12:40 pm

The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, 1914–20

When I was in Olomouc, I saw a Russian Orthodox Church, which I was told had been built shortly after the First World War for the sake of Czechs who had converted to Orthodoxy during the War. I didn’t think much of it at the time, assuming that these Czechs had been prisoners of war. But maybe not.

At the time of World War I, Czechoslovakia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most of the citizens who went to war did so (at least initially) as part of the Austro-Hungarian army. However, Czechs and Slovaks living in the Russian Empire at the time war broke out formed their own company within the Russian army to fight Austria-Hungary. As the war continued, their ranks were increased, with the encouragement of émigré politicians promoting Czechoslovak independence, by defectors and prisoners of war.

This exhibition, The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, 1914–20 at Prague Castle gives the history of these Czechoslovak units.

In the early years of the war, they were initially simply part of the Russian Army, although by 1917, the numbers had grown enough that they constituted an independent Czechoslovak Army. Following the Russian Revolution and Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the war, the story becomes much more interesting. Czechoslovak soldiers were supposed to be evacuated to France to continue fighting with the Allies. However, Russia’s European ports weren’t safe, so the the Czechoslovaks were sent across Russia to Vladivistock. However, Austrian and German prisoners of war being repatriated were being sent in the opposite direction at the same time, creating transportation problems. Eventually, the Czechoslovak soldiers found themselves doing battle with the Bolsheviks and it took until 1920 before they were all home.

These efforts on behalf of Allied forces helped Czechoslovakia to be recognized as an independent nation and one moreover that was one of the victorious powers.

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