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”. Others just threw down their arms and surrendered. Soon there were thousands of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war waiting out the war in Russian camps in Siberia.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Czechs and Slovaks had previously settled in Russia. They successfully petitioned Tsar Nicholas II to allow them to form a dedicated fighting unit and he approved the formation of a small Rifle Brigade, called a Družina, in the Russian army. Commanded by Russian officers it was initially used mainly for propaganda and reconnaissance purposes to encourage their fellow countrymen to resist their Austro-Hungarian masters. Crawling through the no-man’s land, they listened to the conversations in the opposing trenches. When they heard Czech or Slovak voices they would encourage them to defect and join the Russian forces. Though successful, this was a very dangerous exercise as anyone caught consorting with the enemy was shot on the spot. Some of the defecting troops were shot by distrusting Russian soldiers as they approached, unarmed, trying to surrender. On one occasion a brass regimental band made the dash from one trench to the other with all their musical equipment in tow and promptly set up to play their traditional songs on the other side.
During this time Tomáš Masaryk, Eduard Beneš and Milan Rastislav Štefánik, the founding fathers of Czechoslovakia, formed a government in exile, lobbying Britain, France, America and Russia for recognition of the republic of Czechoslovakia and for funding for their cause. Masaryk and Štefánik travelled to Russia to convince the government to release the Czech and Slovak POWs and allow them to join the fight on the side of the Allies. The long term goal was to gain support from the Allies for their new country and to develop an army to protect it. Štefánik was a world renowned astronomer who had applied his trade in France where he became a French citizen. An aviator in the French Army, he quickly rose to the rank of general. He was instrumental in convincing the French government to support fighting units in both France and Italy. Since non citizens could not join the French army, these units became part of the French Foreign Legion. Their uniforms were distinguished by their caps and ultimately the units became known as the Czecho-Slovak Legion.
Early in 1917 Russia agreed to the release of POWs to join the rapidly expanding Czecho-Slovak Legion and soon it boasted a fighting force of 70,000 battle-hardened men under the command of French General Maurice Janin. France and the Allies provided financial support and military equipment. The Russian political situation was in turmoil when, on March 15, 1917, political unrest resulted in revolution and the abdication of the Tsar. A provisional government was formed by Alexander Kerensky although the Allies secretly hoped that the Tsar could eventually be restored to power - after all, the Tsarina was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. The Czecho-Slovak Legion continued to fight on the side of the Allies facing their first major test in the battle of Zborov in the Ukraine. Though outnumbered three to one they defeated the Germans and Austro-Hungarians taking more than 4,000 prisoners. In October, a second revolution by the Bolsheviks forced Kerensky to flee the country. He ran the government, now known as the Whites, from exile as they continued to battle the Bolshevik Reds. Navy war hero, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, now took command of the White Russian Army. The Admiral was soon named supreme ruler of the Russias, establishing a capitol at Omsk and gaining control of half of the Russian treasury, including eight train car loads of gold and jewellery. Czecho-Slovak leader Masaryk issued strict orders that the Legion must avoid participation in this Russian civil war and should return to France to fight on the Western front. The Allies had other plans for them, preferring that they maintain a military presence in Russia and protect the Trans Siberian Railway. The Soviet Red Army, preferring to concentrate on defeating the Whites, negotiated the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany in March 1918 and withdrew from the global war. The terms of the treaty required that the Russians turn the Legion members over to the Germans and Hungarians where they would face certain execution as deserters. This left the Legion facing the impossible task of breaking through the German lines themselves to return to France and the Western Front. They chose instead to consolidate their forces and move east for evacuation from the Pacific port of Vladivostok. The Bolsheviks offered them safe passage but demanded they give up most of their armaments and rifles which would have left them vulnerable to attack from the German and Austrian POWs now being released. The Reds in each town they came to issued more demands and several skirmishes occurred which escalated into open warfare which became known as the revolt of the Legion.
The Allies had asked General Janin and the Czecho-Slovak Legion to provide protection for Admiral Kolchak and the eight car loads of gold. Continuing their eastward journey, they commandeered all the trains they encountered. Approaching Ekaterinberg, where the Bolsheviks were holding the Tsar and his family prisoner, the Legion found they were a day late. The Bolsheviks had executed the entire Romanov family and obliterated all traces of them on July 17, 1918, then abandoned the city. The Soviets then changed their minds on the evacuation of the Czecho-Slovak Legion, insisting they surrender their arms and join the Red Army or be shot.
The Legion’s journey to the east continued as they secured the entire 8,000 mile length of Trans-Siberian railway but at the cost of doing constant battle with the Red Army, who would have long memories. The Legion also had a strong Engineering component as one of the tactics of armoured train warfare was to destroy tracks and bridges to trap the enemy then rebuild them the next day so they could move on. They carried a flatcar loaded with rails and ties with them for that purpose. Living on the trains was a challenge as their homes were simply converted boxcars called tépluškas, meaning warm places. Sleeping on makeshift wooden bunks, stacked two or three high with 30 or 40 men to a car, they covered themselves with their coats and used their packs as pillows. Stoves or a simple steel plate on which wood was burned, were installed to combat the minus 40 degree Siberian winter nights. These were fueled with whatever coal or wood they could commandeer along the way, including wooden fences. Those in the centre were warm, those at the outside felt the chill. The toilet was a hole in the floor covered by a wooden disc on a peg, or the open box car door. They tried to make their lives on the rails more pleasant by decorating their tépluškas with colourful scenes from home and regimental insignia. They had mobile kitchens and bakeries and even produced a daily newspaper. Armaments, equipment and horses were also carried on the trains which were called echelons.