• Faithful to my Homeland, the Republic of Poland




    Polish cavalrymen in the French Imperial Guard


    During the 100 days after the return of Napoleon Bonaparte from Elba in 1815,Napoleon's army, which was created rapidly, was largely composed of inexperienced and insufficiently trained units. Insufficiently trained soldiers stepped into the shoes of the veterans that were killed during previous campaigns. Although the Imperial Guard was re-established, it did not match up to the experience of the units during their time of greatness. Against this background, the Polish lancers of the Guard were distinguished, as soldiers of one of the greatest units of  cavalry in Napoleonic Europe - the First Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard.

    Squadron of Elba, the painting by Jan Chełmiński

    The regiment had been organized on special request of the Emperor. He was impressed with the actions of the Poles during the campaign in 1806-1807. On April 6, 1807 Bonaparte issued a decree establishing a Regiment de Cheveau-Legers Polonais de la Garde Imperiale. It was to composed of four squadrons with two companies each, 51 officers and 976 rank-and-file. The unit, although comprised of Poles, was to be formally a part of the French army and not the Duchy of Warsaw which caused concerns among a part of the Polish officers. Prince Józef Poniatowski was also reluctant to surrender these prominent soldiers to foreign command. This conflict evoked difficulties and a delay in forming the unit which did not manage to begin formation until after the Peace of Tilsit in 1807.

    The Light Horse Cavalry, their official name from Cheveaux-Legers - "light cavalry", were often called lancers, even in Poland. As the light cavalry they were used for reconnaissance, pursuit and protection of main forces. However, there was repeatedly a need to use them against a heavy cavalry or even infantry taking square. In these type of battles, the lance - a- 285 millimetres-long weapon with spear-head and shaft - turned out to be a great asset. It was decided on September 14, 1809 to arm the regiment with these, in addition to the previously used sabres and carbine rifles. As a result, the name of the regiment was changed to the Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard. The cavalrymen, regardless of their initial scepticism, quickly learned how to fight with lances and with great skill. The successes of the Polish cavalry in battle persuaded Napoleon to create similar units by setting up other  regiments of lancers of the Guard. In September 1810 a second regiment of Guard lancers was created of Dutch volunteers. Thus, the Polish unit received an order number and its full name was the First Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard.

    The Polish unit was commanded by Colonel Wincenty Krasiński. The unit was trained in France and then moved to Spain in February 1808. Their initial service was rather unspectacular, patrol service or fighting against partisans. This was all to change in November of 1808. The Third Squadron, commanded by Jan Kozietulski, charged uphill against four entrenched Spanish artillery batteries, opening the road for Napoleon's army at the Pass of Somosierra. The regiment then took part in the Austrian campaign of 1809.

    The Lancers deserve high credit above other cavalry units during the Russian campaign where they out performed comparable French units. A Third Regiment of Lancers of the Guard was formed, but it was quickly dissolved.

    Standard of the Squadron of Elba

    During the retreat from Moscow, the regiment, like other Polish units, maintained it's stability and preserved it's strong fighting capacity. After months of fighting, there were just over 400 lancers left which were invaluable for protecting the French retreat across Poland and Germany. Although, there were desertions, they were few compared to the French forces.  Loyalty and steadfastness was a trademark of the Poles, especially of the cavalrymen of the guard in the Saxon campaign of 1813 and the French campaign of 1814 and made a great impression on Napoleon. Even if the Duchy of Warsaw was occupied by the Russians, and other allies were deserting the Grand Army, most Polish soldiers remained attached to Napoleon. They stuck by him even when the French started to leave him. This outstanding commitment, led Napoleon to choose his Polish Lancers to accompany him while going into exile on Elba, after his abdication was announced on April 11, 1814.

    Along with a Grenadiers' battalion of the Old Guard and an artillery battery of the Old Guard, it was announced that his Polish cavalrymen would follow Napoleon and be formed into a squadron, called the Squadron of Elba. Those Polish cavalry not chosen by him returned to Poland and entered the service of the future Congress Kingdom.

    The Elba unit was formed by Major Jan Paweł Jerzmanowski and was composed of two companies (6 officers, 11 senior non-commissioned officers, 8 brigadiers, 2 trumpeters, 1 blacksmith and 81 cavalrymen). Initially 80 lancers had been sent to Parma and after 3 months they arrived on Elba where the unit was organized. Due to the difficult economic situation on the island, most cavalrymen did not have their horses, thus only 20 out of the total were able to be mounted.

    After the escape from Elba in 1815, the Lancers were the point unit for Napoleon's forces in his advance to Paris. Napoleon had plans to form 3 regiments of cavalrymen inclusive, and presumably one of them would have been strictly for Poles, but due to the rush of organization for the army on March 20, 1815, the Squadron of Elba was assigned to the Dutch Second Regiment of Lancers of the Guard as its first squadron. The unit, commanded by General Pierre-David Edouard de Colbert-Chabanais, was popularly named the Red Lancers as a reference to the red colour of their uniforms. The Poles kept their own uniform colours - navy blue jackets and trousers with crimson lapels and stripes. Owing to a flux of volunteers, the squadron increased to 225 people at the moment of departure for the battle at Waterloo. From October 1814, an experienced officer, Captain Kajetan Wawrzyniec Baliński commanded the unit and Captain Jan Szulc was the chef d' escadron. Colonel Jan Paweł Jerzmanowski was assigned to the command of the lancer regiment.


    Return of Napoleon from Elba, the painting by Carl Steuben. Jan Paweł Jerzmanowski was immortalized right behind Napoleon.

    Fighting route of the Polish cavalry of the Imperial Guard, 1808-1815.

    Spanish campaign

    July 14, 1808 - Medina del Rio Seco

    October 10, 1808 - Burgos

    November 30, 1808 - Somosierra

    Austrian campaign

    May 22, 1809 - Essling

    July 6, 1809 - Wagram

    Russian campaign

    June 28, 1812 - Vilnius

    July 22, 1812 - Mohylów

    August 16, 1812 - Smolensk

    September 7, 1812 - Borodin (Możajsk)

    October 25, 1812 - Mały-Jarosławiec

    November 17, 1812 - Krasnoje

    November 28, 1812 - Berezyna

    Saxon campaign

    May 2, 1813 - Weissenfelds by Lützen

    May 19-21, 1813 - Bautzen

    May 22, 1813 - Reichenbach

    August 21, 1813 - Görlitz

    August 27, 1813 - Dresden

    September 16, 1813 - Peterswalde

    September 24, 1813 - Hochkirchen, Altenburg

    October 18-19, 1813 - Leipzig

    October 30-31, 1813 - Hanau

    October 30, 1813 - Nieder-Isingheim

    French campaign

    January 27, 1814 - St. Dizier

    January 29, 1814 - Brenne

    February 1-2, 1814 - La Rothiére

    February 3, 1814 - Rocourt

    February 10 and 14, 1814 - Chaumpaubert

    February 11, 1814 - Montmirail

    February 12, 1814 - Château-Thierry

    February 14, 1814 - Vauchamps

    February 14, 1814 - Villeneuve

    February 18, 1814 - Montereau

    February 24, 1814 - Troyes

    March 4, 1814 - Braisne

    March 5, 1814 - Berry-sur-Aube

    March 7, 1814 - Craonne

    March 8, 1814 - Laon

    March 13, 1814 - Reims

    March 18, 1814 - Fere Champenoise

    March 20-21, 1814 - Arcis-sur-Aube

    March 23, 1814 - Vitry

    March 26, 1814 - St. Dizier

    March 29, 1814 - Bourget

    March 30, 1814 - Paris

    Belgian campaign

    June 16, 1815 - Quatre Bras

    June 18, 1815 - Waterloo


    Jan Paweł Jerzmanowski

    Jan Paweł Jerzmanowski played a decisive role in both the forming of the Squadron of Elba and developing the unit, thus it is worth paying more attention to such an interesting and underappreciated person. He was born on June 25, 1779, in Podkielecki[1], into a poor noble family. In August 1799 he entered the Danubian Legion and took part in the Frankfurt and Hohenlinden Campaign. Due to his tactical capacities, courage and knowledge of languages he was promoted very quickly: he was granted a rank of sub-lieutenant on September 23, 1800 and lieutenant on January 21, 1801. As a consequence of the conclusion of peace by Napoleon with the Austrian Empire, he resigned his commission with the intention of returning to Poland, however he did not. He tried to join the Hanover legion but was unsuccessful, and in 1804 he settled for a short time in France. In the autumn of 1804 he was called to the French army and was assigned as the adjutant of General Michel Ordener, commander of the cavalry of the Imperial Guard.  He fought at Hollabrünn and at Austerlitz. On July 24, 1806 he became the adjunct of General Gerard Duroc, Grand Marshal of the Imperial manor-house, and at his side he took part in the Polish and Prussian Campaigns.

    Jan Paweł Jerzmanowski (1799-1862),
    Commander of the Squadron of Elba

    On April 7, 1807, at the rank of captain, he moved to the Polish army and was assigned to the third squadron of the First Regiment of Light Cavalry of the Imperial Guard. He was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour for his participation in the Spanish campaign of 1808.

    He fought in the campaign of 1809 against Austria, where he was wounded at Wagram in the bloodiest battle fought by Polish cavalry. During the years 1810-1811, together with his regiment, he took part in battles against the British and the Portuguese, being promoted to the post of commander-in-chief of the squadron on February 17, 1811. In 1812 he was involved in the most important battles fought by the Grand Army in Russia. His actions during the withdrawal of the Napoleonic army to the west raised him to great fame. The unit he commanded (initially composed of 118 cavalrymen) from December 1812 to February 1813 from Elbląg to Berlin played the role of a rearguard for the whole army, continuously for three months, destroying all opposition. One of the officers of the regiment, Józef Bonawentura Załuski described the outstanding achievements of this small unit.

    The ardour of Jerzmanowski increased to the extent that if, in daily skirmishes of the rearguard, any cavalryman happened to lose any part of his uniform, say he had dropped his hat, a group was formed and was ordered to get the lost object back, as to prevent  the enemy from boasting about his trophy. As a consequence of such a firm resolution, the Cossacks stopped bothering the brave soldiers that always crushed them...

    In the spring and summer campaign of 1813 Jerzmanowski, as commander of two squadrons  inflicted heavy losses on Coalition troops in numerous clashes. In Dresden he took 1300 prisoners of war in the heroic charge on a square of Austrian infantry, and in the battle of  Leipzig he captured 4 cannons and 300 prisoners of war. Due to his achievements he was granted the title of baron of the empire and the Polish order of Virtuti Militari of the Fourth Order. The battles for the defence of France in 1814 brought him the recognition of his superiors and the rank of major of the Guard, corresponding to a rank of colonel in line formations.

    Jerzmanowski was one of few that never left Napoleon, even after his abdication. He accompanied Napoleon into exile on Elba. He organized a squadron of Polish cavalrymen of the guard, which was to be a part of Napoleon's "Elba Army". He became a close collaborator of Bonaparte and participated in preparations for his return to France. As commandant of the port in Langone he was put in charge of organizing the ships that would transport the loyal soldiers of the Emperor from the island. After being promoted to a rank of colonel on March 1, 1815, he was assigned, together with the Polish squadron, to the Dutch Second Regiment of Cavalry of the Imperial Guard, and in its ranks he fought in the Belgian campaign. He was injured at Waterloo.


