The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 2/With the Czechoslovak Army in Russia

The Czechoslovak Review, volume 2, no. 10 (2)  (1918) 
With the Czechoslovak Army in Russia by Kenneth Dexter Miller

With the Czechoslovak Army in Russia.

By the Rev. Kenneth Miller.

Mr. Miller was until last year in charge of the Settlement House connected with the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church of New York. He it probably the only old stock American who can speak the Czech language fluently. He was sent to Russia in the summer of 1917 as a Y. M. C. A. secretary and has been the director of Y. M. C. A. work in the Czechoslovak army.

The story he sent to the Bohemian Review was written by him in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, on January 24, 1918. It took nine months to reach the United States. The reader should remember that Mr. Miller wrote the following long before America heard that there were Czechoslovak soldiers in Russia.

If every Bohemian in America could have the experience that I am having of living in the midst of the Czechoslovak army in Russia, the subscriptions to the work of the Bohemian National Alliance and to the Bohemian Liberty Loan would pour in so fast that the treasurer would have difficulty in counting them. And if every American could have a like experience there would arise throughout the length and breadth of the land such an insistent popular demand for the independence of Bohemia that President Wilson would be forced by the sheer weight of public opinion to include in his peace terms even more explicitly than he has already done the demand for the political freedom of the Czecho-Slavs.

Leaving America at a time when all the energy and enthusiasm of the nation was being turned into the successful prosecution of the war, and entertaining high hopes that Russia would yet play an important role in the war against German militarism, one can imagine my discouragement upon arriving in Russia to find that not only was Russia to be counted out of the actual warfare, but that the government had fallen into the hands of people who, wittingly or unwittingly, were playing into the hands of the German war-lords.

Not a bright spot did I discover in the whole situation until I arrived at Petrograd, and came in contact with some of the leaders of the Czech revolution movement in Russia, and with some of the officers and men from the Czechoslovak army.

I must confess that prior to my departure from America I was very dubious about the ultimate outcome of the Czechoslovak revolutionary movement. Now, however, all doubts are forever dispelled, and I am absolutely confident that the Czechoslovaks will, as an outcome of the war, secure their political independence, for which they have longed for generations, and which they so richly deserve.

Two considerations have led me to this firm convictions. The first is the news which is constantly received here in Russia of it ternal disorders in Austria, which are taking more and more the form of an open revolution, and in which the Bohemian patriots at home are taking a leading part. When Bohemian papers in Austria can print a map of the proposed Czechoslovak independent state, and Bohemian representatives in the Austrian parliament state openly that they will be satisfied with nothing less than complete political independence, one can be sure that the iron hand of Hapsburg autocracy is losing its grip upon the throat of the smaller nationalities in the empire, and that it will not be long before they tear themselves loose, and win their long desired freedom.

The second consideration which makes me absolutely confident that Bohemia will be free is the spirit of the men who form the Czechoslovak army. I first caught the spirit of this volunteer army at Petrograd in conversation with officers and men who had taken part in the famous charge at Zborov during the July offensive of the Russian army. We had received but little news of this glorious engagement in America, and hardly anything of the glorious part played by the Czechs.

I have heard the story now hundreds of times, and I never tire of listening to it because I see in it a most remarkable resemblance to the battles of the Hussites in the olden times. The reckless daring of the men who charged without being at all adequately armed; the quick thrust which took the Austrians by surprise; the panic of the enemy at the approach of the “red and white devils”, as they call the Czechs from the little ribbons they wear on their hats; the arrangement to play a game of football in Lvov the week following; the holy exaltation of the men combined with a fierce unrelenting hatred of the enemy are all elements which are familiar with the
Czech Pullman in Siberia.

Czechoslovak Troops in Front of Their Headquarters.
Courtesy of the "Asia".

history of the Hussite wars, and the exploits of Žižka and his followers.

My first impression of the spirit of these modern Hussites has been intensified by my close association with them during the last two months. Their esprit-de-corps and fighting spirit would be remarkable in a freshly-recruited volunteer army, and when one hears of the experiences that they have all been through first in the Austrian army, then as prisoners of war in Russia, and of late as volunteers in the Russian army, one wonders that they have come through it all alive, and is perfectly amazed that after all they have suffered they are ready, yes and eager to make further sacrifices for their country.

It seems as if they cannot or will not be downed. The present political situation in Russia has put upon them an added burden. All around them the Russian army has been going to pieces. A complete breakdown of military discipline has been followed by social and political anarchy. In the midst of the turmoil of events in Russia, in spite of the uncertainties and dangers that surround them, the Czechs have held their army together, completed its organization, maintained its discipline, and are holding themselves ready for further service in the cause of the allies.

All know that they can do nothing more here in Russia. To a man they are anxious to get to another front where they can be of some use. Yet they know that for the present that is impossible and are stoutly making the best of an impossible situation.

For some time past the troops have been situated out in the country not so very far from what was once the active front. The men are billeted in the peasants’ cottages. But the cottages there are nothing like the cottages they are accustomed to in Bohemia. They are small, and dirty and ramshackle, and infested with vermin. The men sleep on the bare floor with their knapsack for a pillow and their overcoat for a covering.

