Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Czech Legion 1

Europe 1919 - the new order
One of the reasons that WW1 has always absorbed me is the influence of its outcomes on the map of the world that we live in today (let alone their direct causation of WW2). The dismantling of four of the six great empires involved – German; Austro-Hungarian; Ottoman and Russian – created numerous new states. The list is a long one – countries of the Middle East, Ukraine, Poland, Yugoslavia and Turkey included – but of all of them Czechoslovakia provides some of the most fascinating stories.
Rewind to 1914, before the Sarajevo assassination. The Habsburg Empire, constituted as the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary since 1867, had been crumbling for years, at a pace almost as fast as its historic rival, the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the need to strike against the multiple disaffected ethnic groups and grumbling nationalist movements was one of the main drivers for Austria’s determination to declare war against Serbia. Austria’s own representative (and toothless) parliament, the Reichsrat (Imperial Council) had been disrupted for several years by the tactics of the various nationalist groups. Foremost among them were the Bohemian (Czech) nationalists. During the July crisis of 1914 the Reichsrat was suspended and would not reconvene for over three years. The Czech nationalists pursued their cause through different routes, and they would be indebted to two men in particular: Thomas Masaryk - later Founding President of Czechoslovakia - and Edvard Benes - later first Foreign Minister and successor as President to Masaryk. But, on suspension of the Reichsrat statehood for Czechoslovakia (and their own roles) were but distant dreams.

Masaryk - extraordinary man,
incredible life
Thomas Masaryk (Tomàš Garrigue Masaryk 1850-1937) was a truly remarkable man. Born in Bohemia, he studied at Vienna University, gaining a PhD in 1879 on the epidemiology of suicide (surely an enlightened topic for the time). He pursued a dual career, academic and political, and used both to great advantage. He became a Professor of Philosophy at Charles University, Prague, aged only 32. He served two terms as a member of the Reichsrat before its suspension, the second as leader of the Realist Party, which he had founded some years earlier.
When war broke out, Masaryk concluded rapidly that his nationalist sedition would have better chances from exile. In December 1914 he narrowly avoided arrest, and escaped with his eldest daughter from his home in Prague, leaving his long-suffering wife (an American national) to look after the rest of the family. He made his way to Rome, then Geneva, then London via Paris. In London he made a base, but travelled extensively, particularly to North America, building up political support and networks, often under cover of academic lecture tours. He gained a professorship at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London. On his visits to the USA he galvanised the support of large numbers of Czech and Slovak immigrants (reckoned to number as many as 1.5millions) concentrated in Chicago and the Eastern seaboard cities. He won the support of an influential Chicago industrialist, Charles Crane, employer of large numbers of Czechs. Crane would, in time, open the door to Washington for Masaryk.

When WW1 opened in 1914, large numbers of ethnic Czechs and Slovaks were living on the Russian side of Austria-Hungary’s northern border. As Masaryk began his tour in exile, those Czech and Slovak representatives petitioned the Russian Duma to support their cause for an independent state. An offer of voluntary Czech units to fight alongside the Russian army evidenced their sincerity. Their offer was rapidly accepted by the Stavka (military HQ) and a small unit known as the Ceska Druzina (‘Czech companions’ - compare with the ‘Pals’ battalions in England in 1914) was formed and assigned to the 3rd Russian Army. Masaryk, when he learned of this, saw immediately the political potential to gain support from the Allies for his cause. He urged the Druzina leaders to expand as much as possible, particularly by gaining permission to recruit from the many Czechs among the Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war. Initially, the Russian authorities gave permission, but shortly afterwards withdrew it, for ill defined political reasons. The Druzina numbers thus stayed at around 2,500 through 1915-1916, although they established a good reputation for courage and discipline (the latter began to falter badly in the wider Russian army in the latter stages of 1916). They were restructured as the 1st Czech Rifle Regiment during this time.
Edvard Benes, second only
to Masaryk in Czechoslovakia

All the while, Masaryk was promoting the cause through networks of overt political activities and by covert diplomacy and espionage. Benes created an anti-Austrian resistance movement in Bohemia, the Maffia (sic), before going into exile himself in 1915. He was a constant presence in Paris from 1916-18, where he was secretary of the Czechoslovak National Council – the Czech Government in waiting. Unhappily for him and Masaryk, there was a rival pro-Russian, Tsarist, anti-independence group in Petrograd- the Czech and Slovak National Council, led by Josef Durich, vying for influence within the Druzina.

The February 1917 Revolution in Petrograd changed the situation dramatically. The instability throughout Russia and the Eastern Front had a mixed impact on Masaryk’s cause. On the positive side the new Provisional Government (see Post 23/2/2017) abolished Durich’s Council. Milyukov, one of the PG’s ministers, called for an independent Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, the disintegration of the Eastern Front threatened a German crushing of his fledgling national army. He had already moved to Paris to support Benes and to persuade the French of the desirability of his forces fighting alongside the French Army on the Western Front. He needed to back a winning horse, and at that moment the Western Allies were looking stronger. On learning of events in Petrograd, Masaryk resolved to go there as soon as possible to influence actions. His first attempt to travel was foiled when his transport steamer was torpedoed and sunk en route to
Milan Stefanyk.
Slovaks comprised
around 10% of the
Czech Legion
France. He was forced to kick his heels in London for a couple of months, leaving behind Benes and his Slovak counterpart Milan Stefanyk. In May 1917 he left London with a forged British passport in the name of Thomas George Marsden, taking a boat to the remote north of Sweden where he entered Russian Finland via the border town of Haparanda.

Masaryk had spent much time in pre-war Russia and had many well placed contacts there. He found himself in a chaotic and confused environment, but was able to make progress with the Provisional Government on the subject of recruiting prisoners of war for the Druzina. Shortly came the time for the Kerensky offensive of July 1917 (see Post 27/8/2017) – the last throw of the dice for the beaten Russian army. In the overall disaster, the Druzina had its finest moment in the Battle of Zborov, near Lemberg. A force of around 5,000 Czechs overran the trenches and positions of the much greater strength Austro-Hungarian forces (including, ironically, two Bohemian regiments). Set against the other adverse outcomes, this victory strengthened Masaryk’s negotiating position with a now desperate Kerensky, who authorised further recruitment of Czech and Slovak PoWs. He also agreed that Brusilov (now his Chief of Staff) could define the military relationship with Masaryk. Remarkably, “Brusilov agreed to Masaryk’s plans to transform the Druzina into an independent CzechoSlovak corps that would remain militarily under Russian control, but politically under the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris. He agreed to their departure to France, and to Masaryk’s demand that his men maintain neutrality inside Russia”*. Masaryk followed up this breath-taking stroke with a hectic tour of the battlefronts and PoW camps to maximise recruitment to what was now named the ‘Czech Legion’.
Equally breath-taking were the plans for transfer of the Legion from the Eastern to the Western Front. By means of the Trans-Siberian Railway, they were to be transported to Vladivostok; thence by sea to Vancouver; across Canada, and then across the Atlantic to France. Needless to say this ambitious plan encountered a number of logistical and political challenges, but these will have to wait until next year. Suffice to say the Czech Legion found itself drawn into the last stages of WW1 in the East; the murders of the Tsar and his family, and the Russian Civil War.

*Dreams of a Great Small Nation. Kevin McNamara p132

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