God. Honor. Homeland.

He had it all: good presence, good ancestry, and a generous uncle. He had a certain je ne sais quoi: charm, good manners, a sense of humour, and a devil-may-care attitude. He was honourable, idealistic. When he made up his mind, he stuck to his guns. He was faithful to ideals, and to good causes. Even though he was labelled a philanderer he was apparently faithful to the ideal of marrying the one and only woman in his life. But instead he was married to Poland, to which he also remained faithful until his death. Though he died outside  his homeland, it was in the name of faithfulness to the French Emperor – Napoleon.

Short presentation of Prince Poniatowski; P.Jarkiewicz, K. Drywa  


 A portrait of Prince Józef Poniatowski, Józef Maria Grassi


Józef Poniatowski was born on the 7th of May 1763 in Vienna. His mother came from the noble Czech family von Kinsky. His father – Andrzej Poniatowski – was a general in the Austrian army. This wasn’t a betrayal of his country. At that time sons of famous families very often served and learned war craft in foreign armies. In those times the Polish army wasn’t ranked among the strongest armies. It was based on mass loyalty, and was unable to pass good practices or military experience down to the next generation of soldiers.     

The nickname “Pepi” was given to Józef by his mother. When he was adult and soldier, she still called him “Pepik”. You might try to discern in that nickname a reference to the diminutive of his first name and the Czech roots of his mother. In his own lifetime he was Prince Pepi to his close friends and family, and after his death he remained Prince Pepi for all.  

One year after Józef’s birth, the brother of his father – Stanisław – was elected as King of Poland. When the young Prince was eleven, he was orphaned by the death of his father, and his uncle took over his care. It influenced Józef Poniatowski’s later life choices.


Fates intertwined.

Józef, at the beginning, served (similar to his father) in the Austrian Army, where he learned the art of war. He fought in the war against Turkey (in the year 1788). In only eight years, he rapidly rose from the rank of lieutenant to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and became emperor’s adjutant.

Fate can be perverse. In the time of the siege of the Turkish stronghold Šabac (currently Serbia), in the year 1788 young Józef was heavily wounded saving Karl Schwarzenberg’s life. Both of them with time grew to be eminent commanders. One become commander of the Polish army, the other of the Austrian Army. Karl, in spite of outstanding military skills, was ever on the losing side in battles against France. However, in 1809 he caused enough trouble for Napoleon to eventually be defeated at Wagram. In 1812 he took part in the expedition to Moscow as commander of the auxiliary forces of the Great Army. In that moment, Józef and Karl stood on the same side, though Karl tried to remain passive to not bother the Russians too much. Finally, they stood against each other in the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig (1813). Karl won a great victory, and Józef gave his life there.

They say that in 1813 Napoleon offered the baton of the Marshal of France first to Schwarzenberg, and when he gently refused, the Emperor of France offered it, as if nothing had happened, to Poniatowski. The Chief Commander of the Duchy of Warsaw accepted this honour (though without any enthusiasm). After three days he was killed in the routing of Napoleon near Leipzig. The rout was made by cousin Karl – the supreme commander of the allied forces, who stood against Napoleon in this Battle of the Nations, and who had been previously rescued by Józef from the turmoil of the Turkish war.


Under the wing of the King of Poland.

But let’s go back to the crowned uncle.  From the beginning he shaped Józef as his successor. He taught him to govern and entrusted him with diplomatic missions. Finally, as an incentive, he gave him the Tin Roofed Palace adjacent to the Royal Castle. He also separated him from his beloved Karolina von Thun, considering Józef to have better marrying prospects. These were turbulent times for the Commonwealth of Both Nations. When little Józef was less than 10 years old, the first partition of Poland was made. At the age of 25, when he was the colonel of the army of one of the invaders, the Polish Parliament – the Sejm – began to debate.  This Sejm went down in history as The Great Sejm or The Four-Year Sejm (years 1788-1792). The King and the Parliament began necessary, though late, state reforms including the reforms of the army, which was no longer able to defend the crumbling empire. In 1789 Prince Józef received a proposal from his uncle to be a general of the Polish army. Together with an older, respected colleague, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, he was to undertake a reform of the army. Without much hesitation, the Prince abandoned his current life and the splendour of Vienna. He moved to Warsaw.