    Drawings of outfits of Polish cavalrymen


    After Napoleon's defeat, Jerzmanowski wanted, again, to accompany him into exile, however his request was denied.  He returned to Poland and on February 27 where he entered the Army of the Kingdom of Poland, but he did not receive an official appointment. Once an amnesty was announced in France, he returned to the Seine and to the lands of his wife Maria Coetquen, Countess Desormaux. After the July revolution in 1830, he received his titles and pensions promised him by Bonaparte. In 1831 he became involved in the activities of the Polish Committee in France. During the November Uprising in Poland, he organized money collections and armament transfers to the Kingdom of Poland. He took charge of the transport of supplies to Żmudź, but had to return because of the defeat of the Poles. He was promoted to the rank of general of the brigade. In later years he defended the reputation of the Poles and Napoleon in a polemic with Lamartine the poet, a critic of the Emperor. He died on April 15, 1862 and was buried at the Montmartre cemetery in Paris.

    Honours and prizes

    Cavalier of the Legion of Honour- March 10, 1809

    Gold Cross (fourth class) Virtuti Militari - 1810

    Cavalier of Empire - March 15, 1810

    Donations: 1000 francs annually on canals du Midi - March 15, 1810

    Officer of Honour Legion - April 14, 1813

    Baron of Empire - August 16, 1813

    Cavalier of Unification Order (l'Ordre de la Reunion) - November 28, 1813

    Commander of the Legion of Honour- November 28, 1831, confirmation of decoration from April 11, 1815


    Polish cavalrymen in the Belgian campaign of 1815

    On June 15, 1815, at around 2.30 am, Napoleon's army crossed the Belgian border with the intention of attacking the English army (Duke of Wellington) and the Prussian army (Field Marshal Blucher). In front of Napoleon's army, cavalry units were moving, and among them, the Second Regiment of Lancers of the Guard as a part of the cavalry brigade of the guard of Charles Lefebvre-Desnouttess, part of the units of Marshal Michael Ney. Moving towards Brussels, the regiment approached the city Frasnes occupied by the second battalion of the Second Nassau Regiment, which was part of the army of the Duke of Wellington (First Corps of William, the Duke of Orange). Shellfire halted the main forces of the regiment which were expected to support the French infantry. The first Polish squadron was the only unit that went around the city from the east, approaching Quatre Bras, without any resistance. When dusk broke, having received no support, it had to withdraw to Frasnes, clearing the enemy in front of it.

    On June 16, in line with Napoleon's intention, the squadron, at the lead of the main forces moved against the Prussian army of Marshal Blucher. Marshal Ney was to fight against the English army, preventing it from coming to the Prussian's aid.

    At dawn, Ney's units started preparations for the advance to Quatre Bras, however William the Duke of Orange, temporarily replacing Wellington, directed new units to this region with the task of delaying the French. At once, the alarm was sounded that the whole English army was moving with speed towards Quatre Bras. The first forays happened at about 7.00 am when the Polish and Dutch lancers, taking some losses, attacked the Silesian Hussars when they were cut off from main forces of the Prussian army. The regiment then came under fire from an artillery battery. Charges against the battery, undertaken by the Dutch Lancers, failed under the cannon fire and the regiment of de Colbert was withdrawn.


    Square of the Forty Second Regiment of Highland "Black Watch", squashed by Polish cavalrymen at Quatre Bras

    The French actions against the English army came later. At around 2.00 pm the Ninth and Fifth Division of Infantry started the attack towards Quatre Bras. The left wing was protected by the brigade of the cavalry of the guard. After two hours of fighting the French forces pushed the units of the Dutch Third Division aside. At the same time other units of Wellington approached and halted ranks of the French infantry. Then, the French cavalry joined the fight and managed to break the square of the battalion of the elite Scottish Forty Second Regiment of Highlands, "Black Watch", and units of the Fifth English Division. In many publications, particularly British ones, it was believed that the Polish lancers participated in this charge, however it is uncertain. It has to be noted that much of the information about the actions of the Polish and French lancers in the Belgian campaign remains muddled and confused. Poles were assigned to all actions that were undertaken by French light horse units. It can be assumed that this also applied to the battle at Quatre Bras where lancers of the Third Division of the Cavalry of General Pire were doing the fighting. The Poles may not have been at this battle despite what some historians have claimed.  That can be confirmed by lack of any losses in the Polish squadron on that day. Overestimation about the role of Poles, included in the historiography, as well as placing them in paintings, may be seen as a confirmation of the great fame and esteem that Polish cavalry were held in at the time.


