Behind the Scenes of the Greater Poland Uprising

The participation of the Catholic clergy in the Greater Poland Uprising and in the preservation of the Polish national identity during the period of partitions (1793-1918)

Priest Dariusz Śmierzchalski-Wachocz

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Priests who participated in the Uprising did not limit themselves to providing religious care, but were also involved in the supply of food and medicines to the insurgents. All these chaplains were given the highest rating by the commanders of the Uprising, and the soldiers appreciated their courage and devotion at the most difficult moments along with their presence on the first line of the front and among the injured. The courage and devotion of many of them were honoured with high military distinctions.

The chaplains also granted help to educational officers, by, among other things, giving talks to soldiers. In order No. 1 of 21 August 1919, the General Dean emphasised, however, that the educational work should not absorb the priests so much that they have less time for their purely priestly work. ”Let me bring the attention of chaplains to one very important issue, namely, that they should put our priesthood always and everywhere in the first place. We will benefit greatly from this personally, and above all, our pastoral work will benefit, if soldiers will treat us, above all as chaplains and not as officers. However, I should like to emphasise with all my soul that your attitude to the officer corpus should be as friendly and open as possible. I think that we should never refer to an officer as ‘my colleague’. We are priests and not officers”. He banned chaplains from taking managerial posts in the educational department, they were supposed to support the officers responsible for the educational work with guidelines rather than with active help. Preserved documents show that the tasks of the garrison chaplains included matters related to religious services in garrison churches, schedules of services in the respective hospitals, organisation of military burials, custody of military prisons and administration of garrison cemeteries. Garrison chaplains were subjected to district deans, to whom they reported on the 5th day of every month. The deans, on the other hand, were obliged to send reports to the Bishop Curia of the Polish Army regarding the moral state of soldiers on the front by the 10th day of each month. Every regiment, frontline and garrison chaplain was obliged to run the parish office. 

In consultation with the Bishop's Curia of the Polish Army and General Dowbor-Muśnicki, St. Adalbert was chosen as the patron of the insurgent units. Furthermore, the General Dean issued a regulation for frontline chaplains regarding the choice of patrons for the respective units. The work of chaplains during the Greater Poland uprising was not in any way hindered owing to the goodwill and support of the Commander-in-Chief, General Dowbor-Muśnicki. The General Dowbór-Muśnicki Greater Poland Army Foundation was even established to collect funds for insurgents and disabled soldiers returning from the war. The District Dean of the Poznań Garrison, Priest Kazimierz Stanowski, writing a letter with a request for support of the Foundation, argued: “by making contributions to the fund we will, thus express our gratitude and respect which we have for General Dowbór-Muśnicki for standing on truly religious ground while forming the Greater Poland Armies.”. 

The work of the chaplains was also appreciated by Field Bishop Stanisław Gall, who wrote, in his letter to the General Dean of the Polish Army in the former Prussian Partition: “The letter sent by Priest Canon on behalf of the military clergy of the former Prussian partition, with words of reverence and obedience, fills me with joy, as I see that the chaplains of the Greater Poland formations, enlivened by the spirit of ecclesiastic discipline work effectively for the good of our soldiers”. In the difficult conditions in which the Polish statehood was reborn, the military chaplaincy was present wherever Polish units were formed. The organisational patterns were initially derived from the armies where the units were formed, however the chaplains in their activity referred to Polish military and national traditions, they were also involved in educational activity. Among the priests, volunteers prevailed and they performed their tasks with passion, without trying to avoid, if necessary, standing in line with the fighting soldiers. These priests created the foundations for the organisation and functioning of the pastoral work in the reborn Polish Army.

Their work often went beyond their official duties to ensure religious service to soldiers; they also played a huge role in the process of raising soldiers, popularising education, fighting with illiteracy and stimulating patriotic feelings. Owing to their attitude, they gained great respect and authority both among commanders and ordinary soldiers. 

To a great extent, the whole attitude of the Polish clergy affected the moral rebirth of the Polish nation. For the Greater Poland insurgents, a chaplain was a paragon of patriotic and civic virtues. It must be emphasised that during World War II, many participants of the Uprising became victims of German extermination, including its leaders and their families. Persecutions also affected the entire clergy, and above all, priest-insurgents became the victims of that revenge.


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