“They eat, drink, smoke pipes, dance, carouse, and frolic”.[1]

Being young and good looking, and with a devil-may-care attitude, Prince Pepi focused not only on reforms and great historical achievements, he intensively took part in the social life of Warsaw. He certainly made it more colourful. In these times, despite the importance of political events, the capital of the First Republic of Poland was playing hard. There were balls and revelries. The young Prince added his fiery temperament to the mix. Even the respectable general Kosciuszko gave in to his charm and ideas, though he was by nature quieter and at that time already a nobleman in middle age. One bet won by the frisky Prince went down in legend after he scandalized prudish Warsaw by riding through the streets in his birthday suit. The following is from the diary of Kajetan Koźmian[2]: “In the time of The Great Seym he took a bet, that in the day time, naked on his horse he will ride through all of Warsaw and taking his friends with him: Ignacy Hryniewiecki and as they say Sanguszko[3], he did it scandalizing many”. The person describing the event was very tactful because other sources say that Sanguszko in reality could have been the Polish noble national hero – Kościuszko[4]. There are also two positions referring to the style of the Prince’s streak. One says that the Prince was riding a horse and another one claims that he was in an open carriage (the French name: carriole).  I ride a bit myself so I'm more inclined to believe in the second option. In the first one, despite all of his devil-may-care attitude, he might not have been comfortable enough.


“God entrusted me the honour of the Poles and I'll give it back only to God”.[5]

Picking up the historical thread where we left it, the Prince lived it up and flouted social convention but when his country called he was ready for any sacrifice. In 1792 he started to reform the small, unmotivated  Polish Army, showing his skills in that area and the experience he gained in the Austrian Army. According to the resolution of the Great Sejm the number of the Polish Army was to be 100 000 soldiers, which was a great feat if you take into consideration its condition at the time. When Russia attacked Poland – as a result of passing the Constitution of May 3, 1791 – the Prince stood at the head of the Polish army stationed at the border of the eastern power. He fought cautiously. In the face of the overwhelming military superiority of Russia, he tried not to suffer heavy losses and to take care of his subordinate units. The battle of Zieleńce (18.06.1792[6]) gave witness to the valour of the Polish army and the excellent quality of the Prince's command. It also showed (what in later battles for Napoleon would become standard) that in the face of danger, the Prince himself would lead his troops into battle, performing  extraordinary actions on the battlefield. He showed courage, spirit and the ability to rouse soldiers to fight with him.

Unfortunately, with such an overwhelming enemy force, King Stanisław decided to accede to supporting Russia and, in opposition to the Great Seym’s reforms,  the Targowica Confederation. It resulted in the capitulation of The Polish Army. For the Prince – the young commander, who was ready to sacrifice everything, who already saw the first good results of his actions – the deed of his uncle meant betrayal and abandonment of ideals. Ideals which the same man had instilled in him. He saw the weakness of the King. He was devastated.  Here, for the first time, his emotional nature was revealed. In the campaign of his last battle with Russia  he had a death wish. Apparently he found that he would rather “die than breathe in disgrace”. However he had an even more significant role to play in history so Death didn't come for him this time. Unable to agree with the fact that the King began negotiations with the enemies of the Commonwealth,  leading to another partition of Poland, he moved back to his first homeland – Vienna.  From Vienna he appealed to the King to not make any concessions, because it would only worsen the situation. Reportedly he also challenged  the leader of The Targowica Confederation several times to a duel. But the Targowica leader left without any answer apparently respecting his own self-preservation more than his honour.  The Prince disowned his beloved uncle. Shortly after he had to also leave Vienna as the Russian authorities demanded. He moved to the west. In this time he met Countess de Vauban.


“The rest is silence”. [7]

Henrietta de Vauban was a very special person for the Prince. He met her in 1793 in Brussels when he was 30 and she was 40. The Prince wouldn’t have been himself if the story hadn’t ended with an affair.  The affair was short, but the Countess stayed with Poniatowski till the end, playing a much more important role in his life than just that of a lover. She was the real lady of the Tin-Roof Palace. A devoted, faithful companion and friend. She was actively involved in the reconstruction of Poland. Nasty people say that she was hanging around because of finances, that he was indebted to her for a large amount of money. Poniatowski didn’t even give in to Napoleon himself, who ordered him to expel her. He had his own rules. He didn’t make any harm even to his enemies, and he couldn’t harm his friends. Because of this he was often taken advantage of. Good, good-natured – those are the foremost of the Prince’s traits which are evident.


