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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 who ended up in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. 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 (the new country was later named Czechoslovakia), which were then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Legions originated with small armed units organized from 1914 onwards by volunteer Czechs and Slovaks. Later, many Czechs and Slovaks captured during the war joined these units; with help of émigré intellectuals and politicians (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Milan Rastislav Štefánik and others) the Legions grew into a force of tens of thousands. The independence of Czechoslovakia was finally obtained in 1918.
After three years of existence as a small brigade in the Imperial Russian Army, the Legion in Russia were created in 1917. Other units had been fighting in France since the war's beginning (including volunteers from the US), and later in Italy and Serbia. Their membership consisted of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war in Russia, Serbia and Italy, and Czech and Slovak emigrants in France and Russia who had already created the "Czech company" in Russia and a unit named "Nazdar" in France in 1914. The Legions were actively involved in many battles of World War I, including Zborov or Bakhmach. They were also heavily involved in the Russian Civil War fighting Bolsheviks, at times controlling most of the Trans-Siberian railway, all major cities in Siberia and being indirectly involved in the execution of the Tsar and his family.
The term "Legions" was not widely used during the war but was adopted shortly afterward. It is primarily based on their French connection – they reported to France and were, in a general way, thought of as related to the French Foreign Legion.
As World War I broke out, ethnic Czechs living in the Russian Empire petitioned Emperor Nicholas II to let them set up a national force to fight against Austria-Hungary, and he ultimately gave his assent.
A "Czech Centuria" (Česká setnina) or "Czech Company" (Česká družina) was established in 1914 and attached to the Russian Army. From May 1915, the force included many prisoners and deserters from the army of Austria-Hungary who came from Bohemia, Moravia, Austrian Silesia and Upper Hungary (now Slovakia). In February 1916, the unit was reorganized as the regimental-sized Czechoslovak Rifle Corps (Československý střelecký sbor) and, in May 1916, into the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade (Československá střelecká brigáda) which was 7,300 strong. The future President Thomas Garrigue Masaryk and General Milan Rastislav Štefánik came to Russia during spring and summer of 1917 to negotiate expansion of the units, to bring them under the control of the Czechoslovak National Council and to turn them into an independent Czechoslovak army. They succeeded on all counts.
The brigade consisted of three regiments:
- 1st Rifle Regiment (of Jan Hus), created in February 1916 from the "Czech Company"
- 2nd Rifle Regiment (of Jiří z Poděbrad), created in May 1916
- 3rd Rifle Regiment (of Jan Žižka z Trocnova), created in March 1917
In September 1917, the brigade was reorganized as the First Hussite Rifle Division, which consisted of four regiments: the three above and a newly created
- 4th Rifle Regiment (of Prokop Veliký)
In October 1917, it was merged with the Second Rifle Division (created in July 1917), forming the "Czechoslovak Corps in Russia" (Československý sbor na Rusi) that numbered some 38,500 men. This strength of this considerable Czechoslovak Army peaked at around 61,000 men. (Some sources allege 65,000–70,000 soldiers.)
A total of 4,112 Czech and Slovak Legion members lost their lives in Russia in World War I.
Battles in Ukraine
The victorious Battle of Zborov (1917) was the first significant action of the Legions, they had advanced deep into enemy territory and broke through the entire Austria-Hungary trench line. In March 1918 the Czechoslovak Legions won the Battle of Bakhmach against German Empire army.
Transit through Siberia
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik government concluded the separate Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Bolsheviks and the corps agreed to evacuate the Legion to France to join the Czechoslovak corps and continue fighting there. Because Russia's European ports were not safe, the corps was to be evacuated by a long detour via Siberia, the Pacific port of Vladivostok, and the USA. Although there was a need to increase their fighting power and mobilization was officially announced, no Czech or Slovak prisoner of war was forced to serve in the Legion. Thus, many Czechs and Slovaks chose to return home instead. Fifty thousand Mosin-Nagant rifles were sent via Vladivostok to equip the Legions in Siberia to aid in their attempt to secure passage to France.
Masaryk advised the Legion to stay out of Russian affairs, but as it turned out, this was not possible.
The slow evacuation on the Trans-Siberian railway was exacerbated by transportation shortages – as agreed in the Brest-Litovsk treaty, the Bolsheviks were at the same time repatriating German, Austrian and Hungarian POWs from Siberia. Around this same time Leon Trotsky, then People's Commissar of War, under intense pressure from the Germans, ordered the disarming and arrest of the Legion, thus betraying his promise of safe passage.
Various governmental authorities along the way requested that the Czechoslovaks give up increasing numbers of their guns. In May 1918, tensions with the Bolsheviks provoked what is generally referred to as the Revolt of the Legions. Conflict already existed between trains of Legionnaires going east to fight on the Allied side and German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners (including some Czechs and Slovaks) going west to fight for "the other" side.
The various parts of the Legion found themselves strung out and separated along the railway. These scattered forces fought a complicated series of battles with the primary objective of re-connecting the various groups and then getting to Vladivostok for their exit to the Western front. As it became clear that this was the only organized fighting force in Russia (the Red Army under Trotsky was still small and disorganized), the Allied governments broadly agreed that the Czechoslovaks might be useful in re-opening an Eastern Front. Elements within the Allied governments (notably Winston Churchill), concerned about the Bolsheviks, made use of this pretext to support an Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. The Allies sent troops to Russia to prevent the Germans or the Bolsheviks taking over allied-provided weapons, munitions and other supplies, previously shipped as aid to the pre-revolutionary government. US President Woodrow Wilson sent armed forces to assist the withdrawal of Czech and Slovaks along the Trans-Siberian Railway, and to hold the key port cities of Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok.
The legions conqered all major cities of Siberia and took over a considerable area around the railway from just east of the Volga River all the way to Vladivostok. In the process, they captured a large amount of military and civilian equipment and material, controlling their temporary territory through the use of heavily armed and armored trains. Their existence played a role in the rise of other anti-Bolshevik groups and Siberia-based independence movements. The Czechoslovaks pushed back westward up the line reaching Yekaterinburg. The presence of the Czechoslovak Legion just a day away appears to have been one of the motivating forces for the execution of the Tsar and his family by Bolsheviks (17 July 1918).
Meanwhile, with Russian involvement in World War I now over, the remaining Entente Allies began their Siberian Intervention, with troops from the U.S., Canada, France, Great Britain, and Japan landing in Vladivostok, which the Czechoslovaks had controlled for some time. In Vladivostok, however, the Allied rescue of the Czechoslovak Legion got sidetracked. The Japanese forces arrived in April 1918 with 500 marines, followed by 50 British soldiers in May, 500 Americans in June, and 600 more British and some French in late June 1918. They arrived to find a changed situation, with open warfare going on between the Bolsheviks on one side and the Czechoslovak Legions and White Russians on the other. Moreover, World War I hostilities ended in November 1918, making the whole mission to bring the Czechs and Slovaks to France and fight on the Western front pointless. An already confused situation deteriorated, and the Japanese got directly involved in the fighting on the side of the Czechoslovak Legion and of White Russians when their government saw this as a territorial opportunity. By September 1918 there were 70,000 Japanese, 829 British, 1,400 Italian, 5,002 American and 107 Annamese (Vietnamese) troops under French command in and around Vladivostok. A contingent of 4,000 Canadian troops had arrived by January 1919, to lead the British Empire's intervention in Siberian and the Russian Far East.
Departure from Vladivostok
Exhausted by their trek across Siberia and eager to return to their new nation, the Czechoslovaks cut a deal with the Bolsheviks in 1920. They handed over their gold bullion, along with the leader of the anti-Bolshevik army, Admiral Kolchak. This was done only after the bulk of Czechoslovak forces were established in heavy defensive lines against the Bolsheviks. Eventually, with the help of the American Red Cross (12 American and 9 English boats) and their own funds, most of the Legion – totaling 67,739 soldiers (actually 53,455 soldiers, 3,004 officers, 6,714 civilians, 1,716 wives, 717 children, 1,935 foreigners, 198 others) was evacuated via Vladivostok and returned to become the core of the army of the First Czechoslovak Republic.
A small number of Czech and Slovak communists stayed behind. (One early Legionnaire to join the Bolsheviks was Jaroslav Hašek, later the author of The Good Soldier Švejk). A few others stayed with the White Russian forces for a while, including General Radola Gajda, who later became a leader of the Czech fascist movement and also provided significant arms to the Korean independence movement. These arms helped the Koreans win the Battle of Chingshanli in 1920.
The retreat through Siberia became an element of the heroic military legend surrounding the legions, compared to the Anabasis of Greek mercenaries across Persia.
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
- Bradley, John F. N., The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, 1914–1920. East European Monographs, New York: Boulder/Columbia University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-88033-218-2, p. 156.
- First World War - Willmott, H.P.; Dorling Kindersley, 2003, Page 251
- Mark D. Steinberg, Vladimir M. Khrustalëv, Elizabeth Tucker (1995). The Fall of the Romanovs. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07067-5.
- Benjamin Isitt (2010). From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada's Siberian Expedition, 1917–19. University of British Columbia Press. ISBN 978-0-7748-1802-5.
- http://drfaltin.org/archive.htm a collection documenting the trans-Siberian trek of the Czechoslovak Legion during the Russian Revolution
- 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
- 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
- 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.