Friday, 6 May 2016

“Polish Germans” or “German Poles”: Polish German soldiers in POW camps

The list of German soldiers who died of Spanish flu at Harperley prisoner of war camp caught the eye of one of my Record Office colleagues. Gabriel asked if he could write a blog post about why he was so interested.

Looking at the surnames of the 27 men who died, it is notable that some of their names look very Polish, for example: Walkowiak and Wloczyk. It is not commonly known that some of the so called “German prisoners” were in fact Polish, as many Polish men were conscripted into the German army during the First World War. 

In the German military records on Ancestry, it says that Felix Wloczyk was from Kattowitz, which is now known as Katowice and is in Poland, and served in either a Prussian or Wurttemberg Infantry regiment.
Felix Wloczyk, listed in the German casualty lists 1914-1917, available on Ancestry
Felix Wloczyk, listed as missing in the German casualty lists 1914-1917, available on Ancestry 
Poland was invaded and partitioned in 1795 between three great European powers at the time: Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. As a result Poles were forced to serve in foreign armies and fight against each other until their independence was regained in 1918.

Poles never accepted having to be called Germans or Russians and they always believed that their nation never ceased to exist despite the fact that Poland was no longer recognised under international law. There are many examples of Poles trying to desert the ranks of the foreign armies and abandon the hated uniforms in order to join the Allies and fight Germans. 

We did not have to look far to find one. Among the records of the Edleston family of Gainford (ref. D/Ed), are letters written by a Pole, Pawel Zbawca Riedelski (also known as Paul Salvator Riedelski Piast), who came to the UK and wanted to join the British army to fight against Germans after the war broke out. In his letters he complains to Robert Edleston that the British authorities refused his application every time, as for them - and according to the law - he was a German subject. 

For many Poles it was a time of personal turmoil not to be able to fight for the country they loved. It is estimated that over 3 million Poles were conscripted into the armies of the three aggressors and over a million died fighting for a cause that was not theirs.

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