Saturday, October 02, 2010

The disgrace of the Vistula Lancers Los Yébenes 24 March 1809

This prestigious body of light cavalry was made up of about 1000 men, all of Polish nationality, distributed in four squadrons of two companies, commanded by Colonel J. Konopka. Although the name of Vistula Legion was given to them by the Emperor on the 2nd March 1808, in fact its origins went back to the 8th September 1799 when it was created as the "Regiment of Lancers of the Polish Legion of the Danube", which in 1801 took the name of the "Regiment of Polish Lancers" and in 1807 that of "Lancers of the Italian Polish Legion".

Its showy and unmistakable uniform consisted of trousers and short jacket of turquoise-blue cloth, with yellow collar, facings and lapels and silver-plated buttons. Their helmets were the typical Polish chatska, in this case yellow, and each lancer carried a small arsenal consisting of his lance with red and white guidon, sabre, two pistols and a carbine.

As far as the regiment’s standards went, it continued using the four republican standards of the Polish Legion which it had received in 1800 in Italy from the hands of the then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. They had refused to replace them in 1805 with new ones which were in conformity with the new imperial iconography.

The Lancers in Spain

The Lancers entered the Peninsula via Roncesvalles on the 28th May 1808, arriving at Pamplona on the 31st. They left on the 5th June, heading in the direction of Zaragoza with the French punitive column detailed to occupy this city and punish its rebellious inhabitants. En route they overcame the Aragonese successively at Tudela, Mallén and Alagón on the 8th, 13th and 14th of June, and on the 15th were able to gallop into the city of Zaragoza, but were ejected from the city the same day. They then joined the beseiging troops until the 14th August, when they all withdrew in the direction of Navarre. On the 23rd November they fought again at Tudela, and after this victory the bulk of the regiment was transferred towards the centre of the country, leaving before Zaragoza, during its second siege, only a detachment of thirty-three men and horses who were detailed to form Junot’s escort and later Lannes’.

The Disaster of Los Yébenes

On the 20th March 1809 the Lancers left Toledo with the rest of General Sebastiani’s troops en route for the Sierra Morena, and on the afternoon of the 23rd they arrived at the town of Los Yébenes, while the infantry and artillery were near Mora.

That night the sentries heard suspicious sounds and informed the Colonel, "but he calmed all his officers, assuring them that the enemy was several days march from here, near the Guadiana river", but he was mistaken, since facing him and hidden by the fog was the new Army of La Mancha, commanded by Count de Cartaojal, who at seven in the morning mounted an attacking front against the Lancers, who at that moment had just got out of bed.

Lancers of the 5th company engaged their enemies at once. The rest of the regiment was forming in disarrayed squadrons by the church in the center of the village. Suddenly the fog lifted and the Poles caught sight of dense ranks of the Spanish cavalry, and two batteries of horse artillery as well. The Colonel managed to form his men at the entrance to the town, but as soon as he realised his clear numerical inferiority he ordered the withdrawal of the whole regiment by the only road possible, which was a climbing, narrow and winding track which led to Orgaz. Shortly before this the carts and baggage of the Regiment had started to retreat along this road, being unaware that that the Carabineros Reales of the Vizconde de Zolina’s cavalry had been posted on this road, waiting for them.

Their march had hardly begun when the Lancers encountered their own wagons returning in disorder pursued by the Carabineros, and in this situation, attacked at the front and in the rear on a narrow road, the Colonel had his men make a desperate charge.

Soon the lancers, led by Konopka, met two regiments of the Spanish cavalry. Konopka cried: "Forward, boys!" and then the foremost 8th company men leveled their lances attacking furiously. It was the Carabineros Reales, one of the better regiments in the Spanish Army who blocked the narrow road on the edge of a precipice without any chance to go forward or back

It was a merciless fight. Lancers were prevailing with their lances, and carabineers, armed with swords, were – from the very beginning – condemned to defeat. In the terrible melee, where only few soldiers could fight back the attacking Poles, the carabineers, pressed between their attackers and the following Spanish regiment, had no chance. Some hurled themselves in despair into a stony river while others tried to climb the rocky slopes above. Those on the road died.

The lancers' attack completely surprised the Spanish soldiers, who moments before were absolutely sure they would prevail. Now, seeing their front lines smashed by the enemy, they began to move back, and those in last ranks started to retreat. The lancers were pressing, and soon they hewed their way to a wider part of the road. There, separated from the Spanish soldiers, they went into gallop.

