The amazing true story of the Czechoslovak Legion’s adventure in World War One – under the leadership of Professor Thomas G. Masaryk, 70,000 Czech and Slovak POW’s switch sides – fight for the Allies, capture the Trans-Siberian RR – and win a new nation. NOTE: Most of these photos haven’t been seen for 75 years – and the Russians destroyed the negatives.
Because of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk a large force of Czech and Slovak soldiers – prisoners of war and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army – became stranded on Soviet soil. As nationalists determined to fight for their country’s independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they had sided with the Russians in the war. But now they wanted to continue their struggle as part of the Czech army fighting in France. Rather than run the risk of crossing enemy lines, they decided to travel eastwards, right around the world, intending to reach Europe via Vladivostok and the United States. On 26 March an agreement was reached with the Soviet authorities at Penza, whereby the 35,000 soldiers of the Czech Legion were allowed to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway as ‘free citizens’ with a specified number of weapons for self-defence.
By mid-May, they had got as far as Cheliabinsk in the Urals when they became involved in fighting with the local Soviets and their Red Guards, who had tried to confiscate their guns. Deciding to fight their way through the free-for-all of Soviet Siberia, the Legion broke up into groups and captured one town after another from the poorly armed and disciplined Red Guards, who ran away in panic at the first sight of the well-organized Czechs. On 8 June, a force of 8,000 Czechs took the Volga town of Samara, a stronghold of the Right SRs, whose leaders had fled there after the closure of the Constituent Assembly and formed a government, the Komuch (Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly), which the Czechs now installed in power. The Right SRs had promised that they would secure French and British help to overthrow the Bolsheviks and get Russia to rejoin the war against Germany and Austria. Thus began a new phase of the Civil War – organized on military lines by Red and White armies – in which fourteen Allied powers would ultimately become involved.
Fighting had already started on the Don River, in south Russia, where Kornilov and his White Guards, having fled the Bykhov Monastery, had formed a Volunteer Army of 4,000 men, mostly officers, who briefly captured Rostov from the Reds before retreating south across the ice-bound steppe to the Kuban in February. Kornilov was killed in an attack on Ekaterinodar on 13 April. Taking over the command, General Denikin led the Whites back to the Don, where they found the Cossack farmers in revolt against the Bolsheviks, who were seizing food at gunpoint and wreaking havoc in the Cossack settlements. By June, 40,000 Cossacks had joined General Krasnov’s Don Army. With the Whites they were in a strong position to strike north towards the Volga and link up with the Czechs to attack Moscow.
The ease of the Czech victories made it clear to Trotsky, now Commissar of War, that the Red Army had to be reformed on the model of the tsarist conscript army, with regular units replacing the Red Guards, professional officers and a centralized hierarchy of command. There was a lot of opposition to these policies among the Party’s rank and file. Whereas the Red Guards were seen as an army of the working class, mass conscription was bound to build an army dominated by the peasantry, a hostile social force in the view of the Bolsheviks. The rank and file were particularly opposed to Trotsky’s conscription of ex-tsarist officers (75,000 would be recruited by the Bolsheviks in the Civil War). They saw it as a return to the old military order and as a hindrance to their own promotion as ‘Red officers’. The so-called Military Opposition crystallized around this lower-class mistrust and resentment of the professional officers and other ‘bourgeois specialists’. But Trotsky ridiculed his critics’ arguments: revolutionary zeal was no substitute for military expertise.
Mass conscription was introduced in June. Factory workers and Party activists were the first to be called up. Without a military infrastructure in the countryside, mobilizing peasants turned out to be far more difficult than expected. Of the 275,000 peasant recruits anticipated from the first call-up, only 40,000 actually appeared. Peasants did not want to leave their villages at harvest time. There were peasant uprisings against conscriptions and mass desertions from the Red Army.
The Czech Legion fell apart after the capture of Samara. It had no reason to continue fighting after the ending of the First World War in November 1918. Without an effective force to resist the Red Army, it was only a matter of time before the Komuch lost its hold on the Volga region. The SRs fled to Omsk, where their brief Directory government was overthrown by the Rightist officers of the Siberian army who invited Admiral Kolchak to become the Supreme Leader of the anti-Bolshevik movement. Kolchak received the backing of the British, the French and the Americans, who remained committed to removing the Bolsheviks from power on political grounds, even though, with the world war now over, there were no longer any military reasons for the Allied intervention in Russia.
Kolchak’s White army of 100,000 men advanced to the Volga, where the Bolsheviks were struggling to cope with a large peasant uprising behind their lines in the spring of 1919. In a desperate counter-offensive the Reds pushed Kolchak’s forces back to Ufa by mid-June, after which the cities of the Urals and beyond were taken by the Reds in quick succession as the Whites lost cohesion and retreated through Siberia. Finally captured in Irkutsk, Kolchak was executed by the Bolsheviks in February 1920.
