When Czech mariners sailed the seas

František Koucký (druhý zleva) na palubě torpédoborce

The Czech lands have a long military history to be sure, but for a place that lacks a sea there is a surprisingly interesting naval history as well. Episodes of Czech sailors serving in the Austro-Hungarian Navy are the subject of a series of books by military historian Jindřich Marek called “Under the Austrian Flag”, “The Emperor’s Sharks” and “The Pirates of Freedom”. In this week’s Czech History we look at some of the heroic – and infamous – adventures of Czech mariners around the time of the First World War.

The port of Pula around 1890
Every year, the Adriatic coast is invaded by thousands of Czech tourists looking for the nearest beach and empty blue horizon. Once though, a century ago, the port of Pula in modern-day Croatia was crowded with sailors from the landlocked Hapsburg dominions of Bohemia and Moravia. At the turn of the 20th century Pula was modernizing, and Czechs and Germans were the most qualified technicians in the empire – something that superseded their obvious drawbacks in terms of experience at sea. The Czechs actually brought a number of advantages with them to the Austrian navy, says military historian Jindřich Marek:

"The memories of veterans from the 1920s and 30s tell us that these skilled Czech machinists, locksmiths and students were able to gain the necessary proficiencies of a sailor more quickly than others. There’s also a nice story that a lot of the Croat sailors could not swim and had to learn as adults, while the Czechs had all learned in the ponds of Bohemia and had no problem with it. They also had no problems with German, which was the official language in the navy, and that wasn’t typical of other nations of the monarchy then. "

The Czechs reached their highest numbers before the outbreak of World War I, when about 10% of the sailors of the Austro-Hungarian navy were Czech. Marek points out that while that number may seem small, Croats, who were at home on the Adriatic, made up about 34% of the Navy and were more often applied to heavy labour as stokers and deck hands for example, the Czechs held positions that required prior civilian training like radio technicians, engineers, draughtsmen and in particular doctors, with the vast majority of the naval physicians being Czechs:

“Czechs have a one huge chip on their shoulders: it pains us that we have no sea. Everyone loves remoteness and romance, and so young Czechs who graduated from medical school and were from socially disadvantaged families often took the opportunity to see the oceans and the world in the naval medical corps."

Some of the Czech mariners though saw much more of the sea that they ever would have wished. Amongst Mr Marek’s many stories is that of the Kaiserin Elisabeth, a cruiser with a crew of 400, sent to defend Austro-Hungarian interests in China in 1913 and meant to return a few years later. When war broke out a year later though, the ship and its 100 Czech hands found itself fighting the British and Japanese – and losing.

Kaiserin Elisabeth
"The cruiser was scuttled to keep it out of the hands of the enemy, and sank. Some of the Czechs ended up interned in China and others were captured by the Japanese. When those in China learned of the Czechoslovak Legions, some escaped and went all the way to Ukraine to join them. When the legions made their way to Vladivostok they met their mates who had been released by the Japanese, and together they formed the basis of the maritime part of the Czechoslovak Legions. So they arrived in Trieste in 1920, more than seven years later. So that’s a story of a kind of ‘Czech odyssey’".

Not all the qualities that Czechs brought to the Imperial Kriegsmarine were to its benefit or glory. In early 1918, after four years of war and its accompanying hardship, the February cold and hunger, had worn down Austrian discipline and sparked a three-day mutiny across 40 ships of the Austrian Fifth Fleet, docked in the Montenegrin Bay of Kotor.

“The officers of the Austro-Hungarian Navy said that without the Czechs, the mutiny would have crumbled on the first day. The leader of the revolt, a Moravian-German named František Rasch, was executed, as were many other Czechs. Perhaps one of the most important was Rudolf Kreibich, a Prague native and a musician on the SMS Sankt Georg and who organised the mutineers, because the hot-blooded Italians and Croats were going berserk, while the Czech sailors wanted an organized, rational framework.”

František Koucký  (second from the left)
And the Bay of Kotor mutiny was not the only episode of Czech insolence at sea. In late 1917 two other Czechs with some Slavic co-conspirators stole an Austrian torpedo boat from Šibenik and handed it over to the enemy in Italy. One František Koucký from Kladno tried the same thing a year later, but was discovered and executed. By the end of the war, says Jindřich Marek, the Czechs’ reputations had gone from those of handymen and pranksters to those of rebels.

Czechoslovakia was declared an independent state on October 28, 1918, and straight away it required an army to defend its interests in German, Polish and Hungarian border regions. There were tens of thousands of trained and seasoned soldiers, but they were scattered around Europe in Italy, in France and in Russia. A largely forgotten fact of the day is that with only a few reserve officers, boy scouts and sportsmen in the country to rely on, the first troops in the fledgling Czechoslovak army were a group of sailors.

“At that time there were around 100 Czech sailors who were in Prague either as deserters, mutineers, political undesirables or were simply on leave. When someone realised that these soldiers were present they contacted them and they in turn contacted the others. That evening there were 80 sailors in uniform on Žofín Island… A few weeks later others arrived from Pula and they went to Slovakia to fight the Hungarian Communists, who were trying to regain control of the territory…”

Many people today look back at the time of the Austro-Hungarian subversion of the Czech lands as also a time of great opportunity, when – in exchange for their loyalty – they could apply their skills in an enormous empire that in turn brought much good to their country in terms of industry, education and modernity. But as history showed, their national pride proved their strongest motivation in the end.

Authors: Christian Falvey , Martina Bílá
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