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The Czechoslovak Legion (Československé legie in Czech, Československé légie in Slovak) were volunteer armed forces composed predominantly of Czechs and Slovaks fighting together with the Entente powers during World War I. Their goal was to win the Allies' support for the independence of Bohemia and Moravia from the Austrian Empire and of Slovak territories of the Kingdom of Hungary, which were then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the help of émigré intellectuals and politicians such as Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Milan Rastislav Štefánik, they grew into a force of tens of thousands.
In Russia, they took part in several battles of the war, including Zborov and Bakhmach against Central Powers, and were heavily involved in the Russian Civil War fighting Bolsheviks, at times controlling entire Trans-Siberian railway and several major cities in Siberia.
After three years of existence as a small unit in the Imperial Russian Army, the Legion in Russia was established in 1917, with other troops fighting in France since the beginning of the war as the "Nazdar" company, and similar units later emerging in Italy and Serbia. Originally an all-volunteer force, these formations were later strengthened by Czech and Slovak prisoners of war or deserters from the Austro-Hungarian Army. The majority of the legionaries were Czechs, with Slovaks making up 7.4% of the force in Russia, 3% in Italy and 16% in France.
Activity in World War I, 1914-1917
As World War I broke out, national societies representing ethnic Czechs and Slovaks residing in the Russian Empire petitioned the Russian government to support the independence of their homelands. To prove their loyalty to the Entente cause, these groups advocated the establishment of an armed unit of Czech and Slovak volunteers to fight alongside the Russian Army.
On 5 August 1914 the Russian Stavka authorized the formation of a battalion recruited from Czechs and Slovaks in Russia. This unit, called the “Czech Companions” (Česká družina or Družina), went to the front in October 1914 where it was attached to the Russian Third Army. There the Družina soldiers served in scattered patrols performing a number of specialized duties including reconnaissance, prisoner interrogation and subversion of enemy troops in the opposite trenches.
From its start, Czech and Slovak political émigrés in Russia and Western Europe desired to grow the Družina from a battalion into a formidable military formation. To achieve this goal, however, the émigrés recognized that they would need to recruit from Czech and Slovak prisoners of war (POWs) in Russian camps. In late 1914, Russian military authorities permitted the Družina to enlist Czech and Slovak POWs from the Austro-Hungarian Army, but this order was rescinded only after a few weeks due to opposition in other areas of the Russian government. Despite continuous efforts of émigrés leaders to persuade the Russian authorities to change their mind, the Czechs and Slovaks were officially barred from recruiting POWs until the summer of 1917. Still, some Czech and Slovak were able to sidestep this ban by enlisting POWs through local agreements with Russian military authorities.
Under these conditions the Czechoslovak armed unit in Russia grew very slowly from 1914 – 1917. In early 1916 the Družina was reorganized as the 1st Czecho-Slovak Rifle Regiment. During that year, two more infantry regiments were added, creating the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade (Československá střelecká brigáda). This unit distinguished itself during the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917 when the Czecho-Slovak troops overran Austrian trenches during the Battle of Zborov.
Following the Czechoslovak soldiers’ stellar performance at Zborov, the Russian Provisional Government finally granted their émigré leaders on the Czechoslovak National Council permission to mobilize Czech and Slovak volunteers from the POW camps. Later that summer, a fourth regiment was added to brigade, which was renamed the First Division of the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia (Československý sbor na Rusi), also known as the Czechoslovak Legion (Československá legie) in Russia. A second division consisting of four regiments was added to the legion in October 1917, raising its strength to about 40,000 troops by 1918.
Relations with the Bolsheviks
In November 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power throughout Russia and soon began peace negotiations with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk. The chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council, Tomáš Masaryk, who had arrived in Russia earlier that year, began planning for Legion’s departure from Russia and transfer to France so the Czechoslovaks could continue to fight against the Central Powers. Since most of Russia’s main ports were blockaded, Masaryk decided that the Legion should travel from Ukraine to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, from where the men would embark on transport vessels that would carry them to Western Europe.
In February 1918, Bolshevik authorities in Ukraine granted Masaryk and his troops permission to begin the 6,000 mile journey to Vladivostok. However, on 18 February, before the Czechoslovaks had left Ukraine, the German Army launched Operation Faustschlag (Thunderbolt) on the Eastern Front to force the Soviet government to accept it terms for peace. On 5 – 13 March, the Czechoslovak legionaries successfully fought off German attempts to prevent their evacuation in the Battle of Bakhmach.
