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Sons of Empire: Opposing Commanders at the First Battle of Warsaw (1831)

Updated: May 11, 2023


Polish infantry defending the Grochów alder wood at the Battle of Warsaw (25 February 1831)


We will be refighting the first Battle of Warsaw on Sunday 28 May at the War Room.


The battle was the first Russian attempt to take the Polish capital on 24-25 February 1831. However, the Uprising was more broadly a contest about liberty and loyalty. Many Polish senior officers were decorated veterans of the Napoleonic Wars as well as Polish patriots; all owed their positions in the pre-Uprising Polish army to the Tsar, however, and some remained loyal to him or ambivalent about the uprising.


What follows is a bit of background on the two opposing commanders – Józef Chłopicki and Hans Karl von Diebitsch, extracted from my book, Eagles Defiant: A Wargamer’s Guide to the Polish November Uprising (1830-1831), which should set the game in context.



CONFLICTED DICTATOR: JÓZEF CHŁOPICKI (1771-1854)

After a brief monastic education, Józef Chłopicki joined the Polish army, but served also in the Russian army against Turkey as a youth.


He fought in the 1792 war between Poland and Russia, taking part in the Battle of Zieleńce. His regiment was absorbed into the Russian army after the Second Partition of Poland, but he continued to serve and attained the rank of lieutenant.


Tadeusz Kościuszko swears to defend Poland’s territorial integrity at Kraków, 1794


Chłopicki nonetheless fought on the Polish side during the 1794 Kościuszko rising, fighting in Poniński’s division.


Battle of Novi (1799)


After the Third Partition of Poland, Chłopicki emigrated, and joined Dąbrowski’s legions as a Captain; rising to Major by 1798. Taking part in all the legions’ major fights, he distinguished himself at the Battle of Trebbia, where he was wounded, and fought at Novi, rising to Chef de Battalion.


Chłopicki gained experience commanding a demi-brigade and a brigade. He participated in the siege of Mantua (1801), fighting partisans in southern Italy (1802). He distinguished himself at the Battle of Castelfranco, repelling two cuirassier charges and taking many of them prisoner. In Italy, Chłopicki also joined the Freemasons.


Polish infantry of the Vistula Legion


In 1807 he was promoted to Colonel of the first regiment of the Polish-Italian Legion by Napoleon. This formation evolved into the Vistula Legion by 1808 – led by Colonel Józef Chłopicki.


Second Siege of Saragossa (1808-1809)


Chłopicki spent several years in Spain, fighting with distinction at the second siege of Saragossa. He was regarded as a brave and good line infantry commander. He served under Marshal Suchet at the siege of Tortosa (where he was wounded), and at Valencia. He fought the Battle of Epila himself, routing a larger Spanish army.


Battle of Saguntum (1811)


Nominated Brigadier General in 1809, he continued to fight in Spain until 1812, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Saguntum – commanding Marshal Suchet’s right wing. Made an Officer of the Legion of Honour (1808), he also held other medals including being Commander of the Cross of Virtuti Militari, and was created a Baron of the Empire.


Battle of Borodino (1812)


Chłopicki’s Vistula Legion fought under General Claparède as part of the Imperial Guard in Russia in 1812, where Chłopicki took part in the Battle of Borodino. After a skirmish at the outskirts of Moscow, Chłopicki was heavily wounded in the leg, and was still recuperating in December 1813 when he resigned his commission.

Grand Duke Constantine


Under the Congress Kingdom of Poland (1815-1830), Chłopicki was made commander of the 1st Infantry Division with the rank of Major General (general of division). He had poor relations with Grand Duke Constantine – Russian governor of Poland – after a minor incident at a parade, however, and refused to accept Constantine’s apologies, spending a year and a half under self-imposed house arrest. He resigned his commission in 1818 but took no part in conspiracies.


General Chłopicki in the field during the November Uprising


Initially Chłopicki refused to join the Uprising on 29-30 November 1830. He nevertheless accepted the role of Commander-in-Chief on 3 December and that of Dictator on 5 December.


Chłopicki did not believe in the Uprising’s chances of success, however; and, being supported by the 'conservatives' in government and delaying the army's preparations and offensive actions, tried to negotiate with the Tsar (who demanded an unconditional surrender).


