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Mortally struck by three bullets, the Marshal drove his horse into the water

While imprisoned on the island of St.

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Mortally struck by three bullets, the Marshal drove his horse into the water

While imprisoned on the island of St. Helena, Napoleon I dwelt extensively on the mistakes that had led to his downfall. One of them was dealing with the Duchy of Warsaw created by the Emperor in 1807. He made the King of Saxony duke at the time, but left the final restoration of a Polish state open. "The true king of Poland was Poniatowski," he recognized on St. Helena, "he combined all the requirements, all the necessary talents in himself."

Józef Antoni Poniatowski (b. 1763) has not lived there for years. On October 19, 1813 he drowned in the river Elster. His death in the Battle of Leipzig reflects the tragic history of the Polish nation since the end of the 18th century.

Poniatowski came from an old but not very important Polish noble family, which had risen steeply in the service of foreign monarchs. His grandfather was a diplomat to Charles XII. of Sweden, his father was able to acquire a German imperial prince title, his uncle served as the lover of Tsarina Catherine II and, with her support, was elected King of Poland as Stanislaus II in August 1764.

But his attempt to modernize Poland through extensive reforms provoked resistance from the neighboring major powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria, who divided the country completely between themselves by 1795. This was preceded by a war against Russia in 1792, in which Józef Poniatowski served his uncle as commander-in-chief of the army. The career he had previously made in the service of the Austrian Emperor qualified him for this. He also played a leading role in the Kościuszko Uprising, the suppression of which completed the annihilation of Poland in 1795.

Like many Western-educated Poles, Poniatowski then faced the dilemma of which side to join. He chose Napoleon, whose Polish legions became a gathering place for many soldiers who had become homeless. When, after defeating Prussia in 1806, the Emperor founded the Duchy of Warsaw from the profits of the division, it made sense to appoint the famous general as commander-in-chief of his army.

There were around 30,000 men when Austria declared war on France in 1809. Although Poniatowski had to give up Warsaw, he was able to contribute an important success to Napoleon's victory by entering Kraków. In Poland he was celebrated as a liberator.

When the Emperor of France assembled his Grande Armée for the campaign against Russia in 1812, Poniatowski was given command of the V Corps with 30,000 Polish soldiers, albeit under the supreme command of a French marshal. Already on the march to Moscow hardships, illnesses and fighting reduced the strength of the team by half. In the end, maybe 3,000 men survived the sinking of the Grande Armée.

Although Napoleon Poniatowski repeatedly accused his people of serious mistakes in leadership and his people of cowardice and laziness (they could only do it with Warsaw whores), the prince rejected the advances of Russia and Prussia to convert and set up a new Polish army in 1813. Napoleon then gave him an independent command. With him, Poniatowski took part in the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig from 16 to 19 October.

There Napoleon appointed him Marshal of France. Perhaps the emperor thought he could demand the highest devotion for it. When it became clear that the French could no longer withstand the Allied superiority, he gave Poniatowski command of the rear guard. She was supposed to cover the ill-prepared escape to the west on October 19. Because there was only one bridge available for crossing the Elster. It was already prepared for the demolition. However, the crew panicked and triggered the explosion while tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of Napoleon's guns were still waiting on the east bank.

"Enclosed at a bend in the Elster by Prussian and Russian troops, the location of its Polish Uhlans (light cavalry; ed.) that day was a symbol of Poland's historical destiny," writes historian Norman Davies. Mortally struck by three bullets, Poniatowski drove his horse into the water, where he drowned.

The non-commissioned officer who, in the absence of an officer, had triggered the detonation was held responsible. He only obeyed orders to blow up the bridge when the enemy approached. "If you allow the fate of a vast army to depend on a single bridge and a lone sergeant, then arguably the responsibility lies higher up in the military hierarchy," argues British historian Dominic Lieven.

His death elevated Poniatowski to the rank of a Polish national hero. "His motto 'God - Honor - Fatherland' inspired all those of his countrymen who were determined to fight to the end and for whom death and defeat did not mean failure," Norman Davies explains the myth.

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