Polish Americans and the Polish Blue Army of World War I
The mass migration of Poles to the United States 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. These immigrants came from lands that had been in earlier centuries the vast, democratic, and powerful Kingdom of Poland, but which had been dismembered in the latter part of the 18th century by its three neighbors, Tzarist Russia, Austro-Hungary, and Prussia (which in due course would become Germany), absolutist empires acting in concert. The elimination of Poland from the map of Europe and subjugation of the Polish population was in their common interest.
by Peter K. Gessner
Among the Poles themselves the flame of patriotism and the dream of independence continued to generate resistance and insurrections. The three occupying empires effectively collaborated, however, to stem the resistance and put down the uprisings.
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. Living in a free country they could not but regret that Poland, occupied since 1795 by Prussia, Austria and Russia, was not free. Patriotism run deeply among them. The outbreak of World War I gave them hope that, in the course of the conflict, Poland might somehow regain its freedom. The occupying powers were now in conflict with each other. Germany and Austro-Hungary, the Central Powers, were aligned on one side of the conflict. Russia, on the other hand, was on the side of the Allies, that is, Britain, France, and Italy.
Since on the Eastern Front, the military hostilities between the Central Powers and Russia were taking place primarily on Polish soil, it now became politic for these three states to compete for the sympathy of the Poles. Accordingly, they begun to make vague promises of modicums of self-rule. As the war wore on, they gradually became engaged in a bidding contest, escalating the degree of independence they were each promising.
The prevailing wisdom among Polish-Americans was that the Polish cause could be best furthered by fighting on the side of the Allies against the Central Powers. The issuance by Tsar Nicholas II in December 1916 of an order to his armed forces that listed the creation of an independent Poland as one of the goals of the war, supported that position. Though soon thereafter the Tsar was deposed, the Russian Provisional Government, formed in Petrograd in February 1917, reaffirmed that position.
A problem for the Polish-Americans eager to fight on the side of the Allies was that the United States was not a participant in the conflict. Canada, a British possession, was however. And in early 1917, the Poles persuaded the Canadian authorities to train Polish officers. A cadets' school was also set up in Cambridge Springs.
On April 2, 1917, the United States declared war on the Central Powers. Two days later at the Congress of the Polish Falcons in the United States,, Paderewski proposed that the Polish community would offer the Wilson administration a 100,000 strong Polish volunteer army. He suggested it would be called the Kosciuszko Army.
The Defense Department rejected the offer however, fearing that it would lead to a fragmentation of United States Army. Then, in June 1917, France sanctioned the formation of a Polish Army on French soil. That August, a Polish military mission sailed from France to the U.S. to recruit volunteers and asked the U.S. authorities for permission to do so. Following numerous conferences with President Wilson and his military advisors, It was granted agreed it could do so, provided that no one eligible for recruitment into the United States Army, that is no U.S. citizen between the ages of 20 and 30 would be inducted.
The recruited volunteers were directed, for training, to Niagara-on-the-Lake, but, as the number of volunteers swelled and the capacity of Niagara-on-the-Lake was exceeded, the U.S. Government agreed to have the Poles also train at its Fort Niagara Army base, then called the New Fort Niagara, to distinguish it from the histric 18th century structure. Eventually, some 22 thousand recruits were trained in the two facilities.
The recruits were provided gray-blue French issue uniforms and thereby came to be known as the "Blue Army" The core of the army was composed of Polish-Americans that had been given military training at Niagara on the Lake and Fort Niagara. In June 1918, the First Rifle Regiment of the Polish Army first saw action near Reims, in the vicinity of Saint Hilaire, where they distinguished themselves. In time, particularly after the signing of the armistice in November, 1918, the ranks of the army were swelled by Poles who had been conscripted into the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies and had become prisoners-of-war.
Though the war was over, the French demobilized their armed forces, but frontiers of the renascent Polish state remained largely undefined and in contention. The Blue Army, now 100,000 strong having absorbed some of the equipment no longer needed by the demobilized French, became a powerful fighting force that could make a difference in Poland's efforts to secure it frontiers. It was thus that in April 1919, it was transported together with its equipment, which included 70 tanks, by train across Germany (it took 383 separate trains to do so) to Poland. The Army, which by then boasted also an air wing, the Kosciuszko squadron, saw plenty of action on Poland's eastern reaches. Eventually, in 1920-21, hostilities having ended, the majority of the Blue Army's Polish-American volunteers returned to the United States.
The US Army’s New Fort Niagara base was deactivated 1963 and its grounds were ceded to the State of New York which turned them into a State Park. In the process, most of the 100 plus buildings on the base were torn down. However, the Officers Club, a building notable for four historic mural that adorned its walls, was spared.. In 1999, the State decided the building would become a museum devoted to local military history spanning the period of the two World Wars. In discussion with the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo and other community groups that had worked to preserve the Officers Club, the Old Fort Niagara Association to which the State has entrusted the development and operation museum, agreed that one of the stories the museum would tell would be that of the Polish Blue Army and its training at the Fort in 1917.