General Józef ZajączekPolish general known as General Watermelon who joined the French in 1797 and served in Italy, Egypt, and Russia
Born: November 1, 1752
Place of Birth: Kaminietz, Poland
Legion of Honor: Commander
Died: July 21, 1826
Place of Death: Warsaw, Poland
Arc de Triomphe: ZAYONSCHECK on the south pillar
General Zajączek's name is frequently spelled Zayonchek or Zayonczek in English and French sources. Zayonchek was a dashing figure who like many in the Polish military joined up with the French. Always well-dressed for battle, Zayonchek would go into battle in full dress uniform, wearing cologne and jewelry, and wielding an ornate sword.
During his early career, Zayonchek served with the Russians against the Turks at the siege of Otchakov. In 1792 he served under Poniatowski against the Russians, and then two years later was wounded by two shots in the defense of Praga. 1795 saw Zayonchek arrested in Galicia by the Austrians, but he managed to escape and make his way to freedom in France. In March of 1797, General Bonaparte admitted Zayonchek into the service of France as a général de brigade in the Army of Italy and then gave him command of a corps of cavalry. In the following months General Zayonchek raised a battalion of 1000 Polish soldiers to serve with the army.
Designated for the Army of the Orient, Zayonchek initially commanded cavalry in Egypt before being placed under Andreossy's command with the flotilla of the Nile. While in Egypt, soldiers began to call him "General Watermelon" due to his love of the fruit. After fighting at Chebreiss, he was made governor of the province of Menoufieh, and then he fought at Remerieh. Next he served under Desaix for many months, and then eventually he fought at Canope . After taking part in the defense of Alexandria, General Menou promoted him to général de division in May of 1801, and then he returned to France at the end of the year.
For the remaining years of the Consulate Zayonchek served in Italy commanding a division, and then he received the honor of being made a Commander of the Legion of Honor. In September of 1804 he joined the staff of the Grande Armée under Andreossy and served in the 1805 campaign until he became sick in Vienna. The following year he was ordered to organize a Polish legion and upon doing this he took command of his new unit. After traveling to Warsaw in December of 1806, the following month he was placed in charge of a Polish corps of the army with which he besieged Graudentz. With the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit and the creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Zayonchek passed into the service of the Duchy.
Over the next few years, Zayonchek commanded a division under Poniatowski and participated in the campaign of 1809 in Poland. For the Russian campaign of 1812, he took command of the 16th Division of Poniatowski's V Corps and he was wounded leading his division at Smolensk . During the retreat, when Poniatowski was wounded at the Battle of the Berezina, Zayonchek took command of the corps and led it admirably until being wounded in the leg by a ball. Despite being a potentially fatal wound, Dr. Larrey saved his life by performing a difficult amputation of his leg in deplorable conditions. As the snow fell and the wind blew, Larrey ordered some soldiers to hold a cloak above them as a makeshift tent while he performed the amputation which took only three minutes. Sent to Vilna in Larrey's personal carriage to recover, Zayonchek survived but was taken prisoner and held until 1814. So thankful for surviving his awful wound, Zayonchek wrote to Larrey, hoping to repay him by returning his carriage or paying him for his service. Dr. Larrey wrote him back, but did not hear from him or receive his carriage. Finally in 1819, Zayonchek sent money and a letter to Larrey that ended with, "I embrace you and thank you from the bottom of my heart."1
- Robert Richardson, Larrey: Surgeon to Napoleon's Imperial Guard, (London: Quiller Press, 2000), 180-181.
Updated May 2014
© Nathan D. Jensen