|The Trans Siberian Railway - completed only a few years |
We left the story in late 1917, when the remarkable Thomas Masaryk had take advantage of the political turmoil in Russia to persuade Kerensky’s commander-in chief (Brusilov) to create the Czech Legion as an army corps under the control of the French Army (See Post 11/6/2017).
The size of the corps was increased significantly when the Russians gave permission to the Czechoslovak National Council (Chairman being Masaryk) to recruit Czech and Slovak volunteers from the Austria-Hungary prisoner of war camps, creating the ‘First Division of the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia’, otherwise known as the Czech Legion (CL). By early 1918 numbers had swollen from a few thousand to nearly 40,000. Their stated aim – to travel via Siberia and Canada, thence to the western Front to join the French forces there - became a massive, complex logistical exercise. The complexity was increased by the events of late 1917. The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks did not merely give Masaryk a new set of leaders to negotiate with. The commencement of peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk led by Trotsky (See Post 22/1/2018) risked the overwhelming of the nascent CL (mostly in Ukraine at this time) before it could even start its marathon journey. To the south, the descent of Austria-Hungary to political disarray strengthened the independence case for Czechoslovakia. However, this was outweighed by the military disaster at Caporetto (See Post 13/11/2017). Its outcome was that the entire eastern and southern fronts had effectively been silenced. The only place now for the Czechs to make a military contribution in order to strengthen Allied support for their cause was the Western Front. So, despite the many obstacles, the CL began to assemble for its 13,000 miles odyssey.
Looking at a map of the world - which confirms the Eastern Front to have been a mere 150 miles from the Western – it seems incredible that the CL’s only option was the Trans Siberian Railway (TSR) to Vladivostok (see map). Negotiations for its safe passage to Voronezh and Penza at the western end of the TSR took until mid February. The Bolsheviks feared that the CL might be persuaded to join their counter-revolutionary opponents. By the time they agreed to Masaryk’s requests, Trotsky’s own filibustering efforts at Brest-Litovsk had come to an end, and the Germans had resumed their incursions into Ukraine, launching operation Fist Strike (Faustschlag). They nearly cut off the CL’s escape route, but in fierce fighting from 5-13th March, the legionnaires successfully resisted them at the Battle of Baklmach. Their difficulties had barely started. Their erstwhile supporters – the Allies - triggered a new development. So concerned by the Russian collapse, and its likely impact on the entire war, the French and British decided that the CL should bolster the Allied supply route for supporting Russia’s continuation in the war – the northern port of Archangel. They issued orders to this effect, against the wishes of Masaryk. Ironically, support for the CL came from an unexpected source. The Soviet Commissar for national affairs (one Joseph Stalin) had no wish to fall in with orders from imperialists, and declared that the CL’s journey to Vladivostok was “just and fully acceptable”*. However, the price of his support was high. In what became known as the ‘Penza Agreement’, the CL was to surrender all but a handful of its weapons to the Bolsheviks, and was to accept onboard a Penza Soviet Commissar in every train in the convoy. If the latter was intended to smooth the passage of the trains through each of the stopping points along the railway, it failed. When the first trains reached Samara, on the Volga towards the Ural Mountains, they ran into a different Soviet – unaware of, or dismissive of, the Penza Soviet’s agreement. They demanded the remainder of the CL’s arms, and generally were as obstructive as they could be. In the confused anarchy of revolutionary Russia, similar scenes played out in dozens of stations along the railway’s path.
On 14th May, at Chelyabinsk, east of the Urals, a confrontation took place between Hungarian prisoners of war and Czech legionnaires that led to the Revolt of the Legions. On learning of the clash Trotsky (now Minister of War) ordered the arrest and disarmament of the CL. A few days later, an army congress was convened in Chelyabinsk, where the Czechs refused to disarm, even resisting the pleas from Masaryk to comply.
Fighting broke out between the Czechs and the Red Army at the various
stations along the TSR. Generally the Czechs were far superior to the fledgling
Red Army, and in the weeks from May to July they took possession of the whole
of the TSR, effectively taking control of all of Siberia – one sixth of the
world’s land mass! The Legionnaires, under command of a white Russian, General Mikhail Diterikhs, managed to overthrow the Bolshevik Soviet of Vladivostok and on 6th
July, in an extraordinary turn of events, declared Vladivostok to be an Allied
protectorate. They used it as a base to send back trains to support their
comrades struggling on the long west to east passage.
|Gen. Mikhail Diterikhs. Escaped the|
Bolsheviks in Ukraine to become
Chief of Staff to the Czech Legion.
By early September they had claimed control of the entire TSR. The emerging public stories of the Legionnaires’ achievements stirred the world. President Wilson abandoned his opposition to any American intervention in Russia, agreeing that American and Japanese troops should be sent to Vladivostok to help with the rescue of the CL. By the time they arrived, the Czechs were already in control of the port city. The feats of the CL brought more political support for the Czech cause, and for the government-in-waiting in Paris.
There was an earth shattering sideshow to this drama on 16th July 1918. The advance of the CL and its imminent takeover of the city of Yekaterinburg pressured Lenin into ordering the executions of the Tsar and his family and close friends, being held captive just outside the city.
Winston Churchill employed his flair for historic awareness in recording “The pages of history recall scarcely any parallel episode at once so romantic in character and so extensive in scale. Thus through a treacherous breach of faith, by a series of accidents and chances which no one in the world had foreseen, the whole of Russia from the Volga to the Pacific Ocean, a region almost as large as the continent of Africa, had passed by magic into the control of the Allies”.
In October a Mid-European Union conference involving representatives of eleven countries was held in Philadelphia USA to discuss progress towards President Wilson’s fourteen points (See Post 13/1/2018). It was a testy affair, but on 26th October, Masaryk himself announced the Union’s Declaration of Common Aims, which included government by consent and self-determination, with civil rights for all civilians.
Masaryk had all but achieved his dream of an independent Czech nation, and the dazzling efforts of the Czech Legion had helped significantly to get him over the line.
*Dreams of a Great Small Nation. McNamara Kevin J. p198