When Czech mariners sailed the seas
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 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. "
“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.
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.”
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…”