Czechoslovak Legions

Czechoslovak Legions
Monument to the Czechoslovak Legions, Palacky square, Prague.

The Czechoslovak Legions (Československé legie in Czech, Československé légie in Slovak, traditionally called Czech Legion in English) were volunteer armed forces composed predominantly of Czechs and Slovaks fighting together with the Entente powers during World War I. Their goal was to win the Allies' support for the independence of Bohemia and Slovak territories of the Kingdom of Hungary (the new country was later named Czechoslovakia), which were then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Legions originated with small armed units organized from 1914 onwards by volunteer Czechs and Slovaks. Later, many Czechs and Slovaks captured during the war joined these units; with help of émigré intellectuals and politicians (Tomáš Masaryk, Milan Rastislav Štefánik and others) the Legions grew into a force of tens of thousands. The independence of Czechoslovakia was finally obtained in 1918.

After three years of existence as a small brigade in the Imperial Russian Army, the Legion in Russia were created in 1917. Other units had been fighting in France since the war's beginning (including volunteers from the US), and later in Italy and Serbia. Their membership consisted of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war in Russia, Serbia and Italy, and Czech and Slovak emigrants in France and Russia who had already created the "Czech company" in Russia and a unit named "Nazdar" in France in 1914. The Legions were actively involved in many battles of World War I, including Zborov or Bakhmach. They were also heavily involved in the Russian Civil War fighting Bolsheviks, at times controlling much of the Trans-Siberian railway and being indirectly involved in the hasty execution of the Tsar and his family.

The vast majority (around 90%) of the legionaries were Czechs. Slovaks made up 7.4% in the Russian legions, 3% in the Italian and 16% in the French.[1]

The term "Legions" was not widely used during the war but was adopted shortly afterward. It is primarily based on their French connection – they reported to France and were, in a general way, thought of as related to the French Foreign Legion.


In Russia

Initial formation

Memorial to the Czechoslovaks in the battle of Zborov at Blansko, Czech Republic.
Memorial of the dead of the Czechoslovak Legion in the battle of Zborov (1917) at the Kalinivka cemetery, Ukraine.

As World War I broke out, ethnic Czechs living in the Russian Empire petitioned Emperor Nicholas II to let them set up a national force to fight against Austria-Hungary, and he ultimately gave his assent.

A "Czech Centuria" (Česká setina) or "Czech Company" (Česká družina) was established in 1914 and attached to the Russian Army. From May 1915, the force included many prisoners and deserters from the army of Austria-Hungary who came from Bohemia, Moravia, Austrian Silesia and Upper Hungary (now Slovakia). In February 1916, the unit was reorganized as the regimental-sized Czechoslovak Rifle Corps (Československý střelecký sbor) and, in May 1916, into the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade (Československá střelecká brigáda) which was 7,300 strong. The future President Thomas Garrigue Masaryk and General Milan Rastislav Štefánik came to Russia during spring and summer of 1917 to negotiate expansion of the units, to bring them under the control of the Czechoslovak National Council and to turn them into an independent Czechoslovak army. They succeeded on all counts.

The brigade consisted of three regiments:

In September 1917, the brigade was reorganized as the First Hussite Rifle Division, which consisted the four regiments: the three above and a newly created

In October 1917, it was merged with the Second Rifle Division (created in July 1917), forming the "Czechoslovak Corps in Russia" (Československý sbor na Rusi) that numbered some 38,500 men. This strength of this considerable Czechoslovak Army peaked at around 61,000 men. (Some sources allege 65,000–70,000 soldiers.)

A total of 4,112 Czech and Slovak Legion members lost their lives in Russia in World War I.[2]

Transit through Siberia

Troop movements in the Russian Civil War. The dark grey lines show the maximum advance of the White forces, including the Czechoslovaks.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik government concluded the separate Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Bolsheviks and the corps agreed to evacuate the Legion to France to join the Czechoslovak corps and continue fighting there. Because Russia's European ports were not safe, the corps was to be evacuated by a long detour via Siberia, the Pacific port of Vladivostok, and the USA. Although there was need to increase their fighting power and mobilization was officially announced, no Czech or Slovak prisoner of war was forced to serve in the Legion. Thus, many Czechs and Slovaks chose to return home. Fifty thousand Mosin-Nagant rifles were sent via Vladivostok to equip the Legions in Siberia to aid in their attempt to secure passage to France.

Masaryk advised the Legion to stay out of Russian affairs, but as it turned out, this was not possible.

The slow evacuation by the Trans-Siberian railway was exacerbated by transportation shortages – as agreed in the Brest-Litovsk treaty, the Bolsheviks were at the same time repatriating German, Austrian and Hungarian POWs from Siberia. Around this same time Leon Trotsky, then People's Commissar of War, under intense pressure from the Germans, ordered the disarming and arrest of the Legion, thus betraying his promise of safe passage.

Czechoslovak troops in Vladivostok (1918)

Various governmental authorities along the way requested that the Czechoslovaks give up increasing numbers of their guns. In May 1918, tensions with the Bolsheviks provoked what is generally referred to as the Revolt of the Legions. Conflict already existed between trains of Legionnaires going east to fight on the Allied side and German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners (including some Czechs and Slovaks) going west to fight for "the other" side. According to one[which?] account, the legionnaires stopped a Hungarian train at Chelyabinsk in the Urals and shot a soldier who had apparently thrown something at their train. Then the local Bolshevik government arrested some of the Czechoslovaks. Members of the Legion then stormed the railway station, and subsequently occupied the whole city of Chelyabinsk. This incident triggered further hostilities between the Legion and the Bolsheviks.

The various parts of the Legion found themselves strung out and separated along the railway. These scattered forces fought a complicated series of battles with the primary objective of re-connecting the various groups and then getting to Vladivostok for their exit to the Western front. As it became clear that this was the only organized fighting force in Russia (the Red Army under Trotsky was still small and disorganized), the Allied governments broadly agreed that the Czechoslovaks might be useful in re-opening an Eastern Front. Elements within the Allied governments (notably Winston Churchill), concerned about the Bolsheviks, made use of this pretext to support an Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War and to destabilize the Bolsheviks. The Allies sent troops to Russia to prevent the Germans or the Bolsheviks taking over allied-provided weapons, munitions and other supplies,[citation needed] previously shipped as aid to the pre-revolutionary government. US President Woodrow Wilson sent armed forces to assist the withdrawal of Czech and Slovaks along the Trans-Siberian Railway, and to hold the key port cities of Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok.

At its peak, the Legion took over a considerable area around the railway from just east of the Volga River all the way to Vladivostok. In the process, they captured a large amount of military and civilian equipment and material, controlling their temporary territory through the use of heavily armed and armored trains.[3] Their existence played a role in the rise of other anti-Bolshevik groups and Siberia-based independence movements. The Allies instructed the Czechoslovaks to push back up the line, which they did, reaching Yekaterinburg. The presence of the Czechoslovak Legion just a day away appears to have been one of the motivating forces behind the hasty execution of the Tsar and his family (17 July 1918).[4]

Meanwhile, Masaryk and others were working to achieve Allied recognition. This was achieved, capped by the Pittsburgh Agreement (31 May 1918) and the Oppressed Nations Treaty.

With the need to fight the Czechoslovak Legion as a clear motivation, Trotsky got his act together and the Red Army grew – with a number[quantify] of German and Austro-Hungarian POWs as troops. Eventually, it had 3 million men under arms, and the Czechoslovak Legion was pushed back.

Meanwhile, with Russian involvement in World War I now over, the remaining Entente Allies began their Siberian Intervention, with troops from the U.S., France, Great Britain, and Japan landing in Vladivostok, which the Czechoslovaks had controlled for some time. In Vladivostok, however, the Allied rescue of the Czechoslovak Legion got sidetracked. The Japanese forces arrived in April 1918 with 500 marines, followed by 50 British soldiers in May, 500 Americans in June, and 600 more British and some French in late June 1918. They arrived to find everything changed in their mission, with open warfare going on between the Bolsheviks and Czechoslovak Legions and White Russians. On top of that World War I hostilities ended in November 1918, making the whole mission to bring the Czechs and Slovaks to France and fight on the Western front pointless. The confusion as to what to do now only got worse. The Japanese got directly involved in the fighting on the side of the Czechoslovak Legion and of White Russians as their government saw this as an opportunity. By September 1918 there were 70,000 Japanese, 829 British, 1,400 Italian, 5,002 American and 107 Annamese troops under French command in and around Vladivostok. The chaos in Siberia included the arrival of eight train cars of gold bullion from the Imperial reserve in Kazan. The chaos also included atrocities by both Red Army and White Russian forces – and particularly by the Cossacks of Ataman Semenov, now in the pay of the Japanese.

Czech troops posing by killed Bolsheviks in Vladivostok.

Departure from Vladivostok

Exhausted by their trek across Siberia and eager to return to their new nation, the Czechoslovaks cut a deal with the Bolsheviks in 1920. They handed over their gold bullion, along with the leader of the anti-Bolshevik army, Admiral Kolchak. This was done only after the bulk of Czech forces were established in heavy defensive lines against the Bolsheviks. Eventually, with the help of the American Red Cross and their own funds, most of the Legion – totaling 67,739 soldiers – was evacuated via Vladivostok[2][5] and returned to become the core of the army of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia.

A small number of Czech and Slovak communists stayed behind. (One early Legionnaire to join the Bolsheviks was Jaroslav Hašek, later the author of The Good Soldier Švejk). A few others stayed with the White Russian forces for a while, including General Radola Gajda, who later became a leader of the Czech fascist movement and also provided significant arms to the Korean independence movement. These arms helped the Koreans win the Battle of Chingshanli in 1920.[2]

The retreat through Siberia became an element of the heroic military legend surrounding the legions, compared to the Anabasis of Greek mercenaries across Persia.

In France

Enrollment of Czechoslovak volunteers in the French Foreign Legion started in Paris on August 21, 1914. August 31 marked the creation of the 1st Company, Battalion C of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Foreign Legion in Bayonne. Meeting in the city, the soldiers greeted each other with "Na zdar!" (a greeting used by members of the Sokol movement) and hence came to be called "Nazdar!" Company ("rota Nazdar" in Czech). The company was part of the French army's Moroccan division, and took part in heavy combat during assaults near Arras on May 9 and June 16, 1915, where it suffered heavy casualties. Because of these, Battalion C, including as "Nazdar!" Company, was disbanded, and volunteers continued to fight in various French army and Foreign Legion units.

An autonomous Czechoslovak army was established from December 19, 1917 by decree of the French government. On January 12, 1918 the 21st Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment was formed in the town of Cognac. It fought as part of the French 53rd Infantry Division. On May 20, 1918 the 22nd Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment was created, initially fighting as part of the French 134th Infantry Division. On June 29 the government of France officially acknowledged the right of Czech and Slovaks to independence, and the next day both regiments took an oath of allegiance in presence of the French president, Raymond Poincaré, as well as Czechoslovak independence movement officials, including Edvard Beneš. Today, June 30 is celebrated as the "Day of Czech Armed Forces".

In 1918 a Czechoslovak brigade, under command of the French general Philippe, consisting of the 21st and 22nd Rifle regiments, was formed in France, and saw combat near Vouziers. The brigade returned home in the autumn of 1918. It had about 9,600 soldiers.

650 Czech and Slovak legionnaires died in France during World War I.

In Serbia

Czech and Slovak volunteers in the Serbian Army in Odessa 1916

The wartime formation of volunteer military units from captured members of opposing forces was a new precedent in international law and under the Hague convention. Thus, the formation of the First Serbian Volunteer Division in Odessa in 1916 paved the way for the formation of the Czechoslovak Legion.

Role of the First Serbian Volunteer Division

The formation of the Czechoslovak Legion took place after the First Serbian Volunteer Division was formed in 1916. Forming volunteer military units from prisoners of war (POW) was a case without precedent in international war law and the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention specified that POWs could not be employed in any task that would cause even indirect harm to their countries of origin. Because Nicholas II of Russia was one of the original supporters of the 1898 Hague Conference, which ultimately led up to the Hague Convention of 1907, the Russian government initially hesitated to respond to requests to form volunteer units for foreign nationals. The Czechs and Slovaks were the first to request it in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, with Polish nationals soon following suit.

Similar developments occurred with respect to captured Serbs and, to a certain extent, Croats and Slovenes who were Austro-Hungarian subjects after Austria-Hungary's defeats in autumn of 1914. At that time, many Serbian POWs became subordinate to the Serbian legation in Petrograd. Minister Miroslav Spalajković, upon receiving approval from the Serbian government, began negotiations with the Russians to form Serbian volunteer units. Later on, he received significant support from Colonel Branislav Lontkijević, the Serbian military attache to the Russian Supreme Command, and from Marko Cemović, the Serbian consul in Odessa.

