The rail station at Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains was busy on May 14th, 1918. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk recently signed, hundreds of thousands of Central Powers POWs were being transferred back to their home countries. Amid the thousands of Hungarian troops awaiting their westbound trains at Chelyabinsk were a different assortment of soldiers, trying to travel the opposite direction – the men of the Allied-aligned Czechoslovak Legion.
The 40,000 men of the Czechoslovak Legion had been fighting for the Russians just months earlier and with the fall of the Tsar and then the Provisional Government, were now looking for a way to get to France to continue their fight for independence from the Dual Monarchy. But with every major Russian port in the West blocked by the Central Powers, the Legion had little choice but to make the arduous journey eastbound to the Siberian port of Vladivostok where they could board Allied ships for yet another lengthy trip to Europe. Having 40,000 armed men trek across their nation was hardly welcome news to the Bolsheviks, who barely controlled the former Russian Empire in the first place. Both highly suspicious of the Czech’s motivations but also eager to get them out of the country, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin had concocted an arrangement to provide transportation for the Legion to Vladivostok, provided the Legion mostly disarm. The Legionnaires didn’t trust the Bolsheviks, but the Russian chapter of the larger Czechoslovak National Council – the political arm of Czech and Slovak independence – saw few other options. The Legion could be disarmed and shipped home or imprisoned. And given that the Austro-Hungarian authorities often executed the Legionnaires as spies or rebels, imprisonment in Russia could lead to be turned over to Vienna and almost certain death.
The mood was tense at Chelyabinsk as the Hungarians and Legionnaires kept their distance, trading barbs and threats. One of the Hungarians threw an object at one of the Legionnaires, striking him. In an instant, the two sides were attacking one another in open warfare. The Legion quickly defeated the Hungarians and took over the rail station. And when the Bolsheviks intervened, arresting several members of the Legion and threatening execution to any who refused to disarm, the rest of the Legionnaires stormed the jail and key points in the city, freeing their comrades. Chelyabinsk was now effectively in Czech hands. The Legion was going to war in Russia.
The Legionnaires represented a country that didn’t even exist and had struggled to gain political and military support for nearly four years of war.
The concept of encouraging ethnic minorities to undermine the various powers at war had been adopted by almost every combatant from even the earliest days of the conflict. The Dual Monarchy had supported Polish guerilla units even before the Great War, the Germans had backed Afrikaners on numerous occasions, the Turks would back the Senussi, the British armed the Arabs and both sides attempted to woo or threaten the many ethnicities of the Caucasus and Persia. Sowing discontent among the Czechs and Slovaks of Vienna’s polyglot empire would appear par for the course as soon as it was clear that the dream of a world war over by Christmas was not to be.
But political support for such an endeavor was made difficult by the lack of political cohesion between Czech and Slovak leaders. While both ethnic groups could claim very similar languages and cultures, centuries of differing political experiences within the Austro-Hungarian Empire had driven a divide of mistrust over the basic question of whether or not to separate from the empire, and then even for those in agreement on that question, of whether or not to unify as one political entity for independence. The Czechs had lived under Habsburg domination for nearly four hundred years by the time of the Great War, and like most ethnic minorities under Austrian rule, the Czechs had seen their political aspirations and culture strongly repressed. The Slovaks by contrast had lived under Hungarian rule, and while still a minority, the Hungarians provided at least some attempts to assimilate the Slovaks into their half of the Dual Monarchy. Both the Czechs and Slovaks also represented some of the wealthiest and most industrialized regions of the empire, meaning on both sides political leaders were less than enthused at the prospect of sharing power in a post-war nation. If they wanted to risk being at best empowered minorities, they might as well continue to try and press for reforms in Vienna.
The Entente was also somewhat hesitant to arm these would-be ethnic rebels. While Tsar Nicholas II agreed to the petitioning of Czechs and Slovaks in Russia to form ethnic units to fight Vienna as early as the fall of 1914, these units known as Družina or “Czech companions” rarely served in any combat roles. Rather these units would work with Russian propagandists to try and undermine their ethnic comrades still under the Dual Monarchy and otherwise perform menial tasks. The Russians weren’t eager to arm units that could just as easily encourage the many Czechs living in Russia to rebel as they would in Austria-Hungary. The Russians wouldn’t even let these units attempt to recruit from POWs and thus the Družina sat as a small, underused force for years.
