For today’s post, I would like to highlight three situations where Poland produced warriors par excellence. The three crucibles for this alchemy span centuries, but each pitted Poland against enemies who had a significant power advantage. The first is the 1683 siege of Vienna. The second incident, from 1794, involved a hero of the American Revolutionary War after his return to Poland. The third is a tale of resistance against the Nazis near the end of the Second World War. Without further ado, here are three key stories of Poles at arms!
Jan III Sobieski
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an unusual elective monarchy (perhaps this is what George Lucas was thinking!). Some ten to twelve percent of its population qualified as the “nobility,” and these nobles elected the king and the sejm (parliament). The royal election of 1674 was the one that awarded Sobieski the crown. At the time the prior king died, Sobieski had just won a victory over the Ottomans at Chocim. This was something of a lift for the nation, which was still rebuilding from the Deluge, a period of campaigns in the mid-17th century that had cost Poland-Lithuania a third of its population and reduced the population of Warsaw by an order of magnitude. At 44 years of age, Sobieski had been serving as the Grand Hetman of the Army since 1668, and he was the only major candidate for King who actually came from Poland! (If you are curious about his life, I might recommend this part-history / part-romance).
As king, Jan III was able to make significant updates to the army, reorganizing it into regiments, swapping out pikes for battle axes, and updating the cavalry to use hussar and dragoon formations. The winged hussars were a rather special type of unit, as you can see from this armor hanging in the Military Cathedral of the Polish Army. These heavy cavalry had metal frames mounted to their shoulders that were covered in feathers. While this might seem silly rather than threatening, contemporaries learned to dread the odd whistling sound that these massed cavalry produced on a charge. These military modifications were put to the test during a 1683 offensive by the Ottomans against the Holy Roman Empire.
The Ottomans had been vying for control of inland Europe for quite some time; actually, their first siege of Vienna had taken place in 1529 under Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1683, the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha led a massive force back to the city. The Holy Roman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were unsure about its destination, so they had signed a mutual protection pact. Vienna was nearing the end of its resources when Jan III Sobieski led the forces of the Commonwealth (70-80,000 in number) against the besieging force (initially 170,000, but leaving only about 70,000 to guard against such an attack). Because the Ottomans continued pressing their attack on Vienna while attempting to repulse the Poles, the battle turned out disastrously for the Ottomans. Most of Europe would remain under Christian rulers rather than becoming Muslim. Today, one can see memorials of Jan III Sobieski throughout Warsaw, but I made a special trip to Łazienki Park to see his equestrian statue.
Our second warrior has strong ties with the United States, but he only came to my attention via a Polish researcher in the field of machine learning. Tadeusz Kościuszko was one of the brightest scholars in his studies at the Royal Military Academy of Warsaw, so he became an engineer (this is the same route that Robert E. Lee would take a century later). In 1776, he was so moved by the words of the Declaration of Independence that he came to the colonies to assist in the Revolutionary War. He was assigned to design defenses for several locations, and his collaborations with key officers of the American revolution, including Benedict Arnold, Nathaniel Greene, and Daniel Morgan led to key actions that eventually turned the tide against the British. After the War, however, he languished in the United States for some time while waiting for the new government to pay him for his services. He became 20-year friends with Thomas Jefferson, who had penned the words that had so inspired him. His monument in Plac Żelaznej Bramy (Iron Gate Square) features inscriptions from his service in the American Revolution.
In Poland, however, Kościuszko is more known for his efforts to prevent Poland from being destroyed in 1792 by the Russian armies under Catherine the Great. The Polish king capitulated, and Kościuszko spent much of the next two years whipping up support of an uprising against Russian control. In 1794 he returned as the Commander in Chief of the army. His forces made a difference in the “Kościuszko Uprising,” holding back a siege of Warsaw, but he was wounded in the Battle of Maciejowice, and the uprising could not continue without him. He lived the remainder of his life in exile. Poland suffered its third partition just one year after his final defeat.
The Warsaw Uprising
Poland spent much of World War II under domination by the Nazis and Russians. The response of its leadership was to form a government in exile, which was located in London from 1940 to 1990 (this government did not accept the one created by the Soviet Union in Poland as it became a Soviet satellite). At one time, the government in exile was able to field 100,000 troops to support the Allied cause (much as did the Free French under de Gaulle). Their brightest hour came just two months after “D-Day,” the Allied Invasion of Normandy, when Russian troops reached the eastern border of Poland. The Polish Underground Home Army created an uprising in the Polish capital to deny the Nazis a solid base to defend.
The massive statues that decorate the square opposite the Military Cathedral of the Polish Army tell the story quite evocatively. Operation “Tempest” started out quite successfully, plunging much of Poland into contested territory. The Home Army was even able to maintain control of central Warsaw for a time, anticipating the arrival of the Red Army from the east. At this stage, however, it is worth noting that the goals of the Red Army were quite different from those of the Home Army. The Red Army intended to create a government based on the soviet system, while the Home Army intended a return to western-style democracy. The Soviets were not far from Warsaw when they simply stopped advancing. The Germans had launched a major offensive to retake Warsaw from the Home Army, and the Soviets did not continue toward the city until the Home Army was entirely destroyed.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Warsaw remembers those who have lost their lives in battle at a beautiful monument in Piłsudski Square (also notable for a 1979 visit by Pope John Paul II). The monument is the only remaining fragment of the Saxon Palace that stood here until World War II. I was gratified to see that battles both ancient and recent were remembered at the site. Poland’s military history runs into the distant past, and no doubt we will see its soldiers on the world stage in the future, as well.