The negotiations were difficult and slow. The Russian aristocracy considered the military oath sacred and unbreakable. There was also a realistic fear of reprisals against Russian POWs in hostile hands and against close and remote relatives of the volunteers. But Russia's primary concern was the potential for violating the Hague Convention. The principle espoused by supporters of volunteer units, namely that the volunteers wished to fight not against their own countries but against an oppressor, was not considered adequate. The Russians and other Allied powers relented only when they received proof of Austro-Hungarian violations of the Hague Convention.

The first unit of volunteers, primarily Serbs, was dispatched to Serbia via Odessa and Romania but did not reach Serbia until 1915, shortly before the country was finally overrun. The volunteers joined the Vlasina unit, which was deployed against the invading Bulgarians. The next volunteer unit was held up in Reni, a small Russian town by the confluence of the Danube and the Prut rivers, because the Serbian Army had already retreated from Serbia through Albania and Montenegro. This volunteer unit ended up returning to Odessa, where it received additional troops, growing in size to a battalion and later a regiment-sized unit. When the Serbian military emissary in Russia reported to the Serbian government in exile on the island of Corfu that around 12,000 volunteers had already gathered in and near Odessa, the unit was reorganized into a division, with Odessa as its temporary headquarters.

The Serbian government dispatched 130 people from Corfu to Odessa, including regimental, battalion and other unit commanders, administrative personnel, as well as a medical detachment. This group had to travel to Odessa via Italy, France, Great Britain, Norway and Sweden. This was to satisfy international and legal standards; the Serbs had to demonstrate that, regardless of where it was located and on which front it fought, the first Serbian Volunteer Division was unequivocally on the side of the Allied Powers – in this case, subject to the Government of Serbia. The highest command posts were therefore entrusted to officers who were Serbian by citizenship as opposed to nationality. Even without the influx of Serbian Army personnel, the division was 90% Serb by nationality, but that did not matter; the key issue was legal precedent, and this procedure would have been followed regardless of the makeup of nationalities in the division.

In May 1916, the Serbian volunteer division was subjected to high-level inspections.[citation needed] On May 16 (by the Gregorian calendar), Nikola Pašić, the Prime Minister of the Serbian Government, inspected the unit. He was followed by General Aleksei Brusilov, the commanding officer of the Russian front, on May 21. Nicholas II himself inspected the unit on May 22. The volunteers took new oaths to Serbian King Peter I Karađorđević. The language of command was Serbian, and the unit followed official Serbian protocol. At the end of June 1916, the division received the colors of the former 2nd, 6th, 7th and 11th Serbian regiments in a ceremony in front of the Odessa Cathedral. This was a signal to the entire world that the Russian government had officially formed volunteer units from foreign nationals, paving the way for the formation of volunteer units of nationalities that did not have independent countries, such as the future Czechoslovakia.

The First Serbian Volunteer Division contained a number of Czech and Slovak officers, non-commissioned officers and private soldiers since the Czecho-Slovaks did not yet have a unit of their own. When the formation of Czechoslovak regiments began in Kiev at the end of August 1916, the Czechs and Slovaks were given the option to transfer to them. A total of 86 Czech and Slovak non-commissioned officers and soldiers left the First Serbian Volunteer Division, which was then stationed in Reni alongside Russian units, awaiting Romania's entry into the war. Of the 75 Czech or Slovak officers in the Serbian division, none transferred to the new Czech-Slovak units, citing their reluctance to leave soldiers they had trained with and felt close to. All 75 of these officers went with the Serb division to Dobruja, where they fought well, losing eight of their number. After the war, they were all awarded medals of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which were personally delivered to the survivors or to family members by general Stevan Hadžić, the former commander of the first Serbian volunteer division and Minister for War at the time.

After the war

Members of the Legions formed a significant part of the new Czechoslovak Army. Many of them fought in 1919 in the Polish–Czechoslovak War over Zaolzie and in war with Hungary over Slovakia.

Bank of the Czechoslovak Legion, legend of the Tsar's gold

Legiobanka building in Prague, by Josef Gočár, 1921-23.

