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Get me out of here!

January 18, 2010

We last left off with Paul, his unit and tens of thousands of other recently released Czech and Slovak POWs hopping on trains, well armed by the allies, and heading across Siberia towards the Eastern front of WWI, where they were to fight alongside the Russians.  They travelled in unheated boxcars, 40 men to a car, squished in like sardines, with nothing much to sit or lie down on.

Czechoslovak Legion riding the train through Siberia

The food situation (this is a blog about food after all) was even worse. As a POW in Siberia, Paul and his fellow prisoners were served a bowl of soup, which was mainly water with a leaf in it, or sometimes a cockroach, but never meat. Occasionally they would get a piece of stale bread, and on Sundays, if they were lucky, a boiled potato. Once, a few POWs snuck into a horse barn and ate the leftover horse food – a bit of cabbage stems and rotten potatoes; it was a gourmet meal to the famished men.  But on the trains, their diet consisted of mainly horrible watery gruel, although apparently they did have time to stop and make the occasional cup of tea.

High tea in WWI

Czcheoslovak Legionnaires enjoying tea in a tent

As they made their way west across Siberia, the political situation in Russia continued to deteriorate.  Russia had not been doing well in the war recently, and the general population was starting to protest about the lack of food, jobs and generally crappy living conditions.  Earlier, the head of the Russian monarchy, the Czar, had decided to go lead the Russian army himself, leaving his wife, the Czarina, in charge of running the monarchy. She relied heavily on the Russian mystic Rasputin for help in running the country, not unlike Nancy Reagan consulting her astrologer for important matters in the US.  Not surprisingly, people began to protest at the bizarre decisions the Czarina made.

The Russian Czar and his Family, 1911

When the people took to the streets in St. Petersburg to demand change, the Czar ordered the Army to shoot into the crowd, which they did reluctantly.  The next day, the soldiers mutinied and joined the mob petitioning against the Czarist government, forming the Bolshevik movement.  Soon after, the Czar and his family abdicated the thrown, and a temporary Provisional Government was formed.

The Germans quickly realized that this was their chance to get Russia out of the war, and so they arranged to secretly transport Vladimir Lenin out of exile in Switzerland and back to Russia. Once there, Lenin traveled to St. Petersburg and took control of the Bolshevik movement. He advocated for an end to Russian participation in the war and attempted to undermine the Provisional Government.

Before Paul and the former POWS, now officially named the Czechoslovak Legion, could reach the Eastern Front, it became clear that the situation there was no longer tenable, as large numbers of Russian troops had deserted their posts or simply refused to fight.  Masaryk, Benes and Stefanik desperately tried to arrange a plan to evacuate the Legion through Archangel and ship them to France, where they could fight for the allies on the Western front.

Legionnaires in the train station, milling about

Paul and the other former POWs were stuck camping out in towns alongside the railroad and in the boxcars on the trains, hungry, smelly and with no place to go, and waiting for someone to get them the hell out of there.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. clatterbach permalink
    January 18, 2010 5:32 pm

    I hope you’re enjoying writing this as much as I’m enjoying reading it. I find that taking this strand of personal family histories such an accessible way to access this fascinating but otherwise intimidatingly complex (seemingly so at least) area of history. The photos too are wonderfully evocative. More so than anything I have seen on this time period so far.

    • January 18, 2010 5:50 pm

      Well, you made my day. I spent the weekend researching the Legion’s activities in the war, and it is very complex and confusing. It was a challenge to try and simplify it, and not turn it into a history lesson. And I wanted to keep it easy to relate to. The Prague Castle had an exhibit of 160 photographs from the war on display last spring, and I am dying to see them. I’ve got to track them down to see what happened to them, or see if they will digitize them. I find this story really amazing, and I wonder if anyone else does too.

  2. clatterbach permalink
    January 20, 2010 4:54 pm

    It’s a knotty history, but a rewarding one, and I’m determined now to find out more about it. As I say, it was always something I found reasonably intimidating, and you’ve shown there can be a route into it all. Similar for me was a BBC programme some time back, called Who Do You Think You Are?, it took a number of British celebrities and traced their ancesters to find the stories they never knew about. One I found especially moving was Stephen Fry’s. Fry is a comedian and actor and considers himself a polymath. This is risible, and I find him unappealing and narcissitic in a lot of ways, but this documentary, which traced his family back to Slovakia, was exceptionally touching, and Slovakia’s history spilled out in much the same way as with your stories, as being in condensed form the history of Europe in general.

    • January 20, 2010 6:14 pm

      I see what you mean. I just read the article and watched the video. It’s very sad what happened to his extended family.

      When I finally reach WWII in Pauline’s story, I have a similar one.

      Thank you for all of this, by the way. I love your comments and look forward to them every day.


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