Who was national anthem ‘father’ Jan Henryk Dąbrowski?
There is no other line from a song better known to Poles than the one that starts the chorus of the national anthem.
“March, march Dąbrowski, from the land of Italy to Poland” may sound clunky in translation, but the rhyming couplet slides off the tongue beautifully in Polish at grand state occasions, football matches and wherever Poles gather to nurture their patriotism.
Dąbrowski’s Polish legions fought throughout Europe and in the West Indies in a strategy of our enemy’s enemy is our friend. It was ultimately unsuccessful.
The legions were never able to reach Poland and did not liberate the country, as Dąbrowski had dreamed. Many of the legion’s soldiers ended up stranded far from home in places such as Haiti, where descendants still live today.
Their sacrifice was not in vain though. Their tenacity and indomitable spirit expressed in the anthem’s opening line “Poland has not yet died, So long as we still live” has girded the loins of future generations of Poles in uprisings, wars and national emergencies.
But who exactly was Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, what were his Polish legions and how did they come to be in Italy?
Now is a good time to answer these questions as Dąbrowski established his Polish legions in Italy 225 years ago on 9 January in 1797.
Although the legions were formed in Italy, it was France under Napoleon Bonaparte that gave the green light to their formation.
As Poland was being fully dismembered by the three empires, many Poles believed that siding with revolutionary France in the Napoleonic wars was Poland’s best option for regaining independence.
France's enemies included Poland's partitioners, Prussia, Austria and Imperial Russia and the ideals of the French Republic chimed with those contained in the still-born May 3 constitution.
After the failed Kościuszko Insurrection in 1794, many Polish soldiers, officers, and volunteers emigrated, especially to the parts of Italy under French rule.
The number of Polish recruits soon reached many thousands. With Napoleon Bonaparte’s approval, Polish military units were formed.
But because the constitution of the French republic prohibited the formation of foreign legions, to get round this Dabrowski received special permission to form the legion as an allied force supporting Napoleon’s Lombard republic in Italy.
They bore Polish military ranks and were commanded by Polish officers, becoming a Polish army in exile under French command. The legionnaires were granted Lombardian citizenship and were paid the same wage as other troops.
By early February 1797, the legion was 7,000 strong, boosted by many new recruits who had deserted from the Austrian army.
Their best-known Polish commanders were Karol Kniaziewicz, Józef Wybicki, who wrote words to the national anthem, and Jan Henryk Dąbrowski.
Dąbrowski started his military career in 1770 as a cadet in the Saxon army. In 1779, he took part in the campaign for the Bavarian succession.
In 1792, as vice-brigadier, Dąbrowski joined the Polish army and took an oath of allegiance to the Targowica Confederation, which was opposed to the May 3 constitution.
He fought in the Kościuszko Insurrection and was promoted to general for his part in the defence of Warsaw. On 18 November 1794, he was taken prisoner by the Russians at Radoszyce.
After the collapse of the insurrection, he wanted to continue the fight against the partitioning powers and therefore pinned his hopes on France, where he arrived in 1796.
The legions fought alongside the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars and were first used against the Austrians and their allies in Italy in 1797. They fought in Brescia, quelled uprisings in Verona and Reggio Emilia, secured the Papal States, put down peasant revolts and garrisoned in Rome.
Dąbrowski lobbied Napoleon to be allowed to push through to Polish territories in Galicia, but he was rejected.
By 1799, the legion had grown in strength and was split into smaller units. Some continued to fight in Italy, while the legion under Kniaziewicz went north to fight the Austrians in Bavaria.
The legions' morale was starting to weaken as it became clear that Napoleon was not serious about using them to help the Poles regain their independence.
Many legionnaires, including General Kniaziewicz, felt that they had been used by the French and resigned.
Amid this rising resentment, in 1802, France sent most of the disgruntled legionnaires to Saint Domingue, now Haiti, to put down a revolution of former slaves.
Tropical diseases and yellow fever decimated the legion’s numbers. Out of 5,280, only a few hundred were alive two years later.
The Poles had little interest or desire to support the French cause in the distant colonies. It has been often repeated that the Poles identified with the locals’ desire to free themselves of their colonial oppressor and therefore changed sides to join the former slaves.
How many did so is unclear. The number has been estimated at about 150. The Haitians created two infantry battalions from Polish soldiers and they were used to guard prisons.
From these men, a Polish community developed on the island. Living in poverty high in the mountains, over time they lost their Polish language. However, they have never forgotten their roots and are known locally as Lepologne.
When the Duchy of Warsaw was created in 1807, the veterans of the Legions formed the core of the new Duchy's army under Józef Poniatowski.
They fought a victorious war against Austria in 1809 and would go on to fight alongside the French army in numerous campaigns, culminating in the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, which marked the end of the Napoleonic empire, including the Legions.
After the fall of Napoleon, Dąbrowski returned to Warsaw and headed the Military Organizing Committee, whose aim was to set up an army in the Kingdom of Poland, a Russian puppet territory.
However, in declining health, he resigned and settled in his estate in Winna Góra in the Grand Duchy of Posen, where he died on 6th June 1818.