Thursday, January 5, 2012

Légion de la Vistule (Vistula Legion): Infantry

History of the Vistula Legion

The Légion de la Vistule was perhaps the most famous of the many Foreign units in French service under Napoleon. It's origins are somewhat complex. The last traces of the ancient Kingdom of Poland disappeared from the map of Europe as a result of the Third Partition of that unfortunate nation in 1795. Many Polish soldiers and officers evidently left for Republican France, where one of them, General Dombrowski*, proposed forming a unit of Polish troops. However, the government rejected his advances, having previously outlawed the use of Foreign troops in France. 

* see comments below for some interesting details about this Polish national hero. It appears Dabrowski is the correct spelling, Dombrowski probably being the French misunderstanding of his name.  (added Jan 9, 2011)

Dombrowski then went to Italy, where the Lombard Republic was in the process of formation. This time, his proposal to form a Polish Legion was accepted, and formalized on January 9, 1797. Initially, there were three battalions, and they saw fighting as early as March 30, 1797. By June of that year, the Polish Legions were located in Bologna and numbered over 6500 men! In July 1797, the Republic was enlarged and renamed the Cisalpine Republic, and with that change the name of the force was changed to first  the "Polish Auxilluary Legions of the Cisalpine Reopublic (circa November, 1797), and then the "Polish Auxiliary Corps of the Cisalpine Republic" (November 1798). The force now consisted of two "demi-legions", each of 3 battalions plus an artillery company. A second Polish Legion was formed in 1797.

In late 1799, the Legion du Danube in French pay was raised from Polish volunteers and prisoners of war (chiefly from Austrian regiments recruited in Galicia). It had four infamtry battalions, one 4 squadron Cavalry regiment, and a Horse Artillery company. It served in Germany and fought at Hohenlinden. With the treaty of Luneville in February 1801, the unit became somewhat of an embarrassment due the political status of Poland, and it was sent to Florence to serve in the army of the newly formed Kingdom of Etruria in May 1801. Nafziger (Poles and Saxons of the Napoleonic Wars) reports that this was very unpopular with the Poles, many of the officers resigning their commissions or even committing suicide, and many of the men deserting. In late December, 1801, this unit was transformed into the 3rd Demi-Brigade Polonaise, with three battalions.

Meanwhile, in early 1800, the remnants of the 1st and 2nd Polish Legions were reorganized into the 1st Polish Legion. It was established at 4 battalions, but by March 1800, seven battalions were authorized. In September, 1800, the formation was transferred back to the service of the Cisalpine Republic. In December, 1801, these troops became the 1st and 2nd Demi-Brigades Polonaise. Geberal Dombroski was placed in charge of all three Polish Demi-brigades. In May 1802, the 3rd Demi-brigade was re-designated the 113 (French) demi-brigade, and was sent to Santo Domingo. It was later joined by the 2nd demi-brigade (newly designated the 114th French) in February 1803. Both demi-brigades suffered heavily there from Yellow fever, etc, and were effectively destroyed. 

The 1st demi-brigade Polonaise remained in Italy, and became part of the army of the newly formed Kingdom of (Northern) Italy in 1802, and was later re-designated the Polish Infantry Regiment in 1804. On July 4, 1806, 2 battalions of the Regiment participated in the battle of Maida, fighting the British expeditionary force. In August, 1806, the Regiment was transferred to the service of the Army of Naples, now ruled by Joseph-Napoleon. In April 1807, the Polish troops serving in Italy were re-designated the Polish Legion, and later (as a result of the politics of the treaty of Tilsit) the Legion Polacco-Italienne. It was to have 3 infantry regiments of 2 battalions each, plus a lancer regiment of 4 squadrons. 

