The 101st anniversary of Józef Piłsudski’s becoming First Marshal of the independent Poland

an interview with Professor Włodzimierz Suleja

“Until Piłsudski’s assumption of this title, the title of marshal did not exist in the Polish military tradition”, says Professor Włodzimierz Suleja. How did it happen that Józef Piłsudski became First Marshal of the independent Poland?


Józef Piłsudski is one of the most distinguished figures involved in the restoration of sovereignty after the First World War. Nobody questioned the patriotic feelings of Piłsudski, but the case was different when it came to his military background.

Until the outbreak of the First World War, Piłsudski was self-educated, however, during the Great War he commanded first a regiment and then a brigade. His lack of formal military education was the main argument his opponents used against him, and yet Piłsudski was a brilliant commander, though there is no doubt that he was lucky in battle. He was familiar with the tactics that Napoleon used. He was also well-read when it came to wars and battles that had taken place during his lifetime (Boer Wars, Russo-Japanese War, Balkan Wars), and he drew insightful conclusions from them.

Professor Włodzimierz Suleja – Director of the Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance. His biography of Józef Piłsudski was translated to several foreign langauages
(picture PAP/M. Obara)

He ended his service in the Legions only as a brigadier. What did this rank mean?

In the army of the Imperial and Royal Monarchy, under which Piłsudski and his unit functioned, there was no such rank – it was created especially for him. In practice, it explained the service that Piłsudski had provided while in the army.

So where did the idea come from to award Piłsudski with the rank of marshal of Poland?

The idea to honor Józef Piłsudski in this way appeared at the first meeting of the so-called General Verification Commission, established under an Act of the Sejm on 2 August 1919 on determining the age of senior soldiers and awarding ranks in the Polish Army. The committee began debating on 26 February, and its resolution was communicated to Piłsudski on his name day, on 19 March 1920, by the then Minister of Military Affairs, General Józef Leśniewski. It was he, in fact, who was the initiator of this in a letter to the chairman of the Sejm, Wojciech Trąmpczyński in the summer of 1919. Although it all seemed obvious and determined, the right-wing circles, strongly reluctant to elevate Piłsudski, immediately opposed it. In the summer of 1919, after the senior officer’s convention, it was considered a foregone conclusion by the opposition that was motivated by purely political reasons.

What was the role of the marshal in the Polish military tradition?

Until Piłsudski’s assumption of this title, the title of marshal did not exist in the Polish military tradition. Prince Józef Poniatowski was appointed a marshal by Napoleon on the first day of the battle of Leipzig in October 1813 – but not of Poland, only of France.

Prince Jozef Poniatowski, after 1810 (painting by Józef Maria Grassi; public domain)

So what did the marshal’s function in the Polish army in 1920 mean?

On the one hand, it confirmed the actual hierarchy, on the other, it was a recognition of Piłsudski’s achievements, both past, related to his role in restoring independence, as well as present, those related to wars for the settlement of the Polish borders. The more so, as it was a period of preparation for the Kiev expedition. The marshal’s title was primarily symbolic. The case of real sovereignty over the army was regulated by other legal acts which were being fiercely discussed until May 1926, when Piłsudski conducted a coup d’état.

The date of awarding Piłsudski the marshal title was unusual as 19 March was his name day.

Indeed, his name day was considered the most appropriate one on which to inform the Commission of the decision. It’s hard not to notice that the symbol of the marshal’s power, the mace, would have been the right kind of gift on this day. However, it was necessary to wait until it was official in November. On the one hand, the ongoing military operations were an obstacle, on the other, an appropriate moment was bring sought. As such, it was finally considered the first day of independence after the end of the war – 11 November 1920. The ceremony was boycotted by the opposition. This event confirmed the position of Piłsudski, also on political grounds, which is why the opposition, especially the nationalist one, did not want to participate in it.

Marshal’s mace granted to Józef Piłsudski. Celebration on 11 November 1920 in Warsaw (public domain)

What were the repercussions of Piłsudski’s acceptance of these honors?

Apart from the boycott, the fact of Piłsudski’s being the marshal was not disputed in the country. On the outside, it was also approved, although the tone of comments varied, of course, depending on the shape of relations with Poland.

After Piłsudski’s death in May 1935, his successors ruling Poland made the marshal’s mace the highest symbol of power. In November 1936, it was received by Edward Rydz-Śmigły.

The decision met with considerable opposition, especially among Piłsudski’s oldest and most devoted collaborators, such as Walery Sławek, for whom it was one of the saddest days in his life. It was also part of the power dispute among Piłsudski’s heirs.

However, defenders of Edward Rydz-Śmigły indicate that he was a talented officer and perhaps one of the most competent generals in Poland. Therefore, the award of the marshal’s mace was a logical move and an attempt to establish a new political order in difficult times.

This attitude is not unique when it comes to the military competence of Rydz-Śmigły. He was indeed a talented commander, he gained combat skills during the First World War, directing the actions of the 1st Legion Infantry Regiment. It was he whom Piłsudski entrusted with the most difficult tasks during the war against the Bolsheviks, moreover, Piłsudski considered his candidacy as a potential commander-in-chief, though he appreciated General Kazimierz Sosnkowski more. Rydz, however, was not used by the Marshal for political activities. Therefore, the decision to grant him a mace, a political decision, must be treated primarily in these categories – as part of the game in the Piłsudski camp. It must be said that Rydz-Śmigły could not keep up with Piłsudski in any field…

Marshal’s mace granted to Edward Rydz-Śmigły Celebration on 10 November 1936 in Warsaw (public domain)

Marshal’s mace gave Józef Piłsudski authority. Unfortunately, the rank itself was not awarded to particularly outstanding individuals. Maybe except Ferdinand Foch.

This is true. In the case of the French marshal, it was a kind of courtesy and recognition of his merits in the First World War. However, after 1945, when Michał Rola-Żymierski, Konstanty Rokossowski and Marian Spychalski became marshals, we were dealing either with a clear sign of lack of sovereignty, or even a mockery of national history.

Interviewers: Piotr Abryszeński & Piotr Bejrowski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin