Epic Misadventure or Historic Achievement: The Remarkable Story of the Czecho-Slovak Legion
June 30, 2016
This essay draws on the author’s new book 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 (Public Affairs, 2016).
An educated person today may be forgiven for thinking, like the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” at least when it comes to history. Hasn’t every fact been unearthed, every story told? Perhaps, but historical episodes can find themselves first neglected, then forgotten. Such is the case with a story whose 100th anniversary approaches. Lost between the lines of the multiple histories of a tumultuous time, it began as the final horrors of the First World War melted into the growing chaos of the Russian Revolution, the fate of four empires hung in the balance, the United States and its Allies bungled a half-hearted attempt to reverse the course of Russian history, the Soviet Union was born, a fragile peace declared, and the map of Europe re-drawn.
This episode combines historic achievement with epic misadventure, and one of its values is to demonstrate how an entire country can be created from whole cloth amidst the chaos of war and revolution by a rather small number of determined individuals. In an age when many peoples across the globe still yearn to create their own nation-states – despite strongly negative views of nationalism articulated by elites on both left and right – this can be an illuminating tale about how exile, treason, espionage, propaganda, lobbying, fund-raising, and diplomacy once destroyed a multinational empire and a dynasty hundreds of years old, and created in its stead the many small nations that even today influence Europe’s future. This episode also reveals buried truths about the creation of the Soviet Union, about which many misleading notions continue to circulate.
This story also veers wildly back and forth between the unlikely and the improbable, which is what drew me to write about it in the first place. Not one person intended for the events of this story to happen. No one could even have imagined them happening. Indeed, the other value of this little-known episode is that it is a cautionary tale, one that should be read by political and military leaders to give them pause the next time they feel an urge to unleash the dogs of war; no one can with confidence predict what will follow.
Many years ago, when I started this project – the subject of which I first learned about on a 2,000 trek across the Russian Far East – I asked myself, How could all of this have actually taken place? But as I put the finishing touches on the book, I began to ask myself another question – How did we come to forget this story? So what is it we have forgotten?
It is the story of an undistinguished array of shop-keepers, dentists, farmers, professors, factory hands, and bank clerks, a cross-section of middle-class men plucked from the obscurity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the heart of Europe and plunged into the First World War. After fighting on the Eastern Front – which Winston Churchill called “the unknown war” – more than 2 million of these Austro-Hungarian soldiers were taken prisoner by Tsarist Armies and then scattered across Russia and Siberia in some 300 POW camps. When Russia itself collapsed amidst revolution and chaos, an elderly, fugitive professor from Prague, Tomas G. Masaryk, traveled to Russia with a vision.
Already in exile, Masaryk was now 67 years old. He lived modestly in rented rooms, and begged for money for his European travels in search of Allied leaders who might see him. Arriving in Russia, he won permission from friends in the Provisional Government and French diplomats to recruit Czechs and Slovaks from among the Austro-Hungarian POWs for a special project. The 210-250,000 Czechs and Slovaks would be asked to create their own ad hoc army, cross Siberia to Vladivostok, board ships, circle the globe to land in France, and fight for the Allies on the Western Front – all of this to gain for the Czechs and Slovaks independence from their unloved homeland, Austria-Hungary. Remarkably, given the risks associated with such treason, the promise of a return to harsh combat, and the blue-sky ambitions of this project, 50-65,000 of the men said, “Oui.”
This army came to be known as the “Czecho-Slovak Legion,” and the men themselves came to be known as “legionnaires.” Having decided to defect to the enemy French and British armies, these men were committing treason. They now had no nation they could call home, no recognized or experienced military leaders, no evident means of support, few supplies, ad hoc organization, uncertain legal status, questionable loyalties, and too few weapons. Many were still nursing wounds or illnesses. Yet with the explicit approval of Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and their colleagues, the Legion commenced a perilous journey across Siberia – where they had an unexpected encounter with history.
The key event at the center of this story took place with all of the dignity of a barroom brawl, when a brief but furious altercation on May 14, 1918, left two men lying dead on a train platform at a sleepy railroad station outside the Russian frontier town of Chelyabinsk, the western terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Ural Mountains. This is where a still-loyal Austro-Hungarian soldier, angry at the Czechs’ betrayal of Austria-Hungary, killed one of the defecting Czechs. The culprit was quickly apprehended and killed in retaliation. Subject to repeated arrests by the communists in charge of Chelyabinsk, the men decided to take matters into their own hands and liberate their comrades from the local jail. Having done so, they made plans to resume their journey.
