The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 2/The Great Czechoslovak Romance
The Bohemian Review
Jaroslav F. Smetanka, Editor.
|Vol. II, No. 8.||AUGUST, 1918|
10 cents a Copy
The Great Czechoslovak Romance.
The story of the Czechoslovak conquest of Siberia reads like a romance. It has caught the imagination of the world, and journalists are hard put to it to find an analogy to it in the annals of mankind. One compares it with Anabasis, the famous march of the ten thousand from the center of the Persian Empire to the Black Sea; another likens it to Cortez’s conquest of the Empire of the Aztecs. And many no doubt have in mind Napoleon’s great excursion into the heart of Russia and its disastrous ending. The wonderful adventure of the Czechoslovaks has not yet got beyond the first chapter; its outcome is on the knees of the gods. But this much is certain even now: it will remain the most marvelous episode of the greatest war in history.’s
The rough map attached to this article will help the reader to grasp the wonder of the Czechoslovak exploits. Way to the west of Russia, nowhere touching even its pre-war boundaries, is the little country which is the home of the Czechs (Bohemians) and Slovaks. A hundred Bohemias together would not equal the area controlled by the exiled sons of the Czechoslovak lands. It is not, as if little Bohemia made war on great Russia and gained victory; from the days of the Greek triumps over Persia there have been many cases in which small, well-knit countries defeated loosely organized empires. But the fact must be emphasized that the Czechoslovaks in Russia and Siberia are a small part only of the manhood of Bohemia—that part which was fortunate enough to escape from the Austrian ranks into which they had been drafted and cross over alive to the Russian lines. Czechoslovak soldiers in Siberia and Eastern Russia are former Austrian soldiers who occupied a great empire, not for Austria, but for the Allies.
It was not easy to go over to the Russians, and things were not made easy for the men who managed to get over. Some of the Czech regiments in 1915 went over to the enemy’s side with their bands playing, but others were caught by Austrian artillery in no man’s land and smashed. Still other regiments were surrounded by German and Magyar troops, before they could take any steps to carry out their intention of deserting, and every tenth man was shot. Those that were lucky enough to reach the Russian trenches thought that their troubles were over, that they would be received with open arms by their Russian brothers and given a chance at once to exchange the hated Austrian uniform for Russian and fight against their oppressors. How they were disappointed. In most cases they were loaded into box cars and jolted along for weeks, until they were carried into far Siberia, Turkestan or the Caucasus. These they were herded in one camp with other Austrian and German prisoners and had to suffer many indignities from German and Magyar non-commissioned officers, who looked upon the Czechoslovaks as traitors. Gradually, as Russia needed workmen and as pressure was exerted upon the authorities in Petrograd by the Czech residents of Russia, they were allowed to volunteer for work on the farm and in munition factories. Later still here and there they were permitted with the grudging consent of the Petrograd bureaucrats and with the help of the more enlightened local authorities to join the original Hussite legion composed of a few thousand Czech residents of Russia who were not Russian subjects. They rendered the Russian armies very valuable services as scouts, because of their thorough knowledge of the Austrian armies. But the czarist government hesitated to give encouragement to revolutionaries, even if they were Austrian revolutionaries, and not Russian. And so when the Czar was overthrown, there existed only three Czechoslovak regiments on the Southwestern Russian front, although there were some 300,000 Czech and Slovak prisoners of war scattered through the vast extent of the Russian empire. Kerensky himself as minister of war looked at first unfavorably upon the nationalistic aspirations of the Czechoslovaks and tried to discourage their recruiting. But the revolution in most places freed the prisoners, friendly and hostile alike, and the Czechoslovaks from the lower Volga, from Central Asia and from the Pacific streamed toward Kief to join in the fight against Austria. If the Russian front had not collopsed, the former Austrian soldiers would have played a big share in putting an end to Austria’s existence. As it is, they had a chance to prove their mettle. One brigade of them was at the front, when the short-lived Kerensky offensive took place in Galicia in June, 1917. This brigade captured four thousand Austrians and a large number of guns, but in two weeks it had to fall back, because the Russian armies threw away their arms and fled without being attacked.
The next few months, the time during which the disorganization of the Russian armies went on at an increasing rate, witnessed the rapid growth of the Czechoslovak army. Professor, “the little father”, as these desperate fighters always call him, was in Russia and put a new spirit into the discouraged Bohemian exiles. A firm organization of the original Czechoslovak colony in Russia and of the far larger body of prisoners of war was carried out under his leadership to which all eagerly submitted. Emissaries went out from Kiev to all the internment camps from the Black Sea to the Pacific to call all true patriots to arms and to smooth away the difficulties offered in some places by the local authorities. Soon the volunteers commenced to pour into the concentration centers in the Ukraine. In most cases they came in train-loads, each group sped on the way with the best wishes of the local soviet. But even before the overthrow of Kerensky Masaryk lost hope of using the Czechoslovak forces to advantage on the Russian front. No one in Russia wanted to fight the Germans and Austrians, so eager were the Russians to fight each other; and in the general disorganization the small, but firmly disciplined body of fighters, like the Czechoslovaks, were tempted from all sides to join the bolsheviki or Kornilof or Kaledines or other promising causes which would have frittered away the strength of the small Czechoslovak army and probably caused its total extinction. As early as last fall Professor Masaryk planned to have his fighters transported to France and fight on the western front for the liberation of their homeland. Several thousand of them have in fact been transported by way of the Arctic Sea to the west to form the nucleus of the Czechoslovak army in France. In the meantime the Bolsheviki seized what government there was in Russia and it became impracticable to figure any longer on transportation by way of northern Russian ports. The only way to bring these eager fighters into the battle was to take them clear around the world, across European Russia, across Asia, over the Pacific, Canada or the United States, and the Atlantic.