Czechoslovak Legions would be formed in France and Italy during the war, but these would hardly constitute independent fighting forces. The Nazdar Legion in France was a unit of the French Foreign Legion, having been formed in the first month of the war by mostly Czech volunteers, but it fought under direct French control and had no largely political affiliation. Members of the Nazdar would fight well but be disbanded by 1915 due to heavy casualties.
In order to gain support as a military force from the Entente, it was becoming clear that the Czechs and Slovaks had to first gain political support from the nations they wanted to ally themselves with.
The creation of what would become the Czechoslovakian National Council in the fall of 1915 would start that necessary journey. It helped that the National Council would be led by politicians viewed as moderates and/or realists, often with backgrounds already in the West. Tomáš Masaryk would be one of the founders of the Council, a former legislator in the Dual Monarchy who had for years tried to foster federal reforms instead of calling for Czech independence. Edvard Beneš, the group’s general secretary, was more “radical” by his pre-war calls for independence, but had spent years as a known political force in Paris and was an avowed Francophile. Others like Milan Štefánik had served within the French armed forces and could command the ears of both Entente generals and politicians. But it was support from the Russians that the Czechoslovakian National Council knew they needed if they wished to become more than a well-connected coffee klatch of ex-pats complaining about Franz Joseph. As a result, the National Council’s co-chair, Josef Dürich, headed to Russia to try and gain Tsarist support and give the National Council de facto control over the Družina, in essence providing the group with their own, pre-formed, military wing. Dürich succeeded in winning over the Russians – and it nearly cost the National Council everything.
Tsar Nicholas II had no interest in surrendering control of a Russian military unit to a power-less, nation-less foreign entity. But Dürich, an elderly politician and playwright, had held fast to the pre-war ideal of Pan-Slavic unity, a concept that by definition would place the Russians (the largest Slavic power in the world) as a Czechoslovakian ally. Nicholas II saw that the National Council could provide a fig-leaf of international legitimacy over a future Russian-puppet Czechoslovakian state, provided that Russian allies sat on the leadership of the Council. The Tsar placed Dürich as the head of the Russian chapter of the Czechoslovakian National Council over the Paris-based leadership’s objections; in return, Dürich won the Tsar’s support for the creation of the Legions. Both Dürich and the Tsar overestimated the concessions they had won from the other. Dürich wasn’t interested in trying to control the National Council, and frankly couldn’t while stationed in Russia. The National Council had him expelled and the Russians attempted to form their own organization with Dürich as a less-than-cooperative puppet chair. The Tsar had agreed to the Legions, but refused to relinquish control to the National Council. For nearly a year, the National Council sat divided – the political control of the movement lay in Paris while the military control stayed with a rival organization in Russia. Even as thousands of Czechs and Slovaks came forward to volunteer, or join the Russian organization as former POWs (the Russians finally relented on recruiting Austro-Hungarian soldiers), the Entente remained seemingly unimpressed. Despite the roughly 90,000 who would fight for the Czechoslovak Legions in units formed across Russia, France and Italy, over 1.4 million Czechs and Slovaks would fight for the Austro-Hungarians instead.
Unity for the Czechoslovaks would come from revolution. The fall of the Tsar meant the end of financial and organizational support for the rival Russian version of the National Council. The new Provisional Government would negotiate directly with Tomáš Masaryk and the Paris-based National Council, with Legions now given increased frontline roles, including serving with distinction in the Kerensky Offensive in the summer of 1917. The National Council finally had their own army, a veteran force of 40,000 men. The Legionnaires would be among the last of the professional units left in the Russian army, and the Legions held their own even as what remained of the Russian army melted away during the last German offensives of the Eastern Front in early 1918. Such a well-trained group of former Tsarist-aligned soldiers represented a clear threat in the eyes of Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers.
Masaryk and the National Council had no interest in Russia’s burgeoning civil war – they simply wanted the Legions back in Europe where they could once again directly fight for Czechoslovakian independence. But despite the Legions being currently located in the Ukraine, the only accessible port under Bolshevik control was 6,000 miles away on the other side of the world in Vladivostok. Going west was not an option, as the regions were controlled by the Central Powers. Murmansk was frozen, Finland was now independent and aligned with anti-Bolshevik. potentially pro-German forces. Likewise, Georgia had declared independence, limiting travel south into Persia and then to British ports in Mesopotamia. As absurd as Vladivostok looked on a map as a location for extraction, it appeared as the only realistic option, even if it meant essentially traversing nearly the entire globe.
With the capture of Chelyabinsk, a third (albeit unrealistic) option became to form for the Legionnaires – an option decidedly against the wishes of the National Council – re-establishing the Eastern Front by defeating the Bolsheviks. As the commander of the 1st Legionnaire Division proclaimed in his new orders to his unit: “our only goal – [is] to rebuild [an] anti-Germany front in Russia in collaboration with Russians and our allies.”
The Legions were scattered across the Trans-Siberian railway system between the Ukraine and Vladivostok when the incident at Chelyabinsk occurred. Trotsky immediately demanded that the Legions surrender the few guns they had left (mostly to just defend themselves since the Bolsheviks lacked the means to guard and defend the Legions on their cross-empire journey). The National Council agreed, trying desperately to defuse the situation. The Legions refused – the National Council meant nothing to them; it was made up of men they had no relationship with – and they certainly weren’t going to trust the Bolsheviks. Over the next couple of weeks, more fighting would erupt on the railway and the Legionnaires would find themselves capturing city after city as they moved closer to Vladivostok.
By June, it was clear – the Legions were now embroiled in Russia’s civil war. Advance units of the Legionnaires captured Vladivostok and throughout Siberia, Czechoslovak victories were followed by anti-Bolshevik or pro-White Russian forces taking possession of captured cities. Even Štefánik arrived in Russia with the new goal of intervening in the civil war with the hopes that a pro-Allied/pro-war government could be installed in St. Petersburg/Petrograd. Despite the significant political and military hurdles to such an outcome, to say nothing of the fact that the Russian populace had no interest in rejoining the Great War, such grand illusions reflected the military situation on the ground as the Czechoslovaks, now riding a gigantic armored train they had seized, easily brushed aside the Bolsheviks wherever they fought. Czechoslovakia might not have even been a country at the moment, but their military controlled the entire Trans-Siberian railway system and most of Siberia itself.
The would-be nation was also influencing world affairs by their victories. The Allies had been hesitant to intervene in Russia, despite their profound fears of Bolshevism spreading across Europe. Now intervention in Russia had another potential purpose – saving the Legions, even though the Legions were holding up just fine on their own. As Japanese and American troops landed in Siberia, ostensibly to clear the remaining Bolshevik resistance and allow the Legionnaires free travel, it was the Legionnaires that greeted these relief forces. And in Paris, the Legion’s Russian victories helped gain the National Council more and more international recognition as the official future government of the yet-undefined Czechoslovak nation.
But the Czechoslovaks greatest influence would remain within Russia as a rallying point for the various White Russian forces of anti-Bolshevik resistance. The capture of Russia’s gold reserve that summer by the Czechoslovaks gave the Whites badly needed capital and the presence of likely the most professional armed force in the country provided morale for a movement that was politically, philosophically and militarily rudderless. While Siberia was far from an ideal base of operations for a resistance movement, Czechoslovak control gave the Whites breathing room to organize, even if they remained deeply divided and never truly unified. The Legions held no formal role within the White counterrevolution other than as an anti-Bolshevik force, with their limited efforts to wield political influence largely falling flat. The Czechoslovaks helped inspire a Siberian Provisional All-Russian Government in the fall of 1918, briefly bridging the gap between the anti-Bolsheviks leftists and the conservative leaders of the larger White movement. But this Provisional Government held as much favor as the St. Petersburg/Petrograd government of 1917 and was overthrown within months. Despite all of this, the Bolsheviks clearly feared the Legions; it was the presence of the Legions near Yekaterinburg where the Tsar was being held that prompted direct orders from Lenin to execute the entire former royal family.
For a group that had been only interested in getting to Europe to continue their war, elements of the Czechoslovak Legion would remain in Russia until September of 1920.