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The Czech Legion
Between 1918 and 1920, 60,000 Czech soldiers, stranded by the fortunes of war, travelled over four thousand miles through enemy territory, inflicted defeat after defeat on the Red Army, took control of the longest railway line in the world, formed a free Siberian republic and 'liberated' a fair chunk of Russia's gold reserves along the way.
They were just trying to get home.
The Politics of War
In 1914, at the outbreak of World War One, the countries we now know as the Czech Republic and Slovakia were part of the Austro-Hungarian (or Hapsburg) Empire. Russia still laboured under the near-feudal rule of Czar Nicholas II. Between them, Russia and Austro-Hungary dominated central and eastern Europe.
Both empires were on the wane. Struggling with corruption and collapsing under the weight of their huge bureaucracies, both also had to contend with an increasingly restive population. Neither were in any position to fight a protracted war. However, when Serbia was blamed for the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand, Austro-Hungary declared war, activating a string of intricate European alliances that dragged the whole continent into war.
While on the western front Germany squared off against Britain, France and Belgium, on the eastern front the Russians took on the Austro-Hungarians. The Czechs were soon to find themselves on both sides of the conflict.
Brother Against Brother
At the turn of the century, some 100,000 Czechs had emigrated to Russia, mostly settling in and around the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. At the start of the war, anxious to prove their loyalty to their new homeland (and avoid internment), these expatriate Czechs asked the Czar's government to allow them to form their own army units to fight the Austrians. Permission was given and Czech units under Russian command acted as scouts and pathfinders.
Meanwhile, Austro-Hungarian rule was a source of constant irritation to the Czechoslovaks and they were therefore less than pleased to be conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army. Czar Nicholas II spoke often of pan-slavic brotherhood and had hinted at support for an independent Czechoslovakia. This was much more a propaganda move than official policy but the Czechs, now desperate to be rid of the empire that had driven them into war against nations that weren't their enemies, took it at face value. Rather than fight the Russians, the Czech conscripts surrendered to their Slav brothers by the thousand and were transported to POW camps in central Russia.
The Austrians responded with a brutal martial law crackdown in the Czech and Slovakia areas. Czech troops received even harsher treatment than before, all of which served merely to increase the rate of desertion. The mood of the Czech people shifted from one of passive resistance to outright hostility towards their Hapsburg overlords.
The Legion Comes Together
A Professor of Philosophy at the University of Prague, Pan-Slavist and ardent Czech patriot Thomas Masaryk began lobbying the Czarist government to allow him to raise a full Czech army in Russia, but he was not able to do much until the forced abdication of the Czar in March of 1917. The newly-formed Provisional Government agreed to Masaryk's plans and The Czech Legion was formed.
The Legion, originally numbering some 4,000 men, first saw action during the Brosilov Offensive and served with distinction in what was otherwise a complete disaster. Time and time again the Czechs were thrown in to plug gaps left by mass desertions of Russian troops. Following a hasty retreat, the Czechs returned to base and began a drive to recruit from among the ranks of those Czech and Slovak POWs that had surrendered to the Russians, swelling their numbers to over 40,000.
With the war going exceptionally badly for the Russians, Masaryk tried to negotiate evacuation of the Legion from the northern port of Archangel, but time ran out as the Germans (hoping to destabilise the provision government even further) smuggled Lenin into the country. By 8 November Lenin and his Bolshevik compatriots declared themselves the sole authority in Russia.
Escape To Victory
The Germans continued to steamroll through the Ukraine in an attempt to occupy as much territory as possible before signing a peace treaty with the Russians. The Bolsheviks, focused on securing their power base rather than fighting the German advance, largely ignored the ongoing war and the Czech Legion. As organised resistance to the Germans collapsed, the Czechs realised they were going to have to save themselves.
The Czechs gathered their forces at Kiev and, commandeering trains left behind by a Russian army that was now in full flight, sought to escaped the German advance. The Germans entered the city, just as the first trains pulled out. In their first independent military operation the Legion's first division fought a brutal rear-guard action against the German army. Miraculously, they managed to hold the railhead and the rail bridge across the Dnieper river for a full two days, giving their comrades time to escape.
Now a decision had to made. The Legion could sit and wait for the situation in Russia to stabilise or they could try to join up with the Allies in France and continue the fight. They chose to fight.
To the west and north were the German army, making escape to the port of Archangel impossible. To the south meant marching overland and then trying to get the Legion (now 60,000 strong) through several sovereign nations to the Arab peninsula or Indian ocean. That left east. Four thousand miles along the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific port of Vladivostock.
Vladivostock or Bust
At first the Legion's journey was fairly peaceful as the Czechs observed a policy of strict neutrality, negotiating safe passage with all factions in Russia's increasingly bitter civil war and avoiding conflict wherever possible. However, the Bolsheviks began to violate their agreements and demand weapons and supplies from the Czechs at almost every station. Realising that this would eventually leave them defenceless, the Legion began to fight back.
In a series of skirmishes and the occasional outright battle, the Czechs took control of the whole Trans-Siberian railway east of the Volga River. At the strategically vital section of the railway around Lake Baikal1, the Legion even formed an ad hoc navy, mounting artillery guns on everything from passenger steamers to log rafts. They successfully engaged and destroyed Red Navy units patrolling the lake.
Since it was virtually impossible to move 60,000 troops and their equipment together down a single rail line, the Legion soon found itself with units strung along the whole length of the railway. Thanks to the railway's own telegraph system and a small army of messengers travelling up and down the line, most of the Legion managed to maintain cohesion and communications, which made it possible to respond quickly to any threat and was vital to their eventual success.
A tail-end unit of the Legion captured eight train cars that were carrying gold bullion from the Imperial reserve in Kazan. They used the gold to buy themselves free passage and were able to catch up with their comrades.
In July of 1918, units of the Legion that had become separated from the main body moved to within two days' march of the town of Yekaterinburg. Unknown to them, Czar Nicholas and the rest of the Romanov royal family were being held there. The Romanovs' Bolshevik jailers panicked. Fearing that the Legion had come to rescue the Czar, they promptly executed him and his whole family. The Czechs had no idea the Czar was being held in Yekaterinburg. Their presence was purely coincidental and they never entered the town.
With the security of the railway essential to their plans, the Legion expanded its sphere of influence to take in the countryside around the track. By defeating or driving off every Red Army unit they came across, they essentially destroyed Bolshevik power in the region and their successes inspired many of the local population to fight back. Backed by the Czechs, Siberia declared independence and existed as a free state until the Legion withdrew.
As news of the Legion filtered out to the world press, the 'army without a country' became the darlings of public opinion. Thomas Masaryk used this to his advantage in his negotiations with the Allies. The Allies for their part began to realise that, with Czech help, they might be able to stop the Bolshevik revolution in its tracks. A deal was struck, promising the Czechs independence in return for their maintaining control of the Trans-Siberian railway and supporting the anti-Bolshevik 'White' Russian forces. The Allies went so far as to land troops in northern Siberia. Known as Operation Polar Bear, these landings were the only time in history (officially, at least) that American troops fought the Soviet army.
However it soon become obvious the 'White' counter-revolution was doomed. Corrupt, brutal and criminally incompetent, the White leadership lost popular support. The Allies withdrew their support. The Czechs, sickened by White Russian atrocities, were happy to do the same. Although some of the Legion volunteered to stay and fight the Bolsheviks, the vast majority withdrew to Vladivostock and concentrated on guarding the railway. The Whites were quickly mopped up by the Red Army.
The Czechs kept their part of deal, holding the railway against all-comers for two years. They set up postal services and even printed a daily newspaper. Their armoured trains dominated huge swathes of the Russian countryside, often representing the only rule of law for hundreds of miles around. The war in Europe ended with the German surrender in November of 1918. In April of 1919 the long-awaited rescue ships began to arrive in Vladivostock. By the end of May most of the Legion had made it there, too, and the evacuation began. Most travelled by sea to the west coast of the US, across American by train and back to Europe across the Atlantic. Others went west via the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal.
By the end of 1920 all legionnaires had made it home to Czechoslovakia, a country that hadn't even existed when they left.
Only seven of the eight wagons of bullion were returned to the Russians. The rest was used to charter ships and set up the Legion Bank. The bank's headquarters on Na Porí cí Street, in the centre of Prague, is a masterpiece of Czech cubist architecture and its faç ade features scenes of the Legion's retreat through Siberia.
Legion Bridge (Most Legii), one of Prague's main bridges across the Vltava River, is named after the Czech Legion.
In 1920, Thomas Masaryk became the first president of Czechoslovakia. He was re-elected twice and held the post until 1935. Masaryk died in 1937.
Upon returning home, many legionnaires found jobs in the police forces and military of their new nation. Following the Communist takeover in 1948, they were persecuted for their anti-Bolshevik activities during World War One. The story of the Legion was heavily doctored in Czech history books to put a pro-Communist spin on it. The Communist version of events was that most of the Legion fought on the side of the Bolsheviks and the rest were duped by western imperialist nations into fighting an unjust proxy war against the brave workers of the Soviet Union.
After the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union, a monument to the Legion was erected in Vladivostok. Legion graveyards across Siberia have been cleared and restored.
The last legionnaire died in 2001.
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