Since 1871, the Fort George Military Reserve was the site of the annual militia summer camps for Canada’s most populous Military District #2. When Canada entered the First World War, training camps were needed for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. From 1915 to 1916, some 37,000 men and women received basic and special training at Niagara Camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake. With recruitment dropping off, the camp sat vacant in 1917.
When the creation of a Polish Army was sanctioned by the United States in September 1917, Niagara Camp was chosen as the location to train a Polish Army-in-exile; this part of the camp would become known as Camp Kościuszko.
From October 1917 to March 1919, 22,395 men went through the training facility, of whom about 20,720 completed their basic training. They were then sent overseas to join the other Polish recruits fighting in France, and later, in Poland.
For centuries Poland flourished as a nation with its own language, distinct culture and strong affinity for the Roman Catholic Church. However, Poland was situated at the geographical and geopolitical crossroads of Central Europe; its aggressive neighboring empires—Russia, Prussia (Germany) and Austria-Hungary—schemed in the late 18th century to divide Poland among themselves.
In 1772, these empires imposed the First Partition of Poland, and the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791, led Russia and Prussia to conduct a Second Partition in 1793. After suppressing a Polish revolt led by General Tadeusz Kościuszko, Poland as a political nation ceased to exist in 1795.
This arbitrary partition lasted 123 years and saw many Poles leave their homeland.
During this period, there were several rebellions where patriots attempted to unsuccessfully overthrow the occupying nations. Each revolt was followed by repression including executions, imprisonment and exile.
Following an uprising in occupied Poland in 1863, there was a mass exodus, where hundreds of thousands of Poles left their homeland, primarily for the United States. However, kindled in the heart of every Pole was a desire to someday repatriate their Motherland.
Many of the Poles who emigrated to America resisted “Americanization”. Rather than assimilating within their new communities, they established enclaves and neighborhoods with their own Roman Catholic parishes, schools, newspapers and fraternal organizations. By 1914, there were an estimated 3 million people of Polish descent living in America.
Polish-Americans were eager to fight on the side of the Allies during World War I. However, during the early months of 1917, the United States was not yet a participant in the conflict, but Canada was. In 1917, Andrzej Małkowski and Wincenty Skarzyński, leaders in the Polish-American community, travelled to Ottawa to persuade Canada to train a Polish Army that would fight alongside the Canadians in Europe. This idea was squelched when high-ranking members in the military insisted that the Poles fight under the direct command of the French or British.
Even after America declared war against Germany in April of 1917, the United States remained lukewarm toward the idea of recruiting a foreign army. In June of 1917, the French, who were desperate for more fighting men, announced that they would form a Polish Army in France. Finally, on September 27, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson allowed for the recruitment of a Polish Army, that was to be trained in Canada and financed by France.
was Niagara Camp Chosen?
With the extensive training facilities already available, its proximity to the border and excellent access by steam and electric railways, Niagara was chosen as the site for this training camp. Ignacy Paderewski, a leading supporter of Polish independence, envisioned an army of 100,000 men to be recruited from the millions of Polish immigrants living in the United States. To inspire the Poles to fight for Polands Independence, Paderewski’s speeches exploited the memory of Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish-born patriot who had provided outstanding service under George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. When Tadeusz returned to Poland, he fought for Poland’s independence in 1794.
The training camp was named after Kościuszko.
The Polish Falcons
The first Polish Falcon “nest” was established in Chicago, Illinois in 1887 as an organization that was modeled after a similar program operating in partitioned Poland. Physical education, promoting Polish culture and identity, and continuing the struggle for Poland's independence were the core pillars of the organization. By 1894, there were a total of 12 “nests” in the United States.
In 1912, the organization’s headquarters moved to Pittsburgh because of its central location between the two largest Polish-American communities, New York and Chicago. At this time, the Falcons began taking on a paramilitary form where many of the Falcons underwent field and rifle training. When war broke out in 1914, there were over 24,000 Polish Falcons who were trained and ready to fight for Poland’s independence.