Meanwhile, at the height of the Kolchak offensive, Denikin’s forces struck into the Donbas coal region and south-east Ukraine, where the Cossacks were in rebellion against a Red campaign of mass terror to clear them off the land (‘decossackization’). With military support from the British and the French, now committed to the anti-Bolshevik campaign on explicitly political grounds, the Whites advanced easily into Ukraine. The Reds were suffering from a crisis of supplies and lost more than 1 million deserters on the Southern Front between March and October. The rear was engulfed in peasant uprisings, as the Reds resorted to the requisitioning of horses and supplies, the conscription of reinforcements and the repression of villages suspected of hiding deserters. In the south-east corner of Ukraine the Reds were heavily reliant on Nestor Makhno’s peasant partisans, who fought under the black flag of the Anarchists but were no match for the better-supplied and better-disciplined White troops.
On 3 July, Denikin issued his Moscow Directive, the order for a general attack on the Soviet capital. It was an all-or-nothing gamble, counting on the speed of the White cavalry to exploit the temporary weakness of the Reds, but at the risk of leaving the White rear unprotected in the form of trained reserves, sound administration and lines of supply.
The Whites pushed north and took Orel, only 250 miles from Moscow, on 14 October. But Denikin’s forces had overstretched themselves. In the rear they had left themselves without enough troops to defend their bases against Makhno’s Anarchist partisans and Ukrainian nationalists, and at the height of the Moscow offensive they were forced to withdraw troops to deal with them. Without regular supplies, the troops broke down into looting peasant farms. But the Whites’ main problem was the peasants’ fear of them as an avenging army of the landowners. The peasants were afraid that a White victory would reverse the revolution on the land. Denikin’s officers were mostly squires’ sons. On the land question the Whites had made it clear that they would not go beyond the Kadet programme, under which the gentry’s surplus land would be sold off to the peasants at a future date. Under these proposals the peasants would have to give back three quarters of the land they had taken from the gentry during the revolution.
As the Whites advanced towards Moscow, the peasants rallied behind the Red Flag. Between June and September a quarter of a million deserters returned to the Red Army from the two military districts of Orel and Moscow alone. These were regions where the local peasantry had gained substantial amounts of land during 1917. However much the peasants might have detested the Bolshevik regime, with its violent requisitionings and commissars, they would side with the Reds against the Whites to defend their revolution on the land.
With 200,000 troops the Reds launched a counter-offensive, forcing the Whites, who had half as many men, to retreat south, losing discipline as they did so. The remnants of Denikin’s army ended up in Novorossisk, the main Allied port on the Black Sea, from which 50,000 troops were hurriedly evacuated to the Crimea in March 1920. There were desperate scenes as soldiers and civilians struggled to get on board the Allied ships. Priority was given to the troops, but not all of these could be rescued and 60,000 soldiers were left at the mercy of the Bolsheviks (most of them were later shot or sent to labour camps). For Denikin’s critics, the botched evacuation was the final straw. A generals’ revolt forced his resignation in favour of Baron Wrangel, a critic of the Moscow Directive, who led one last stand against the Bolsheviks in the Crimea during 1920. But this was only to delay for a few months the inevitable defeat of the Whites.
What were the reasons for their failure? The White émigré communities in Constantinople, Paris and Berlin would agonize for years over this question.
Historians sympathetic to their cause have often stressed the ‘objective factors’ that stacked the odds against them. The Reds had an overwhelming superiority of numbers. They controlled the vast terrain of central Russia with its prestigious capitals, most of the country’s industry, if not fuel, and the core of its railway network, which enabled them to shift their forces from one front to another. The Whites, by contrast, were divided between several different fronts, which made it difficult to coordinate their operations, and they had to rely on the Allies for much of their supplies. All these factors played a part. But at the root of their defeat was a failure of politics. The Whites proved unable and unwilling to frame policies capable of winning mass support. They had no propaganda to compare with the Bolsheviks’, no political symbols of their own to challenge the Red Flag or the Red Star. They were divided politically. Any movement that included right-wing monarchists and socialist republicans would have problems reaching political agreement. But it was practically impossible for the Whites to agree on policies. They did not even try. Their sole idea was to put the clock back to before October 1917. They failed to adapt to the new revolutionary situation. Their refusal to accept the national independence movements was disastrous. It lost them the potentially invaluable support of the Poles and Ukrainians and complicated their relations with the Cossacks, who wanted more autonomy from Russia than the White leaders were prepared to give. But the main cause of their undoing was their failure to accept the peasant revolution on the land.