The Inspiring Story of the Czechoslovak Legion

Czechoslovak Legion TrainDuring World War I, there was a unit of soldiers comprised of Czechs and Slovaks (although the majority of troops were Czechs) that fought for the Russian Empire. This unit, called the “Czechoslovak Legion,” fought believing that it would lead to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. However, the Legion eventually found itself fighting to escape Russia and return home as the Russian Civil War began to ravage the country.

Thomas Masaryk
Tomáš Masaryk

Czechoslovakia as a country did not exist until 1918 after World War I, and had long been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tsar Nicholas II, who frequently spoke about a Slavic brotherhood (the reason why the Russian Empire came to the aide of Serbia and helped escalate World War I) had mentioned support for Czechoslovakian independence, and led many Czechs to desert from the Austro-Hungarian army or surrender to the Russians in the hope that they could fight in exchange for a country to call their own. Tomáš Masaryk, the leader of the Czechoslovakian independence movement, a philosophy professor at the University of Prague and eventually the first President of Czechoslovakia, helped form the Czechoslovak Legion, which was first permitted in 1917 by the Provisional Government (immediately following the abdication of the Tsar) and got its first taste of combat in the Brosilov Offensive.

Trans Siberian RailwayHowever, the Russian Empire that the Czechoslovak Legion had come to fight for was rapidly beginning to disentegrate. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (who had been smuggled into Russia by the Germans) had declared themselves the ruling party of Russia, and focused on consolidating their power while German forces continued their advances into Ukraine. The Legion couldn’t escape west and German forces had blocked off the Baltic ports, which meant they could either head south to the Middle East, or east to Vladivostok using the Trans-Siberian Railway, a four-thousand mile trip. They chose to head towards Vladivostok.

Admiral Alexander Kolchak
Admiral Alexander Kolchak

Utilizing trains commandeered in Kiev while fighting a rear-guard action against the invading Germans, the Czechoslovak Legion (now numbering roughly 60,000 strong) managed to control the entirety of the Trans-Siberian Railway using armored trains for almost two years, and even supported the independence of Siberia, whilst fighting both the Red Army and the White Army at times. Originally the Legion had supported the government of Admiral Alexander Kolchak, but atrocities committed by the White Army (as well as corruption and ineptitude) reinforced the Czechoslovak Legion’s neutrality.

While waiting to be evacuated from Vladivostok, the Legion’s presence was truly felt along the Trans-Siberian Railway. While supporting Siberian independence, they also printed a daily newspaper, engaged in business with the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, etc., maintained postal services, and formed a makeshift navy at Lake Baikal (the largest freshwater lake in the world). There was also the capture of eight train cars full of gold that had originated in Kazan, although all but one of these train cars was returned by the Legion. By 1919, rescue ships were beginning to arrive in Vladivostok and by 1920 the entirety of the Czechoslovak Legion had been evacuated and returned to the newly-created country of Czechoslovakia.

The Czechoslovak Legion monument in Prague, the Czech Republic
The Czechoslovak Legion monument in Prague, the Czech Republic

The Czechoslovak Legion was an almost legendary unit, as many of the soldiers would go on to serve in the army while many officers (such as Jan Syrový) attained high-level positions in the Czechoslovak government. Whereas the Legion managed to secure a huge amount of land located along the Trans-Siberian Railway from the Bolsheviks and support many anti-communist movements, ultimately after their departure the White Army would be defeated and the other Allied forces (Such as the Polar Bear Expedition) would withdraw.

Today, there is a monument to the Czechoslovak Legion in Palacky Square, Prague as well as another in Yekaterinburg (the city where the Tsar’s family was executed) and despite playing such a large role in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, it is almost unheard of in the West outside of the Czech Republic

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