“That is the time when you need to sacrifice a lot, to save all”.[8]

As Józef Poniatowski predicted, negotiations with the invaders resulted in the second partitions of Poland in 1793. A year later Kościuszko’s Insurrection broke out. Poniatowski returned to Poland at the request of his uncle, who understood that negotiations with the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, were pointless and, being wiser after the event, supported the uprising. He needed his nephew’s support, not only his military experience but also his moral support. The King –a diplomat, builder of the country and idealist rather than a warrior – was forced by circumstances to do things against his nature. He wanted to take part in that war of independence, he wanted to support it and give the nation a sign, that he was with society, that he didn’t sell them down the river (I’m getting ahead of myself, and that is a thread for another story). The Prince came back and gave himself under the command of his friend Tadeusz Kościuszko as a volunteer soldier. He also supported his uncle in difficult moments. After the uprising’s defeat he refused to be forced to join the Russian Army. They showed him great understanding, and confiscated all of his property. He moved to Austria and also refused to enter the Austrian army. After the death of Empress Catherine he regained his lost properties (including the Tin-Roof Palace) and as “an unemployed“ person he came back to Warsaw.


“A Pole can still read and speak Polish proper because not all Warsaw is covered with copper (tin)” [9]

After the third partition of Poland Warsaw became a part of Prussia. Despite this, some of Prince Poniatowski’s friends and brothers-in-arms from the uprising followed Napoleon and started to create troops at his side. Pepi stayed in Warsaw and managed well socially. But he gained lifelong enemies in the persons of general Zajączek[10] and general Dąbrowski[11] (the first tensions between them had already appeared during the insurrection). In general he wasn’t liked because of his good relations with partitioners. No one noticed that thanks to those good relations, the citizens of Warsaw lived in relative peace in an oppressed country. The Prince also took care about improving the conditions and functioning of the former capital of Poland.

He didn’t avoid fighting for Napoleon. But it happened in later times, when the young ambitious general from Corsica reached the highest level of his career and transformed himself into the Emperor of Frenchmen. Till that time, which wasn’t until eight years later, Prince Józef lived peacefully under the Prussian occupation in his Tin-Roof Palace given to him by his uncle, or in the palace in Jabłonna inherited from his second uncle (primate).  He had good relations with the governor of Warsaw and was in fact Warsaw’s undisputed ruler. He spent time mostly on entertainments.  And it led to considerable debt. Partly it was just a front. The Prince, general, nephew of the former King of Poland, was also under the close observations of three invaders. He was followed by spies: Prussian, Austrian and Russian. He was also continuously offered different attractive offers from rulers of the three invaders, including an offer of the crown of Poland. He chose Napoleon, who didn’t want to offer anything, and at the beginning even didn’t like or trust him. From today’s perspective you might question whether the Prince was right to get involved with this ruler.  Maybe he wouldn’t have died at such a young age, maybe he would have fulfilled the role to which he was prepared by his uncle and he would have become King of Poland. Yet he decided to get into an alliance with France and there is no point to discuss that issue now. You might only wonder, why did he believe only in the “small corporal”(in orginal:"le petit caporal").


“What about Poland, Your Highness?” [12]

You had to be in favour of someone. Napoleon in that moment of history was unbeaten. He defeated his enemies on all sides. He did whatever he wanted and he connected more and more states to his empire. After the battle of Austerlitz (“the Battle of the Three Emperors” in 1805) the Emperor of Frenchmen proved to his “fellow professionals” that he was the most powerful ruler in The Old Continent. There was nobody left standing.

The French army perhaps wasn’t ranked among the best armed and trained armies, but it was the most brave and devoted to its leader, and the leader was a real genius of war. It was his greed which brought him defeat (but that is a thread for another story).

In 1807, after crushing the Prussian army in the battle of Jena and Auerstäd, Napoleon, hearing news that the Russian army was marching against him, issued a proclamation to his troops : “Soldiers, the Russians are boasting that they are coming for us. Let’s march to meet them and save them half of their way. They will have a second Austerlitz in the heart of Prussia”[13]. That “half-way” mentioned by the emperor was the territory of former Poland. Henryk Dąbrowski, Józef Zajączek and Józef Wybicki[14] had already been fighting as soldiers of the French army (in Polish units called Polish Legions) for ten years. The opportunity of reaching the territory of their former homeland was favourable for taking up talks with the Emperor about restoration of Poland.

Prince Poniatowski had to be in favour of one of the conflicting sides. The Frenchmen were already in the territory of Former Poland (in Poznań) and they were heading towards Warsaw. The Emperor wasn’t with them yet. Instead there was the magnificent Prince of Berg, Joahim Murat; a distinguished cavalryman himself with a devil-may-care attitude. His Prince’s title was granted, not inherited though, and he didn’t have an ounce of manners (but that is also another story). Poniatowski and Murat immediately took each other’s fancy (Poniatowski greeted him in Warsaw). Class differences don’t matter when people are joined as cavalrymen, have similar natures, and share a love of having fun.

