Czech Volunteers in Russia WWI

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The Czech Legion started from humble beginnings in 1914 and ended up as one of the last reliable units on the World War One Eastern Front.

When World War One erupted all over Europe in August 1914, some in eastern Europe saw it as an extension of the age-old war between Slav and Teuton. With the German, Austrians and Hungarians against the Balkan Slavs, Russians and Ukrainians the lines were drawn. Caught in the middle were the Czechs. Minority residents of the old Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs had yearned for independence for at least a half century when the war broke out. Eager the take advantage of using the Czechs a wedge to tear apart the Austrian Empire, the Allies began to make calls for Czech freedom and established a fore of freedom fighters to help in the armed struggle. The Russian Army allowed the formation of the Czechoslovak Druzhina (a 12th century word which translates to Legion or “war band”) at Kiev on August 14, 1914- only two weeks after the war started. It was nominally led by a Capitan Lotoki, with three companies of volunteer troops, with a fourth soon to be added, all being led by Russian officers. The Russian Tsar even received the Czech independence leader Karol Kramer, who sought and achieved Russian support for the eventual creation of a free Czechoslovak republic. The crown of St Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech kingdom, was on the flag of the Druzhina.

After two months training, the Czechoslovak Druzhina, now led by Russian Capitan Sozentovich, entrained at Kiev to join General Ivanov’s Russian forces on the Southwest Front. The Druzhina had now grown to 1,000 men, including 700 Czechoslovaks and 300 Russian volunteers arrived north of Jaroslau, and were attached to General Radko-Dmitriev’s Russian 3rd Army. There they fought in the terrible first winter of the war in their own Carpathian mountain foothills. In this time period, the Austro-Hungarian armies were hemorrhaging Czechs to the Russians. Soldiers of the Hapsburgs Empire were more likely to end the war on a Russian farm or factory than in their own army. With low morale and almost no will to fight, many ethnic Czech units (who made up 15 % of the Austrian Army) surrendered in mass. Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef had to formally dissolve the entire Austrian 28th Infantry Regiment (made up of 1,800 Czech men) which had gone over to the Russians in the Carpathians with their bands playing and regimental flags unfurled. This source of manpower was however not tapped energetically by Tsarist officers. These noblemen thought it poor practice to recruit from men who had honorably surrendered and violate those men’s oath of honor to their King.

After surviving the great retreat of 1915, the Tsar officially designated the Czechoslovak Druzhina as the Czechoslovak Jan Hus Rifle Regiment on December 31, 1915. The force now had swollen, even with terrible losses, to 1,600 men and was led by Russian Podpolkovnik (Lieutenant Colonel) Trozhanov. In April 1916 it was attached to the Russian 7th Army in preparation for the coming Brusilov offensive where it won accolades. That summer saw the regiment increase to an 8000-man brigade with the addition of a second regiment, named after the Czech hero George of Podebrady. The force was then assigned to General Zaionchovskiy’s Russian Special Corps and served on the Romanian front. The famous Czech patriots Masaryk and Štefánik came to Russia in 1917 to help expand the units and turn them into an independent army for their infant state. A third regiment was formed shortly after and the Czechs were then renamed the First Czech (Hussite) Riflemen Division. They won the Battle of Zborov during the Kerensky Offensive that year, capturing twenty enemy guns and advancing when most other units were unable to. Here they had faced men of the Austro-Hungarian 19th Division, made up primarily of Czechs. The Legion had distributed handbills across no-mans land before the assault began calling for their brothers to surrender and 3,000 of them did.

The Legion was quickly doubled into a 35,000-man, two-division Corps by October 1917. It was one of the few units to still hold the Russian line when the eastern front collapsed after the Russian Revolution, having lost more than 4,000 men in combat. The Allies campaigned to withdraw the Czech Legion across Russia through Siberia to Vladivostok where they would be redeployed to France to fight the Germans there. This plan led to direct involvement of the Czechs in the Russian Civil War.