Behind the Scenes of the Greater Poland Uprising

The signs and symbols of the Greater Poland Uprising in 1918-1919

Jarosław Łuczak

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The world around us is full of signs and symbols. If we take the common sense approach that contemporary signs, i.e. objects that are materially characteristic for our era, events and activities are commonly recognisable and their meaning and symbolism are known because information about them is easily accessible, then, in the cases of signs and symbols from the past, e.g. from a hundred years back, the recognition and definition of their symbolic meaning is in fact a much more complex task.  

As the terms “sign” and “symbol” are often used interchangeably, it should be emphasised here that in the scope of the subject of the present publication, a sign is an object – today it may be a monument, whose special value has led to it becoming a symbol of the action taken to do away with the Prussian Partition. Not every sign is therefore a symbol and, consequently, not every sign has symbolic meaning. Thus, symbols are the signs that, through mutual relations, have distinguishable meanings.

Today, a broad set of exceptional signs and symbols is associated with the Greater Poland Uprising of 1918-1919 and with the Greater Poland Armies formed in that time. The pro-independence activities undertaken in Greater Poland at the time of the uprising were among many similar activities carried out by Poles in the partition era. For the purposes of the activities aimed at regaining independence, the insurgents drew inspiration from the long and rich tradition of Polish symbolism.

The sign of the greatest importance for the Poles was, and still is, the Polish emblem of a white eagle. The emblem, introduced in 1295 by King Przemysł II, has been the central sign of the Republic of Poland since that time. The emblem includes a white eagle with its head turned to the right, wearing a (closed or open) crown, with a red shield in the background. The eagle and the shield are in Poland’s national colours. It is obvious that the shape of the eagle and the shades of colours in the emblem have changed throughout the more than 700 years of its history. But the emblem and the white-and-red colours have been the signs of the Poles from the moment of their creation, through successive historical eras.

The need to introduce a sign that would unite the Poles was acknowledged by senators and deputies at the Parliament of the Kingdom of Poland, who, during the session of the chamber of deputies on 7 February 1831, established the red and white National Cockade, making a reference to the colours in the emblem of the Kingdom of Poland and the Great Duchy of Lithuania. The cockade was to be worn primarily by the soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces of that time. 

After the failed November Uprising, the resolution was quoted during further activities aimed at regaining independence. It was this royal emblem and its colours that the participants of national uprisings, the Greater Poland uprising in 1848 and the Greater Poland uprising in 1918-1919 in particular, always referred to. The insurgents wore white-and-red cockades and fought under banners with the white eagle against a red background.

It was possible to start fighting for the Polish identity in the public space in the territory of the Prussian Partition only after the signing of the truce in Compiègne between the Entente countries and the German Empire, which marked the end of World War I, and after the abdication of the German King and Emperor of Prussia, William II, who had emigrated to the Netherlands on 10 November 1918, although this was only formally confirmed on 28 November 1918. 

Although the regulations set up by the newly-established worker and soldier councils did away with all the signs that had applied so far, and introduced new ones (red flags and bands), they could not stop the Germans who wanted to continue using the former signs, or the Poles, who finally had the opportunity to manifest that the lands taken by the Prussians were in fact Polish. 

These were mostly banners with the white eagle and white-and-red flags. They were hung for the first time in the streets of Poznań during the march of the District Parliament participants on 3 December 1918. It was emphasised in press coverage and parliamentary publications that the session was held in the “Apollo” theatre decorated with these national signs. 

The Polish national colours returned to the streets of Poznań on the occasion of Ignacy Paderewski and his companions’ arrival in Poznań. The decorations included mostly flags in different shades of red with a white eagle in the centre, fastened to flagpoles or hung on crossbars, triangle-shaped and with decorative fringes at the end. Eagles in various shapes were painted directly onto fabric or embroidered or sewn to a sheet of fabric. Other signs, such as the much simpler to make red-and-white flags, were made of two strips of fabric. 

One characteristic thing was that the children who, on 27 December morning, walked the main streets of the city in the parade organised to honour the guests staying at the “Bazar” Hotel, including Ignacy Paderewski, were holding previously prepared small paper flags stuck on sticks, reflecting the two signs described above. Some of the “miniflags” were rectangular, with the white eagle and red background, while others were took the form of white-and-red flags. Polish signs were also visible on stickers stuck on the windows of Polish houses, and even on the lanterns carried by the children.

The Polish national colours were also on soldiers’ uniforms and on the civilian clothes of Poznań residents. These were red-and-white bands pinned to the outer clothing, sometimes tied in ribbons. In a more complex form, there were cockades make of red-and-white bands tied in a rosette or just white-and-red bands worn on sleeves. It was characteristic of the time that the similarity of some of these signs, visible in iconography, must lead to the conclusion that some of them were made in a larger amount, as part of a previous order.

Other signs worn by Polish men and women were metal; silver or silver-plated eagles or brooches, pins etc. with a white eagle on them, pinned to garments. These occurred in various shapes and were made in Poznań or brought from other manufacturing locations.

It should be noted here that it was the behaviour of the German soldiers and civilians who were dissatisfied with the “explosion of Polish attitudes” as a result of the arrival of Ignacy Paderewski and the British officers, and who started a march from Jeżyce towards the city centre, tearing down Polish and allied flags, that led to a visible growth of tension in the city causing outrage among the Poles in Poznań. This hostile behaviour towards the Polish signs and colours triggered the first clashes in the city streets. 

Today, the most popular sign used by the insurgents is the banner with the white eagle, which was supposedly hung out on the night of 27 to 28 December 1918 in Łęczyca near Puszczykowo, as the news of the events occurring in Poznań reached the town. The image presenting the banner was used for the first time on the website by the Marshal’s Office of the Wielkopolskie province in Poznań in 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the uprising.

The banner, which is currently exhibited in the Museum of the 1918-1919 Greater Poland Uprising, is made of cotton, has a rectangular shape, which in its lower part tapers into a triangle. A white eagle without a crown is sewn against a red background. The image of the banner later appeared on the covers of many publications, souvenirs, websites, etc. After approving the opinion of those who claimed that only a small per cent of the patriotic banners featured an eagle without a crown, a crown was added. 

There is, however, a banner, stored in the same museum, which was not used in the first hours and days of the uprising. It presents a white eagle against a red background. The shape of the eagle was similar to the one approved in December 1918 as the emblem of the highest authority of the uprising – the Supreme People’s Council.  On this banner, with the words “NACZELNA” “RADA LUDOWA” (“The Supreme People’s Council”) written in the outer circle, there was an eagle with an open crown and very characteristic, long feathers directed downwards. This banner is made of red cotton, rectangle-shaped in the upper part and triangle-shaped in the lower part, with a white eagle sewn on it. At the end, decorative fringes were sewn, which additionally weighed the lower part of the banner down. However, this banner is the most characteristic sign of the 1918-1919 Greater Poland uprising, a symbol of the Polish lands being reborn. 

Some banners made for voluntary insurgent units were also undoubtedly inspired by the stamp of the Supreme People’s Council. An example of this is the banner made in Środa Wlkp., which was consecrated and given to the 1st Środa Company on 15 January 1919 in Poznań before its departure to the Western Front. On a sheet of amaranth fabric, eagles and the letters of an inscription were sewn. On one side, there was an eagle with an open crown on its head and feathers directed downwards, and the name of the unit: “1. KOMP. ŚREDZKA” (“the 1st Środa Company”). On the reverse, there was an eagle looking left, and the inscription “Boże błogosław nam” (“God bless us”). The banner was edged with silver fringes.

A similar solution was used for the banner of the Gołańcz Company, preserved until today. In the centre of a sheet made of red fabric, there is an eagle embroidered with silver and golden threads (the crown), much more similar to the one from the stamp of the SPC. Above the eagle in the upper part, there is an embroidered inscription reading “KOMPANIA Z GOŁAŃCZY” (“THE COMPANY FROM GOŁAŃCZ”), and under the eagle, in the lower part, there is the embroidered date “1919”. On the white reverse, there is an embroidered inscription “NIECH ŻYJE / WOLA / NIEPODLEGŁA / POLSKA!” (“Long live the free and independent Poland”) inscribed into a wreath made of two laurel branches. The reverse is edged with silver galloon.

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