The Czechoslovak Legions – my great-granduncle’s story

Czechoslovak legionaire Eduard Pohanka (sitting) fell in Russia fighting Bolsheviks, photo: archive of Vít Pohanka

One hundred years ago the new state of Czechoslovakia was already establishing its institutions. While celebrations were still going on in Prague, about 70,000 Czechs and Slovaks were fighting thousands of kilometers from home in Siberia, attempting to gain control over the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Among them was my great-granduncle.

Czechoslovak legionaire Eduard Pohanka  (sitting) fell in Russia fighting Bolsheviks,  photo: archive of Vít Pohanka
In the main square of the town of Žďár you can find a little plaque commemorating fallen legionaries – Czechs and Slovaks who died mostly in Russia fighting for Czechoslovak independence against the Austrian-Hungarian Army or the Germans.

For me this particular plaque is a little personal: one of the 11 names of the natives of Žďár who died in faraway lands is Eduard Pohanka and he was my great-granduncle.

For many years we knew only that he was killed in action somewhere near the Ural Mountains in November 1918 after the official end of the war.

In order to reconstruct the story of my ancestor Eduard I went to Prague to see Tomáš Jakl of the Military History Institute of the Czech Ministry Of Defence:

“Even before the first world war, there were up to 100,000 Czechs and Slovaks in Russia. They were coming for work and business opportunities. Then there was a numerous Czech farming community – the so-called Volhynian Czechs. They had been invited by the Russian Empire in the 19th century to settle the fertile lands in what is now western Ukraine. The Czechs in the big cities were mostly businessmen, traders or professionals. There were Czech teachers of music and even artists. Interestingly, Tsar Nicholas II admired the Czech sports and gymnastics movement Sokol. He decided to introduce their method of training as a part of an educational reform. So there were quite a few Czech teachers of physical education in Russian schools.”

As early as the summer of 1914, a volunteer unit was forming from the members of the Czech and Slovak community in Russia. The idea was that they would fight side by side with the Russians against Austria and Germany in order to liberate the Czech nation.

In August 1914, a Czech battalion was organized and officially named Česká družina – Czech Companions. It went to the front that year and was deployed in Galicia.

The original idea was that the Czechs would help with war propaganda and as translators, as the Russian command expected to advance quickly into what is now the Czech Republic.

That did not happen and the front more or less stalled, with the armies deadlocked in trench warfare. So the Russians decided to use the Czech volunteers as intelligence agents – basically as scouts. So the Czech units were dispersed with various Russian divisions against the Austrian-Hungarian Army.

As the war dragged on, thousands of Czech soldiers who were forced into the Austrian Army were captured by the Russians and became prisoners of war. Many others, sometimes whole units, simply deserted and crossed the front rather than continue fighting and dying for Austria. Soon they started joining the Russian Army.

Czechoslovak legionaries in Russia,  photo: Public Domain

And that was also how my great-grand uncle Eduard found himself on the Russian side. We do not know exactly when and where he crossed the lines. As a trained and skilled machinist he was certainly welcome –Czech prisoners of war were well-known for helping to run Russian railroads and factories.

However, the Tsarist regime, exhausted by war, was toppled by a revolution in February of 1918 and that meant complications for the Czechs in Russian uniform, says Tomáš Jakl:

“The key member of the provisional government was Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky – first as minister of war and later as Minister-Chairman. He considered the Czech Legions a kind of relic from Tsarist times and did not trust them. However, he changed his mind radically after the Battle of Zborov in July of 1917. The Russian provisional government organized a summer offensive along the whole Eastern front. It was a complete fiasco, the army was undermined by very aggressive and effective communist propaganda, would not fight and the Russian units were in full retreat. In complete contrast, the Czech soldiers were able to capture three lines of enemy positions near Zborov. The Russian commanders praised them and that led to Kerensky changing his mind. In late summer and early autumn there was a massive recruitment among the Czech and Slovak prisoners of war. The First Division of the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia was formed with two divisions, artillery, and other units.”

But things were to become complicated. The Russian Communists (or Bolsheviks as they were then known) toppled the provisional government of Kerensky.

And that is where I get the first real historically documented news about my great-grand uncle Eduard. He became a shooter with the 6th Battalion of the Czechoslovak Corps. According to Tomáš Jakl, it became clear very soon that agreements with the Bolsheviks would not last:

“At the end of May 1918 Trotsky sends out the order that every Czechoslovak caught on the railroad with a gun is to be shot immediately. Local Soviet authorities start attacking the trains with Czechoslovak soldiers, who in turn start to defend themselves and the railroad that becomes the only possible way to get to the West. Pretty soon the Czechs took control of all the major cities along the railroad. Lenin and his commissars were taken by complete surprise. Czechs are quickly joined by units of Cossacks and other Russian units still fighting Lenin’s government, filling the vacuum left by fleeing Bolsheviks.”

This is how Eduard found himself fighting for control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad near the Ural Mountains in autumn of 1918. And according to the written documents that I received from the Military History Institute, it was on 8 November that he was killed in action, near the small village of Kordon.

Record of death of Eduard Pohanka,  photo: archive of Czech Military History Institute
It is not much, but at least we know where he is buried and that he died fighting the Bolsheviks. What is perhaps most important, he did not give his life in vain: his brothers in arms in the Czechoslovak Legions managed to take control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and within two years evacuated about 70,000 Czechs and Slovaks via Vladivostok to Europe.

The Czechoslovak Legions had been evacuated from Russia by the spring of 1920. Some sailed from Vladivostok to the west coast of America, then went by rail to the East and again across the Atlantic to Europe. But the majority went around South Asia and via the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and then to the Italian port of Trieste.

Eduard Pohanka did not make it back to his native Žďár. But together with thousands of others, he left us, his descendants, a proud legacy. The plaque on the main square of this small town reminds us that he must not be forgotten.