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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
Poland


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The great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that had dominated Eastern Europe for centuries was so weakened by incessant war that by 1795 it had collapsed and its final remnants were divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia (Third partition of Poland). By the time the Great War broke out, much of Poland’s former territory was then referred to as Russian-Poland with the lands to the west under German control as Silesia, and Austro-Hungarian control as Galicia. There had been a number of attempts to regain independence in the interim years but they all failed or were short lived. With loyalties divided the surrounding nations made continuous attempts to woo allegiance.




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Reforms leading toward more autonomy for Poland began after the 1905 Revolution. This caused many Poles to remain loyal to Russia when war broke out in 1914, and they formed the Polish National Committee. Volunteers were drawn from this group to form the Putawy and Lublin Legions in early 1915. They were disbanded by October and then reorganized into the Polish Rifle Brigade. Their presence was meant to attract Poles who were thinking of joining the Polish Legions of Austria-Hungary. Seeing the tide of war turning against Russia in 1915, Roman Dmowski set off to Paris to find support for a Polish State. In August 1917 he formed a new Polish National Committee, which France recognized as the interim government of Poland in September. While little of this is covered on Russian cards, scenes of Poles fighting on the Eastern Front were published in France. They stress an independent Polish identity rather than their status as a Russian ally. Although Poles aligned themselves to both sides in this War, it was not that they believed in either cause, they were looking for the best route toward their own statehood.

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The construction of a Polish Legion consisting of a mixture of former Polish prisoners that were captured while fighting for the Central Powers plus recruits from Poles living in France began to be put together in the spring of 1917. It received a huge influx of volunteers from America once the United States entered the conflict. They first served directly under French leadership, headed by General Louis Archinard. The blue uniforms they wore earned them the nickname The Blue Army. By February 1918 they were all put under Polish control, and began fighting on the Champagne and Vosges front by July. In October, General Jozef Haller became their commander. The Polish National Committee published many cards of these troops captioned in English, French, and Polish, which reflects on their origins.

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In contrast to the Poles who worked with the Allies, Jozef Pilsudski, head of the Polish Socialist Party saw a new Poland in Russia’s defeat. He would help form the Eastern and Western Polish Legion early in the War to fight as an independent unit within the Austro-Hungarian army. Early Russian victories in Galicia caused many in the Legions to desert. The Eastern Legion was disbanded in September and the Western Legion became the Polish Auxiliary Corps (Polski Korpus Posilkowy). Many postcards were published specifically for the Poles in their language. A number of photo-based cards depicting Polish troops in non-combat situations were also produced by The National Committee for the Polish Legion and other Austrian publishers.

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Poland’s geography offered both opportunities and disadvantages to both sides in the War. It formed a giant salient through which the Russians might sever East Prussia from the rest of Germany or provide opportunities for the Central Powers to pocket Russian armies deployed there. Unlike the Western Front, armies in the East were not large enough to form a continuous line across the vast expanses so the Russians had only initially focused their attention on the Germans in East Prussia and the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia, largely ignoring most of Poland between them. While the Russian defeat at Tannenburg curtailed further advances into East Prussia early in the War, their victories over the Austro-Hungarians placed them in a position to threaten Silesia. This caused Germany to take a more active role on this front, and suddenly Poland became a contested battleground. The Germans managed to check Russian advances toward Silesia though the Russians threw back German movements against Warsaw and Lodz.

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The stalemate in Poland was broken in May 1915 when the Germans under General Mackensen opened a new offensive to pocket the Russians. Lacking the manpower to carry out such an elaborate operation, the Russians had were able to withdraw after their initial defenses were overwhelmed at Gorlice-Tarnow. Lacking the supplies to set up a new defense the Russians were forced to abandon Poland, allowing the Germans to enter Lithuania by September. As the Russians reestablished their lines in the fall and the Germans outpaced their supplies, fighting would come to an end in Poland.

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Both Germany and Austria-Hungary produced many postcards depicting the war in Poland, but these usually revolved around their own soldiers fighting Russians. There are however some cards that specifically depict Polish Legion troops. Some of these artist drawn cards were issued by the Austrian Red Cross.

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By the end of summer 1916 the Brusilov offensive into Galicia had stalled but it had caused much worry to the Central powers who were now looking for ways to bolster their defenses. The Act of 5th November, issued by Germany and Austria-Hungary, reestablished the Kingdom of Poland. Waclaw Niemojowski became the provisional president in December and Jozef Pilsudski became head of its military commission. Neither held much power as this was only a puppet state designed to feed more men into the German army. The Legion was already placed under German command, but Germany’s annexation of great amounts of traditional Polish territory while expelling the Poles and Jews living there angered many. Polish soldiers refused to swear their allegiance to the Kaiser, and as a result most of the Legion would be interned in Germany. The remaining troops were scattered, many directly conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army and sent to fight on the Italian Front.

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German and Austro-Hungarian publishers painted a very rosy picture as to what was happening in Russian-Poland apart from the fighting with the Russians. Many early cards display their troops marching through this countryside with peasants benignly looking on. This was soon followed with cards displaying Poles bringing food out to soldiers or of girls flirting with cavalrymen. Eventually stronger propaganda cards were produced insinuating that the armies of the Central Powers were freeing Poland from Russia.

