Winter in Siberia, 1918, a half year since the October Revolution, it seemed to be the year of the Bolshevik. Russia was still in celebration over the event, the food and land that were to be given, the withdrawal from the war. So they forgot about us, the foreign legion that had fought, bled and died for a country not our own. Russia was Communist now, and wanted no any part of the war they had hated so much. We thought that we would probably be left here to rot and later disband, as another footnote in the history books.
But we were wrong, someone hadn’t forgotten us. And that was Germany, who, at the time, was still fighting in the First World War. We were the Czechoslovak legion after all, turncoats and prisoners from Austria-Hungary who had fought for the Allied side.
There was a price for Russia’s withdrawal from the war, in land and in blood. We were part of that price.
<<Chelyabinsk, May, 1918>>
‘Under orders from Comrade Lenin, you are all ordered to be sent to Germany! This is to be effective in a week’s time, until then, dismissed!’ Commissar Ilyavich, newly minted Communist party officer stood in his polished and pressed uniform, stark contrast to our bleak and ravaged battledress.
Grim-faced Czech officers strode out of the officer’s hall, ready to inform us of our ally’s betrayal (for that was what it was!). We soldiers already knew, of course, the cracks and general disrepair of the wooden and metal sheeting of the building did not make a secure area to conduct controversial business. That was what dinner time was for, after all, as we huddled like penguins around the open campfires.
‘Hey Kazimir, did you hear about what’s going to happen to us next week?’
‘Da, of course I did, have you heard what the officers are planning?’ The base was in an uproar over the news, even the officers were listening to the rumor-mill, and wild tales were abound of firing squads, trials and life-sentencing.
Like frightened rats we were, scurrying this way and that, ever wary of the cat. But even the most frightened prey may lash out at the worst possible moment for the predator.
Jan Syrový was our commanding officer and quasi-father to many of us younger privates. He was trained in an officer’s school in Austria-Hungary, but he was tough and not at all like the incompetent leaders of said country. And it was at night when he spoke to us in an open field. ‘We will not meekly go to our deaths,’ said he to his silent audience, ‘The Germans will not take us, and Russia cannot make us. This may seem unattainable to you, my brothers, but I say we will triumph over our enemies! For one last ride!’
Chelyabinsk was an open powder keg of dissent and revolution, just waiting to go off. So plans were made, and on the 14th of May, 1918, the light was struck that ignited the flames of open revolt.
<<Chelyabinsk railway station, 14th of May, 1918>>
‘Czech dogs! You traitors will not be long for life in a work camp!’ A Hungarian prisoner, in a carriage of other former prisoners of war returning to the Central Powers, spat at us Czechs waiting on the other side of the railway. He picked up a rock from the tracks, marred and pitted with no doubt years of being weathered by passing trains. His compatriots jeered him on.
‘Dasdivanya, Piotr, throw it!’ So he threw it.
And thus sealed his fate.
‘Hungarian pig! Men of the Czech legion, show these craven idiots how a real soldier fights!’ It was Syrový, screaming himself hoarse to get us moving. The Russian soldiers moved to stop us, but it was too late as they realised with horror that pistols were being drawn from our officers, and rifles being taken up from crates. The unprepared were shot down without mercy, and as the signal flare shone bright in the early morning sky, sixty thousand Czech soldiers begun their rebellion around Chelyabinsk and the neighbouring towns. Syrový made a speech later that day, after the hurly-burly had finished.
‘We will find our freedom, this I promise! Somewhere out there is a new homeland to make our own, a place to live out our lives, without fear of death and oppression at every corner! We are the masters of our fates! We are the captains of our souls! For a new homeland!’
‘A NEW HOMELAND!’ The crowd of soldiers roared.
Sixty-thousand soldiers could not take on the might of Russia alone, but we had help from the most surprising places…
‘Vladimir Kappel, commander of the Whites.’ The smiling man shook hands with Syrový, his swarthy Cossack features in contrast with Syrový’s leaner build. Kappel was a leader of a new army of Russian rebels, made up of those who would see the upstart Communist Bolsheviks overthrown, and for the old regime of the Tsar to regain its place.
We were deserters, traitors of the Central Powers, Germany most prominently. They were the disenfranchised, former officers and soldiers of the old guard of Russia; together, we fought the Soviets. This would continue for quite some time, as each victor drew the noose around the capital of Russia, Moscow, closer and closer.
They say ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ and at that time, it was true.
<<Mariinsk, October, 1919>>
‘Kazimir, come over here.’ Upon hearing his superior, the aide moved over to the table. It was snowing again, and the brown army tent served as lacklustre protection in the cold of Siberia. We were camping outside a nearby town, a good place to take stock of our perilous situation.
‘What do you see on this map, Kazimir?’ Syrový spoke towards his aide, his lone eye looking straight through him.
A previous battle had left Syrový without an eye, now bandaged over.
The aide said,’ I see Kurgan, Marrinsk and the Trans-Siberian Railway.’
‘But do you see any major industrial centres? We may have encircled the Red and taken control of the outlying railways, but in the expanse that is Russia, assaults by our forces are ill-conceived and poorly coordinated. Already much of the spearheads are collapsing.’
‘The Whites are our allies, sir-‘
‘Russian. Allies. Fighting a Russian foe. Whereas we are Czechoslovaks.’ Each word was punctuated by Syrový’s finger, jabbing in the air. ‘And that is why we must go.’
The aide, falling silent, knew that the declaration was an order, not a request. They were going to lose, and it made no sense to fight for a losing cause when the outcome didn’t matter to the Czech soldiers in the first place.
‘Yes sir, I’ll inform the officers immediately.’ The aide left the tent, his cloak flapping in the wind.
On that day, the once sixty-thousand strong Czech legionnaires, now with a few less faces among their ranks, escaped Russia. We went to the port of Vladivostok, taking the Trans-Siberian railway to get there.
We did find a homeland in the end. While Austria-Hungary disintegrated, a new country was being formed. A country called ‘Czechoslovakia.’
‘Jan Syrový became a general of the new army, and later prime minister of the nation, as you all know. And me? Well, I was the aide, Kazimir, and here I am, speaking to you all now. Feel free to visit the War Museum now that my speech is done, I’ll be around later for questions.’