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American "Polonia's Army" fought for nation not on map in 1917

By Jan Lorys
via the Polish Museum of America

The enlistment of 30,000 men to fight for a country that had not been on the map of Europe for some 120 years did not resonate within the larger effort to raise the American Expeditionary Force that eventually grew to some 4.7 million men and some women. One of the first things I found when joining the Centennial Commission was that in 100 years little had changed. Sometimes the use of secondary sources can have a better impact than quoting dry primary sources, especially those written in another language. In order to “prove” the existence of the Polish Army in France, I found information in some unexpected sources.

Leslees The Illustrated Weekly NewspaperPhoto from Leslee’s The Illustrated Weekly Newspaper of December 8, 1917 in article Polish Army and its camp in Niagara, Ontario.Leslee’s The Illustrated Weekly Newspaper in its December 8, 1917 edition referenced the Polish Army and its camp in Niagara, Ontario. It states that “the men will be led by French officers, though they are to wear the British uniform. The various regiments are made up of Poles from Canada and the United States. A group is seen above beneath the flag of one of the Polish National Societies.”

There are a few mistakes. The enlistees were issued Canadian Army surplus and police uniforms, but it was always foreseen that they would be issued French uniforms with Polish distinctions. Based on some of the photographs in the PMA holdings, we can trace the “evolvement” of the Canadian and French supply systems. The early ones show some volunteers in Falcon field uniforms (US Army surplus) and others (like those pictured) in Canadian issue. After a few months, the officers are wearing French style uniforms, some produced in the USA. As the war progresses, recruits are given a mixture of Canadian and “Franco-Polish” uniforms, usually the four cornered caps.

While the senior officers in Europe were French, usually descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Polish troops or of exiles from the 1830/31 failed uprising, (who usually spoke little or no Polish) many of the Polish speaking junior officers were trained in Canada and had been active in the Falcon movement.

The Canadian government did not encourage its citizens to enlist in the Polish Army in France, since it would take away from the Canadian war effort. The bulk of the volunteers were from the US. The flag in the photo does not belong to a Polish National Society, it is a recruiting banner.

Uniform Hats“The Chicago Daily News War Book for American Soldiers, Sailors and Marines” printed in 1918 shows Polish offiers' hat.The second source is “The Chicago Daily News War Book for American Soldiers, Sailors and Marines” printed in 1918 and given for free to military members in uniform and available for purchase by civilians for their “boys in uniform”. Page 14 shows the headgear of the various Allied armies.

Centered in the fourth row down is the officer’s cap of the Polish Army in France. Due to shortages of leather in France, the enlisted men in the infantry, the artillery and the support services wore a cap without a visor. Once they returned to the newly independent Poland in March and April of 1919, all the enlisted men obtained visors for themselves.

The uniforms and “Polish” distinctions will be addressed in a future article.

*”Polonia” is the name applied to the Polish diaspora. Many “Polonia’s” exist, the one in France going back to the 1600’s. The American and Canadian Polonia’s go back to the 1840’s. Polish individuals do not constitute a “Polonia”. Some organizational framework like a church, school and/or organization, over an extended period of time, creates a “Polonia”. American Polonia is made up of immigrant waves and their descendants.

The first wave was the survivors of the 1830/31 Uprising against Russia and therefore political. The next wave was economic, consisting of displaced peasants and underemployed factory workers. (1860s – 1914), with a small political “wavelet” of Poles from the German Empire, who were victims of Otto von Bismarck’s “Kulturkamp” (1871-1886). The Displaced Persons of post-World War II 1945- mid 1950s were political as was the Solidarity wave of the 1980s.

Once Poland became free of Communist rule, the resulting waves were economic (1989 – 2003).

With Poland’s full integration into the EU, emigration to the USA declines and there is even a return to Poland among those in the working sector. The above explanation is generalized.