After leaving Ukraine and entering Soviet Russia, representatives of the Czechoslovak National Council continued to negotiate with Bolshevik authorities in Moscow and Penza to iron out the details of the corps’ evacuation. On 25 March the two sides signed the Penza Agreement in which the legionaries were to surrender most of their weapons in exchange for unmolested passage to Vladivostok. Tensions continued to mount, however, as both sides distrusted each other. The Bolsheviks, despite Masaryk’s order for the legionaries to remain neutral in Russia’s affairs, suspected that the Czechoslovaks might join their counterrevolutionary enemies in the borderlands. Meanwhile, the legionaries were wary of Czechoslovak Communists who were trying to subvert the corps. They also suspected that the Bolsheviks were being pressured by the Central Powers to stall their movement towards Vladivostok.
By May 1918, the Czechoslovak Legion was strung out along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Penza to Vladivostok. Their evacuation was proving much slower than expected due to dilapidated railway conditions, shortage of locomotives and the recurring need to negotiate with local soviets along the route. On 14 May, a dispute at the Chelyabinsk station between legionaries heading east and Magyar POWs heading west to be repatriated caused the People’s Commissar for War, Leon Trotsky, to order the complete disarmament and arrest of the legionaries. At an army congress that convened in Chelyabinsk a few days later, the Czechoslovaks — against the wishes of the National Council—refused to disarm and began issuing ultimatums for their passage to Vladivostok. This incident sparked the Revolt of the Legions.
Involvement in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1919
Fighting between the Czechoslovak Legion and the Bolsheviks began at several points along the Trans-Siberian Railway in the last days of May 1918. By June, the two sides were fighting each other along the railway route from Penza to Krasnoyarsk. At the end of that month, the legionaries in Vladivostok under General Mikhail Diterikhs joined the struggle by deposing the soviet in the port and began retracing their journey across Siberia to support their comrades fighting to their west. Generally, the Czechoslovaks were the victors in their early engagements against the fledging Red Army.
By mid-July, the legionaries had seized control of the railway from Samara to Irkutsk, and by the beginning of September they cleared Bolshevik forces the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Legionnaires conquered all the big cities of Siberia including Yekaterinburg, however Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed on the direct orders of Vladimir Lenin and Yakov Sverdlov less than a week before the arrival of legions.
News of the Czechoslovak Legion’s campaign in Siberia during the summer of 1918 was welcomed by Allied statesmen in Great Britain and France who saw the operation as a means to reconstitute an eastern front against Germany. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who resisted earlier Allied proposals to intervene in Russia, gave into domestic and foreign pressure to support the legionaries’ evacuation from Siberia. In early July 1918 he published an aide-mémoire calling for a limited intervention in Siberia by the U.S. and Japan to rescue the Czechoslovak troops, who were then blocked by Bolshevik forces in Transbaikal. But by the time most American and Japanese units landed in Vladivostok, welcomed by the Czechoslovaks legions. The Allied intervention in Siberia continued so that by autumn 1918 there were 70,000 Japanese, 829 British, 1,400 Italian, 5,002 American and 107 French colonial (Vietnamese) troops in the region. Many of these contingents supported anti-Bolshevik Russians and Cossack warlords who established regional governments in the wake of the Czechoslovaks’ seizure of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The Czechoslovak Legion’s campaign in Siberia impressed the Allied statesmen and attracted them to the idea of an independent Czechoslovak state. As the legionaries cruised from one victory to another that summer, the Czechoslovak National Council began receiving official statements of recognition from various Allied governments.
Shortly after they entered into hostilities against the Bolsheviks, the legionaries began making common cause with anti-Bolshevik, or White, Russians who began forming their own governments behind the Czechoslovaks’ lines. The most important of these governments were the Komuch in Samara and the Provisional Siberian Government in Omsk. With substantial Czechoslovak help, the Komuch’s People’s Army won several important victories, including the capture of Kazan and a state gold reserve on 5 August 1918. Czechoslovak pressure was also crucial in convincing the White Russians in Siberia to nominally unify their efforts behind the All-Russian Provisional Government formed at conference in Ufa during September 1918.
During the autumn of 1918, the legionaries’ enthusiasm for the fighting in Russia, then mostly confined along the Volga and Urals, dropped precipitously. The rapidly-growing Red Army was getting stronger by the day and retook Kazan on 10 September followed by Samara a month later. The legionaries, whose strength peaked at around 61,000 earlier that year, were lacking reliable reinforcements from the POW camps and were disappointed by failure of Allied soldiers from other countries to join them on the frontlines. On 28 October Czechoslovak statehood was declared in Prague, arousing the troops with a desire to return to their homeland. The final blow to Czechoslovak morale arrived on 18 November 1918, when a coup in Omsk overthrew the All-Russian Provisional Government and installed a dictatorship under Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak in control of White Siberia.
During the winter of 1918-19, the Czechoslovak troops were redeployed from the front to guard the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Novonikolaevsk and Irkutsk from partisan attacks. Alongside other legions formed from Polish, Romanian and Yugoslav POWs in Siberia, the Czechoslovaks defended the Kolchak government’s only supply route for the duration of 1919.
During the summer and autumn of 1919, Kolchak’s armies were in a steady retreat from the Red Eastern Army Group. On 14 November the Reds took Omsk, Kolchak’s capital, initiating a desperate eastward flight by the White army and refugees along the Trans-Siberian Railway. In the following weeks, the Whites’ rear was further disorganized by widespread outbreaks of uprisings and partisan activity. The homesick legionaries, who simply wanted to leave Siberia without incurring any more casualties than necessary, declared their neutrality amid the unrest and did nothing to suppress the rebellions. Meanwhile, Kolchak’s trains, which included the gold bullion captured from Kazan, were stranded along the railway near Nizhneudinsk. After his bodyguard deserted him there, the legionaries were ordered by Allied representatives in Siberia to safely escort the admiral to Vladivostok. This plan was resisted by insurgents along the Czechoslovaks’ route, and as a result the legionaries, after consulting their commanders Generals Janin and Jan Syrový, made the controversial decision to turn Kolchak over to the Political Center, a government formed by moderate socialists in Irkutsk. On 7 February 1920, the legionaries had signed an armistice with the Fifth Red Army at Kutin whereby the latter allowed the Czechoslovaks unmolested passage to Vladivostok for the remainder of their journey. In exchange, the legionaries agreed not to rescue Kolchak and leave the remaining gold bullion with the authorities in Irkutsk. Earlier that day, Kolchak had been executed by a Cheka firing squad to prevent his rescue by a small White army then on the outskirts of the city.
Evacuation from Vladivostok, 1920
When they concluded the armistice with the Bolsheviks, dozens of Czechoslovak trains were still west of Irkutsk. On 1 March 1920 the last Czechoslovak train passed through that city. The legionaries’ progress was still hampered at times by the Japanese Expeditionary Force and the troops of Ataman Grigori Semenov, who stalled the Czechoslovak trains to delay the arrival of the Red Army in Eastern Siberia. By then, however, the evacuation of Czechoslovak troops from Vladivostok was well underway, and the last legionaries left the port in September 1920. The total number of persons evacuated with the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia was 67,739; including 56,455 soldiers, 3,004 officers, 6,714 civilians, 1,716 wives, 717 children, 1,935 foreigners and 198 others. After their return to Czechoslovakia, many formed the core of the new Czechoslovak Army.
The number of legionaries killed in Russia during World War I and the Russian Civil War amounted to 4,112. An unknown number went missing or deserted the legion either to make an arduous journey to return home or to join the Czechoslovak Communists. Among the latter was Jaroslav Hašek, later the author of the satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk.
After the war
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Members of the Legions formed a significant part of the new Czechoslovak Army. Many of them fought in 1919 in the Polish–Czechoslovak War over Zaolzie and in war with Hungary over Slovakia.
The 2005 novel The People's Act of Love, by the British writer James Meek, describes the occupation of a small Siberian town by a company of the Czechoslovak Legion in 1919. The original inhabitants of the town are members of the Christian sect of Skoptsy, or castrates.
- Polish 5th Rifle Division
- Czechoslovak Legion in France
- Czechoslovak Legion in Italy
- South African support to the Czechoslovak Legion
- Josef Šnejdárek
- "Češi bojovali hrdinně za Rakousko-Uhersko, ale první republika to tutlala". zpravy.idnes.cz. Retrieved 2009-08-14.