The striking up of friendship with Napoleon’s brother-in-law was all the more precious because Poland didn’t appeal to Napoleon too much. King Stanisław wasn’t able to introduce his reforms, he didn’t completely turn around the economy of the state, nor did he prepare roads. Under the partitions no one cared about the economic development of former Polish lands. With things as they were, the Frenchman’s army suddenly, from civilized Western Europe, found themselves in the middle of nowhere. The season of the year was also rather depressing. The Frenchmen, shortly after crossing former Prussia’s borders, got stuck in the mud. Furthermore, it was cool, damp, and grey, and inns were poor and without any wine. A scandal! Murat’s soldiers were the first of Napoleon’s units who experienced that “circumstance of nature”. Next Napoleon himself would taste the splendour of this sightseeing. According to Jan Dobraczyński[15], they say that when Napoleon was heading to Warsaw, his carriage stuck in the mud. Irritated Napoleon had to change from his carriage to a horse. He was not a cavalryman only an artilleryman so riding a horse off-road wasn’t one of his specialities. As a result he reached Warsaw even more irritated and as a greeting he strongly upbraided the awaiting celebrities of Polish politics (Poniatowski wasn’t present at that meeting). Shortly after, the Polish representatives started to push Napoleon on the Polish independence issue. So Napoleon’s irritation grew each day he stayed in Warsaw. He heard about Poniatowski but from the beginning in rather a bad context.  His former brothers-in-arms, now having access to Napoleon, were making bad PR for him. Aside from that, the reception of the Prince with Countess de Vauban was badly received. The anti-Poniatowski alliance misrepresented her as being the head of a spy network working against Napoleon. Joahim Murat was the only one who stood up for Poniatowski. Bonaparte granted the Prince an audience of introduction. As for the invitation, Bonaparte strongly remonstrated to Poniatowski but entrusted him with the position of the Minister of War. Since then the Prince, as in King Stanislaw’s times, devoted himself to the mission of restoring Poland, but this time the guarantor of that was Napoleon. The Russian Tsar also made promises, but at promises he stopped. The French emperor offered at least a semblance  of the homeland.

For the Prince-idealist the most important thing was the reconstruction of the state. He never asked for anything for himself. Being the Minister of the War of the Duchy of Warsaw, he was not paid (who can afford it nowadays?). In 1813, he partly financed the reconstruction of the Polish army, heavily indebting himself. He was happy about what he had and he tried to use everything he had in the best way – both his good looks (he seduced many women) and diplomatic and military talents. He lived in the here and now, according to the carpe diem principle.


“The first step to drop captivity is to dare to be free, the first step to victory - get to know your own power”.[16]

The history of the Napoleonic Era is turbulent. Peace lasted for only one year. Then another coalition was formed (this time the Austrian). The French Emperor in spite of taking the capital of the Austrian Empire, couldn’t move out of it.  The Austrian army attacked at the same time on three fronts: in their own territory against Napoleon, in Italy (lost in favour of the Frenchmen) and in the newly-created country of Poland: Duchy of Warsaw. It wasn’t a good time for the Prince. He didn’t have a good reputation among the citizens of Warsaw because of the accusations of collaborating with the Prussian invader during the Partitions. When the Austrians approached Warsaw, as the Chief Commander of the Duchy, he decided to withdraw from the capital and surrender it without a fight. A traitor, enemies’ collaborator, betrayer; he gave up the country to his Austrian family. No one noted the strength of the Polish army in comparison to the Austrian army (ratio 14 000 to 32 000 soldiers) and that Warsaw was not prepared for defence. Poniatowski’s fault! The Prince chose a different tactical approach. If you don’t have a big army, withdraw and attack your enemy piece by piece. The same rule of minimizing one’s own losses which had worked well during the Russian attack on Poland in the year 1792. Poniatowski withdrew to Galicia (a historical and geographic region in Central-Eastern Europe – not to be confused with Galicia in Spain). He took Zamość, Lvov and then Cracow. And finally he forced the Austrians to leave Warsaw. And? He won the campaign with the modest powers he had at his disposal. He managed himself, without the powerful French protector, who was involved in military conflict in Austria.  Finally the Austrians were defeated in the battle of Wagram and peace came to Europe for a couple of years. 

By defeating the aggressor behind Napoleon’s back Poniatowski used the opportunity to connect to the Duchy of Warsaw the next piece of the former Polish territory, lost during the Partition. They say that Napoleon wasn’t delighted by the independence of the Poles, yet he agreed to take back from Austria part of the lost Polish territory. He became alert though. According to Dobraczyński, it might have influenced Napoleon’s decision to attack Russia from the side of fertile Ukrainian lands. Napoleon was afraid that Poniatowski after taking Lvov could connect it to the Duchy (similar as he did with Cracow in  1809). It’s a pity because the plan was good and at least would have given provisions to the Great Army (the factor which failed the most during the campaign in 1812). 

Let’s go back to the year 1809. The citizens of Warsaw built a  beautiful triumphal arch. They were beginning to finally love Poniatowski. And he asked General Dąbrowski to be the first to ride under the arch. The Prince was good-natured. He never hatched or plotted against others, even when they were unfavourable to him. From Napoleon he got the Legion of Honour and finally entered the Emperor's favour. Others (Marmont, Macdonald, Oudinot) for similar accomplishments under Wagram got marshals’ batons, but who said that there is historical justice? Murat (although he was a simple hand) didn’t make a mistake in his judgment: Prince Poniatowski – in addition to having high class blue blood in his veins, was a worthy and honorable man, a good leader, loved by his army – the people of Warsaw began to love him as well. Napoleon didn’t want to rebuild Poland. Therefore he didn't offer him any higher honors than the title of Chief Commander of the army of The Warsaw Duchy. But that title was enough for the Prince. The biggest honour for him was to serve in the Polish army and defend Poland no matter how small the country was. In the meantime, a cunning plan was born.


“Should Princesses fall in love? They are political pawns”.[17]

According to the constitution given by Napoleon in 1807,  the ruler of the Duchy of Warsaw became the King of Saxony - Frederick Augustus I - from the House of Wettin. The Wettins dynasty also ruled in Poland (in the form of two kings: Augustus II the Strong, and Augustus III). Frederick Augustus I was kind-hearted, modest and pious, and he respected Poles very much (they say he knew the Polish language and was aware of the reality of the Polish country. According to the constitution of the Duchy of Warsaw, the successor of the throne was to be the descendant of Frederick Augustus I. The King of Saxony didn’t have a son, but he had a daughter. What a great opportunity for a good match. Unfortunately, the crown didn't attract the Prince at all. He also wasn’t attracted by the Princes Maria Augusta Nepomucena Antonia Francisca Xaveria Aloysia Wettin, who had many qualities, though more spiritual than physical. The Prince at that time was in a relationship with Ms Czosnowska, who perhaps didn't have the qualities of spirit and intelligence developed as much but she had the right presentation. She also knew how to wrap the Prince around her finger. She was his official lover until he went on the campaign of 1813. From that relationship was born their son – Joseph junior.

Thus there was a willing Princess of reproductive age (she was over 20), who loved Poles and was kind-hearted. And also a handsome, noble Prince with appropriate diplomatic support. But Napoleon, and moreso Poniatowski himself, was against their relationship. Although some sources point out that the press issued an engagement notice of Prince Joseph with Princess Augusta, a lack of paparazzi at that time meant  that the topic could easily be dropped. 


“Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: "Do not march on Moscow”.[18]

Since the year 1811, when it became known that the official friendship between Tsar Alexander and Emperor Napoleon expired, Russians again started their subterfuge to win over the Prince and determine the future of the small, but troublesome, Polish state.  Again, the possibility of the Kingdom of Poland, and the crown for a second Poniatowski, appeared in alliance with Moscow. However, the Prince remembered that in 1807 (before the French entered the territory of the former Polish territory) the Russian Tsar gave him similar promises and forgot about them soon after. 

In the year 1811 Russia was alone; her alliances defeated. The Emperor of Austria became father-in-law of the Frenchmen Emperor and in March, one year later, grandfather of Napoleon’s son. Prussia was even torn down and threatened by the fate of the First Polish Republic. England was hatching plots alone on its island. In this circumstance the Russians, getting ready to go to war against Napoleon, were afraid that on their way they might encounter Prince Poniatowski and his small but very valorous forces. They didn’t need that. That is why they wanted to win over the Duchy of Warsaw. The Party of Adam Czartoryski, who had been a friend of Tsar Alexander, started lobbying the idea, but achieved nothing. The Prince remained loyal to Napoleon. Finally, the French Emperor could not stand the situation and attacked Russia himself. It was the biggest mistake of his career. He could have still chosen the lesser of two evils and gone through Ukraine as Poniatowski advised, but maybe then history would have become boring. He not only lost, but suffered a resounding defeat. He ran away to France with his tail between his legs, losing on his way home most of his unbeatable (until that point) army.


“The biggest victory is a victory over ourselves”.[19]

The army of the Duchy of Warsaw shielding the "great retreat" of the French Emperor from Moscow, reached its country decimated. The Prince was wounded, but soon began preparing the country for defense against the Russian invader. Alone, because the Austrians (despite the family connections with Napoleon) didn’t intend to come with help for the Poles. It was more and more clear that they had a hidden alliance with Russia. The Prince was again alone. Of course the Russians, before attacking, began to propose: Poland as a kingdom combined with Russia, Prince Józef as King Józef, and no need to marry an ugly Princess. The Prince had to make a choice again. This was the worst in his life. It is not known what would have been the outcome if he had chosen the Tsar's promises, or if the Tsar had fulfilled those promises. Perhaps we would have developed as a country in greater peace, avoiding a few uprisings and general terror. But the story would be less fascinating and there would be fewer dates to learn on this subject at school. The Prince remained faithful to his principles – he chose honor and loyalty – a lost French lion. It cost him much. The Poles, like all other French allies, saw clearly that the time of Napoleon's power was coming to an end. In addition, at this point going to help the Emperor of France would mean leaving the country without the army, vulnerable to falling prey to the Russians.

The army adored the Prince (as it did Napoleon), writing after the capitulation of 1792 a letter to his mother with thanks for her son’s effort. Poniatowski not only commanded, but also actively participated in the battles. To the horror of his soldiers he didn’t care about the risk to himself or the wounds he suffered. At Leipzig (Battle of Nations 16 – 19 October 1813), although injured, he repeatedly led the army to battle. He would give the proverbial "last shirt” to help those who fought with him.

The relationship between the Prince and his soldiers is illustrated by a quote from Anetka Potocka's diary (Anetka Potocka was Poniatowski’s niece). In her diary she immortalized the moment when the remnants of the Polish army fled to Warsaw after retreating from Moscow: "A few days after their return, when we were sitting around the Prince, still confined by pain to his chaise longue (...) the adjutant reported that the courtyard of the palace was filled with soldiers (...) unable to walk, the Prince ordered that he be taken to the courtyard.[20]


“There is only one priceless thing in the life of people, nations and states. That thing is honour”.[21]

The Prince was sensitive in nature. We remember how hard he took the surrender of his troops in 1792. Being consumed with doubts during the time of decision making regarding his support of Napoleon, he even wanted to commit suicide. On the night of deciding, twice he took loaded guns into his hands. Maybe if he had decided to take this radical step, fewer lives would have been claimed by Napoleon's tours. But the Prince would have died unworthy and dishonored. He made a hard decision. He led the Polish army out of the country and went to help the Emperor of France, who, after pulling his scattered army together once again, proceeded from France to Germany.

I don’t want to write at length from this moment of the history.  I will attempt to erase from my memory the knowledge of the two years following the time Bonaparte crossed the Niemen in 1812. However, we have to complete the story of our Prince. Napoleon finally appreciated him, or rather, he conceded that he had to give in on the Polish case. He gave Poniatowski the baton of the Marshal of France, although he stated at least diplomatically that being the King of Poland was nothing compared to being the Marshal of the French – the greatest nation in the world.


The Marshal of France.

This well-deserved honour was also a burden. The reception of the Marshal's baton meant an even closer connection between the Duchy of Warsaw, France and her losing Emperor. The Poles had enough of fighting for Napoleon in foreign lands, especially when the newly regained homeland stood open to the enemy without the army’s protection. The main problem for the Prince, which burdened him so much mentally, was the internal struggle between the honour that commanded loyalty, even to the losing Napoleon, and common sense –  the good of the country he chose for his homeland. He was also distressed by the thought of people who had already sacrificed so much, and followed him faithfully, despite being exhausted by continuous fights not in their own name. That is a moral dilemma I don’t recommend anyone. The thesis that the Prince wasn’t delighted by the Marshal's baton is supported by the following sentences which, according to various memoirs, were said by  the Prince:

- “No matter what happens, I’ll never replace a Polish uniform with any other”,

- “If there is no war for Poland, No one will see me wearing anything other than civil clothes” 

and finally:

- “Gentlemen! The emperor raised me to a degree which is very flattering for me, but the only degree I appreciate is the honour of being commander of the Polish army”.[22]

They say that in the package with the Marshall’s baton Napoleon offered to Poniatowski also the hand of his most beautiful sister – Paulina. What’s more, this smart woman was very sympathetic to the Prince (a fiery romance erupted between them during the Prince’s visit to Paris for the celebration of the anniversary of the baptism of the Emperor’s descendant in the spring of 1811). 

