The Česká Družina, a small unit of Czech soldiers in the Russian army initially composed of Czech emigres to Russia, played a unique and decisive role in turning unhappy Austro-Hungarian soldiers into a rebellious army. Czechs and Slovaks fighting for Austria-Hungary were welcomed into the Russian imperial army in ways few other soldiers could be. Indeed, they were explicitly encouraged to defect.
In March 1915, two days after an Austro-Hungarian attack on the Russians was repelled, food and other supplies were growing scarce. Most of the professional Austro-Hungarian officers had been killed and lesser men were put in charge. Amidst heavy snows, strong winds, and freezing temperatures, a unit of Czechs in the Ninety-Eighth Infantry Regiment held a line near Gorlice, a town on the Ropa River in Austrian Galicia. Their Austrian commander took advantage of the weather by having hungry Czechs tied to trees as punishment for eating meager portions of the reserve food supplies.
“We all had had enough,” recalled one of the Czech soldiers, Josef Křepela, “of that suffering, hunger, berating, and hitting that our commanders subjected us to, and a thought about an end to all of this torture was secretly growing inside us.”
Each night fresh troops were dispatched to relieve the freezing, hungry men in the trenches, foxholes, barns, and shacks along the Austrian front above the Ropa River. Their commander, Lieutenant Reiman, spit out an ironic farewell to his Czech soldiers: “Auf Wiedersehen in Russland!” “And every morning,” Kŕepela recalled, “when he learned about a guard who disappeared somewhere behind the Russian lines, protected by the barbed wire, he would waste no time writing a criminal report to the closest commanding headquarters.” Once, when a good friend of Křepela’s disappeared during a snowstorm, a laughing Reiman showed Kŕepela a copy of the criminal complaint he filed against the missing soldier, telling him, “The Russians must now have a whole regiment of you Czechs!”
As darkness fell one evening that March and another snowstorm gathered force, Kŕepela was ordered to take a replacement unit to the front. Under the watchful eye of their gun-wielding commander, Reiman, Kŕepela ordered thirteen young men huddling in snow-covered trenches into the storm. He led them through waist-deep snow toward a burned-out village on the Ropa River, which had been trapped between the lines of the opposing armies. When the men stopped to catch their breath behind a partially collapsed barn, Kŕepela decided to act.
“I looked into the faces of these boys, pale, with snowflakes on their freezing faces,” he said. “How beat-up and absolutely non-soldierly they looked. It was evident they were not interested in any bravery, or a war medal, which they would gladly exchange for a piece of moldy bread now. Taking pity on them, I suddenly asked, ‘Boys, would you like to go to Russia?’ I will not forget the happy twinkle in the eyes of these poor wretches, who told me with one voice, ‘Yes!’”
With desperate enthusiasm—but without any more of a plan—Kŕepela gingerly led the men single file toward Russian lines. Crossing a bridge over the Ropa after midnight, the men walked carefully past the dead and dying soldiers from both armies. Former enemies lay together mortally wounded in the same shattered homes, bleeding, delirious, softly crying for help. Discarded weapons were strewn about. In one house, two dead cows competed for space with the body of their dead owner. The stench drove Kŕepela and his men away. Taking refuge in another abandoned home, where a pale young girl, shell-shocked, wandered aimlessly from room to room, the men warmed black coffee and waited for the heavy snows to stop. By 3:30 a.m., they collapsed onto the empty beds and the floor, exhausted.
They awoke a few hours later to bearded Russian soldiers holding bayonets at their faces.
“Then,” Kŕepela said, “happiness starts flowing through my body, and I shake hands with these good men, who are offering theirs. Moved, I speak the only Russian word I know—‘Zdravstvujte!’ (Hello!). We willingly gave them our rifles and all of our equipment, keeping only a beggars’ bag holding nothing but bread crusts.” Soon they were sitting on the floor with the Russians, forming a circle around a dim candle. “Are you all Czechs?” asked one of the smiling Russians. The Czechs nodded. Knowing what this meant, the Russian left.
A few minutes later, an officer wearing a Russian uniform entered the cabin. The officer lit a cigarette Kŕepela offered him, looked over the prisoners, and said in perfect Czech, “Hey guys, who among you is from Prague?” A confused silence hung in the air. “With open mouths, we look surprised. How did the Czech in the Russian uniform who is talking to us in such a friendly manner happen to show up here?” It turned out Reiman was right—a Czecho-Slovak regiment did exist in the Russian army, the Česká Družina.
08 June 2016
Imperial Russia's Česká Družina
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. 1020-1060: