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W związku z powyższym przygotowaliśmy dla Państwa informacje dotyczące przetwarzania przez Wojskowy Instytut Wydawniczy Państwa danych osobowych. Prosimy o zapoznanie się z nimi: Polityka przetwarzania danych.

Prosimy o zaakceptowanie warunków przetwarzania danych osobowych przez Wojskowych Instytut Wydawniczy – Akceptuję

...from a far-away country

The title might not be original, but it perfectly reflects the Polish-Italian relations. The words were uttered in Italian, in 1978, by the Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyła, to the crowds gathered in the piazza below the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica: “I was called from a far-away country.”

It is in fact far away. From Cracow, the old capital of Poland, across the Slovak Carpathian Mountains, Austrian-Hungarian borderland, through Slovenian Ljubljana, the Venetian Lagoon, Ravenna and Perugia, it is exactly 1,426 km to Rome, according to Google Maps. This, or an even longer, distance, had to be covered on foot by three hundred armor-clad knights led by the first Polish king, Bolesław Chrobry, who, in the year 1000 AD, lent out his knights to travel to Italy with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II the Red. According to a French chronicler, the ruler of Germany and the Polish king first went to Charlemagne’s grave in Aachen, situated near the current border with Belgium. Having opened the tomb, Otto presented Bolesław with Charles’s golden throne, on which the emperor’s corpse was supposed to had been sitting for two centuries. Together with Otto’s sudden death in his palace in Rome, the plans to build a universal empire based on four pillars – Gaul, Germania, Italia and Slovene lands, fell through. The memory of the Polish knights who fought in the faraway Italian land over a thousand years ago was preserved by foreign chroniclers.

According to a recent theory, the father of Polish historiography, referred to as Gallus, was born in Venice in the 12th century. Poles, mainly priests, repeatedly walked across the “Italian boot,” travelling to Rome, or to universities, sprouting around the country like mushrooms. Nicolaus Copernicus, as well as a famous Polish cardinal of the Reformation period, Stanislaus Hosius, studied in Bologna and Padua. The latter was responsible for establishing a Polish hospice on Via delle Botteghe Oscure in the Roman Sant’Angelo district. It was a kind of a pilgrim’s home organized at St Stanislaus (Poland’s patron, bishop of Cracow) church. Fragments of the saint’s relics were brought to the church after Hosius’s death. The foundation did not survive the collapse of Poland, partitioned in 1795 among three invaders – Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Three years later, on May 8, 1798, St Stanislaus Day – the day when processions from the Catholic Cracow visit the saint’s relics with great fanfare – his church in Rome was opened by General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski’s legionnaires, who later took part in a mass.

The Polish Legions (1797–1807)

Why were Polish military men in the heart of Italy again after 800 years? They were not common hired soldiers, like Lutheran lansquenets of the Roman Catholic Emperor Charles V, who three centuries earlier perpetrated the notorious Sack of Rome of May 6, 1527, butchering Swiss Guard soldiers, who died in glory protecting the Pope. The unsuccessful 1794 Polish Uprising against Russia and Prussia, led by General Tadeusz Kościuszko, and the later fall of the state, forced hundreds of political activists and thousands of soldiers to emigrate. Those who stayed were conscripted into invading armies – Russian, Prussian and Austrian. Military service in occupiers’ armies remained the bane of the Polish nation until 1945, or even longer, if we include the 45-year-long subordination of the Polish Army to the Russian “guarantor” after WWII, and the service of former Polish citizens in the Soviet Army.

The formation of the Polish Army in Italy: the former Polish POWs from the Italian camp in Piedmontese La Mandria di Chivasso after the end of WWI, December 1918

At the end of the 18th century, the only actual, although uncertain, Polish ally was Jacobin France, which was fighting with Prussia. This alliance remained unharmed through the Action of 6 November 1794, the founding of the consulate, and the brilliant career of the first consul – Napoleon. One of the most well-known Polish emigrants was General Dąbrowski, who in 1797 got permission from Napoleon, at the time fighting Austrians in Lombardy, to form a separate legion made up of Polish prisoners remaining in French captivity. It was to support a new French creation, the Republic of Lombardy. The legionnaires wore a Polish uniform, but adopted the Italian and French cockades, with an inscription: Gli uomini liberi sono fratelli (Free men are brothers). Thus, a new type of army was created, civil and republican (modeled on Kościuszko’s 1794 uprising army), in which the differences in social status and descent were to be insignificant. Kościuszko himself, having been pardoned and set free from the Russian Peter and Paul Fortress by Tsar Paul I, became the symbolic leader of the soldiers. The military service, however, resulted in, sometimes dramatic, internal moral struggle. The revolutionary French army brought French occupation and war with religion under the banner of liberty and equality. Polish legionnaires wanted to fight in order to return to their country, but on top of everything they were deeply religious Catholics, especially those of peasant descent. Poles were quelling the uprising against the French in Papal Romagna, while in Reggio the savoir-faire of Polish soldiers won them popularity among the citizens. It was there that General Józef Wybicki, one of the more outstanding Polish politicians active at the turn of the 18th and 19th century, wrote for the legionnaires the lively Mazurek Dąbrowskiego (Dąbrowski’s Mazurka), the future national anthem of the Republic of Poland, which expressed hope for returning to the Fatherland:

Poland has not yet perished,
So long as we still live.
What the foreign force has taken from us,
We shall with saber retrieve.
March, march, Dąbrowski, From the Italian land to Poland.
Under your command We shall rejoin the nation.

On May 3, 1798, Poles entered the Eternal City, the capital of the new Roman Republic, created on the ruins of the Papal States. It was then that the Polish St Stanislaus church was briefly opened. Later, the situation deteriorated. Some legionnaires were given up to the Austrians as foreign subordinates by a French commander of Mantua, which surrendered in 1799. The legions suffered terrible losses while covering the beaten French army retreating from the battle of Trebbia, fought with the Austro-Russians. The soldiers who survived the battle of Marengo (which sealed the success of Bonaparte’s Italian campaign of 1800), became the core of a new legion. Later, some of them formed Polish units in the Italian Republic army, and some were sent to suppress a black insurrection against the French colonial rule in Saint Domingue in Haiti. However, many legionnaires went over to the insurgents – their black descendants still live on the island today.

The undoubtedly heroic war epopee of Polish legionnaires in Italy quickly permeated to Poland and Lithuania, under Russian occupation, entering the pages of both states’ history. Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania, a national epic poem written by Adam Mickiewicz while on emigration after the fall of yet another Polish-Lithuanian anti-Russian uprising, includes a recollection of the following story:

And yet now and then, like a stone from the sky, news came even to Lithuania;
now and then an old man, lacking a hand or a foot,
who was begging his bread,
would stand and cast cautious eyes around,
when he had received alms.
If he saw no Russian soldiers in the yard, or Jewish caps, or red collars,
then he would confess who he was:
he was a member of the Polish legions, and was bringing back his old bones
to that fatherland which he could no longer defend.

Then how all the family how even the servants embraced him, choking with tears!
He would seat himself at the board and tell of history more strange than fable;
he would relate how General Dombrowski
was making efforts to penetrate from the Italian land into Poland,
how he was gathering his countrymen on the plains of Lombardy;

how Kniaziewicz was issuing commands from the Roman Capitol, and how, as a victor,
he had cast in the eyes of the French an hundred bloody standards torn from the descendants of the Caesars.
(Translated by: George Rapall Noyes)

The descendants of the Caesars were, however, holding strong. Italy was unified under the House of Savoy in 1870, when the decaying State of the Church finally fell, and Italian forces seized Rome, abandoned by the French, making popes voluntary prisoners of Vatican City.

Spring of Nations (1848–1849)

The unsuccessful Polish national uprising against Russia made thousands of refugees escape Poland in 1831. They were the elite of the Kingdom of Poland, bound by a personal union with Russia from 1815. It was the time of the so-called Great Emigration – great not because of the number of exiles, but their status. Officers, the Sejm of Congress Poland deputies, the Polish National Government members, renowned landowners, romantic poets, journalists and publicists, all went to the west and south of Europe, spreading rebellion and revolution germs along the way. Politicians and soldiers, representing almost all parties existing at the time, from die-hard conservationists to communist radicals, were all bonded, against their own will, by one thing – the strong desire for Poland to regain independence. In practice, this could be possible only after seriously disturbing the European political or social order guaranteed at the 1815 Congress of Vienna by the Holy Alliance Treaty. In Central and Eastern Europe the moment came much later, in 1918, after a sudden fall of three monarchies – the Tsarist Russia, the Imperial-Royal Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Imperial Germany. Up to that moment, all European cabinets mostly perceived Poles as incorrigible dreamers and, at the same time, dangerous revolutionists.

The agricultural and overpopulated Italy, divided between the Austrian House of Habsburg in the north and the Spanish House of Bourbon in the south (The Neapolitan Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), with the State of the Church in the middle, impatiently awaited social revolution and Risorgimento – national regeneration. Virtually, the only significant domestic dynasty that aspired to leadership in Italy was the Royal House of Savoy, ruling over Sardinia and Piedmont. The very popular new Pope, Pius IX, could not become the leader of the new Italian state even if he wanted to. The Spring of Nations, which spread across France, the German states, Austria-Hungary, and the Polish territories between 1848–1849, also broke out in Italy. Just like in the Napoleonic era, the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Milan were created in the north, fighting with Austrian control, and the House of Savoy sent their forces to provide help.

Polish petitioners for a long time had been knocking on the door of the Roman Curia, asking for the Pope’s patronage over their political activity. Prince Czartoryski, the former foreign affairs minister of Imperial Russia, the first president of the Polish National Government during the anti-Russian uprising in 1831, the main Polish emigration diplomat called an uncrowned king of Poland, strove to obtain the Pope’s support and create a Polish legion in the State of the Church. The same was demanded by a well-known Polish romanticist and a political activist, Mickiewicz, who, having been granted an audience in the Vatican, shouted at the Pope that the Holy Spirit is present in the blouses of Parisian laborers, causing general consternation. The democratic and socially radical legion created by Mickiewicz, referred to as a heretic and a revolutionist, was eventually accepted for service by the government of Milan, and fought Austrians along a relatively unimportant sector of the front on Lake Garda, with a famous Camaldoli Hermitage.

Polish General Rybiński, the last commander-in-chief in the anti-Russian uprising of 1831, became commander of the Venetian armed forces, but unfortunately the agreement he signed with the Venetian government did not enter into force. After Austrian victories in northern Italy, a number of Poles withdrew to Piedmont, and some started to serve for a famous Italian revolutionist, Giuseppe Garibaldi. General Chrzanowski, Prince Czartoryski’s man, which meant he was conservative, became the actual commander-in-chief of the Royal Sardinian Army, and managed to subordinate Mickiewicz’s radical legion. However, Piedmont’s defeat in the fight with the Austrians, and the king’s abdication for the benefit of his son, meant the end of Polish units in the service of the House of Savoy.

One more Pole came to be known in the south. It was General Ludwik Mierosławski, famous and admired, but an insanely ambitious dabbler, who took command of a military district in Sicily, revolting against the Neapolitan Bourbons. Also in that case the mutinous forces suffered defeat.

Some of Mickiewicz’s legionnaires went to Tuscany, whose government offered them short-term military service, and later to the Roman Republic territory, fighting to protect it. The Pope, earlier admired by the Poles, escaped to Gaeta. Giuseppe Mazzini, the dictator of the Republic – the revolution’s last bastion, announced the creation of a new Polish legion, a unit officially allied with Italy. Garibaldi became the commander of the joint forces. The Republic’s territory was taken by the French, the Habsburgs, and the Neapolitan Bourbons. Polish legionnaires bravely defended Rome, but on July 3, 1849, the French forces entered the city, restoring the Pope’s power. The remaining legionnaires and Italian soldiers boarded a ship, nomen omen “Pius IX,” and went to the Ionian Islands with a plan to cross the border to Transylvania, where the Hungarian Army, commanded by a well-known Polish General Józef Bem, fought with Austrians and Russians. However, their plans fell through.

To some extent, that Polish-Italian relationship ended together with the French and Italian participation in yet another anti-Russian uprising, which broke out in the Kingdom of Poland in 1863. Colonel Francesco Nullo from Bergamo, Garibaldi’s friend, a participant of the Italian Spring of Nations, came to the Polish Cracow (at the time part of Habsburg Austria). Earlier, he had drawn up a testament. Appointed general by the insurgent National Government, he led the French-Italian legion across the Austrian-Russian border near Cracow on May 3 – a Polish religious and national holiday, commemorating the day of announcing Virgin Mary the Queen of the Polish Crown (1656), as well as adopting the first Polish constitution (1791). Nullo was killed two days later in a battle fought with Russians. He was buried at a cemetery in Olkusz, in Lesser Poland.

Two World Wars

At the beginning of the 11th century, a quite impressive number of 300 Polish armor-clad soldiers are supposed to have arrived in Italy. Polish legions in the service of Napoleon’s protectorates were all several thousand men strong, which was a lot considering the relations between the small Italian states. Besides, a 10-minute charge of one squadron of Polish light-cavalrymen on Spanish batteries at the Somosierra mountain pass in the Guadarrama Mountains, which in 1808 opened to Napoleon a passage to Madrid, proved that numbers are not the most important thing, that ambitious and very loyal hired soldiers may achieve more than domestic heroes. Foreign legions in Italy created during the Spring of Nations period usually numbered only several hundred Poles. However, Polish officers played a very important role in the Republican forces. The memory of those days is not as distant as we might think. My own grandfather told family stories about the Spring of Nations in the mid-1950s. They were part of a living family tradition and captured the imagination of a little boy from the Polish Galicia (which up to 1918 was a part of the Habsburg Austrian Monarchy), whom he was at the time:

“My earliest childhood memories go back to my grandpa’s stories on what happened in Lviv in 1848. I still clearly remember the tales, especially those about Lviv being hit by cannons located at the High Castle. (...) The year 1848 long remained in the minds of people from my grandfather’s generation – the Hungarian Revolution, and the passage of Russian forces across Galicia to Hungary. Two of my grandfather’s brothers took part in the Hungarian Revolution. One stayed in Hungary, the other one emigrated to Turkey. These were well-known events from the history of the minor [Polish] gentry of those days”.

“Historical, chronological and geographical presentation of the Poles' activity for Polish independence in Italy.” French edition of a historical map of 1829 showing the marching routes of Polish Legionnaires in Italy during 1797–1801

At the beginning of 1918, as an 18-year-old high-school graduate, still in his uniform, he joined Polish Auxiliary Corps, a formation in the Austrian army. However, the Corps revolted and was consequently dissolved, and my grandfather, a trained artilleryman, was sent to the Italian front in the Alps. When in October the Austro-Hungary K.K. Monarchy started to fall apart, he and his friend drew up a falsified leave order, and returned home to Lviv, the capital of Austrian Galicia. Other Polish recruits were not so lucky. Before the fall, about 60,000 were taken to POW camps in Italy, as Austrian subjects. In the meantime, the allied Blue Army was created in France, and its units at the last moment managed to take part in the fights with Germany in Champagne. General Józef Haller, the Commander of the Blue Army and from October the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, supervised all Polish voluntary formations, from Canada to the Russian Vladivostok. Soldiers from Italian POWs began to enlist in the allied Polish army. There was already a Polish company fighting on the Italian side, formed at the camp in Santa Maria Capua Vetere in Campania. Another such camp was situated in Piedmont, in La Mandria di Chivasso. Altogether, 35,000 volunteers were enlisted among the prisoners, who formed regiments under the patronage of the already mentioned heroes – Dąbrowski, Kościuszko, Mickiewicz, Nullo, Garibaldi. The soldiers were then transported to France, from where in 1919, they set off to their own country. After 123 years of captivity, the words of Dąbrowski’s Mazurka became reality: “from Italy to Poland”.

The year 1939 proved to be catastrophic for Poland, defeated by both Germany and Russia. Italy, supporting Hitler, stayed neutral towards Catholic Poland and remained fond of its citizens. Up to 1940, masses of refugees and volunteers wanting to join the newly-created Blue Army in France, moved across the Italian boot. The Polish ambassador in Rome, Bolesław WieniawaDługoszowski, was appointed President of Poland by President Mościcki, interned in Romania, but could not take office due to French and English objection. Two famous Poles who lived in Rome were the Primate of Poland August Hlond, who was on his way to France, and Field Bishop Józef Gawlina, who arrived in Rome after visiting his uncle at the Camaldolese monastery at Lake Garda.

Expeditionary Italian forces, supporting the Germans on the eastern front, were welcomed with kindness when passing through Polish territories occupied by the Germans, and so were the Spanish and Hungarian units. Those war-time Polish-Italian relations were perfectly grasped by Stanisław Lenartowicz, who in 1964 directed the Polish comedy entitled Giuseppe w Warszawie (Giuseppe in Warsaw). Lenartowicz was himself a Home Army soldier and a prisoner of a Russian concentration camp after the war.

The tragedy of the Italian nation had its morbid culmination between 1943– 1944. Those who survived Stalingrad, died in Russian camps. The tragic history was portrayed with humor by Giovanni Guareschi in his 1963 novel Comrade don Camillo, where an Italian camp survivor stayed in an Ukrainian kolkhoz after the war and married a Russian citizen, daughter of Polish peasants.

After Italy had joined the allies in 1943, most Italian soldiers abroad were put in POWs and concentration camps by the Germans. In the Warsaw district of Bielany, there is an Italian Military Cemetery. It is the final resting place for over 1,000 Italians who were German prisoners during WWI and died in POWs on the Polish territory. There are also cremains of over 1,400 Italians fallen or murdered in WWII in Nazi POW and concentration camps. A meaningful plaque that can be seen at the cemetery commemorates six Italian generals murdered on the Polish territory by the retreating Germans in January 1945.


Jacek Żurek

autor zdjęć: Cezary Pomykało,

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