- John Bradley, The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia 1914-1920 (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1990) 14-16.
- Josef Kalvoda, The Genesis of Czechoslovakia (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1986) 62-63.
- Bradley, Czechoslovak Legion, 41.
- Brent Mueggenberg, The Czecho-Slovak Struggle for Independence 1914 – 1920 (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014) 67-70.
- Mueggenberg, Czecho-Slovak Struggle, 86-90.
- Kalvoda, Genesis, 101-105.
- Victor M. Fic, Revolutionary War and the Russian Question (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1977) 36-39.
- Tomáš Masaryk, The Making of a State, Translated by Henry Wickham Steed (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1927) 177.
- Henry Baerlein, The March of the Seventy Thousand (London: Leonard Parsons, 1926) 101-103, 128-129.
- Victor M. Fic, The Bolsheviks and the Czechoslovak Legion (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1978) 22-38.
- Fic, Bolsheviks, 230-261.
- Mueggenberg, Czecho-Slovak Struggle, 161-177, 188-191.
- George Kennan, Soviet-American Relations: The Decision to Intervene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958) 357-358, 382-384.
- Kennan, Decision to Intervene, 395-408.
- Benjamin Isitt, From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-19 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press).
- Mueggenberg, Czecho-Slovak Struggle, 185-188.
- Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy (New York: Viking, 1997) 580-581.
- Mueggenberg, Czecho-Slovak Struggle, 196-197.
- Josef Kalvoda, “Czech and Slovak Prisoners of War in Russia during the War and Revolution”, Peter Pastor, ed., Essays on World War I (New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1983) 225.
- Mueggenberg, Czecho-Slovak Struggle, 215-225.
- Mueggenberg, Czecho-Slovak Struggle, 249.
- Jonathon Smele, Civil War in Siberia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 544-665.
- Bradley, Czechoslovak Legion, 156.
- Bradley, Czechoslovak Legion, 156.
- Joan McGuire Mohr, The Czech and Slovak Legion in Siberia 1917-1922 (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012) 157.
- Baerlein, Henry, The March of the 70,000, Leonard Parsons/Whitefriar Press, London 1926
- Bullock, David: The Czech Legion 1914–20, Osprey Publishers, Oxford 2008.
- Clarke, William, The Lost Fortune of the Tsars, St. Martins Press, New York 1994 pp183–189
- Fic, Victor M., The Bolsheviks and the Czechoslovak Legion, Shakti Malik, New Delhi 1978
- Fic, Victor M., Revolutionary War for Independence and the Russian Question, Shakti Malik, New Delhi, 1977.
- Footman, David, Civil War in Russia, Faber & Faber, London 1961
- Goldhurst, Richard, The Midnight War, McGraw-Hill, New York 1978
- Hoyt, Edwin P., The Army Without a Country, MacMillan, New York/London 1967
- Kalvoda, Josef, Czechoslovakia's Role in Soviet Strategy, University Press of America, Washington DC 1981
- Kalvoda, Josef, The Genesis of Czechoslovakia, East European Monographs, Boulder 1986
- McNeal, Shay, The Secret Plot to Save the Tsar, Harper Collins, New York 2002 pp 221–222
- Meek, James, The People's Act of Love, Canongate, Edinburgh, London, New York 2005
- Mohr, Joan McGuire, The Czech and Slovak Legion in Siberia from 1917 to 1922. McFarland, NC 2012
- Mueggenberg, Brent, The Czecho-Slovak Struggle for Independence 1914 - 1920, McFarland, Jefferson, 2014
- Unterberger, Betty Miller, The United States, Revolutionary Russia, and the Rise of Czechoslovakia, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 2000
- White, John Albert, The Siberian Intervention, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1950
- Cestami odboje, memoirs of Czechoslovak Legion soldiers in Russia, France and Italy published in "Pokrok" (Prague) between 1926 and 1929
Note: There were quite a few books on the Legion written in Czech that were published in the 1920s, but most were hard to find following Soviet victory in World War II.
- Czech & Slovak Legion in Siberia
- Czechoslovak legions Memorial
- Czechoslovak legions
- Czechoslovak legions 1914–1920
- Article about the legionnaires in France (Czech)
- Maps of Europe and Russia during Czechoslovak revolt in Siberia at omniatlas.com
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