Book highlights exploits of Czechs and Slovaks in WWI British army

Czech volunteers in British uniforms in France, photo: archive of Military History Institute of Prague

One rather overlooked corner of history has been the story of Czechs and Slovaks serving with the British army in World War One. In contrast, the details of Czechs and Slovaks serving with the French army and in Russia have been covered quite thoroughly.

Tomáš Jakl,  photo: Kristýna Maková
One of the reasons was perhaps the more tenuous cultural and linguistic links with Britain. Another was the relatively small Czech and Slovak community in Britain. And a contributing factor might also have been the rather complicated structure of the British army itself, initially based on local regiments which have been merged and transformed over time.

Czech historian Tomáš Jakl of the Military History Institute of Prague has sought to remedy that lack of information with a new book which translates as “Heroes from London.” It traces the immediate demonstrations of Czech and Slovaks on the outbreak of the war to oppose the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their offer to join the British army. And its publication comes on the centenary of the Czechs and Slovaks finally being allowed to sign up to fight alongside the British.

So what did the Czech and Slovak community in August, 1914 look like, Tomáš Jakl:

“There were around 1,000 Czechs and Slovaks living in London at the start of the First World War. They were citizens of the Austrian Empire. As such they could be subject to provisions against enemy citizens and threatened with internment. It was František Kopecky and Jan Sykoravec, who were the spiritual leaders of the Czech expat community, thanks to the help of the British journalist Wickham Steed who were able to prevent internment for those who had pro-Allied views.“

Most of the community was apparently made up of single men, apparently attracted by the work opportunities in the capital of the British Empire. Many of them were waiters but they also included businessmen and cultural personalities.

“The community had been based on economic emigration. They were mostly waiters, about 222 waiters. Then there were tailors, about 208, and then glass workers, engravers, and artists such as Adolf Lotter, Vladimír Ambros. Scientists such as Josef Baudiš and the philologist who specialized in Celtic lanaguages and who during the 1930’s was part of the committee of the Philology Society along with JRR Tolkein. There was the painter František Kopecky or the hotel magnate Jan Skora.”

Photo: archive of Military History Institute of Prague
One hundred and six Czechs and Slovaks immediately came forward to volunteer for the British army. But the offers was met with a polite refusal. At the outbreak of war the British army was a small professional force whose heavy losses had not yet opened the door to mass recruitment. And while Czechs and Slovaks might have avoided the fate of enemy aliens – internment – they were still regarded with some suspicion by the authorities. In reaction, some Czechs and Slovaks went to join the special unit, Nazdar, of the Foreign Legion that was formed in France. Tomáš Jakl again:

“The British army at the start of the First World War was a professional army. The British ministry of war had its hands full building up a new army, that is the 100,000 strong new Kitchener army of made up of volunteers. The fact that these Czechs and Slovaks were technically speaking foreign enemy aliens probably contributed to the reluctance to agree to their request. Over time and thanks to the actions of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk who was present in London from 1915 as a university professor helped to overcome, I would not say opposition, but helped to win the support of the ministry of war to the recruitment of Czechs and Slovaks to the British army.”

Unlike the situation in France and later in Russia, Czechs and Slovaks once they were allowed to join the British army in 1916 did not form a special unit but were dispersed across the regiments they personally chose to sign up for. The future president of Czechoslovakia was partly responsible for that dispersion:

“It was the wish of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk that the Czech and Slovak soldiers were spread out as wide as possible in the British army. In that way thanks to the individual example they could spread consciousness about the existence of Czechs and Slovaks so that this could be the most effective propaganda in favour of the Czech and Slovak aims.”

As a result of that presence across the dozens of British regiments, Czech and Slovaks found themselves fighting on many different fronts of the expanded war.

Czech volunteers in British uniforms in France,  photo: archive of Military History Institute of Prague
“It’s possible to say that the Czech and Slovak volunteers fought on all fronts of the British Empire at that time. It was mainly on the Western Front, for example at Ypres, and at other sites in Belgium and in France. Many also fought on the front lines against Turkey such as in Palestine and Mesopotamia. Some took part also in the fighting against the Soviets in Murmansk and Archangel and in many other locations.”

A special place in the book is reserved for those who fell in battle or were written off as missing. These accounts largely draw on the regimental notes taken at the time.

“The book recounts the history of 16 men who died in the service of the British army. It’s interesting to note that of the 44 who left to join the Foreign Legion in 1914, 17 were killed. Of the around 350 who served in the British army from 1916 and 1917, 15 were killed. It’s a smaller total due to the fact that they were not so long at the front compared to the first group. They include for example private Josef Stehno who was born in Žižkov, Prague, and who on May 1, 1915, joined the Bedfordshire Regiment and in July 1917 went to the front to France. He fought at Messines and Ypres and it was at Ypres that he fell on December 20, 1917, during an attack by the seventh battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment.”

Unlike their fellow British soldiers, Czechs and Slovaks faced a special risk if they fell into the hands of the enemy. As a result of their original citizenship they could be regarded as traitors and shot.

“If they fell into the hands of the enemy and it was found out that they were citizens of Austria-Hungary then they could be executed. There are known cases of that happening in Italy where members of the Czechoslovak Legion in the Italian army were executed in public. The cases are well documented. There is one known case here where one person was taken prisoner at the end of the war. He was not though apparently uncovered as a subject of Austria-Hungary and was taken to be British. He was able to survive and come back but I don’t know the precise circumstances of what happened.”

The historical detective work to put together this almost 400 page book has been difficult and painstaking. One of the reasons was that as a result of historical events over the following 50 years after World War One, the archives and records have been spread across much of Europe. Tomáš Jakl takes up the story:

Repro photo of the book by Military History Institute of Prague
“It’s interesting that the sources about the Czech and Slovak community in London and spread out between Moscow, Prague, and London. The Gestapo during World War Two took some of the archives about Czechs and Slovaks during the First World War according to their needs. The Red Army then took some of the archives back to Moscow as part of the booty and the reports of the Czechoslovak committee in London are still there to this day. From this perspective the archive sources are exceptional. Most of the information for this book though is mainly based on the detailed records of František Kopecky and other members of the Czech committee and the documents which are lodged today with the Military Historical Archive in Prague. In the cases of the soldiers who died during service in the British army, the information is supplemented by the war diaries of the battalions with whom and when they died and which are today stored at the National Archive at Kew, London.”

One line of research still being pursued is what happened to the Czechs and Slovaks who survived the war. Did they stay in Britain or seek to return home to the newly created and independent Czechoslovakia?

“I have just come back from the naturalization archives in London and the studies are continuing because this is the basic manual for the question. A certain number of the Czechs and Slovak volunteers living in London asked for British citizenship. Their descendants probably live their to today so the book could very well serve as a source for geneologists as well.”