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In contrast to postcards that showed troops of the Central Powers happily conversing with native Poles or even sharing food with them, German and Austro-Hungarian publishers also produced cards that showed the harsh treatment civilians were subject to at the hands of the Russians. Cossacks were usually depicted committing atrocities not only because of their reputation for not following the rules of war, but because of the long standing animosities rustling from centuries of warfare over ruling the Ukraine. While these cards were issued as propaganda, the long struggle for Polish independence left many Russians ambivalent when it came to their mistreatment.

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German and Austro-Hungarian publishers painted a very rosy picture as to what was happening in Russian-Poland apart from the fighting with the Russians. Many early cards display their troops marching through this countryside with peasants benignly looking on. This was soon followed with cards displaying Poles bringing food out to soldiers or of girls flirting with cavalrymen. Eventually stronger propaganda cards were produced insinuating that the armies of the Central Powers were freeing Poland from Russia.

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By the summer of 1917, the Russians were also forming their own Polish Corps from Poles already serving within their army such as the Polish Rifle Division. The reasoning was that Polish soldiers might be much more inclined not to desert and encouraged to hold their ground if assigned to defend areas that held large Polish populations. Although Russia left the War at the end of 1917, the Polish Corp became embroiled in fights with the Bolsheviks and did not surrender to Germany until May 1918. Most of its men would reenlist in the new Polish army.

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Even though Russia attempted to directly incorporate the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into its Empire after its partition in the 18th century, this could only go so far. One major dividing point was in the written language where Russians used Cyrillic script, while the Pole’s used the Roman alphabet. When publishers in Russian Poland issued postcards during World War One the captions were usually in Russian but their backs often had Roman lettered inscriptions.

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When Russia withdrew from the war soon after the 1917 Revolution, Pilsudski refused to fight any further and was then arrested by the Germans. In October of 1918 the Poles took over Galicia, which became the nucleus for a socialist government. They joined with Pilsudski once he was released from prison that November and he became Poland’s Chief of State. This new government was in a precarious position for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk left Poland in German hands at the time the November Armistice that ended the War was signed.

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Fearing the Allies would not be able to force territorial concessions to resurrect a new Polish State, they declared themselves a republic on November 22, and began planning an uprising against the German occupiers. When elements of the Blue Army began returning from France, an armed struggle against the Germans began. They would also find themselves fighting against the Ukrainians who were seeking their own territorial gains before a written treaty could establish new borders. While the treaty of Versailles acknowledge a new Poland, its borders would not be set until 1921 when its involvement in the Russian Civil War ended.




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There are a number of postcards reproducing paintings by Polish artists that depict the Polish Legion in action. Most of these cards seem to have been published in the new Polish State right after the war, most notably by Akropol in Krakow. Postcards illustrating any aspect of Poland’s fight for independence became very popular in the postwar years. Unfortunately some of these combat scenes from the Great War are easily confused with those depicting Poland’s involvement in the Russian Civil war that followed.

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The vast majority of postcards depicting events in Poland during the Great War were published in Germany. Many of these are battle scenes both anonymous and specific to place, but they all tend to use the same stereotypes of Central Power troops overwhelming Cossacks. Many of these cards also depict German troops marching through Polish cities to remind the public at home of the progress that is being made on this front.

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The old Krakow publishing house, Drukarnia Nardowahad produced art reproductions for many years. In 1939, on the eve of World War Two they published an exceptional and large set of continental size propaganda cards in color gravure celebrating Polish-American fraternity. These cards captured many historical moments and figures shared between the two nations over centuries including the resurgence of the Polish state at the end of the Great War. America’s president, Woodrow Wilson was credited with the reestablishment of the Polish state because of his Fourteen Points that stressed the self-determination of all people.

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Stanislaw Kaczor Batowski painted portraits and romantic landscapes, but he became best known for his historical painting that largely captured significant military events in Polish history. He captured contemporary scenes of combat during World War One that were placed on postcards.

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Wojciech Kossak was the son of the noted historical painter Juliusz Kossak. Under his fathers influence Wojciech went on to become recognized as an important painter of historical subjects that promoted Poles fighting for their independence. His most famous piece dating from 1894 is the giant panorama commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Raclawice. He produced a number of paintings on the Napoleonic Wars in the years prior to World War One. Once the Great War broke out he became a military artist that captured contemporary scenes of the Polish Legion. Many of his paintings capturing officers and the taking of prisoners were placed on postcards by the Cracow Salon. A large set was produced depicting generals in the field.

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Before the Great War, Adam Setkowicz was a painter of the rural Polish landscape with a fondness for winter sledding scenes. He turned his attention to military themes during the war years capturing Polish troops on the battlefield as well as typical sentimental subjects. Some of these paintings were reproduced on postcards by the publisher F. & S. in Krakow.

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Jan Styka already had a long career as a painter of historic and religious scenes with strong symbolist leanings when the Great War broke out. While many of these panoramas were of monumental size, he also drew illustrations As a proponent of Polish independence, he supported the Polish Legion that fought in France during the War with both oratory captured in print with L’ame de la Pologne (The Soul of Poland), and with artwork. The card above reproduces a sketch by Styka drawn in 1914 that is also the subject of his famous painting, Dream of the Polish Volunteers. Note that the caption is printed in both French an English so that it may be used as propaganda to encourage the enlistment of Polish-American volunteers.

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Leonard Wintorowski was a painter of portraits and landscapes though much of his graphic subject matter revolved around Jewish themes. He became a war artist during World War One, largely concentrating on military scenes involving Polish cavalry. He would continue working with military themes during the Polish-Soviet War. Many of his paintings were used to illustrate postcards produced by Austrian publishers.




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