One unusual record source for those with Polish ancestry is Haller’s Army records. What was Haller’s Army? During World War I, Poland did not exist on any “official” map of the world. General Jozef Haller formed a regiment of Poles in France to join the fight in the name of their homeland, with the ultimate goal of Polish independence. They were also known as the Blue Army because of the color of their uniforms.
Many people have never heard of Haller’s Army or of their contributions during “the Great War”. Because it isn’t well known, many Americans of Polish descent may be very surprised to find out that their ancestors, who had already immigrated to the U.S. prior to 1917, volunteered to fight for the Polish Army in France under Haller. It is estimated that nearly 25,000 Polish men, immigrants to the U.S. and Canada, volunteered and fought in France. Most were recent immigrants who had not yet become American or Canadian citizens. Despite immigrating to a new country, these young men were fiercely proud of their homeland. They willing volunteered to fight for Poland’s democracy and independence. Because of the Partitions of Poland, none had grown up in a free Poland, and Haller’s Army was the first free Polish Army since Napoleon’s time. At the war’s end on November 11, 1918, when Poland officially regained its independence, Haller’s Army continued the fight in the Polish-Soviet War until 1921.
Did Your Ancestor Volunteer?
The Polish Genealogical Society of America holds the recruitment records, and while the records themselves are not available online, the index is searchable by surname at the PGSA site. If you find a match, the records can be obtained through PGSA by mail for a minimal donation – see complete information on how to order copies at http://www.pgsa.org/hallerreqform.htm.
I’ve referred to this as an index of those that volunteered for Haller’s Army, but if you find your relative’s name it does not necessarily mean they served. A search for the surname “Pater” found several matches, but I was surprised to find “Ludwik Pater” from Philadelphia. Ludwik is the Polish form of Louis, my great-grandfather. I ordered a copy to see what I could learn. The form is in Polish, as are the applicant’s responses, but the volunteer who looked up the record also provided a translation for most of the entries. An online copy of the form is available in English here. For the responses, a Polish-English dictionary will help.
The record provides a wealth of genealogical information including date and place of birth, address, marital status and number of children, name and address of nearest relative in both America and Poland, and a full physical description. The U.S. WWI Draft records are similar and from the same time period, but the form for Haller’s Army is more detailed regarding relatives both at home and in Poland as well as the physical description, which includes not just the eye and hair color, but also height, weight and other features such as teeth, chin, and “distinguishing marks”.
Another feature of the Haller’s Army recruitment papers is some very detailed questions that could offer clues for searching other records. The form asks:
- Are you a citizen of the United States of America (second papers)?
- Did you serve in the Army? Type of arms? How long? Rank upon discharge?
- What Polish organizations in America do you belong to?
- If you belong to the Falcons, for how long…and do you hold any office?
Responses to these questions could lead you to naturalization, military, or fraternal organization records. [Note: The Falcons were established in Chicago in 1887 as an immigrant aid society concerned with physical education, Polish culture and heritage, and gaining Polish independence. The organization still exists today.]
My great-grandfather filled out his registration card for the U.S. Draft on June 5, 1917. At the time, he was 23 years old with a wife and 3 young children. On November 12, 1917, he volunteered for Haller’s Army. I had never heard about military service during a war by any member of the family, so I assumed he wasn’t accepted because he had a family to support (which is why he was not drafted by the U.S.). As I researched this article and found the English translation of the form, I learned, with some surprise, that he was sent to the training camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on November 18, 1917 – less than a week after he volunteered. But the information provided by the PGSA didn’t indicate an actual record of service in the Army, so what happened?
I’m not sure, and I’m rather puzzled to finally notice that he went to training camp! I will have to investigate this further. I do know that he was home in Philadelphia by May, 1918 because his fourth son, Victor Pater, was born the following January. If he did make it through the training camp successfully, he could not have served in the Army long enough to make the journey to France to fight.
It does speak volumes about the Polish character if young men like my great-grandfather were willing to fight for their homeland – even though they no longer lived there. My great-grandfather immigrated at the age of 14 and had lived here ten years by the time he volunteered, but he felt strongly enough about the cause for Polish independence to fight in a foreign land.
If you have Polish ancestry, it’s worth typing your surname into PGSA’s index search to discover if your ancestor played a role in Haller’s Army. The Haller’s Army website best describes these Polish immigrants, recent arrivals to a new country but with a deep love for the old country. The site proclaims: “They fought for their family. They fought for their ancestors. They fought for their freedom. Most of all they fought for their homeland – Poland.”
[Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image: Polish_Army_in_France_WWI_recruitment_poster.jpg]
For more information on Haller’s Army:
- PGSA Records Index
- Haller’s Army
- Tribute to General Jozef Haller and the Blue Army
- Polish Falcons
- Wikipedia entry
- Polish Roots Index to Haller’s Army Casualty List
- Valasek, Paul S. Haller’s Polish Army in France. Whitehall Printing, 2006. ISBN: 0977975703.
[Posted for the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: research experiences and techniques.]