The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/How Austria Recruits Her Armies
How Austria Recruits Her Armies.
By Vojta Beneš.
There has been a large number of recruiting drafts; during the first year of war I saw nine. The manhood of Bohemia was so exhausted that in the villages there were no men left with the exception of priests, old men and cripples. If the ordinary percentage of young men recruited in times of peace was 25, the second draft passed as fit from 50 to 60 per cent of those who had been rejected by the ordinary draft, and the third draft caught 80 per cent of the leavings of the former inspections. That means that out of each one hundred men between the ages of 18 and 50 at least 92 were in the army. The last draft gathered in veritable physical wrecks. Medical inspectors were Magyars, because Bohemian physicians were not strict enough, and even the Magyar doctors were switched daily from place to place to avoid all possibility of bribery. But that was an unnecessary precaution. The Magyar physicians acted in a truly Asiatic fashion and passed every one with soul in his body. Only the manifest cripples were excused, while many people with serious internal disorders were pronounced fit for service. These had still the hope that they might be rejected upon reaching their regiment, but few had so much luck. In the early days of the “Magyar” drafts Bohemian deputies registered a complaint in Vienna against the excessive severity of the draft, which seemed to aim at the extinction of the Czech nation. For a few days following the complaint the recruiting was more reasonable, but after that severe methods were again followed.
The rule was established that every one, presenting himself to the recruiting officers, shall be pronounced “tauglich”, if either member of the commission, whether the medical officer or the line officer, shall consider him fit for military service. Only those escaped whom both members of the commission rejected, and such lucky fellows were very few.
During the war many soldiers were sent home as quite unable to perform military service and received the so-called “Abschied”, releasing them from all ties to the
Translated from his book: “How our Homeland lives and suffers under the blows of war.” army. All of these men were again called for service in September, 1915, and only those who were seriously sick or had been maimed in the war were sent home. But not all. I saw myself a case, where a young fellow who had been first wounded in the leg and then lost three fingers of the right hand and had only the thumb and index finger left, was first sent home and received a pension of 22 crowns a month, and then a few months later was ordered back into uniform. Soldiers without number went insane at the front, thousands came back crippled with rheumatism or broken-down nerves, thousands of poor beings lacking hands or feet crawl now along the streets. An army of cripples. The military schools for invalids have a gigantic task ahead of them.
Our people were thunderstruck by the imperial order commanding the enlistment of men up to the age of 51. Bohemians looked upon it as a deliberate attempt of the Vienna and Berlin rulers to slaughter the Austrian Slavs. As it was impossible to protest in parliament, which had not been called together during the war, Bohemian deputies attempted to protest in print against the drafting of elderly men, but declarations signed by the Bohemian Club and by the Socialist Club, comprising together all the Czech deputies, were confiscated and never saw the light of day. The irony of it was that the government in its proclamations cynically assumed that these elderly men would joyfully sacrifice their lives in company with their sons in the defense of the Austrian “fatherland”. . .
The new recruits must report upon a certain day, according to the year of their birth, and are at once sent to Hungary or Saltzburg. Bohemia, on the other hand, is filled with Rumanian, Magyar and German recruits. They are very bold in their contact with the public, conscious of their privileged position in the empire. In Pilsen soldiers of a Magyar regiment treated women and all civilists with indecency and violence in full daylight. In Stara Boleslav, Dr. Saroch, mayor of the city, greatly esteemed in the whole district, was brutally beaten by soldiers of the local garrison, when he reproved them for their violence. In Hungary the contrary is true. In Szegedin our soldiers had to suffer insults from the civil population and were virtually decimated by the terribly insanitary state of the barracks. Several thousands of Bohemian conscripts were here packed into dirty,barracks, their sleeping quarters were filthy and infested with vermin, and two hand pumps in the square furnished all the facilities for the ablutions of thousands. The toilets were in an unspeakable condition. The result was an epidemic of typhus and cholera. A young friend of mine, not quite eighteen years old, touched with tuberculosis, dared to complain that he was sick. For that he was chained to the wall and left in chains until he fainted.
The stories we heard were hard to believe, but occasionally some desperately sick man came back and verified the rumors. Once I received a postal card from a friend who was in Szegedin as a so-called one-year volunteer. He wrote “It is not true that our life in Szegedin is hell, that typhus and cholera rage here. It is not true to say that when a Czech soldier goes by the people here raise their hands to imitate the sign of surrender and that we are insulted. There are no trenches and wire entanglements in this neighborhood. And it is not true, as the rumor says, that 15,000 Roumanians fled from this region into Roumania. We are having a fine time, lots of fun and think of you often.” Why did my friend write “it is not true”? I never said or wrote to him anything of that sort. It was the only way he could inform me that the things he denied were facts.
Terrible are the straits amid which our nation lives. The military rulers of the state send our people to the slaughter, and the percentage of killed among our country men will be much higher than among the Germans and Magyars. And yet we are not discouraged. We shall not perish, neither shall our children.
I stood in July, 1915, in the square of our town, when from the direction of Prague we heard the military trumpet. In a few minutes we saw marching through the town the first companies of a regiment recruited from Magyars and Rumanians of Transylvania. They were men advanced in age, forty years and over, emaciated, feeble, with a dumb expression in their faces—and I do not say that by way of ridicule. Like loaded camels they carried their heavy war equipment, dragged their feet in a tired way, and their appearance made us feel as if all humanity had been beaten out of them. What a testimonial they presented to the degree of enthusiasm and understanding with which the races of the empire fight in its desperate military adventure.
And then we heard a Bohemian song and it poured a new life into us. The last companies of the regiment were made up of Bohemian boys, marching in the heat of July with full equipment to the training camp at Mlada. What a different appearance! There were younger men and older men among them, some fathers of families with bearded faces, but all with an intelligent determined look. They accepted their bitter fate with a song. It was as if a soft hand had stroked our cheeks. Tears ran from our eyes and through them we, the onlookers, smiled at each other, as if to say that our nation after all has in it eternal life and energy. It can bear and survive whatever heavy burden the fate may deal out.
Our hope and confidence was strengthened that the Czech people would emerge even from this terrible catastrophe unscathed and would have a part in the true brotherhood and more human civilization of future ages.