Today's special is a short primer on a country that played an important part in the Napoleonic wars - even before it was re-formed as a nation. Polish soldiers fought in large numbers for France in both French and Polish uniforms. So what has a Polish army to offer for us as Napoleonic wargamers and miniature collectors?
When Napoleon rose to power, Poland had already ceased to exist as a nation. The nail in the coffin for Polish independence was the third partitioning of Poland in 1795. The country, already gradually nibbled down after several wars, was no more. With Poland's neighbours all getting involved in removing their nation from the map, the Poles who wanted to regain independence largely flocked to other armies to offer their services. France, and later her client states, ended up as the primary employer of these exiled soldiers. After all, France was at this point at odds with pretty much every old enemy of Poland!
This steady influx of soldiers was eventually enough to form entire "Polish Legions" in both the French army and in the army of Bonaparte's Italy. Often led by Polish generals, these formations fought in several major campaigns ranging from the Carribean to Egypt. The Polish legions that fought in Spain would eventually form the Vistula Legion, reputed for having both excellent cavalry and infantry.
Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, the most famous commander of the Polish Legions
Duchy of Warsaw 1807-1815
With Prussia and Russia defeated in 1807, Napoleon set out to create a buffer state between Russia and his Empire. This Duchy of Warsaw was not quite the Poland that most Poles had hoped for, both smaller than previous borders and a duchy rather than a kingdom. Still it turned out to be one of France's most loyal allies and supplied Napoleon with large numbers of soldiers.
At this Point most of the Polish Legions merged into the army of the Duchy, but the Vistula Legion remained part of the French army. Its infantry fought on in Spain until it join the 1812 campaign, elevated to the Imperial Guard, and the Vistula lancers formed new lancer regiments in the French army.
Both the Duchy and the Vistula Legion fought fiercely in the 1812 invasion of Russia and remained on Napoleon's side after most allies switched sides after the defeat. Loyal to the end, his Polish lancers were the last remaining unit under Napoleon's command during the exile on Elba. Some are even said to have followed him to his final days on St. Helena.
Wargaming with Poles
Both the Duchy of Warsaw and the Vistula Legion saw lots of action fighting for Napoleon, both in major battles and in smaller skirmishes, making them a useful army to collect for wargaming. The Vistula Legion fought extensively in the Peninsular War while the Polish Legions were part of many wars, from the more obscure battles in Haiti to legendary cataclysms like Jena.
Once formed, the Duchy of Warsaw played an important role in the 1809 war against Austria and the disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, where the Poles were the second largest part of the Grande Armée after France. They also formed an important part in Napoleon's struggle to retain his Empire in 1813-14, even after Poland itself had been re-occupied.
Collecting a Polish Army
You could say that there are many reasons for collecting Poles. They closely followed French army organization, which makes it easier to understand if you've already got your head around the French army. They had a good reputation as some of the more dependable troops around. They also had some of the most renown cavalry of the time. But honestly, we all know what a Polish army is all about:
Hot. Czapka. Action.
Czapkas are the traditional square hats used in many Polish uniforms of the time. Simply put, they are some of the most suave and striking headgear of the period. If you are anything like me, this is probably why you're considering swearing loyalty to Prince Poniatowski and his Polish cause (pictures above courtesy of the amazing folk at Los infernos picadores).
To get access to these amazing czapkas, you can of course set out to collect a pure Polish army. Entire Polish corps fought in both 1809, 1812 and 1813, which makes for good starting points for a Duchy of Warsaw army.
However, I also consider it a perfect secondary army to dip into if you're collecting French. The uniforms are similar but not identical, giving you some diversity while still being familiar. Polish units often fought side by side with French units so it makes sense to have a battalion (or three) turn up with your main army. The various Polish forces fighting in Spain makes a natural fit for a wargamer invested in the popular Peninsular War. Finally, they add yet another amazing layer to the wonderfully overindulgent cake that is the French cavalry.
This approach is a bit more tempting if you balk at the cost of buying a wholly metal army. When writing this there are no real plastics for Polish, though there are previews of plastic cavalry from Victrix and some metal and plastic hybrid kits from Warlord.
Combining French and Polish means that you can get a decent sized core of French, and then expand it with Polish troops at your own leasure. As a bonus some Polish troops were equipped with French uniforms, which I'll cover later, adding yet Another option for reducing the cost of collecting Poles.
Duchy of Warsaw Infantry
The Duchy of Warsaw followed French conventions regarding its infantry, using the same organization of fusilier centre companies flanked by voltigeur and grenadier companies. The main difference from France is that the duchy didn't field light infantry regiments. At it's high point in 1812 there were 22 infantry regiments in the army, of which four were considered Lithuanian.
If you paint up units from the Duchy of Warsaw there are two main periods to keep track of. In 1807-10 the infantry had facing colours unique for each regiment, with combinations of yellow, scarlet, crimson and white used for collars and cuffs, lapels and piping. This meant that each regiment had a unique uniform. At the end of 1810 the army switched to a new regulation where all regiments were to wear white lapels, blue collars and red cuffs .
The cuts of the uniforms, using a dark blue kurtka jacket that closely resemble the later French Bardin uniform, didn't really change over time. So you can use the same miniatures to depict all periods. You can go all in on one or the other period, or wing it and mix them using the excuse that not all troops had received new uniforms even in 1812. The uniform regulations were not 100% carried out and I've seen tons of different versions of the czapka alone. As with many other armies, adherence to regulations was spotty at times, with lots of variations between the regiments even after 1810. For example, far from all grenadiers switched from the czapka to the regulated bearskin caps in 1810.
Both blue and white trousers were used for campaign uniforms according to season, giving you even more options when it comes to painting.
To complicate things, the 4th, 7th and 9th infantry regiments were sent to Spain in 1810 and ended up equipped with French uniforms. This offers us wargames a neat excuse to use the much more commonly available French miniatures for a Duchy army.
To complicate things even more, the 13th regiment were outfitted with confiscated Austrian cloth, meaning that they were white coats with sky-blue facings! Needless to say, you have a lot of room to add unique twists to your Duchy army.
Vistula Legion Infantry
The Vistula Legion infantry differed from the Duchy of Warsaw troops in wearing a "Spencer" coat instead of the kurtka, with it's breast reaching all the way down to the lower end of the jacket. They had yellow facings and a "sunburst" plate on the front of their czapka.
The Vistula legion grew over time, fielding three regiments of two battalions each in Russia 1812 as part of the Young Guard.
A major reason to start collecting a Polish force, next to the czapka, is definitely their cavalry. The Poles, hardened after centuries of fighting the best horsemen the Eastern steppes and the near east could muster, made up some of the best cavalry of the Napoleonic wars. They fought primarily as light cavalry and had the honour of being one of few to be able to hold their own against Cossack cavalry.
The Duchy of Warsaw raised an astounding 21 cavalry regiments, not including the two regular French lancer regiments that were formed from the Vistula Legion lancers. On top of that, the French Imperial Guard had one regiment of Polish lancers and one from the Lithuanian population of Poland.
Did I mention a lot of them wear czapkas too?
By far the most numerous, 15 regiments of uhlans formed the backbone of the Polish cavalry. These lancers were excellent light cavalry, dressed in blue coats with unique facings for the various regiments. Wearing their distinctive czapka and wielding long lances with pennons, they are the perfect core of a Polish cavalry force. In Russia there were Polish Uhlans in both the Polish corps as well as the first, second and fourth cavalry corps, meaning that they are an excellent cavalry choice to dip into for a primarily French army.
Chasseurs-a-cheval and Hussars
These regiments looked very similar to their French counterparts, with the chasseurs wearing the "Kinski" coat unlike the uhlans. However the hussars used the pointed pattern for their shabraques unlike the French hussars. The Duchy raised three regiments of chasseurs and two of hussars.
