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Around the World and Home at Last

February 21, 2010

Leaving Vladivostok by ship, 1920

The American Red Cross coordinated the return home for the tens of thousands of Legionnaires left in Vladivostok in 1920, arranging transportation with numerous countries who supplied an astonishing 42 ships varying greatly in terms of sea-worthiness and comfort.  These ships circumnavigated the globe, travelling through all sorts of exotic ports of call over the next year. Some of the Czechs and Slovaks sailed through Australia, while others travelled through Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Suez, Dubrovnik, Egypt, India, Canada and yes, the United States.

Exotic ports of call for Legionnaires, 1920

Interestingly, over 2,500 of those sailing back to the new country of Czechoslovakia were women and children; I suspect they were Russians who had become romantically involved with some of the Legion members during their extended stay in Russia, such as the women below, who sold them food at the various train stations along the Trans Siberian Railway.

Russian women selling meat, bread, pickles and other food

The American Red Cross offered food, clothing, supplies, shelter and medical attention to the Legion and their Allies, including protection against typhus, a potentially deadly disease spread by tics and fleas which would take the life of one of Paul’s family members one day.

They also provided communication services to the families of the soldiers back home in the US, and offered educational and employment services to thousands of Russians and to Armenian and Serbian refugees who were in Russia avoiding persecution back home.  During the Christmas season of 1918, the Japan Chapter of the Red Cross made comfort bags for the men, and provided knitted hats, sweaters and other presents to them as well.

Alice Buckman and other Red Cross volunteers about to set sail from Seattle to Siberia, 1919

Christmas has always been an important time for celebration for Czechs and Slovaks, and that was no different while in the Army in Siberia. In 1918 and 1919, the Legion celebrated the holiday with food and other cultural expressions, including postcards and painted boxcars.  In my home, pork is an essential part of many of our Slovak meals, especially sausage, and it appears to have been no different in Siberia. Tongue in cheek Christmas cards depict a pig pulling Santa’s sleigh instead of deer.

Christmas Santa-Pig, Legion Postcard 1920

Many Legion units decorated their boxcars, expressing their love of a woman back home, a religious or holiday scene.  Their artistry is incredible, I think, expressing hope and joy despite war.  More of these pictures can be seen on Pauline’s Facebook Fan page photo album.

Legion decorated boxcar, Siberia 1919

The term “Czechoslovak Legion” was not widely used during the war but was adopted shortly after World War I ended.  It is primarily based on their French connection – they were led by General Stefanik, the Slovak general who served in the French Army, and so essentially they reported to France and were thought of as part of the French Foreign Legion.  And initially when Czechoslovakia was originally formed, the new government operated out of France. While the majority of the Czechoslovak Legion was Czech (90%) and fought in Russia, others fought in Italy, Serbia and France.  Some of the boxcars were painted in French, as an homage to the French Foreign Legion.

Czechoslovak Legion boxcar decorated in French

When the Legion members finally arrived home to their newly formed country, they were welcomed as heroes, with a parade in the streets of Prague.  Their brave efforts had clearly helped form the new country, and the leaders of the Legion, Tomas Masaryk, Eduard Benes and Milan Stefanik became respectively, President, Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Secretary of Defense in Czechoslovakia.  Benes later became the second president of Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovak Legion welcomed home

The Legionnaires were paid back handsomely for their military service by the new country of Czechoslovakia, and with that money thousands of Legion members helped to fund the Czechoslovak Legion Bank. It is also rumored that at least one of the boxcars of gold bullion obfuscated from the White Russians in Siberia helped build the striking cubist-style bank building.  To be a Legionnaire in the 1920’s was an honor, and the new nation recognized Legion battles as national holidays and celebrated their heroism with movies, books, pageants and marches, according to Bruce Bendinger, who made a recent documentary about the Legion.

Interior of the Czechoslovak Legion Bank

Life in the new country of Czechoslovakia over the next decade or so either flourished or diminished, depending on whether you were Czech, Slovak or German, and upon your prior status under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For members of my family, while it meant freedom of language and expression in Slovak and unprecedented access to higher education for some, it also meant devastating loss for others.

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