Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1808: Napoleon’s Polish cavalry led the legendary Charge of Somosierra

charge-of-somosierra

On November 30, 1808, 125 Polish “chevaux-légers” serving in Napoleon’s army famously hurled themselves through the fog at the Battle of Somosierra, taking all four enemy batteries and opening the road to Madrid, which fell several days later.

The French victories during the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the 19th century precipitated the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and set the stage for a near-decade of French domination on the European continent, from Italy to Poland.

In 1807, in a move that won him the love and loyalty of Poles, Napoleon established the Duchy of Warsaw – a modest satellite state subservient to France, but nevertheless the first manifestation of Polish statehood since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s dissolution at the hands of Russia, Prussia and Austria 12 years earlier.

Showdown at Somosierra

By then, Napoleon wanted to bring Spain under his heel, completing his dominion over western Europe. In what became known as the Peninsular War, he invaded Portugal then set his sights on seizing the rest of the Iberian peninsula. But his advance on Madrid was abruptly halted at Somosierra – a narrow mountain pass where some 9,000 Spanish militia had concentrated under General San Juan.

As at Thermopylae, the defenders – though vastly outnumbered – had geography in their favour, holding advantageous positions along the ridges and preceded by several kilometres of difficult terrain which the invaders would need to traverse. They set up 16 cannons across 4 batteries, creating an extremely formidable defence line.

Sure enough, an initial attack by French forces on November 29 was repulsed, resulting in heavy casualties. It was clear that Napoleon had hit a major roadblock – but he also had a special card up his sleeve: his Polish cavalry, under the command of Baron Jan Kozietulski, an officer of the Duchy of Warsaw’s armed forces.

Send in the Poles

Polish horsemen had earned a legendary reputation for their power and prowess on the battlefield. Even so, the idea of charging such daunting defences head-first has led historians to question whether it’s what Napoleon had actually intended.

Some argue that his goal had been simply to capture the nearest battery, so as to clear the way for his infantry, and that Kozietulski had misunderstood the orders. Perhaps, however, the French Emperor had faith that the famed horsemen who had repeatedly trounced such powerful neighbours as Russia, Sweden and Ottoman Turkey might just be able to pull off the miracle he needed.

The next day, 125 Polish “chevaux-légers” hurled themselves through the fog towards the Spanish defenders. “Forward, you sons of dogs!” Kozietulski had yelled at his troops. “The Emperor is watching you!”

Total carnage followed: roaring cannon blasts, wave after wave of musket fire, smoke, the neighing and trampling of terrified and in some cases riderless horses. Kozietulski’s own horse was struck down and the commander, bruised and bleeding, relinquished command to Captain Dziewanowski. But sure enough, amidst this brutal chaos the first battery was taken – then the second – then the third!

Only a handful of cavalry units made it to the fourth and final battery but by this point, unnerved by the force of nature they had just witnessed, many of San Juan’s militiamen decided to flee rather than try to maintain their positions. Napoleon, seeing his chance, sent in his other squadrons and wiped up what was left of the now-broken Spanish defence. At the conclusion of the battle, Lieutenant Niegolewski, his horse bleeding profusely and his sabre broken, turned to Sergeant Sokolowski and cried, “Where are our boys?” “They are dead!” came the reply.

Aftermath

The Battle of Somoserra opened the road to Madrid, which fell several days later. But the gutsy assault had come at a bloody cost indeed. Two-thirds of the horsemen were injured or killed, but they had achieved the impossible: in just 7 minutes, the Polish cavalry had cleared the defile, capturing 10 standards & 16 cannons in the process. Napoleon himself expressed awe at the Poles’ achievement, proclaiming them “the most courageous cavalry” and instructing his entire guard to present arms to the survivors as they rode by.

The 19th-century Irish historian William F. P. Napier wrote in his History of the war in the Peninsula: “Talk of the charge of Somosierra evoked the same reactions in Warsaw as mention of the charge of the Light Brigade in London. The flower of the nation’s youth was thought to have perished in a distant land for the sake of a courageous gesture. In fact, the exemplary sacrifice of those few men ensured the passage of a whole army.”

The Battle of Somosierra is commemorated on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, with the inscription “SOMOSIERRA 30 XI 1808”.

Originally written by Józef Wybicki to boost the morale of Polish soldiers serving in Napoleon’s Polish Legions under the command of General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, 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 On this Day series.

By Mateusz Buczko

Mateusz is an Australian of Polish descent living in Melbourne. A communications specialist by day, he has a passion for European history outside of work and is currently writing a historical fiction novel about the ‘cursed soldiers’ of post-World War 2 Poland.