This post was edited by JFenix at 2012-1-7 21:29|
The Czechoslovak legions occupy an almost legendary place in Czech history. They comprise the armed forces that fought during and after World War I on the allied side in pursuit of an independent Czechoslovakia. The biggest force, and most potent myths, centre on the Russian force, which became embroiled in the civil war, spending three years and travelling thousands of miles before returning home. We look at the myths and facts about their exploits.
The Czechoslovak legions were a potent myth and reality for the First Czechoslovak Republic created in 1918. Many of their military leaders filled the top ranks of the new nation’s army. Some finally went over the edge creating anti-democratic parties and siding with the Nazi occupiers at the end of the 1930’s.
Physical landmarks, such as Prague’s bridge Most Legií is named after them, though it was constructed earlier and the name was changed during the Nazi and Communist regimes. A memorial to the legionnaires also dominates Prague’s Palacký square.
One of the city’s interwar architectural masterpieces, the bank founded for the returning legionnaires, Banka Československých legii or Legiobanka, is a rondo-cubist masterpiece by celebrated Czech architect Josef Gočár.
But it is perhaps at the psychological level that the foundations go deeper. More about that later.
From the start of World War I, Czechs abroad started to form national units to fight on the Allied side. Small at first, their numbers and significance started to snowball when they were supplemented by prisoners and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army fighting alongside Germany.
All this fitted in well with the strategy of Tomáš G. Masaryk, the leader of Czechoslovakia’s independence movement and later first president. Ivan Šedivý is a specialist in modern Czechoslovak history at Prague’s Charles University.
“He knew that an independent state would need an army so in many articles he wrote that the Czechoslovak movement against Austria-Hungary needed its independent armed forces. So Masaryk tried to create such forces and this happened in Russia, in France and at the end of the war in Italy and the United States.”
But the Russian Revolution in 1917 represented a major hurdle to this plan. While the newly established independent Czechoslovak force proved its fighting worth in the offensive of Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government, that government was soon overturned by the Bolshevik revolution with Lenin opting for peace.
The Czechoslovak forces wanted to carry on fighting and now faced the challenge of how to get to France. Their way back west and to the northern Baltic ports was blocked by German armies. They faced the choice of a hazardous trip south towards the Middle East or further east along the trans-Siberian railway to the port of Vladivostok. They opted for the latter route and what was to become a three-year odyssey.
Unfortunately, they soon became caught up in the civil war between the Bolshevik government centred in Moscow and opposition forces backed by the Allies who were angered by Lenin’s unilateral exit from the war. Ivan Šedivý again:
“At the beginning Masaryk did not want the legions to fight the Soviet Bolsheviks but after the Chelyabinsk incident in May 1918 when fighting broke out between Bolsheviks and legionnaires the Czechoslovak corps fought with the so-called White forces. But I think it was not a crucial force for winning the war.”
The Czechoslovak legion represented a well organised and potent fighting force which occupied large swathes of Siberia. It made use of armoured trains along the railway to ferry forces to key points. Its imminent arrival is believed to have contributed to the decision by local Bolsheviks to execute the Tsar and his family at Eskaterinburg in July 1918. But even so, it was still a fairly small force.
“At this time the Czechoslovak corps had about 70,000 Czech soldiers and about 20-30,000 Russian soldiers, so we are talking about a force of about 100,000. So it was not a force that could have been able to defeat the Bolsheviks in fact.”