In November, 1807, the Legion Polacco-Italienne was transferred to the service of King Jerome-Napoleon's new Kingdom of Westphalia, but in March, 1808, it was recalled to French service and renamed the Legion de la Vistula. It was to be formed of three infantry regiments, each of two battalions, each battalion having six companies of 140 men (one grenadier company, one voltigeur, and four fusilier), plus a Lancer regiment of 1000 men in four squadrons. A second legion was decreed in July 1809, to be formed largely from Austrian prisoners of war from Galicia; it was never completed, and thus it was a disbanded in February, 1810, and the men formed into a 4th Vistula regiment. The Legion served in Spain, where it fought in numerous sieges, including Sargossa and Segunto. Marshal Suchet was reportedly unhappy to see these veteran troops go, but the troops were not; their experience in Spain had been every bit as bad as that of their French comrades. Dempsey (Napoleon's Mercenaries - see my book review in December) reports that  [as the 2nd Regiment passed out of Spanish Territory for the last time, one of the soldiers gave a unique salute to the country they were leaving... One of our soldiers, perched on a high rock, which served as a kind of pedestal, suddenly pulled down his trousers, stuck his posterior towards Spain and shouted out "There you are, cursed country which has devoured so many of my comrades!" Of the 11,000 men of the Legion who had entered Spain, less than half returned to France.]

In preparation for the invasion of Russia, the Legion was withdrawn from Spain in early 1812, and a third battalion was added to each regiment. The 4th regiment never made it into Russia, but over 7,000 Legionaries did, fighting at Smolensk, Borodino, Tarutino, Krasnoe, and the Berezina; less than 1,500 of then returned from Russia. 

Uniforms of the  Légion de la Vistule:

A dark blue coat was worn, of the same cut as for French line infantry. All regiments had yellow turnbacks and lapels, yellow stitching on the pockets of the coat tails, and for the Fusiliers, dark blue shoulder straps piped in yellow. Breeches were white, and black boots were worn. Buttons were white metal. The facings distinguished the individual regiments. Unfortunately, the three sources I used all give *different* tables for these, as follow:

Vistula Legion Facings (Histofig)
RegimentCollarCollar PipingCuffsCuff Piping
1stDark BlueYellowYellow-
2ndYellow-Dark BlueYellow
4thDark BlueYellowDark BlueYellow

Vistula Legion Facings (Dempsey)
2ndYellow(Dark) Blue
3rd(Dark) BlueYellow
4th(Dark) Blue(Dark) Blue

Vistula Legion Facings, 1808 - 1811 (Nafziger)
RegimentCollarCollar PipingCuffsCuff Piping
1stDark BlueYellowYellow-
3rdYellowDark BlueYellowYellow
4thDark BlueDark BlueYellowYellow

Nafziger also gives a new table of facing effective in 1812, "it is uncertain if these were ever actually adopted":

Vistula Legion Facings 1812 (Nafziger)

RegimentCollarCollar PipingCuffsCuff Piping
2ndYellow-Dark BlueYellow
3rdDark BlueYellowYellow-
4thDark BlueYellowDark BlueYellow

So, now on to some pictures of my newly painted Légion de la Vistule. I decided to use the facing table from the Histofig site, because it seemed the most "logical". 

Here is the 1st Regiment, Vistula Legion. The drummer wears reversed colors, with white lace bands across his chest. This is illustrated in Nafziger. I have no idea if it is correct, but I liked it, so two of my Vistula Legion units have them. The blue and yellow diagonal stripes on the drum rims is also from Nafziger. 

Another view of the 1st Regiment. The standards of the Legion dated back to those issued to the Demi-Brigades Polonais (see above). They were supposed to be replaced with ones like the rest of the French Infantry, but without an Eagle, by a decree issued in 1809, but evidently the situation dragged, and the new flags were never issued. These beautiful flags are by GMB Designs.

A final view of the 1st Regiment. The winter setting is appropriate, as they fought valiantly at the last organized action by the Grand Army in 1812, the awful crossing of the Berezina. 

Here is the 2nd Regiment, Vistula Legion. Here you can see the distinctions for the Flank companies: grenadiers with red pom-poms on the shako, red top band on the shako, and *white* epaulets, while the Voltigeurs have a green pom-pom, yellow top band to the shako, and green epaulets with yellow crescents. It seems that all the center companies had white pom poms, unlike usual French practice. 

Another view of the 2nd Regiment, Vistula Legion. The officers have silver epaulets and shako cords. 

A final view of the 2nd regiment. These Old Glory figures have long pants and shoes instead of the high knee gaiters prescribed. If they were wearing these, there might be red ornamentation at the top for the Grenadiers, and yellow for the Voltiguers. The Grenadiers wore bearskins prior to 1812 per Nafziger. 