Chłopicki resigned from the dictatorship on 17 January 1831 but remained informal advisor to Commander-in-Chief Michał Radziwiłł. Chłopicki fought at the Battle of Wawer (19 February), was made Commander of the Polish armies of the first line (22 February), and won the 1st Battle of Warsaw (25 February) - where he was wounded and displayed initiative and bravery. His name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.



‘ZABALKANSKI’: HANS KARL VON DIEBITSCH (1785-1831)


Educated at Berlin’s cadet school, Hans Karl von Diebitsch entered Russian service with the Imperial Guard in 1801, taking part in the 1805 campaign and being wounded at Austerlitz; also fighting at Eylau and Friedland (1807). He was promoted Captain after the latter battle.


Second Battle of Polotsk (1812)


Turning to the study of military science, Diebitsch also served during the 1812 campaign, distinguishing himself at the Second Battle of Polotsk (18-19 October 1812) – after which he was nominated Major General. He helped negotiate the convention of Tauroggen with the Prussian General Yorck, and served with the latter in the early part of the 1813 campaign.


Battle of Dresden (1813)


After the battle of Lützen he served in Silesia and took part in negotiating the secret treaty of Reichenbach. Having distinguished himself at the battles of Dresden and Leipzig he was promoted to Lieutenant General. At the crisis of the campaign of 1814 he strongly urged the march of the allies on Paris; and after their entry the emperor Alexander conferred on him the order of St Alexander Nevsky.


In 1815 he attended the Congress of Vienna, and was afterwards made adjutant-general to the emperor, with whom, as also with his successor Nicholas, he had great influence. By Nicholas he was created baron, and later count. In 1820 he had become chief of the general staff, and in 1825 he assisted in suppressing the Decembrist revolt.


Russo-Turkish War (1828-1829)


His greatest exploits were in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829, which, after a period of doubtful contest, was decided by Diebitsch's brilliant campaign of Adrianople; this won him the rank of Field Marshal and the victory title of Zabalkanski to commemorate his crossing of the Balkans.



1st Battle of Warsaw (24-25 February 1831)


In 1830 he was appointed to command the great army destined to suppress the November Uprising in Poland. He promised to quell the Uprising in one battle, but the war dragged on for months. Diebitsch began his offensive against Warsaw in February 1831, and initially planned to outflank the Poles, which led to the Battle of Białołęka (24-25 February 1831), but he then changed his mind and ordered a frontal assault at Olszynka Grochowska (25 February 1831). Here, Diebitsch was surprised by the tenacity of the insurgents, and after a bloody encounter dismissed an opportunity to attack Praga’s defences to seize a bridge across the Vistula (as suggested by his Chief of Staff Karl Wilhelm von Toll). Instead, Diebitsch ordered a retreat from Warsaw, and put his forces into winter quarters on the right bank of the Vistula. He decided to wait for reinforcements from Russia, but come Spring there was a cholera outbreak in the Russian army.


The Russian army was caught off guard by the Polish offensive from April 1831, losing the Battles of Dębe Wielkie (31 March 1831) and Iganie (10 April 1831). But incompetence and lack of resolution led to the Poles only routing a single Russian corps. Diebitsch withdrew his army to the east, to wait for reinforcements. During another Polish offensive in May 1831, Diebitsch concentrated his army and came to the aid of the Imperial Guard Corps being attacked by the insurgents at the Narew River. The Imperial Guard, owing to Polish Commander-in-Chief Jan Skrzynecki’s incompetence managed to escape destruction and linked up with Diebitsch’s army.


Battle of Ostrołęka (26 May 1831)


Diebitsch now attacked the Poles at the Battle of Ostrołęka (26 May 1831), which he won, though both sides took heavy casualties. Soon afterwards Diebitsch died of cholera at Kleszewo near Pułtusk, on 10 June 1831. General von Toll took command of the Russian army, later followed by Ivan Paskievich.


Conclusion


Both commanders were formed by the Napoleonic experience of war, lending a sense of destiny and elan to their actions. Each served emperors not of their own nation, exemplifying the multinational nature of the French and Russian empires. While the memory of the Napoleonic empire still animated Polish hearts among Uprising radicals, Chłopicki himself was less than fully committed to the struggle and soon replaced after saving Warsaw. The Russians were subsequently defeated time and again on the field of battle, in a war lasting nine months, but could afford to bide their time while the Poles squabbled over the direction of the war. It was this division in leadership, compounded by dissonance over strategy and interpersonal conflicts, which finally doomed the November Uprising.


But who will win the refight?



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