Czechoslovak legionary’s diary depicts First World War through unique illustrations

Self-Portrait of František Krejčí, photo: archive of Post Bellum

A unique diary belonging to a Czechoslovak legionary named František Krejčí was recently discovered and published by his descendants. Filled with accomplished images, drawn by Krejčí himself, the diary provides a fascinating portrayal of a soldier’s experiences on the Eastern Front.

Illustration by František Krejčí, photo: archive of Post Bellum

Descendants of First World War soldier František Krejčí, who became a Czechoslovak legionary after he defected to the Russian side while on the Eastern Front in 1916, recently found his diary among the items inherited from their grandmother.

One of them was Krejčí’s great-grandson, the designer Petr Skala. He told Czech Radio that the discovery came as quite a surprise.

“I had no idea that my great-grandfather was a Czechoslovak legionary. I knew that he was a very good artist and that he died quite early in 1955, but I had no idea that he was a legionary.

“When we were going through my grandmother’s things after she died, I came across the diary. It was beautiful. It was clear to me that we had to do something with it. As a designer myself, I decided to publish it.”

Illustration by František Krejčí, photo: archive of Post Bellum

The diary has been published in the form of a chronicle, with daily entries, albeit dispersed.

Krejčí himself was no longer able to talk about his memories, but, in 2000, reporters working for the history-focused NGO Post Bellum interviewed Alois Vocásek, another WWI Czech soldier who crossed the lines the same year as Krejčí. His account gives an idea of how such desertions could take place.

“Almost half of us were Czechs, there were two Ruthenes too, and they went along as soon as I woke them up. We had to get past the Austrian guard, the Feldwache. They started shooting at the Ruthenes as they ran. One of them was injured but kept running. I heard one of the men in the trenches say: ‘That dimwit Vocásek is running too!’

Illustration by František Krejčí, photo: archive of Post Bellum

“I was actually still in the trench, but once he said it I took my rifle and shouted: ‘You madman I’ll show you who’s a soldier! I’ll bring them back!’ They made another man go with me and as we jumped into a crater. I said I see one of the Ruthenians. He pointed the gun at me and said that if I go any farther he will shoot me. I aimed at him too and after a while persuaded him to hand me his rifle. I threw it in the rye, jumped out and they never saw me again.”

Vocásek joined the newly forming Czechoslovak legionaries relatively soon after his desertion. Krejčí, who surrendered to a group of Cossacks, was first sent to work on a large farm. Earning just 7.5 roubles a month, he could  afford less than two sausages a week.

In one of his diary entries, Krejčí described how the crippling poverty in Russia drove people to crime.

“In the sea [around Odessa] an old woman was swimming. Next to her was a man. After a while she got out of the water and realised she could not find her money. She said someone had stolen 200 roubles from her. The man immediately became suspect and, after they found 200 roubles in his clothes, they beat him to a pulp and threw him into the sea where he drowned. “Then, suddenly, the woman said that she realised she had only hidden the money in a crevice on the coast. She was also beaten up and thrown into the sea. No one cared about punishing the murderers – they just left with the stolen money.”

After the February revolution, it was becoming clear that Russia would descend into civil war and Krejčí, like Vocásek before him, joined the Czechoslovak legions. Both managed to fight their way out and return to their homeland. While Krejčí died in his seventies, Vocásek would go on to live to a staggering 107-years-old.

Their accounts have now been compiled into a documentary released by Czech Radio as part of a series depicting personal tales from the twentieth century, which can be found in Czech here: https://plus.rozhlas.cz/nasel-se-kresleny-denik-z-1-svetove-valky-posledni-legionar-alois-vocasek-si-ho-8276484

František Krejčí (second from left), photo: archive of Post Bellum