Virtuti Militari

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Order of Virtuti Militari

The Order of Virtuti Militari (Latin: "For Military Virtue") is Poland's highest military decoration for valor in the face of the enemy, equivalent to the British Victoria Cross and the US Congressional Medal of Honor. Currently it has five classes.

The order was created in 1792 by King of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski. However, soon after its introduction the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was destroyed in the partitions of Poland of 1795 and the partitioning powers abolished the decoration and prohibited its wearing. Since then it has been reintroduced, renamed and banned several times, and it's fate closely reflected the changing fates of Polish nation. Since 1989 there have been no new awards of the Virtuti Militari




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Throughout its history, the Virtuti Militari cross has shared its country's fate: it has been abolished several times, only to be reintroduced again.

The order was originally created on June 22, 1792, by King Stanisław August Poniatowski to commemorate the victorious Battle of Zieleńce. Initially it comprised two classes: a golden medal for generals and officers, and a silver one for NCOs and ordinary soldiers. By August 1792 a statute for the decoration had been drafted, based on that of a similar Austrian medal of Empress Maria Theresa. The regulation changed the shape of the decoration from a star-shaped medal to a cross (the design has not changed substantially since). It also introduced a different class system: since then, the cross has been issued in 5 classes.

Rank Name Remarks
  Medal chapter - 1792 - 1794
Lt Gen Prince Józef Poniatowski
Lt Gen Tadeusz Kościuszko
Maj Gen Michał Wielhorski
Maj Gen Stanisław Mokronowski
Maj Gen Józef Zajączek
Brigadier Prince Eustachy Sanguszko
Col Józef Poniatowski
Col Michał Chomętowski
Lt Col Ludwik Kamieniecki
Maj Mikołaj Bronikowski
Maj Józef Szczutowski
Lt Michał Cichocki
Lt Ludwik Metzel
Squadron leader Bartłomiej Giżycki


  1. Grand Cross with Star
  2. Commander's Cross
  3. Knight's Cross
  4. Golden Medal
  5. Silver Medal

The first members of the decoration's chapter were also its first recipients. For the Polish-Russian War in Defence of the Constitution of 1792, a total of 63 officers and 290 NCOs and privates were awarded the Virtuti Militari. The statute was never fully implemented, however, since soon after its introduction the King acceded to the Targowica Confederation, which on August 29, 1792, abolished the decoration and prohibited its wearing. Any who wore the medal could be demoted and expelled from the army by Poland's new authorities.

Although on November 23, 1793, the Grodno Sejm reintroduced the decoration, on January 7, 1794, it was again banned again on the insistence of Russia's Catherine the Great. Only a year later the very Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth shared the fate of it's decoration, as it has been annexed by its neighbours in the partitions of Poland. King Stanisław August Poniatowski abdicated the same year. During the his reign a total of 526 of the medals were granted: 440 Silver Medals and Crosses, 85 Golden Medals and Crosses, and 1 Commander's Cross.

Duchy of Warsaw

Rank Name Remarks
  Recipients - 1806 - 1815
  I Class - 2 awarded
General Prince Józef Poniatowski February 25, 1809
Marshall of France Louis Nicolas Davout March 22, 1809
  II Class - 10 awarded
Gen Józef Zajączek February 1, 1808
Gen Jan Henryk Dąbrowski March 6, 1808
Gen Karol Kniaziewicz November 17, 1812
Brig Gen Stanisław Fiszer August 22, 1809
Brig Gen Michał Sokolnicki August 22, 1809
Brig Gen Aleksander Rożniecki August 22, 1809
Brig Gen Józef Chłopicki November 26, 1810
Brig Gen Amilkar Kosiński November 17, 1812
Brig Gen Ludwik Pac October 1, 1813
Brig Gen Mikołaj Bronikowski
  III Class - 504 awarded
  IV Class - 23 awarded
  V Class - 1130 awarded

In 1806 Lt. Gen. Prince Józef Poniatowski was promoted to commander in chief of all forces of the Duchy of Warsaw, the short-lived Polish nation allied with Napoleon I of France. As one of the first recipients of Virtuti Militari, Poniatowski insisted on reintroduction of the decoration. Finally on December 26, 1806, the King of Saxony and Duke of Warsaw Fryderyk August Wettin accepted the proposal and reintroduced Virtuti Militari as the highest military award for all the Polish soldiers fighting alongside France in the Napoleonic Wars. The official name of the decoration was changed to Military Medal of the Duchy of Warsaw, however the soldiers remained faithful to the former name. The royal decree also introduced a new class system, that has been in use ever since. The class of the cross depended on the rank of the soldier awarded with it:

  1. I Class - Grand Cross (with Star) (Krzyż Wielki z Gwiazdą, for commanders in chief)
  2. II Class - Commander's Cross (Krzyż Komandorski, for division commanders)
  3. III Class - Knight's Cross (Krzyż Kawalerski, for brigadiers, colonels and majors)
  4. IV Class - Golden Cross (Krzyż Złoty)
  5. V Class - Silver Cross (Krzyż Srebrny)

Initially each of the high commanders of the Army had a quota of Virtuti Militari to be awarded to his soldiers. However, soon the system was changed and since then the order is usually awarded centrally, for individual acts of bravery, after being nominated by the chain of command. According to the decree of October 10, 1812, each of the recipients of a Golden or Silver Cross had a right to a yearly salary until promoted to officer or (if demobilised) for life. Also, during the Napoleonic Wars the present tradition of awarding the soldiers with Virtuti Militari in front of the unit was established.

Between 1806 and 1815 there were 2569 crosses awarded to Polish soldiers fighting on all fronts: from Santo Domingo to Russia and from Italy to Spain. Also, on May 20, 1809, Sergeant Joanna Żubr was the first woman to receive the decoration (V class) for her part in the assault on Zamość.

Congress Poland

Rank Name Remarks
  Recipients - November Uprising of 1831
  I Class - 1 awarded
General Jan Skrzynecki for the Battles of Wawer and Dębe Wielkie
  II Class - 1 awarded
  III Class - 105 awarded
  IV Class - 1794 awarded
  V Class - 1963 awarded

In 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, when European powers reorganised Europe following the Napoleonic wars, Kingdom of Poland - known unofficialy as Congress Poland - was created. This state, with 1/10 area of the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, and 1/5 of its population, was now a tied to Russia with a personal union. In the Congress Poland, the Virtuti Militari medal was renamed to Polish Military Medal (Medal Wojskowy Polski). Both the statute of Virtuti Militari and the privileges granted to the recipients were preserved. A special commission was created to award the Virtuti Militari to veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns of 1812, 1813 and 1814. Until 1820 additional 1213 crosses of all classes were awarded. Also, on June 5, 1817, the royal decree nobilitated all officers that received the Golden Cross.

Formally, Kingdom of Poland was one of the few contemporary constitutional monarchies in Europe, with the Tsar of Russian Empire as Polish King. The country was given one of the most liberal constitutions in 19th century Europe, although it was a far cry from the Polish Constitution of May 3rd of the late Commownealth. Polish desire for freedom and respect for their priviliges was source of constant friction between them and the Russians. The main problem was that the tsars, who had absolute power in Russia, similarly wanted no restrictions on their rule in Poland. When in 1825 Nicholas I denied to crown himself as a Polish monarch and instead continued to limit the liberties of Poland, in return, in 1831, the Polish parliament deposed the Tsar as King of Poland in response to his repeated curtailment of its constitutional rights. The Tsar reacted by sending Russian troops into Poland and the so-called November Uprising broke out.

Rank Name Remarks
  Provisional Chapter of the Virtuti Militari - 1920
General Józef Piłsudski head person
General Józef Haller de Hallenburg
Lieutenant General Wacław Iwaszkiewicz
Brigadier General Jan Romer
Brigadier General Edward Rydz
Brigadier General Franciszek Latinik
Colonel Mieczysław Kuliński
Colonel Stanisław Skrzyński
Major Mieczysław Mackiewicz
Captain Andrzej Kopa
Captain Adam Koc

After the outbreak of this uprising against Russia, the Polish Sejm decreed on February 19, 1831, that the decoration be renamed back to its original name: Order Virtuti Militari. Between March 3 and October of the same year, a total of 3863 crosses were awarded. Among the recipients of the Silver Cross were also three women:

After the fall of the uprising tsar Nicholas I abolished the decoration and banned its usage. On December 31, 1831, it was replaced with the Polish Honorary Sign (Polski Znak Honorowy), an exact copy of the original cross, but awarded only to Russians for various merits for the tsarist authorities.