Colonel Konopka, along with Major Ruttie and dozen of lancers, left the regiment, which finally reached the open field, and began to form defense lines to repulse the Spanish cavalry, which flowed out from the canyon. The Polish colonel safely reached Mora, where the main forces of General Valance stayed, convinced that the regiment was lost. The regiment however, led by one of the squadrons' COs, Captain Telesfor Kostanecki, fought its way through the enemy's lines, and in a roundabout way – by Consuegra – arrived few hours later in Mora, although without their carts, which were left on the road.

Shortly afterwards General Valence’s Polish infantry arrived from Mora to help him. At the moment both forces met, the following scene took place, which is related by one of its direct participants, the officer Wojciechowski:

"When I jumped off my mount, I took Kazaban to one side and asked him why our Colonel, always so brave and perspicacious in all the previous combats, had completely lost his head today, and was complaining to our General about how our regiment was lost. He did not understand these complaints, because he was sure that the whole regiment was out of danger. Kazaban took a deep breath, took my hand and said to me,

You are probably right, and our regiment is out of danger, but nevertheless something worse has happened. We have lost the standard of our regiment, the emblem we received in Italy many years ago during the French revolution. The emblem that Napoleón wanted to change when he became Emperor and the regiment opposed, because it felt so strongly about it: this emblem was our four standards.’

What the devil are you telling me?’ I shouted. ‘I am sure that we left them in the depot at Madrid!

Yes’, he said, ‘the covers and the poles have gone, but I put the standards with my own hands, in the greatest secrecy, in a saddlebag that was in the Colonel’s wagon. That wagon was left on the other side of the big mountain and I am sure it has been captured by the Spaniards’.

I was stunned. I knew the consequences of this accident for the whole regiment. In this case our regiment would merely exist, and we Lancers, no matter how brave we might be, would be deprived of all reward or promotion

Indeed, the Regiment had lost its four standards, which was serious enough in itself, but to make matters worse we had disobeyed a superior order, according to which they should have been left in Madrid in a safe place. As a result of this the Regiment was deprived of the right to receive new standards, even after Albuera (16-V-1811), at which it managed "heroically" to take six British infantry flags in the course of a “legendary" charge.

The Regiment merely existed in this way in Seville, by Imperial decree of the 18th June 1811 serving as base for the new 7th Lancers Regiment (Chevaux-Légers-Lanciers).

In the action at Yebenes the regiment of Polish Lancers suffered significant losses. Lieutenant Stanisław Moszyński (Molzinski) was killed. Captains Jan Szulc and Kajetan Stokowski, as well as Lieutenant Stawierski and surgeon Jan Gryll, all wounded, were taken prisoners (the retreat was so difficult that the regiment could not evacuate its wounded). Overall, between 8 March and 15 April the regiment lost 89 men. Subtracting from that the 47 who were taken prisoner and noting that subsequent losses of the regiments were negligible if any, the remaining number of lost lancers was 42, which was probably the number killed in the clash of Yevenes.

The regiment also lost all of its wagons of the supply train, and along with them all four squadrons' banners, gifts from Napoleon's wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais when the regiment was still in Italy in 1802. The loss of the banners was recognized by lancers as an infamy. They decided - for honour's sake - to wash it away as soon as possible. The lancers' defeat became known all over Spain. It was probably the only defeat from the Spanish forces during all Peninsular War that truly hurt them, and dented their fame. In the nearest future "los infernos picadores" with all their impulsiveness and bravery would try to regain their former reputation among the ranks of the Armée d'Espagne.

Extracted from the Napoleon Series/Wikipedia

The standards of the Vistula Lancers
Battle of Yevenes
The Peninsular War, Charles Esdaile
Michał Karpowicz, Mirosław Filipiak, Elita jazdy polskiej
Stanisław Kirkor, Legia Nadwiślańska 1808-1814
Marian Kukiel, Dzieje oręża polskiego w epoce napoleońskiej
A History of the Peninsular War 1807-1814, Charles W.C. Oman
Kajetan Wojciechowski, Pamiętniki moje w Hiszpanii, Warszawa 1978
Andrzej Ziółkowski, Pułk jazdy legionowej, Pułk Lansjerów Nadwiślańskich 1799–1815

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