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. Soon he and all able-bodied young Czechs and Slovaks were conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, many against their will, and sent off to fight the Russians in the Eastern Front. Captured by the Russians in 1915, he languished in a Siberian prisoner of war camp until he was recruited to join the Czecho-Slovak Legion. He soon found himself assigned to the Armoured Train “Orlik” as a machine gunner and saw plenty of action patrolling the Trans-Siberian Railway. Later he was a first lieutenant in the Assault Battalion, commanded by Major Rudolf Hásek.
In 1920 he joined the evacuation of the Czecho-Slovak Legion travelling east to Vladivostok and then to Vancouver aboard the steamer Ixion. His meticulous war diary provides his impressions of Canada as detailed by his son Jiri Breber in the Czech internet daily newspaper Neviditelný Pes, published by Lidovky.cz in 2007. Photos and excerpts from the diary are used with permission of publisher.
Excerpts from his diary below show his experiences in Canada:
6 June, 1920: At 4:30 A.M. we were on our way to the Americas as we crowded the rails on the deck of the steamer “Ixion” looking back anxiously at the mainland. Our bear Misha, standing on her hind legs, was a head taller than us as she craned her neck to the mainland, flaring her nostrils. After two weeks on the stormy Pacific we spied the inviting green coast with its colourful rocks and scents.
At seven o’clock our ship stopped at Williamshead where we had medical examinations. No one was sick and we were thankful that our Commander Major Hásek’s young Russian wife had recovered from her serious bout of sea-sickness as we were concerned for her life.
We steamed for Vancouver, arriving at two in the afternoon, with our military band playing. Two pretty young girls, smiling and waving banners, were the first to greet us. They surprised us when they answered our broken English greetings with the traditional Czech greeting ‘Nazdár”.
More than 2,000 members of the seventh Regiment disembarked and were welcomed by a few local Czechs and city officials at a quick lunch. The port was closed to the public and some of our fellows thought that this was for fear of the evil “Bolsheviks” from Siberia. We soon dismissed their fears as we marched with our regimental band leading the way from the port to the train station.
Officers with unsheathed swords gleaming in the sun led each troop. Pulling a drum on a cart our mascot, Misha the Bear and her trainer led the 7th Regiment through the streets arousing great interest among the Canadians. The cavalry marched in their cloaks with spurs and boots clattering in perfect rhythm. Finally the Commando battalion, coatless but wearing steel helmets, with fixed bayonets, marched in tight formation, a joy to behold.
Crowds lined the streets and welcomed us shouting Hip Hip Hooray, Hello Boys and Nazdár. The police and Canadian officers were impressed with our discipline saying it was better than their own units returning from France.
We did not see much of Vancouver but after six years in Russia we experienced culture shock to see asphalted streets, electric street lights and tall reinforced concrete buildings, some ten stories high with many large windows.
The Vancouver railway station was wonderful with its covered tracks and platforms. The station, bathed in electric light, gave the impression of a great hall. Our train consisted of several Pullman cars, a dining car with a smoking room, and a special car for the cooks. No more boxcar tépluškas that we had lived in for years in Russia. We had dinner, a smoke in the smoking room and were off to bed. The cars had beds that were simply lowered from the walls creating a private booth with mattresses, sheets, blankets and pillows ready for sleeping. There was another bunk above and nice green curtains for privacy. A contrast from the years we had to sleep on wooden beds with a great coat for a blanket and a sack of hand grenades for a pillow.
7 June, 1920: Our train was far from Vancouver when I awoke, speeding through the Fraser River Valley, passing Hope and up a continuous incline. We drove through many tunnels and could see the shiny glaciers of the Rockies. We had a stop at Kamloops where our band entertained the locals at the station. Soon we reached Rogers Pass, at an elevation of 4,300 feet and looked up at Mount Sir Donald which reached 10,300 feet. We crossed steep gorges on bridges high above the valleys, through wild scenery until we reached the Blue River station. The mountain peaks disappeared into the clouds and we were spellbound by the colours cast by the sun on the slopes. I had dreamed about seeing mountains described by Karl May in the books I had read as a youth. At night we passed Mount Robson, the highest peak on our journey around the world, and reached Jasper, Alberta. The night was clear and with the moon shining over these great mountains, none of us slept as we watched from the windows.
8 June, 1920: The morning sky was overcast and raining so I could not enjoy the view of the Canadian Mountains by the rising sun. We passed Obed and Edson and reached Edmonton, the capital of Alberta at three in the afternoon where we had a longer stop and received a $5.00 advance on our salary. We explored the city near the station and saw wide clean streets, tall buildings and electric street cars. Back at the station the local people gave us cigarettes and oranges and we continued on our journey through fertile farmland where machines worked in the fields and the farmers drove tractors.
9 June, 1920: At Kamsack, Saskatchewan, many Russian immigrants met us and we had an interesting discussion about the situation in Russia before we had to get back on the train.
Some of the boys missed the train at Dauphin Manitoba when they thought the dispatcher said they had a one hour stop but the train pulled out while they were sightseeing. Major Hásek had them stop the train and they ran to get back on. The town of Dauphin looked like a large fairy tale scene with colourful houses set in blooming gardens.
10 June, 1920: We arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba at two in the morning. Many Czechs lived there and they greeted us with our country’s red and white flags and banners. They wanted to take us home to meet their families but the authorities said the stop was limited to two hours so we could not go into the city. Some went anyway, missing the train. They were picked up by the next train and the officials became stricter with the rules ensuring that all were on board before leaving. They provided some advances so we could buy cigarettes and we moved on.
From Winnipeg we drove through endless forests and around many lakes. We went through a large Indian Reservation but saw very few natives as they lived far from the railway. At one station we did see some who lived in tents in the woods behind the station. They were the same as the whites but had darker skin and wore ordinary clothes. We expected to see the proud Sioux that we had read about in the novels of Karl May and James Fennimore Cooper. Some did come dressed in native costumes with feather headdresses and our photographer took some pictures. Some women carried their babies in pouches with just the head showing. They would attach these pouches to sticks in the ground and the babies could swing and almost stand.
In the middle of the night we passed Sioux Lookout and found ourselves in an inhospitable region. We saw traces of the fruitless struggle of the settlers, abandoned farms and villages, a wasteland of stone and sand and sparse forests.
11 June, 1920: Today we drove around lakes and a more interesting but sparsely populated area. Plenty of water but the trees were dry and rotting. About eleven o’clock we saw the aurora borealis. Ribbons of light rolled across the northern sky, their iridescent borders colliding and melting as new waves came. It is difficult to describe the beauty of this phenomenon. I had never seen such beautiful Northern Lights in Siberia.
12 June, 1920: This afternoon we thought we had reached the end of our rail journey as we arrived in Quebec City. We were excited thinking we would be staying in the stone fortress barracks that overlooked the city on the banks of the St. Lawrence River but, sounding its whistle, the train sped away. Twenty minutes later we were in Valcartier where we were to stay in tents in this former military training camp.
We thought we were being greeted by young girls but realized they were men in short skirts. These were the Scottish Highlanders playing bagpipes, flutes and drums, music that was new to us. Our Battalion assembled in front of the train and, carrying our rifles with bayonets fixed, we marched up the road to a nice camp, led by our band. Our boys had been through a lot and they showed their pride. It was more a ballet than a march and I was thrilled. We marched smartly past the British officers who saluted our banners and commander and suddenly, when our band stopped playing the terrible racket of the bagpipes threw off the timing of the marchers causing them to miss steps. Lieutenant Smetana and I called out cadence and told them to ignore the bagpipes, finally our company turned into the camp and the Scots stayed on the road. We agreed to a man that we could not march with bagpipes. The camp had accommodation for 50,000 men in rows of tents along asphalt roads. There were many Canadians and the back row was for us. Each tent held ten men. There were wooden buildings for kitchens, warehouses and washrooms. After we had freshened up and had dinner, we had a smoke and tried to chat with the Canadians with our limited English vocabulary.
16 June, 1920: The ship that was to take us home had just left England so we had a few days to fill. The mornings we trained and the afternoons were free. We cleaned up the area around the tents and kept our tents in order. The English Colonel and his retinue of officers paid a snap inspection and were impressed and complimented Major Hásek on the order and discipline of his troops.
In anticipation of a visit from the Governor General of Canada, the men took extra care of their tents and even improved the area around them.
New units from Siberia joined our camp. The 8th and 9th Regiments, the 3rd Artillery Division and the Jan Žižka 1st Cavalry brought our numbers up to more than 8,000 men.
17 June, 1920: The visit of the Governor General, Lord Devonshire was confirmed for the next day so the boys prepared the camp and grounds. Just as they decorated the walls of their tépluškas back in Siberia they landscaped the area around their tents with coloured stones and local materials, competing with each other for the best design. The paths were lined with flowers and painted archways. Battalion insignias were created from coloured stones and sand. Some created images of the Czech lion, Prague Castle and scenes from Bohemia while others paid tribute to legendary heroes, like Jan Hus and Jan Žižka. Some of the inlaid beds expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of pay lamenting “Across Canada with no Money” as they had only seen a five dollar advance for May and June. They worked far in to the night to complete their patterns.
18 June, 1920: We assembled in front of our tents under our banners in our dress uniforms with the regimental band playing. Colonel Váňa took command of the whole troop and we marched to the review field where the British and Czech flags waved from two poles. The Governor General arrived in a beautiful limousine accompanied by his wife, two daughters, and a whole group of officers and dignitaries. With the call to present arms Colonel Váňa led the march past the Viceroy as the band played the Fanfare from the Opera Libuše.
Then Lord Devonshire proceeded to inspect the troops and surprised them with the Czech greeting “Nazdár bratři” which meant hello brothers. He was startled as we all shouted back in unison “Nazdár.”
He then presented medals and military crosses and Major Hásek briskly led a march-past the Viceroy, brandishing his sword.
We thought of the many bloody conflicts in Siberia where he led us bravely as we marched victoriously. We remembered our brothers who rested under Russian soil, a quarter of a battalion sacrificed for the Allied cause and for our independence. Our only regret was that we could not fight for the democracy of Russia but it was impossible as the majority of the Russian people were not ready for democracy and the Allies were exhausted after four years of war.
We returned to our camp and put away our equipment proud of the success of the day. Soon the Governor General joined us accompanied by his family and entire entourage. The guests toured our camp enthusiastically asking about the decorations. Crowds of people, journalists and photographers and important people from Quebec asked us questions but sadly our English was limited so we could not communicate well. They even went to see our bears before departing, happily complimenting us for our hospitality. The boys stayed up late discussing the successful day.
20 June, 1920: Today I was appointed warrant officer for the whole battalion. The newspaper articles brought many visitors from as far away as Montreal and New York as they came to see the Czechoslovaks who had controlled the Trans-Siberian railroad against great odds. Some brought gifts of cigarettes and chocolate for the boys.
21 June, 1920: We had the unpleasant experience of receiving vaccinations against typhoid in the afternoon.
23 June, 1920: We finally got paid for May and June and I received $52. It was a lot of money as the exchange rate in the republic was 50 crowns for one dollar. That night some of the boys were not feeling well so it was best that they did not get paid on arrival.
25 June, 1920: We went for a walk on the other side of the Valcartier River where we climbed a hill and enjoyed a beautiful view but were bothered by bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
On the way back we were curious about the many burrows we found in the ground. Ensign Žižka tried to catch a small animal for a pet but it hunched and sprayed him with a foul smelling liquid and ran into a burrow. Žižka could not get rid of the smell and could not go into his tent till some Canadians advised him to bury his clothes in the dirt and wash them in the morning. (There are no skunks in Europe)
29 June, 1920: We were invited for a tour of Quebec City. About 2,000 members of the 7th regiment boarded two long trains and arrived in the city at ten in the morning. We were invited to a great hall where the Quebec Women’s Association treated us to coffee, pastries, fruit, ice cream and cigarettes. Then we were taken in smaller groups to see the sights and then a dinner at Victoria Park. I visited Mr. Dumont, a local contractor, who showed me some of his building projects when he heard we were construction men as civilians. He offered us work after our army tour was over that would pay us $5 a day to start. This was enticing as we could earn more than 6,000 Czech crowns a month here where we hardly made 1,800 crowns at home. I had not seen my parents for six years and decided to go home.
6 July, 1920: Last night we had services honoring Jan Hus and sang regimental songs. Today we had a large feast and a Sokol Festival. Several hundred of the men showcased their gymnastic skills. After the festival I arranged for the demobilization of the camp as our ship was waiting for us at the dock in Quebec.
8 July, 1920: We moved our belongings from Valcartier to the dock and saw a long white ship named Czaritza waiting for us. This was a former Russian ship that the British had seized due to an outstanding debt.
We loaded the baggage, some by hand and some in a big net lifted by a crane and lowered into the hold. At 10 o’clock we were loaded and went for dinner.
The Czaritza is a beautiful ship with three decks, a dining room for the officers, smoking and reading rooms and spacious and clean cabins for the officers and men.
9 July, 1920: We left in the morning, sailing full steam into the yellowish waves of the St. Lawrence River. The river is so wide we could hardly see the other side. We saw picturesque fishing villages on shore alternated with forests, meadows and fields. We met large overseas ships heading for Quebec as well as local ferries and we passed islands with lighthouses.
When I went out on deck for a smoke after dinner we were already far into the Atlantic with just a flashing beacon on the distant shores of the American continent.
Goodbye Canada. You were friendly to us and I wonder if I will ever see you again in my lifetime?
18 July, 1920: The Czaritza reached Plymouth England
20 July, 1920: The Czaritza docked at Cuxhaven, Germany where we were welcomed by the Czechoslovak Consul in Hamburg, Mr. Hugo Vavrečka. (Author’s note - grandfather of future Czech President Vaclav Havel).
21 July, 1920: We crossed the border by train into Podmokly, Czechoslovakia.
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