Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Death-Struggle of Poland

The French revolution of 1830 precipitated a similar one in Poland. The rule of Russia in that country had been one of outrage and oppression. In the words of the Poles, "personal liberty, which had been solemnly guaranteed, was violated; the prisons were crowded; courts-martial were appointed to decide in civil cases, and imposed infamous punishments upon citizens whose only crime was that of having attempted to save from corruption the spirit and the character of the nation."

On the 29th of November the people sprang to arms in Warsaw and the Russians were driven out. Soon after a dictator was chosen, an army collected, and Russian Poland everywhere rose in revolt.

It was a hopeless struggle into which the Polish patriots had entered. In all Europe there was not a hand lifted in their aid. Prussia and Austria stood in a threatening attitude, each with an army of sixty thousand men upon the frontiers, ready to march to the aid of Russia if any disturbance took place in their Polish provinces. Russia invaded the country with an army of one hundred and twenty thousand men, a force more than double that which Poland was able to raise. And the Polish army was commanded by a titled incapable, Prince Radzivil, chosen because he had a great name, regardless of his lack of ability as a soldier. Chlopicki, his aide, was a skilled commander, but he fought with his hands tied.

On the 19th of February, 1831, the two armies met in battle, and began a desperate struggle which lasted with little cessation for six days. Warsaw lay in the rear of the Polish army. Behind it flowed the Vistula, with but a single bridge for escape in case of defeat. Victory or death seemed the alternatives of the patriot force.

The struggle was for the Alder Wood, the key of the position. For the possession of this forest the fight was hand to hand. Again and again it was lost and retaken. On the 25th, the final day of battle, it was held by the Poles. Forty-five thousand in number, they were confronted by a Russian army of one hundred thousand men. Diebitsch, the Russian commander, determined to win the Alder Wood at any cost. Chlopicki gave orders to defend it to the last extremity.

Russian peasants


The struggle that succeeded was desperate. By sheer force of numbers the Russians made themselves masters of the wood. Then Chlopicki, putting himself at the head of his grenadiers, charged into the forest depths, driving out its holders at the bayonet's point. Their retreat threw the whole Russian line into confusion. Now was the critical moment for a cavalry charge. Chlopicki sent orders to the cavalry chief, but be refused to move. This loss of an opportunity for victory maddened the valiant leader. "Go and ask Radzivil," he said to the aides who asked for orders; "for me, I seek only death." Plunging into the ranks of the enemy, he was wounded by a shell, and borne secretly from the field. But the news of this disaster ran through the ranks and threw the whole army into consternation.

The fall of the gallant Chlopicki changed the tide of battle. Fiercely struggling still, the Poles were driven from the wood and hurled back upon the Vistula. A battalion of recruits crossed the river on the ice and carried terror into Warsaw. Crowds of peasants, heaps of dead and dying, choked the approach to Praga, the outlying suburb. Night fell upon the scene of disorder. The houses of Praga were fired, and flames lit up the frightful scene. Groans of agony and shrieks of despair filled the air. The streets were choked with debris, but workmen from Warsaw rushed out with axes, cleared away the ruin, and left the passages free.

Inspirited by this, the infantry formed in line and checked the charge of the Russian horse. The Albert cuirassiers rode through the first Polish line, but soon found their horses floundering in mud, and themselves attacked by lancers and pikemen on all sides. Of the brilliant and daring corps scarce a man escaped.

That day cost the Poles five thousand men. Of the Russians more than ten thousand fell. Radzivil, fearing that the single bridge would be carried away by the broken ice, gave orders to retreat across the stream. Diebitsch withdrew into the wood. And thus the first phase of the struggle for the freedom of Poland came to an end.

This affair was followed by a striking series of Polish victories. The ice in the Vistula was running free, the river overflowed its banks, and for a month the main bodies of the armies were at rest. But General Dwernicki, at the head of three thousand Polish cavalry, signalized the remainder of February by a series of brilliant exploits, attacking and dispersing with his small force twenty thousand of the enemy.

Radzivil, whose incompetency had grown evident, was now removed, and Skrzynecki, a much abler leader, was chosen in his place. He was not long in showing his skill and daring. On the night of March 30 the Praga bridge was covered with straw and the army marched noiselessly across. At daybreak, in the midst of a thick fog, it fell on a body of sleeping Russians, who had not dreamed of such a movement. Hurled back in disorder and dismay, they were met by a division which had been posted to cut off their retreat. The rout was complete. Half the corps was destroyed or taken, and the remainder fled in terror through the forest depths.

Before the day ended the Poles came upon Rosen's division, fifteen thousand in number, and strongly posted. Yet the impetuous onslaught of the Poles swept the field. The Russians were driven back in utter rout, with the loss of two thousand men, six thousand prisoners, and large quantities of cannon and arms. The Poles lost but three hundred men in this brilliant success. During the next day the pursuit continued, and five thousand more prisoners were taken. So disheartened were the Russian troops by these reverses that when attacked on April 10 at the village of Iganie they scarcely attempted to defend themselves. The flower of the Russian infantry, the lions of Varna, as they had been called since the Turkish war, laid down their arms, tore the eagles from their shakos, and gave themselves up as prisoners of war. Twenty-five hundred were taken.

What immediately followed may be told in a few words. Skrzynecki failed to follow up his remarkable success, and lost valuable time, in which the Russians recovered from their dismay. The brave Dwernicki, after routing a force of nine thousand with two thousand men, crossed the frontier and was taken prisoner by the Austrians, who had made no objection to its being crossed by the Russians. And, as if nature were fighting against Poland, the cholera, which had crossed from India to Russia and infected the Russian troops, was communicated to the Poles at Iganie, and soon spread throughout their ranks.

The climax in this suicidal war came on the 26th of May, when the whole Russian army, led by General Diebitsch, advanced upon the Poles. During the preceding night the Polish army had retreated across the river Narew, but, by some unexplained error, had left Lubienski's corps behind. On this gallant corps, drawn up in front of the town of Ostrolenka, the host of Russians fell. Flanked by the Cossacks, who spread out in clouds of horsemen on each wing, the cavalry retreated through the town, followed by the infantry, the 4th regiment of the line, which formed the rear-guard, fighting step by step as it slowly fell back.

Across the bridges poured the retreating Poles. The Russians followed the rear-guard hotly into the town. Soon the houses were in flames. Disorder reigned in the streets. The fight continued in the midst of the conflagration. Russian infantry took possession of the houses adjoining the river and fired on the retreating mass. Artillery corps rushed to the river bank and planted their batteries to sweep the bridges. All the avenues of escape were choked by the columns of the invading force.

The 4th regiment, which had been left alone in the town, was in imminent peril of capture, but at this moment of danger it displayed an indomitable spirit. With closed ranks it charged with the bayonet on the crowded mass before it, rent a crimson avenue through its midst, and cleared a passage to the bridges over heaps of the dead. Over the quaking timbers rushed the gallant Poles, followed closely by the Russian grenadiers. The Polish cannon swept the bridge, but the gunners were picked off by sharp-shooters and stretched in death beside their guns. On the curving left bank eighty Russian cannon were planted, whose fire protected the crossing troops.

Meanwhile the bulk of the Polish army lay unsuspecting in its camp. Skrzynecki, the commander, resting easy in the belief that all his men were across, heard the distant firing with unconcern. Suddenly the imminence of the peril was brought to his attention. Rushing from his tent, and springing upon his horse, he galloped madly through the ranks, shouting wildly, as he passed from column to column, "Ho! Rybinski! Ho! Malachowski! Forward! forward, all!"

The troops sprang to their feet; the forming battalions rushed forward in disorder; from end to end of the line rushed the generalissimo, the other officers hurrying to his aid. Charge after charge was made on the Russians who had crossed the stream. As if driven by frenzy, the Poles fell on their foes with swords and pikes. Singing the Warsaw hymn, the officers rushed to the front. The lancers charged boldly, but their horses sank in the marshy soil, and they fell helpless before the Russian fire.