In anticipation that the US would sanction the recruitment of a Polish Army, members of the Polish community forwarded recruitment applications to their local Falcons “nests”.
Without the Falcons participation and organized military training prior to the First World War, the Polish Army in France may never have existed.
Major Antoni Wiącek Polish Falcons Instructors CertificateNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
This certificate was issued to Antoni Wiącek in Philadelphia on September 14, 1912. This course was designed to create military instructors to train future officers of the Polish Army. Antoni was one of several Polish Falcon instructors who attended Camp Kościusko.
Major Antoni Wiącek Polish Falcons DiplomaNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Antoni Wiącek was awarded this diploma at one of the sports competitions held by the Falcons Nests of Eastern America in July of 1911.
Polish Falcons Alliance of America Belt BuckleNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Polish Falcons Alliance of America Belt Buckle.
In late December 1916, well before the Polish Army was sanctioned, 23 men from the Polish Falcons, crossed the border into Canada to be trained as officers at the Canadian School of Infantry at the University of Toronto. They called themselves ‘the desperadoes’. This was an enormous victory towards Polish independence; this was the foundation to creating a Polish Army.
There was a total of 259 graduates of the Officers’ School of Infantry in Toronto. In the summer of 1917, the school was moved to Camp Borden to accommodate the growing class size and was made up entirely of Polish-Americans. The graduates of this program would go on to help train the recruits at Camp Kościuszko.
Canadian Officers’ Training Corps Certificate of Military QualificationsNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Lucjan Chwałkowski's Canadian Officers' Training Corps Certificate of Military Qualification.
Recruiting a Polish Army
On September 27, 1917, the American government officially authorized the recruitment of residents of Polish nationality, not subject to conscription in the American Expeditionary Force. To coordinate the recruitment, the American National Department of the Polish Central Relief Committee established the Polish Military Commission.
The first 10 recruitment centres were established in cities with large Polish populations. The ideal age of recruitment was between 18 and 31, but recruitment records show that some as old as 66 enlisted. By January 1918, there were approximately 47 recruitment centres across the United States.
The men would complete registration forms and undergo a preliminary physical examination. The Falcons recruited a majority of the over 20,000 men who went to Europe as part of the Polish Army in France.
Recruiting Documents for the Poish ArmyNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Recruiting Documents for the Poish ArmyNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Many of the trainees enlisted in the United States, but the Canadian Polish community was not forgotten. Recruitment centres opened in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and in smaller Polish communities like Wilno/Barry’s Bay in Renfrew County. A total of 22,395 recruits went through Camp Kościuszko; of this total, about 221 of the volunteers were from Canada. Recruitment continued until February 1919, well after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
Paul Coulas was born on the family farm near Barry’s Bay, Ontario, a predominantly Polish Community in North-eastern Ontario. When the First World War started he was 14, and 4 years later in 1918, he enlisted in the Polish Army. Paul attended briefly attended Camp Kościuszko to train before being sent off to France to fight on the Front. Pictured is Paul wearing his "Blue Army" uniform in France. Image courtesy of the Polish Kashub Heritage Museum.
Blue Army Uniform Tunic and CzapkaNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Paul Coulas' Blue Army Uniform.
From November 11, 2017 until November 15, 2018, Camp Kosciuszko: The Polish Army at Niagara Camp, 1917-1919 was on display at the Niagara Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of Camp Kosciuszko, where thousands of soldiers of Polish descent trained before being shipped off to free Poland from 123 years of foreign occupation. This exhibition could not have been possible without the work from guest curators: Dr. Richard Merritt, and members of the Polonia Canadian Institute for Historical Studies, Andazej Kawka and Roman Baraniecki. Thank you for the time and dedication that each of you put into helping us tell this unique part of Niagara's history. Without you this exhibit would not have been possible.
Images are courtesy of: The Polish Amy Veterans Association of America, Inc. Archives, New York; Carol Baggot-Forte; Andazej Kawka; The University of Toronto Archives; the Polish Falcons of America; the Polish Kashub Heritage Museum; the Polonia Canadian Institute for Historical Studies; and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum.