Heroes of the Commonwealth

A 17th-century commando, a Silesian soldier who constructed his own armoured vehicle, a saboteur swimmer on one of the Second World War’s fronts: Polish history is full of extraordinary super-warriors, yet hardly any of them are remembered.

Almost 20 m of the wall collapsed as soon as an explosion shook the Smolensk fortress on 3 June 1611. Brandishing their sabres, berdiches, and war hammers, the Polish infantry raised their battle cry and ran for the gap. One of the first to charge into the city was Bartłomiej Nowodworski, a bearded man dressed in black with a Maltese cross on his chest. His rapier flashed in his berserker attack, making the Russian defenders withdraw in panic.

The low bellowing of trumpets and rumbling of kettle drums heralded the victory. King Sigismund III radiated joy watching the scene from a knoll by the Polish camp. He had lost any hope for success weeks earlier and had been ready to end the siege he had laid on the city. None other but Nowodworski changed the king’s mind – “All I ask of the king is to tarry eight days and give me 100 cwt of gunpowder”. Albeit reluctantly, as he didn’t have much faith in the ploy, Sigismund conceded to his plea.

Nowodworski was a commando in the time of sabres and muskets, an expert in seizing fortresses. With his detachment, he stole up to the walls of enemy strongholds and laid a mine—at the time known as a petarda. With the roar of detonation still echoing in his ears, he would immediately storm through the crack in the wall while the defenders were paralysed by the shock.

Sigismund III Vasa by Szymon Boguszowicz, 1613 He fought in religious wars in France, against Turks in the Mediterranean, and against Russians during Polish interventions in the early 17th century. After the seizure of the powerful Russian fortress, the jubilant King Sigismund showered his engineer with honours. In 1618, Nowodworski reached Moscow with the Polish army, driven by the ambition to capture the Russian capital.

Elite Wolves

The commando who besieged Smolensk and Moscow is just one many great fighters and masters of various weapons in Polish history. Hardly any of them are remembered today, however.

To become a superhero, you needed not only special skills in handling weapons but also psychological predispositions and prowess.

Psychologists of war realised long ago that soldiers fall into many categories, depending on their behaviour in the field of battle. During the Second World War, a British instructor, Major Lionel Wigram divided combatants into three categories: wolves, sheep, and hares. A hare primarily wants to survive, and would do anything during a battle to be least exposed and vulnerable. A sheep would also shun danger, yet can be induced to fight efficiently by a good commander. A wolf, in turn, fights without any incentive, is hardly afraid of risk, and is focused mostly on completing the task. Wigram believed that the latter category accounted for around 25% of soldiers.

Such findings have come to their own since the Second World War; experts today present a far more complex image of combatant psychology. One thing hasn’t changed though: standing at the top of the army pyramid are people especially predisposed – psychologically and physically – to fighting. When a war breaks out, a large share of them die quickly, as they characteristically expose themselves to excessive risk. Some, however, are lucky and manage to display their courage and skill in using weapons. They can become legends—unless their commanders steal the limelight and fame.

A Cavalryman & Female Scythe-Bearer

If the famous charge in the Somosierra gorge is associated with any single person, it is probably the commander – Jan Leon Hipolit Kozietulski. On 30 November 1806, acting on Napoleon’s order, Kozietulski led a squadron of light cavalry (chevau-légers) up a twisting mountain pass blocked by four batteries of Spanish cannons. Hit by a bullet, the commander’s horse fell to the ground just a few dozen metres into the gorge, obviously leaving the rider without a steed. Having regained his senses, Kozietulski returned towards the French positions. He didn’t even know that his cavalry was continuing the berserker attack.

Therefore, if anyone can be called “the conqueror of Somosierra”, it was a light cavalryman, Andrzej Niegolewski. In a mad gallop he jumped over three Spanish batteries—only to realise that he was alone when he reached the fourth. In the battle rage, he attacked the last obstacle, putting all the Spanish gunners to the sword.

Niegolewski’s life story could provide the material for a fascinating historical drama: heroic fighting in the Napoleonic wars, a stay in Dr Larrey’s horrifying “slaughterhouse” hospital, an unrequited love, and a desperate struggle to have his services at Somosierra recognised.

Death of a Female Heroine (Lady Piotrowicz's Death) Equally, if not more dramatic, was the life of Maria Piotrowicz, one of the insurgents of January 1863. During this time, it was absolutely unheard of for women to participate in armed combat. However, one of manservants in her parents’ manorial estate taught Maria to shoot and wield bladed weapons: a sabre and a scythe. Maria Piotrowicz proved extremely talented and, when the uprising broke out, she ran away to the insurgent detachments in the forest.

In the battle of Dobra, she distinguished herself like no other man: unable to withstand the Russian barrage, many insurrectionaries fled the battlefields. She, however, stood her ground and used her scythe and gun to fight with bitter ferocity. The tragic history of the fighter, who since then fallen into oblivion, raised plenty of emotion at the time of the uprising. Her example forced the clandestine command of the insurrection to issue special principles governing the participation of women in armed struggle.