Paulina Bonaparte was married to the Duke of Borghese, but in that time the pope was sitting under French lock and key, so divorce in the majesty of the Church was no problem. As it is known, Napoleon was very generous to his family, including bestowing honours and states for them to govern. Poniatowski, however, remained calm and as a consequence he never made a decision on the proposal. He died three days after receiving the French Marshal’s baton. It was a small consolation that he was the only marshal of France who was not a Frenchman.


"A magpie will be the cause of your death".

The end of the story is this: Napoleon, knowing that he was losing and needing to retreat from Leipzig, demanded from Poniatowski (who bled with his army for two days for him) that he must cover the retreat of the "great" army and keep the city till noon. At that time Poniatowski had only 800 people.

"Never mind, 800 fighters can mean more than 8,000," the Emperor affirmed ingratiatingly.

Maybe it would have worked on our national imagination before then – encouraging heroic deeds in the name of someone else's "professional career" – but at this point no one would have appreciated this tritecompliment. Generally, when you listen to it, you want to go yourself and drown in Elster river.

The Prince's mother feared her son's tragic death from his youth. They say "Elster" was predicted by an old Gypsy, saying in a revelation: "You will attain high position and dignity in your life, but the magpie (German ward “Elster”) will be the cause of your death.”[23]

On October 19, 1813, shielding Napoleon's retreat from Leipzig, the Prince, repeatedly wounded, and unable to cross the bridge prematurely blown-up by the French, threw himself with his horse into the current of Elster River. Here he suffered another shot, and drowned. Recent research and hypotheses based on it says that the lethal wound wasn’t caused by an Austrian, Russian or Prussian bullet. It was a bullet fired by a French soldier. The whole story came full circle. You can say literally and figuratively, that the French finished off our national hero (and their own marshal) -.


The end of the story.

On one hand, it was good - he died an heroic death, at the top of his game. He didn’t get old, he didn’t make oneself unpopular. We will always remember him as a beautiful and distinguished person, not someone shaking against his walking stick.  A person who died in the name of the highest ideals. Maybe it's better that he left the story at this point. He didn’t have to experience another humiliation at Napoleon’s side at Waterloo, although we’ll never know, maybe having the Prince at his side the Emperor would have won? We lived to see the Congress Kingdom in the union with Russia, which Poland, as a noble nation knowing its own value, didn’t appreciate, but that is also another story.

And the good, unattractive Princess Augusta never married. She started dressing in black, like a widow, and helped Poles till the end of her long life.

Prince Józef is a supporting hero in my latest novel, so I wanted to bring his character closer. And we can be proud of the Prince. He knew how to fight and how to play. He is a distinctive character on the pages of our history. He came to live in complicated times, but he tried to take from life as much as possible and at the same time live with dignity. He combined the qualities of a national hero with charm and grace. He did not mortify himself (except for a few moments in life, where honour stood on one side of the scale, and on the other homeland), he played and  enjoyed the charms of life.

Let’s not forget about Prince Józef Poniatowski (called Pepi). We know that, although beautiful, he was not a dandy. He could lead a peaceful life on the salary of the Austrian army. He could achieve honours, glamour, maybe even a crown. He chose honour. He paid a high price for this and I do not mean losing his life ...

At the end, three quotes referring to the Prince's person:

  • Maria Kann in her novel "For human dignity" put a beautiful sentence in Poniatowski's lips: "Money is everything when people are nothing"
  • Jan Dobraczewski in the novel "The Gates of Leipzig" (Original Polish title “Bramy Lipska”) presented a fragment from the diary of Aneta Potocka, showing the Prince, her uncle: "... His character depicted the strangest opposites. Conquered, at home giving way willingly by fondness for peace, if necessary he had the masculine energy required in the difficult circumstances that filled his life. From that moment, the private man disappeared, leaving the place to a public man, completely devoted to the honor of his homeland. What was most amazing in this combination of heroism and weakness is that self-love has never been the spring of any of his deeds, there has never been a man so free of vanity ... ";
  • And finally, the humorous statement of the "first cavalryman of the Second Polish Republic" - Bolesław Wieniawa Długoszowski[24] on the "first cavalryman of the First Polish Republic": "I dare to remind the gentlemen (...) the bizarre but honourable fate of one of the greatest Polish cavalry officers who once jumped in full regalia into the deadly waters of Elster after the heroic defence of the retreat of Napoleonic troops from the city of Leipzig, who had previously travelled naked through the streets of Warsaw, due to a bet, to the scandal of its always virtuous inhabitants. Because on the monument issued to him by the nation after his death he appears in sheets[25], so you can have some doubts as to which of these outstanding deeds the statue was dedicated".

