A Long Way From Home – The Czech Legion’s Amazing Trek Across Siberia

Men of the Czechoslovak Legion.

Men of the Czechoslovak Legion.

“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.”

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 Tsar, 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.

Czechoslovakian soldiers man the guns atop of a troop train in Siberia.

Czechoslovakian soldiers man the guns atop of a troop train in Siberia.

In the Tsar’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 Tsar.

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 Legion planned to evacuate the Ukraine and join the Allies on the Western Front. But with the German navy prowling European waters, steaming for France from Russian ports on the Barents Sea was far too risky. Instead, the legion opted for the safer (although much longer) to reach Flanders by sailing eastwards around the world through the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Yet, by early 1918, even these plans were in doubt.

On March 3, Russia and Germany signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which among other things, ceded much of the Ukraine to Kaiser Wilhelm. With German forces pouring into the area, the Legion was in real danger of being surrounded and captured. Considered traitors by the Central Powers, any Czechs or Slovaks taken prisoner were likely to be summarily shot. With two German armies closing in on their Ukraine bases, the Czechoslovaks were forced into a five day fighting retreat. Once safe, the Legion boarded trains and headed east them across Siberia for the Pacific ocean a continent away.

The voyage was tediously slow. Rolling stock was scarce and had to be scrounged practically one car at a time. Worse, the rail lines were 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 kilometres of tracks. As the days and weeks passed, the Legion inched ever closer to the Pacific.

The legion turned themselves into a massive railroad army that steamrolled through Russia crushing all resistance in its path.

The legion turned themselves into a massive railroad army that steamrolled through Russia crushing all resistance in its path.

The Rolling Republic

When Berlin learned that 60,000 Czechs and Slovaks were planning to depart Russia and rejoin the war in France, 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.

A train of the Czech Legion.

A train of the Czech Legion.

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 Civil War, the Czechoslovak Legion became one of the strongest factions in the country. It soon arranged an alliance with the counter revolutionary White Russian forces.

So powerful had the Legion grown, that when on July 17, 1918, the Bolsheviks learned that a contingent would soon be rolling through Yekaterinburg, the commissars ordered the entire Russian royal family, which had been in custody there since the 1917, shot — lest the Legion liberate them.

The legion arrived in Vladivostok where it linked up with White Russian forces and an allied intervention Army made up of British, Canadian, American, French, Italian and Japanese troops.

The Legion arrived in Vladivostok where it linked up with White Russian forces and an Allied Intervention Army made up of British, Canadian, American, French, Italian and Japanese troops.

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, 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.

The Siberian War

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 finally abandon Russia once and for all.

The Legion called a truce with the Bolsheviks and and struck a deal  – in exchange for the Tsar’s gold, the communists would give the Czechoslovaks time to evacuate Vladivostok. To seal the bargain, the Legion even arrested some of their White Russian allies and handed them over to the Reds.

The "Legion Bank" in Prague. Was it founded with gold from the Czar?

The “Legion Bank” in Prague. Was it founded with gold from the Czar?

The troops dispersed aboard a series of ships that carried them back to Europe via the Indian Ocean, others sailed across the Pacific and through 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 Tsar’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 Tsar’s treasure 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.

23 comments for “A Long Way From Home – The Czech Legion’s Amazing Trek Across Siberia

  1. Boris
    15 June, 2013 at 6:22 am

    Beautiful article! The Czecho-Slovak Legions were also formed in France but the best known Legion is the one from Russia. Really proud to be Slovak!

    • 15 June, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Yes.. I had found that French Connection in some of my research. Did they not also recruit some American Czechs and Slovaks as well? Thanks for your remarks.

      • 8 December, 2014 at 6:34 pm

        Czechoslovak standing armies, yet without a country, were formed in three states – France, Italy and Russia. Patriots and volunteers from across the ocean were coming mainly to France as it was closest and political representation was operating from here. Numbers of legionaries by country were:

        France – 9600, 630 dead
        Italy – 20000, 410 dead
        Russia – 61000, 4112 dead

        The Russian ones were most battle hardened as they fought the longest. Italian legions were sent to front lines at June 1918 and France ones at middle of October 1918 (with the exception of company “Nazdar” that formed as a part of France Foreign Legion in 1914 and fought till May of 1915). Though these were quickly sent to fight border wars with Poland and Hungary.

    • Don
      13 December, 2014 at 7:15 pm

      Boris – do you know of someone who can help me locate information regarding the names/members of the CS Legion in Russia. I believe that my Grandfather was a member as he told me that he fought in the Bolshevik Rev in 1917 and then later returned to CS in 1921. He eventually immigrated to Mexico and then the US in 1924-26.
      He died in 1985. Appreciate any help you can give me. Thank you!

  2. Boris
    15 June, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Yes, they did. But for us, more famous were their political activities than recruitment. In that time, there were about 0,5 million of Czecho-Slovaks in the US. They signed 2 declarations about post-war arrangement for Czechs and Slovaks- which led to creating Czechoslovakia in 1918. After more than 1000 years we finally had our own country and government.

  3. Suzy
    23 January, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    I was told this story was made into a movie. Is that correct? If so, where can I find it?

  4. Ernie
    5 February, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    I am researching an article about the Czech Legion crossing Canada on their way home in 1920, Does anyone have any details, photos, news clips about this trip.

    Also Bruce Benniger made a DVD about the Czech Legion a couple of years ago and it is available on his site czechlegionproject.com I believe

    • admin
      6 February, 2014 at 9:25 am

      Thanks for the that. Perhaps someone will see it at respond.

    • admin
      6 February, 2014 at 9:26 am

      Tweet MHN about this and I’ll retweet the request.

      • Ernie Bies
        17 November, 2015 at 10:20 pm

        Thanks Jeff. I found that paper at the Ottawa U Library here in Ottawa. I also managed to find dozens of newspaper clippings about the Legion in Canada and even bought some photos from eBay. I also bought a book in Slovak printed in 1921 from a bookseller in the Czech Republic. Also found some files at Archives Canada about the ships they came on and the trains they took across Canada, Even found a Diary of one of the soldiers. I wrote a 20 page article that was published in some newspapers in Northern Ontario,. not sure how I can post it here. Presently a friend of mine is updating it to add more of the railway content for a Railway Magazine.

  5. Harland
    15 February, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    The Bolsheviks didn’t overthrow the Romanovs. The Bolsheviks overthrew the democratic provincial government of which Kerensky was the leader. I keep finding these basic errors of fact on this site which is unfortunate as it is otherwise so interesting.

    • admin
      16 February, 2014 at 7:37 am

      Granted… The communists eventually replaced the Tsar. Thanks. I’m always happy when readers take an interest in the accuracy of the content, but to be fair, of the dozen or so messages you’ve sent in the past 24 hrs, many were not corrections, just your opinions.

  6. 8 December, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    The story about the stolen gold is according to my history nut friends just that – a story. One that probably formed from the hate of Bolsheviks towards the legionaries. All of it was exchanged for a passage through Irkutsk towards Vladivostok after a month of negotiations.

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