WWI Centennial: Czech Legion Revolts, Sedition Act Passed

Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 307th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 14-16, 1918: CZECH LEGION REVOLTS, SEDITION ACT PASSES

One of the most amazing stories of the First World War, and military history, began on May 14, 1918, in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

As Russia descended into civil war following the Bolshevik coup, one group of foreign fighters found themselves stranded far from home. The Czech Legion was a special unit made up of a total of 61,000 Czech and Slovak fighters, recruited from among the ranks of Habsburg prisoners of war by Russian intelligence beginning in August 1914 and formed into their own units in 1916, who fought alongside the Russian Army against their former Austrian and Hungarian oppressors on the Eastern Front. In return for their service, the Allies, including France and Britain, agreed to recognize Czech and Slovak claims to independence from the disintegrating Dual Monarchy.

However, the collapse of Russia’s first revolutionary Provisional Government changed everything. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who seized power ostensibly on behalf of the socialist Soviets in November 1917, were hostile to the French and British “imperialists” and determined to take Russia out of the war, leaving the Czech Legion isolated in a vast, unfriendly realm. At the same time, after the Bolsheviks signed the crushing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, the Western Allies still hoped to employ the Czech Legion on the Western Front, if only they could extract them from Russia, now wracked by civil war between Bolshevik “Reds” and anti-Bolshevik “Whites.”

Thus the Czech Legion, now numbering around 40,000 men plus camp followers, began an epic journey planned by Tomáš Masaryk, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council (a sojourn with striking similarities, as it turned out, to the Anabasis by Xenophon, telling the true story of 10,000 ancient Greek mercenaries trapped thousands of miles from home in the Persian Empire during a civil war). In the spring of 1918 the Czech and Slovak fighters began retreating in front of German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupying Ukraine, fearing—probably correctly—that if they were caught they would be treated as traitors to the Habsburg crown. By March 1918 they had reached the Trans-Siberian Railway and, with the reluctant agreement of the Bolshevik regime, boarded trains bound for the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where they hoped to make contact with Allied fleets for the long trip to the Western Front.

Unfortunately, they encountered a few obstacles along the way. As the Czech and Slovak fighters headed east, the governments of the Central Powers furiously demanded that the Bolsheviks stop them before they could be added to Allied forces defending against Germany’s final spring offensives on the Western Front. Bolshevik control of the Russian hinterland was uneven, relying in many places on local Soviets and Left SR allies with their own agendas, but they weren’t completely impotent—thanks to tens of thousands of former Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war, now being repatriated to the Central Powers under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, who were heading west on the same rail line.

On May 14, 1918, Czech and Slovak fighters clashed with Hungarian POWs at a rail station in Chelyabinsk, prompting Red Army commissar Leon Trotsky (under growing German pressure) to make his first serious attempt to disarm them. But the Legionnaires fought back in the “Revolt of the Czech Legion,” which saw a pitched battle between the rival groups of Habsburg fighters in exile as well as the Bolsheviks’ Red Guard and Red Army units.

Map of Russia in May 1918
Erik Sass

Now openly at war with the Bolshevik regime, the Czech Legion fanned out along the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, using their fleet of dozens of trains to stage surprise attacks on lightly held or unoccupied Siberian cities all the way to Vladivostok, taking advantage of their control of communications as well as the central position of rail stations to seize important areas before their opponents could react. This inaugurated a remarkable phase of railroad-based warfare, in some cases led by special armored trains, with the frontline sometimes moving hundreds of miles in just a few days.

By the summer of 1918, the Legion, now aligned with the anti-Bolshevik “Whites,” were in control of virtually the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as all the major cities along it, suddenly making them one of the most powerful armed forces in Siberia and a key factor in the Russian Civil War. In August 1918 they scored a huge windfall in the city of Kazan, capturing six train-car loads of gold from the old Tsarist regime, which helped fund their operations; it’s also believed that the Bolsheviks executed the Romanov royal family because they feared the approaching Czech Legion was about to liberate them.

Under the protection of the Czech Legion, anti-Bolshevik forces established a civilian government, “the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly,” better known by its acronym KOMUCH, based in the city of Samara on the Volga River. Meanwhile the Czech Legion established their own state within a state, a unique rail-based traveling army and government aboard hundreds of trains, which not only carried fighters into battle but also serves as mobile barracks, canteens, medical facilities, morgues, and workshops. Even more remarkably, the Legion established a bank, published a newspaper, and operated an efficient postal service along the Trans-Siberian Railway (rare surviving postage stamps printed by the Czech Legion are now much sought-after by stamp collectors).

They would remain in Siberia, fighting the Bolsheviks up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until the growing power of Trotsky’s reorganized Red Army finally prompted the Allies to evacuate them in 1920. They were greeted as national heroes when they returned to Czechoslovakia, the new country they had fought for, albeit thousands of miles from home; veterans of the Legion played a central role in the public life of the young nation, founding banks and civic organizations, participating in politics, and leading the armed forces.

WILSON SIGNS SEDITION ACT

On May 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed the controversial Sedition Act, the popular name given to legislation that greatly expanded the scope of the previous Espionage Act of 1917. These wartime laws made it a criminal offense for any individual to publicly state opposition to America’s participation in the war, which came to include the government’s management of the war effort and its largely successful attempts to raise money through the sale of war bonds.

The Sedition Act severely curtailed the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech and assembly, prohibiting private citizens from making statements about the United States, its government, or armed forces that were categorized as “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive”—a vague, sweeping sanction that left considerable room for interpretation by police and prosecutors. Individuals found guilty of breaking the new law could be imprisoned up to 20 years.

The Sedition Act also reinforced and expanded existing wartime censorship, with measures instructing the postal service to intercept any mail considered to violate these standards. In fact it was just one part of a massive, if temporary, expansion of the powers of the federal government over Americans’ everyday lives. Most troubling, many of these powers were shared with semi-official citizens' groups who received legal sanction. In March 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. Remarkably the APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

13 Memorable Facts About D-Day

American troops landing on Omaha beach at Normandy on D-Day.
American troops landing on Omaha beach at Normandy on D-Day.
Keystone/Getty Images

The Normandy landings—an event better known as “D-Day”—became a pivotal moment in the Second World War. Heavy losses were inflicted on both sides, but with planning, deception, and semiaquatic tanks, the Allied forces pulled off what is considered the biggest amphibious invasion in history. Here are a few things you should know about the historic crusade to liberate France from Nazi Germany.

  1. D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944.

The D-Day invasion was several years in the making. In December 1941, the United States formally entered World War II. Shortly thereafter, British and American strategists began entertaining the possibility of a huge offensive across the English Channel and into Nazi-occupied France. But first, the Allies swept through northern Africa and southern Italy, weakening the Axis hold on the Mediterranean Sea. Their strategy resulted in Italy’s unconditional surrender in September 1943 (though that wasn’t the end of the war in Italy). Earlier that year, the Western allies started making preparations for a campaign that would finally open up a new front in northwestern France. It was going to be an amphibious assault, with tens of thousands of men leaving England and then landing on France’s Atlantic coastline.

  1. Normandy was chosen as the D-Day landing site because the Allies were hoping to surprise German forces.

Since the Germans would presumably expect an attack on the Pas de Calais—the closest point to the UK—the Allies decided to hit the beaches of Normandy instead. Normandy was also within flying distance of war planes stationed in England, and it had a conveniently located port.

  1. D-Day action centered around five beaches that were code-named "Utah," "Omaha," "Gold," "Juno," and "Sword."

American assault troops and equipment landing on Omaha beach on the Northern coast of France.
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Altogether, the D-Day landing beaches encompassed 50 miles of coastline real estate [PDF]. The Canadian 3rd Division landed on Juno; British forces touched down on Gold and Sword; and the Americans were sent to Utah and Omaha. Of the five beaches, Omaha had the most bloodshed: Roughly 2400 American casualties—plus 1200 German casualties—occurred there. How the beaches got their code-names is a mystery, although it’s been claimed that American general Omar Bradley named “Omaha” and “Utah” after two of his staff carpenters. (One of the men came from Omaha, Nebraska, while the other called Provo, Utah, home.)

  1. Pulling off the D-Day landings involved some elaborate trickery to fool the Nazis.

If the Allies landed in France, Hitler was confident that his men could repel them. “They will get the thrashing of their lives,” the Führer boasted. But in order to do that, the German military would need to know exactly where the Allied troops planned to begin their invasion. So in 1943, the Allies kicked off an ingenious misinformation campaign. Using everything from phony radio transmissions to inflatable tanks, they successfully convinced the Germans that the British and American forces planned to make landfall at the Pas de Calais. Duped by the charade, the Germans kept a large percentage of their troops stationed there (and in Norway, which was the rumored target of another bogus attack). That left Normandy relatively under-defended when D-Day came along.

  1. D-Day was planned with the help of meteorologists.

The landings at Normandy and subsequent invasion of France were code-named “Operation Overlord,” and General Dwight D. Eisenhower (the future U.S. president) led the operation. To choose the right date for his invasion, Eisenhower consulted with three different teams of meteorologists, who predicted that in early June, the weather would be best on June 5, 6, or 7; if not then, they'd have to wait for late June.