Portrait of Prince Poniatowski; Franciszek Paderewski, source: Wikipedia 


The text was based on the following sources:

  1.  Studies on the Napoleonic era, part one. Edited by Marcin Baranowski, Oświęcim 2014. (Original Polish title: “Studia nad epoką napoleońską cz. I”)
  2. Prince Józef Poniatowski – killed in the Battle of the Nations – Polish Radio 19.10.2015. (Original Polish title: Książę Józef Poniatowski – poległy w Bitwie Narodów).
  3.  Prince Józef Poniatowski – Justyna Pasternak, 26.10.2013 (Original Polish title: „Książę Józef Poniatowski”)
  4.  Prince in sheets –Janusz Podolski, Polish Radio, 14.11.2008. (Original Polish title: „Książę w prześcieradle”).
  5. Prince Pepi and Women  – Wiesław Klimczak 30.10.2013. (Original Polish title: „Książę Pepi i kobiety”)
  6. Józef Poniatowski – Defender of the Constitution of May 3, 1791 –  Tadeusz Cegielski, Newsweek (Polish edition) 03.05.2014. (Original Polish title: „Józef Poniatowski - Obrońca Konstytucji 3-go Maja”).
  7. For human dignity –  Maria Kann, Warsaw 1981. (Original Polish title: „O godność ludzką”).
  8. The gates of Leipzig –  Jan Dobraczewski, Warsaw 1976 . (Original Polish title: „Bramy Lipska”).
  9.  Napoleon – Robert Bielecki Warsaw 1973.


The above text is translation of the Polish text of the title „Bóg. Honor. Ojczyzna”.


 [1]. Adam Mickiewicz „Pani Twardowska” (A Ballad by Adam Mickiewicz: „Mrs Twardowska”).

 [2]. The Polish poet living at the turn of XVIII and XIX century.

 [3]. Prince Eustachy Erazm Sanguszko - Polish nobleman, general, military commander, diplomat and politician living at the turn of XVIII and XIX century.

 [4]. The Polish-Lithuanian military engineer, statesman, and military leader who became a national hero in Poland (the lider of national insurrection) and the United States (the general in the American Revolution).

 [5]. Prince Józef Poniatowski.

 [6]. In honor of this battle, in which the Polish army defeated an enemy for the first time since the time of Jan III Sobieski, 

 King Stanisław August established the order Virtuti Militari. The first honored were: Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko.

 [7]. William Shakespeare „Hamlet”.

 [8]. Tadeusz Kościuszko.

 [9]. Ludwik Osiński.

[10]. Józef Zajączek - the general of Polish-Lihuanian army, took part in the war with Russia in 1792 and in the insurerrection in 1794, the general in Napoleon's forces. From 1815 he became involved in the governance of the  Congress Kingdom of Poland becoming the first Namiestnik of Kingdom of Poland.

[11]. Jan Henryk Dąbrowski - the general of Polish-Lihuanian army, took part in the war with Russia in 1792 and in the insurerrection in 1794, the founder of the Polish Legions in Italy serving under Napoleon since 1797.

[12]. Alleged words of Maria Walewska to Napoleon, being the subject of many anecdotes.

[13]. Source: Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki” (Nepoleon the Great), Publisher Magnum Ltd, Warsaw 2015, page. 446.

[14]. The author of "Mazurek Dąbrowskiego" - the national anthem of Poland.

[15]. Jan Dobraczyński „Bramy Lipska” (The gates of Leipzig), Publisher: Iskry, Warsaw 1976.

[16]. Tadeusz Kościuszko.

[17]. Napoleon on Saint Helena Island.

[18]. Marshall Bernard LawMontgomery in his speech in House of Lords, May 1962.

[19]. Tadeusz Kościuszko.

[20].  „Studia nad epoką napoleońską cz. I” (Studies on the Napoleonic era, part one) edited by Marcin Baranowski, page 132.Edited by Marcin Baranowski, Oświęcim 2014.

[21]. Words of the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs from his speech in the Polish Parliament (Sejm), 5th May 1939.

[22].  „Studia nad epoką napoleońską cz. I” (Studies on the Napoleonic era, part one) edited by Marcin Baranowski, page 141.

[23]. Source: Kazimierz Władysław Woycicki „Przysłowia narodowe” (National Proverbs), volume 1, Warsaw 1830, page 136.

[24]. the Polish general, military adjutant of Chief of State Józef Piłsudski.

[25]. The Monument to Prince Józef Poniatowski in Warsaw currently located at  Krakowskie Przedmieście street in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace.


Related article: The Tin Roofed Palace and its inhabitants.