The Ways of St. James in Poland

This article appeared in a magazine of history
MÓWIĄ WIEKI ‘Ages tell’ No. 2002/2



Prussian conqueror of Napoleon


Stanisław Borkowski


For young Hans Yorck barracks were a poor substitute of his family home. He served in the army since he was 12 years old. He was keen on firm discipline in the army. When without a permission of Frederick Wilhelm III he reached an agreement with Russia he commented on it: If king ordered to execute me by firing squad for that arbitrary behaviour which had a little of high treason, I would be expecting a bullet on a pile of sand as calm as on a battlefield where I turned grey.

Yorcks derived from Germanized Polish nobility which was living in Pomerania since forever. One of  progenitor of this house, probably having problems with breathing, was known as ‘Charka’ although his formal name was Gustkowski. To make things worse that nickname with time became the family name. German clerks tried to ‘civilize’ and Germanize it very long. In documents appeared records like ‘Horko’, ‘Gorko’, ‘Jorko’, ‘Jork’. The family started to use the form of ‘Yorck’ in the XIXth century: to blot out the memory of the Polish roots of the family they made up a fairy tale of English origin of the family. Johann Ludwig David, the creator of  greatness of county house of Yorck von Wartenburg and the character of our story, was born  September 26, 1759 in Potsdam. His father David Jonathan von Jork was a captain of grenadiers in Lozanian Battalion, brave and disciplined soldier, decorated many times for bravery on the battlefield. He received a Pour le Merité medal from the king Frederick II. Hans was his only son. It’s hard not to understand that he set his heart on a career of  an officer of Prussian army for his son.

For young Hans Yorck barracks were a poor substitute for his family home. Since he was 12 years old he served in the army in 16th infantry regiment in Królewiec. In 1773 as an officer trainee got to fusilier regiment in Braniew. He was training under general von Luck’s supervision. 4 years later as a 18-year old youth he received military rank of lieutenant. However, the service in the Prussian army disappointed him. Suspected of insubordination he decided to leave Prussia and then Europe. He enlisted to Dutch navy and took part in many sea battles against English in the Indian Ocean. He involved in service in Dutch army, slowly climbed the career ladder in army but he missed homeland of Prussia more and more. Till the death of the king Frederick II in August 1786 he didn’t have any chance to return to the army in home country. Only after that he found a vacancy in fusilier battalion in Namysłów. In 1792 he was promoted and he got a military rank of major. In 1794 he took part in fighting against the uprising of Kosciusko when Prussians fought with Russians against Polish. Near Szczekociny Yorck’s battalion received place in the left flank of Prussian army. Fusiliers from Silesia did there very well, they were noticed and honoured by their commanders and even by the king.

In 1799 he received a vacancy of a commander of infantry regiment in Mittenwalde in East Prussia. He promoted very quickly and became a Lieutenant Colonel, a colonel and then a general. Meanwhile in Europe a Napoleonic expansion started. Prussian generals believed that their army was still invincible. They soon convinced in 1806 that it was different. Yorck also took part in that terrible lesson. He was fighting near Jena under the Prince’s of Weimar command and he turned out to be a master of dodge – his units weren’t destroyed by French. Next stage of his military career started after signing the peace in Sovetskwhen he became a commanding officer in Klaipėda.

Yorck had strong personality and didn’t expose to emotions. He was cold and composed and that’s why he got out of trouble easily. He had been educated in military discipline since he was a child, he thought proverbial Prussian drill as a normal way of living and because of which he wasn’t popular among privates and officers who thought in different way. He was every inch conservative but he wasn’t keen on politics. He didn’t try to draw a conclusion from the cause of the defeat of Prussian army because he thought that he didn’t have anything to accuse of. He wasn’t interested in reforms in political system or improving the army and that’s why he considered the baron von und zum Stein, a reformer, his personal enemy. He protested especially strong against abolition of subjection in Prussia in November 1810. He called that edict ‘a derision of nobility’. He was worried that because of the reforms and abolition discipline would get lower in the army. He didn’t like also changes in the army conducted by Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and other commanders.

Napoleon to be a genius

A clumsy king Frederick Wilhelm III yielded to the pressure of Napoleon Bonaparte the Emperor and let French army concentrate in Prussia which was preparing to the campaign against Russia. Moreover, he agreed to give a 20-thousand auxiliary corps at France’s disposal. As a compensation for help after won war Prussia was to take over Russian provinces at the Baltic Sea. Command-in-chief of the corps entrusted to von Yorck. His direct French superior was general McDonald.

