Twenty three year old František Breber was participating in a Sokol gymnastics festival in Brno, on June 27 and 28, 1914, when the news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo put an end to their games.
Many of the Legionnaires returned to Czechoslovakia and assumed senior roles in the government and in the army. Fortunes changed in 1939 as many suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime facing imprisonment or execution for actions taken against Germany twenty years earlier. Those that survived then faced the wrath of the Communist Russians who denied them their heroic place in history, denouncing them for fighting against the Bolsheviks. Some ended their days in Siberian prison camps. A bridge honoring the Legion was renamed and statues and tributes removed.
The Legionnaires finally had a few weeks to rest after their constant travel over the past few months. They still maintained their discipline with the mornings dedicated to military drills and camp maintenance and the afternoons free for walks to explore the area or attend civic functions. The grounds around their tents were decorated with intricate designs made with coloured rocks, sand and flowers as they hosted visits from dignitaries, civic officials, the media and the public.
With reimbursement promised by Britain, the Canadian government facilitated the movement and accommodation of the Legionnaires across Canada. The original plan to temporarily house them in an old army barracks at Williamshead, B.C. was abandoned as it had previously been used as a hostel for Chinese Coolies employed on the railroad and was in need of major upgrade and maintenance. It was then decided to transfer them immediately from ship to train and move them across Canada to the WW1 training camp at Valcartier, twenty minutes north of Quebec City.
By April, 1920, the numbers of the Canadian component had been reduced to 9,000 as it proved more practical to ship most of the men home via the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean through Italy using direct steamers. Only three ships were bound for Canada, the Ixion, the Protesilaus and the M.S. Dollar.
With the end of the war on November 11, 1918, the Legion thought they were homeward bound but, again, due to the unsettled state of the Russian government, the Allies requested that they maintain order over the Trans-Siberian railway and protect, among other things, British mining interests. Feeling obligated due to the previous support they had received from Russia and the Allies, and in anticipation of future considerations in the forthcoming Peace Conference, they found themselves returning westward over previous battlegrounds.
The Allies recognized the new country of Czechoslovakia on October 28, 1918 and Tomáš Masaryk was elected the first president, serving till 1935, when Eduard Beneš succeeded him. Štefánik had tragically been killed in a plane crash at the Bratislava airport on May 4, 1919. He was buried in his home town of Košariská where a tomb was built in his honour in 1928 atop Bradlo Hill. He had spent many hours on this hill studying the stars in his early vocation as an astronomer. The Slovak community of Bradlo near Hearst was named after his final resting place.
Their story began before World War 1 when Czech and Slovak nationalists, who were seeking independence from the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Regime, began to organize and train under the guise of gymnastic clubs, called Sokols. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, these young men were reluctantly conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army and sent to the Russian front. Rather than fight their fellow Slavs many chose the path of passive resistance as characterized in the classic novel by Jaroslav Hašek, “The Good Soldier Švejk”.
A friend sent me a link to a photo that showed a large contingent of soldiers on the Cochrane railway station platform. Someone had hand-written “Slovak Troops Passing Cochrane Ont.” on the face of the card.