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.
At the outbreak of World War I, the Czechs and Slovaks showed little enthusiasm for fighting for their respective enemies, the Germans and the Hungarians, against fellow Slavs, the Russians and the Serbs. Large numbers of Czechs and Slovaks defected on the Russian front and formed the Czechoslovak Legion. Masaryk went to western Europe and began propagating the idea that the Austro-Hungarian Empire should be dismembered and that Czechoslovakia should be an independent state. In 1916, together with Edvard Beneš and Milan Rastislav Štefánik (a Slovak astronomer and war hero), Masaryk created the Czechoslovak National Council. Masaryk in the United States, Štefánik in France, and Beneš in France and Britain then worked to gain Allied recognition. When secret talks between the Allies and Austrian emperor Charles I collapsed, the Allies recognized the Czechoslovak National Council in the summer of 1918 as the supreme organ of a future Czechoslovak government.
In early October 1918, Germany and Austria proposed peace negotiations. On October 18, while in the United States, Masaryk issued a declaration of Czechoslovak independence. Masaryk insisted that the new Czechoslovak state include the historic Bohemian Kingdom, containing the German-populated Sudetenland. On October 21, however, German deputies from the Sudetenland joined other German and Austrian deputies in the Austrian parliament in declaring an independent German-Austrian state. Following the abdication of Charles I on November 11, Czech troops occupied the Sudetenland.
Hungary withdrew from the Habsburg Empire on November 1. The new liberal-democratic government of Hungary under Count Mihály Károlyi attempted to retain Slovakia. With Allied approval, the Czechs occupied Slovakia, and the Hungarians were forced to withdraw. The Czechs and Allies agreed on the Danube and Ipeľ rivers as the boundary between Hungary and Slovakia; a large Hungarian minority, occupying the fertile plain of the Danube, would be included in the new state.
Small armed units were organized from 1914 onwards by volunteer Czechs and Slovaks. Their purpose was to help the Entente and win their support to the creation of an independent country of Czechoslovakia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later, many Czech 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.
Czechoslovak Legions in Russia were created in 1917, in France in December 1917 (including volunteers from America), and in Italy in April 1918. 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 Vouziers, Arras, Zborov, Doss Alto, Bakhmach, and others. The fact that the Czechoslovaks fielded military units on three fronts was critical in convincing the Allies to recognize of the right of the Czechs and Slovaks to an independent nation.
The term "Legions" was not widely used during the war but was adopted shortly afterwards.
Battle Honours for Czechs fighting in France : Alsace, Argonne, Peronne and L.E. (Légion EtrangËre - the Foreign Legion), for actions in Russia : Zhorov, Bachmac, Sibir (Siberia) and C.D. (Czech Brigade) and for actions in Italy : Doss'Alto and Piave.
Perhaps the best known of this period comes from the Czechoslovak Legions in Siberia and its forerunners. The first Czech unit in Russia was the Cheshskaya Druzhina, a unit of the Imperial Army largely staffed by Czechs and Slovaks living in Russia. As the war progressed large numbers of Czechs serving in the Austro-Hungarian army units surrendered, often entire units crossing the line en mass. Originally recruitment of prisoners for Czechoslovak military units were allowed only among new POWs in one sector of the Russian front, but eventually it was also permitted in the prisoner of war camps. After the success of Czechoslovak units during the Kerensky offensive, Russian authorities permitted unlimited recruitment of Czech and Slovak POWs which led to the expansion of the Legion until it consisted of 70,000 troops. Most of the units were located in the cities along the Trans-Siberian Railroad and its spur lines where Czechoslovak units were headquartered.
Legion in France
The center for Czechoslovak opposition to the Central Powers was embodied in the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris. Following the recognition of the Council as a co-belligerent, three Czechoslovak regiments, the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd, were formed on the Western Front. Prior to the creation of these independent units, a smaller unit comprised of Czechs and Slovaks served in the "Nazdar" company of the French Foreign Legion. The Czechoslovak regiments in France were stationed in one sector of the front. The French units were among the first to return to Czechoslovakia following independence, mainly in Slovakia where many of these units were sent to help defend the boarders of the new state.
Legion in Italy
Like the Czechoslovak military units formed in Siberia, those in Italy were formed predominately from Czech and Slovak prisoners of war. However, the Italian government was slow in allowing Czech and Slovak prisoners of war into combat units. Most of the former prisoners spent time in construction or guide units supporting Italian units before combat units were permitted.