“The day I first saw a map of the future Czechoslovakia” – WW1 survivors remember the birth of their new state

Exactly 100 years ago, on October 28th 1918, the new sovereign state of Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Czech lands and Slovakia had been part of for centuries. Two weeks before the Armistice of Compiègne on November 11th which ended all fighting in WW1, the news of the new-born state spread from Prague to gradually reach Czech soldiers scattered around the world. In today’s programme dedicated to the centenary of the birth of Czechoslovakia we quote from the journals, memoirs and correspondence of Czech – and Slovak – soldiers fighting in the Great War as well as the accounts of civilians remembering the heady October days and the events that led up to them.

Josef Jakubíček with his mother and younger brother,  photo: archive of Josef Jakubíček
Over a million Czechs were mobilized in the Great War, having to fight on behalf of a state many of them felt little loyalty to. For some of them falling into captivity meant they no longer had to fight for a cause that wasn’t theirs and many later joined specially formed units abroad to fight on the side of the Allies. Soon after being captured by Russian troops in August 1916, Andrej Šikura, a Slovak by birth who had studied in Bohemia, first saw the idea of a future Czechoslovakia embodied on a sheet of paper in a POW camp in Ukraine.

“After several hours, they hauled our train across a bridge over the Dnieper into the Darnitza camp, where Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war were gathered. We slept in dug-outs. They put Czechs and Slovaks together, but other nationalities separately. On the door of one of the dug-outs I first saw a map of the future Czechoslovakia. I was surprised, yet also very pleased.”

In a hospital room in the city of Krainburg in today’s Slovenia in July 1917, Josef Jakubíček from the South Moravian town of Veselí nad Moravou – whose singing we heard a while ago – first learned about the foreign diplomatic endeavour of Czechoslovakia’s future president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

“When there was a medical examination, the regimental doctor dictated to the record-keeper without so much as looking at me. “Fit and capable!” he shouted and it was as if he had stabbed me. I got scared that I would never get that promised leave and turned pale. Then the doctor finally glanced at me and I must have looked really sick, so he corrected himself: “Convalescence.” I never found out what was officially wrong with me, but I got the leave. There were German newspapers in the hospital and there was an article about Professor Masaryk negotiating abroad in order for the Czech lands to win sovereignty and demanding that the great powers allow Czech prisoners of war to form a Czechoslovak army abroad – legions in Russia, France and Italy against Austria and Germany.”

In late 1917, twenty-eight year old Josef Kalina from the South Bohemian village of Nemějice, was held as a prisoner of war in south-eastern France. There he met Edvard Beneš, the future foreign minister and later president of Czechoslovakia who was campaigning there among the Czech POWs. Soon after that Josef Kalina joined the Czechoslovak army that was being formed there.

Josef Jakubíček in the 1950s,  photo: archive of Josef Jakubíček
“In the town of Charpeillan we were visited by Dr. Edvard Beneš. He told us about the legion and various important events. Soon afterward we were transported by train to the port of Cassis. There was intensive canvassing for Czechs to join the army. Hundreds of volunteers signed up and soon left for the front as a Czechoslovak army to fight against the Germans. Many of us remained undecided, but not for long. Soon after they transported us to Lyon and there we joined the legion voluntarily. From Lyon they brought us to Cognac where we were fully armed.

We started a new life then, finally a military one. Happy in the knowledge that we were no longer pitiful slaves, but rather free soldiers and proud to go to battle for the liberation of our nation. We exercised, we did everything in high spirits, we were brothers. But we were never sent to the battlefield as it was already the autumn of 1918.”

Meanwhile major events were unfolding back home. Václav Pácalt, the chronicler of the east Bohemian town of Jaroměř, recorded the euphoria of the October days of 1918.

“October 22nd. After the publication of the imperial manifesto from October 16th, the town, at least some circles, sank into depression. However, when the declaration o the National Committee was released, the troubled minds of our good patriots rejoiced again. And finally, when the reply of President Wilson to the Austrian government was made public, it was as if the skies had cleared and all faces reflected happiness and contentment. The talk in the streets was joyful and the jokes to be heard! People are talking freely without fear. The war is said to be lost for Austria. The Germans are fleeing France. October 25th. As the Spanish flu epidemic is still spreading, schools are to remain closed until November 3rd. October 27th. The talk of the town is that on November 6th demobilisation will start and on the anniversary of the Battle of White Mountain on November 8th the sovereign Czechoslovak state will be declared. October 28th. A telegram has arrived in Jaroměř announcing that Austria has capitulated and the Czechoslovak state has been recognized.”

Václav Hrdlička from the nearby village of České Meziříčí was in Italy with his unit when the above mentioned events occurred. This is how he recounted his experience for the village chronicle.

“The Landwehr Regiment number 30 refused obedience on the Italian front and was returning to Bohemia under lieutenant colonel Beran. We marched mainly during the night and rested during the day. Early in the morning one day we reached a town awash with flags. When the commander found out the cause, he ordered the Czech national anthem to be played after breakfast and announced to us that a Czecho-Slovak republic had been formed. The jubilation was beyond description.”

Alexander Novotný with his wife and son,  1920s,  photo: Alexander Novotný's family archive
Alexander Novotný, a postal officer from the city of Brno, was in Italy with his unit in the final days of the war. Here he recalls the events on a tape recording made in the late 1950s.

