At 9 o’clock on October 18, the last agonizing day of the Battle of the Nations began near Leipzig. Nearly half a million men engaged in mortal combat, and nearly 2,000 cannons belched fire and smoke that ripped across the battlefield. Clouds of dust filled the air. Amid the roar of the artillery could be heard the shrill neighing of thousands of horses, the faint strains of martial music, the hearty cheers of advancing columns, and the pathetic cries of the ghastly wounded. Poniatowski distinguished himself again and again, firmly holding his position against the united attacks of superior enemy artillery, cavalry, and infantry. From dawn to nightfall, the Polish troops clung tenaciously to their position. Napoleon, however, realized that he was beaten and gave orders for an evacuation over the Elster River.
The impossible task of acting as rear guard to cover the retreat was assigned to Napoleon’s newest marshal. As Napoleon prepared to leave Leipzig, he turned to Poniatowski. “You will defend the suburb of the south,” he said. “Sire,” replied the prince, “I have very few men.” Napoleon countered, “You will defend it with those you have.” “We will remain,” said Poniatowski. “We are all ready to die for Your Majesty.” Deeply moved by the words, Napoleon tearfully embraced Poniatowski and then departed, scant hours ahead of the enemy.
The retreat began during the early morning hours of October 19. By early afternoon, the allies were attacking with such force that the French officer responsible for demolishing the Elster bridge panicked and blew up the span while it was still crowded with French troops. Poniatowski and his rear guard were cut off from the rest of the army and in danger of being swallowed up by the allies. Faced with the overwhelming onslaught of enemy forces, Poniatowski addressed his men for the last time. “Gentlemen,” he said, “here we must fall with honor.”
With sword uplifted and a small band of brave followers around him, the new marshal charged into the mass of enemy soldiers before him. Although severely wounded, Poniatowski managed to summon the strength to prevent the allies from capturing his men as they swam across the river to join their comrades. Finally, when loss of blood would no longer permit him to hold his sword, Poniatowski vaulted onto his horse and charged into the churning waters of the river. As his horse struggled up the steep opposite bank, the earth gave way, causing the horse to fall back on its rider. Too weak from his various wounds to swim, Poniatowski disappeared into the water and never rose again. His body was found five days later.
According to General Anne-Jean Savary, Napoleon’s minister of police, “It was impossible to be more brave than was this prince: impetuous, magnanimous, and always amiable, he was as much esteemed by those against whom he combated, as regretted by the party whom he served.” The allies staged a magnificent funeral for the fallen leader, whose family they had driven from the throne and whose country they had divided and plundered. The prince’s followers, who had battled by his side to the last, pressed in silence around the coffin with tears streaming down their faces, as they gazed upon the last of the royal line, the only hope of Poland. “Poniatowski,” said Napoleon, “was a noble character, full of honor and bravery.”
This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons