Poland did not exist as a state since the Partition of 1795, during which the autocracies of Austria, Russia, and Prussia divided up the country amongst themselves. 122 years later, in 1917, the Great War presented an opportunity for a free and independent Poland carved from Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after their defeat, an opportunity fully embraced by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. To this end, Polish immigrant communities across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States sought volunteers and formed training camps for the inevitable call to arms. Local barracks were established, and recruiting began among the members of Polish fraternal organizations, the Falcons and Polish National Alliance, in coal and steel towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Officer training camps were created in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania and, after a secret deal with the Canadian government, Toronto. By March 1917, the Polish communities in the United States had over 12,000 men in training and prepared to fight for an independent Poland.
Just three weeks before the United States entered the war, Dr. Theophil Starzynski organized an “extra-ordinary” meeting of the leaders of the various Polish groups in America. Many traveled from across the country to attend. In a small hall on the corner of 18th and Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh on 3 April, 1917, Dr. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a renowned pianist and composer (and future Polish prime minister) who had recently emigrated to California, spoke to the packed assembly on the creation of a Polish Volunteer Army to fight in France. Within a week, thousands more volunteered. Unfortunately Dr Paderewski’s call was ill timed: The United States declared war on Germany just three days later.
The United States’ entry into the Great War on the 6th divided the Polish community in America – not for or against the war, but whether the men standing-by should volunteer for the rapidly expanding US Army, or wait for the formation of a Polish Army. Thousands joined the US Army rather than wait. The formal call for the formation of a Polish Army of expatriates and emigrants wouldn’t come from America as expected. The call for a Polish Army to fight for its independence came from a different source, France.
On 4 June 1917, Raymond Poincare, the President of France, (Not to be confused with Georg Clemenceau, the more famous Prime Minister of France) authorized the formation of a Polish Army to fight on the Western Front in exchange for France’s support for an independent Poland at the end of hostilities. France was in desperate need of men to fill the trenches and give respite to the exhausted and demoralized French soldiers who at that moment were mutinying in ever greater numbers. Tens of thousands of Poles from the Polish diaspora willing to fight were a godsend until America’s vast resources could arrive in force.
The first units in the Polish Army in France were formed from prisoners of war. As Poland had been occupied since 1795, many Poles fought in the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany and were subsequently captured by the Allies. Furthermore, the Poles (and many Russians) of the Russian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, which was consumed by mutiny at the time, volunteered for the new Polish army, if only to get away from the front. As word of the new formation spread, Poles across Europe deserted from the armies of the Central Powers or left their homes and made their way to France, most via Italy or through Sweden. From around the world the Polish diaspora responded, whether through the organized efforts of the Polish fraternal organizations in the United States, or through newspaper ads and formal announcements, then taking the long boat ride to Canada from their homes in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others. They in-processed and were given rudimentary training in a camp outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and they were subsequently organized for their trip in a convoy across the U-boat infested Atlantic to France. Over one hundred thousand Poles arrived in France to fight on the Western Front throughout 1917 and 1918.
The volunteers were sent to Camp le Ruchard outside Tours where they were trained by the French. They were issued old “Horizon Blue” French uniforms, and thereafter became known as “The Blue Army”. Further training camps opened as more volunteers arrived, including an officer cadet school, an NCO academy, and specialist training centers for logistics, artillery, engineering and signals. The Blue Army was integrated with the French Fourth Army, with Polish units partnered with French units as they formed and down to platoon level. Initially, their officers were French until suitable Polish replacements arrived, or could be found or trained. The first Polish regiment of the Blue Army went into combat alongside the French in January 1918, and the first division was formerly presented its colors by President Poincare in June. But the Blue Army itself still lacked cohesiveness, and more importantly, a Polish leader above the rank of colonel.
After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia in March, 1918, the Polish Legions of the Austrian and German armies in the Ukraine were interred alongside Polish troops of the Russian Army to prevent them from joining their comrades in France. Nevertheless, many Polish soldiers and officers escaped in the confusion that was endemic to Eastern Europe with the fall of the Imperial Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution. In the summer of 1918, the former commander of Austria’s 2nd Polish Legion, Brigadier General Josef Haller Von Hallerburg, made his way to Moscow, then Murmansk, and eventually France. On 4 October, 1918, the Polish National Committee, the newly recognized Polish government in exile, offered Haller command of the Blue Army. Gen Haller accepted command of a force which had grown to eight modern divisions, including a training division, seven squadrons of airplanes, and a tank regiment, nearly 110,000 men and women in total. The Blue Army fought on the Western Front until the armistice ending the Great War was signed in November.
In March, 1919, the Blue Army, now known as Haller’s Army, boarded trains for the newly independent Poland, where they were directly incorporated into the fledgling Polish Army then fighting to establish the borders of the Second Polish Republic. The regiments of Haller’s Army were the only formally trained units in Poland at the time. When the Red Army invaded in early 1920 to spread Bolshevism to a weakened Germany and France, Haller’s men, still in their trademark horizon blue uniforms, held the gates of Warsaw along with the population of the city against an overwhelming mass of Soviet soldiers. They bought Marshal Pilsudski just enough time to counterattack and break the Soviets in what is now commonly known as, “The Miracle on the Vistula”, thus saving Europe’s neck from the iron boot of Communism, at least for a few years.
After the Polish-Soviet War, Marshal Pilsudski, the defacto leader of the Second Polish Republic saw the members of the Polish National Committee as his main political rivals, and hastened the disbandment of the Blue Army, whom he thought were more loyal to the PNC than him. In 1920, the Polish government began making arrangements for Blue Army volunteers who wished to return home. A camp was set up outside Warsaw that organized travel, though the funding for such had to come from their home countries. Many languished in this camp for more than a year. Furthermore, the volunteers who wished to return were not formally discharged and therefore not recognized as veterans in Poland or in their home countries. These issues caused much bitterness, particularly with those from the Americas and Australia who traveled thousands of miles to fight for a country that no longer needed them and were now stuck in Eastern Europe. This break with the country of their forebears would manifest itself almost two decades later, when another call to fight for Poland came in 1939, this time against Communist Russia and National Socialist Germany. The volunteers from the Polish diaspora didn’t respond to Poland’s plea. There would be no second Blue Army to fight in 1939. However, to their everlasting credit, the Polish diaspora did loyally respond in great numbers to the calls to arms from their adopted homelands during the Second World War.