The Polish in France


General Jozef Pilsudski, between 1910 and 1920.
Józef Piłsudski, at the time he became the first head of state (Naczelnik Państwa) of the Polish Republic, 1919. Source: L'Album de la Grande Guerre, L'Illustration.

The Polish in France, 1914-1918

In 1914, split between Russia, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and Prussia, the Polish were divided into two camps. Many hoped, at best, for independence to be granted by the future victor: the National Committee of Warsaw was banking on Russia, while the National High Committee of Vienna had their hopes in Austria, whose armies included Pilsudski's legions (30,000 men).
It rapidly became clear that the main threat to Poland's future came from Germany: Warsaw's occupation by the Reich's troops in August 1915 and the creation of a new kingdom announced in November 1916 by Governor-General Von Bessemer, who sought to recruit Polish soldiers.

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General Jozef Pilsudski, between 1910 and 1920. Source: Library of Congress. Public domain.

Among the Polish emigrants in France, the start of the Great War ignited the hope of a renaissance of the motherland, still divided at that time, dissolved into the German, Austrian and Russian empires. These Polish emigrants were mainly labourers from the mines in northern France, reunited in a gymnastics society in Le Faucon (Sokol). The intellectuals and businessmen lived in Paris.

From the first week of August 1914, in Paris, the Polish volunteers committee, created for the occasion, received hundreds of enthusiastic compatriots to enrol in the Foreign Legion. This influx of volunteers generated two contingents, one sent to Bayonne, the other to Paris to the barracks in Reuilly, where the Polish men were given military training, equipped and armed.

The Bajo?czyków Legion, the first Polish military formation in France during the First World War. Author: Corporal Michael Kaznowskiego. Public domain.

Those of Prussian or Austrian origin changed their identity, replacing their name with a French name to avoid a death sentence if captured by the enemy, who would have considered them deserters or renegades.
In the spring of 1915, the Polish volunteers, now Legionnaires, joined the front. They essentially formed the 2nd Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Regiment. Others were part of the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Regiment. These units were engaged in Champagne and Picardie, then in Artois.

Polish flag. Source: CRDP de Reims.

In April, in Marne, the standard bearer of the Polish company in the 2nd Marching Regiment, W. Szuyski, was killed. An engineer in civilian life, this 50-year-old soldier was honoured in the 5th Army as a ”Polish patriot who fell in the field of honour in the battle against the Germans, under the standard of the reignited Poland”. He carried the red flag with the white eagle offered to him by the inhabitants of Bayonne.
The Legion faced its first offensive in Artois on 9 May 1915, which continued until June. During the Battle of Arras, as part of the attack led by the Moroccan Division, the 1st Foreign Regiment fought in the sector of Neuville-Saint-Vaast to seize German positions: the heavy losses saw the number of soldiers in the company plummet.
At the same time, the Polish patriots stepped up their efforts with the French authorities to have their country recognised. But, as an ally of Russia, France was unable to interfere in a Russian domestic affair by showing favour to a future independent Poland. However, in late 1916, the German and Austrian governments announced the restoration, for their own gain, of a Polish state. The fall of tsarism, completed the change of situation and, by the presidential decree of 4 June 1917, a Polish army was created in France.
It was stipulated that this army, maintained at France's expense, would be autonomous with its own officers and flags and its own insignias on its helmets and uniforms, but would be subordinate to the French commanders. In order to recruit the numbers of men required, a Franco-Polish military mission, under the command of General Archinard, assisted by General Capdepon, was set up. All the Polish, civilian and military, from France or outside the country, were allowed to enlist. Recruitment was also open to prisoners in France and soldiers in the German imperial army originating from the provinces of Silesia and Posen, who were permitted to enlist under an assumed name.

General Louis Archinard, first commander of the Polish army in France. Source: Library of Congress. Public domain.

On 17 January 1918, the 1st Polish Hunters Regiment (RCP) was created: The 1st and 2nd battalions based in Mayenne and the 3rd battalion and headquarters in Laval. The troops included many volunteers from America (following Gasiorowski's mission to the US, on 6 October 1917 the American government authorised the recruitment of volunteers) and 1,500 German former prisoners of war. The senior ranks were a mixture: of the 72 officers in this unit, there were 20 Polish from the Foreign Legion, four from the Russian army, 46 from the American army and two from the German army. The non-commissioned officers were 60% American with the remainder being German. But they were all driven by an ardent Polish patriotism.

Poster by W?adys?aw Benda to recruit Polish volunteers in the US. Author: W.T. Benda. Source: Library of Congress. Public domain.

On 27 February, the 1st RCP moved to the camp in Mailly (Aube) for advanced training. The regiment was reviewed on 13 May by General Franchet d'Espérey who praised the commanding officer, Colonel Jasinski, for the excellent appearance of his unit. Incorpated into the 4th Army, the regiment was assigned to the 163rd ID by General Gouraud, in Champagne, in the sector of Prunay-Prosnes, and near Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand where the fighting was intense; they fought non-stop until August.
On 22 June 1918, the President of the Republic and the Minister of Foreign Affairs visited the camp in Mailly, with President Domwski and the members of the Polish National Council. President Poincaré solemnly handed the national flag to the Polish units, given by the cities of Paris, Nancy, Belfort and Verdun.

Poland's white eagle on the front in France, 22 June 1918. Painting by Polish artist Jan Styka. Source: Album of the war of 1914-1919. © L'illustration

14 July 1918, Polish troops parading on Place de la Concorde. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

With the influx of volunteers, on 4 August, the 1st Infantry Division, led by the French General Vidalon, was created and comprised Polish units: the 1st, 2nd and 3rd hunting regiments, a squadron of light horsemen, a company of engineers, with the support of the French artillery (75 men from the 1st Field Artillery Regiment and 155 men from 113th Heavy Artillery Regiment).

Polish hunters in France. Source: Private collection. DR

On 28 September 1918, an agreement between the French government and the Polish national council, directed by Roman Domwski, recognised the Polish army as independent, allied and fighting under Polish command and subordinate to the national council. A second Polish infantry division was founded. Together with the 1st, it formed the Polish army in France, made up of 430 officers and 17,000 non-commissioned officers and soldiers. General Haller was appointed to the helm on 4 October 1918 by the national council.

General Haller taking an oath on the flag of the 1st Polish Regiment, 6 October 1918. Source: Private collection. DR

After Champagne, the 1st ID occupied a sector in the Vosges from mid-September and then, on 5 November, it joined the front in Lorraine, in the offensive planned against Metz, which did not take place since the Armistice was signed on 11 November.

Marshal Pétain congratulating the Polish. 1919. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

On this same day, Poland's independence was proclaimed. On the 16th, Marshal Pilsudski, the head of the new State and commanding officer of Poland's armies, sent a telegram to Marshal Foch to request the repatriation of Haller's army, by then composed of 1,240 officers and 68,000 soldiers, 18 planes and 120 tanks. In April 1919, the first contingents of the Polish returned to their fatherland, celebrated by the jubilant crowds.
On 28 June, the Treaty of Versailles awarded parts of Prussia (High Silesia and Posen), the Austrian region of Krakow and Lwow and access to the sea to Poland.

Victory celebrations, 14 July 1919. The Polish. Source: Postcard. Private collection.

In 1920-1921, during the Russian-Polish War, many French soldiers (officers and technicians) helped the Polish forces to win the campaign against the Red Army led by Leon Trotsky and to conquer Western Ukraine, to Russia's frustration.

Arrival of Marshal Foch and his wife, coming from Poland, at the Gare de l'Est in Paris. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Cemeteries and monuments

By letter dated 27 February 1922, the Minister of War of the Polish Republic, General Sosnkowski, wrote to the Minister of Pensions, André Maginot, to express the Polish nation's desire for its sons buried on French soil to be reunited in a cemetery specially for them. On 16 March, Minister Maginot replied that the State would be delighted to offer the Polish government the necessary land and transfer the groups of bodies of Polish soldiers at its own expense.

The National cemetery in Aubérive where Germans, French and Polish who fell during the First World War are buried. Author: Gérald Garitan. Source: Licence Creative Commons Paternité. Public domain.

The subsequent meetings concluded with a first cemetery to be created in Prosnes (Marne), in the sixth military region, which opened in April 1923. After further discussions, in October 1923, the decision was made to group the Polish cemeteries together in the French military cemetery in Le Bois du Puits, in Aubérive (Marne).
Instructions were addressed to the head of the civilian sector of Mourmelon with this information. The Polish government, having agreed to this decision, tasked its military attaché in France to carry out the project with the war cemeteries department.
The exhumations and reburials were performed between 1923 and 1926. In the 1930s, the national cemetery in Aubérive was enhanced and embellished, including the Polish section. The wooden emblems on the graves were replaced with cement ones to withstand the bad weather. Low ossuary walls, gates, coloured poles and plants gave the cemetery the look that can still be seen today.

Graves in the Polish section of the national cemetery (Aubérive). Author: Gérald Garitan. Source: Licence Creative Commons Paternité. Public domain.

Over 23,461 square metres, Aubérive guards the bodies of 6,424 French, of which 2,908 are buried in three ossuaries, and 129 Polish, fighters in the First World War, along with 256 Polish from the Second World War. Some 175 Polish soldiers from 1914-1918 are buried in 28 other French Departments, including 54 in Meurthe-et-Moselle, 32 in the Vosges, 22 in Sarthe and 13 in Hauts-de-Seine.

The National cemetery in Aubérive where Germans, French and Polish who fell during the First World War are buried. Author: Gérald Garitan. Source: Licence Creative Commons Paternité. Public domain.

On 25 July 1954, the monument to the Polish soldiers who fought in the Great War in the Aubérive cemetery, designed by Regulski, was inaugurated by General Pierkarski, watched on by a large crowd including veterans from both countries, their families and the local authorities. Soldiers from the 7th Cuirassiers from Reims formed a guard of honour.

Monument to the Polish dead. Source: Ville de Neuville-Saint-Vaast

In Pas-de-Calais, the monument to the Polish enlisted in the Foreign Legion, a work designed by sculptor Maxime Real del sarte, was erected in the town of Targette (Neuville-Saint-Vaast). Erected in December 1929, thanks to the Polish from Pas-de-Calais who formed a committee to raise the necessary funds, it was inaugurated on 21 May 1933 by the Polish Ambassador.

Cemetery in Neuville Saint Vaast - La Targette. Source: Jean-Pierre Le Padellec

external websites :

CRDP Champagne Ardenne

Neuville Saint Vaast

Légion étrangère