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The The Polish Army in Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1917-1919

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BerichtGeplaatst: 07 Jun 2008 6:46    Onderwerp: The The Polish Army in Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1917-1919 Reageer met quote

Part 1: The The Polish Army in Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1917-1919

Part 1

Beginning in 1919, each and every June, the beautiful historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake becomes a magnet drawing numerous Americans and Canadians of Polish descent for an annual visit — a pilgrimage.

Arriving from near and far, they are drawn here to pay homage to the Polish soldiers, their heroes, to keep alive the memory of the over 20,000 volunteers from the United States and from Canada who received their basic training here in the years 1917-1919, before sailing for France, to take up the fight against a common enemy.

In the early years the number of pilgrims were few; with time it was hundreds and thousands, made up of prominent politicians, civic dignitaries, high ranking military officers, veteran units with their auxiliaries, youth organizations and scout troops, Brass Bands and massed Color Details. And there were always ordinary citizens who came to remember and pay respect to those who fought for Poland and often gave their lives for honourable causes and ideals.

The focal point of their visit and of the annual celebrations is a small, fenced in cemetery, a part of St. Vincent de Paul cemetery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a scrap of land donated by the Roman Catholic Church authorities to the Government of Poland as a “tribute to the splendid patriotism of the Polish Soldiers during the First World War”. This plot holds the simple graves of 25 Polish volunteer trainees who died in the years 1918-1919, before they could join their comrades in France.

The pilgrims are also here to remember, honor and pay respect to the Polish Soldiers from the United States and Canada, who lost their lives fighting on the Western Front in France and later, while defending the borders of once again independent Poland in the years 1919-1920. They are remembered and honored for their willingness to leave the security of their homes and families, to join the fight for the independence of the land of their ancestors.

It is also customary to pay due honor and respect to the Commander of the Polish Camp, Col. Arthur D. LePan and all the other Canadian officers for commitment and dedication to their responsibilities in shaping the Polish volunteers into soldiers.

In the commemorative annual brochures, issued in conjunction with the pilgrimages, there are frequent expressions of sincere appreciation and gratitude to Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ascher, considered “the mother of the Polish Soldiers”, who unceasingly worked to ease their hardships and cared for them when they were sick and dying from the Spanish Influenza epidemic. For many years a wreath was laid on her grave, which is located in the adjoining cemetery to the Polish plot.

The warmth and sympathy shown the Polish volunteers by the ordinary people of the town are also recognized and remembered during the concluding ceremonies of the pilgrimage.

As in previous years, the annual pilgrimage will take place this June, with the presence of a large and varied gathering of people from the United States and from Canada, coming to this town to honor and remember once again the Polish Army of 1917-1920 and its struggle for Poland’s independence.

Most of the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake have long forgotten the presence of the Polish Soldiers in their midst and not too many pilgrims can explain fully the coming of the over 20,000 volunteers to this town, to be trained by Canadian instructors in military skills for a war taking place in Europe. Even the military historians, be they Canadian, American, or Polish, are not fully aware of this unique event in the history of Canada. The presence of the Polish Army, and their training here is grounded in very many and complex developments, going back decades and centuries.

The recorded history of Poland reaches back to 966. A country in central Europe, it expanded in territory, becoming the largest kingdom in Europe after a political union with Lithuania in 1569. At the height of its economic and military power, its borders stretched from the Baltic to the Black seas. Lengthy costly wars and internal problems led to gradual and inevitable weakening of the State and towards the close of the XVIII century, Poland became an easy prey to the territorial aspirations of its increasingly powerful neighbors - Austria, Prussia and Russia. Poland was taken over, partitioned among those neighbors in three stages, in 1772, 1773 and in 1795. After that year, it ceased to be shown on the political maps of Europe for the next 123 years.

Under the rule of the foreign powers, Poles became subject to cultural and political oppression but they steadfastly opposed all efforts to Germanize or Russify them. Their Polish identity was reinforced by the Roman Catholic Church and the traditional Polish family values. They took up arms against the occupier time and again but even the lengthy and costly uprisings of 1831 and 1863-64 were unsuccessful. To escape the political and cultural oppression, and the dire poverty among masses of peasants and workers, millions looked for better conditions, emigrating to the United States and to other countries. By 1915, there were about four million Poles and Americans of of Polish descent in the United States.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Europe was seething with socio-economic and political unrest. There was a growing anticipation of a conflict between the major European powers fuelled by personal ambitions of the Emperors. In the partitioned Poland, activists began to mobilize various resources, intensify conspiratorial activities, expanding personal contacts with the “powerful” in the capitals of Europe, sending diplomatic notes to the seats of power and appeals to the people of the world for sympathy and understanding for the subjugated Poles. Polish people too were urged to grasp their chances to regain freedom and independence once the Powers become embroiled in a war among themselves.

Two major socio-political movements emerged earlier, the Polish Socialists with Jozef Pilsudski as their leader and the National Democrats, who’s helmsman was Roman Dmowski supported, among others, by the renowned piano virtuoso and composer Ignace Jan Paderewski. National and Regional political Committees sprang up in secret and quasi military organizations were formed in the Austrian part of the partitioned Poland, including the prestigious Polish Legions commanded by J. Pilsudski. And, as expected, “the war to end all wars” began in August, 1914, with Germany, Austria and their allies on one side (The Central Powers), and Russia, France and Great Britain together with all her Dominions including Canada (the Entente or the Allies) on the other side.

In the years 1914-1918, Poland and the Polish people became pawns in the conflict between Russia and Germany. To hold the loyalty of of the Poles, Russia promised to restore Poland as an autonomous Kingdom already in 1914, but only after the war was won. On its part, Germany promised the formation of an independent Polish State on November 5, 1916, a declaration to win over Poles and induce them to join the German forces to fight against the Russians.

They were empty promises, not meant to be kept either by Russia or Germany but the formal declarations demonstrated to the world that a free Polish State was at least accepted as a reality. J. Pilsudski saw independent Poland more likely to emerge with the help of Germany but especially the more liberal Austria, and already in 1914 committed the Polish Legions, which he formed, to fight against the Russians on the Eastern Front. When it became evident later that Germany had no serious intentions of keeping its promises, J. Pilsudski withdrew the Polish Legions, which were dissolved and he was imprisoned by the Germans.

R. Dmowski and his supporters believed that Russia offered the better chance to achieve independence for Poland, and supported the formation of all-Polish units, such as Pulawski Legion, to fight beside the Russians.The political situation changed completely after the abdication of the Russian Tsar on March 11, 1917. Succeeding Russian Provisional Government also accepted the establishment of an independent Poland but R. Dmowski would not trust their promises and looked for support for Poland’s independence aspirations in France. There, he partitioned the president Raymond Poincare to allow the formation of a Polish Army from Polish immigrants to France and from Polish conscripts to the German forces, captured by the French. The Polish Army would fight against the Germans and after the Allied victory would move to Poland.

All-Polish units were already engaged on the Western Front in 1914 as part of the French Foreign Legion or attached to some French formation. R. Dmowski had a plan to create a large Polish force, an Army, fully autonomous, under Polish leadership. He envisaged masses of recruits from among the Poles, conscripted by the Germans and captured on the Western Front, their numbers augmented by many thousands of volunteers from North America. R. Dmowski’s plans were realized in part when president R. Poincare issued a decree on June 4, 1917, allowing the formation of an autonomous Polish Army on french soil. The all-Polish units serving as a part of some French formation were reassigned to it but the Polish Army in france grew slowly as the Polish volunteers from North America were missing.

The United States remained neutral for the first three years of the war in Europe but this did not prevent I. J. Paderewski to campaigned vigorously for the “Polish Cause” to form a volunteer army of 100,000 strong from among the Polish Americans, who would fight beside the Allies and then help restore the independence of Poland. His great popularity with the American people helped them to accept his arguments and his ideas received a sympathetic ear from the White House and president Woodward Wilson.

I. J. Paderewski travelled extensively, visiting towns and cities with larger Polish immigrant populations, asking for funds and volunteers for his proposed Polish Army. Money was collected, and the reaction to his appeals for recruits was especially enthusiastic among the members of the numerous Falcons organizations, characterized by ardent Polish patriotism. Members of the Falcons excelled in physical fitness and had some military training in preparation for joining the armed struggle to regain Poland’s independence.

I. J. Paderewski’s campaign received two important boosts. On January 22, 1917, president W. Wilson announced his 14 points, thirteenth of which granted the independence of united Poland with access to the sea. Then, on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and now there was a common cause.

With the United States at the state of war, there was hope for a quick approval from the authorities for the recruitment to the Polish Army. Polish American recruitment centres were immediately formed in cities with larger Polish immigrant populations, and a Polish military Commission was established on July 25, 1917, to coordinate the overall recruitment of the volunteers. Eligible men, anxious to join were accepted but only “for future service” since no official American approval was yet granted. Still, other preparations went ahead such as the training of hundreds of NCO and officer candidates at a military school in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania in summer of 1917.

The plans and hopes for the formation of 100,000 strong Polish Army now met with a major problem. With the declaration of war, the United States introduced the draft, which effected all the Polish immigrants who were American citizens and those who applied for citizenship. They no longer could volunteer for the Polish Army. Further, married men with families were also excluded from volunteering and further, American authorities wanted to exclude those who immigrated from the German or Austrian parts of the positioned Poland, arguing that they could face execution as traitors if captured fighting against Germany.

