Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1806: Jan Henryk Dąbrowski led an uprising against Prussian occupation

On November 3, 1806, leading the first units of the French army, Polish General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski entered Poznań and urged Poles to stand with Napoleon against Prussian occupation. The ensuing Greater Poland uprising was a decisive factor that allowed the formation of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807.

Following the First Partition of Poland in 1772, the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth found itself in an increasingly perilous situation. By 1790, it was forced into an alliance with its enemy, Prussia, which gave the federation false hope that it might have at last found an ally that would shield it while the Great Sejm enacted a series of reforms, which culminated with the adoption of the May Constitution of 1791.

The Partition of Poland

But what was seen as radical republican Jacobin-style reforms on the Russian Empire’s doorstep angered Empress Catherine the Great. And in 1792, invited by an alliance of pro-Russian Polish nobles who wished to restore the privileges they had lost under the new constitution, Russia invaded Poland, triggering the War in Defence of the Constitution.

Quickly abandoned by his Prussian allies, King Stanisław August Poniatowski decided to sue for peace. But the king’s hope that the capitulation would protect the state’s territorial integrity soon turned out to be illusory. And in January 1793, a second partitioning treaty was signed and ceded all of Poland’s eastern provinces to Russia as well as a large portion of Greater Poland to Prussia, who demanded compensation to Russia for its participation in the war against revolutionary France.

Greater Poland, which include the early royal centers of Poznań and Gniezno, was absorbed by Prussia and became part of the province of South Prussia. And 1795, after a final bid to restore the reformed Commonwealth, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko, the third and final Partition of Poland formally dissolved the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and ended the existence of an independent Polish state.

The Polish Legions

Many Poles believed that Revolutionary France would come to Poland’s aid against its partitioners. As a result, thousands of Polish soldiers, officers, and volunteers emigrated to the parts of Italy under French rule and to France itself, where they joined forces with the local military. Known as the “Polish Legions”, they fought alongside the French Army in Europe, Egypt and as far as the West Indies.

By 1806, the War of the Fourth Coalition between Napoleon’s French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia gave hope to the Polish inhabitants of Greater Poland of ending oppressive Prussian rule. Crucially, the open conflict with France meant that Prussia could only maintain a small number of troops in Greater Poland, a large portion of which were Polish nationals.

This caused a great deal of trouble for Prussian commanders as thousands of Polish soldiers deserted and joined the ranks of French Army where two more Polish divisions were formed. And after an expeditious campaign that culminated at the Battle of Jena, the French Army and its Polish Legions captured Berlin at the end of October 1806.

The Greater Poland uprising

Napoleon then began to advance through Polish territory towards East Prussia, where the shattered remnants of the Prussian army had escaped, hoping to link up with the approaching Russian forces. In order to organize a diversion on the back of the Prussian army, the French Emperor sent the founder of the Polish Legions in Italy, General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, to Poznań to evaluate the situation in Greater Poland and to organize regular Polish troops.

On November 3, upon learning that the whole region was “full of patriotic spirit and joy about the success of the French Army”, Dąbrowski, accompanied by political activist and poet Józef Wybicki, entered Poznań leading the first units of the French army. Their arrival sparked large patriotic demonstrations and Dąbrowski urged Poles to stand on Napoleon’s side and fight against Prussian occupation.

Dąbrowski and Wybicki created Voivodship Commissions whose tasks were to take administrative control of the region and began forming regular Polish troops as patriots took up arms against Prussian troops throughout Greater Poland. By January 1807, the last Prussian pockets had been cleaned up and Napoleon turned north towards East Prussia and the approaching Russian army.

The Duchy of Warsaw

Despite being briefly checked at the Battle of Eylau, the French Army and its Polish Legions finally crushed the Russian forces at the Battle of Friedland in June 1807, forcing Russia to sue for peace. But the ensuing Treaties of Tilsit were particularly harsh on Prussia, as Napoleon demanded much of the Prussian territory along the lower Rhine and in what was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Cementing his control over Central Europe, Napoleon created two client states out of the area liberated by the Greater Poland uprising: the Free City of Danzig, a semi-independent city-state effectively governed by French general Jean Rapp, and the Duchy of Warsaw. Arguably influenced by Napoleon’s Polish mistress Maria Walewska, this gave every appearance of resurrecting the Polish nation from the political grave to which it had been consigned since 1795.

Poles expected that the Duchy would be upgraded to the status of a Kingdom and that after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, they would be joined by the liberated territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, thereby restoring the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. But after Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812, the Duchy of Warsaw and the city of Danzig fell to Russian forces and remained occupied by Prussian and Russian troops until 1815, when they were formally partitioned between the two countries at the Congress of Vienna.

Poland would not regain full independence until the end of World War I, when the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires allowed for the resurrection of Polish national sovereignty… and the birth of the Republic of Poland.

Originally written by Józef Wybicki to boost the morale of Polish soldiers serving in Dąbrowski’s Polish Legions, the Polish folk song “Dąbrowski’s Mazurka” (Mazurek Dąbrowskiego), was officially adopted as the national anthem of Poland in 1926:

Poland has not yet perished,
So long as we still live.
What the foreign force has taken from us,
We shall with sabre retrieve.

March, march, Dąbrowski,
From Italy to Poland.
Under your command
We shall rejoin the nation.

We’ll cross the Vistula, we’ll cross the Warta,
We shall be Polish.
Bonaparte has given us the example
Of how we should prevail.

March, march, Dąbrowski,
From Italy to Poland.
Under your command
We shall rejoin the nation.

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.