Józef Poniatowski

Krystian Ignatowicz
Author: Krystian Ignatowicz

Józef Poniatowski by Josef Grassi


Prince Josef Poniatowski is one of the most underrated historic figures in Polish history. Pepi as he was called by close friends, was colourful character as he was famous for his parties, numerous bets but most importantly for being a great soldier, leader and commander. He would always care about his subordinates, for him they were like a family. Josef Poniatowski was awarded many times for his military achievements, but the highest distinction was the title of the marshal of France received from the famous Napoleon. He was the only foreigner awarded with this rank in France history. 


Josef Poniatowski was born in Vienna on May 7, 1763. He was the son of general in the Habsburg’s Empire army, Andrzej Poniatowski. Brough up in a German speaking environment he did not lose contacts with Poland among others due to close relationship with his uncle, Stanislaw August Poniatowski - the last king of Poland. Since he was a little boy he was raised to be a soldier. From young age Pepi showed potential. When he was 14 years old, he was commended by the emperor, Josef II himself. When he was just 17 years old he joined Austrian army and soon was ranked as lieutenant. Four years later he was promoted to major and during Austro-Turkish war he became adjutant to Josef II. During the war he become renowned for storming the city of Sabac, where he saved life of prince Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg, the future conqueror of Napoleons army at Lipzig.


Josef was summoned by king Stanisław Poniatowski, to return to Poland to help in rebuilding of Polish army. The same year he was promoted to major-general alongside Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the hero of the American revolutionary war. All this happened during the four-year-Sejm, which ended with proclamation of the Constitution of 3rd of May in 1791, the first such act in Europe.


The proclamation of the constitution led to counter action by the opposition camp sponsored heavily by Russia, which constituted, so called, Targowica confederation, and which have asked Russia for help restore the previous order. This led to a war between Poland and Russia. Josef was appointed as commander of Polish forces in Ukraine here he had a task to protect the state's borders from the enemy's army. Outnumbered by Russian troops he did his best to keep the army’s combat capability trying to slow down the Russian’s army progress. He won the Zieleńce battle, in which he showed his talent and personal engagement, for which he was so admired, leading personally one of the unit in a charge against the enemy. He managed to retreat in an orderly manner with his troops to central Poland ready to fight despite disproportions in the army size and problems with supplies. King Stanislaw Poniatowski, not believing in ability to defend against Russia, joined the Targowica confederation, what meant surrendering of Polish army. Josef was devastated with uncle’s decision. In the last battle of the war Pepi supposedly sought death. Finally he resigned from his post and migrated to Vienna. In a protest agains his uncle decision he sent all his medals back to the King.


During Kosciusko’s insurrection, which he joined but refused to take higher position, he commanded the defence of Warsaw against Prussia. Insurrection led to the last partition of Poland, which resulted in the disappearance of the Polish state from the maps.


Portrait of prince Josef on horse

by Juliusz Kossak

When in 1804, the first French Empire grew in power, Poles saw opportunities to regain independence. Polish legions supported Napoleon’s march to the east and in 1807 Napoleons army entered Polish territory creating Duchy of Warsaw. Josef Poniatowski was asked to become a commander of the armed forces of the Duchy. It was not long before he had to defend borders of a new country against invasion of the Austrian empire’s army during Austro-Polish war in 1809. Poniatowski faced the twice-larger army of the Austrian Empire in the unresolved Battle of Raszyn where he personally led his men to counterattack the Austrian troops. Despite letting Austrians to enter Warsaw he managed to take Austrian army by surprise, fighting back, what resulted in enlarging Duchy territory of Galicia region including Cracow, the former Polish capital. The French helped Poles by defeating the Austrians in the Battle of Wagram (or Battle of Vienna), which contributed to the signing of a peace treaty, which granted territories captured by the Duchy during the war.


Josef Poniatowski helped to the large extent creating a new Polish army that took part in the Russian campaign, which was suppose to bring back Polish territories captured by Russia in previous years. What is interesting, he participated in creating plans for this war. Knowing the size of Russia and tough conditions, he presented an alternative plan for Russian Campaign, suggesting an attack through Ukraine, because of softer weather conditions and better supplies possibilities as well as possible coalition with Turkish forces, but Napoleon rejected the idea.


When the campaign began, Napoleon appointed Poniatowski the leader of the V corps of the great army, which was entirely composed of Poles. After phyrric victory in battle of Moscow, prince Poniatowski with his soldiers as first entered the city of Moscow. He knew though at that point that the whole campaign was lost. He retreated with Napoleon forces, decimated on their way back. Upon return to Warsaw, he started to rebuild forces devastated in the Russian campaign and joined Napoleon’s troops in Germany, joining the 8th Corps of French Army. Pushed back by Russian, Prussian and Austrian troops, Napoleon decided to organise forces around Leipzig where he would fight with the Coalition.


Napoleon and Poniatowski in battle of Leipzig by Suchodolski


During battle of Leipzig Napoleon honoured Poniatowski with the marshal of France title, ordering him to organise his retreat. During a brave defence of the Elster river crossing, his troops were cut off as the French blew up the bridge too soon leaving defenders on the other side. Poniatowski, who suffered numerous wounds, jumped into the Elster river but he was probably shot by a French friendly fire from the other bank by mistake. He was first buried in Leipzig but two years later his coffin was moved to Warsaw to be finally placed in the Wawel’s Cathedral (burial place of Polish kings and eminent Poles) next to king Jan III Sobieski and later Tadeusz Kosciuszko.


Despite his colourful private and social life Prince Josef Poniatowski remains in the Polish minds as a great patriot and a man of honour, who fought for his believes and restitution of the Polish country. He was not afraid to sacrifice his life and pour out blood for his homeland. His military achievements often overshadowed his public activity for which he also should be prized. He definitely deserves to take part in the pantheon of leading Polish commanders and great Poles.