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A Volunteer Army with No Country is Formed

January 15, 2010

Milan Stefanik was a staunch Slovak patriot born in 1880 in Košariská, into a large family of 13 kids, with a father who was a Lutheran pastor.  As a teenager, he was kicked out of three high schools because he rebelled against the strict no-Slovak language policy.  He was a true renaissance man; in university, he first studied engineering, then later physics, math, philosophy and astronomy, and was a student of Tomas Masaryk’s.  After graduating with a PhD from Charles University in Prague, Milan moved to Paris, penniless, and was lucky enough to get a job at the famous Observatoire de Paris-Meudon, the most influential and prestigious place for astronomy in his time.

Milan Stefanik as an Astronomer

Immediately after landing this job in the early 1900’s, Milan was invited to go on an expedition to climb Mont Blanc to study the moon and the stars, a mountain he would climb again and again.  He spent years working around the world for the French government in astronomy centers, and it was in this job that he honed his social skills that would later aid him in his diplomatic role.

Milan Stefanik Scaling Mont Blanc

Milan Stefanik in Tahiti, Going Native

When World War I broke out in 1914, Milan volunteered to join the French army as a fighter pilot. After flying 30 missions, in 1915 he crashed his plane in Serbia and was badly injured. His rescue there is said to be the first rescue mission of an injured person by plane.  As he lay recovering in Paris, Milan contacted Tomas Masaryk and another friend, Edward Benes.

Milan Stefanik as a Fighter Pilot in the French Army

My great grandfather, Paul Milec and his unit remained POWs in Siberia while Milan, Edward and Tomas began to execute a plan with the goal of unifying Czech and Slovakia into one country and extricating itself from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  They successfully formed a small volunteer army of Czechs and Slovaks in France who fought alongside the French Army, and began to formulate another such army in Italy.  These armies would later be known as the Czechoslovak Legion.

Milan, now a General in the French Army, began to travel around the world again, trying to drum up support for their plan, including a stop in Cleveland, Ohio, with the goal of raising money and convincing expatriates to return to Europe to fight for the independence of the new country, by joining the Legion.  Soon, this army began to swell in size.

Once back in Europe, the three intellectuals came up with an even crazier idea.  They approached the Russians and asked them to release the POWs in Siberia, and to allow them to join the Legion.  Well, there was something called the Hague Convention in effect, an international treaty that specified how POWs were supposed to be treated, and that specifically prohibited enlisting POWs to fight against  their own country.  Alas, the Russians were not fairing very well in the war at the time, and Stefanik and his friends were able to successfully argue that the Slovaks and Czechs were not really going to be fighting against their own country, but for the formation of another, and they offered the Legion’s assistance to the Russians.

And so Paul and his unit were released from the POW camp in 1917 and allowed to join the Czechoslovak Legion, ready to do battle against their old empire. (Hence, the funny uniforms with the Russian hats).  Milan was also able to convince the allies of Britain, France and Italy to arm these men.  The Legion Army by now numbered over 50,000. The men were loaded onto trains running along the Trans Siberian Railway, where they headed west, back towards the battle lines.  This army without a country was being led by a French General, supplied by the British, and fighting for the Russians.

But before they could reach the front, fate intervened.

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