Here is the 3rd Regiment; this unit's drummer wears reversed colors again. The black shako has a brass "sunburst" plate on the front, with an "N" at the center. The cockade should be a white cross on red; this being a bit beyond me, even in 28mm, I substituted a standard Tricolor French cockade. 

Another view of the 3rd Regiment of the Vistula Legion. With the wintry weather, I suspect they may carry something more potent that water in those bottles, at least if they can get it!

A final view of the 3rd Regiment, standing firm as they defend the crossing of the river Berezina, perhaps? Evidently the Sappers of the regiment (not included in any of  my units) wore a black bearskin with a yellow bag with a white "wolves' teeth" border, as well as white cords on the bearskin and white epaulets. Unique! 

Here we have the 4th regiment of the Vistula Legion. I raised these 4 units as part of our Borodino project, and so even though the 4th Regiment technically never made it to Russia, the numbers we used to scale our OOB require four units, so here they are! In this shot, you can see the other uniform given for drummers of the Legion, same as the men but with the addition of white and red face around the lapels, and in six chevrons on each sleeve. Histofig shows this, plus reversed colors for *musicians* and the Drum Major (the latter with the addition of heavy silver lace). Evidently no contemporary drawings of the Legion exist, so some details of their uniforms are less than certain!

In June, 1813, the survivors were reorganized yet again into the Vistula Regiment, composed of only two battalions. The Regiment fought at Leipzig, Hanau, Soissons (where it particularly distinguished itself, earning 23 Legions of Honor), Rheims,  and Arcis sur Aube. That final Vistula Regiment wore all yellow facings on the collar and cuffs. 

A final view of the 4th regimennt. At the battle of Arcis-sur-Aube, March 20,1814, Napoleon took shelter in a square of the Vistula Regiment when his Guard Cavalry escort was thrown into disorder by a mass of Allied cavalry. The Vistula Regiment continued to fight until Napoleon's abdication, perhaps the only foreign unit to do so (many were disarmed at Napoleon's orders, but not the brave Poles!)

There is a good picture of the Vistula Legion flag on the cover of my usual reference on the subject, Keith Over's 1976 book. I see on the cover that it was $10.95 back then - probably the equivalent of almost $50 now, but still well worth it!

Here is a command figure for the Legion; sometimes the Colonel of the 1st regiment also commanded the Legion, other times, as at Borodino, a general, in that case Claparede,  was assigned to overall command.

Quite a dashing chap, eh? The stacks of abandoned packs (Oops, now I see I forgot to flock their bases) are for use as markers for "Out Of Command" or "Disordered" status. 

The offficer's base has some Silflor flowers on it, my first use of this product. I chose purple flowers in part because Violets were a common Bonapartist symbol after the 2nd restoration of the old Bourbon Monarchy once again wasted little time in making themselves thoroughly unpopular!

I got the sample pack of these from Scenic Express - although the colors don't show well here, there is one packet each of  Purple, Magenta, White, Orange, Yellow, and red "flowers". You will doubtless see more of them appear on  my officer and perhaps artillery bases in the future!

 I really enjoyed researching and painting up these remarkable troops. They should make a rather unique show on the tabletop at the big Borodino game in July! The addition of these troops brings my total Napoleonic Troops to 5,050. I may yet make 6,000 total by the time I finish the Borodino project, add some Prussians for 2013, and then Spanish and British. We'll see what they tally by 2015...

Good gaming,



  1. Very cool Peter,
    Thanks for the background.


  2. Hi
    A great, great, great work

  3. Another great post. Good information and good looking figures.

  4. Thanks, guys! As I said, I really enjoyed working on this one, both the background and the figures. now, on to some Russian Opolchenie, where I fully intend to steal, er, rely on some of Rafael's work on the flags!

  5. Great work! It's good to see that our history isn't totaly unknown:) Now you have to paint Vistula Lancers, the famous "los infernos picadores" from Albuera;)

  6. Hi Aleksandr, and welcome!

    I do have ONE lancer of the Vistula Legion somewhere - it is a 54mm Mignot figure I bought in Nice in the spring of 1974 at age 19, while on tour of Europe with the University's Marching Band! Perhaps I will add some 28mm Lancers to go with the infantry eventually!

