The Polish connection

The rich history of Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake includes a brief spell as a training ground for a Polish army-in-exile.

During the First World War, residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, were often outnumbered by soldiers in training. While most were young Canadian men being hardened for service in the trenches of France, there were also Polish-American volunteers who stepped forward to restore by force of arms the freedom of their homeland.

Poland had once been a great nation, but by the end of the eighteenth century the country had been carved up and swallowed whole by Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Prussia — the latter eventually became part of a unified Germany.

In the century after their country disappeared, hundreds of thousands of Poles migrated overseas, so that by the outbreak of the First World War as many as four million lived within the United States and several hundred thousand more in Canada. Countless Polish-Americans were eager to fight on the side of the Allies, but the United States was not yet a participant in the conflict.

Canada was, however, and so in early 1917 leaders of the Polish-American community persuaded Canada to train a Polish army-in-exile, to be armed, equipped, and paid by France. This force, known as the Polish Blue Army, after the blue French uniforms they wore, was trained and assembled at Niagara-on-the-Lake in a facility that was called Camp Kosciuszko.

In total, almost twenty-two thousand men joined the Blue Army and helped to defeat the Central Powers in 1918. A newly independent Poland arose from the ashes of war. The battle-tested Blue Army was then shipped across Germany by train to defend its homeland against Russian invasion. Thousands of Polish-Americans gave their lives during the First World War and the Polish-Soviet War.

Even today, Poles have a fond connection to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where, many would argue, the seeds of a newly independent Poland were planted. Reminders of the Blue Army period in this historic community are easy to find.

The first stop for anyone interested in the Blue Army should be Butler’s Barracks, a property with deep connections to military matters. Following the War of 1812, during which the riverside Fort George proved vulnerable to bombardment, the British built barracks and storehouses out of range of American guns. After Confederation, the site became the summer training ground for Canadian soldiers and militia.

During the Great War, Butler’s Barracks became known as Camp Niagara, where thousands of Canadian soldiers were trained prior to 1917. When the Poles moved in, it was called Camp Kosciuszko.

Camp Niagara was revived in the Second World War and again during the Korean War. Today, Butler’s Barracks is a National Historic Site, and includes the barracks built in 1817, as well as a gun shed, officer’squarters, and quartermaster’s store building. The parade ground where Polish soldiers drilled can also be seen.

Nearby, Fort George National Historic Site, a key site during the War of 1812, offers an earlier view of the area’s military history. Re-enactments and other events take place at Fort George every summer.

Follow that with a visit to the Niagara Historical Museum, Ontario’s oldest museum building (opened in 1906) and itself designated by the Ontario Heritage Trust as a building of provincial significance. Its eight thousand artifacts tell the story of Niagara- on-the-Lake from native settlement to the present day.

Included in the museum’s collection are a number of artifacts connected with the Polish Blue Army, including First World War-era equipment and weaponry, Polish badges and insignia, and five sketches and paintings on loan from the Canadian War Museum that depict the life of Polish soldiers in training. Of particular interest is the Polonia Restituta medal, given by a grateful Polish government to Elizabeth Ascher, a local woman who selflessly exposed herself to illness by tending sick soldiers during a 1918 outbreak of Spanish influenza in the camp.

A somber reminder of the Polish soldiers who trained here is the Polish Military Cemetery, widely known as “Cmentarz Hallerczyków” (Haller’s Blue Army Cemetery), located within St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery. There you’ll find twenty-five headstones bearing the emblem of a white eagle, the symbol of a free Poland. The men lying in these graves — most of whom succumbed to influenza — have not been forgotten. Every year since the armistice, an annual pilgrimage of Polish-Canadians has been organized to honour those who died in the name of an independent Poland.

Visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake can take advantage of the many historic lodgings in the town, such as the luxurious Pillar and Post Country Inn, a former fruit cannery where Polish soldiers were lodged, or the elegant Prince of Wales, a pre-Confederation hotel that is said to have a resident ghost.

Haunted or not, visitors will appreciate the history of this quaint Ontario town.

Andrew Hind is a writer and historian. His latest book, co-authored with Maria Da Silva, is Notorious Ontario: Outlaws, Gangsters and Criminals.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2015 issue of Canada’s History magazine.