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November Uprising: Battle of Grochów-Białołęka (24-25 February 1831)

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

"Poles! The hour of vengeance has struck. Today we must die or vanquish! Onward, your hearts shall be the Thermopylae of your enemies!"

(- words of Second Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki, instigator of the November Uprising, on entering the Cadet School for Infantry, Warsaw)

On 29 November 1830, radical Polish army cadets, supported by young intellectuals, stormed the Belweder Palace - Warsaw residence of the Russian Governor of Poland, Grand Duke Constantine – who escaped dressed in women’s attire. The Poles soon secured the capital, and deposed the Tsar as King of Poland, in a bid for full independence.

The inevitable backlash followed: a 115,000-strong Russian army invaded Poland on 5 February 1831 to crush the National Uprising, sparking a war lasting nine months (February-October 1831), inspiring revolutionaries and Romantics across Europe - including Fryderyk Chopin.

Having been painting 42mm figures on-and-off for three years to refight the November Uprising, last Friday's club game saw their first appearance, along with my ‘Unruly Eagles’ period rules. Phil and Jonathan took charge of the Russian army attacking the Poles outside Warsaw – who were led by Theo and Patrick.

I had also compiled a sourcebook on the war ('Blood & Glory'), and chose the double Battle of Grochów-Białołęka (24-25 February 1831) scenario, which took place early in the conflict.

The Poles (40,000 men, 120 guns – led by General Józef Chłopicki) centred their defence on the ‘Grochów copse’ – a small alder wood near the eponymous village, to the east of Warsaw. This wood was surrounded by impassable marshes, complicating the Russian approach to Warsaw.

The main Russian army (60,000 men, 228 guns – led by Field Marshal von Diebitsch), including the Russian Guard, mounted a frontal assault on the small wood. They also sent their Grenadier Corps under Shakhovskiy (13,500 men, 56 guns) to attack the Polish left flank at Białołęka: which General Krukowiecki (14,200 men, 22 guns) was tasked with holding to prevent the Polish suburb of Praga (with a bridge over the Vistula connecting Warsaw) being taken.

The fight for Grochów copse was intense: Phil’s Russians made mass assaults and eventually expelled one of Patrick’s light infantry units. Meanwhile, Theo took Białołęka in the face of Jonathan’s attack.

We played a simplified version of the rules to save time, and these provoked some discussion about melees and the number of actions in a turn, largely owing to unfamiliarity with them. The game lacked a few players to make a thorough playtest possible, and ended in a stalemate, which did not quite live up to its billing.

However, everyone seemed to like the figures, which embodied an 'old school' aesthetic. These were 40-42mm in scale from a range of manufacturers: Irregular Miniatures, Sash & Saber, Spencer Smith, and Perry Miniatures. A joy to paint (mostly in a ‘toy soldier’ style), they also take up a lot of space, are pretty costly, and are very heavy to transport: so seem utterly suitable for refighting the reckless November Uprising!

Overall, a fun if low-key night. Phil suggested I put on a game at Rob’s War Room, which might be the best setting given the time needed to do it justice, and the bulkiness of the boxes required to transport all the figures. Thanks to Rob for lending me some marshes for the game. This is a new period for the club, and I hope to put on some engaging battles in the future.

The real battles ended as follows: at Białołęka, the Poles (770 casualties) drove off the Russians (1,080 casualties); whereas at Grochów, the Poles suffered 7,000 casualties, while the Russians lost at least 9,500 men – both sides retreating.

Historically, Grochów-Białołęka had been a crucial defensive performance by the Poles, halting the Russian drive on Warsaw. The Uprising was saved, and an enduring national legend was forged.

Second Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki (1797-1875) fought at Grochów, rising to the rank of Colonel during the war, but after the Uprising's collapse was sentenced to death (commuted to 20 years of hard labour in Siberia) by the Russians. He survived, and returned to Poland, becoming a national hero, and embodiment of Romantic nationalism. His grave slab inscription sums it all up:

"Everything for the Fatherland - nothing for me".



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