Republic of Poland

After Poland regained her independence in 1918 as Second Republic of Poland, on August 1, 1919, the Polish Sejm reintroduced also the Virtuti Militari under a new official name: Military Award of Virtuti Militari (Order Wojskowy Virtuti Militari). The new statute of the decoration was also passed. The Class system introduced during the times of the Duchy of Warsaw was also reintroduced. According to the new statute, crosses each of class could be awarded to a different class of soldiers and for various deeds:

  • Grand Cross with Star, I Class: "for a commander who has achieved victory in a battle of strategic importance, resulting in total defeat of the enemy, or a successful defense that has decided the fate of a campaign."
  • Commander's Cross, II Class: "for a commander who has achieved a notable tactical victory or a valorous and successful defense of a difficult position."
  • Knight's Cross - III Class - For officers, NCOs or ordinary soldiers, awarded previously with the Golden Cross, for acts of outstanding bravery, risk of life or outstanding command over his troops
  • Golden Cross - IV Class - For officers who commanded their troops with outstanding bravery and valor or for NCOs and ordinary soldiers previously awarded with the Silver Cross, for acts of outstanding bravery and risk of life on the field of battle
  • Silver Cross - V Class - For officers, NCOs or ordinary soldiers, for acts of outstanding bravery and risk of life on the field of battle
Coat of Arms of  with Virtuti Militari symbol visible
Coat of Arms of Lwów with Virtuti Militari symbol visible

Each of the recipients of the Virtuti Militari, regardless of rank or post, received a yearly salary of 300 złotys.

Rank Name Remarks
  Recipients - 1920-1939
  I Class - 6 awarded
Marshal of Poland Józef Piłsudski
Marshal of Poland, France and the United Kingdom Ferdinand Foch
King of Romania Ferdinand I
King of the Belgians Albert I
King of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes Alexander I
King of Italy Vittorio Emmanuele III
  II Class - 19 awarded
Lt. General Edward Rydz
Lt. General Stanisław Haller de Hallenburg
Maj Gen Tadeusz Jordan-Rozwadowski
General Zygmunt Zieliński
Lt. General Jan Romer
General Stanisław Szeptycki
Lt. General Wacław Iwaszkiewicz
General of the French army Maxime Weygand
Marshal of Poland Józef Piłsudski
General Lucjan Żeligowski
Lt. General Władysław Sikorski
Lt. General Kazimierz Sosnkowski
Lt. General Leonard Skierski
Field Marshal of Japan Yakusata Oku
Field Marshal of Japan Kagheaki Kawamura
Marshal of Italy Armando Diaz
General Duke of Aosta Emmanuele Filiberto Italian army
Lt. General Duke of Torino Emmanuele Filiberto Italian army
General John Pershing United States
  III Class - 14 awarded (including 11 foreigners)
Lt. Colonel Gustaw Paszkiewicz
Colonel Stefan Dąb-Biernacki
Major Zygmunt Piasecki
  IV Class - 50 awarded (including 43 foreigners)
Lt. Colonel Gustaw Paszkiewicz
Lt. Colonel Stefan Dąb-Biernacki
Major Zygmunt Piasecki
Lt. Colonel Kazimierz Rybicki
Sergeant Kazimierz Sipika
Sergeant Stanisław Jakubowicz
Captain of Cavalry (rotmistrz) Stanisław Radziwiłł posthumously
  V Class - 8300 awarded (incl. 1800 posthumously and 187 foreigners)

Other privileges included the right of pre-emption when buying a state-owned land property or applying for a state post. Their children had additional points during the exams on state schools and universities. In addition, the recipients of the Virtuti Militari had a right to be saluted by other soldiers of equal rank and the NCOs and ordinary soldiers could be promoted one rank up upon receiving the award.

