The Niagara-Berezyna Axis

General Haller’s army had a lot to thank France for: first and foremost its name but also its regulations, machine guns, tanks and legendary blue capes. But its rank and file was Polish, composed of diverse “Polish elements” – from recent subjects of Emperor Franz Joseph to settlers from Brazil.

Despite its unofficial, romantic name, the Blue Army was unlucky as far as historians and legends go. The research of the Army Historical Institute notwithstanding, a solid monographic work has yet to emerge and sources are sparse.

The army did not fight any major battles on the Western front (its first regiment fought at Reims; there it charged Saarbrücken on the evening of 11th November 1918 when word of a cease-fire broke) - they took part in a real battle on Polish soil in 1919.

Even its colourful aspects were not entirely successful, although its commander General Józef Haller was a great enthusiast of military braids and was prepared to personally design them – all that came of it were decorations for veterans. But even the Haller Swords, made of silver-plated tombac, did not really withstand the test of time.

Nevertheless, the significance of the formation was immense. Politically it filled a gap by facilitating the use of Polish POWs and volunteers. And it forcefully reminded the diplomats at Versailles, who had readily forgotten about their commitments, of the Polish question. Moreover, it became a laboratory of what several years later would be a phenomenon distinguishing Poland from other states: the integration of a nation that had been partitioned for over 120 years.

Recruitment poster for Polish Army in France The ranks of Haller’s Army had brought together Poles serving the French forces until 1917 with Polish POWs from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies. There were also soldiers and officers attempting to extricate themselves from the whirlwind of Russia’s civil war and trying to reach the West via the northern route (Arkhangelsk and London) or the southern route (via Asia Minor). Add to that a handful of members of the Polish Military Organisation, quite a few radical nationalists and throngs of men arriving from the US, Canada and even Bolivia who at one point constituted half of the entire army.

Assembling armed forces within “one’s own” POWs, who had been recruited for that purpose from POW camps, was a practice widely used in high politics and during the Great War. But mobilizing second and third generation émigrés, whose own parents were often devoid of national awareness, was an unprecedented achievement.

Bayonne volunteers

Of course, at the root of decisions to create a Polish Army in France were big power politics and an attempt to use the Polish question to outbid other powers. Without the series of events initiated by the November 5th act, it would not have been possible for Raymond Poincaré to sign the decree of June 4th, 1917.

One should keep in mind that Polish communities in France had first proposed creating Polish armed forces in August 1914, just after the outbreak of the war. Limited by the stance of its then ally Russia, the French authorities decided on a restrictive compromise: Poles (volunteers from the French army and the United States) were permitted to form a single company as part of a Foreign Legion regiment. The name Bajończycy (Bayonnites – from the barracks of Bayonne where they underwent ruthless training) and a banner designed by Xawery Dunikowski is all that has remained of the several hundred volunteers battle-scarred in combat at Arras and Souchez.

This time things were to be different: Russia’s Provisional Government declared its support for Polish independence but did not have much say in Paris; hence Poincaré’s decree and the formation of the first Polish units a month later at a camp on the Loire. But a Frenchman, General Louis Archinard, experienced in subjugating natives on the fringes of the French empire in Indochina and the Sudan, was appointed the first commander of the Polish forces.

For over a year, the efforts of “Polish elements” would concentrate on three issues: building up the mobilisation apparatus in America and POW camps, attaining permission to have a Polish commander and most importantly – acquiring full political control of the army by the Polish National Committee (PNC), set up by Roman Dmowski in 1917.

Those goals were not achieved until the end of September 1918. It was not surprising that General Haller, pulled out of rebellious Russia by the PNC, was eagerly awaited in Paris as a providential man. Roman Dmowski’s cry “Welcome, General, you’re a true godsend!”, quoted by Haller in his memoirs, was not necessarily a whimsical fantasy or self-flattery, since there was a strong need for Polish leadership.

Also needed were Polish recruits. Compared with the Bayonnite upsurge of autumn 1914, recruitment in France was disappointing. By year’s end, at the camp on the Loire there were fewer than one thousand recruits under the command of Captain Władysław Jagniątkowski, a descendant of 1830 Polish insurrectionists who had served in the Foreign Legion and at that time was the only French officer fluent in Polish. Some hope was pinned on POWs from the German army, but even with several thousand recruits it could not be called an “army”. 

The recruitment campaign therefore went in two directions: to Italy where there were several hundred thousand POWs from the Austro-Hungarian army, including an estimated several dozen thousand Poles. Others went in the opposite direction towards the New World where several hundred thousand Polish immigrants and their descendants lived in areas spanning Brazil to Canada.

Rome was very much opposed, as was Paris, to what they considered to be premature Polish plans. It was not until September 1919, when the fate of the war in Russia appeared to be a foregone conclusion, that the Minister of War Sonnino gave his consent for the creation of the Polish units in Italy. That is when things got under way, and some historians have referred to a “Polish Army in Italy”. This was an exaggeration, given that those units never had independent operational status. From December 1918 they were sent in echelons to France and placed under Haller’s command. The name of several camps from Santa Maria Capua to Chivasso have survived as has a banner funded by the supportive people of Turin and a cemetery of Polish cholera victims in Mandria.                         

Monument to the Armed Polish Americans in Warsaw The United States had ostentatiously observed its neutrality until it joined the war on the side of the Entente in April 1917. But that did not prevent activists of the Polish Falcons (including the leader of the Polish scouting movement Andrzej Małkowski) from conducting a quiet agitation and recruitment campaign. This is worth mentioning because it was part of the great battle for the identity of “local” peasants – the same battle that had been waged over the past half-century since the January Insurrection in the territory of all three partitioning powers.

The Falcon conspiracy

In Vistula Land (as the Russians called Polish lands under their occupation) as well as in what were known as the western provinces, an active campaign to denationalise (i.e. Russify) Poles was pursued in the latter half of the 19th century. In Indiana and Ohio no-one was interested in denationalising Polish immigrants. On the other hand, apart from a few Polish activists, priests and Falcons, no one was concerned about retaining their identity. There were no Polish manor houses in the vicinity to emanate Polishness and smuggle Polish primers to the local peasantry, no monuments to the past and no publications such as “Promyk” by Konrad Prószyński who all but single-handedly had created independent educational structures in the Russian-controlled Congress Poland.

The recruitment campaign was an exceptional success not only in the purely military sense. Behind every recruit arriving at aptly named Camp Kościuszko in Niagara on the Lake, provided by the Dominion of Canada, were the efforts of Ignacy Paderewski and activists of the Polish Falcons and (the) PNC travelling around the USA, as well as that of Polish publishers, priests and teachers. Niemcewicz’s Śpiewy Historyczne ('Historic Songs') were evoked and, as is expected of nationalists, strong anti-German chords resounded. (A secret order issued by the Polish Falcons of America recalled the “treacherous mutilation of the living body of our homeland, (…) the Germanisation of Silesia and Wielkopolska, the expropriation of our people, and the persecution of Polish children”, whilst ignoring Siberian exile, and called people “into the battle field of a new Grunwald”, not Klushino). Twenty thousand Anteks Frontczaks and Józeks Kiełbasas turned up at Niagara on the Lake (those two names were the most common on the lists of the first volunteers).

From Chicago and Buffalo they came to Niagara, where they travelled by steamship across the ocean to Brest, the Loire and Champagne. The next stage took them through Bavaria, Saxony and Cottbus, where they were escorted by French officers (including the young Charles de Gaulle) all the way to the first Polish station, Kąkolewo, and thence to Warsaw and finally to the Russian front on the banks of the River Berezyna.

Author: Wojciech Stanisławski

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”