With Bogusław Polak about the phenomenon of people who won themselves a piece of homeland talked Łukasz Zalesiński.
His name was Chen Defu. He was Chinese. He fought in the Wielkopolska Uprising.
Yes, and because of his origin he was one of the most interesting figures of the uprising. He served in the Imperial Russian Army, he took part in the Russo-Japanese War as an orderly of a Polish captain, Kazimierz Skorotkiewicz. When Skorotkiewicz was taken prisoner, Chen Defu was sent to Warszawa, the captain’s hometown, and later ended up in Barcin, Wielkopolska. He assimilated, took on a new name – Zdzisław, learned carpentry and set up his own business. He was even a member of the “Falcon” Polish Gymnastic Society (Towarzystwo Gimnastyczne “Sokół”). At the turn of 1918 and 1919, he and his friends from the society took up arms. Later he also fought in the Polish-Bolshevik War, and in the 1930s he finally became a Polish citizen.
He was not the only foreigner fighting in the uprising.
That’s true. A black POW who earlier served in the French army, Sam Sandi, also went down in history. After having been released from the prisoner camp, he served in the Wielkopolska air force, although he was not a pilot. However, there were two other foreigners in the air force who were pilots – Wiktor Lang from Germany and Paul Krenz from Austria. The latter one is a particularly interesting figure. He lived in Wielkopolska, got very attached to his Polish neighbors and decided to fight in the uprising on their side. In the 1920s he left Poland and came back in 1939 – also as a pilot, but this time of the Luftwaffe. There was also an Italian, Giovanni Cittadini, serving in insurgent units. Black and white photographs taken at his funeral, which was very ceremonial, have survived until today. A horse was walking behind the casket, guests included representatives of the Italian Military Mission and the Poznań garrison units. Another person that contributed significantly to the uprising was an American woman, Ms Sims, who originally came to visit her husband at a POW camp, but decided to stay and organize health services in Mogilno. Polish insurgents were supported by the English, Belgians, some Serbs, one Dutchman. Altogether, there were about 250-300 foreigners fighting in the Wielkopolska Uprising.
Do you think that the Wielkopolska Uprising moved the European conscience, just like the January Uprising several dozen years earlier? The insurgents were then supported in their fight by Italians, Frenchmen...
Such statement would be an exaggeration. In 1863 insurgents were supported by organized military units that came to Polish territory. In the case of the Wielkopolska Uprising, they were individual volunteers, usually placed there as POWs by the Prussian army, against which they later fought with the insurgents who had set them free. They certainly gave the uprising additional flavor, but taking into account their number, they constituted an insignificant group.
However, one might get an impression that since even they took up arms, the Wielkopolska Uprising was a mass revolt.
I must disappoint you – it wasn’t. I once counted the people who participated in the fights. In the first phase of the uprising, that is until the middle of January, several thousand Poles took up arms, and I really think it was a relatively big number. Keep in mind that the uprising broke out very soon after the end of the biggest war in the history of the world. It had killed millions of people, a lot of cities had been completely destroyed, people were tired and their future uncertain. Besides, the allies clearly stated that the fate of the Prussian partition would be determined during peace negotiations ending the Great War. Any military action on that territory was possible to have been regarded as a sabotage attempt, and punished with utmost severity. That was one of the reasons that people from Wielkopolska couldn’t really count on any help from outside the region. In the first days of fighting some, but not many, volunteers arrived from Pomorze. Even in Wielkopolska itself there were many sedate local community leaders that would tell the supporters of the uprising to wait. They still remembered 1914 and the city of Kalisz burning after being hit by German artillery fire. They were afraid. Nevertheless, once the uprising broke out, they also put on uniforms and fought bravely.
Who was a typical insurgent from Wielkopolska?
My friend Gerard Górnicki, a writer from Poznań, once said that “the people who went to fight in the uprising were the ones who were supposed to go.” It is difficult to create one coherent picture of an insurgent from the Wilekopolska Uprising, because the cross-section of society in military units was very diversified. Those who responded in biggest numbers were representatives of the intelligence: teachers, doctors, lawyers, priests, as well as landed gentry. Less people came from social groups such as merchants or craftsmen, while workmen and peasants were the least numerous group. We should certainly not detract from their merit, though, because if we looked at the structure of the units themselves instead of considering the percentage of involvement within each social group, the proportions would be reversed. Fathers who joined the fight very often took their sons with them. There were also a lot of young scouts, for example the company from Poznań commanded by Wincenty Wierzejewski, which later became the human resource provider for the 1st Rifle Regiment. The scouting troop comprised of young patriots from various layers of society: salesmen, military men, apprentices, high school students, university students. Almost 200 people. A huge conglomeration.
How were these first days of the uprising organized?
At the beginning everything was quite flexible. When I was studying the documents, I noticed the same names on several unit lists. Someone would start the fight as a member of a particular company, but at some point there was shortage of food or ammunition, so he was sent back home. But he did not give up the fight, so when there was opportunity to join some other unit, he went to fight again. Some companies consisted of 80 people, others of even 250. They were also commanded in different ways.
What about equipment, weapons?
During the Great War most insurgents fought in the Prussian army. In the post-war chaos, many of them returned home together with their weapons. A lot of the equipment came from warehouses that the Germans had not managed to relocate into the Reich, some of it was seized during the initial days of the uprising. Thus, the insurgents had enough personal weapons and machine guns. The situation was worse with the artillery. As an example, insurgents from the Leszno region had only two cannons, which were passed on from troop to troop. Let me say it again: the first days of the uprising were mainly spontaneous actions. Change came together with Maj Stanisław Taczak, given command by the Supreme People’s Council (Naczelna Rada Ludowa), an informal Wielkopolska government. The front line was then divided into four parts: northern, south-western, southern and western. Taczak appointed commanders, determined places of mobilization. Regular written reports appeared, and the Main Headquarters gave tactical instructions on how to take towns, how to behave there, how to keep a steady front line, keep order in the company and arrange command. On January 16, 1919, Maj Taczak was replaced by Lt Gen Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki, appointed by Józef Piłsudski, who finished the work started by his predecessor. Soon, Wielkopolska had a regular army with a conscription system, which at its peak in the spring of 1919 numbered 102,000 soldiers, had its own air force, artillery, very good logistic infrastructure. It was capable of not only maintaining the gains of the uprising, but also help the Polish army in the fights for Eastern borders.
How is it possible that loose insurgent detachments turned into a regular army within a dozen or so days?
Truth be told, it did not happen within a dozen days. People of Wielkopolska have been preparing to fight for independence for generations. There was both a moral and a purely practical side to it. Families fostered the feeling of national identity, which was additionally reinforced by the Catholic church. Poles created their own organizations, such as the already mentioned “Sokół” Gymnastic Society, or later scouting troops, but also enterprises and banks. They wanted to become richer, thinking that only a wealthy society will be able to lay the foundations for independence. And when Germany lost the war and went into deep crisis, Poles perfectly took advantage. For example, they dominated the People’s Guard (Straż Ludowa) – a formation responsible for keeping order in the region, and appointed Julian Lange to run it. Thanks to a very cunning plan, they also took control of the Guard and Security Service (Służba Straży i Bezpieczeństwa), established by the Reich’s High Command to keep order at the Poznań garrison. First, they urged the executive body of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils (Rad Robotników i Żołnierzy) to create mixed Polish-German units, and later started to enroll Poles with German surnames and citizenship as Germans. They also created the Polish Military Organization (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa) of the Prussian partition. And that was not all. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Regional Parliament (Sejm Dzielnicowy), which between December 3-5, 1918 was in session in Poznań. Poles from all regions of the Prussian partition, and even emigrants living in the Reich, came to the session – over 1,000 people altogether. That was where future authorities started to take shape.
When the uprising broke out, Wielkopolska already had its own state microstructure, with a government, parliament, judiciary, education system, treasury, law enforcement services, and later also regular armed forces. To be fair, we must admit that military officers who came to Poznań with Dowbor-Muśnicki played a very significant role in creating that microstructure. Most of them had served in the Imperial Army, and later in the Polish I Corps in Russia. They were indispensable, since there was a big shortage of experienced high rank officers. In the Prussian army Poles rarely reached high ranks. They usually ended their careers as lieutenants. Only a few, including Kazimierz Grudzielski and Kazimierz Raszewski, reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Although Wielkopolska was ready to fight, the uprising broke out a little later. Is that true?
They had been preparing for an armed conflict for a long time, but no one had ever set a particular date. The necessary impulse was the arrival of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, though his intentions were quite different. He was on his way to Warszawa to become the new prime minister and defuse the tense political situation. He stopped in Poznań upon invitation by the Supreme People’s Council. Germans opposed that visit, but at the same time they had a lot of respect for Paderewski. He was a world-renowned artist. Both Polish and German children took part in the famous parade outside his windows. Paderewski knew that he was on foreign territory, so he didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. He made a very laconic speech from the window of hotel Bazar, and when the fights began he stopped showing his face in public and quickly left Poznań. It was not Paderewski’s visit itself that infuriated Germans, but British, French and American flags that appeared on the streets of Poznań for the occasion. Flags of enemies who had just defeated the Imperial German Army in the war. On December 27, German task forces marched across the city, entering apartments by force and removing the flags, sometimes beating the tenants. In the late afternoon, armed Polish troops gathered near the Police Headquarters building. There is a common conviction that they attacked, but it is not true. It was dark, and we still can’t be sure who fired first. What we do know is that chaotic shooting started, killing the first victim of the uprising – Franciszek Ratajczak. Poles negotiated with the German staff until they left the building. Soon after, the fighting spread throughout Wielkopolska. Insurgents seized significant territory, which was later successfully annexed to the newly revived Polish Republic, also thanks to the diplomats of the Polish National Committee (Komitet Narodowy Polski) led by Roman Dmowski. On top of that, cities which the insurgents failed to capture, such as Leszno or Bydgoszcz, were also incorporated into Poland.
Despite many happy coincidences, can we call Wielkopolska Uprising a unique phenomenon?
Yes, because thanks to the luck, but also perfect timing and excellent organization, it was one of few victorious uprisings in the Polish history. The Wielkopolska army managed to salvage and retain not only territorial gains in the Prussian partition, but to a large extent also Polish statehood. With the diplomatic support from France it created a barrier against Germans, who quickly recovered from the post-war chaos and had been planning to launch a powerful attack to the east. Luckily, the Spring Sun (Wiosenne słońce) operation ultimately came to no effect. The Wielkopolska soldiers fought Ukrainians for Lvov, they also contributed significantly to defeating the Bolsheviks. In 1939 they were present in the ranks of Gen Tadeusz Kutrzeba’s Poznań Army, and after the war in anti-communist underground (e.g. the “Warta” Wielkopolska Independent Volunteer Group). The uprising had created an ethos of victorious arms, became an important element of Wielkopolska’s identity, and its memory lives on. It is enough to think about annual anniversary celebrations, decorations that appear in the cities at that time, the activity of reenactment groups or Lech Poznań fans who look after insurgent graves. It is something unique that has to fill everyone with joy. To quote Józef Piłsudski: “He who does not respect or appreciate his past is not worthy of the present and has no right to the future.”
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz