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May 23, 2024

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The Order of The Day

“To fight in battle, besiege fortresses, suffer wounds, and be taken prisoner, is the fate and the duty of all who devote themselves to the service of their country must face. The statue of the Order of the Military Cross rules that it shall be awarded only in exceptional cases, for deeds of valour in excess of duty.”

The above quote was the “Order of the Day” issued by Prince Josef Poniatowski on February 22nd, 1808, to his fighting armies, simply explaining what one had to do to be decorated with a medal of valour.

Of course, this is not surprising as it is done all over the world with similar predication, Poland having the “Virtuti Militari”. But, did you ever wonder how this business of medals all began, especially in Poland?

Well, not very much earlier historically, as it turns out; for in 1792, the Prince, nephew of King Stanislaus Augustus and commander-in-chief of Polish fighting in the Ukraine against the invading Russian armies of Empress Catherine, suggested to the King that a Military Order be established, as an award for outstanding deeds of valour of the battlefield.

After the Polish victory at Zielence on June 18, 1792, at the Prince’s request, the first batch of medals were sent to Army Headquarters. They were struck in gold and silver, oval in shape and bearing the monogram S.A.R. (Stanislaus Augustus Rex) with the Royal Crown above and crossed laurel branches below and the inscription “Virtuti Militari” at the base.

Following the 1792 campaign, sixty five generals and officers were awarded the gold medal and two hundred and ninety other ranks the silver medal. Two names at the head of the list of “Knights of the Order” are famous in Polish history: Prince Josef Poniatowski (naturally, he instituted it) and Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The Prince placed Kosciuszko’s name at the head of the list he submitted to the King for approval. Initially, the Military Order was divided into five classes. At first, the lowest class was represented by the Silver Medal. Then came the Gold Medal, the Knights Cross, Commanders Cross and Grand Cross of the Order. After more than 500 medals were handed out, the Seym, under pressure from Russia and the pro-Russian party, abolished wearing the insignia with severe punishment handed down to those refusing to do so.

During the Kosciuszko Uprising, the Virtuti Militari was not re-instituted. Kosciuszko refused to admit a decoration established by Stanislaus Augustus, to whom he was strongly opposed. Instead, he personally awarded gold rings for valour on the battlefield, with the inscription, “The Country to Her Defender” engraved on the inside.

It should be noted, very interestingly enough that one woman was among those awarded the Silver Cross of Virtuti Militari. Her name was Joanna Zubr, sergeant in the 17th Infantry Regiment. She took part in the 1809 campaign at the side of her husband and distinguished herself in the storming of Zamosc on May 19-20. She always wore the decoration pinned on her breast! Czar Alexander I, who conducted a liberal policy during the early period of his reign, respected the Polish soldiers who had fought on Napoleon’s side. On being told of the exploits of this valorous Amazon, he was both amused and filled with admiration. As a result, he released the following announcement. . . .  “It is hereby made known to all and sundry that by decree of 30 March, His Imperial Majesty graciously awarded a pension to one Joanna Zubr, former sergeant in the Polish Army, at present unknown whereabouts, for deeds of valour and devotion to duty far above the station of her sex.” Joanna Zubr died of cholera in 1850.

During the November 1831 Uprising, a total of 3,863 officers and military men were awarded the Virtuti Militari. Among them were two women: Josefa Kulszycka, army nurse, and Barbara Czarnowska, Cadet Officer in the 1st Augustow Horse regiment.

Author Stanislaw Barzykowski in his “History of the November Rising” published in 1884 describes an amusing incident…

“Following the battle of Debe Wielkie, which ended in a brilliant Polish victory, the National Government decided to bestow the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Virtuti Militari on the Commander-in-chief, General Jan Skrzynecki. Two members of the Government, Barzykowski and secretary Plichta were dispatched to the General’s headquarters at Kaluszyn to perform the ceremony of decoration. Following an address in honor of the General by Barzkowski, Plichta presented the Order to General Skrynecki. The General looked it over, frowned and declared the cross ‘was very plainly made’. To this Plichta replied: ‘That’s because of the haste we were in to show you our gratitude, General. The craftsman had not enough time for a really good job.’ Well then, said the General, send it back to him and see he does a proper job this time.”

After the 1830-31 Uprising, it seems that this military order or award (it’s historically classified both ways) lost a bit of its glamour and prestigious meaning. Czar Nicholas I of Russia decreed that this highest Polish military decoration was to be worn as a memorial badge by Russian troops who had fought against the Poles. Over a hundred and ten thousand of these altered crosses were awarded to Russian troops. Silver Virtuti Militari crosses were conferred every manjack, including regimented cooks, clerks, and military craftsmen.

This ignoble gesture aroused understandable indignation among Poles at home and on emigration. The Chapter of the Order formed a special Society to organize a movement of protest against this despicable measure throughout all of Europe.

When Poland regained her independence, the Seym of the Republic, by an August 1919 decree, reinstituted the Military Order of the Virtuti Militari, once proudly worn by the bravest of the brave. During Poland’s II Republic period, 8,399 Crosses were awarded including six first class awards.

The outbreak of World War II opened a new chapter in the history of the Order. Awards were given to soldiers who fought in the September ‘39 campaign, in members of the Polish Forces in the West and to Resistance Movement fighters at home. The honor was awarded to soldiers of the 1st Tadeusz Kosciuszko Division and later to soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Polish Army. Even towns, such as Warsaw, have been among the recipients.

Today, Virtuti Militari stands historically in a place of honor and high regard. And, those who hold this conspicuous decoration represent that which is most valorous and selfless in our contemporary history.

 . . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .