Czechoslovakia Table of Contents
Throughout the centuries of foreign rule, the Czechs were subjected, at times, to intense Germanization and the Slovaks to Magyarization; nevertheless, both maintained their ethnic identities, and during the collapse of empires and kingdoms that accompanied World War I, they seized the opportunity for independence. During the war, Czechs and Slovaks in large numbers deserted the armies of Austria and Hungary, respectively, to form the Czechoslovak Legion, military units that fought for the Allied powers in the hope that they were contributing to their own national liberation. The largest Czechoslovak units were formed on the eastern front, but the Russians did not trust them and, until the overthrow of the tsar, did not commit them to battle.
During the period of the Provisional Government in Russia, Alexander Kerensky, then minister of war, allowed General Aleksei Brusilov to include Czechoslovak units in his army as he prepared for a major Russian offensive in June 1917. Russian units, pressured by the Bolsheviks, refused to fight; but the Czechoslovak soldiers, motivated by dreams of a free homeland, fought valiantly. At the Battle of Zborov on the Galician front, they broke through Austro-Hungarian lines and captured more than 4,000 of the enemy, including about 60 officers. They also captured several artillery pieces and machine guns plus quantities of ammunition and supplies. The cost in casualties at Zborov was high--almost 200 killed and 700 wounded--but the taste of victory was sweet and was heightened by the presence in Russia of Tomas Masaryk.
With the collapse of the eastern front imminent, Masaryk in Russia and Eduard Benes in France desperately tried to arrange a plan whereby the Czechoslovak Legion would be evacuated through Archangel and shipped to France, where it would be employed in the Allied cause. After the Bolshevik takeover, when the Czechoslovak leaders deemed it impossible to evacuate such a large force through northern Russia, a new plan called for the legion to travel across Siberia to Vladivostok and cross the Pacific, North America, and the Atlantic to France, where it would be committed to combat. At first the Bolsheviks, desirous of ridding the country of such a large foreign armed force, approved of the evacuation through Siberia, with the stipulation that the Czechoslovak units give up their weapons. Refusing the order to disarm, the legionnaires clashed with the Red Army. Because the 40,000 to 60,000 Czechoslovak troops constituted the strongest force between European Russia and the Pacific Coast, they were able to take control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, a move necessary to protect their route of departure. Merely by their presence along the strategic railroad, the legionnaires became an important element in the Russian civil war and frequently fought against the Soviet troops. When the war in Europe ended, Czechoslovakia gained independence, and Allied armies intervened in Russia before the last unit of the Czechoslovak Legion was repatriated.
The republic that encompassed the former Czech lands--Bohemia and Moravia--as well as Slovakia and Ruthenia (also known as Subcarpathian Ruthenia) created an army in 1918 and an air force two years later. Personnel for these forces were recruited from the legions that had fought in Russia, Italy, and France, as well as from the demobilized troops of the defeated Austro-Hungarian armies. Many of the problems of multinationalism that had plagued the Hapsburgs were passed on to the successor states and to their armed forces. The new Czechoslovak forces mirrored the ethnic groups from which they were drawn--Czechs, Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Ruthenians (Ukrainians), plus much smaller numbers of Jews, Poles, and Romanians. (Most Jews had been assimilated and were not categorized as a minority in the armed forces.) Ethnic strength in the forces generally reflected percentages in the population, although Czechs were overrepresented, particularly in the officer corps, which they dominated. Although outright discrimination by the Czechs against minorities was not tolerated, ethnic friction did exist, and the question of reliability worried the Czech-controlled general staff and defense ministry.
Data as of August 1987
Czechoslovakia Table of Contents