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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For unknown reasons, the characteristic eagle from the Supreme People’s Council’s stamp was not on the stamps of the Central Command of the uprising. Central Command’s day order of 10 January 1919 stated that Central Command would use the following stamps: an oblong stamp reading “Dowództwo Główne / W. P. zab. Prusk.” (“Central Command / Polish Army of the Prussian Partition”) and a round stamp with a narrow eagle without a crown, with its wings directed upwards, with an inscription reading “DOWÓDZTWO GŁÓWNE” “W.P. zab. Prusk.” (“Central Command” “Polish Army of the Prussian Partition”), additionally they would be pressing original seals in red ink directly on the order. An open crown on the eagle’s head was added later to introduce a new version of the stamp with the eagle inspired by the Eagle of the Greater Poland Armed Forces and with a modified inscription reading “DOWÓDZTWO GŁÓWNE” “SIŁ ZBROJNYCH” (“Central Command” “of the Armed Forces”), and, below the eagle, horizontally, “w b. zab. prusk.” (“in the former Prussian Partition”).

The eagle of the Greater Poland Armed Forces had probably been inspired by General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki, who wanted to unify the signs. As a result, an eagle referring to the eagles used in Polish military units in the East was introduced. It was, to the greatest extent, inspired by the eagles used in the 1st Krykhivtsi Uhlan Regiment.

Another sign which is very characteristic for the 1918-1919 Greater Poland Uprising is a badge called the “Wielkopolska Matkom Poległych” (“Greater Poland for the Mothers of the Victims”) memorial sign. The purpose of the badge, introduced at the request of General of the Branch Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki and by the Supreme People's Council’s decree of 22 April 1919, was to honour the mothers of the insurgents who had lost their lives during the uprising. It was forged of silver coins used in the occupants’ countries, donated by Greater Poland residents for the needs of the Polish Army now being reborn.

The badge was in the shape of a knight’s cross with round endings (as inspired by the Virtuti Militari Order), connected with a golden laurel wreath. In the centre, there was a small silver eagle with an open crown on its head, against a red enamelled background. On the arms, decorated along their edges with black stripes, there was an inscription reading “WIELKO” “POLSKA” “MATKOM” “POLE-/GŁYCH” (“Greater Poland for the mothers of the victims”). On the reverse, there was a pin, and on some of the badges there were subsequent award numbers. People honoured with the badge were also awarded decorative award documents. It is thought that about 1500 of them were awarded, which seems to be proven by the “List of losses resulting from the 1918/1919 Greater Poland Uprising”, issued in 1936, which includes 1714 entries.

The only badge awarded in the Greater Poland Armies was the badge of the Greater Poland Infantry Non-Commissioned Officers’ Training School introduced as the “school badge” by Central Command’s order no. 116 of 30 April 1919. It was worn by lecturers and graduates of the school on the left side of the uniform jacket. The badge was made of silver-plated brass. It was in the shape of an eagle against a background of crossed guns, with an open crown on its head and an epaulette with a monogram of letters “WSP” [Greater Poland Non-Commissioned Officers’ Training School] Lower, on the ribbon, there was the date “9 MARCA 1919” (“9 March 1919”). On the reverse, there was a pin. The award of the badge was acknowledged in an annotation on the course completion diploma. 

Central Command’s daily order no. 1 of 5 January 1919, in item IIa. 1) included a characteristic directive: “Soldiers are forbidden to carry a weapon with the stock upwards”, which was inspired by a habit introduced by rebelling soldiers in Germany. 

Central Command’s order no. 16 of 20 January 1919, obliged soldiers to collect and send back to Poznań all guns of foreign systems (Russian, French etc.), and leave only the 98 and 88 system guns. Each District and each section was told to use weapons as part of one system, to facilitate the supplies of ammunition. The system 71 guns were to be kept by non-combat organisations (such as Security Guards, People’s Guards etc.). Thus, by looking at the type of weapon, it was possible to distinguish the regular army from other formations. 

