This is a rare first edition of poetry, written by a member of Czechoslovak Legion, Rudolf Medek, in Irkutsk, Russia.
Lieutenant colonel Rudolf Medek (1890-1940) started his military career during WWI in the Czechoslovak Legion, where he published his first famous works. Upon his return to Prague, Medek became a recognized author. After the German invasion on Czechoslovakia, his works were on the list of banned authors.
The Extraordinary Adventures of the Czechoslovak Legion
The story of the Czechoslovak Legion is both more impressive and stranger than fiction; one could be forgiven for initially questioning whether it actually transpired.
In 1914, during the early days of World War I, a small group of ethnic Czechs and Slovaks residing in the Russian Empire (in today’s Ukraine) proposed that the Tsar establish a special armed force comprised of their number to fight for Russia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The quid pro quo would be that, following an Entente victory in the war, Russia would support Czechoslovak independence from Austria-Hungary.
The “Czech Companions” (Česká družina) was formed, being a single battalion of troops whose members where seconded to fight on the Eastern Front, attached to various Russian divisions. While a small and dispersed force, Russian generals were impressed with the Družina members’ zeal and martial skills. However, for some time, the Czechoslovak endeavour remained a marginal force.
In September 1915, the Družina received additional legitimacy, as it came to report to the newly-formed Czechoslovak National Council, an exile government- in-waiting led by the distinguished Moravian intellectual, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, subsequently the founding President of Czechoslovakia.
In 1916, the Družina’s ranks were reformed and augmented, and the force was renamed the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade (Československá střelecká brigáda). Importantly, the Czechoslovaks could fight as a united, coherent unit for the first time. However, the Brigade’s growth was limited, as it was still prevented from freely recruiting new members from Russian POW camps. The Tsar’s men feared the emergence of a large army of foreigners with questionable loyalty to Russia, so sought to limit the Brigade to a manageable size.
The overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in the February (March, New Style) 1917 Revolution, and the establishment of the Russian Provisional Government, saw improvements in the Czechoslovaks’ prospects. The Brigade distinguished itself by overrunning the Austro-Hungarian lines at the Battle of Zborov (July 1-2, 1917).
The Provisional Government was impressed with the Czechoslovaks’ military capabilities and in desperate need of manpower. In a transformative move, they allowed them to form themselves into a semi-autonomous army, the Czechoslovak Legion (Československá legie). Critically, the Legion was permitted to exponentially grow its ranks by freely recruiting thousands of new members from the Czechs and Slovaks held in Russian POW camps. Moreover, the Legion was supported by a small, but organizationally separate, corps of Yugoslavs (please see No. 1 above).
In November 1917, the Bolsheviks assumed control of the Russian government, presenting major problems for the Legion. The new regime sought to quickly make peace with the Central Powers, eventually singing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918), so ending the war on the Eastern Front. Worryingly, this geographically blocked the Legionnaires from travelling westwards to engage the Central Powers (and to return towards home), and, for a time, imperilled the prospect of Czechoslovak independence. Moreover, relations between the Legion and the Bolsheviks promised to be at best complicated, as most the Czechoslovaks were not naturally sympathetic to Communism, and the two parties did not trust each other.
The Legion’s new plan was for them to vacate Russia by travelling eastwards 6,000 miles (9,700 km) across the country to Vladivostok, on the Pacific, and then sailing to France, to re-join the Entente war effort against the Central Powers, so securing Czechoslovak independence. Masaryk, who was personally present in Russia, employed his great diplomatic skills to securing an, albeit uneasy, agreement with the Bolsheviks to this effect.
By early 1918, the Legion’s ranks had swelled to over 40,000 fighters, and the logistical challenges of transporting the force across Eurasia by the Trans-Siberian Railway were hindered by a severe lack of rolling stock. It was at this point that the German army mounted a lightning strike against the main bulk of the Legion, who were encamped in the Ukraine. However, the Legion secured its integrity by defeating the Germans at the Battle of Bakhmach (March 5-13, 1918).
The Legion was now locked a race against time. The main bulk of the force moved to Penza, in Bolshevik-controlled Russia, in preparation to gradually, in organized parties, to take the Trans-Siberian Railway eastwards. However, relations between the Czechoslovaks and the Bolsheviks were rapidly deteriorating. The Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, (rightly) feared that that the Legionnaires might align themselves with the White Russian forces who still controlled large parts of Siberia. On March 25, 1918, the Legion was compelled to agree to surrender most of their weapons to the Red Army in exchange for the Bolsheviks permitting them free passage eastwards.
