Somosierra and women. Stories from the times of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw

National culture allows us to transcend the tensions between different genders - in this sense, culture is neither masculine nor feminine. It is communal. "Somosierra" women did not serve men or try to imitate them mindlessly. By working for the collective imaginarium, they served their nation. After all, it concerned them as well.

The presence of women in Napoleon's army was the subject of much scepticism, perceived with suspicion, although their legal situation had improved compared to the pre-revolutionary period. The central authorities sanctioned the fact that the army used the help of the female community. We are talking about Vivandière staff - military canteen personnel (vivandières) - i.e. traders offering, for example, tobacco and alcohol, as well as blanchisseuses, (blanchisseuses) - i.e. laundresses who go to war alongside their husbands or cohabitants.

Were they there?

In the Polish language, instead of "vivandierka", the concept of "markietanka" (a female sutler or victualer) has survived. It appears, for example, in "Pan Tadeusz" - in the original version of the epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz and in the film adaptation by Andrzej Wajda. Here is young Tadeusz Soplica - trying to cool Telimena's matrimonial zeal and ready to follow him "everywhere; every corner of the world" – and saying the line: "How come? […] Have you lost your mind? Where? Why?/Follow me? I am a simple soldier myself, / Should I be a tramp or drag a female sutler/"markietanka"? This statement is significant as it shows that although going to war in the company of one's wife was not unthinkable at that time, it was a rather unusual phenomenon. The vast majority of men - voluntarily or as part of conscription – performed their military services alone. Sometimes, they could be accompanied by servants – only if finances allowed it – and again, they were of the same gender.

This rule also applied to the Imperial Guard cavalry regiment. Even if it is true - as Stanisław Broekere maintains - that on the way to Spain, Polish cavalrymen happened to "revel" with French women in the town of Châtellerault (as a result of which at least one became a father), this story had no continuation in the sense that none of the "Sabine women" was kidnapped for long. Either way, the sources keep silent on this matter, and it would take the Ridley Scott-like fancy vision to argue otherwise.

Yes, in addition to washerwomen and tradeswomen, the Napoleonic era also had examples of amazons – female warriors – only better than their ancient progenitors because they actually existed. Apart from French examples, it is worth to mention Joanna Żubrowa from Berdyczów. Her virtues virtus – and self-assurance! – could be a matter of jealousy, even many of her male comrades in arms. The older generation remembers it from the works of Wacław Gąsiorowski, popular years ago, primarily from "Hurricane". In the pages of this novel, Żubrowa is one of the first to break into Zamość, which Poles besieged. In recognition of this heroic feat, the command offered her financial gratification, but she refused. Real devil, not a woman!

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Well, these cases were so unusual that they immediately became famous. So, if you haven't heard that women took part in the Light Horse Regiment of the Imperial Guard at Somosierra on November 30, 1808 - because this is how they tried to translate the French term chevau-légers - it means that they were not there.

However, it is one thing to capture Spanish cannons and another thing to participate in the permanent commemoration of this event - if, in retrospection, this could be described that way. A quick survey suggests that it is possible since Somosierra still functions in the bloodstream of Polish culture, the best proof of which are the internet memes - cultural texts that are readable even to the youngest. And that's right: unlike the cavalry charge, this event's commemoration was also women's work, and in the case of a certain institution – mainly women's effort.

In the commemoration service

This parade is opened with Konstancja née Ossolińska, wife of Tomasz Łubieński, commander of one of the cavalry squadrons. She is the addressee of the letter containing the first written account of the Somosierra battlefield known to posterity (dated November 30). Mrs Konstancja, famous for her beauty, could read, among others: "We had many trials, from which, thanks to Providence, we emerged successfully, and especially from today's battle of Samo-Sierra [sic!], we can boast that we decided the fate of this battle in the third strike, beating the enemy again and again. We took thirteen cannons and five banners from the adversaries and completely dispersed them in a ravine almost inaccessible to cavalry. Kozietulski became famous. Poor but brave Dziewanowski died, having lost his leg..."