Armoured Aces

Niegolewski and Piotrowicz both failed to reach the goal for which they fought—the independence of Poland. Robert Oszek, living in the first half of the 20th century, was more lucky. The seaman from Silesia gained his first experience in the German imperial navy, and proved his mettle during the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1920. He participated in gunboat chases and dogfights on the great rivers of Ukraine. He later participated in the Third Silesian Uprising in an armoured vehicle that he himself had constructed. The monstrous vehicle – with skull and crossbones painted on the sides – inspired fear in German troops. It showed up where fighting was most heated, hurling grenades and spitting fire from five heavy machine guns.

In September 1939, Edmund Orlik entered the annals of war history, as other tank operators have done before him. Although fighting in only a small whippet, he used tactical mastery to destroy much bigger and better armed enemy tanks. He began his trail in Wielkopolska to withdraw with the entire army towards Warsaw, incessantly fighting the Nazi tanks and armoured vehicles.

He was quite unaware of the fact that he became Poland’s No. 1 Armoured Ace. Orlik used to be known to only a narrow circle of aficionados of armoured warfare, yet his name has recently become better known, thanks to World of Tanks, a very popular online game. In the game, when you take out three enemy tanks with your virtual whippet (tankette), you are awarded the Orlik Medal. The Polish hero, however, made that achievement in real combat, during the Battle of Pociecha on 18 September 1939.

Top Saboteur

Sometimes special, unorthodox talents come in handy in times of war. In the 1930s, Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz, a Pole living with his family in Greece, was enjoying a promising career in swimming. After Greece was subjugated by the German and Italian armies, he joined the resistance movement and used his talent to approach enemy vessels and attach explosives to their hulls. During these strenuous activities, which required that the athlete to spent many hours swimming, he covered great distances and managed to sink or damage a number of merchant ships and probably one U-Boot. Continuously trailed by the Gestapo and collaborating Greek police, he continued to escape chases, inflicting ever more losses on the enemy. His ingenuity knew no borders. Greek historians frequently hail Iwanow-Szajnowicz as the best saboteur of the Second World War. Although this might be slightly exaggerated, the havoc he wreaked on the Germans was truly impressive.

Zawisza the Black (fragment of Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko, 1878) The Hero’s Wages

In its heyday, Poland lavishly rewarded its best fighters. It was thanks to the generosity of King Ladislaus Jagiełło that Zawisza the Black was transformed from a lowly knight into a true baron and owner of a stone-walled castle and 20 villages. Heroes of the order of Zawisza, Jakub of Kobylany, and Bartłomiej Nowodworski excelled at the royal court, receiving successive land endowments, money, and precious gifts for their services. Jakub of Kobylany would even court the king’s wife, Anna of Cilli at Wawel court—though the king treated him in an exceedingly polite manner and the swashbuckler did not have to personally test the sharpness of the executioner’s axe. The monarch clearly cared more for retaining a fantastic warrior in his army than for his own masculinity and Royal honour!

With the crisis of the state intensifying, rulers were becoming ever less likely to show such liberal proofs of gratitude. For breaking out from the besieged city of Zbaraż in 1649, Mikołaj Skrzetuski (the real-life one, not the hero of Sienkiewicz’s novel) received 100 ducats, a horse, and the promise of acquiring a small royal estate. However, the last of these was never actually granted. As Skrzetuski often had to wait even for his due pay, he eagerly raided burghers and peasants.

The situation deteriorated when the Commonwealth of Poland–Lithuania fell under the blows of the partitioning powers. During the reign of the Targowica government, one of the first Knights of the Order of Virtuti Militari, Józef Sułkowski, known as “the Polish Leonidas”, had to conceal his impressive services from the war in support of the Constitution of 3 May. As he found the situation too much to bear, he fled to France, enlisting in The Tricolore.

In the Battle of Mantua, Napoleon Bonaparte himself became fascinated by the Pole: through his spyglass, the supreme commander observed Sułkowski leading an attack on an Austrian battery that seemed unsurmountable. He even saw him brandishing his sabre over the trench and besting a cluster of enemies, one by one, in combat. The Pole received the highest accolade as he was nominated Napoleon’s personal aide-de-camp. He would continue to frequently prove his military prowess and mastery of the art of war at Napoleon’s side.

Skrzetuski, Kmicic, Wołodyjowski – all the protagonists of Sienkiewicz’s works were drawn from authentic historical characters, yet they differ from the characters created by the writer, which makes the stories of the real people no less attractive than the fictional lives found in the novels. They are certainly more attractive for those who place great value on historical authenticity. It is so with other Polish flesh-and-bone superheroes as well. Their dramatic histories, full of extraordinary wartime adventures, dazzling victories and staggering defeats, acute rivalry and treason, romance and love – whether requited or not – should leave no aficionado of Polish history feeling indifferent.

Source: “Do Rzeczy”

Do Rzeczy