By May 1918, the Legionnaires were strung out at various points all among the Trans-Siberian Railway, their progress severely hindered by a lack of rolling stock. The challenge was made even greater as the Legion’s ranks continued to grow, as thousands more Czechoslovaks were liberated from Russian camps. Minor skirmishes
broke out between Legionnaires and Soviet-allied entities, and on May 15, 1918, Leon Trotsky ordered the arrest and complete disarmament of the Czechoslovak Legion. This instigated what became known as the ‘Revolt of the Legion’, whereby the Czechoslovaks came into open conflict with the Bolsheviks, formally aligning themselves with the White forces in the Russian Civil War. With most of their number were trapped deep inside Siberia, thousands of kilometres from Vladivostok, the Czechoslovaks would endure an unbelievable odyssey before being able to return home.
By June 1918, the Legion was fighting a low-grade war against the Red Army along the world’s longest battle front, following the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Penza to Krasnoyarsk. Most of the time, the Legion won these altercations, and, by the end of the month, its front guard had seized Vladivostok, pledging its allegiance to the Entente side in the still ongoing World War I.
By mid-July 1918, the Legion had taken control of the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way from Samara to Irkutsk and, by September, controlled virtually all off the major cities of Siberia, from Yekaterinburg to Vladivostok. In August, the Legion assisted the White Russians in capturing the Imperial Gold Reserves in Kazan. This was all done with a force that never numbered more than 61,000 total troops. This period marked the apogee of the Legion’s power, and it is, even in retrospect, utterly shocking that an improvised army of Czechoslovaks could, albeit briefly, control such a massive chunk of Asia!
In August 1918, the Entente powers, with Czechoslovak support, mounted the Siberian Intervention (August 1918 – July 1920), assuming control of Vladivostok, to aid the White Russians and to facilitate the departure of the Legionaries.
Meanwhile, While Russian forces, in alliance with the Legion, had set up national entities behind Czechoslovak lines. The most notable was the Provisional Siberian Government, based in Omsk, which was set up in January 1918. Subsequently, the various White factions unified to form the Provisional AllRussian Government (PA-RG) under the dictatorship of Admiral Alexander Kolchak.
The most curious aspect of the Legion’s adventures was its commandeering, in late 1918, of the legendary Russian armoured train, the Lenin (formerly the Orlik), which they renamed the Zaamurets, upon which they fought their way for 18 months across Siberia.
The Entente powers were hugely impressed with the efforts of the Czechoslovak Legion, and as AustriaHungary collapsed in the fall of 1918, this played a major role in the Entente acceptance of the Czechoslovak declaration of independence (October 28, 1918). With this, the ultimate objective of the Legion had been accomplished. This both made the Legionnaires even more eager to return home, while improving their morale, as they were still deep in Siberia – they now had their own home to return to.
Meanwhile, the Red Army, having recovered from its teething pains, was gaining the upper hand against the White Russian forces, pushing them further and further eastwards. Through the year 1919, the progress of the Legion’s troops to Vladivostok proved frustratingly slow, due to a lack of rolling stock and Soviet attacks.
By the fall of 1919, Kolchak’s Whites were being throttled by the Reds, with Omsk falling in November 14. Kolchak himself, along with the train carrying the gold reserves, became bogged down at Nizhneudinsk. In February 1920, the Czechoslovaks abandoned the doomed Kolchak and the White cause, signing an agreement with the Red Army, by which they would be guaranteed safe passage to Vladivostok, in exchange for quitting the conflict. The Red Amy duly executed Kolchak and took possession of the gold reserves, on its way to conquering all of Russia.
The Czechoslovaks streamed through Vladivostok, taking passage to Europe on any ship they could find. While many vessels were especially commandeered and ordered to the port for this purpose, it was not until September 1920, that the last of their number had left Russia. In total, 67,739 people left Vladivostok as part of the Czechoslovak party, of which 56,455 were Legion soldiers.
Upon their return to the newly independent Czechoslovakia, the Legionnaires heroic epic formed part of the foundation of the nation’s identity. For generations, Czechs and Slovaks were inspired by the Legion’s adventures, which proved that even a small nation could achieve world-class greatness under the right circumstances.
The Printing of the Czechoslovak Legion.
The printed word was highly valued by the Czechoslovak Legion. During such an odyssey, custom made prints were necessary to inform and entertain the thousands of troops in their native languages. Throughout their adventures in Russia, the Družina and the Czechoslovak Legion produced a wide variety of published works, although almost of these were of an ephemeral nature and are today extremely rare. The prints they produced in Russia can be divided into two main categories: first, being broadsides and pamphlets that were hastily mimeographed by the armed forces on the move, often in active war zones (and even aboard trains!); second, were more elaborately produced works, professionally published in the larger towns well behind Legion-White Russian lines (such as the present concert programme issued in Omsk). Beyond the titles produced in Russia, the Legionnaires also printed works aboard ships en route from Vladivostok to Europe. These issues often consisted of newspapers and broadsides, of varying print quality.
Most of the prints made by the Czechoslovak Legion were ephemeral in nature and are today very rare. Worldcat list seven institutional examples of this pamphlet worldwide (University of Oxford, CL Technical Services – Harvard College Library, Yale University Library, University of Michigan, Ohio State University Libraries and University of Chicago Library, The British Library).