In the meantime the position of the Czechoslovak troops in the Ukraine was becoming decidedly hazardous. There had been considerable fighting in and around Kiev between the levies of the Ukrainian Rada and the forces of the Bolsheviki, and the Czechoslovaks with difficulty managed to keep clear of this brief war. The red guards captured Kiev, but that only gave the Germans an excuse to rush to the aid of their good friends, the government of the Rada, the same government that a few months later was chased out of Kiev by a squad of German soldiers. And as the German flood overran the Ukraine, it nearly caught the Czechoslovaks. They were retreating out of the Ukraine, when their rearguards found themselves menaced by the Germans at Bachmach on March 11th. A battle was fought in which the German forces were badly worsted, and the Czechoslovaks were enabled to withdraw from territory occupied by their enemies.
At the time these men without a country were already on their way to Vladivostok. Masaryk received promises from the Allied representatives in Moscow that ships would be furnished for the transport of this army across the Pacific and the Atlantic, and at the same time the Bolshevik authorities agreed to help these dangerous men out of the country and to furnish trains to take them to Vladivostok. As soon as the troop movement to Vladivostok was on the way. Masaryk left Russia. He thought that his work in Russia was done. He had guided his children through one crisis after another; he brought them safe out of
THE SCENE OF CZECHOSLOVAK EXPLOITS IN RUSSIA.
Towns underscored indicate places captured by the Czechoslovaks. Other places indicate location of camps in which Czechoslovaks were interned. dangerous situations and saw them started on their way across Asia. When he came to Chicago and made his first public address in America, he told his countrymen of Chicago that his chief task for the present would be to see to it that transports should be promptly sent to Vladivostok.
But now Germany made one of those blunders, like the attack on Belgium and the declaration of ruthless submarine warfare, which lost the war for it. The representatives of Germany and Austria in Moscow demanded now that the Czechoslovaks, being originally Austrian prisoners of war, should be disarmed, placed under guard and delivered to the Austrians. Now it should be kept in mind that only a few months previously a military convention had been signed by the Bolshevik commander and the Czechoslovak chief providing for the free and unmolested transit of the Czechoslovak troops through and out of Russia, and that this convention was ratified by the people’s commissioners. Butand could refuse nothing to the Germans. Trotzky as minister of war demanded first the disarmament of the Czechs, and they submitted, merely keeping a few guns to each train. The conflict was thus postponed a little longer. A number of regiments actually reached Vladivostok without any more serious trouble than a month of most uncomfortable traveling—reaching the port they asked the local bolsheviks for barrack room and settled down to wait for their comrades.
Just how the fight started is still far from clear. Perhaps the orders came from Trotzky, perhaps the Moscow commissaries did not intend to go to extremes. It is quite likely that Count Mirbach thought that he could get what he wanted without Trotzky’s direct co-operation. For be it remembered that the people’s commissioners, elected by the all-Russian Soviet as the chief executive, were obeyed by the provincial and city Soviets only in so far as it pleased these local bodies. And in Siberia, where most of the German and Austrian prisoners of war had been interned, the local Soviets were very largely controlled by German agents, since the red guards were led by German and Magyar ex-prisoners. And so the first clash which changed the situation completely occurred at Irkutsk. A Czechoslovak troop train, waiting at the Irkutsk station, was fired upon by machine guns at the order of the German commander of the Red Guards. The Czechs had only a few rifles and bombs and a few score of them were killed, before they captured the machine guns practically with bare hands, killed the Reds and occupied Irkutsk.
It is not possible to relate in detail just what happened afterwards. We have to rely upon scattered press dispatches. But it seems that the conflict at Irkutsk pushed Trotzky into the position where the Germans wished to have him. He gave orders that every Czechoslovak caught with weapons in his hands should be immediately executed. The intervention of the Allied consuls at Moscow on June 13th had no result. War was on between the Czechoslovaks and the Bolsheviki.
A new front arose, called by Trotzky the Czechoslovak front. It was a battlefront far larger than anything else seen in this war, for it extended from the Volga to the Pacific, a distance of more than five thousand miles. And while now and then the war bulletins of the soviet announced Russian victories over the rebel Czechoslovaks, due no doubt to the fact that sometimes small Czech detachments had been pushed too far and had to be withdrawn, on the whole this unique campaign consists of a long list of Czechoslovak victories. Thus we read that on June 8th Omsk in Central Siberia was captured, on June 13th was announced the capture of Syzran west of the Volga, on June 15th Novonikolajevsk, a few hundred miles west of Omsk was occupied; on June 20th Bolshevik commanders report to Lenine that all Siberia is on fire with rebellion. The next report announces the occupation on June 25th of Tobolsk in Western Siberia and Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia; the following day we jump into European Russia again and read of the capture of Ekaterinburg in the Urals and Samara on the Volga. On July 5th the Czechoslovaks drove the Red Guards, composed principally of German and Magyar prisoners, beyond Lake Baikal, and at the same time the regiments at Vladivostok, which in the meantime had over thrown the Bolshevik rule on the Pacific, started out from Vladivostok and occupied the junction of Nikolsk after a bloody battle.
When the concentration camps; most of them were scattered through Siberia. And now as the trains began to roll over the vast distances of Asia and especially after the reports spread into all parts of Russia that the Bolsheviki had attacked the Czechoslovaks and that a war was on, these volunteers rushed to the Siberian Railroad and joined their brothers. We know that in the middle of June the army had grown to 70,000 and it must be much larger now. There are reports stating that a Polish contingent joined the Czechoslovaks and that other Austrian prisoners of war of Slav and Roumanian races are coming in. We shall hear some wonderful stories of adventure and daring, when we learn the full details of how the Czechoslovak ex-prisoners of war marched toward the Siberian Railroad, riding in box cars or on top of them and often walking, from the boundaries of China and Persia, from Samarkand and Tashkend, from Astrakhan and Tsaritzin on the Lower Volga, and from Stavropol in the Caucasus. Here must lie the explanation of the capture by Czechoslovaks of some of the towns which are hundreds of miles distant from the Siberian Railroad. It must have been the prisoners of the Causasus marching to Samara who captured Novorosijsk on the Black Sea with two Russian cruisers lying in its harbor. Think of men who have never been to sea, who had probably never seen a warship, who fought mostly with bare hands, capturing cruisers and handling the big naval guns in a masterly fashion. A similar explanation must account for the reported capture of Kandales on the White Sea.army made its start for France, it counted only 50,000 men. There were 50,000 more volunteers who had not yet succeeded in reaching the
The situation on the first of August was this: the Czechoslovaks were in full control of the Siberian Railroad from the Volga as far as somewhere east of Lake Baikal; they controlled the Pacific coast and were engaged in clearing up that stretch of the railroad lying between the Pacific and the Baikal; two columns of Czechoslovaks, one proceeding west from Vladivostok and another marching east of Irkutsk, were trying to establish contact and destroy well-armed bodies of German and Magyar prisoners. The Czechoslovaks also control navigation on the Volga, the junction of the Turkestan Railroad, and a considerable section of the Petrograd branch of the Siberian Railroad. They had already accomplished a good deal. They prevented the return of almost a million German and Austrian prisoners of war who would have been used to reinforce the armies of the Central Powers; they kept the grain of Western Siberia and the cotton of Turkestan from reaching German hands; they made it impossible for the Germans to grab the mineral riches of the Ural mountains, especially platinum; and above all by overthrowing the terrorism of the red guards they offered an opportunity to the people of Siberia to establish a decent and orderly government. For it would not be fair to the Czechoslovaks to speak of their exploits as the conquest of Siberia. They are no warlike tribe imposing their dominion on less organized peoples. They want nothing for themselves, but they are all anxious to help their Russian brothers whose language they have all learned to speak and whose confidence they fully enjoy. In every city occupied by the Czechoslovaks perfect order prevails and life is as safe as in an American city.
What will be the outcome of it all it is too early to say. It all depends on what the Allies will decide to do. But it should be remembered that the chief aim fo the Czechoslovaks is to put in a few good licks for the freedom of Bohemia and of all mankind. They want to get at the Germans; if they can get at them in Russia with some chance of accomplishing something definite and not merely throwing their lives away, so much the better. If the Allies act promptly, before winter sets in, there is good reason to believe that Russia will rouse itself once more and that the Germans will have to withdraw at least half a million men from the Western front to meet the danger in the East.
The “Lidové Noviny” of June 7th contained an interesting incident of Russian disorganization. They quote a story from a Russian newspaper:
Bolsheviki divisions weire returning from the front, one of them had a train of heavy artillery which was delaying them considerably in their hurry to get home. The commander of the train was a clever man who thought of a way to get rid of their inconvenient baggage.
When they got to a Jewish town named Jaltuskov in the district of Magylev this resourceful commander offered the heavy guns for sale, but the Jews, always ready to buy up metal, had no use for guns, so the division backed away a mile and pointed the guns above and fired a round. The Jews came running with the desired amount and took away the guns and munitions.