January Uprising 1863 laid foundations for Poland regaining its independence 50 years later
This week marks the 160th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Polish history, the 1863-64 January Uprising.
Sparked by economic hardship, political repression and a growing sense of national identity among the Polish people, launched on the night of January 22 it laid the foundations for Poland regaining its independence over 50 years later.
For nearly a century, Poland had been under the rule of foreign powers, with the Russian Empire, Prussia and Austria partitioning the country among themselves.
The Polish people were denied basic rights and freedoms, and their culture and language were suppressed.
But the spirit of the Polish people could not be broken, and after licking their wounds following the failed November Uprising in 1830, a rebellion began to brew.
Polish dreams for achieving independence were revived in the 1850s following Russia's defeat in the Crimean War. More and more patriotic protests were held, and they began preparing for battle by forming underground organizations.
Poles were divided into two camps: the "reds," who advocated for a national revolt and fighting for freedom, and the "whites," who supported independence but did not intend to fight straight away but instead emphasised building a strong Polish society.
To quell Polish resentments, the Russian Tzar Alexander II decided to establish the civil government in the Russian Empire-controlled Kingdom of Poland, known as Congress of Poland, in January 1862. He made some changes and gave the kingdom a lot of autonomy, but it had little effect.
The spark for the uprising came when new rules for the conscription of Polish men into the Russian army were adopted.
For the first time, it was carried out by calling up specific individuals rather than groups, which had the goal of destroying conspiracy organisations. The conscription took place on the night of January 14 and 15, 1863.
The rebellion started initially in rural areas, where farmers and peasants began to organize themselves into secret societies and armed groups, but quickly spread to the cities, where students, intellectuals and other members of the middle class joined the cause.
The uprising was led by a group of young, educated Poles who formed the National Government and declared a provisional government in Warsaw. They were able to gain the support of many prominent figures in Polish society, including politicians, priests and scholars.
The leaders of the rebellion included Romuald Traugutt, who served as the commander-in-chief of the Polish National Armed Forces, and Ludwik Mierosławski, who served as the general inspector of the armed forces.
Other notable leaders included Ludwik Wodzicki, who served as the head of the National Government, and Walery Wróblewski, who was the chief of staff of the Polish National Armed Forces.
Support also came from abroad, with many Polish exiles and emigrants returning to the country to join the fight.
Despite being outnumbered and without equipment, insurgents attacked Russian outposts almost everywhere in the Kingdom of Poland.
Additionally, they urged their "Lithuanian and Ruthenian" brothers, who now live in modern-day Lithuania and Ukraine, to join the battle.
Historians estimate that the insurgents fought over 1,000 battles during the uprising. The majority of them were guerrilla in nature because the insurgents had no chance in open combat against Russian troops that were well-organised.
The biggest battle took place at Siemiatycze on February 6 and 7 and ended in victory for the Russian troops. The insurgent forces under the command of Roman Rogiński and Colonels Walenty Lewandowski and Władysław Cichorski numbered 4,000 soldiers, facing them were 2,500 Russian soldiers under the command of General Zachar Maniukin.
Despite the overwhelming odds against them, the rebels were able to hold out for over a year, with the most significant battles taking place in the countryside and the cities of Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań.
The rebellion was met with brutal repression by the Russian Empire. The Russian army used scorched earth tactics, destroying villages and towns and killing or exiling thousands of Polish civilians.
Many of the leaders of the rebellion were executed or exiled, including Romuald Traugutt, who was sentenced to death and executed by hanging in 1864.
Ludwik Mierosławski was exiled to Siberia, where he died in 1878. Ludwik Wodzicki and Walery Wróblewski were also exiled, with Wodzicki dying in exile in 1875 and Wróblewski dying in 1871.
Although ultimately unsuccessful, the uprising had a significant impact on Polish society and politics.
It sparked a renewed sense of national identity and pride among the Polish people, and it led to the formation of several political parties and organisations that advocated for Polish independence.
Today, the January Uprising is remembered as a symbol of Polish resistance and determination with Sunday seeing many events and ceremonies throughout the country to commemorate the uprising and its leaders.