A Railway Strike and the Czechoslovaks

With the advent of the Siberian Intervention, control over the region’s railway infrastructure became a critical question. It was the Czechoslovak Legion’s revolt and seizure of the Trans-Siberian that unsettled bolshevik power in the first instance; throughout the autumn of 1918, the legionnaires in the Russian Far East would fight to secure the railway and unite with their compatriots in western Siberia. Bolstered by the Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement, Japanese forces established themselves along the Chinese Eastern Railway. And, as the Allies began deploying their own troops to Russia, the railway question only grew more acute. America’s Russian Railway Service Corps, which had been invited by the Provisional Government to put the Trans-Siberian in order, soon found itself in Harbin overseeing the CER in April 1918. Further negotiations took place regarding Inter-Allied supervision of the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern railways, under Corps chairman John F. Stevens.

Americans, Russians, Japanese and Chinese at a Harbin shop. Photo taken by Russian Railway Service Corps dispatcher Fayette W. Keeler. Source.

The Beijing government was eager to participate in the Intervention alongside the Allies. When Allied support for the Czechoslovaks became apparent, it granted the Legion free passage on the CER in July. Heilongjiang military governor Bao Guiqing, whose jurisdiction included the western section of the Railway, voiced his misgivings: The Czechoslovaks could potentially interfere with railway matters. At the time, Beijing reminded Bao that China had to do its duty as a member of the Alliance. Moreover, any potential conflict could be negotiated with the Allies. In early September 1918, however, workers on the CER went on strike, calling for higher wages and the right to unionise. The result was a draconian order that surprised the Chinese.





Czechoslovak commander General Radola Gajda. Source.

Today the Russian newspapers carried an order from Russo-Czech commander Gajda as follows:

‘In my capacity as commander, appointed by the former Russian and Czechoslovak governments, I call on the Russian railway and telegraph operatives as well as employees to swiftly call off strike activities and all return to work as normal. Additionally, I instruct the general manager of the Railway Company that, regarding the salaries of railway and telegraph employees, before new regulations are issued by the Russian government, they are to be paid out according to the regulations before the strike. All individuals promoting the strike or inciting the people will be immediately arrested, tried in a military court and sentenced to death by shooting. All those intentionally damaging the railroad or obstructing the progress of troops in any way, regardless of the means, will be tried in a wartime military court and sentenced to death by shooting. Commander-in-chief of the main forces Captain [Eduard] Kadlec is instructed to establish a wartime military court, which will also be under his control. The Vladivostok city garrison is instructed to establish a wartime military court there, the railway and telegraph administration should also be managed by the officers of that jurisdiction. The officers of that jurisdiction are commanded to ensure that their staff work together sincerely according to the law, without causing conflict. If not, these officers will be fully responsible according to wartime military law. This telegram will be effective as of 8am on 13 September this year. It is to be disseminated to all stations on the railway. 12 September 1918, no. 72. Signed, General Gajda, commander.’

The Japanese consul also said that Gajda had already copied and dispatched these orders, asking that they be conveyed to the other consuls; the consul was also surprised. Considering that the Czechoslovaks were in [our] territory originally as guest troops passing through, they do not have the right to issue orders for the railway and may not arbitrarily set up a military court in our territory. This move by Gajda undermines both railway rights and national sovereignty. It seems that, on the one hand, the Ministry should lodge an enquiry with the Russian ambassador; on the other hand, Vladivostok consul Shao should be instructed to protest strongly to Gajda. As for how this should be handled, we request a decision from the Ministry. [Wang] Jingqi, [Shi] Lüben, [Li] Jiaao. 14th.

Telegram from Foreign Ministry Advisors Wang Jingqi et al, 15 September 1918 (sent 14 September). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 492-493.
Czechoslovak legionnaires dressed as buskers. Source.

Opposition to Gajda’s orders was also voiced by the military governor of Jilin province, Meng Enyuan, and his civilian counterpart Guo Zongxi. Although Meng and Guo acknowledged that the announcement had effectively ended the strike, they insisted that China should have been the one to handle the strikers. They then complained to the American consul in Harbin, saying that Gajda’s implementation of martial law exceeded the powers that the Russians had in the Railway concession zone. Consul J. V. A. MacMurray noted that the order seemed to have the Russians’ full support, but agreed that Chinese sentiment had to be assuaged.

Faced with these protests, the Beijing government wired Chinese diplomats in Vladivostok and Harbin with instructions to persuade Gajda – who was en route to  Vladivostok – to rescind the order. Li Jiaao, the foreign affairs liaison officer in Harbin, soon responded that the Allies also disapproved of Gajda’s announcement and supported China’s objections. By the end of the week the American, Russian and British consuls had convinced Gajda to retract it; an official protest was also published the Manchurian press. A further meeting between Vladivostok consul-general Shao Hengjun and the Czechoslovaks resulted in an agreement to establish the military court in Vladivostok alone. Shao added his own gloss to the controvery: Gajda felt himself empowered to issue such orders only because China had neglected its rights on the CER for so long. To prevent further incidents, China should assert its sovereignty in the Railway zone, secure Czechoslovak recognition of its rights, and perhaps even take the opportunity to renegotiate the Railway agreement with the Russians.

Gajda might have recanted, but the military court affair represented yet another episode in the ongoing struggle over sovereignty in the Railway zone. As a Russian concession outside of bolshevik control, it became a seedbed for several White leaders and governments-in-exile, including Horvath and Kolchak. The Chinese interpreted such activities as violations of their sovereignty and threats to security. As we shall see, fresh conflict would soon arise in October, when Gajda’s promotion by the Siberian Government in Omsk was misread as yet another assault on China’s railway rights.

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