By Andrew Hind
During the First World War (1914-1918), residents of the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake were often outnumbered by soldiers in-training. The sounds of rifles firing or boots marching through the streets, and the sight of uniformed soldiers on parade became an every-day fact of life. Most of these soldiers were young Canadian men being hardened for service in the trenches of France, but among them were Polish-American volunteers who stepped forward to free their homeland from oppression and restore by force of arms its independence.
By the 18th century the kingdom of Poland had been a major power in east-central Europe for more than 300 years. During that century, however, the kingdom suffered from chronic internal weaknesses.
Historically, Poland did not have a hereditary but rather an elective monarchy, chosen by factions among the quarrelsome aristocracy. This squabbling allowed neighbouring Russia, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and the increasingly vigorous Prussia (soon to become the dominant part of a unified Germany) to manipulate Polish politics to their own ends. Eventually, in a series of partitions, these three nations would carve up Poland between them so by 1794 the once proud nation was rendered politically extinct and its people subjugated to absolutist empires.
A mass migration of Poles came in the decades that followed, some to France and Britain, but many more to the United States. Migration to the US, which started in earnest in the 1860’s, tripled in the 1870’s, tripled again in the 1880’s and reached a peak in the first fourteen years of the 20th century. It is estimated that at the outbreak of World War I, 2 to 4 million of the residents of the United States were Polish-Americans.
Even in what amounted to as exile, patriotism continued to run deep among Polish expatriates. Far-sighted Poles worked patiently to prepare the ground for renewed independence. The opportunity they were looking for emerged in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I.
The three nations that had carved up Poland were among the war’s combatants. Germany and Austria-Hungary were united against France and British-allied Tsarist Russia. The majority of the titanic battles between these Great Powers took place in Poland, and so it became political for these three states to compete for the sympathy of the Poles themselves. Accordingly, they began to make vague promises of self-rule, becoming engaged in a bidding contest that gradually escalated the degree of independence promised. As a result, Poles became convinced that during the course of the war their nation would regain its freedom.
But what side should the Poles come down upon? Some Poles looked unfavourably towards their traditional Russian enemies, while others thought the Polish cause could be best furthered by fighting on the side of the Allies against Germany and Austria-Hungary. A statement made by Tsar Nicholas II in December 1916 which named the creation of an independent Poland as one of the goals of the war was the first concrete, publicly stated promise to that end and therefore helped the Poles decide to support the Allied cause. The hard-pressed Western Allies welcomed this well-motivated manpower with open arms.
A problem for the countless Polish-Americans eager to fight on the side of the Allies was that the United States was not yet a participant in the conflict. Canada, however, was. In early 1917, leaders of the Polish-American community persuaded Canada to train a Polish army-in-exile, to be armed, equipped and paid by France. This force, known as the Polish Blue Army after the blue French uniforms they wore, was trained and assembled at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Camp Niagara. The Polish training centre was called ‘Camp Tadeusz Kosciuszko’, honouring a Polish patriot who led a 1794 rebellion aimed at freeing the country from oppression.
Even after America declared war against the Central Powers on April 2, 1917, the United States remained lukewarm toward the concept of a Polish army-in-exile as the Defense Department feared that the loss of potential recruits would undermine its own rapidly-expanding army. Eventually, President Wilson agreed to let Polish-Americans join the Blue Army so long as they were not between the ages of 20 and 30 and therefore eligible for recruitment into the United States Army.
Thousands of Polish-Americans eagerly stepped forward to free their ancestral homeland. Four barrack buildings were built, each housing only about 300 soldiers. Soon, however, the number of recruits outgrew these facilities. At any one time several thousand more recruits were accommodated in fruit canneries (such as that which in the 1970s was transformed into the luxurious Pillar and Post Country Inn), vacant barns, public buildings, such as the town hall, and even tents. Some local residents housed émigré Polish soldiers for free.
Once fully-trained, the soldiers were shipped off in brigade-sized batches to fight on the Western front. These troops, fanatically anti-German and well-motivated, were valuable additions to the Allied cause. In total, almost 22,000 soldiers joined the Blue Army and helped to defeat the Central Powers in 1918. A newly independent Poland arose from the ashes of war.
The threat to Poland’s freedom had not yet passed. With the Tsar deposed, Russia was now ruled by a communist regime which did not feel compelled by the previous promise of Polish independence. With its forces marching on Poland, the Blue Army was shipped across Germany by train to defend their homeland and play a key role in the foundation of an independent Poland. Thousands of Polish-Americans gave their lives during World War One and the Russo-Polish War.
Sadly, some died much closer to home. An Influenza outbreak claimed the lives of 24 recruits while still training in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They were buried in Vincent de Paul Cemetery, and since that time annual pilgrimages of Polish community groups have been organized that pay tribute to these men and indeed all of the Blue Army volunteers.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is revered by many Poles who recognize that Poland’s existence as a nation today is owed in part to the Blue Army trained and organized here during the years 1917-18. Similarly, this émigré army played a vital but often underestimated role in the victory of the Allies in the First World War.