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Odd Fighting Units: The Zouaves of Death in Poland's January Uprising of 1863

The Zouaves of Death (in Polish Żuawi Death) are perhaps one of the most ghoulishly named fighting units of the 19th century conflicts which were fought in the buildup of empires, republican states, and commonwealths in the wake of the previous Napoleonic Age (c.1803-1815). Created by a former French army officer, François Rochebrune (b.1830-1870), the Zouaves of Death fought in the January Uprising of 1863-1864 against the Russian Empire who had dominated (along with Austria & Prussia) much of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth since the Great Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795.

The Zouaves of Death and Polish scythmen brace for a charge of Russian cavalry during the January Uprising in this dramatic and patriotic painting from the early 20th century

Formed in Ojców in Febuary of 1863, Rochebrunes volunteer and free lance militia was styled in the debonair attire of the French Algerian Zouave, a popular style of dress for infantrymen from the 1850’s until the end of World War I in 1918. They fought in many of the major battles of the Uprising in what was then known as the Congress of Poland, ruled by Tsar Alexander II of Russia (b.1818-1881). The Zouaves of Death fought attached to the peasant armies and cadres of Polish patriots led by a number of revolutionary leaders throughout the conflict.

François Rochebrune (b. 1830-1870) 
French army officer, Polish rebel, and Commander of the Zouaves of Death

A style of uniform as well as a French designation for their colonial light infantry of the same period, the term Zouave originated from the infantry regiments first raised from the Algerian Berber populace following the French invasions of Algeria in 1830-1831. The attire of the Zouave became known in Europe after the 1850’s when Zouave regiments fought bravely in the Crimean War. In later wars Zouave infantry fought and died for France in the Italian War of 1859, the Mexican “Intervention” of 1864-1866, and in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In the American Civil War both commissioned and private officers as well as amateur generals on both sides commanded Zouave units in the battles fought from 1861-1865.

Rochebrune and his volunteer Zouaves

Rising from a poor background, Rochebrune eventually became a sergeant in the French army, earning his first taste of battle serving with the Zouave 17th line infantry regiment in the Crimean War. He was made an officer either before or whilst on campaign in the 1857-1858 Anglo-Franco expedition to China during the Opium Wars sagas. Eventually he left the French army in 1862, whereupon Rochebrune moved to Poland, spending time in both Warsaw and Krakow teaching French to Polish pupils as well as offering fencing lessons.


Rochebrune as he may have looked preparing the Zouaves of Death for a bayonet charge in February 1863

Rochebrune was a man of great enthusiasm and charisma, most certainly an expert swordsman he was a man of iron will and a master of discipline who demanded that his men stand & fight, and die if need, to charge with cold steel and fury when he gave the order to do so. One great hindrance to him as an officer throughout the January Uprising was that he did not speak Polish at all nor did he attempt to learn it during his time in Poland in 1862-1863. He could often be heard yelling the same phrase over-and-over again in broken Polish as he urged his men forward in battle, shooting his Colt Navy pistol and brandishing his officers’ sword aloft.

He most certainly began developing the framework and formation of the Zouaves of Death before the general uprisings in PolandLithuania, and Latvia in January of 1863. Recruiting amongst his former students and university students in Warsaw, Rochebrune based his regiment and its discipline on his own experience in the French army. Maybe he was inspired by the Foreign Legionnaires and German Hussars as well, who's regiments often used death (or the deaths head) as a badge, motif, and common rallying cry in the face of battle. His Zouaves of Death borrowed their style and élan from the French Zouaves whom Rochebrune had served with in the trenches of the Crimea peninsula in 1853-1855.

Period depiction of the Zouaves of Death, Rochebrune stands in the center

Several other foreigners and Polish officers filed out the upper ranks of the Zoauves of Death, who before the Battle of Miechów numbered some 500-600 men and officers in total. His immediate officer corps included Emanuel Moszyński, his lieutenant of staff, and John Serafin Tomkowicz, one of his former students. They dressed in all black save for the white cross adorning their cloth undershirt and the white tassel dangling from their iconic red fez hats. The Zouaves of death armed themselves with modern percussion rifles, the standard infantry bayonet of around twenty inches in length, and a large hunting knife for close quarters combat. Most officers carried a six shot pistol, the models made by Colt a favorite, and an infantry officers sword.

Baptism by Fire, the Zouaves of Death in the assault on Miechów

Rochebrune’s Zouaves received their “baptism by fire” at the bloody Battle of Miechów in Febuary of 1863, attached to a Polish insurgent army commanded by Apollinaris Kurowski, which attacked the town of Miechów in the southern Congress of Poland. The assault on the Russian held town went poorly from the start and hundreds were killed, wounded, or fled due to the staunch defense put up by the Imperial army.

The Zouaves of Death made their presence known when Rochebrune personally led a bayonet charge into a cemetery located outside the town in an attempt to silence the Russian guns. The charge was fierce and many of the Zouaves did indeed meet their death fighting hand to hand with their Russian enemies. At least 150 were killed or seriously wounded and a dozen or more officers perished in the successful attempt to take the cemetery.

Period battle scene from the January Uprising in 1863

By the end of the battle the Russians had retired their guns and had withdrawn from the cemetery positions however the Polish rebels had been defeated outright. Over 200 Poles lost their lives in the fight for the town, many others of who were most likely wounded were executed following the conclusion of the battle. The Russians suffered fewer than 75 casualties defending the town from 2500 Polish infantry, cavalry, and the Zouaves of Death attachment. The regiment had been severely maimed in the assault and Rochebrune injured as well in the charge on the cemetery. Both his top officers Moszyński and Serafin Tomkowicz were slain also. Angered by the Polish rebels attack on Miechów the Russians later set the town ablaze after having defended it earlier in the day. 

Zouaves of Death from insurrection to extinction

Bloodied after their personal victory but after an overall strategic defeat at Miechów, the Zouaves of Death regrouped and reformed. Rochebrune now calling himself de Rochebrune, recruited more men to replace those fallen in battle, drilling and instilling discipline in them awaiting their next campaign. Word of their unique dress and brave exploits in battle traveled fast and soon other units sprung up, clamoring to join the regiment and to fight the Russians. Some of these new recruits included entire cadres of scythemen, Polish farmers turned insurgents who were armed with scythes and the farm tools of their profession along with muskets as well.

Polish scythemen photographed during the January Uprising

With maybe more than 400 men in the regiment, the Zouaves fought under the dictator and revolutionary officer Marian Langiewicz (b.1827-1887) in a defeat of Col. Xavier Czengiery at the Battle of Chrobrzem. They would fight again a day later at one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Polish theater of the January Uprising at the Battle of Grochowiska. Combined with the losses they suffered the day before, Russian losses totaled more than 300 killed or missing in the bloody skirmishing that took place in the forests around the field of battle outside Pińczów.

Once again the Zouaves of Death showed great courage and determination in charging their enemy no matter the cost, loosing perhaps 100 or more of their ranks in a deadly charge. The terrain must have played a major role in Rochebrunes attack, his men most certainly taking advantage of the dense trees and shrubbery in the forest. Once again they took the Russian guns, six of them to be exact, in a bayonet charge, silencing them in yet again another sanguinary display of dash and élan. Many believed it was Rochebrune who had won the day in this battle leading the scythemen against the Russian infantry which broke the numerically and tactically superior Imperial line.

Following the Polish insurgent victory in the woods at Grochowiska, Rochebrune was promoted to General, leaving Poland for France soon after. Not long after both the Uprising and his regiment collapsed, the Polish insurgents defeated and scattered. Many of its leaders (save for Langiewicz) were later arrested, convicted of treason and hung by the Imperial army in the name of Tsar. Twenty or so Zouaves of Death veterans would continue to fight in the wars last battles or managed to escape to Austria.

A battle flag is being held by the middle soldier. The Zouave on the right is most likely an officer

Overall the regiment played a somewhat insignificant part in the January Rebellion of 1863-1864 which was fought in parts of not just modern day Poland but throughout modern Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine from 1863-1865. Still the Zouaves are remembered as a dedicated band of irregulars with a unique iconography and bloody record of service in a great national uprising which was doomed from the start. Though they do hold the distinction of being merely a curiosity among the foreign legions and mercenary armies of the mid 19th century, the Zouaves of Death did show great courage in the face of grave dangers and seemingly impossible odds. Their fleeting accomplishments deserve most certainly to be praised alongside the other glory seeking regiments and fighting units of this age who sought to charge and to fight with bayonet & sword to take the day.

The Zouaves of Death resolved and almost did fight to the death in every battle or skirmish in which they fought, loosing many of their number in the running battles fought in vain to free greater Poland from the imperialist yoke in February to May of 1863. Rochebrune would meet his death in January of 1871; killed by a Prussian bullet fighting for France in the Battle of Montretout during the Franco-Prussian War whilst serving as an officer in the Garde nationale

General Francoise de Rochebrune

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