During the Middle Ages the kingdom of Poland was a vibrant state, a bastion of power and Catholic enlightenment. The dynasty reached its zenith in 1683 when the Polish King Jan III Sobieski led the army that defeated the Ottomans in the Battle for Vienna, which proved to be the high water mark of Ottoman incursion into Central Europe. The subsequent decline of the Polish state paralleled the rise of the Prussian state to the north, and beginning in 1764, Polish territory was nibbled away by Prussia, Russia and Austria, until in 1795 the entire nation had disappeared into the ‘partitions’, the largest of which was Russian and included Warsaw.

In the nineteenth century disaffected Poles left the area in considerable numbers. It has been estimated that 5 million Poles migrated to North America and considerable numbers went to Western Europe as well. There was even substantial emigration from the Russian partition to the Austrian partition, where the regime was more lenient. Influential Poles in the west, such as the musician Ignacy Paderewski and the scientist Maria Sklodowska Curie, spoke up passionately and persuasively about the unjust treatment of their people, most particularly those under the Tsar.

In 1918 the Polish cause became a war aim. Woodrow Wilson devoted Point XIII of his Fourteen Points to Polish independence. When stating His Majesty’s war aims David Lloyd George said ‘An independent Poland is an urgent necessity…’

But even before these actions, in August 1916 the Germans and Austro-Hungarians had agreed to create an autonomous (but not quite independent) Kingdom of Poland (no king was ever crowned), and in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918 the Bolsheviks were required to renounce any claim to the Russian partition.

Jósef Pilsudski (in overcoat) reviewing troops

Before the war, there were ‘Polish Legions’ formed in the Austrian partition, ostensibly as sportsmen’s shooting clubs. The leaders of this movement were the socialist Jósef Pilsudski (1867-1935), a long-time agitator against Tsarist rule and Jósef Haller von Hallenburg (1873-1960), a former cavalry captain in the Austrian army. These paramilitary units also included Polish refugees from the Russian partition as well as veterans of Austrian compulsory military service and, later on, Polish Prisoners of War who had served in the Russian army. The real objective of the Legions was to permanently oust the Russians from a large swath of the ancestral Polish domain. After the defeats of 1914 and early 1915, these units were accepted by the Austro-Hungarians as co-belligerents.

Legion soldiers with Colt-Browning M-1895 machine gun

On the other side of the Atlantic, a group of Polish immigrants sought to start their own Polish Legion. American law made this problematic so they set up shop in Canada. Neither the Canadians nor the British had much use for an all-Polish unit but the French were much more welcoming.  In fact, they bankrolled the whole operation, and 20,000 volunteers responded to the call. After the U.S. declared war in 1917, 24,000 more Polish-Americans signed up, and 35,000 Polish POW’s held by Italy were recruited as well. Altogether nearly 90,000 men were assembled in France, and the overall command was given to Haller, who had escaped to the West after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, when his Polish Legion was ordered to stand down. The organization in France became known as Haller’s Army and under his command these soldiers fought on the Western Front from July to November 1918 and who, along with some colonials and the borrowed Americans of the 92nd and 93rd divisions, were the only units the French had that were willing to mount attacks.

Monument to Polish victory

After the November 11th Armistice, Lt. Gen. Haller and his Army were shifted to the east where they merged with the Legion to form the first Polish Army in 124 years, under the overall command of Pilsudski.  The French provided massive logistical assistance and an advisory mission led by Gen. Maxime Weygand (1867-1965). Since Haller’s Army wore the ‘horizon blue’ French uniforms, they became known as ‘The Blue Army’, although still under the command of Haller.

The feats of The Blue Army became legendary in the Post-War wars, particularly in the Battle of Warsaw (Aug. 12th-25th, 1920), which is also called ‘The Miracle on the Vistula’. Although significantly outnumbered, Haller’s soldiers successfully turned the northern flank of the Soviet armies attacking Warsaw, forcing their withdrawal.

The Miracle on the Vistula

Pilsudski was a seasoned infighter and emerged from the Soviet War as the most influential person in Poland. After staging the May 1925 Coup d’État he pretty much ran the country until his death in 1935.

Haller, on the other hand, was a brilliant soldier but a poor politician. After he declined to participate in Pilsudki’s coup he was retired from the army.  He moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life, with frequent visits to the U.S. During WW2 he was active in the Polish government in exile.

Many of those who served in The Blue Army came (or returned) to the U.S. after their service and they formed the Polish Legion of American Veterans, of which there are still 80 active chapters, although none remain in Kansas.

 

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and has memberships in the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Indian Military Historical Society and the Salonika Campaign Society.