Late autumn of 1812 the quota without many casualties (about 1 thousand soldiers were killed) withdrew to comfortable barracks in East Prussia. Commanders with Yorck in the front of were waiting with anxiety for next events. Meanwhile, many Prussian officers dissatisfied with pro-French king’s policy found shelter in Russia. They pressed Yorck to leave Napoleon when would be first opportunity to do that and to join the opponents of France but general was deaf to that suggestions.

Everything changed at the end of the year 1812. It seemed that it would soon break out uprising against French occupation in Prussia. Yorck understood what could be imminent to the monarchy and junkers when they would still support losers and demanded from the king detailed instructions of action in case of anti-French riots. Unfortunately, the king wasn’t able to think up anything reasonable. His answers amounted to the expressions: Act in accordance with the circumstances. Napoleon to be a great genius, not be fussy (supposedly king wasn’t capable of speaking German correctly).

The rock and the avalanche

Yorck decided to work independently. 30 December 1812 he met with Iwan Dybicz, the commander of the nearest Russian corps. As a place of negotiations they chose a mill situated nearby Lithuanian small town Tauroga. General Dybicz knew Prussia and the Prussian. He was born in the Silesia – in Wielka Lipa (Great Lime) near Trzebnica and he was educated in Berlin cadet school. Two former officers who serviced then in Russian army accompanied Dybicz during the negotiations: major von Clausewitz and count Dohne. They reached an agreement quickly and on the basis of it Yorck’s corps in East Prussia kept neutrality during the withdrawal of the rest of Napoleonic army.

Tired of winter, Russian expanses and fights French soldiers had to change the route of march. However, the taurian convention made Russia become the new protector of Prussia. Clausewitz, wasn’t liked by Yorck personally, called his action one of the boldest action in the history. We must admit that general’s situation after signing the convention was really difficult, even tragic. But according to king’s will he was in the front of  Prussian quota to help Napoleon to defeat Russia. He arbitrary left French without royal order to decide independently about country’s fate and its policy.

Former German historians who wanted to hide king’s inefficiency claimed that Yorck acted according to his own secret guidelines what wasn’t truth. In the letter which Yorck sent to Frederick Wilhelm III just after he had signed the convention, Yorck was writing: The step I had made was made without an order of the king. The circumstances and important considerations had to excuse it in the fact of  the present day and the posterity.  Next he added that if king sentenced him to death for wilfulness which had a little of high treason and he ordered to execute him by firing squad he would be expecting a bullet on a pile of sand as calm as on the battlefield where he turned grey. The king understood why Yorck behaved that way and probably he accepted it but the news of general’s insubordination made him become angry. He dismissed Yorck and announced that he would appear before court martial soon for high treason and his agreement with Prussia’s enemy was invalid. The convention was only a small rock which caused an avalanche. The tsarist army marched into East Prussia and also Prussian officers with it who were opposition-minded. At the head of civil administration in Królewiec was baron Karl von und zum Stein – hated by the king – who ordered to arm people, Yorck kept command of the army.

Meanwhile king was visibly lost. To save the throne he supported the winners side. In March 1813 when Prussian army (under the command of Yorck) and Russian army marched into Berlin he issued the manifesto To my people. It triggered common enthusiasm of Prussian people, but also thanks for anti-French propaganda. The fight against Napoleon was thought as a real national war. Townspeople and craftsmen called in crowds to voluntary units, women donated valuables, they made things for dressings. However, defeating France wasn’t so easy as everyone thought. There were many difficult fights and many minor battles when lots of soldiers of each army were killed.

The stratagem and the reward

General Yorck created and cooperated to create many Prussian military successes. He liked to use stratagems during it. One of them, made up while he was waiting while forcing the Elbe river in the vicinity of Wartenburg village, made him famous. French army was withdrawing behind the river in hurry to make defence line. The Elbe river was bridged where infantry with artillery got to the other side of the river. Prussian were hot on McDonald's and his army’s heels and because of that McDonald’s people didn’t manage to pull down bridges. But predicting that the opponent would want to use them they placed their cannons and waited calmly. Yorck really wanted to get to the other side by using French bridges. To avoid running into an ambush he made up a trick: he ordered a part of his army to prepare to the departure in direction of down river. French, watching movements of Prussian army, came to a conclusion that they probably wanted to capture bridgeheads a few kilometers farther. They took their cannons and went to down river very quickly. Prussian only were waiting for that – without any casualties got to the other side of the Elbe.

