The Czech-led naval mutiny during World War One

Austro-Hungarian sailors at Kotor, photo: Public Domain

Despite coming from a landlocked country, Czechs played a major role in the Austro-Hungarian fleet. And during WWI they also took a leading role in the most serious mutiny to hit the fleet towards the close of the conflict.

Austro-Hungarian sailors at Kotor,  photo: Public Domain
Think of navel mutinies during the First World War and it’s probably the revolt of Germany sailors at the end of the conflict, the so-called Kiel mutiny, that will come to mind. The revolt by the German High Seas Fleet in November 1918 sparked the revolution that brought about the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the ill-fated republic.

But there was a predecessor to that mutiny among the so –called Central powers and that involved sailors of the Austro-Hungarian navy at their base at Kotor, or Cattaro, on the Adriatic in what is now Montenegro in February, 1918. And Czech sailors in the imperial navy played a key role in the rising which began on one of the navy’s most modern cruisers, the Saint George.

Just to recap, the Austro-Hungarian navy was a fairly substantial force with around 34,000 personnel by the First World War and based all along the Adriatic coast along mostly what was the former Yugoslavia. Kotera was the southernmost base with battleships leaving it in 1915 to attack the Italian coastal cities after its entry into the war in that year.

In spite of sporadic engagements, the Austro-Hungarian navy was largely undamaged by 1917 and had actually enjoyed some successes against Italian, French, and British opponents. By the way, many of the Austo-Hungarian navy’s big naval guns, including that of the Saint George, were manufactures at Plzeň’s Škoda works.

ʺThe Czech sailors wanted to put this on a more organised and rational basis.ʺ

But there were more fundamental problems that were undermining the whole Austro-Hungarian war effort which were inevitably mirrored in the navy. And that was the shortage of supplies, and especially food that began to bite in 1917 as the Allied naval blockade and shortage of farm labour and poor harvests began to be felt. Output for many basic foodstuffs fell by around a third by 1917 compared with the start of the conflict. And while efforts were made to make sure that soldiers and sailors were given extra rations at the expense of the civil population, the naval supply problems were still becoming acute.

Added, that that there was a new factor that could focus discontent – the Russian Revolution that had broken out in November 1917. The Bolshevik’s promise of an end to the war and power to the workers was a powerful and attractive message after more than three year’s war and no certainty when it might end. And it was a message that resounded among the Austro-Hungarian navy as well.

František Rasch,  photo: Public Domain
And it was in that context that the so-called Kotor mutiny erupted on February 1, 1918, on the cruiser Saint George. The mutiny, fuelled by hunger, the example of the Russian Revolution, and tensions between the nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian empire lasted three days. And many of the ringleaders were Czech with some of the Austro-Hungarian top brass arguing that without the Czech leadership the whole mutiny could have been put down within a day.

One of the Czech ringleaders was František Rasch, a non-commissioned officer in the fleet. Actually, there is some debate about Rasch’s Czech credentials. He was born in Přerov in 1889. The director of the Přerov regional archive, Jiří Lapáček, though takes the view that Rasch’s claims to Czech nationality were not that strong:

ʺPersonally, I think that he spoke German and that his family was German.ʺ

In those days, nationality was not always a totally black and white issue especially in districts where Czechs and German lived in close contact and where both languages would have been commonly used and family members could come from both sides of the main linguistic divide. Jiří Lapáček again:

ʺIt’s true that his mother, Kateřina Petříková was born in Kojetín, but his father came from Stěbořice u Opavy, a district which was German.ʺ

ʺWithout the Czechs the mutiny would have fallen apart on the very first day.ʺ

Rasch himself lived in Přerov for several years before moving to Opava, in the far east of the country, where he went to school. And it was from there that he left for the naval school in what is now the Croatian coastal town of Sibenik, just north of Split. That schooling would have lasted two years and would have been followed by four years of basic military service. That brings us to 1913 and the eve of the First World War that was soon to be set alight in not too distant Sarajevo.

The Austro-Hungarian navy, along with most of the European navies, had expanded greatly at the start of the 20th century. And, perhaps surprisingly Czechs found a ready place in it. It’s estimated that Czechs made up at least 10 percent of the overall navy personnel. One of the reasons was that they often had the technical skills required on board. In the new and even more complex and hazardous branches of submarine warfare, its estimate that the Czech proportion in the fleet was even higher and could have amounted to around a third of the total.

Saint Georg,  photo: Public Domain
The 1917 mutiny was signalled by raising the red flag on the Saint Georg. One officer who resisted was shot in the head. Some equipment was broken or thrown overboard. That was the fact for one piece of equipment that was the focus of particular resentment: a gymnastic horse used for compulsory exercise of crew even though they were weakened by their poor diet.

Quickly others rallied to the protest against their conditions and the war itself – around 40 ships and around 4,000 are believed to have taken part. One of the main demands was peace negotiations and an end to the war. But there were other requests such as the more prosaic one that officers did not get special rations but shared the same food with the rest of the crew. That stemmed from a widespread resentment from crew that they received less and worse rations during the general shortage.

Rasch was not the only Czech at the head of the mutiny. Jindřich Marek of the Military History Institute in Prague recounts how a key role was also played by Rudolf Kreibich:

ʺHe came from Prague and was a musician in the Saint George’s band. He was one of the spiritual leaders and organisers of the sailors. Initially there were some hotheads, such as Italians from Istria or Croatians. And in the first stage the mutiny turned into a rampage of destruction. But the Czech sailors wanted to put this on a more organised and rational basis.ʺ

Austro-Hungarian fleet,  photo: Library of Congress,  Public Domain
The key role of the Czechs at the centre of the mutiny was later recognised when control was wrested back by commanding officers. Jindřich Marek again:

ʺProof of that was when the uprising was put down after three days, admiral Alexander Hansa and other officers of the Austro-Hungarian navy said that without the Czechs the mutiny would have fallen apart on the very first day.ʺ

But the mutiny failed to spread further as its supporters had hoped. One problem was that telegraphists refused to pass on messages to the rest of the fleet telling them the mutiny had erupted and encouraging them to join. And during a period of intense stand- off, there was danger that loyal ships would open fire with guns or torpedoes at the ships flying the red flag. Order had already been restored on the mainland.

And the mutiny was effectively crushed when loyal naval forces from the third fleet turned up to restore order. Some of the mutineers also had second thoughts and were tempted by earlier promises that they would be amnestied if they gave themselves up or changed sides. Thousands of mutineers were forced to give up after skirmishes and artillery fire. Many of the ringleaders of the mutiny were rounded up although some managed to escape to Italy. František Rasch together with three others, reportedly Croats, were executed on February 11.

Memorial to František Rasch in Přerov,  photo: Palickap,  CC BY-SA 4.0
They were buried in the nearby cemetery in the suburbs of Kotor. The grave can be seen to this day with a stone inscription bearing the names of the four. Rasch’s name is inscribed in the Czech rather than German way.

Since the 1950’s a memorial to František Rasch also stands in his birthplace, Přerov. It carries the message that he fought and died for an ideal and that ideal was peace. Rasch’s name also figures on the database of military graves at the Czech Ministry of Defence together with a brief description of who he was and what he did.