FOLLOWING RUSSIA’S WITHDRAWAL from the war in March 1918, Moscow began shipping home more than 2.3 million German and Austro-Hungarian POWs aboard trains from camps across all of Soviet Russia. More than 200,000 of the men in Austro-Hungarian uniforms hailed from the more obscure corners of the Habsburg realm, and they were known to their rulers—but almost no one else—as Bohemians, Czechs, Moravians, or Slovaks. They and their leader, a philosophy professor named Tomáš G. Masaryk, wanted a nation of their own. And they were willing to fight for it. From his London exile, Masaryk had traveled to Russia under an assumed name early in 1917 to persuade the men to fight for France on the Western Front, in return for which the Allies would consider creating a new nation, Czecho-Slovakia. Between 50,000 and 65,000 of these Czechs and Slovaks would throw in their lot with Masaryk.
On May 14, 1918, in Chelyabinsk—a Russian frontier settlement on the steeper, more fractured, eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, the gateway to Siberia—about eighty Hungarians, hardened survivors of war and imprisonment, former POWs being returned to the Austro-Hungarian Army, sat waiting in the last three cars of a westbound train otherwise full of refugees.
Their steam-powered locomotive was replenished with wood and water. The bored, brooding veterans awaited the sudden jerking motion that would bring the creaking wood-and-steel train back to life and resume its languid journey west through the Ural Mountains, in the direction of Austria-Hungary. They had survived the Eastern Front, hellish conditions in Russia’s POW camps, and several Siberian winters. And now many of the men—still loyal to the Habsburg dynasty—understood that they would be thrown back into combat. If no longer imprisoned, they may have felt doomed.
Across the platform stood a train facing east crowded with men who had also worn Austro-Hungarian uniforms, but these strangers appeared to be in better spirits. They were Czechs and Slovaks—part of the more than fifty thousand in Russia who had become followers of Masaryk—washing down stale black bread and blood sausages with kettles of strong tea. Strangers in a strange land, they had reason to be hopeful that they might win a nation for their people. Unlikely as it seemed, this was their moment.
The cars that carried the Czechs and Slovaks had been moved off the main track onto a siding, due to what Russian authorities claimed was a shortage of locomotives. These men, a handful of whom had deserted to the Russians and fought in a special unit of the tsarist army, won the new Soviet regime’s permission to organize their own trains and depart Russia via Siberia, keeping a small number of weapons for self-defense.
Their eastbound trains were destined for Vladivostok, a distant port on Russia’s Pacific coast more than thirty-one hundred miles away. In Vladivostok, the men hoped to board Allied ships that would circumnavigate the globe and deposit them in the trenches of the Western Front alongside their former enemies, the French. In return for fighting with the Allies, it was hoped, they would win freedom for their peoples. At least that was the plan.
If Russia decided to turn them over to Austro-Hungarian authorities, many of them would face certain imprisonment and possible execution. Several hundred of these men had innocently emigrated to Russia long before the Great War in search of jobs or land and had enlisted in the tsar’s armies in 1914 as a prudent obligation. A few thousand more had served in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front, but deserted to the Russians. For these men in particular, firing squads awaited them back home and the Austrian authorities were unlikely to exercise great care in deciding which among them was guilty. Those spared execution and deemed able to fight would be returned to the Austro-Hungarian army, perhaps to die facedown in the mud or snow for the privilege of preserving a German-speaking empire that held them firmly in second-class status.
Most of the Czechs and Slovaks traveling to Vladivostok, however, were newly released captives of the Russians. This motley legion had assembled because one elderly professor from Prague thought it was a good idea.
11 June 2016
Choices Facing the Czech Legion, 1918
From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 252-285: