personal aide-de-camp during the war against Turkey; at this time Poniatowski was wounded. By year’s end Poniatowski was asked to come to Poland to join the newly formed units of the enlarged Polish army. He arrived in Warsaw in August 1789 and on 3 October was nominated a major general. In January 1790 he was appointed commander of the Royal Foot Guard, though he served only briefly in this capacity, for in the spring he took over command of the Bracsaw and Kijew divisions based in Tulczyn, which constituted a quarter of the Polish Army.
On 3 May 1791 the Polish parliament adopted the first Polish Constitution, a circumstance which resulted in the Russo-Polish War the following year, when Russian forces crossed the Polish border seeking to back the Targowica Confederation (a legal, self-proclaimed political faction opposed to the monarch and other state institutions), established by a group of Polish magnates opposing the new constitution. The Polish army was no match for the Russian forces and therefore could do little more than simply slow their advance. Poniatowski suffered a defeat at the Battle of Boruszkowce, only to win the next one at Zieleuce, for which he became the first recipient of the Polish Order Virtuti Militari. When the king of Poland joined the Targowica Confederation in July 1792, Poniatowski resigned and left the army for Warsaw. In August of the same year Poniatowski left Poland for Saxony and Vienna. In July 1793 he left Vienna under pressure from the Russian ambassador and went to Brussels.
The following year, in May, he returned to Poland to join the Polish insurgent troops, under the command of Tadeusz Ko$ciuszko (Thaddeus Kosciusko), who were fighting against Russian forces. While the fortunes of each side shifted throughout the war, the ultimate outcome of the insurrection could be but one, given the disproportionate strength of the Russian army as compared to the numbers fielded by the Polish insurgents. After the collapse of the uprising and the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Poniatowski once more went to Vienna.
His biographers refer to the ensuing twelve years as a lost time. After the defeat of the Prussian army at the battles of Jena and Auerstädt (14 October 1806), the Prussian king Frederick William III asked Poniatowski, after the departure of Prussian troops from the king’s Polish territories, to organize a citizens’ militia in Warsaw (part of Prussian Poland). Poniatowski willingly accepted, stressing that the formation would serve the people of Warsaw, not the Prussian authorities. On 28 November 1806 Poniatowski welcomed the Grand Duke of Cleves and Berg, Marshal Joachim Murat, on his entering Warsaw with a French corps. On 6 December Poniatowski decided to serve Poland on the side of the French emperor. Ten days later he was ordered to begin recruiting men for a Warsaw Legion.
On 5 January 1807 Poniatowski presented Napoleon with a “memorandum” suggesting that Napoleon form a Polish state consisting of the Prussian and Russian occupied territories. Just before the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw as a result of the Treaty of Tilsit of 7 July, Poniatowski was honored with the French Legion of Honor by Napoleon; he was then nominated the minister of war on 7 October. After the departure of Marshal Louis Davout from the duchy in September 1808, Poniatowski became head of the newly formed Polish forces there.
As a commander in chief and organizer of the duchy’s army, Poniatowski ensured that the newly raised troops were well equipped and respected in society. He paid special attention to the soldiers’ uniforms, which became some of the most colorful in Europe. According to the constitution of the duchy, the army was to number 30,000 men, a figure that was attained very rapidly. Shortly thereafter, however, because of financial problems arising out of the considerable sums expended in feeding, arming, and equipping the army, some regiments were sent for service in Danzig (Gdansk), Silesia, Prussian forts in Pomerania, and even as far as Spain. There were 15,500 soldiers stationed in the duchy itself.
It was this army, which in 1809, as a French ally in the War of the Fifth Coalition, fought against the 30,000- strong Austrian army of Archduke Ferdinand, who crossed the border of the duchy in April. Poniatowski, whose troops were not strong enough to directly face Ferdinand’s army, decided to leave Warsaw undefended and march south toward Austrian Galicia, which fell under his control. Meanwhile the outcome of the war was decided on other battlefields. As a result of the Battle of Wagram, the Austrians sued for peace and concluded the Treaty of Schönbrunn (14 October), which applied to the Duchy of Warsaw as well. By its terms the Duchy of Warsaw gained the old capital of Poland-Krakow-and enlarged its territory by 50 percent. Poniatowski himself was praised for his part in the campaign.
From 1810 Poniatowski worked toward the enlargement of the army of the duchy and the strengthening of the country’s fortifications. In the end the duchy’s military forces exceeded 60,000 men. For Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812, the Duchy of Warsaw supplied almost 100,000 men. These constituted the regular regiments of the Duchy of Warsaw and the National Guard. Most of these troops were scattered in various multinational regiments of the Grande Armée. Poniatowski himself commanded the 36,000-strong all-Polish V Corps, which formed the right wing of the army.
Napoleon and Poniatowski before the burning city of Smolensk
On 17 August Poniatowski’s troops took part in the Battle of Smolensk (by which time only about 15,000 of his men remained), on 4-5 September in the action at Szewrdin, and two days later at the Battle of Borodino. By the time V Corps reached Moscow, Poniatowski’s command had been reduced to a mere 5,500 men. During the retreat Poniatowski served in the rear guard, protecting the remnants of the Grande Armée. Wounded on 29 October, however, he did not take part in the end of the campaign.
On 13 December Poniatowski returned to Warsaw and started to rebuild his corps. He faced a daunting task, for only 380 Polish soldiers returned from the campaign. With the Russian army approaching Warsaw, Poniatowski left for Krakow, where he continued to raise new recruits. Concerned that the Austrians would join the Russians and Prussians, Poniatowski left Krakow on 7 May 1813 and with barely 17,000 men marched toward Silesia. Three months later, on 10 August, he stopped an Austrian army from marching toward Saxony-the main theater of operations during the campaign of 1813 in Germany.
Death of Poniatowski. Painting by January Suchodolski.
Poniatowski and his troops fought at the decisive Battle of Leipzig on 16-19 October. After the first day of the action Napoleon created him a Marshal of the Empire for deeds performed on the battlefield. Three days later, covering the retreat of Napoleon’s army, Poniatowski drowned when attempting to cross the Elster. Five days later his body was recovered from the muddy river, and in 1814 he was buried in Warsaw. Three years later his body was transferred to the Royal Cathedral on Wawel Hill in Krakow.
References and further reading Askenazy, Szymon. 1905. Ksiaze Jozef Poniatowski 1763-1813. Warsaw: Gebethner and Wolff. Chandler, David, ed. 1987. Napoleon’s Marshals. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Delderfield, R. F. 2004. The March of the Twenty-Six. London: Leo Cooper. Macdonnell, A. G. 1996. Napoleon and His Marshals. London: Prion. Skowronek, Jerzy. 1984. Ksiaze Jozef Poniatowski. Warsaw: Ossolineum. Young, Peter. 1973a. Napoleon’s Marshals. London: Osprey. —. 1973b. Napoleon’s Marshals. New York: Hippocrene.