Bravest General of All Times?
Sure there will be a debate, but hear me out on this one.
Marshall Józef Antoni Poniatowski (Portrait by Josef Grassi)
Josef Anton Poniatowski (1763-1813), was a soldier without a country. Poland was partitioned three times over the course of the 19th century. By 1795, there was no Poland on the European maps at all. That didn’t keep this prince from a lifetime of service. His personal motto was “God, Honor, Fatherland.”
Poniatowski first served in the Austrian army. In 1787, he distinguished himself by volunteering to lead an assault against the Turks at the fortress of Sabatch.
Siege of Sabatch, 1787 (Library of Congress)
Poniatowski fought in the uprising of 1794 as a common soldier. Later, during the Napoleonic wars he served as the Minister of War for the newly created Grand Duchy of Warsaw.
Then Poniatowski made military history as a daring, skilled, and courageous military commander fighting for the French (hoping that a triumphant Napoleon would one day restore the general’s beloved Poland).
In 1809, Poniatowski led a brilliant campaign against the Austrians seizing Lublin. Napoleon was impressed. He awarded Poniatowski a saber of honor. The general also received the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor and the Grand Cord of the Military Order.
The 1809 Austrian Campaign, painting by Henryk Pillati (National Museum of Poland)
In 1812, Poniatowski participated in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Though the campaign was a disaster, he personally performed brilliantly.
Later, at the Battle of Leipzig, (1813) Poniatowski commanded Napoleon’s right wing. Napoleon honored him by making him a Marshall of France on the spot. Sadly, Poniatowski died in battles only days later.
Battle of Leipzig, also known as the “Battle of the Nations.”
Still, lots of generals have done lots of great feats of arms. Why does Poniatowski rank as our pick as the best general ever?
Let’s take a closer look at this great captain of military history.
Was he Brave? At the Battle of Leipzig, Poniatowski was shot three times. Despite his grievous wounds, he refused to leave the field. Cut-off, with the bridge across the Elster River destroyed, he led his men in a desperate charge against the enemy across the raging waters. He was swept from his horse and drowned. Talk about going down fighting.
Of course, other notable military commanders have died in battle. Custer, for instance, was killed along with his command at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. To be fair, the latest forensic evidence shows Custer died ingloriously during the first moments of the battle and not at “Custer’s Last Stand,” as is so often depicted.
Fictional portrayal of General George George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876)
Was he skilled? Poniatowski was so good that during the 1812 campaign Napoleon had him lead both the advanced guard in the invasion of Russia and command the rear guard in the snowbound tragic and brutal retreat from Moscow. These missions are among the most difficult and important tasks of an armed force at campaign and only the the most competent and trusted commanders are assigned these duties.
A good example is General John Buford who commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863). Buford’s actions secured the ground that eventually led to the Union winning the battle. Nicely portrayed by the actor Sam Elliott in the movie Gettysburg (1993).
General John Buford leading a charge at the Battle of Gettysburg
Was he dedicated? Poniatowski was a complete professional, unafraid to share the privations of his men, and as committed to his soldiers as the missions he was assigned.
In the U.S., we consider such dedication the acme of military leadership, reflected in generals like General Robert “Ike” Eichelberger who commanded troops in some of the most grueling battles the Pacific during World War II.
“Ike” Eichelberger in the Pacific, 1944
So it is fair to say that many of great generals shared many of the attributes of Poniatowski. But, there is no denying that Prince Josef Anton Poniatowski, Marshall of France was the complete package. So this great captain without a country gets our vote.
Poniatowski is buried in St. Leonard's Crypt under the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland. His memory has a home.
St. Leonard's Crypt, Wawel Cathedral, Kraków, Poland
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