In quite a lot of places in Prague you can find remembrances of the short history of the Czechoslovak legions of World War I. This is not surprising considering how important the legions were for the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and its international positions in later years. The legions were formed as part of armies of the Entente either from Czech and Slovak men living in France, Italy or Russia or, in most cases, from former soldiers of the army of Austria-Hungary who were captured or deliberately changed sides. The legions fought on the western, Italian and eastern front, respectively. The total number of legionnaires was about 100,000. Over 5,000 were killed in action, 4,000 of those in Russia alone.
It was not an easy decision to become a legionnaire. Until the very end of the war, there was no guarantee that you would be able to return home. When captured by the Central Powers, you could expect to be courtmartialed as a deserter and traitor. Death by hanging was an almost certain outcome. In Italy and Russia, you could fight against your compatriots still dressed in Austro-Hungarian uniforms. It is no surprise that most Czech and Slovak soldiers remained loyal to Austria-Hungary. Ironically, during the time when Tomas Garrigue Masaryk was in exile working on the destruction of Austria-Hungary as a leader of the Czech National Committee, his son Jan was awarded a medal for bravery.
There were some notable defections to the Entente side, though. Well, at least in the popular tradition. In April 1915, a great number of the 28th Regiment, which included men from Prague, was captured on the Eastern front. Popular and immediately widespread legend said that the whole Regiment deliberately changed sides – and this led the Austro-Hungarian leaders to the (later rescinded) decision to delete the regiment from the order of battle – but the reality was more complex. Approximately two thirds of the regiment’s men did fall into captivity but only after they had put up a tough fight when encircled by Russian troops of superior numbers. Those captured were mostly injured or ill, healthy men mostly avoided capture. However, many of the prisoners of war later joined the legions. Nevertheless, the 28th Regiment is honored with a street in Prague.
The name “legions” is connected with the French Foreign Legion within which the first Czechoslovak unit – Company “Nazdar” – was formed. Their first battle took place at the end of 1914. Subsequently, legions were also formed in Italy and Russia. In Russia, the number of legionnaires far exceeded Italy (where the mountainous battlefield conditions did not allow for capturing great numbers of soldiers or massive defections). And of course, France where the Austro-Hungarian Army was not deployed and, therefore, the Czechoslovak legions recruited men already living in France.
For the legionnaires on the Russian front, the war did not end in 1918. Although the Soviets did sign a peace treaty with Germany in March 1918 and the legions were to be transferred to France, they were embroiled in the Russian Civil War. A few of the legionnaires found their way to the Red Army (most notably Jaroslav Hašek, author of the Good Soldier Švejk). However, an absolute majority fought against the Bolsheviks. Fighting their way to Vladivostok, the legions for some time controlled vast areas of Siberia and were the most numerous and effective army of the intervening Entente powers. Fighting more than 250 minor or major battles, the legionnaires did not lose a single one. Their ultimate goal was to return home to an already independent Czechoslovakia. This was accomplished two years after the Great War. One of those who returned so late was my great-grandfather.
In Czechoslovakia, the legionnaires formed the core of officer corps of the Czechoslovak Army. Many were active in politics, economics or public administration including posts in the Government. Three former legionnaires were even appointed Prime Ministers. In the troubled times of the Munich Treaty and the start of the Nazi occupation, it was felt that soldiers and former legionnaires were the best choice to lead the nation. One-eyed General Syrový also reminded the people of the invincible Hussite commander Jan Žižka and – on the demand of people in the streets though he himself was very reluctant – was appointed in the days of crisis in 1938. However, after the Munich Treaty there was little he could do and he resigned in November. Genarl Eliáš was appointed Prime Minister in 1939 after the occupation. Because of his ties with the resistance movement, he was arrested in 1941 and executed by the Nazis the following year. The last Prime Minister who was a legionnaire was Zdeněk Fierlinger, who headed the first two Governments after the World War II (1945 – 46).
Another former legionnaire, Ludvík Svoboda, became President of Communist Czechoslovakia in 1968 but that was rather spiteful of his participation in the legions.
However, another well-known legionnaire became extremely infamous – Emanuel Moravec, who distinguished himself extraordinarily in the legions, became the chief collaborator during Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia from 1939 – 45, and became a symbol of collaboration the same way Vidkun Quisling did in Norway.
Despite that, the Nazis correctly felt that legionnaires were mostly against them – which they soon knew for certain when the Gestapo uncovered some of the resistance networks. Please check back for part 2 of this series to find out the rest of the story.