    Twentieth Eight Regiment at Quatre Bras, the painting by Elizabeth Thompson. The English are fighting back a charge of the Polish and French cavalry.

    On June 17, upon receiving news about the defeat of Prussians at Ligny, Wellington made the decision to withdraw his army towards Brussels. An afternoon storm made the pursuit difficult for the French and allowed the English to take up an advantageous position at Waterloo. The next day, the battle that ended the Napoleonic age took place. At about 11.30 am, the French Second Corps of the Infantry struck at the English right wing. Despite huge losses, the English did not break their defence. At around 1.00 pm, to decide the fate of the battle before the Prussians' arrival, Ney attacked the second wing of the English. Ney charged with the First Corps and Cuirassiers of the Thirteen Division of the Cavalry into it. Wellington ordered his heavy cavalry to attack and aid his infantry-the "Household" Brigade of General Edward Somerset (11 squadrons, total of 1319 people) and the "Union" Brigade of General William Ponsonby (9 squadrons, total of 1332 people). The Brigade of Gen. Somerset crushed the French cuirassiers, whereas the Brigade of General Ponsonby charged at the First Corps, dispersing the three divisions and taking around 3000 prisoners of war. The cuirassiers of the Fourteenth Division and the lancers of the First Division (the third and fourth line regiment of lancers) launched a counterattack against the English. There is an erroneous belief that the Second Regiment of Cavalry Lancers of the Guard also joined the fight, and succeeded in crushing the brigade of Ponsonby, who was allegedly stabbed to death by a Polish lancer. Another example of the fame of the Polish light cavalry by assigning them the merits of other cavalrymen.


    Battle at Waterloo, the painting by A Boulard. Attack of the Second Regiment of Cavalrymen Lancers of the Guard on quadrillons of the Scottish infantry.

    To finally decide the battle Marshal Ney used the whole Fourth Corp of the Cavalry, but did not succeed in breaking the English defence. Napoleon wrongly assessed that his adversary was close to breaking and decided to support the attack with the eight other regiments of the heavy cavalry (the Eleventh and Twelfth Division of the Infantry of the Third Cavalry Corpus) and two other support regiments - mounted grenadiers and dragons. By accident, regiments of the mounted riflemen and lancers, including the Polish cavalrymen, were in the charge. French Captain de Brack, of the Dutch-Polish regiment, described how it had happened:

    Put to the sword by our cuirassiers and stabbed to death by our line lancers, commanded by Colonel Bro, [the British] strewed the ground with their dead .... This success sent shivers down spines of our cavalry that waited impatiently to cross swords.

    The Cavalry of the Guard was given an order to move forward, thus we were marching ahead towards the adversary at the fortified farm of La Haye Sainte that was separated from us by a small, lightly undulating area. Four regiments were in line on the main road; lancers on the right wing, further on the left: mounted riflemen, dragons and mounted grenadiers. [...] Several officers in the front of our regiment moved ahead as to join our group. The left wing followed them, other squadrons repeated the movement to re-line up; and then followed by the mounted riflemen of the guard. This movement of barely few steps on the right wing became even more significant on the left one. The brigade of dragons and mounted grenadiers of the guard, which expected orders to charge any moment, assumed that they had been given such [...] They moved and we followed them!

    This was the way the cavalry of the Imperial Guard attacked, though reasons that writers present are very diverse. [...] We were at a height of the farm, and between the farm and us our cuirassiers were charging. We ran over the batteries that were unable to pull behind us. We turned back and threatened the famous English squares that put up resistance.

    The infantry of Wellington formed into squares, in which his cannons were sheltered and used to defend them against the attacking cavalry trying to break into them. Mounted lancers, suffering heavy losses from fire, ineffectively tried to break the ranks of squares - only a few of them were broken. In the battle against the infantry, the lance of the light cavalry turned out to be more helpful than the sabres of the heavy cuirassiers. The Dutch and Polish cavalrymen,  remained out of the reach of bayonets while stabbing at the infantry. While their effectiveness scared defenders,  they were unable to decide fate of the battle and had to withdraw together with the remaining cavalry.