General had been still fighting for many months before Napoleonic army was defeated. Yorck’s services to the country were rewarded. In 1814 he received earl’s title. In his new earl’s name Johann Ludwig David count Yorck von Wartenburg commemorated the stratagem from Wartenburg. In his former coat of arms there was an emblem of Saint Andrew’s cross or as some other people want – two crossed beams. Then in 5-fielded county coat of arms that emblem was placed on the centre field. To stress the services to the country on first and fourth field there was placed a black Prussian eagle, and on second and third field – a sword in laurels which represents military glory. The escutcheon was crowned by 9-club county crown and above it there were placed three tournament helmets with crowns and jewels – a black eagle, lion’s head, a sword in laurels. The escutcheon was supported by a lion and a unicorn. These animals borrowed from English heraldry (a lion from the emblem of England, a unicorn from the emblem of Scotland) correspond with English tone of the name. Under the escutcheon there is a red band with a Latin motto: NEC CUPIAS, NEC METUAS what can be translated as: “don’t desire, neither be afraid”. It seems that the motto expressed very well tough military character of general Yorck.

A hero looks for home

After the end of Napoleonic wars it turned out that well-known and admired by many people national hero had exactly no place to live in. As a matter of fact from royal casket was paid him a reward but it was little money to buy any bigger landed estate with a palace. Yorck decided to enumerate exactly to the king and the minister of the treasury his services to the country. That procedures was worth doing because he received from royal property the former residence of the Joannits in Olesnica Mala. That gift didn’t fulfill his ambition because it was an impressive monastery with a church in south wing, a cemetery and buildings with a belfry near the gate. In crypts under the church and around it were placed graves of Joannits’ leaders and other friars. The count didn’t want to live in a monastery. He decided to modernize and extend the palace by removing Joannits’ crosses and gravestones.

He moved in Olesnica Mala with his family in 1815. He ordered to convert first a south wing of the palace. Then he financed gardenroom which was to show the power and artistic taste of the family. The room marbled in each part was joined to the terrace with flower garden which had been created at the bottom of drained castle’s pond. From the south side of the palace was settled down a wine terrace with an orangery. General (since 1821 the field marshal) also took care of the nearest surroundings of the residence. He decided to convert the forest with beautiful old oaks into a park in English style. He began with land improvement, digging ponds and ditches, building small bridges, marking out alleys and access roads. Along the alley he planted noble trees and bushes. Cuttings of spruce was imported from nursery of Jelcz in count’s Saurm von Jeltsch property, Turkish lilac from nearby Psary – from nursery of count Hoverden.

Buried in the mausoleum

In 1822 count Yorck made electoral law in his property (about 3 thousand hectares) to prevent disintegration of the estate. The eldest male descendant of the family was to inherit. In the estate of Śliwice he made second electoral law meant for his grandson Albert who still lived then. In the summer of 1828 in park began to build the Yorcks’ family vault according to design of famous architect and painter Karl Friedrich Schinkl. The works were finished at the end of 1829. The mausoleum is regular eightangle-shaped of  9 meter in diameter. On the zinc-plated roof there is situated a brass 1,5-meter gold-plated cross. Its branches pointed exactly at the east-west direction. In wide niches of the funeral chapel till 1905 were hung oil paintings which showed the members of Yorck’s family.

Field marshal died  October 4, 1830. He was buried in grave crypt in the mausoleum. Next to the sarcophagus there were placed coffins of members of the family who died earlier. His son’s Heinrich coffin was put on his right, his wife’s Johanna who died in June 1827 and his daughter’s Johanna Berta who died in 1819 – on his left. Priest Carl Stehr, the chronicler of the family, noticed in 4 October 1830: Has died David Ludwig Yorck count von Wartenburg, Prussian general, field marshal, the knight of Prussian Royal Medal of the Black Eagle, of the Black Eagle with Oak’s Leaves Medal, of Great Cross I and II Class, of Iron Cross Medal, of Austrian Imperial Captain Cross, of Maria Teresa Medal, of Imperial Medals: of Alexander Newski, of St. Jerzy II Class, of St. Włodzimierz II Class, of Bravery Medal with Diamonds, of Great French Officer Legion of Honour Medal. Then were enumerated his numerous and rich goods.

Yorck’s family cultivated the memory of that brave man. There was put up in the park a beautiful monument which was designed by Rauch, a sculptor. There was placed also a monument of the taurian convention financed by his great-grandson Heinrich Yorck von Wartenburg because of the 100-year anniversary its signing. In the mausoleum which luckily stood the test of time there is placed the sarcophagus with general’s remains. In the park there has also survived a gravestone of Siwek, the beloved horse which he went through his military route with.

High Road


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