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Dream of Moonstruck Idealists

February 10, 2010

In the spring of 1918, the Cossacks had joined the fight with the White Army. The Cossacks were an adventurous group of people, nomadic “free men” who had achieved special status under the Czar’s regime, employed as border controls and special force soldiers.  When Lenin and his Red Army had taken power the year before, the Cossacks lost their special status in government, and now this infamous group of mercenary fighters was looking for revenge.

Russian Cossacks in WWI

In one particularly bloody incident, over 800 Bolsheviks were brutally murdered in Vladivostok by the Cossacks – shot, hung, buried alive and beaten to death. When asked why the Bolsheviks were executed in so many different and painful ways, the Cossack General said, “the executioners get bored.”

Bolsheviks murdered by White Russian Forces

It does not appear that the Legion itself was completely innocent; there is a disturbing picture of Legion members in Vladivostok standing over a row of murdered Bolsheviks, bodies lined up like sandbags in a ditch, apparently bludgeoned by the Legion army.  In another picture, there is a room filled with lifeless Bolshevik men and women tossed together, slaughtered by some members of the White Army and their Allies.  These events and others like them turned the stomachs of Paul and his fellow soldiers.

Bolsheviks hung by White Russian Forces

Bolsheviks executed by White Russian Forces

The reputation of the Legion as a powerful force not to be reckoned with remained undisputed. When the Czar had abdicated his thrown, the empire’s fortune in gold was given to the White Russian Army for safe keeping.  The head of the White Russian Army, Admiral Kolchak, took it upon himself to watch over the bounty. Believing the safest place was with the seemingly unbeatable Czechoslovak Legion, the Admiral loaded up the gold bullion into 10 boxcars, and placed the train into the hands of the Legion, who by now controlled the Trans Siberian Railway. The Admiral stayed with the Legion, allowing the Legion to protect not only the gold, but himself as well.

Admiral Kolchak, leader of the White Russian Army

Three months after the Siberian Intervention was launched in Russia by allied forces, the goal of national independence for Slovaks and Czechs was realized. Despite the sneering declaration of adversaries that this goal was nothing but “a dream of moonstruck idealists,” the new nation of Czechoslovakia was finally proclaimed on October 28, 1918, and the Czechs and Slovaks were free at last from the tyranny of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Two weeks later, Germany surrendered and on November 11, 1918 WWI ended.

Paul and his fellow Legionnaires felt that with the occurrence of these two monumental events, combined with war fatigue and with a growing desire to distance themselves from the ruthless fighting of their fellow comrades, the Cossacks, their motivation to continue to fight in Russian’s civil war was petering out. Paul thought, “Why do we want to continue in this battle? Our goal of establishing our own nation has been achieved. There is nothing left to fight for.” And so, despite nearly capturing the Russian capital of Moscow by coming within 100 miles of it, in December 1918, Paul and his unit, and half of the Legion army quit the war and headed back on foot to their new home.

A Legion unit posing in front of a captured train

The remaining Legionnaires and their White Russian Allies were pushed further and further back towards Vladivostok. The Legion read the handwriting on the wall and, once again flipping sides, decided to cut a deal with the Bolsheviks. In return for handing over Admiral Kolchak and the boxcars of Imperial gold, in January, 1919 the Bolsheviks promised the Legion and its Allies safe passage to Vladivostok and an unhindered departure home. On February 7, 1919, the Bolsheviks executed Admiral Kolchak, ending most of the White Army resistance in Siberia.  It took another year, but by April 1920, most of the Alliance troops and remaining Legionnaires finally departed Vladivostok by sea.

Legion departing Vladivostok, 1920

It would take yet another year of travel to get back to Czechoslovakia, and about that gold?  Rumor has it they only handed over 8 of the 10 gold-filled boxcars…

Gold Bullion

(The pictures in this article are from the Czechlegion.com website, Wikipedia and the Slovak site http://www.Tatranci.SK)

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