Czechs on the decks of their Majesty’s navy – exhibit sheds light on Czech sailors’ life at sea

František Koucký (druhý zleva) na palubě torpédoborce

The Czech Republic is a landlocked country, and as such, life at sea is not the first thing that comes to mind. But before and during World War I, many sailors from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia served for the Austro-Hungarian Navy, the Imperial and Royal War Navy. An exhibition currently on in the Roudnice nad Labem town museum explores this relatively obscure chapter of Czech history.

It all started with a postcard, sent by sailor Jaroslav Marcin to his native town of Roudnice nad Labem from Croatia. Jan Mrázek, the director of the Roudnice nad Labem museum and the curator of the exhibit “Czechs on the decks of their Majesty’s navy” explains what inspired this show, which runs through September.

“In 2008, we had an exhibit devoted to the role of Czechs in World War I, and one of the pieces on display was a color postcard, which sailor Jaroslav Marcin sent to Roudnice from the Croatian harbor of Malinska. That sparked the idea to organize an entire show devoted to the life of Czech sailors at sea, especially those who served in the Adriatic Sea in World War I. This chapter of history is relatively little known, even today. So the postcard and the fact that there were quite a few Czech sailors at the time inspired us to organize this exhibition.”

At one point, up to ten percent of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal War Navy was made up of Czech sailors. Czech participation in the navy is also the subject of academic research. Historian Jindřich Marek of the Military History Institute Prague explains how Czechs became sailors.

The port of Pula
“They started serving in the Adriatic Sea around 1905, when the Austro-Hungarian navy was being modernized. Back then, qualified sailors were in demand, and Czechs, along with Germans, were among the most skilled within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And briefly before World War I erupted, the number of Czechs in the navy reached its peak; some ten percent of its sailors were Czech.”

When the First World War erupted in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian navy expanded its fleet to include U-boats. One of the empire’s U-boats torpedoed the flagship of the French Mediterranean fleet, the Jean Bart, at the start of the war, in 1914, causing serious damage to it. Soon, the underwater boats of the Austro-Hungarian navy were feared by their enemies. But of course these very complicated pieces of machinery had to be operated by highly skilled sailors. Jindřich Marek again.

U 12
“The Austro-Hungarian fleet was mostly made up of modern German boats, and about a third of the men who served on them were Czech. That is because those sailors had to be very skilled and well-trained, engineers for example, or radio operators. But sadly, the U-boat war was a cruel one and there were many more fatalities below water than on the surface. A lot of Czech sailors were killed at sea. Serving on those U-boats was physically and psychologically difficult, and very taxing on their health. The air was bad and there was a lack of provisions. So those sailors had to be strong and determined men.”

Czechs also worked as engineers and musicians in the navy band – but also Czech doctors were eager to join the navy, says Jindřich Marek.

“Of course, we have to keep in mind that Czech doctors were also represented in the Austro-Hungarian navy. For example the doctors’ choir of the navy was mostly made up of Czechs. I think it was because we have this hang-up, we are tormented by the fact that the sea isn’t nearby. Everyone loves the far sea, there is a certain romance attached to it. And especially those young Czechs who had studied medicine and came from rather poor families were looking for options for their future at sea, and they hoped that the doctors’ choir of the navy would fulfill their wish to get away. Among them were some important personalities, such as Dr. Robert Lím, who was the commander of the doctors’ choir in 1918.”

Even though they came from a landlocked country, Czech sailors did not find it difficult to get used to serving in the Austro-Hungarian navy, says Jindřich Marek. Not even the fact that German was the official language presented a problem for them.

“They were able to pick up the special skills they needed very quickly, and even swimming was not a big problem for them. There is a nice story about this actually: A lot of Croatians who grew up by the sea were not able to swim when they were adults and had to learn it during their military service, while the Czech men learned swimming in our various fish ponds and lakes and had no problem with that. Even German, which was the official language of the navy, did not cause them difficulties. And for some nations that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the language would have presented an obstacle.”

However, the war took its toll on the thousands of men who served in the Imperial and Royal War Navy. By 1918, fatigue with the war and desperation were quickly growing within its ranks. Following the February Revolution in Russia in 1917, strikes and insurgencies were on the rise. On February 1st, 1918, sailors serving on some 40 war ships in the Bay of Kotor hissed the red flag in what later became known as the Bay of Kotor mutiny. One of its central figures was a sailor from Moravia, Franz Rasch. He was not the only Czech involved in it, however.

Franz Rasch
“Another Czech participant in the mutiny was Rudolf Kreibich, a Prague resident who had been a musician on the SMS Sankt Georg. He was a hot-blooded leader and tried to organize the sailors. Some of the temperamental Italians and Croatians destroyed and looted during the first part of the mutiny, whereas the Bohemian sailors were aiming for a more organized and rational approach.”

While the mutiny was interpreted as a rebellion of the oppressed Slavic nations against their German leaders at first, it turned out to be an effort to finally arrive at peace or at least be given better provisions. Among those who participated in the mutiny also was Jaroslav Marcin, the mariner from Roudnice. Curator Jan Mrázek explains his involvement.

“Jaroslav Marcin recorded his experiences meticulously. He kept a diary during his time at sea and the entries in it, to this day, are valuable sources of information. He served on up to ten different ships during the war. He took part in several special courses of training, for example in artillery and on using mines. Towards the end of the war, he ended up in the Bay of Kotor. There, he participated in the mutiny, which was less a result of the revolution in Russia, than a reaction to the lack of provisions for navy members during the end of the war, and that was a situation across the entire monarchy.”

The mutiny ended within three days. Franz Rasch and other mariners involved in it were sentenced to death by a military court. While the legions were still fighting in France, Italy and Russia up until the downfall on October 28, 1918, some 80 to 120 mariners had returned home, deserted the navy or been sent back after participating in the mutiny. They then formed the basis for the first active army of the newly established state of Czechoslovakia, which was founded in October 1918 .