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Poland’s Just Deserts

I WOULD LIKE to thank John Dunn, author of “1939: Polish Cavalry vs. German Panzers” [Winter 2011]. Far too often, the contributions of Poland—the “first ally,” as English historian Norman Davies calls it—are dismissed. Polish soldiers, sailors, and airmen played a role in many of the major western and eastern European campaigns, and their formations achieved considerable success at Monte Casino, Falaise, and in the Battle of Britain. Despite such contributions, Soviet protests kept Poles from marching in parades celebrating the fall of Germany. Dunn’s article points out a classic problem for historians; hopefully we all can learn to look a little harder at what we assume is the truth.

Steven Jaskowiak

Lawton, Okla.

POLAND, FOREVER the buffer between the two powers of Germany and Russia, was always under threat to be crushed. And so it happened in 1939, when Nazi Germany attacked from the west and Russia from the east. The Poles knew from the onset that they never had a chance to fight off these two military giants, but that did not stop them from trying—even against the “advice” of their so-called allies France and Great Britain.

They fought in a spirit true to the first stanza of their national anthem:

Poland has not perished yet
So long as we still live
That which alien force has seized
We at saberpoint shall retrieve

Poland has survived, partly thanks to stoicism, but mostly by bravery. As John Dunn noted, Poland was poor. It could not afford a grand and modern army. But in individual encounters, its people demonstrated their fiber, their determination, and their bravery. The Nazis tried to make light of their enemy, inventing the story of uhlans with lances charging panzers. Could these Slavic untermenschen be capable of such heroism? But even here, had this propaganda ploy been true, the Nazis failed because Germans recognized bravery unto death. After all, who else would charge German panzers with lances while mounted on horseback? Certainly, German cavalry officers—now leading panzers—would pay homage to such bravery, even if it was foolhardy.

In the end, it was Nazi Germany that died, and the Poles survived. Poland survived Western abandonment to the Soviets, and it survived slights by the Brits, who did not permit the Polish Legion to march in their victory parade for fear of offending “Uncle Joe.” The same Polish Legion that had fought and bled for Britain throughout World War II was relegated to watching from the sidelines.

Gerhardt B. Thamm

Fernandina Beach, Fla.

The Whole Shebang

I ENJOYED your Fighting Words column on words coined during the Civil War [Winter 2011]. In accounts about Union prisoners in Andersonville, I’ve read that their crude shelters were called “shebangs.” I have never seen this word used before the Civil War. My dictionary claims the origin of the word is unknown. Could this be a word born of the Civil War?

Michael Howell

Vancouver, Wash.

Christine Ammer replies:

Mitford M. Mathews in his Americanisms: Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles defines “shebang” as a shabby, usually temporary habitation, and says its origin is obscure. It is possibly a variant of “shebeen”—Irish for a low public house. Mathews cites its first use in Walt Whitman’s recollections of Union army camps in Specimen Days and Collect: “[I am] among the groups around the fires, in their shebang enclosures of bushes.” As early as 1870, it was used to describe various nonmilitary dwellings, such as college rooms.

Today, of course, the “whole shebang” is a slang term used to describe something— an organization, a situation, or a set of facts—in its entirety.


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Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here