Someone could have objected vehemently at this point. So what. Does it really matter that Mrs Łubieńska received the letter? If anyone here cared for the event's fame - and his own - it was the later general of the November Uprising, not his wife. Well, such an argument does not have much strength because in January 1809, this epistle was reprinted in a supplement to "Gazeta Warszawska" - one of the two most important capital's general-thematic periodicals. Which - considering the edition, according to an expert on the subject, reaching up to 350 copies - was already a serious matter. It should be noted here that, according to the practice at that time, a paper copy of the newspaper was not thrown into the trash after being read once by one person but was read among friends, both at home and in the then flourishing cafes: read and then commented on lively. Therefore, to estimate Tomasz's report's real impact, an appropriately high multiplier should be applied to the 350 copies of "Gazeta Warszawska" mentioned above. Exactly what multiplier - it's hard to say. However, it should be emphasised once again: the role of spiritus movens in the entire "promotional campaign" was played by Konstancja Łubieńska.

Such group reading, or reading aloud to company, in the context of women's involvement in Somosierra's commemoration was not limited to newspapers. Juliusz Falkowski recalled an appropriate story in the second volume of "Images from the life of the last few generations in Poland". So, on January 4, 1809, in the palace of Ludwik Gutakowski - the then outgoing Prime Minister - reception was held, at which the daughter-in-law of the future head of government Stanisław Kostka appeared. In historiography, she was known under the name of Anetka Potocka, the niece of Prince Józef. At the same time, let's put it briefly, she occupied a very high position in the Duchy's social hierarchy.
The topic of Somosierra was discussed by French resident Jean-Charles Serra, who read to the audience the 13th bulletin of the Spanish Army, containing the official account of the events of November 30, and then Anetka Potocka addressed the assembly. "She took out from the pocket of her dress a copy of Davout's latest letter to Prince Joseph, in which the French marshal - after describing the famous charge of the Polish soldiers in the Samo-Sierra gorge in detail - ended with these words: «[...] If brave Poles shed their blood in Spain for the French, then the French will repay them with gratitude and their blood in Poland [...]», and commenting on these words, Mrs [...] Potocka mentioned the news circulating throughout Paris that a new war between France and Austria will begin in the spring.

This is how Prince Joseph's niece killed two birds with one stone. Directing the conversation to the right track, she showed herself as a worldly person, having just arrived from Paris. By presenting the letter of Marshal Davout, she made it clear that she was in close and continuous friendship with a man who corresponded with one of the most important Napoleonic commanders. The latter was even more important because Davout initially treated Poniatowski with reserve. Still, observing his actions in 1807-1808, he concluded that this carouser and fool was becoming a serious leader. Yes, Potocka indeed had brilliant social skills. But at the same time, it was a good advertisement for Somosierra, which is also something to remember.

Maria Walewska also had to write about Somosierra in those days. And not to anyone else but to Napoleon himself. This results not from her own message, as it has not been preserved, but from the answer given by the emperor on January 14. This letter's authenticity has long been controversial, but modern historiography recognises that the "god of war" indeed was its author. Concerning the increasing fame of the Spanish feat of cavalrymen, Napoleon expressed himself in his own way, that is, succinctly: "I appreciate your congratulations on the day of Somosierra. You can be proud of your compatriots who have written a glorious page in the history of Poland and France. I have rewarded them all together and individually".

Of course, it is more difficult to talk about cultivating a national remembrance in this case. The missing letter was not addressed to Poles, while the return letter remained for years in the archives of the Counts d'Ornano, from which Walewska's second husband came. However, this does not exhaust the topic. It is hard to resist the impression that the political forces behind this "mentally dull" beauty (as Anetka Potocka maliciously stated) tried to reassure Napoleon in the belief that Poland - by giving him sons to serve as guards - was giving him the best the country could provide; those who would go through hellfire for him. Somosierra was perfect for this purpose because it was like an explosion breaking down an armoured door - because that's how the Spanish defence of Madrid should be perceived. And if, as it seems, the content of Napoleon's response was no secret to Polish politicians, they were convinced that Somosierra actually aroused his positive emotions and that it was an extraordinary event.
"This all is great and wonderful", as the hero of one of Łukasz Orbitowski's novels would say. However, the greatest service to the Somosierra charge and its heroes was rendered by Princess Czartoryska née Fleming. Indeed, this character could be criticised for many things. In her youth, she committed adultery with true Enlightenment and extravagant neglect, and it is possible that her children had five different fathers, not counting her husband. However, from the perspective of later achievements, this is unimportant. Let bygones be bygones. If this principle could be applied to Prince Józef, it couldn't be denied to Czartoryska. She had made enormous and inalienable contributions to the nation. Even though she had a place to live, she made efforts to restore the Puławy residence, plundered by the Muscovites during the Kościuszko Uprising. Then, she separated two buildings from the complex to house the first museum of Polish history.

