The Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion

Throughout spring 1918, resistance to the bolsheviks was endemic in East Siberia, the Russian Far East and Manchuria. Semenov’s military insurgency continued in Transbaikalia, despite Chinese attempts to restrain him. In Harbin, a White government-in-exile coalesced around the Chinese Eastern Railway management, helmed by Horvath, Pleshkov and Kolchak, with the active support of Ambassador Kudashev in Beijing. Diplomatic and material assistance was forthcoming from Britain, France and especially Japan.

Nevertheless, such efforts enjoyed only limited success until the end of May, when the 40,000-strong Czechoslovak Legion – en route to the western front via Vladivostok – rose in revolt. A dispute between legionnaires and Hungarian POWs at the Cheliabinsk station had been mishandled by the soviet authorities in Moscow. Trotsky ordered that the Czechoslovaks be ejected from their trains and disarmed; any armed legionnaire found on the railway was to be “shot on the spot”. Determined to continue their journey to Vladivostok with their weapons intact, the Legion swiftly seized control of the Trans-Siberian railway from Samara to Irkutsk and opened a new front in the Civil War.

czechorlik
Czechoslovak legionnaires in the armoured train Orlik. Source.

Even before the uprising, there were 14,000 legionnaires in Vladivostok awaiting evacuation. By late June they had gained control over the city. Consul Shao Hengjun described the convoluted negotiations that surrounded their takeover.

日內赤哈軍規定陣地軍令,以防崴亂。本日會議,因悉下烏金斯克至薩馬拉諸線,全在赤哈軍手,俄舊黨正思利用,組織西比利亞政府。惟伊爾庫次科在德人掌握,由伊至崴諸橋,均由新黨埋置地雷,武裝俘虜逾三萬,情狀亦至險惡。德人在莫斯科迫使新黨解除赤哈軍裝,或殲除,赤哈甚急,昨有赤軍官偕美員來,西路之赤哈軍,因以求援於在崴之赤哈軍。今早赤哈向英、日二領事求助。午后協約各領事因與哈軍官密議,並招日商備資詢。該軍官等歷述德人雄心,及赤哈被扼,與俄新黨劣狀,願出死力抵敵,將圖西援,驅除俄新黨。惟兵力約須十萬,深慮不給,且軍械不敷甚巨,懇協約各國援助。並稱法國曾允歐戰和議時,必聯合各國,使其獨立云云。各領事均表贊同,允各電請政府維持。所求接濟過山礮三,機關槍百,快槍三千,子彈百萬,議由日本定購,因與日商協議,此其大概。又赤哈軍所據地段,不患無糧,俄黨則否。英領事昨接北京電謂,滿洲裡及邊卡,均弛糧禁,質諸恆浚,答以未經奉京電。赤軍官均甚注。美領事謂現狀遽變,正當緊急,與前時不同,恰須遏運困敵,豈可弛禁。故已電達英使,轉商重禁。以上系會議大略。恆浚早窺赤哈地位已同協約,列邦必有用意,前后曾經電陳,今益瞭然。御德結果不可知,俄新黨似無長久理。冒昧謹聞。

In a few days the Czech troops will issue directives on their military positions, so as to prevent disorder in Vladivostok. Today’s meeting made it known that the entire line from Nizhneudinsk to Samara is wholly in the hands of Czech forces; the Whites are planning to use this to organise a Siberian government. However, Irkutsk is under German control and all the bridges from Irkutsk to Vladivostok have been mined by the bolsheviks. With more than 30,000 armed POWs, the situation is ominous. The Germans in Moscow have forced the bolsheviks to disarm the Czechs, or they would be eliminated. The Czechs are under extreme duress. Yesterday, a Czech officer came with an American representative; the Czech forces on the western part of the line have asked for aid from the Czech troops in Vladivostok.

czecheurope
Legionnaires on the Europe-Asia border. Source.

This morning the Czechs sought help from the British and Japanese consuls. In the afternoon the Allied consuls held a secret meeting with Czech officers and entrusted Japanese merchants with preparing funds. The officers spoke of the Germans’ ambitions, the seizure of Czechoslovakia and their conflict with the bolsheviks. They were willing to resist the enemy to the death, planning to help those in the west and to drive out the bolsheviks. However, this would require a force of around 100,000, which they feared they could not muster. Moreover there is a great shortfall in weaponry, for which Allied aid was earnestly sought. They also said that France had previously agreed that, at the postwar peace talks, it would join with other countries to grant them independence. The consuls all expressed their approval and agreed to wire their governments to support them. The aid they are seeking includes three moutain guns, 100 machine guns, 3,000 rifles, one million bullets. It was resolved that Japan would place orders for these, hence there will be an agreement with Japanese merchants. This was the gist of it. Also, the territories occupied by the Czechs do not suffer from food shortages, unlike those under the bolsheviks.

The British consul received a telegram from Beijing yesterday saying that, at Manzhouli and other border checkpoints, the grain embargo had been entirely lifted. He questioned me about it and I replied that I had not received any wire from Beijing. The Czech officers also paid great attention to this. The American consul said that the situation had changed abruptly. It was now critical, unlike before; at this moment one must cut off supplies to undermine the enemy, so how could the embargo be lifted. Hence, they have wired the British ambassador to negotiate a re-establishment of the embargo.

The above is a summary of the meeting. I had already discerned that the Czechs’ position is the same as that of the Allies, and the Powers have intentions for them. This was mentioned in successive telegrams and now it is all the more clear. As for resistance to the Germans, the outcome of this cannot be known, but it seems that the bolsheviks will not last long. Such is my humble report.

Telegram from Shao Hengjun, 26 June 1918 (sent 25 June). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919): chubing Xiboliya, p. 195.
czech_legion_2
“On the shore of the Sea of Japan, 1980”. The last Czechoslovak soldier waits to return home. Cartoon from 1919, Source.

The meeting glossed over some of the intrigues surrounding the Legion in the highly-charged atmosphere of summer 1918. Trotsky’s overreaction to the Cheliabinsk incident was not the result of German pressure, although this seems to have been widely believed within the Legion. Neither was the Allied attitude to the Legion entirely united or even clear before the revolt. The French were eager for the Czechoslovaks to be deployed on the western front, whereas the British – who alone possessed the maritime capabilities to transport them – preferred that they be used in Russia. Their compromise solution, to split the Legion between Archangel and Vladivostok, had been arrived at without consulting the Czechslovaks themselves. Within the French camp, opinion was initially divided as to whether the Legion should resist disarmament or ease their path to Vladivostok by appeasing the soviet authorities. Even the appeal to resume the Manchurian grain embargo, which had so irritated the Chinese, was eventually overruled.

At this point, therefore, Shao could not have grasped the full intricacies of the revolt. Neither does it seem that the Beijing government ever became aware of the schemes surrounding the Legion. Nevertheless, his report correctly concluded that the Legion’s activities would have a significant impact on Allied diplomatic policy. They furnished the opportunity for a more assertive approach to the Russian Civil War, serving as justification for American military involvement in Siberia. Perhaps more threatening from the Chinese point of view was the pre-eminent position taken by Japan, held in check until this point by American opposition. The delicate balancing act between China’s obligations to the Allies and its fears of Japanese expansion would only grow more acute as the prospect of armed intervention drew nearer.

One thought on “The Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion

  1. Pingback: Horvath Moves into Russia – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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