The “Polonisation” of German weapons became characteristic. An example of this is a Prussian infantry officer’s broadsword, the 1899 model, currently exhibited in the Military Museum of Greater Poland, with the monogram of Emperor William II as the Prussian King removed from the handle, and the Prussian eagle sanded down from the crossguard. The inscription on the blade said: “Dnia 27go stycznia 1919 r. składało na tę szpadę 1600 powstańców wielkopolskich w Pawłowicach, Osiecznie i Kościanie przysięgę wierności Polsce” (“On 27 January 1919, 1600 insurgents fighting in the Greater Poland Uprising made a vow in Pawłowice, Osieczna and Kościan, on this sword, to remain faithful to Poland.”). The broadsword used to belong to the Commander of the Leszno Group, Bernard Śliwiński from Poniec. Another example is the Prussian cavalry broadsword, 1899 model, of the 1st Royal Mounted Rifle Regiment who stayed in the barracks on  Grunwaldzka Street in Poznań, where the Mounted Rifle unit of the Poznań Guard was formed (later: the 1st Greater Poland Uhlan Regiment). The crossguard shields were removed and the Polish eagle was soldered over the Prussian signs. 

It may be stated in conclusion that the most characteristic signs of the 1918-1919 Greater Poland uprising were the red-and-white colours. They had been used before the outbreak of the uprising to emphasise that the lands under Prussian occupation were Polish. They appeared in public spaces in the form of red flags with a white eagle, and red-and-white flags hung out on city streets and in places where meetings were held. They also appeared on uniforms and civilian garments in the form of red-and-white ribbons and cockades worn on the chest, or bands worn on the sleeves. After placing red-and-white ribbons on uniform collars under the order of 8 January 1919, the ribbons became a distinguishable sign of the Armed Forces of the Prussian Partition. 

There were other signs that were characteristic for the 1918-1919 Greater Poland uprising: an eagle with an open crown on its head with its feathers directed downwards, introduced on the stamps of the Supreme People’s Council, and - without the crown - on the stamps of the People’s Guard in Poznań. They were used as a template for the sewing of the banners of voluntary insurgent units, and a basis for making the banner of the 1st Greater Poland Rifle Regiment in January 1919. In April 1919, the eagle called “Queen Hedwig’s Eagle” appeared on the standards of the Greater Poland Armies and on patches (on the collars) of uniforms belonging to officers and soldiers of Central Command's Staff. 

In January 1919, the Central Command of the uprising adopted a slimmer Polish eagle without a crown on its stamps, with a circular inscription reading “DOWÓDZTWO GŁÓWNE” “W.P. zab. Prusk.” (“Central Command of the Polish Armies in the Prussian Partition”). When command was taken by General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki, a crown on the eagle’s head was added and the inscription was changed to “DOWÓDZTWO GŁÓWNE” “Sił Zbrojnych” “w b. zab. Prusk.” (“Central Command of the Armed Forces in the former Prussian Partition”). It occasionally happened that some of the eagles did not have crowns - it depended on the ordering entity or the manufacturer of seals. When the so-called “Eagle of the Greater Poland Armies”, made of metal and pinned to headgear, was introduced, the image of the eagle also started to appear on stamps.

As well as the eagles on caps and the red-and-white stripes on collars, another element that was most visible to observers was the colour of the uniforms, described in the orders as grey and greyish-green, based on the “feldgrau” and “steingrau” colours of the German military uniforms and the stocks which (uniforms and fabric) were stored in military units and institutions. Uniforms taken from German warehouses were adjusted and delivered to the newly-formed units of Greater Poland Armies. The uniforms used during service in the German army were gradually withdrawn. As some of the officers kept wearing their old uniforms, General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki in his order of 18 April 1919 commanded the soldiers to have them adjusted and to wear only uniforms that comply with the regulations. The most characteristic elements of the uniforms worn by the Greater Polish soldiers included a relatively high “rogatywka” cap with a rosette and military rank insignia on its side, the design of the uniforms themselves and the rank insignia sewn on the sleeves.

The military formations from Greater Poland were also characterised by cold steel weapons, individual rifles, machine guns, artillery and military equipment. For obvious reasons, the vast majority of the weapons had been made in Germany. 

After the incorporation of the Greater Poland Armies into the Polish Armed Forces of the reborn Poland (from May 1919), the differences were gradually evened out. Some of them, such as weapons and equipment, survived until the September campaign in 1939.

The signs described in this publication, i.e. banners and standards, insignia and other historical objects, included and will continue to include specific symbolism defining the activities taken in Greater Poland in 1918-1919, the purpose of which was to regain independence.


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