To resolve the issue of German or Austrian citizenship, a quasi-diplomatic office was set up at the Polish parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in St. Catharines, Ontario, in Summer, 1917. Served by six Polish American priests, it issued 443 visas or passports, establishing Polish nationality for the affected volunteers.

The American authorities continued to delay the approval for the recruitment to the Polish Army on the grounds that there were no training facilities available as all were needed to train the American troops for the Western Front.

It was then that Canadian authorities were approached by the Polish political representatives and after consultations with the French and the American authorities; a solution was reach on September 27, 1917. It was a unique agreement where the Dominion of Canada would provide the training facilities and instructors, provisions and uniforms, while France would assume the full financial obligations for the training of the Polish volunteers on Canadian soil. Having repeatedly postponed the decision, the United States authorities finally approved the recruitment for the Polish Army on October 3, 1917, and hundreds of eager volunteers began the journey to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

It is strongly indicated that one person, Major General W. G. Gwankin, Chief of the General Staff in Ottawa, was the key official responsible for arranging the Niagara-on-the-Lake military training facilities for the use of the Polish volunteers from the United States and Canada. He was referred to as “the Godfather of the Polish Army.” In his final report, Col. A. D. LePan wrote that “General W. G. Gwankin extended practical sympathetic interest and assistance during the whole period of the Polish Army in Canada and without his support the Polish Camp existence would have been difficult if not impossible.”

Before the final agreement was reached between the United States, france, Canada and the Polish authorities on September 27, 1917, 23 Polish Americans began training on January 3, 1917, at the School of Infantry, Military District No. 2 in Toronto. Other Polish American Officer candidates arrived soon after, selected and sent to Toronto by the Falcons organization. The officer in charge of the School was col. R. D. LePan with 28 Canadian Officers as Instructors. When the number of the Polish “probationers” as they were called, grew to 150, the School was moved to Camp Borden, Ontario. In total, 295 candidates received their commissions before September. 1917.

On September 27, 1917, Col. R. D. LePan with his Canadian Staff and 180 Polish officer candidates left Camp Borden and arrived the next day in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The next task was to lay out the Training Camp and erect a city of canvas Bell Tents since the area, called Camp Mississauga was essentially a regular but small Summer Training Camp for Canadian Militia units, without adequate quarters or facilities, That work was completed before the first contingent pf the volunteers, 3,078 strong arrived beginning October 3, 1917, from Buffalo, New York.

The new arrivals immediately began to erect four frame buildings, each to hold about 300 men. This was far from enough to house everyone and additional accommodation was sought and found in the town in the form of disuse hotels, unoccupied residences, old canning factories and barns. Some men were quartered in the Town Hall and in other Public Buildings while a few residents offered their homes, free of charge. Electricity and water were also provided by the town, free of charge. Whenever possible, the volunteers winterized the buildings, laid proper sewage and water connections and did other necessary work, under the supervision of Canadian engineers. The last of the Polish volunteers moved from the canvas Bell Tents into permanent billets on January 23, 1918, although not all the lodgings were winterized adequately and the two blankets they were issued were hardly enough to keep them warm during the Canadian winter months.

Before the first of the volunteers arrived at the Training Camp, now called by the Instructors and the town people as “the Polish Camp” and by the volunteers and the Polish Americans as “Camp Kosciuszko” they found already prepared a large tent, erected and staffed by YMCA staff. It was designed as a Welcome Centre, and the services provided by the YMCA helped to keep the men happy and contented, offering refreshments, arranging sports activities and organizing entertainment. In the town proper, a large Recreation Hall was set aside for them with a Reading Room containing Polish language material. This facility was used as a Chapel on Sundays, served by one or more of the Polish American priests. In addition to the Hall, there were “moving pictures machines”, banking service and a post office with information and signs in the Polish language.

On arrival, all the volunteers had to pass a medical inspection, conducted by Canadian medical personnel. Those unfit, were immediately given return tickets to their points of enlistment. In general, the health of the volunteers was considered as very good, “men being of rugged, strong type” according to col. R. D. LePan. Their ruggedness is clearly evident in the bathing scene, portrayed by C. W. Jeffrys, sometime in November, 1917.

The volunteers from the first contingent were issued khaki uniforms, the standard dress for the Canadian soldiers but the supply was totally inadequate. The District and Military Headquarters were very sympathetic to the requirements and needs of the Polish volunteers and made available the only uniforms in storage - scarlet, dark blue and rifle green outfits worn by the Canadian Militia prior to 1914. Thus dressed only the square tipped, traditional Polish headgear, the “czapaks” set them apart from Polish soldiers.

All volunteers got three “square meals” daily, and privates received 5 cents per day for their service while sergeants got 20 cents and active officers were paid $1.22. It was the standard French rate of pay. There were also $150 annual premium paid each soldier and officer.
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BerichtGeplaatst: 07 Jun 2008 6:49    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Part II-They fought for an independent Poland

The small plot of graves is immediately distinguishable from the others in St. Vincent de Paul cemetery.

Surrounded by a small iron fence, the 25 graves bear the emblem of a white eagle, the symbol of a free Poland. The names -- Michael Byszewski, Jozef Dolwa, Jan Siatkowski -- also set them apart.

In these graves, Henry Radecki said, are some of the bravest men in Poland's history.

The soldiers were newly emigrated Polish-Americans when they travelled from the U. S. to Niagara-on-the-Lake to train for an independent Polish army during the First World War. Poland didn't even exist at the time, having been occupied for 123 years by other countries.

About 20,000 trainees filed through Niagara-on-the-Lake from 1917 to 1919, sleeping in barns and crude barracks, outnumbering the town's residents. The men in the 25 graves died in the Spanish influenza pandemic.

Each year, local Poles march from downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake to the cemetery plots, commemorating not only the spirit of the volunteers, but the liberation of their motherland. This year is the 90th anniversary.

"The cemetery is a symbol only," said Radecki, a retired sociology professor, war veteran and Polish immigrant who helps maintain the plots.

"The cemetery is a symbol of all the others who died outside of the United States and North America, who fought for that ideal of an independent Poland," Radecki said.

Poland's history is complicated and riddled with conflict. In the late 1700s, the country was conquered by Austria, Prussia and Russia, which divided the territory among themselves, wiping Poland as a country off the map, Radecki said. For the next 123 years, the Polish people revolted, but even the longest and most intense efforts were unsuccessful. The First World War was an opportunity to gain freedom, and the best way to obtain it was siding with the Allies.

To form a Polish army, organizers combed American towns with the largest number of Polish immigrants, ideal because the U. S. was still neutral in the war.

But when the U. S. became involved and started drafting soldiers, organizers of the Polish army moved their volunteers to Canada, where they wouldn't be drafted.

The effort in Niagara-on-the-Lake represented the new strength of the Polish people, who still longed to take back their homeland, Radecki said. This makes the small town where initial training was provided very important to Poland's existence as a nation.

The soldiers had occasionally miserable conditions, Radecki said. Four barrack buildings were built, but they housed only about 300 soldiers each, and at any given time, as many as 3,000 men were training. Some slept in tents with their ration of two blankets per man.

Others slept in abandoned canneries, vacant barns or, if they were lucky, public buildings like town hall. Some local residents housed them for free. The men were paid five cents a day.

While Radecki's research shows some residents were skeptical of this new group, Niagara-on-the-Lake residents were used to soldiers, said Clark Bernat, curator of the Niagara Historical Museum.

"Through the whole World War I era, at any given time, there were as many soldiers in town as there were residents," he said.

The Spanish influenza hit hard, making many soldiers ill and killing one of the two doctors who cared for the Polish men, Radecki said.

Elizabeth Ascher, a local woman and St. Catharines Standard columnist, cared for many of them, promoting their presence in the community so much that in death she was granted the Cross of the Order of Polonia Restitute.

But the soldiers were a robust group. Of the 22,000 who trained in Niagara-on- the-Lake, only 150 were killed overseas and fewer than 1,000 were wounded.

"It's been said they were the best army at that time in Europe," Radecki said. "They were well-equipped. They could take on any enemy."

The annual ceremony remains important to the Polish community, who see it as a valiant symbol, said Jacek Kaminski, president of the Niagara branch of the Canadian Polish Congress.

"Going over the ocean wasn't as simple as it is today," Kaminski said. "They made one big trip from Europe to America to come here. And when they saw the need, they went back."

About 800 people are expected at this year's parade, which will be Sunday at noon at the cemetery. Festivities, including a fashion show and dancing, will follow in Polonia Park.

Each year, the group that gathers gets a little older, as do the memberships of local Polish organizations, Radecki said.

"But as long as there's one person left to march, there will be a parade."

- - -

Chronicling history

he said.Knowledge of the Polish army, and the St. Catharines Polish community in general, is a work years in the making for Henry Radecki.

The retired sociologist wrote the book, The History of the Polish Community in St. Catharines, published in 2002, which is now referenced by high schools and universities. About 750 were printed and distributed to libraries and institutions. The book was for education rather than profit,

Radecki's book is available at the St. Catharines Library.

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