Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, May 29, 2021

What Was the Czech Legion (Siberian Version)?

The Czech Legion on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

During the early months of the First World War an army of Czechs and Slovaks was formed to fight alongside the Russians against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite sanctioning its formation, Tsar Nicholas II deeply distrusted this "Czech Legion" and refused to allow it to fight with his troops.  [Note: other units on the Western and Italian Fronts shared the name "Czech Legion" at times] The Bolsheviks, after their seizure of power, also uncomfortably viewed the Legion as a foreign army on their soil. Indeed, the Czechs were one of the only disciplined and cohesive fighting forces in Russia at the time, numbering almost 70,000.  After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk—which ended the war between Russia and Germany—they found themselves as an army without a war. Agreements were  reached between the Czechs and Bolsheviks whereby the Legion could exit Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Legion would embark at Vladivostok for France to continue the fight for national independence.  

None were to complete the trip during the war. In May, at the town of Chelyabinsk, the agreement broke down. What began as a clash between Czech echelons moving east and Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war being repatriated under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk moving west resulted in open warfare between the Bolsheviks and the Czechs. The Bolsheviks demanded the Czechs surrender their weapons for passage out of Russia. The Czechs quite naturally refused, and the conflict quickly spread the length of the 5000-mile-long railway, over which detachments of the Legion were strewn. After receiving news of the uprising President Wilson informed his allies that he was rethinking the possibility of sending American troops to Siberia, to help the Czech Legion escape.

Czech Artillery Crew

During early June news came that the Czechs had captured Vladivostok and the president made up his mind. With Vladivostok under "friendly" control, the Allies possessed a secure base of operations. As the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok was the key to launching and supplying any military effort. Ahead lay thousands of miles of track, running westward across Manchuria, and north to Khabarovsk, then also turning west into the Siberian hinterland, leading ultimately to Moscow. It was the supply line built by the last tsar to expand his empire, and it was now the lifeline of the counterrevolution struggling to get back to the center. Indeed, it was the jugular vein of Siberia. Any hope of determining the outcome of the civil war in eastern Russia depended upon controlling and keeping open that railway system.

The Czechs, in one sense, were just the type of force Wilson sought to support in Siberia. They were anti-Bolshevik, anti-German, and anti-Japanese. They were the most effective fighting force at the time in Siberia through which to support counterrevolution. Wilson took the opportunity "to help the Czechoslovaks consolidate their forces and get into successful cooperation with their Slavic kinsmen," as the aide-mémoire announced. Left undefined was who exactly their Slavic kin were. The memoir was equally vague in other areas. The AEF was "to steady any efforts at self-government or self-defense in which the Russians themselves may be willing to accept assistance" and also to guard the vast amount of military supplies that had built up in and around Vladivostok during the war, "which may subsequently be needed by Russian forces in the organization of their own self-defense." Which Russians Wilson had in mind was likewise left undefined.

In Vladivostok After Its Capture

The commander of the American intervention, MG William Graves, saw serious implications to supporting the Czechs.  For the Czechs to consolidate their forces the railway system had to remain operable. Acceptance of this duty immediately compromised any "neutrality" sought by General Graves. The Czech Legion was in revolt against the Bolsheviks and were active partisans in the civil war. To maintain the railway system, moreover, was not just aid to the Czechs; it would benefit the counterrevolution that depended upon the railway. Graves had little illusion about the role his troops played in Siberia. "As I see this question," he would wire Washington, "we become a party, by guarding the railroad, to the actions of this governmental class". The American forces would be in caught in the middle of hostile and more numerous forces during the entirety of their deployment. Fortunately, in General Graves, they had a wise and cautious leader, who successfully extricated them.

As to the Czech Legion—they eventually made it home. They reached and accommodation with the Bolsheviks, by betraying the Whites and turning over General Kolchak to the Reds, and fending off the local war lord and Japanese forces trying to hinder their arrival in Vladivostok. By September 1920, however, the last of some 67,000 members of the legion had left Russia for their new country of Czechoslovakia. Some of them past through the United States and were feted in cities like San Francisco and Chicago (the second largest Czech city in the world) as heroes.


  1. Who is the author of this piece? And no Sources are cited.

  2. This riding roughly agrees with other things I have read about the so-called Czech legion. Points to the stupidity of the WW1 leaders the Tsar (complete moron in an incredibly corrupt regime) and Wilson (what did he even hope to accomplish in this quixotic adventure).

  3. Yankee combat forces in Siberia only amounted to about 3,500; one regiment of 2 battalions, the 27th Infantry, plus support. They had several skirmishes with the Bolos, where the name "Wolfhounds" was coined. The US also sent over professional railroad people to "participate".