    The arrival of the Prussians on the battlefield and the failed attack of the infantry of the Imperial Guard broke the will of the French army.  Total chaos spread through the French ranks. Within minutes most of the French units were completely destroyed. Of the few regiments that remained ready for battle was the Second Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard. For the remainder of the evening, the Poles and Dutch were sheltering the Emperor's withdrawal along with the remnants of his army. The reputation of the lancers got so deeply into their opponents heads that it was said that at the battle of Waterloo that the last sound on the field was the sound of the Polish Lancer's trumpets as Napoleon fled the field, and the charge of the Polish squadron in his defence was the last one of the Napoleonic age. Even if it is not true, the fact is that Poles at Waterloo upheld the glory of the Polish army.

    In the bloody battle that sealed the fate of Europe, the Polish cavalrymen had surprisingly light losses: five lancers died (Łukasz Biernacki, Jan Nowak, Karol Pawłowski, Ignacy Rużyczko and Sylwester Zeleski), one was lost (Jan Malinowski), one was taken captive (Sergeant Major Michał Szulc). Several were wounded and injured, among others, Colonel Jerzmanowski and Captain Baliński. Only a few lancers were lost during the retreat (probably due to the tiredness of horses) when they were separated from the regiment and taken captive. After the battle, a regiment of "Red Lancers" managed to withdraw to France, and shortly after the second abdication of Napoleon, was dissolved. Most of the Poles returned to Poland, but in comparison to those of the First Regiment of Lancers of the Guard that went back in 1814, only very few were assigned to the army of the Kingdom of Poland.

    The light losses (around 3%) of the Squadron of Elba probably resulted from the individual training of the lancers and the lance. The Napoleonic age made popular the Polish lance and the Lancer style Czapka. Since 1809 the French had been using it, and after the battle at Waterloo regiments of lancers were formed in nearly all European countries. The British cavalry, which on June 18, 1815 had particularly felt the sting of the lance, continued to use it for the next century. The English stopped using it during Boer wars, but it was only formally withdrawn in 1928.

    It should be mentioned that at Waterloo with the French army, apart from the lancers, there was one Pole that history has not assessed fairly. This was Colonel Jerzy Despot Zenowicz, officer of the general staff of the Grand Army. On June 18, 1815, during that decisive battle, he served at the headquarters of Napoleon who sent him to Marshal Emanuel Grouchy under orders to immediately return his corps, which might have decided the battle. He set out around noon on Napoleon's personal order and was given a very circuitous route, which was not his fault. Eventually, instead of Grouchy's soldiers, the Prussians came to Waterloo, tipping the scales in favour of the Coalition side.


    Edited by Wojciech Markert

    Military Office of Historical Studies

    Dr. David Stefancic

    Saint Mary's College


    Selective bibliography

    Bielecki Robert: Encyklopedia wojen napoleońskich, part 1-2, Warsaw, 2001-2002

    Bielecki Robert: Szwoleżerowie gwardii, Warsaw, 1996

    Bielecki Robert: Wielka Armia, Warsaw, 1995

    Bielecki Robert, Tyszka Andrzej: Dał nam przykład Bonaparte. Wspomnienia i relacje żołnierzy polskich 1796-1815, Part II, Krakow, 1984

    Kukiel Marian: Dzieje wojska polskiego w dobie napoleońskiej 1795-1815, Part II (1812-1815), Krakow,1920

    Malarski Tomasz: Waterloo 1815, Warsaw, 1984

    Naylor John: Waterloo, London, 1960

    Pericoli Ugo: 1815. The armies at Waterloo, London, 1973

    Pivka Otto v.: Napoleon's Polish Troops, London, 1974

    Ziółkowski Andrzej: Pierwszy Pułk Szwoleżerów Gwardii Cesarskiej 1807-1815, Pruszków, 1996





    [1]              It is a name of one of Polish administrative units in the region of Kielce.