Lithuania, Napoleon's Ally On The Road To Moscow

The Story Of The Lithuanian Tartars Of The Imperial Guard

By John Beresford Welsh, Jr. Olympia, WA

Version française

Napoleon established the Lithuanian Tartars of the Guard towards the end of the French Empire in the course of his invasion of Russia. The part they would play during their brief existence in serving Napoleonic France extended far beyond their role in the Russian campaign, however. With their numbers greatly reduced, the unit never lost its cohesion, and fought through the campaigns of Germany and France until the fall of the Empire in 1814, sharing in the glorious legacy of the Grande Armée.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was then a part of Russia, bordering Poland. Like Poland, Napoleon believed that the Lithuanians, mostly Catholic, with their own history and traditions, were anxious for independence. Historically, Lithuania had earlier been joined in a commonwealth with Poland in 1648, whose borders included the Ukraine almost to the Black Sea. But in the mid-seventeenth century, Russia under Peter the Great expanded westward towards Europe, absorbing the Ukraine. Finally, between 1762 and 1795, Russia, Austria and Prussia, in an unholy alliance, partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian union among them, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania incorporated into the Russian empire.

Under Napoleon, a semblance of the Polish state was revived under the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, as a consequence of his victories at Austerlitz over Austria and Russia, and at Jena over Prussia. Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, nominally under the suzerainty of his ally the King of Saxony. Moreover, Napoleon's victory over Austria at Wagram forced Austria to concede some territory to the Grand Duchy, under the terms of the Treaty of Schonbrun in 1809. Napoleon stopped short of resurrecting the Polish kingdom out of deference to the Tsar, the new ally he would need against England. But he refused to ratify the convention in St. Petersburg, signed by the French Ambassador, Caulaincourt, that an independent kingdom of Poland would not be established.

Fortifying his friendship with Prince Poniatowski, the new ruler of the Polish grand duchy, Napoleon admitted his bodyguard into the French Imperial Guard which became known as the 1st Regiment of Light Horse Lancers. As a valued ally, Prince Poniatowski would earn a marshal's baton before his heroic death at the battle of Leipzig in 1814.

Lithuania, too, would play a strategic role in Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. Napoleon's initial plan was to occupy a friendly Lithuania, fortifying Smolensk and Minsk, and force the Tsar to come to terms. Failing that, Russia proper would be invaded in the following year. It was not to happen that way however. Alexander refused to negotiate; and after taking Smolensk in a hard battle, an impatient Napoleon would press on to Moscow.

On June 23, the Grande Armée crossed the river Niemen, which separated Poland from Lithuania, heading towards Vilna (now Vilnius), the capital of the grand duchy. The Tsar abandoned it without a fight. But the reception of the Grande Armée was anything but friendly, and the inhabitants barricaded themselves in their homes to protect themselves from the brilliant cavalcade's predatory looters. The invasion was already disappointing, occasioned by torrential rains, sultry heat and low morale.

Filled with hope for the restoration of a fully independent Poland, the Polish Diet in Warsaw jumped the gun and proclaimed unilaterally the restoration of the Kingdom of Poland, uniting the Grand Duchy of Warsaw with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This had not been done with Napoleon's blessing for fear of alienaang the Tsar with whom he wished to conclude a peace. It had an even worse effect on Lithuanian landowners, who were uneasy about an association with Poland and Napoleon's threat to free the serfs, and whose support he needed for the invasion of Russia. Napoleon himself kept the issues cloudy, neither recognizing the Kingdom of Poland beyond its status as a Grand Duchy, nor squelching Polish or Lithuanian national aspirations. Indeed, he encouraged them by authorizing the creation of another regiment of lancers in July of 1812, recruited from the wealthy class of landowners of Lithuania, and admitting it to his Imperial Guard as the 3rd Regiment of Light Horse Lancers. (The 2nd Regiment was Dutch, being the bodyguard of former King Louis, Napoleon's brother, who lost his kingdom out of disloyalty. Holland was incorporated directly into the Empire, but his elite regiment was admitted into the Imperial Guard as the famous "Red Lancers.")

Such was the politics behind the invasion.

The squadron of Lithuanian Tartars was created at Vilna on October 8,1812 to be raised, interestingly enough, from the Moslem descendants of Genghis Khan who had settled in Lithuania during the Middle Ages. The idea for the unit was proposed in July of that year to one of the Emperor's aides-de-camp, General Count Van Hogendorp, then Govemor-General of the Grand Duchy under French occupation. Major Mustapha Mura Achrnatowicz, a lieutent colonel in the Polish cavalry, actually suggested the idea and offered to raise the unit if it were incorporated into Napoleon's Imperial Guard.

The Guard had long since become European, and Napoleon approved the proposal since he had a great need for cavalry, much of which had already been destroyed dunng the course of the invasion in the oppressive summer heat. Perhaps Napoleon also had in mind a counterpan to the Russian cossacks, ancient enemies of the Tartars. In any event, it marned Lithuanian asptrations to the French and Polish cause in a joint effort against the Tsar.

Napoleon appointed Major Achrnatowicz as the chef d 'escadron, and on 24 August 1812 charged him with raising a regiment. But due to the lack of patriotic vigor among Lithuanians generally, and the already disastrous consequences of the campaign, the major was only able to raise a squadron.

