Enlisting in the Legions

In the Czech Legion, an excerpt from the journal published by Josef Jiří Švec (1883-1918), in 1914 a physical education teacher in Kiev and one of the first volunteers to join the Czechoslovak legions in Russia. Promoted to Colonel on 31 August 1918, he committed suicide on 25 October, three days before Czech independence.

In the same period, we learned about the existence of the Česká Družina (Czech Companions) and decided immediately to volunteer. First myself, Bejček and Válek. The sons of N. Bavaria - Tolar and Hamata – joined us later. As I did not know what the objective of the Družina was, or what actions it would have taken, I made preparations should I die. I wrote the obligatory letters to my parents and Maki, in which I set out my will and testament in the event of my death. [...].  While I was writing to Maki I felt a great bitterness. Because I was so sad at the thought that we would never see each other again, I only wrote a few words. Before leaving for Kiev, I went to see all my relatives. Everyone at the vocational school approved of my decision, they gave me 75 roubles to buy the uniform and equipment and promised to accompany me to the station. Only Evgenie Mikhailovna, the head teacher’s wife, barred my way saying that there were already many leaving and that it would be a pity to lose me, and after all, I would have been more useful there than on the battlefield where gunfire often cut short a promising future. Nevertheless, my answer was a categorical no: if we all decided to stay at home, we would lose. And now that precisely the right time has come - to help not only our country but also the Slavs – we, the Sokol, are the first to prepare for action, not only in terms of ideas, symbols, but also by actively striving to accomplish our mission. "

The prisoners camp of Termini Imerese; excerpts from discussions surrounding the first deployment of the Legions in Italy, in the summer of 1917. Jan Ruml (1885-?), a schoolteacher and lieutenant in the Czechoslovak Legions

The eleven [volunteers] were accepted reluctantly. At that time, many of us did not know why. [...]

Fierce debates started, especially at night in little groups, the different factions became crystallised. We couldn’t think of anything else, talk of anything but the freedom of our country. [...] Although we approved of foreign military action and admired those unknown soldiers, we were not aware of our duty. We had to gradually come to terms with it. It was only after a great deal of discussion that some started to realise that the whole matter was futile if it did not lead us on to do our deployment in the army. [...]

And so the first combat started, a hard struggle, in which each one had to win over himself. In war, we had come to understand the value of life while now, in the safety of imprisonment, was it necessary to put ourselves in danger again? There was a great risk of being reported in Austria. And then, what would become of our families? Our parents? And if we were captured, the only thing that awaited us was a humiliating death. And what would happen if we were wounded in combat? And where should we go if Austria were to win the war, despite everything? Moreover, we were obsessed by doubts about whether the action was of any use. [...]

The impassioned debates gave way to small-scale gatherings amongst friends. But even these became rare. [...] At that moment, they all retreated into silence to sort out for themselves. Every argument against [committing ourselves] reinforced our egoism. “Our action is just but I can’t commit myself, I’ve got a family, a house. What would my elderly parents do if I didn’t go back to them! I’m old, I’m not a good soldier! My father is an Imperial official.” But the voice of our conscience objected, defending our moral duty. In the end, a compromise was found: to represent us honourably abroad, the army needed only the best, the bravest soldiers. “Are you one of these? You can help our cause in a different way! You could join the army but not the combat units”. And our conscience in turn replied by asking a clear-cut question: “Do you want to be an honest Czech or a traitor, who everyone may spit on? There’s no other alternative!”

The result was as follows: the volunteers from the other prison camps mentioned above reiterated the same proposal and there were many of us who enlisted on 4 September 1917.

Crossing Canada, 6 to 12 June 1920. The Valcartier Military Camp 12 June to 8 July 1920, Rudolf Hašek, Commander of the Czechoslovak Legions in Russia.

On 6 June at 11 pm the first train left the station with the entire assault battalion except for the 1st company. The train consisted of 11 connected carriages. A large carriage with the kitchen and refectory was attached immediately behind the locomotive; we ate there. Our train carried 627 men comfortably in its 11 carriages.

At around 2 pm we stopped at a small station, about 16 km from Quebec City. Here we were received by a British Colonel, accompanied by a guard of honour and the military band. [...] The British officers and soldiers watched on and gave our battalion and Commander Hásek the military salute. [...]

We had learned that our stay in America was to be extended. The ships that were supposed to take us to Europe had not even left the British harbours. We wouldn’t have made it to Prague for the great Sokol gathering.

Our relations with the British soldiers had become extremely friendly. It was really funny to see our boys trying to communicate in a language they didn’t know very well. On the second day we organised a sporting event. The battalion team challenged the British team on the big football pitch. The score was 3:3.

During this hot summer, the training sessions scheduled by the battalion commander were reduced to a minimum and we spent most of our time bathing in the Valcartier River. The alarm sounded at 5 in the morning and the lights went out at 10 pm sharp. Our peaceful life was interrupted only by the announcement that Lord Devonshire, the Governor General of Canada, was to come and visit us on 18 June.

Bibliography:

Josef Jiří ŠVEC, Deník plukovníka Švece, Praha, Pamítník odboje, 1921.

Jan RUML, Zajatecký tábor v Termeni Imerese. Vzpomínky, dojmy, po[střehy], manuscrit, archive : Vojenský historický archiv (Prague, République tchèque), Sbírka historických prací, carton 49.

Jindřich VEJNAR, Úderný prapor, Praha, Památník odvobození, 1930.