The day passed; night fell; the field of battle was strewn thick with the dead and dying. Only a part of the Russian army had succeeded in crossing. Skrzynecki held the field, but he had lost seven thousand men. The Russians, of whom more than ten thousand had fallen, recrossed the river during the night. But they commanded the passage of the stream, and the Polish commander gave orders for a retreat on Warsaw, sadly repeating, as he entered his carriage, Kosciusko's famous words, "Finis Polonice."

The end indeed was approaching. The resources of Poland were limited, those of Russia were immense. New armies trebly replaced all Russian losses. Field-Marshal Paskievitch, the new commander, at the head of new forces, determined to cross the Vistula and assail Warsaw on the left bank of the stream, instead of attacking its suburb of Praga and seeking to force a passage across the river at that point, as on former occasions.

The march of the Russians was a difficult and dangerous one. Heavy rains had made the roads almost impassable, while streams everywhere intersected the country. To transport a heavy park of artillery and the immense supply and baggage train for an army of seventy thousand men, through such a country, was an almost impossible task, particularly in view of the fact that the cholera pursued it on its march, and the sick and dying proved an almost fatal encumbrance.

Had it been attacked under such circumstances by the Polish army, it might have been annihilated. But Skrzynecki remained immovable, although his troops cried hotly for "battle! battle!" whenever he appeared. The favorable moment was lost. The Russians crossed the Vistula on floating bridges, and marched in compact array upon the Polish capital.

And now clamor broke out everywhere. Riots in Warsaw proclaimed the popular discontent. A dictator was appointed, and preparations to defend the city to the last extremity were made. But at the last moment twenty thousand men were sent out to collect supplies for the threatened city, leaving only thirty-five thousand for its defence. The Russians, meanwhile, had been reinforced by thirty thousand men, making their army one hundred and twenty thousand strong, while in cannon they outnumbered the Poles three to one.

Such was the state of affairs in beleaguered Warsaw on that fatal 6th of September when the Russian general, taking advantage of the weakening of the patriot army, ordered a general assault.

At daybreak the attack began with a concentrated fire from two hundred guns. The troops, who had been well plied with brandy, rushed in a torrent upon the battered walls, and swarmed into the suburb of Wola, driving its garrison into the church, where the carnage continued until none were left to resist.

From Wola the attack was directed, about noon, upon the suburb of Czyste. This was defended by forty guns, which made havoc in the Russian ranks, while two battalions of the 4th regiment, rushing upon them in their disorder, strove to drive them back and wrest Wola from their hands. The effort was fruitless, strong reinforcements coming to the Russian aid.

Through the blood-strewn streets of the city the struggle continued, success favoring now the Poles, now the Russians. About five in the afternoon the tide of battle turned decisively in favor of the Russians. A shower of shells from the Russian batteries had fired the houses of Czyste, within whose flame-lit streets a hand-to-hand struggle went on. The famous 4th regiment, intrenched in the cemetery, defended itself valiantly, but was driven back by the spread of the flames. Night fell, but the conflict continued. The dawn of the following day saw the city at the mercy of the Russian host. The twenty thousand men sent out to forage were still absent. Nothing remained but surrender, and at nine in the evening the news of the capitulation was brought to the army, to whom orders to retire on Praga were given.

Thus ended the final struggle for the freedom of Poland. The story of what followed it is not our purpose to tell. The mild Alexander was no longer on the Russian throne. The stern Nicholas had replaced him, and fearful was his revenge. For the crime of patriotism Poland was decimated, thousands of its noblest citizens being transported to the Caucasus and Siberia. The remnant of separate existence possessed by Poland was overthrown, and it was made a province of the Russian empire. Even the teaching of the Polish language was forbidden, the youth of the nation being commanded to learn and speak the Russian tongue. As for the persecution and suffering which fell upon the Poles as a nation, it is too sad a story to be here told. There is still a Polish people, but a Poland no more.