The uniforms of the Lithuanian Tartars were distinctive and reflected their ethnic origins and traditions. In a way, they appear to be similar to the oriental garb of their Moslem cousins, the Mamelukes. In the beginning, each man dressed in a rather individualized fashion, sporling brilliant and varied colors. The weapons too preserved this heritage with Turkish scimitars for sabers, as well as lances. The badge on their fur busbies was the crescent. And for religious purposes, an Iman or spiritual leader was with the squadron. Later on, as French fortunes waned in the course of the sufferings of long marches and incessant fighting, their uniforms became more conventional, replaced with the issue of regulation equipment and spare clothing during the rigors of campaigning. The sabre-a-laturc was replaced by a Polish lancer saber of the model Year Xl in the reorganization in April 1813.

The story of the Lithuanian Tartars in Russia is perhaps no less heroic or tragic than that of the Grande Armée in general. The squadron took severe losses before Vilna on December 10 and 12, 1812 protecting the retreat of the Grande Armée begun on October 19 from Moscow. Only 30 survivors reached the French lines at Posen. Achmatowicz was killed. Lieutenant Lubanski became the provisional commandant. And Captain-Sultan Samuel Murza Ulan succeeded him. The subsequent strength of the squadron was recorded at 63 men, two lieutenants, and two marechals-des-logis (sergeants).

The campaign of Russia was over. The campaign of Germany was about to begin. Marshal Bessieres, Colonel-General of the cavalry of the Guard, authorized Captain Ulan to recruit a new regiment of Lithuanian Tartars from sympathetic Russian prisoners who had been obliged to serve the Tsar. Napoleon also authorized him to recruit in France and establish a depot at Metz. Unfortunately, Ulan was to learn that some 200 Tartars had already been sent to Italy to reinforce the 1st and 2nd foreign regiments there. He was able to bring back with him some 50 Tartars however, who linked up with the squadron at Frankfort, Germany.

In March 1813, Marshal Bessieres incorporated the squadron of the Lithuanian Tartars, now reduced to 50 men and 3 officers, into the debris of the 3rd Regiment of Lancers of the Guard, itself raised in Lithuania. This unfortunate regiment, created in July, was totally destroyed on October 19, 1812 at Slonim. The only survivors came from its depot. The strength of the Tartar squadron was recorded at 24 men onJune 22, and at 26 Tartars on July 11, of which 6 still wore the old uniforms. Shortly thereafter on December 9, in a desire to strengthen the 1st Regiment of Lancers of the Guard, which was in fact Polish, Bessieres incorporated the 3rd Lancers, including the Lithuanian Tartars, into it. As independent formations, the two Lithuanian units in the Imperial Guard ceased to exist. The Polish and Lithuanian contingents in the French army seemed destined to merge.

They would however continue to serve as separate fighting units within the Polish lancer regiment throughout the campaigns of Germany and France. Organizationally, the first six companies of the now augmented 1st Regiment of Lancers, were considered "Old Guard"; the next six companies as "Middle Guard"; and the 13th and 14th companies as "Young Guard". The Lithuanian Tartars comprised the 15th company, under Ulan with Jorahim and Assan as officers, and were considered "Middle Guard" as of August 1813. They fought at Leipzig and Hanau in that status under Captain Ulan and Lieutenant Ibraim, with Assan-Alny as their Iman. Fifty men and three officers were recorded present at the battle of Dresden on August 27, 1813.

On December 9, 1813, the Guard cavalry underwent further reorganization with the creation of three eclaireur or scout regiments, attached to the Grenadiers, Dragoons and 1st Lancer regiments of the French Imperial Guard respectively. Napoleon had in mind a French counterpart to the Russian cossacks that had harrassed so effectively the French flanks during the retreat from Moscow.

As a consequence of this reorganization, the last eight companies of the 1st Lancers became the 3rd Eclaireurs. This regiment was actually attached to the 1st Lancers and placed under the overall command of its colonel, General Count Krasinski. The chef d 'escadron or commandant of the 3rd Eclaireurs was Major Jean Kozietulski. It was as scout lancers then that the Lithuanian Tartars fought the campaign of France in 1814, to the very gates of Paris.

By December 30, 1813, the Lithuanian Tartars could count available only 16 mounted men and 7 unmounted. In April 1814, after the abdication of the Emperor, Captain Ulan led 14 surviving Tartars back to Poland, terminating their brief but honorable service to Napoleon and the cherished cause of Lithuanian independence. General Krasinski placed the Polish-Lithuanian regiment at the disposition of the Tsar in a final humiliation.

Lithuania today is only a shadow of its former self, now one of the republics within the Soviet Union. Briefly independent as a result of the treaty ending hostilities between Imperial Germany and revolutionary Russia at the end of World War I, Lithuania was once again annexed by Russia in 1940.

But history seems to be repeating itself, with the declaration of independence on 11 March 1990 by Lithuania after 50 years of Soviet rule. The aspirations of the Lithuanian people are again apparently a bargaining chip in global politics.


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Originally published in the Member's Bulletin of the Napoleonic Society of America, no. 28, October, 1990.

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