The First World War may have been sparked by the bullets of a single assassin but the tinder the spark fell upon was the newly awakened forces of nationalism. Those forces spread cracks through the old empires, which had held together menageries of ethnicities for centuries through various arrangements of power-sharing and brute force. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was perhaps the weakest of those empires, an amalgam strapped together out of Germans, Austrians, and a dozen varieties of Slavs. It had no true center of power, no hegemonic nationality imposing the structure of empire on any others. And so when nationalism hit the nations of Austria-Hungary like an adrenaline shot, there was no center of gravity to keep the centripetal forces under control. The Czechs and Slovaks were two such nations, western Slavs forever linked by the Czechoslovakian state.
When the smoke cleared after the endless treaties fell like successive dominoes and then lit on fire, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires were arrayed against each other. Czech and Slovak citizens of Russia petitioned their government to be allowed to form an independent fighting force. This force eventually numbered over 60,000 soldiers, of whom some four thousand died on the Eastern Front in combat against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their independence and structure was negotiated by the future president of independent Czechoslovakia, who visited Russia specifically in order to raise this army and place it under the control of the future government of Czechoslovakia.
But this happy state of affairs did not survive the Russian Revolution of 1917. The new Soviet government quickly made peace with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, paying a staggering price in sacrificed territory for that piece of paper. This left the Czechoslovakian Legion stranded in a country no longer interested in fighting their war, but descending into its own Civil War. Although at first the new Bolshevik government agreed to arrange for the Legion to be transported to France in order to continue its fight from there, it was unable to fulfill any obligations, due in large part to the bitter Russian Civil War.
The Bolsheviks began to disarm the Legion and break it up into smaller and smaller units under the pretext of transporting them by train to the Pacific ports at Vladivostok. Finally, the Legion reached its breaking point in the summer of 1918 and openly revolted, turning their weapons against the Red Army. The main body of the Legion seized the entire city of Chelyabinsk, but was faced with a dilemma. Stranded a thousand miles from their homeland, even if they could fight their way clear of Russia, the Legion would still be faced with the unbeaten armies of the Germans and Austrians. So with only the impossible left as an option, the Legion turned East, to fight their way across the entirety of Asia, to seize Vladivostok themselves and sail for home.
The first months were spent fighting the Red Army in order to re-unify the scattered elements of the Legion, combat that took place often in support of the opposition White Army. But by July of 1918, the Legion had consolidated its forces and faced a Bolshevik Army of some three million men. In communication with Western Allies, who had landed intervention forces in Russian ports, the Legion began to fight its way eastwards, moving themselves on armored trains along the trans-Siberian railway.
The Allies landed their own forces in Vladivostok in support of the Legion, including some 70,000 Japanese troops. It’s an unbelievable scene. Czechs, Slovaks, Japanese, British, French, Americans, and anti-Bolshevik Russians fighting a small war against communist forces on the Pacific coast of Russia, even as the First World War ended.
The matter was further complicated by the Legion managing to seize a freight train full of Imperial Russian gold bullion in their fight across Siberia. For two years the Legion held Vladivostok, even after Czechoslovakia became an independent country. And in a scene reminiscent of Kelly’s Heroes, the Legion made a deal with the Bolsheviks. They’d give back the gold, and the Russians would allow the Legion to be evacuated out through Vladivostok’s port. By this point, the Legion was legendary and its soldiers were greeted as heroes returning to Czechoslovakia, a land many of these Russian-born Czechs and Slovaks had never seen in their lives.
The story of the Czechoslovakian Legion is that precise sort of tale that simply would be not credible if told as fiction. Told in film, it’s a fine line between the absolute brutality of the experience and the unavoidable meta-humor of the situation. It would be a perfect role for someone like George Clooney, who has proven that ability to parlay out humor without casting any disrespect on the serious elements of his stories.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.