A common version of the story is that only seven train cars of the seized Imperial gold were returned to Moscow and the Legion kept the eighth to buy or lease ships in Vladivostok. What was left was then used to set up the Legion Bank (Legionářská banka or Legiobanka) in Prague.

Czech historians point to historical documents, such as protocols between the Legion and the Bolsheviks, that quite clearly state that all of the gold was turned over to Soviet representatives. Additional documents and articles argue that the Legion Bank was funded by a variety of enterprises and Czech thriftiness; there were, after all, over 50,000 soldiers saving virtually all of their payroll for two years and quite a bit of additional enterprise.

However, there is some evidence – not all of it circumstantial – that some of the gold made its way to the Czechoslovaks. William Clarke in The Lost Fortune of the Tsars cites records from the Vladivostok branch of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation. Shay McNeal in The Secret Plot to Save the Tsar refers to San Francisco banking transactions. The most dramatic evidence, however, is circumstantial. First, $323 million in gold shrank to $200 million by the time it reached the Bolsheviks.

Even more dramatic, however, is the fact of the bank itself. The Bank of the Czechoslovak Legion is a masterpiece of First Republic Czech architecture. Its façade features scenes of the Legion's retreat through Siberia and sculptures of Legionnaires top the pillars. The building interior is a unique combination of Moravian graphic themes, Art Deco, and Czech craftsmanship. It has been widely admired, though was also an object of resentment and suspicion. The Soviet Red Army looted the bank in May 1945 and shipped its material assets to Moscow. They also took their revenge on any Legionnaires still alive.[citation needed] The Legion Bank Building was restored by the Czech Export Bank and recently sold to a developer. The bank still maintains a branch on the ground floor.

The Legion Bridge (most Legií) in Prague is named after the Czechoslovak Legions. The highest peak of the Carpathians was renamed Štít legionárov (literally "Peak of Legionaries") by the new Czechoslovak government, erasing its previous imperial name. Now it is called Gerlachovský štít.

See also

  • Polish 5th Rifle Division
  • South African support to the Czechoslovak Legion
  • Josef Šnejdárek


  1. ^ "Češi bojovali hrdinně za Rakousko-Uhersko, ale první republika to tutlala". Retrieved 2009-08-14. 
  2. ^ a b c Bradley, John F. N., The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, 1914–1920. East European Monographs, New York: Boulder/Columbia University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-88033-218-2, p. 156.
  3. ^ First World War - Willmott, H.P.; Dorling Kindersley, 2003, Page 251
  4. ^ Mark D. Steinberg, Vladimir M. Khrustalëv, Elizabeth Tucker (1995). The Fall of the Romanovs. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300070675.,M1link. 
  5. ^ a collection documenting the trans-Siberian trek of the Czechoslovak Legion during the Russian Revolution

Further reading

  • Baerlein, Henry, The March of the 70,000, Leonard Parsons/Whitefriar Press, London 1926
  • Bullock, David: The Czech Legion 1914-20, Osprey Publishers, Oxford 2008.
  • Clarke, William, The Lost Fortune of the Tsars, St. Martins Press, New York 1994 pp183–189
  • Fic, Victor M., The Bolsheviks and the Czechoslovak Legion, Shakti Malik, New Delhi 1978
  • Footman, David, Civil War in Russia, Faber & Faber, London 1961
  • Goldhurst, Richard, The Midnight War, McGraw-Hill, New York 1978
  • Hoyt, Edwin P., The Army Without a Country, MacMillan, New York/London 1967
  • Kalvoda, Josef, Czechoslovakia's Role in Soviet Strategy, University Press of America, Washington DC 1981
  • Kalvoda, Josef, The Genesis of Czechoslovakia, East European Monographs, Boulder 1986
  • McNeal, Shay, The Secret Plot to Save the Tsar, Harper Collins, New York 2002 pp 221–222
  • Mohr, Joan McGuire, The Czech and Slovak Legion in Siberia from 1917 to 1922. McFarland, NC 2011
  • Unterberger, Betty Miller, The United States, Revolutionary Russia, and the Rise of Czechoslovakia, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 2000
  • White, John Albert, The Siberian Intervention, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1950

Note: There were quite a few books on the Legion written in Czech that were published in the 1920s, but most were hard to find following Soviet victory in World War II.

External links

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