“I was supposed to be promoted to who knows what. But they made me a sergeant and then a cadet. Yet the autumn of 1918 arrived and with it October. And what do you think? The Emperor set his mind on another offensive. So I went on the offensive in the mountains near Monte Grappa. We were stationed on two hills but the Italians took one of them and captured our soldiers. We stayed there for some four more days and then went back. It was on the 27th of October. We arrived at this valley, the colonel held a speech at nine a.m. that we should launch an attack to get the hills back. The soldiers didn’t say a word. The colonel asked: ‘Soldiers, are you going for the push?’ Not a word, once more. And when he got no answer for the third time, he turned on his heels and walked away. And on the 28th in the evening, the scoundrel was the first to run away. And we followed him. We marched for a fortnight, ate whatever we scavenged. On the 5th of November we reached the Austrian border and on the 11th we arrived at a hospital on the Drava River. The following evening we shot a mule, made a lovely campfire, cooked some goulash, burned the whole military train and with a band first sang the Czech national anthem.”

In her memoirs, Kateřina Benedíková from the South Moravian village of Kozojídky recalls the autumn of 1918. Three of her sisters lived in Vienna which suffered from food shortages at that time. She travelled with one of them to the city, helping her carry food supplies from rural Moravia. That’s when she first realised that the new political order in Europe had actually built a wall between her and the rest of her family in nearby Austria.

“My sister Anna arrived to pick up the food. The Austrian brothers-in-law didn’t want to come for fear of possible complications. Our father and I helped her carry the load to the train station. The train was direct and they would be expecting her in Vienna to help her carry the luggage home. The train arrived, a long, long one, crowded with people. What now? ‘Come with me, Katcha, I can’t carry all this on my own.’ Father agreed. So I went. I stood on the lowest step, a parcel in front of me on the upper step, a suitcase in one hand, a sack of flour tied up in a tablecloth on my back. My sister stood on one foot and secured the rucksack to her leg with a string. The carriage gradually emptied and we even got into a compartment eventually.

Kateřina Benedíková,  photo: Kateřina Benedíková's family archive
“We arrived in the border town of Břeclav. Soldiers entered the train flashing torch lights. ‘This is the border patrol of the Czechoslovak Republic. Foreign nationals, please open your luggage!’ But nobody moved. The soldiers didn’t wait long. They seized suitcases, rucksacks, everything. ‘Whose is this?’ And when the owner spoke poor Czech or none at all, they shouted ‘heave-ho’ and threw the stuff out to soldiers standing on the platform along the train. I told them everything was mine. I ordered my sister to pretend she didn’t know me, because she spoke with a German accent and mixed German words in her speech. They asked me if I was a profiteer. I said I was bringing the food to my three sisters married in Vienna. My parents had brought it to the train, my brothers-in-law would pick it up. ‘Names and addresses?’ they asked. Even though my brothers-in-law were naturalised Austrians, they still had Slavic names: ‘František Přibyl, Leopold Jaroš, Karel Medvenič,’ I said. That saved us. After a while, when the anxiety had subsided, it finally dawned on me. ‘Oh my God, we have an independent state! And I know nothing, I’m travelling to a foreign country, in a Moravian folk costume, just like that, anyone could beat me up in the street and I would be helpless.’

“The train reached Vienna close to midnight. Nobody waited for us at the station. There were no trams this late. We picked it all up as well as we could, walked for a bit, then rested, then walked again. A fine gentleman, very tall, smelling of wine and liquor, was making his way towards us. He kissed us and shouted: ‘Kids, we have independence and a president and we’ll soon have everything we want!’ My sister was annoyed that he was bothering us, so she retorted: ‘Those like you will indeed have everything, but nothing will change for the poor like us.’”

Jaroslav Janda, originally a military medic from Prague, who eventually joined the Czechoslovak legion in France, recalled October of 1918 in his memoirs.

“An order came and both our regiments departed only with our guns. We left everything behind, including the field kitchens. We gathered on a flat area behind the front where they ranked us into a square and we awaited the arrival do Dr. Beneš. He arrived on November 8th and talked to us about the war situation. He said that German capitulation was to be expected any day now. And indeed, the next day, the Germans demanded a ceasefire and negotiations. We also learned about the revolution back home and we were happy that we had won and would be free again after almost 300 years. We had a battery powered radio there, with a headset. One of our engineers listened to the news, wrote it down in shorthand, then transcribed it and put it up for everyone to read. We drank champagne to celebrate the victory, our bands played on the town squares, choirs sang and they showed us a short film made in Prague on October 28th.”

Jaroslav Janda,  photo: Jaroslav Janda's family archive
A thirty-six-year old barber and hairdresser from the village of Cetno in East Bohemia was deployed in Italy when the news of the end of the Great War reached him. I returned from my leave to Boca Fossa. In mid-October I got a card from a friend, asking me openly to tell him what was going on, because it was so quiet on the fronts. I myself didn’t know anything either. So I wrote to him that it was quiet here, too. We had no idea that the war was as good as over and that we had a republic. On November 3rd there was noise all around. A messenger arrived telling us to pack up our baggage and await further orders. We drove calmly across the town on the Tagliamento River to Villa Vicentina. And then we heard the sound of bells. Bells were pealing everywhere. The commander sent me to find out what was going on because throughout the war bells had been silent. So I took a bicycle and asked people what was going on. They were laughing and rejoicing that the war was over. I turned around, rode back to the commander and shouted from the top of my lungs: “There’s peace, peace, peace!”

The independent state of Czechoslovakia was declared on October 28th 1918. Estimates vary as to how many Czech men who were mobilized between 1914 and 1918 didn’t live to see their new state. The number is anything between 150 and 200 thousand. In the months following the November armistice, Czechs gradually returned home from the fronts across Europe. The 70 thousand members of the Czechoslovak legion in Russia set off for home from the Far East port of Vladivostok much later – between December 1919 and the end of November 1920, some of them having been separated from their loved ones at home for six long years.