In response, Red Army leader Leon Trotsky telegraphed dire threats on May 25 that his soldiers would kill any armed legionnaire on sight and imprison the rest. Already feeling imperiled amidst the violence and rising tensions of an emerging Russian Civil War, and acting entirely in self-defense – 50,000 legionnaires erupted in a revolt. The rebels fought and defeated virtually every Red Army unit it encountered. In less than four months the Legion seized the entire Trans-Siberian Railway and, with it, all of Siberia from the Ural Mountains to the Sea of Japan, a distance equal to that which separates New York and Honolulu, a territory of five million square miles equal to about one-tenth of the world’s land surface. While this was astonishing, those who had come to know these men were less surprised than others. The British writer, W. Somerset Maugham, who worked with the Czechs and Slovaks inside Russia as a British spy, warned, “They are organized like a department store, disciplined like a Prussian regiment.”
Roughly 15,000 more Czech and Slovak POWs joined the Legion as a result, leading Trotsky and Lenin to speak openly of the threat the men posed to Soviet rule. Speaking to an “extraordinary joint session” of Soviet leaders on July 28, Lenin urged upon them the necessity of “crushing the Czecho-Slovaks and their counter-revolutionary partisans on the Volga, in the Urals, and in Siberia. This is the most urgent task of the Russian Revolution, and all other tasks must be relegated to background for the present.” To the same group the next day, Trotsky conceded, “what is now happening on the Volga, in the shape of the Czechoslovak mutiny, puts Soviet Russia in danger and therefore also endangers the international revolution. It seems almost incomprehensible that some Czechoslovak Corps, which has found itself here in Russia through the tortuous ways of the world war, should at the given moment prove to be almost the chief factor in deciding the questions of the Russian revolution. Nevertheless, that is the case.”
The legionnaires no doubt had it within their power – for a brief moment in time – to depose the Soviet regime, had the Allies quickly come together to support regime change, which they emphatically failed to do. This might have forever changed the course of the 20th century by excising from it a contentious and perilous Soviet Cold War with the West. In addition to holding the future of Russia in its hands, the revolt of the legionnaires had many unintended consequences – again, this is a cautionary tale. Their advance against Red Army forces toward the city where the Romanov family was held in July 1918 directly precipitated Lenin’s order to murder Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
The Legion also hastened the development of the Soviet Gulag with the founding of the first concentration camps. Historian Richard Pipes reports that “talk of concentration camps was first heard in Soviet Russia in the spring of 1918 in connection with the Czech uprising.” He calls the camps “an institution which the Bolsheviks did not quite invent but which they gave a novel and most sinister meaning.” On several occasions, Trotsky himself linked the establishment of concentration camps and the Czecho-Slovak rebellion. Within days of issuing his inflammatory telegram of May 25, Trotsky confirmed his intention to establish a network of concentration camps in response to the Czecho-Slovak revolt on May 31 in a message that he personally handed to a representative of the Legion, Vaclav Neubert. It said, “The order for shooting Czecho-Slovaks found armed and refusing to hand over their arms is to remain in full force; also to remain in full force is the order that any unit in which a weapon is found is to be confined in a concentration camp.” A few days later, Trotsky issued yet another order “to all units fighting against the counter-revolutionary Czecho-Slovak mutineers.” This order of June 4, 1918, disingenuously discussed possible negotiations with the legionnaires, adding “An obligatory condition for negotiations is surrender of all arms by the Czecho-Slovaks. Those who do not voluntarily hand over their arms are to be shot on the spot, in accordance with the order previously given. Echelons which have been forcibly disarmed are to be confined in concentration camps.”
The Legion also spurred the early build-up and configuration of the Soviet Red Army. While the new Bolshevik regime issued a decree on January 15, 1918, calling for a Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, that decree was, like many of the infant regime’s initial announcements, more aspirational than real. Yet after the Red Army pushed the legionnaires back with a victory at Kazan on September 10, Trotsky conceded, “We are now forging on the anvil of war an army of first-class quality. It can be said that if the Czecho-Slovaks had not existed, they would have had to be invented, for under peacetime conditions we should never have succeeded in forming, within a short time, a close-knit, disciplined, heroic army. But now this army is being formed before our eyes.” Historians also credit the Czecho-Slovak Legion with providing the impetus that led to the Red Army’s formation. Richard Pipes writes, “it was the Czecho-Slovak rebellion that finally forced the Bolsheviks to tackle the formation of an army in earnest.”