The Duchy raised just a single regiment of cuirassiers, and the questionable cost to benefit ratio of them meant that Napoleon wanted them converted to yet more of the useful light cavalry, but the invasion of Russia interrupted those plans. This meant that the 14th cuirassier regiment fought next to the Saxon cavalry at the legendary charge against the Raevsky redoubt.
The Polish cuirassiers looked similar enough to the French that I'd say you can simply use French miniatures straight out of the box.
The Krakusi were an almost irregular type of cavalry, raised in the end of 1812 as a countermeasure against the deadly Cossacks that had plagued the Grande Armée so much in Russia. These lancers ended up being more effective against the Russian light cavalry than other French and Polish units, yet still cheap to raise as they largely equipped themselves.
French "Polish" Lancers
The 1st and 2nd Vistula lancers retained their blue coats when turned into the 7th and 8th lancer regiments of the French army. This makes them distinct from the dragoon regiments that were turned into lancers, who in turn kept their dark green uniform colours. The 9th regiment was formed from German recruits, but in the Polish fashion uniforms.
The Polish lancers of the Imperial Guard were not connected to the existing Polish Legions, but were formed from aristocratic Poles who flocked to Napoleon's cause. They eventually formed an honour guard that would be expanded into the 1st Polish chevau-légers.
The 3rd lancers of the Imperial Guard was formed much later, during the invasion of Russia 1812. However, they ended up virtually annihilated during the retreat, and was merged into other regiments.
My Own Polish Plans
After all those entries, what's my take on Poles in my army? To start out I got a bunch of random minis, mostly back when I never saw myself doing anything bigger than skirmish games. That means that I have both rag-tag "retreat from Moscow" style Polish soldiers as well as more properly dressed ones. After that I just randomly picked up a battalion of Vistula Legion infantry because they were on sale.
My first step will be to add about a battalion each of Duchy of Warsaw and the Vistula Legion. They'll add some nice flavour and colour to my French army. I have a bit of Imperial Guard that I haven't painted up yet, which would be a nice pairing for the Vistula Legion.
I also have almost enough uhlans to make two regiments of them, which will be a nice addition to my cavalry.
After that we'll see. Maybe I'll add some more battalions to the infantry. At that point I expect Victrix to have released their plastic Polish lancers, which I assume I won't be able to resist.
I won't dwelve into other scales at the moment, so here's my main ideas for 28mm Poles.
Murawski Miniatures have the most complete range and they are sculpted by club favourite Paul Hicks. This range has both Duchy of Warsaw and Vistula Legion infantry, as well as cavalry.
Offensive Miniatures has a range of Polish line infantry and lancers. I can't vouch for them as I haven't bought anything from Offensive yet, though they look nice enough on the website.
Warlord Games also have a box of Vistula Legion, but be aware: it consists of metal heads and the normal French plastics, which means that the coats are clearly wrong for Vistula Legion. They also have a box of lancers, which are similarly the French plastic lancers with Polish heads. I think they'd do in a pinch, but again, I would probably wait for the Victrix kit when it comes to plastic Polish lancers.
If you're looking for handy online information on things like facing colour etc., there's a lot available on the Napolun page. It's a great source for cursory information and just skimming the subject.
If you are looking for something more indepth, I'd definitely recommend checking out History Book Man. Besides the incredibly accurate yet dry name, the PDF books available are just a fiver each, and there's both a book for the Polish Legions and the Duchy of Warsaw. That entire series of books are very detailed, and far better than anything you'd find from Osprey or similar Publishers. If you're serious about doing a Polish army, I'd get this as a companion.
Please feel free to give your tips on Polish miniatures or sources in the comments! In the meantime, enjoy a final czapka, and dream sweet dreams of insanely swag Napoleonic headgear.
"Glory is fleeting,