Poland and Niagara-On-the-Lake

Col. LePan and the Polish Army Camp in Niagara-On-the Lake

 

The creation of the Polish Army in Canada would not have been possible without the help of the Canadian government of the time and without the support of Canadians. Canadians, not only those of Polish descent, provided the volunteers with understanding, encouragement, hospitality and sometimes even material assistance. The Canadian government provided the Polish Army with the necessary military facilities and Canadian Army officers as instructors. One of those Army officers, Lt.-Col. Arthur D’Orr LePan quickly became a celebrity in the Polish-Canadian and Polish-American circles and he retains that status even today.

 

A French sounding family name links the LePans to their French noble roots and a fascinating story involving a young page in the French Royal Court, the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette. According to the family tradition Col. LePan’s great-grandfather, Louis D’Orr, was a young page to the Queen Marie Antoinette. As it happened he was on duty the night the King and the Queen had to flee from the Versailles Palace to avoid being captured by the revolutionaries. The flight was unsuccessful – the Royal couple captured and Louis D’Orr LePan forced to escape to Ireland. His son became the first generation of the LePans in Canada as he emigrated from Ireland to the USA and later settled in Owen Sound, Ontario. In time the LePans had established themselves in the area and became very much involved in the local and municipal governing bodies – rewarded by commemoration of the family name as a street name in Owen Sound.

Lt.-Col. Arthur D’Orr LePan
Commandant of the Polish Army Camp.
Niagara-On-the Lake, 1917

We know little about Col. Arthur D’Orr LePan himself. He was born August 20, 1885 in Owen Sound to an affluent family of a successful businessman. He went to Owen Sound High School and later obtained a degree in Science (civil engineering) and Arts at the University of Toronto. His military career began with the 31st Infantry Regiment followed by an appointment at the Canadian Officer Training Corps (COTC) at the University of Toronto – an educational institution very active during WWI when it produced several thousand Canadian Army officers for the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force. In September 1916 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and later served in the capacity of the Officer Commanding, School of Infantry, Military District No. 2 at COTC.

Col. LePan’s first contact with Polish Army volunteers occurred on January 3, 1917 when the first contingent of twenty three recruits from the US arrived in his school to obtain the army officer’s qualifications. More new arrivals followed and within a short period of time 295 suitable candidates had become army officers. At some point the number of Poles in training became so high that the School was renamed to: School of Infantry, Polish Army. Col. LePan understood well the motives behind the excellent progress made by his Polish trainees. He supported the cause they trained for and he was proud of them. This is best exemplified by a passage from his speech delivered on August 19, 1917 in Camp Borden (School’s Summer Camp) following an inspection of the School by Sir John S. Hendrie, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Ontario and Gen.-Mjr. W.A. Logie, Commandant of the Military District No. 2:

Gentlemen !
I thank you very much for the splendid drill which you performed today before General Logie and Lieutenant Governor, Sir John Hendrie. You may not imagine how it reflects on you, Gentlemen, on Instructions and the whole School, and also on your Poland’s Cause. I expect the whole Polish Army will gain such a discipline and I hope in the very near future we will all see a free and independent Poland !

As soon as newly promoted army officers became available, the Polish Army Camp in Niagara-on-the Lake was established (September 28, 1917) with Lt.-Col. A.D. LePan as Commandant, Polish Army Camp, Niagara-On-the Lake, Ontario. The location, close to the Canada-US border, had been chosen in anticipation of a high number of Polish Army volunteers coming from the USA.

And they did come ! Some days by the hundreds. Most of them were members of the Polish Falcons of America. The first recruits arrived on October 10, 1917 and soon after, on November 27, their number reached 4 279 – housed in tents, barns, private homes, hotels and an old cannery. All available lodging in private homes was offered (and gladly accepted by the Army) free of charge by sympathetic inhabitants of the small, usually quiet town, who had never experienced anything like this before. Even the Town Hall had been partly occupied by the Polish “invaders”.

With the approach of winter the tent accommodation became unsuitable and the Camp’s Commandant had ordered his soldiers to build standard military barracks which were soon ready and occupied.

The Polish Army Camp in Niagara-On-the Lake remained in existence for close to eighteen months (closed on March 11, 1919). 20 720 fully trained Polish Army soldiers (including officers and NCOs) were transported to Europe, where they excelled on the battlefields of France and later in the Soviet-Polish War of 1919/1920.

Being extremely busy with his duties of a military camp Commandant, Col. LePan was left with very little time for family life. The LePans moved from Toronto to Niagara-On-the Lake and their lives revolved very much around the Camp activities. A Polish NCO by the name Chester became a tutor for the children – Arthur, Douglas and Josephine. Even the letters to Santa Claus from LePan’s children had been pencilled laboriously on the Polish Army Camp’s letterhead. Sometimes an important event in the Camp’s life had given the children an opportunity to meet important or famous people. That happened on November 21, 1917, when the Camp was visited by Ignace J. Paderewski, a Polish statesman, world’s most famous pianist of the time and well known composer. Following the official part of the visit Paderewski and his spouse were invited by Col. LePan to attend a small gathering at his home. Col. LePan’s children were introduced to the distinguished guests. They were allowed to mingle with the adults and listen to the piano music played by Paderewski. For one of the boys, Arthur, who was six at that time, the lasting impression from that evening which accompanied him throughout his entire life was that he sat on Paderewski’s knees.

The war in Europe was finally over. Taking advantage of the General Demobilization of 1919, Col. LePan left the military and returned to his profession of a civil engineer. For many years he served as a superintendent of the buildings at the University of Toronto.
Col. LePan’s commitment to the Polish cause had not been forgotten and was refreshed many years later. During the Second World War, when Poland fell victim to the Nazi-Soviet invaders, the Polish government in exile residing in Great Britain, negotiated with the Canadian government the recruitment and military training of volunteers to the Polish Armed Forces (among Canadians of Polish descent). One summer day in 1941, shortly after the Canadian-Polish military agreement had been signed, the representatives of the Polish Military Mission knocked on Col. LePan’s doors asking for assistance. Not on active military duty anymore, he could not help much with the military training aspect of the undertaking. Using, however, his family’s influence and name recognition in the Owen Sound area he helped to find a suitable location for military barracks and military training grounds. This is how the Tadeusz Kosciuszko Polish Army Training Camp in Owen Sound had been established.