General Haller’s Blue Army had a lot to thank France for: first and foremost, its name; then its regulations, machine guns, tanks and legendary blue capes. However, 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) but they did take part in a real battle on Polish soil in 1919.
Nevertheless, the significance of the formation of the Blue Army 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.
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, President of France, to sign the decree of June 4th, 1917.
For over a year, the efforts of “Polish elements” would concentrate on three issues: building up the mobilization 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 Demoski 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.
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 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 recruitment campaign in US 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