    What other land contributed more to the cause of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France than the Poles? No one! Napoleon certainly didn't adequately reward their loyalty and sacrifice as they deserved. If there was a way for the 1812 campaign to have been a success, and I'm not sure that there was, stopping the invasion after seizing Lithuania and establishing a viable client state there, with the threat to do that with additional non-Russian ethnicities making up the realm of the Czar might have been a potentially viable approach.

    I had scoped out a great Vistula Legion re-enactor site (Polish) but lost the link, although the pictures looked like they had most of the men in czapskas, which is almost certainly incorrect.

    My long time friend, Joe (Fish Tales blog in the links) has strong Polish lineage, and has an impressive Polish "Pike and Shot' army, Winged Hussars, Pancerni, and all.


  7. Excellent work, Peter.

    I can't wait to shoot at some of those Poles at Historicon. My command always seems to be positioned just opposite them. Ugh.

    Dave M

  8. Dave,

    At Borodino, the Vistula Legion was brigaded with the Guard, so they will start the game in off table reserves, to appear ? when, and ? where!

    "They seek them here, they seek them there...
    Those Ruskis seek them everywhere!"

  9. Very excellent work, very good article, but there is one but... there was general Dąbrowski. Again very good article!!!

  10. Thanks Bart; I checked some on the name (I assume you being Polish yourself (? correct) would know. Nafziger spells it Dombrowski and Dempsey spells it Dombrowsky, versions with a "v" in place of the "w" are also known. However, it seems that Dabrowski is the correct one as you say - Polish names are only slightly less vexing for English speakers than Russian ones (which are an unmitigated disaster, trying to get them "right"). The French were especially bad at getting Polish names correct, it seems, and "Jean-Henri Dombrowski" appears to be the Gallified version! In reading a bit more about him (he is well known for later organizing the army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, as well as various commands he held within the Army), I learned that a piece composed by a friend of his for the first Polish troops in Italy was both very popular and very patriotic. Known variously as "Dabrowski's Mazurka" or the "Anthem of the Polish Legions in Italy", it begins "Poland has not yet perished.." (relevant after the partition), and became the Polish national anthem!


    1. Poland has not yet perished,
      So long as we still live.
      What the alien force has taken from us,
      We shall retrieve with a sabre.

      That's right that Polish is very dificult for foreigners. There is an old Polish movie "How I unleashed World War II",with the scene, which perfectly demonstrates the difficulties of the Polish language:

      Dąbrowski and Poniatowski are our national heroes. Poniatowski lead our forces in glorious campaign against Austrians in 1809. After the battle of Raszyn, where smaller and inexperienced Polish army fought well against Austrian corpse of Archduke Ferdinand d'Este, he crossed Vistula river and liberated West Galicia, former Polish province, taken by Austrians in 1795 in the course of the Third Partition of Poland. I could talk a lot about our, Polish, history, but it's probably not the place for this;) Anyway, great work, as I said earlier, and can't wait for more;)

    2. Aleksander,

      Thanks for the video link; very funny! I found several versions of the anthem on youtube; this

      seemed the best for an English speaker, although having the words simultaneously in English and Polish would be great, as otherwise only "March, March, Dabrowski!" in the refrain is intelligible! :-)

      Anyway, it is a great; a deeply stirring piece (I played in the Band through college) that I had never heard before. Well worth the listen! Fascinating for the depths of its linkage to the Napoleonic era.

      I'm happy to learn more about Polish history; all of us are justifiably proud of our respective national heritages, and no reason we should not celebrate them as long as we acknowledge those of our many neighbors on this small planet. What better use for history is there than for its intermingled narratives to unite us rather than divide us!

      Also on this blog are posts about the Cavalry of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw,

      and the battle of Raszyn (a bit different than the historical version, as the Austrians attempt to force all three of the possible crossings of the Mrowa).



    3. Yes Peter, its seems that every nation takes other names in their way, for example we Poles read the name of Roosevelt as a Roosvelt (something like this) its easer to pronoce for as and sound better. I think the same way happend with Dabrowski.
      In the original version of our anthem is:
      Poland has not yet died,
      So long as we still live.
      What the alien power has seized from us,
      We shall recapture with a sabre.


    4. Yes, like using Vienna for Wien, Copenhagen for Kobenhaven, etc.

      "March, March, Dabrowski,
      From Italy to Poland!
      Under your command
      Let us now rejoin the nation!"


  11. Very interesting read and those GMB flags look rather spiffing :-)