Finally, this rebellion gave direct impetus to a very confused and ill-fated landing on Russian soil of U.S. troops in the infamous Allied Intervention; the American soldiers were deployed by President Woodrow Wilson explicitly to aid the Czechs and Slovaks.
More importantly – and more intentionally – the Legion’s willingness to fight for the Allies helped to undermine the ancient Habsburg dynasty which ruled one of Europe’s most powerful countries, and to enable Masaryk and his key associates, Edvard Benes, a Czech, and Milan Stefanik, a Slovak, to establish the republic of Czecho-Slovakia. While the legionnaires were trapped in Siberia by a shortage of ships for many more winters, they eventually returned to Prague and Bratislava, welcomed as heroes.
“The pages of history recall scarcely any parallel episode at once so romantic in character and so extensive in scale,” noted Winston Churchill, then serving as a member of Prime Minister David Lloyd-George’s cabinet. “Thus, through a treacherous breach of faith, by a series of accidents and chances which no one in the world had foreseen, the whole of Russia from the Volga River to the Pacific Ocean, a region almost as large as the continent of Africa, has passed as if by magic into the control of the Allies.” While Lloyd-George and Churchill disagreed about many things, they agreed about this. Lloyd-George wrote to Masaryk on September 11, 1918, to say, “The story of the adventures and triumphs of this small army is, indeed, one of the great epics of history.” Former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, long out of office and grieving over the death of his own son in the war, was nonetheless inspired by reports of the Legion’s achievements in Russia. He donated $1,000 of the cash award he had received from his 1906 Nobel Peace Prize to the legionnaires, “the extraordinary nature of whose great and heroic feat is literally unparalleled, so far as I know, in ancient or modern warfare.”  His mortal enemy, Woodrow Wilson, would agree, welcoming legionnaires to the White House.
This epic tale even has links to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Masaryk was actually sitting down to dinner at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel on Broad Street in Philadelphia when he first learned by telegram that he would be named the first president of the new nation of Czecho-Slovakia in 1918 – and you’ll have to buy the book to find out why. Yet an agreement Masaryk had earlier signed with American Slovaks in Pittsburgh – the one that actually joined the Czechs and Slovaks in one new country – would fester among the Slovaks and pester Masaryk’s government and its successors until 1993, when the Czechs and Slovaks “divorced,” creating two republics, from one, in the heart of Europe.
History and its bastard step-child, war, are full of surprises, which is why students of both should become familiar with this forgotten conflict, whose unwilling participants were both egregiously victimized and defiantly aggressive, motivated equally by fear, revenge and ambition. At various times, the legionnaires succumbed to desertion, imprisonment, betrayal, death, fratricide, suicide, despair, and mutiny. They fought on three sides of two wars – World War One and the Russian Civil War – that ended with the destruction of all three of the regimes they served – Austria-Hungary, Russia’s tsarist regime, and the Russian Provisional Government. Despite all of this, they emerged victorious.
 Winston S. Churchill, The Unknown War: The Eastern Front, vol. 5, The World in Crisis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931).
 W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 138.
 The Times (London), August 12, 1918, p. 6.
 “The Socialist Fatherland in Danger,” How the Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, vol. I, The Year 1918, trans. Brian Pearce (London: New Park, 1979), p. 286.
 Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Random House, 1990), pp. 832-33. Pipes argues elsewhere (The Russian Revolution, pp. 789-843) that the concentration camps were systemic aspects of Bolshevik rule. While the camps would no doubt have been established without the Legion’s revolt, the two are indelibly linked.
 “Answers to Questions Put by the Representative of the Czechoslovak Corps, Vaclav Neubert,” May 31, 1918, in How the Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, vol. I, The Year 1918, trans. Brian Pearce (London: New Park, 1979), p. 280.
 “Order of June 4, 1918,“ in How the Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, vol. I, The Year 1918, trans. Brian Pearce (London: New Park, 1979), p. 282.
 “About the Victory,” in How the Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, vol. I, The Year 1918, trans. Brian Pearce (London: New Park, 1979), p. 347.
 Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 629.
 Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. 4, The Aftermath (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), p. 87.
 Tomas G. Masaryk, The Making of a State: Memories and Observations, 1914-1918 (New York: F. A. Stokes, 1927), p. 256.
 Letter to U.S. Rep. James Ambrose Gallivan, August 22, 1918, in The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. Elting E. Morison (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), pp. 1363-66. Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize cash award of $36,735 was held in trust until 1917, when it was returned to him, with interest. In August of that year, the amount, now $45,483, was distributed by the former president to various charities related to the war.