In 1815, the institution enjoyed such a broad and well-established reputation that the duchess did not have to look for new exhibits. People already went out of their way to question her about the chance to present memorabilia. On February 16 of the same year - before the final liquidation of the Duchy - Wincenty Krasiński wrote to the duchess. The commander of the disbanded regiment of Napoleon's cavalrymen wrote the following (due to the anachronism of the general's Polish and with younger readers in mind, it was necessary to modernise the vocabulary radically and include some explanations):

"Your Majesty the Duchess! Corps of officers of the former first regiment [i.e. 1st Light Cavalry Lancers Regiment of the Imperial Guard], in the [political] change of today's world, after so many years of fighting -̶ wanting to give Your Majesty proof of respect for Her virtues, that Her attachment to the Homeland aroused in them [i.e. in officers] -̶ they offer Her [contribute generously] one of the banners of their regiment for the collection of Sacred souvenirs of national fame, which - collected by Your Majesty - will be extorted from foreign hands and torn out from the course of time itself. This sign [i.e. the banner] was leading in about hundreds of victories and was stuck on the walls of Madrid [so, obviously it had to pass through the throat of Somosierra] and the Kremlin [of course – the Kremlin in Moscow]. Thousands of Polish young people following it believed they were happy [they considered themselves happy], able to shed their blood for the Homeland and its fame.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Izabela Czartoryska did not underestimate the gift. On the contrary, she ordered the banner to be displayed in a worthy place, namely in the "frame on the right side" of the entrance to the Temple of the Sibyl - where it was seen - and this fact was recorded in an autobiographical novel by Konstancja Biernacka. The pennant "made famous at Samo-Sierra" was displayed here in the company of a banner "freeing Vienna from the violence of the Turks"; most likely bullets or cannonballs - "from Racławice and Dubienka", as well as the "the marshal staff of the constitutional parliament" - Stanisław Małachowski – a relic which incidentally survived until our days. However, the banner did not survive because in 1831, Puławy once again fell to the Muscovite invader.

Women – for men?

Then how should we interpret the fact that women helped to keep alive – to put it in a lofty but completely honest way – the flame of Somosierra's memory? Anyway! Not only then, but in fact the period of the Duchy of Warsaw is a real phenomenon of 215 years separating contemporary Poland from that foggy November morning.

Just signalling a continuation, it is impossible not to mention the role that Maria Konopnicka's poem "The Somosierra Gorge"- probably the most popular of all the works included in the "Historical Songbook" from the early 20th century, modelled on Niemcewicz - and it is quite a large book. One might bristle at its questionable poetic value and numerous inaccuracies. "And whose name is this, / Resonating with fame, / Who fought for France / with Spaniards, bleeding again? / It's the Polish cavalry, / famous mounted troops / capture Somosierra ravine/true miracle divine" This thing gets into your mind as painlessly as Mickiewicz's "Reduta Ordona", which means that Konopnicka must have learned some secrets of the Polish language. This was not achieved by many poets who were highly regarded for their intellectual skills or the beauty of their lyrical phrases.

So how should we then interpret this fact of such female involvement? Is it worth interpreting that the heroines of this story represented "false consciousness" or "collaborated" with the patriarchy? This would be offensive to them and, generally speaking, rather unwise. Perhaps it is better, instead of strange hermeneutics, to assume that culture, in this case, national culture, allows us to overcome the tensions existing between the genders - and in this sense, it is neither male nor female; it has been the common gender. "Somosierra" women did not serve men or try to imitate them mindlessly. By working for the collective imagination, they served the national cause. After all, it concerned them as well.

– Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: Wiktor Mazurowski's Somosierra vision, despite its undeniable dramatic values, did not penetrate the collective consciousness. Photo Public domain, Wikimedia
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