Originally, Eisenhower wanted to start the operation on June 5. But the weather didn’t cooperate. To quote geophysicist Walter Munk, “On [that date], there were very high winds, and Eisenhower made the decision to wait 24 hours. However, 24 hours later, the Americans predicted there would be a break in the storm and that conditions would be difficult, but not impossible.” Ultimately, Ike began the attack on June 6, even though the weather was less than ideal. It’s worth noting that if he’d waited for a clearer day, the Germans might have been better prepared for his advance. (As for the dates they'd suggested for late June? There was a massive storm.)

  1. "D-Day" was a common military term, according to Eisenhower's personal aide.

A few years after Eisenhower retired from public life, he was asked if the “D” in “D-day” stood for anything. In response to this inquiry, his aide Robert Schultz (a brigadier general) said that “any amphibious operation has a ‘departed date’; therefore the shortened term ‘D-Day’ is used” [PDF].

  1. D-Day was among the largest amphibious assaults in military history.

U.S. troops in landing craft, during the D-Day landings.
Keystone/Getty Images

On D-Day, approximately 156,115 Allied troops—representing the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland—landed on the beaches of Normandy. They were accompanied by almost 7000 nautical vessels. In terms of aerial support, the Allies showed up with more than 10,000 individual aircrafts, which outnumbered the German planes 30 to one.

  1. On D-Day, floating tanks were deployed by the Allies.

The brainchild of British engineers, the Sherman Duplex Drive Tanks (a.k.a. “Donald Duck” tanks) came with foldable canvas screens that could be unfurled at will, turning the vehicle into a crude boat. Once afloat, the tanks were driven forward with a set of propellers. They had a top nautical speed of just under 5 mph. The Duplex Drives that were sent to Juno, Sword, and Gold fared a lot better than those assigned to Omaha or Utah. The one at Omaha mostly sank because they had to travel across larger stretches of water—and they encountered choppier waves.

  1. When the D-Day attack started, Adolf Hitler was asleep.

On the eve of D-Day, Hitler was entertaining Joseph Goebbels and some other guests at his home in the Alps. The dictator didn’t go to bed until 3 a.m. Just three and a half hours later, at 6:30 a.m., the opening land invasions at Normandy began. (And by that point, Allied gliders and paratroopers had been touching down nearby since 12:16 in the morning.) Hitler was finally roused at noon, when his arms minister informed him about the massive assault underway in Normandy. Hitler didn’t take it seriously and was slow to authorize a top general’s request for reinforcements. That mistake proved critical.

  1. Eisenhower was fully prepared to accept blame if things went badly on D-Day.

General Dwight D Eisenhower watches the Allied landing operations from the deck of a warship in the English Channel on D-Day.
Keystone/Getty Images

While Hitler was partying in the Alps, Eisenhower was drafting a bleak message. The success of Operation Overlord was by no means guaranteed, and if something went horribly awry, Ike might have had no choice but to order a full retreat. So he preemptively wrote a brief statement that he intended to release if the invasion fell apart. “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” it said. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

  1. Knocking out German communications was one of the keys to victory on D-Day.

Hitler may not have had all of his troops in the right spot, but the Germans who’d been stationed at Normandy did enjoy some crucial advantages. At many localities—Omaha Beach included—the Nazi forces had high-powered machine guns and fortified positions. That combination enabled them to mow down huge numbers of Allied troops. But before the dawn broke on June 6, British and American paratroopers had landed behind enemy lines and taken out vital lines of communication while capturing some important bridges. Ultimately, that helped turn the tide against Germany.

  1. Theodore Roosevelt's son earned a medal of honor for fighting on D-Day.

It was the 56-year-old brigadier general Theodore Roosevelt Jr. who led the first wave of troops on Utah Beach. The men, who had been pushed off-course by the turbulent waters, missed their original destination by over 2000 yards. Undaunted, Roosevelt announced, “We’re going to start the war from right here.” Though he was arthritic and walked with a cane, Roosevelt insisted on putting himself right in the heart of the action. Under his leadership, the beach was taken in short order. Roosevelt, who died of natural causes one month later, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

  1. D-Day was the opening chapter in a long campaign.

The Normandy invasion was not a one-day affair; it raged on until Allied forces crossed the River Seine in August [PDF]. Altogether, the Allies took about 200,000 casualties over the course of the campaign—including 4413 deaths on D-Day alone. According to the D-Day Center, “No reliable figures exist for the German losses, but it is estimated that around 200,000 were killed or wounded with approximately 200,000 more taken prisoner.” On May 7, 1945—less than a year after D-Day—Germany surrendered, ending the war in its European Theater.

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