The new chapter of the decoration (Kapituła Orderu Virtuti Militari) was composed of 12 of the recipients of the crosses, four from each of the classes from I to IV. The head person of the chapter was Marshal of Poland Józef Piłsudski, the only living Pole awarded with the Grand Cross with Star. As the commander-in-chief of the Polish Army he could award the medals of classes I to III with the consent of the Chapter and the IV and V class upon receiving an application from the commander of a division or brigade. The Polish national feast of May 3 was chosen as the feast of the Virtuti Militari.

On January 1, 1920, Piłsudski awarded the first crosses to 11 members of a Provisional Chapter. On January 22, 1920, to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of the January Uprising the first soldiers and officers were officially decorated with Virtuti Militari for their deeds during the World War I and the Polish-Ukrainian War. Until 1923, when the award of new medals was halted, the Chapter awarded the crosses to 6589 recipients. Most of the recipients were veterans of the Polish-Bolshevik War, but among them were also the veterans of all wars in which the Polish soldiers fought in 20th century, as well as some of the January Uprising veterans. Among the recipients of the Silver Cross were two cities - Lwów and Verdun, as well as the banners of 14 infantry regiments, 6 cavalry regiments, an engineer battalion, a Women's Auxiliary Service unit and 12 units of artillery.

General  awards a wounded Polish pilot
General Sikorski awards a wounded Polish pilot

On November 24, 1922, a new Chapter was chosen for the times of peace. The following year the last medal for the World War I and the Polish-Bolshevik War was granted and further decorations were halted. On March 25, 1933, the Sejm passed a new Virtuti Militari Act (Ustawa o Orderze Virtuti Militari) which modified the shape of all the crosses and extended the privileges granted to VM recipients by the previous act of 1919. All the recipients of the decoration had a right to buy the railway tickets at 20% of their normal price. Also, the state paid for their healing and was obliged to provide them with a job that would enable the recipient of Virtuti Militari to live a decent life. In case of war invalids the Polish government was ordered to provide them with money, food and clothing for the rest of their lives. Finally, the annual salary of 300 złotys was tax-free and could not be impounded by the courts.

Also, the criteria for granting the crosses became more strict:

  • Grand Cross - I Class - for the commander-in-chief who won a war or, alternatively, for commanders of armies or fronts who achieved outstanding victories during various campaigns of the war
  • Commander's Cross - II Class - for commander of army or front (under special circumstances also commander of a group, division or brigade) for brave and daring command during an operation, which had important influence on the outcome of the war, or for other officers who contributed to the victory
  • Knight's Cross - III Class - For commanders of units up to the size of an army, for their outstanding leadership, initiative or bravery. Alternatively for staff officers for their cooperation with their commanders, that led to the final victory in a battle or war
  • Golden Cross - IV Class - For a soldier or officer, who was previously awarded with the Silver Cross and achieved an outstanding success on the battlefield thanks to his personal bravery or outstanding command of a division or a smaller unit
  • Silver Cross - V Class - for commanders who committed a daring and valorous command over their troops or for ordinary soldiers who influenced their comrades in arms by their bravery thus adding to the final victory in a battle
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General Sikorski decorates pilots of the Polish 303rd Squadron, the best squadron of the Battle of Britain

The Silver Cross could also be awarded to military units, cities and civilians. All classes of the Virtuti Militari medal were awarded by the commander-in-chief during the war or former commander in chief after the end of hostilities. The classes from I to III were awarded after a nomination by the Chapter, while the IV and V classes were nominated by the chain of command (usually by the commander of a division or brigade). Apart from the 12 members of the Chapter, all recipients of the I class had a right to take part in the voting.

World War II

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During the Polish Defence War of 1939 the fast German and Soviet advance prevented the Chapter from awarding the medals. Instead, commanders of divisions and brigades usually awarded the bravery of their soldiers with their own crosses received before the war. This was the case of the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans Regiment awarded with the Virtuti Militari of General Stanisław Grzmot-Skotnicki after the Battle of Krojanty.

Rank Name Remarks
  Recipients - World War II - 5573 awarded altogether
  II Class - 3 awarded
Lt General Władysław Anders
Lt General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski
Brigadier General Michał Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski
  III Class - 6 awarded
Lt. General Władysław Anders
Lt General Stanisław Maczek
Brigadier General Bronisław Duch
Lt General Tadeusz Kutrzeba
Brigadier General Franciszek Kleeberg
Brigadier General Antoni Chruściel
  IV Class - 201 awarded
  V Class - 5363 awarded
City of Warsaw on November 9, 1940, for the heroic defence in 1939

Following the fall of Poland in 1939, a large part of the Polish Army was evacuated to France, where it was reconstructed under the command of General Władysław Sikorski. In January 1941 the Polish Government in Exile introduced the Virtuti Militari as the highest military decoration of the Polish Army in exile. The legal basis for the election of a new Chapter was the Act of 1933. During the Second World War, the Virtuti Militari was also often bestowed to senior military officers of allied armies.

People's Republic of Poland

The Soviet-backed Polish Armies fighting on the Eastern Front were also awarding the Virtuti Militari. On November 11, 1943, General Zygmunt Berling awarded 16 veterans of the Battle of Lenino with Silver Crosses. On December 22, 1944, the Soviet-backed PKWN passed a Virtuti Militari Award Act, in which it accepted the medal as the highest military decoration of both the 1st Polish Army of Red Army and the Armia Ludowa resistance organisation.

Although the decree of the PKWN was loosely based on the act of the polish parliament of 1933, the exclusive right to award soldiers with the medal was granted to the Home National Council. Since 1947 the right was passed to the President of Poland and, after the replacement of the post with the Council of State, it was passed to that body. Between 1943 and 1989 the communist authorities of Poland awarded the medal to 5167 people and organisations. Some of the crosses were given to the officers and leaders of the Red Army and other armies allied to the Soviets during and after World War II.

Bridge of  decorated with Virtuti Militari medal
Bridge of ORP Błyskawica decorated with Virtuti Militari medal

Among the recipients of the Golden Cross was the ORP Błyskawica, probably the only warship in the world to be awarded with the highest-ranking national medal. Among the recipients of the V Class VM was also a number of military units, including 2 infantry divisions, 6 infantry regiments, 3 artillery regiments, 4 tank regiments, 3 air force regiments and a number of smaller units.

Republic of Poland (after 1989)

After Poland regained her independence in 1989, a number of Virtuti Militari awards made by the communist authorities were questioned. On July 10, 1990, President Wojciech Jaruzelski revoked the Grand Cross given to Leonid Brezhnev on July 21, 1974. On October 16, 1992, the Polish Sejm passed a new Virtuti Militari Act, based on the act of 1933. It restored the Chapter of Virtuti Militari abolished by the communist authorities, while confirming all decorations bestowed by both the Polish government in exile and the Soviet-backed authorities in Poland.

Rank Name Remarks
  Recipients - 1943-1989
  I Class - 13 awarded
Marshal of the USSR and Poland Konstanty Rokossowski
Marshal of Poland Michał Rola-Żymierski
General Alexiey Antonov USSR
Marshal of the USSR Leonid Brezhnev revoked on July 10, 1990
Marshal of Yugoslavia Josip Broz-Tito
Mj General Nikolai Bulganin
Marshal of the USSR Andriey Grechko
Marshal of the USSR Ivan Koniev
Marshal of the USSR Alexander Vasilievski
Marshal of the USSR Georgy Zhukov
British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
General Ludvík Svoboda Czechoslovakia
General Karol Świerczewski (posthumously)
  II Class - 18 awarded
Lt General Stanisław Popławski
Lt General Juliusz Rómmel
Lt General Karol Świerczewski
Major Henryk Sucharski
  III Class - 57 awarded
Lt General Bolesław Kieniewicz
Lt General Władysław Korczyc
Lt General Marian Spychalski
  IV Class - 227 awarded
  V Class - 4852 awarded

Since 1989 there have been no new awards of the Virtuti Militari, and the new act of parliament introduced a rule setting the final deadline for awards at "no later than five years after the cessation of hostilities."

List of selected recipients

For a full list of recipients of Virtuti Militari featured on Wikipedia see: Category:Recipients of Virtuti Militari

See also

External link

de:Orden Virtuti Militari pl:Order Virtuti Militari uk:Virtuti Militari


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