Fortunately the commissary department of the army has laid up a bountiful supply of provisions, so that the men are fairly well fed. Most of them have warm clothing too for the winter season, although quite often one sees soldiers walking through the snow clad only in the light summer uniform of the Russian army. The people in the villages are either very poor Ukrainians of little or no education, or grasping, fawning Jews. The men of the Czechoslovak army are of the intelligent class. They have all had a good schooling, and it is by no means an uncommon thing to find University professors, lawyers, merchants and well-to-do farmers serving in the ranks as privates.

One of the greatest privations of their life, as they stand idle during the long winter months, is the lack of any outlet for their natural social instincts and of any means of satisfying their intellectual and cultural tastes. In many cottages no light whatsoever is afforded them and they have nothing to do but think, and with nothing very pleasant or cheering to think about.

The men have, however, displayed untiring energy and remarkable ingenuity in meeting this situation. Most every regiment now has a theatre of its own where performances are given three times a week. I have attended a good many of these performances, and have always come away with a feeling of wonder at the ingenuity of the men, and also with the sense of having a very good time. Generally the entertainments take the form of “cabarets”, by which is really meant a vaudeville show or stunt night. The regimental band or orchestra plays, the regimental chorus sings, and individual soldiers give an exhibition of their ability along the line of declamations, imitations, comic monologues, and short one-act comedies. Often the men borrow feminine attire from the civilian population and appear as charming young soubrettes. Some of the regiments are more ambitious, and have produced musical comedies and more ambitious plays with great success.

The “theatre” is generally an old barn which the men themselves have fitted out, and on the night of the performances it is always crowded to suffocation. The officers and the civilian population occupy the front seats, for which they pay a good round sum. The local people are wild about these performances, are only too glad to pay any amount charged to see them, for they also have no other form of recreation. The men crowd in the back and stand, wedged in as tight as they can be, throughout the whole performance. Quite often the men realize as much as 1500 rubles from one performance which is devoted to the invalid fund, or the Bohemian Liberty loan. So that in addition to furnishing the men with a wholesome evening’s recreation these home-made theatres contribute much to the philantropic and patriotic enterprises of the army.

Besides the theatres, the men have provided themselves with libraries, reading rooms, and in some cases tea-rooms. They are constantly handicapped by the lack of funds, however, and it is in this respect that the Young Men’s Christian Association has been able to be of real service to them.

The Association assigned Mr. Charles M. H. Atherton, also of the Jan Hus Neighborhood House in New York, and myself to the work among the Czecho-Slovaks. We encountered unbelievable obstacles in purchasing and transporting our equipment and supplies to the front. But at last we have been successful in establishing three centres. At two of the regiments we have a kinometograph and tea-room in operation, while at the head-quarters of the staff we have established a tea-room. From the very outset the buildings have been crowded to capacity day and night. The men use the buildings as a club house, and are extremely grateful for the opportunity to sit down and read the newspapers or look at illustrated magazines, or play a quiet game of chess, or listen to the hard-worked gramophone. In each “hut” we have a large picture of Professor Masaryk, surrounded by the Bohemian and American flags, and our work seems to represent in their minds the willingness of America to stand up for the rights of the Czechs and the other smaller nationalities, and to fight for those rights. The expressions of gratitude and appreciation which have come to our ears, make us feel that all the long trip over here has not been altogether in vain.

The most interesting part of our experience is the conversations with the officers and men. We never miss an opportunity to draw them out, and the tales they tell of what they have been through are exciting enough to make one’s hair stand on end, and horrible enough to instil in one the most violent abhorence of war fare and the whole unhuman bloody business. When men can sleep out in the open snow, or tied to the branch of a tree, when they can go for days with nothing to eat at all and then devour with the utmost relish a dinner of two cats and a dog; when they can go through four years life in the muddy, vermin infested trenches, or in the disease ridden prison camps where men die by the thousands every day; when men can live through all of that and many other untold and untellable horrors, and at the end of it be ready and eager for further suf- end of it be ready and eager for further sufferings and hardships for their country, they have shown the large measure of patriotic devotion, and it cannot be, it must not be, that they shall have fought and suffered and died in vain. Out of it all there must issue a new free Bohemia, where these men and their countrymen may have the freeest opportunity for self-development in every department of social life.

When discussing the present military and political situation, the men invariably end by saying: “Well, we are relying upon America.” They are most fervent in their expressions of gratitude for what America has already done for them. The liberality of the Bohemians in America, the espousal of the cause of Bohemia by President Wilson have given to America a very warm spot in their hearts. They will never for get it. But they are looking to us for still further assistance. They are looking to the Bohemians of America to swell the number of the ranks of the Czecho-slovak army in France. They expect to see a bountiful subscription to the Bohemian Liberty Loan in America. But most of all they are looking to America to win the war and make the world safe for the democratic Czechoslovak Republic. May their hopes and ours come to a speedy and complete fulfillment!Kenneth D. Miller.

Kiev, Russia. January 4, 1918.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1968, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.