The January Uprising offered a fair chance to break the solidarity of the three partitioners and gain the support of the Western powers, France and Great Britain.
The January insurrection broke out on January 22, 1863. The insurgents went into battle poorly armed. They did not manage to conquer any key city or gain permanent control of any major region. Despite this, the January revolt was the largest and longest-lasting Polish independence uprising during the partition period. It gathered as many as 200,000 participants.
The uprising did not have a form of regular war but instead covered almost all Polish lands with a clandestine network, acting as a civilian base for the troops hiding in the forests. A secret government operated, taxes were collected, and a constitutional post and press functioned. The insurgents also had foreign representatives. With the strong involvement of the Czartoryski and Zamoyski aristocratic families, the Lambert Hotel faction established a network of outposts and contacts throughout Europe. The insurgents’ emigration agency was in charge of acquiring money and weapons as well as, no less importantly, organising political support abroad.
International crisis as an opportunity for Poland
When debating Poland’s chances of regaining its independence in the 19th century, it is customary to point to the November Uprising as having the best chance of success. From the perspective of the military potential alone, this was undoubtedly true. However, if we look at the international situation, right are those who argue that the period of the January Uprising was more favourable to the independence surge. It was then that a chance presented itself to break the solidarity of the three partitioners and gain the support of the Western powers – France and Great Britain.
The state of affairs in the late 1850s and early 1860s was not advantageous for the Poles. France, the main political support for European national and independence movements since Napoleon I, drifted closer to Russia after the Crimean War. However, there were crucial differences between the powers. While Russia was interested in maintaining the international order of the time, France was keen to dismantle it. Napoleon III sought to base the country’s borders along the Rhine, which could only be achieved at the expense of Prussia. In addition, French public opinion gradually turned away from Russia because of the Polish cause. The demonstration on April 8, 1861, during which the Russians used weapons and killed more than a hundred Polish patriots, echoed loudly in Europe. The Warsaw events provoked sympathy from French and European public opinion.
Initially, Napoleon III resorted only to putting diplomatic pressure on Russia so as not to ruin his relations with the Tsar. The turning point came with the Alvensleben Convention signed by Russia and Prussia a few weeks after the outbreak of the January Uprising. The agreement provided for cooperation between the two states in suppressing insurrections. From France’s point of view, the Russo-Prussian alliance threatened to upset the balance of power in Europe and distanced Napoleon III’s hopes of forming the country’s borders along the Rhine. Paris spoke out strongly against the government in Berlin, warning that if Prussian troops took part in suppressing the Polish uprising, France would not stand idly by.
Austria and Britain also felt uneasy about Russo-Prussian cooperation and therefore were potential allies for France. On April 17, the countries made a diplomatic intervention on behalf of the Polish issue. As it comprised three separate speeches rather than one common statement, Russian Foreign Minister Gorchakov stalled for time, asking for proposals from the Western states to resolve the crisis in the Kingdom of Poland. In June, when the three powers presented a six-point plan for a peaceful ending to the uprising and restoring autonomy in the Kingdom, Russia withdrew from further diplomatic consultations. France then began probing Great Britain and Austria to see if they would be willing to take military action against Russia.
Austria, crucial for any support for the uprising, entered into negotiations but ultimately decided not to risk unleashing a European war. From Vienna’s point of view, the very outbreak of the rebellion already entailed a significant weakening of Russia. Great Britain, on the other hand, wasn’t particularly keen on forming a military alliance with France. Lord Palmerston’s government feared a victorious war might secure Paris’s hegemony on the Continent. Napoleon III made his last attempt to act on the Polish issue in November, proposing a European international conference to resolve all major problems of European security. This initiative was favourably received by many countries, including Prussia but was ultimately torpedoed by British diplomacy.
French opinion sympathetic to Poles
Napoleon III’s favour in the Polish cause stemmed not only from geopolitical factors. The solid political position of Polish émigrés in France also played a role. One of the influential figures in French politics was the illegitimate son of Napoleon I and Madame Walewska Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, French Foreign Minister in the 1950s and a Deputy and Culture Minister during the uprising. The Polish aristocracy had access to Napoleon III and were influential in other circles, including the Legitimists and Church. In turn, the democratic émigré circles could count on the support of the French republican community.
The French press provided strong support for the Polish uprising. Also important were the activities of the Hotel Lambert faction that financed papers sympathetic to Poland. Friendly to the Polish cause were both L’Opinion Nationale associated with Napoleon and Le Siècle, the leading journal of the Republican opposition. Numerous drawings and caricatures ridiculing Russia appeared in the satirical magazine Le Charivari. Among the top columnists of the impactful intellectual magazine of the period Revue des Deux Mondes was the Polish author Julian Klaczko. Polish immigrant Edmund Chojecki founded one of the influential Parisian dailies Le Temps. Like L’Opinion Nationale and Le Progres de Lyon, the journal had its correspondent in Poland, Paul Argant.
Prominent intellectuals, including Jules Michelet and Edgar Quinet, also supported the Polish cause. In words published in L’Opinion Nationale in March 1863, Michelet stated: “Russia will always be as it was. The changes in the person of the Tsar introduce no new element. Under Alexander II, the true incarnation of the eternal Tsar in the Kremlin, the hideous bureaucracy has surpassed its shape from the time of Nicholas. Russia remains the same: as a nation, it debauches, plunders, murders and destroys. That is how we saw it during the massacre in the streets of Warsaw; that is how we saw it in March 1863. Poland is a second France, with all our old vices and virtues but with added martyrdom and special gifts raised to the level of ecstasy.”
Victor Hugo also expressed his support for the Poles’ struggle. In February 1863, he wrote an appeal to the Tsarist soldiers, which included the words: “Russian soldiers. Let the Poles be your inspiration; do not fight them. In Poland, you have not an enemy, but a model”. A French version of the proclamation was published in La Presse and Le Courrier du Dimanche, among others. One of the leading spokesmen for the Polish cause among Catholic publicists was Count Charles de Montalembert, author of Une nation en deuil: la Pologne en 1861 (1861) and Le pape et la Pologne (1864).
French sympathy for the uprising was also expressed on the battlefield. Historians have recorded more than seventy French volunteers who fought against Russia. Leon Young de Blankenheim was killed in the Battle of Brdów in April 1863. Another Frenchman, François de Rochebrune, formed a military detachment called “Zouaves of Death”. The Zouaves were a select unit whose soldiers swore not to retreat during an attack. Rochebrune’s soldiers made a mark at the Battle of Miechów and Grochowiska, to name just a few.
A distanced Great Britain
British interest in the Polish situation had been growing since the massacre in Castle Square on April 8, 1861. Their Foreign Secretary John Russell condemned the actions of the Russian authorities during his speech in the House of Commons. Following the outbreak of the uprising on February 27, 1863, a debate was held in the British parliament on the events in Poland. As Lord Palmerston wrote: “The House of Commons was unanimously pro-Polish, and Seymour Fitzgerald was even inclined to war. Opinion on Russia’s attitude was of one mind, but Walpole cautioned against taking the initiative out of the hands of the government.” British elites – conservatives and ruling liberals – acted cautiously and generally opposed military intervention to support Poland. The British government’s gestures towards the Polish nation were not only motivated by sympathy but also by a desire to break up the Franco-Russian alliance, which was adverse to British interests.
When France broke up with Russia, the interest of the British political class in the uprising visibly waned. In April 1863, the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, Lord Napier, argued that the restoration of Poland would mean efforts to restore historical borders. He also claimed that a strong Catholic Poland would be a natural ally of France. The Times, which was close to the government and had initially declared its support for the Polish cause, published an article in August questioning the wisdom of funding a military action and risking the deaths of British soldiers. In September, John Russell once again criticised the actions of the Russian authorities but at the same time stated that Britain was not in a position to force any concessions on Russia.
The Polish cause, however, received considerable support from ordinary Britons. Rallies and demonstrations in support of Poland were held in almost every major city. The Polish representative in Britain Władyslaw Zamoyski spoke at many of them. In July, the National League for Independence of Poland was founded, headed by Edmond Beales. John Stuart Mill, the eminent liberal philosopher, was another advocate of the Polish cause.
The most substantial support for the Polish insurrection came from trade union circles and the weekly newspaper The Bee-Hive representing it. One of the columnists urging support for the Polish uprising was the influential historian and philosopher Edward Spencer Beesly. A large demonstration at St James Hall on July 22 was attended by a strong delegation of French workers in addition to British deputies and trade unionists. The joint speech by British and French union activists marked the beginning of the cooperation, followed by the formation of the first Political International in September 1864. Karl Marx, who lived in London and expressed his sympathy for the uprising, was influenced by the atmosphere in the British trade union. His benevolent attitude towards Poland stemmed both from his perception of Russia as a retrograde force and his assessment of Prussia as a force playing a negative role in Germany, accompanied by his belief that the restoration of Poland would mean the weakening of Prussia.
A great deal of sympathy and support from Italians and Hungarians
The January Uprising gained interest and favour in Italy. The reciprocal relationship between the Italian Risorgimento and the Polish democratic émigrés dated back to the coal mining movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Italians were still striving to liberate the regions that remained under Habsburg rule. The Poles admired the successes of the Italian national movement. After Napoleon, Garibaldi became the second foreign hero strongly present in the Polish nineteenth-century independence tradition. There was a Polish military school in Genoa and later in Cuneo, whose graduates joined the ranks of the insurgency. The Italians helped the Polish conspirators to buy weapons. Approximately fifty Italian volunteers reinforced the insurgent troops. Among them was a person close to Garibaldi, Francesco Nullo, who was killed soon after crossing the Kingdom’s border. An Italian landing on the Black Sea coast was planned. However, deeper political cooperation between Polish National Government and Garibaldi has never developed, as the Italians sought action against the Austrians, while the Poles wanted to build a Franco-Austrian alliance that could lead to European war and, consequently, the restoration of a free Poland.
The breakthrough did not come until early 1864, when Franco-Austrian relations deteriorated, and Austria began to move politically closer to Russia and Prussia. The National Government led by Romuald Traugutt entered into talks to co-opt Italians and Hungarians to the rebellion against Austria. On June 6, 1864, a formal treaty announcing a joint uprising was signed with Garibaldi by a representative of the National Government, Józef Ordęga. However, it turned out to be a mere declaration of intent that neither side was able to carry out.
The January Uprising enjoyed great sympathy in Hungary. At least a hundred volunteers made their way to Poland from the Danube, and Lajos Kossuth planned to establish a Hungarian volunteer legion. Ultimately, however, broader cooperation with the Hungarians did not come about. As in the case of the Italians, the Hungarians were primarily interested in fighting against Austria, while by the beginning of 1864, the Poles were hoping for Austrian participation in the war against Russia. The agreement signed in March 1864 by Józef Ordęga and György Klapka of the Hungarian National Directorate to fight together against Austria and Russia could no longer influence the fate of the uprising.
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The January Uprising was part of the process of modernising the political shape of Europe. The Old Continent – where until the French Revolution the order was based on the dynastic principle – was gradually transforming into a Europe of constitutional and republican nation-states. That explains why the uprising was joined by many volunteers from Italy and Hungary, whose people also strove to establish or strengthen their states. Even those Russians who wanted to transform their country into a modern constitutional state fought on the Polish side.
However, the November and January uprisings both lacked existential factors. In 1830 there was inadequate international support, while the 1863 revolt lacked a regular army. Perhaps if the Poles had a military force comparable to that from the war against Russia in 1830-31, the decision to support Poland would have been easier. Only those two factors combined could allow Poland to resist the Russian army. But the defeat in the January Uprising was not a solely Polish debacle. As the incidents of the following few years showed, both Russia and Prussia benefited from the West inaction. Already two years after the fall of the uprising, Bismarck inflicted defeat on Austria at Sadowa, and in 1870, France lost to him at Sedan. Two of the three powers that failed to intervene in favour of Poland fell victim to their own indecision.