Russia’s Czechoslovak Legion of World War One was an army without a country.
The 60,000-man unit, raised between 1915 and 1917, was made up of Czech and Slovak patriots keen to free their ancestral homeland from Austrian rule. By taking up arms in the name of the Russian Czar, the men of the unit hoped that after the war the great powers would reward them with statehood.
But when in 1917, the Bolsheviks rose to power following the collapse of Russia’s Romanov dynasty and then made a separate peace with the Central Powers, the Czechoslovak Legion suddenly found itself trapped deep inside an unwelcoming country. With nowhere to run, the unit fought its way across 9,000 kilometers of Siberian wilderness towards the Pacific port city of Vladivostok… and hopefully freedom.
Along the way, the legion would challenge the authority of Russia’s communist regime, take control of a land corridor thousands of miles long, come within mere hours of rescuing the Czar and the royal family, and literally make off with a king’s ransom. The determination of the Czechoslovak Legion captured the imagination of the world. The Allies even landed a massive multinational force in the Far East to help cover their escape.
While the exploits of this travelling army are legendary in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia to this day, elsewhere, its deeds have become little more than a footnote to the larger First World War and Russian Revolution. Despite this, theirs is one of the most remarkable stories of the 20th Century.
IN THE CZAR’S ARMY
Originally founded in 1915 as four foreign volunteer rifle regiments in the Imperial Russian Army, the Czechoslovak Legion saw action for the first time on July 2, 1917. That’s when a detachment of 3,500 from the unit stormed the Austrian trenches at Zborov in present-day Ukraine. The victory was one of Russia’s few successes of the otherwise disastrous Kerensky summer offensive – a debacle that cost the empire more than 60,000 casualties and ultimately helped speed the collapse of the Czar.
Following their baptism of fire, the troops of the Czechoslovak Legion eagerly anticipated their next chance to strike at the enemy. It turned out they would have to wait.
GERMANY AND RUSSIA MAKE PEACE
In the autumn of 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in St. Petersburg and Moscow and almost immediately entered into talks with Germany and Austria aimed at concluding hostilities.
Still spoiling for a fight, the Czechoslovak Legion planned to evacuate the Ukraine and join the Allies on the Western Front. But with the German navy proweling European waters, sailing from Russian ports on the Barents Sea to France was far too risky. Instead, the legion opted for the safer (although much longer) route to France eastwards via the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Yet, by early 1918, even these plans were suddenly in doubt.
On March 3, Russia and Germany signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which among other things, ceded much of the Ukraine to the Kaiser. With German forces pouring into the area, the legion was in danger of being surrounded and captured. Considered traitors by the Central Powers, any Czechs or Slovaks taken prisoner were likely to be shot. With two German armies closing in on them at Backhmach, the Czechoslovaks were forced into a five day fighting retreat. Once free, the commanders of the legion began loading the unit onto trains and sending them across Siberia for Russia’s Pacific coast.
The voyage was tediously slow. Rolling stock was scarce and had to be scrounged practically one car at a time. Worse, the rail line itself was choked with traffic heading in the opposite direction – mostly German and Austrian prisoners freed as part of the treaty between Berlin and Moscow.
Slowly but surely throughout the spring, hundreds of engines pulling thousands of cars took to the rails, each packed with Czech and Slovak troops. The convoy stretched across thousands of kilometers of tracks. As the days and weeks passed, the legion inched ever closer to the Pacific.
THE ROLLING REPUBLIC
When Berlin learned that 60,000 Czechs and Slovaks were planning to depart Russia and rejoin the war, it demanded Moscow derail the entire enterprise. Fearing a renewal of fighting with Germany if they refused, the communists obliged.
On May 14, a force of Bolsheviks attempted to close the rail line and disarm a trainload of legion troops 1,700 km east of Moscow at Chelyabinsk. The Czechs and Slovaks resisted and a fierce battle ensued. The incident, which became known as the Revolt of the Legion, inaugurated all out war between the two sides.
Soon, legion battalions were seizing cities all along the Trans Siberian Railway and by the summer were in near total control of a vast corridor stretching from the Volga River all the way to the distant Pacific Ocean.
As they travelled, Czechoslovak troops, along with their dependents, converted their rail cars into barracks, bakeries, workshops and hospitals. They even published their own newspaper on board the trains. Rail cars were armed with artillery and heavily fortified. Some were adorned with patriotic slogans and even paintings of national heroes. Commands were passed up and down the column via a chain of telegraph stations captured along the route.
In one astonishing coup, the legion even managed to secure a deposit of Czarist gold at Kazan – which they packed onto eight railroad cars and took with them.
As Russia descended into war between the communists and the nationalist White Russians, the Czechoslovak Legion became one of the strongest factions in the country. It soon arranged an alliance with the counter revolutionary forces.
So powerful had the legion grown, that when on July 17, 1918, the Bolsheviks learned that a contingent would be rolling through Yekaterinburg in a few hours, the commissars ordered the entire Russian royal family, which had been in custody since the 1917, shot — lest the legion free them.
THE RESCUE OF THE LEGION
Allied governments, troubled by the rise of communism in Russia, used the legion’s plight as justification for the 1918 intervention in the civil war. While most of all, the Americans and British were hoping that foreign participation in the conflict would bring about the downfall of the Bolsheviks allowing Russia to rejoin the war against Germany, they openly cited the evacuation of the legion as one of the reasons for their intervention.
In August 1918, the first of a 90,000-strong multinational force made up of American, Canadian, British, French, Italian and Japanese troops landed in Vladivostok to capture the city and hold it long enough for the legion to embark for the Western Front. Trains loaded with Czech and Slovak troops had been trickling into the city as early as April. By the autumn of 1918, with more and more locomotives arriving daily, the Czechs and Slovaks prepared for the next leg of their journey – the sea voyage to France and the Western Front. However, events a half a world away would derail those plans.
By November, word reached Vladivostok that the war in Europe was finally over. And with the collapse of Germany and the Austrian Empire, Czech and Slovak nationalists back home had finally declared independence forming the duel republic of Czechoslovakia.
Unfortunately, one of the new government’s first decisions was to command its far-flung legion to remain in Siberia to help the Allies fight Red Army. The campaign continued for more than a year.
By 1920, White Russian forces had almost totally collapsed and the Western powers and Japan were finally withdrawing forces. Once again the legion was facing the prospect of being stranded.
With the Red Army threatening the city, it was time for the unit to abandon Russia once and for all.
The legion called a truce with the Bolsheviks and and struck a deal – in exchange for the Czar’s gold, the communists would give the Czechoslovaks time to evacuate Vladivostok. To seal the deal, the legion even arrested some of their White Russian allies and handed them over to the Reds.
The troops dispersed aboard a series of ships that carried them back to Europe via the Indian Ocean, the United States and the Panama Canal. Eventually, all were repatriated. But while their long journey was over, the story didn’t end there. In fact, what happened next became something of a mystery.
Some historians speculate that the Czechoslovak Legion didn’t hand over all of the Czar’s gold to the Bolsheviks. Some evidence suggests that as much as one boxcar’s worth of bullion (totaling $100 million) accompanied the army back to its homeland. It’s widely believed that these funds helped establish the Legiobanka in Prague. In fact, the bank headquarters in the Czech capital features murals and facades depicting the army’s 9,000-mile, three-year odyssey across Russia. So widely held was the belief that the legion escaped with a haul of the late Czar’s gold that when the Soviets liberated Eastern Europe at the end of World War Two, Red Army troops raided its vaults, sending much of the gold reserves there to Moscow.