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Belligerents and Participants
The Kingdom of Bohemia had slowly been assimilated into the Hapsburg Empire, but when Austria and Hungry became duel monarchies in 1867, Bohemia did not receive the autonomy it had hoped. This strengthened the independence movement of Bohemian Czechs, and they were soon allied with Moravians and ethnic Slovaks who had the same aspirations. Concessions were offered, but they all fell short of the equal partnership that was being demanded. Czechs comprised the third largest ethnic group in Austria-Hungry; and although few had love for the Empire, they initially remained loyal to the Hapsburg Emperor if only for the lack of choice. Even so, the Czech deputies at the imperial parliament became so disruptive that this body was no longer functioning when World War One began.
While the state of Czechoslovakia did not yet exist in 1914, the inhabitants of the imperial provinces of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia had a history of their own that significantly affected postcard production during the Great War.
The first Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia suffered greatly from poor planning and logistics, not to mention poorly trained solders with inadequate weapons. It is not surprising that this offensive was stopped and then thrown back by Serb troops who were veterans of the Balkan Wars. Yet blame for this failure fell on the large amount of Czech solders who took part in this operation. Accused of being unreliable and even traitorous, they would be looked on suspiciously by the Austrians for the duration of the War, and often singled out for discipline. This led to decreasing morale among Czech units and it increased their rate of desertion.
The desertion of Czech troops became a major problem in the Austro-Hungarian army. It was not just the loss of manpower but entire units could not be entrusted to carry out their assigned missions in battle. As this problem increased, it began to be seen more as a political problem than a military concern and retaliation against the families of deserters became policy and arrests of those deemed disloyal were common. Officials grew so resentful that the crest of Bohemia was even removed from the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian coat of arms.
The Great War disturbed the delicate balance of loyalties within Austria-Hungary, and many who had long sought their own independence believed this could be better achieved if they joined the enemy and fought for the empire’s downfall. At the outbreak of the First World War the many Czechs who had immigrated to Russia petitioned the Czar to form their own national unit, and in 1914 the first Czech Legion (Cheshskaya Druzhina), though only a battalion in size was established within the Russian army. By October, Czech prisoners of war were being segregated out from the Austro-Hungarians, and those who took on Russian citizenship were allowed to fight in the Russian army. Russian supported for these moves grew stronger when the idea of placing a Romanov monarch on the thrown of a new Czechoslovakia seemed feasible.
The Parliamentarian Tomas Masaryk had long tried to put an end to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in favor of creating a democratic federal state, but when this effort failed he turned his attention to wining independence for Czechs and Slovaks. He saw the Great War as the perfect opportunity to achieve this and immediately began to conspire with the Czech nationalist Eduard Benes. By the end of 1914 Masaryk had gone into exile to established an international campaign calling for the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By January 1915, he set up his headquarters in Geneva were disparate underground revolutionary groups would have a central point to organize for Czech independence. After Benes escaped to Switzerland in September the revolutionaries came out into the open establishing the Czech Committee Abroad. They were now publicly expressing their aims and calling for international support. By the end of the year they moved their headquarters to Paris and established the Czech National Council with Masaryk as president. Benes would serve as secretary and Milan Stefanik who was already serving as an aviator in the French army became Minister of War.
Competing interests of Czech fractions made the Czar suspicious of arming too many soldiers, but after the February revolution of 1917, Masaryk went to Russia and set up a National Committee in Kiev and Stephanik arrived to help organize an army. By May the new provisional government finally gave permission to create a Czech Legion from the swelling numbers of Czech deserters and prisoners of war being held there. The formation of an army composed only of Czechs would allowed for better cohesiveness than if they were directly integrated into the Russian army, but the existing Russian led Druzhina would act as its core. Soon after an agreement was also struck to transport thousands of additional Czechs through Archangel to fight and work France.
The first major battle to involve Czech Legion troops came in June 1917, when they took part in Kerensky’s renewed offensive in Galicia. Many Russian troops were now unwilling to go into combat, and so the Czechs were chosen to participate because of their ardor to fight the Austro-Hungarians. Utilizing stormtrooper tactics, the Czechs broke through the enemy line at Zborov. While they achieved much success the overall campaign was a failure do to the decreasing morale of the Russian army. Even so, the Czechs used this small victory to their advantage, making it an example of why more prisoners of war were needed to increase the LegionŐs strength. This battle would be well represented on propaganda cards from Czechoslovakia after the War.
Volunteers for the Czech cause had been sought in the United States since 1915, but more serious efforts began after America entered the War in spring 1917. After General Milan Stefanik arrived, a Czechoslovak recruitment office was opened in the United States and the propaganda war began. The artist Vojtech Preissig produced a number of patriotic posters to help support this effort that the Wentworth Institute in Boston turned into a large series of postcards. These cards were reissued a number of times, and because of this some images have varied overprinting.
While Czechs had been serving in the French Foreign Legion since the onset of the War, efforts to create an independent Czech army on the Western Front were getting nowhere. Benes was endlessly pressing the issue and he found many sympathetic ears, but the bureaucracy of the state was holding up progress. It was not until December 1917 that France issued a decree that allowed a Czech army to be formed and armed. Volunteers were found and organized into a legion by General Stephanik, but the large numbers of troops expected from Russia were not forthcoming due to the renewed German offensive toward Riga. General disorganization after the October Revolution combined with fears of moving large bodies of armed foreign troops across Russia also prevented most Czechs on the Eastern Front from reaching Archangel. This led to negotiations to move the entire Czech Legion across Siberia to Vladivostok where they could be met by French ships.
The Austro-Hungarians did not take Czech defections lightly. Many Czech soldiers serving in their army were transferred to the Italian Front where they would not be intimidated by having to fight fellow Slavs and countrymen, and desertions would be more difficult. After the Battle of Zborov those who had joined the Czech Legions and were now fighting for the Russians were not always granted the status of prisoner of war when captured; many of these men were hung as traitors. Such images were not widely employed as a deterrent, which was probably out of fear that the mere acknowledgment of the problem would be demoralizing. Despite this there are many real photo postcards depicting the hanging of Czech soldiers to be found. While some of these cards are clearly labeled as such, there are many more of anonymous hangings that leave us to speculate over their content.
Once France decided to establish an independent Czech army it was eager to receive the large number of Czech prisoners of war held in Italy. While they were amassed closer to the French border for eventual transfer, the Italian government could not agree on a policy toward the establishment of Czechoslovakian State, which paralyzed the movement of prisoners. The Italians were using some Czech prisoners in work details, but only a few saw military duty as scouts. As the need for more soldiers grew desperate, an independent Czech Legion in Italy was finally authorized in May 1918. After being organized by General Stephanik, the Legion began to see combat as early as June. They would take part in the offensive on the Piave River that fall. Their numbers grew so great that some Czech troops were diverted to the offensive launched against Bulgaria from Salonika in September.
As a foreign army in a foreign land, the Czech Legion in Russia held a precarious position that was exasperated by the October Revolution, When the Ukrainians rose up against the German leadership imposed on them and sought independence they ended up fighting with the Bolsheviks who wanted the Ukraine to remain with Russia. This conflict whirled around the Czechs until January 1919; and while they largely managed to remain neutral, it became more difficult as fighting between Red and White Russian fractions erupted into civil war. When some Czech units chose sides, they were looked upon with even more suspicion by the Russians. In the meantime they were one of the few units still actively engaged with the Germans on the Eastern Front, though by the end of 1918 this was more of a fighting withdrawal from Kiev as they moved toward Omsk.
The eastward journey of the Czech Legion was severely hampered by the disarray of revolutionary Russia. Permission had been officially granted for them to travel across Siberia, but they had to renegotiate every step of the way with local commanders, often sacrificing weapons in return. Things came to a head after Russia signed a final peace deal with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. While the Germans demanded that the Czech Legion be disarmed and taken prisoner, many Bolsheviks wanted the Czechs to be incorporated into the Red Army. The Czech National Council that had always demanded neutrality and cooperation with the Bolsheviks now seemed out of touch with reality to the Legion. Facing unacceptable options, the Legion held a conference at Chelyabinsk in mid-May where they decided that they would follow their own independent soldierŐs council and fight their way eastward if necessary. It did not take long for them to become engaged with Bolshevik forces in open battle. As the Russians tore up track on the Trans-Siberian railway the pace of withdrawal slowed, and the Czechs were left holding five distinct pockets.
Their were many cities and stations along the Trans-Siberian railway garrisoned by Russian troops, and the Legion spent most of the summer clearing them out until they controlled an uncontested stretch of more than two thousand miles between the Volga River and Krasnoyarsk. They were now only separated from those who had already reached Vladostovik and they had taken over the city in June. All this fighting diverted the LegionŐs focus and they became increasingly involved in regional politics, often aiding White troops. The large body of territory they came to control was then recognized as an independent Siberian State by France, which they now ordered the Czechs to defend from the Bolsheviks. While this meant the Legion would not come to the aid of the Western Front, their powerful presence on the railway was also preventing hundreds of thousands of German and Hungarian prisoners held by the Russians from returning home. The Legion did not want to play this role, but Masaryk advised them to comply for the sake of political leverage. This would bare fruit after secret peace negotiations with Austrian Emperor Charles I failed in the summer of 1918 and the Allies recognized the Czech National Council as the seed for a future Czechoslovak State.
By August 1918, the Allies intervened in Russia by sending a large contingent of forces, mostly Japanese and Americans, to Eastern Siberia under the pretense of preventing Germany from seizing the large stockpiles of military supplies they hand been shipping there. At the same time the Czechs were now moving westward opening a new Eastern Front. They launched offensives on the Volga River and in the Urial Mountains, scoring a major victory with the capture of Kazan and the imperial gold reserves held there. Lenin replied by declaring war on the Allies, and Leon Trotsky began massing the Red Army to meet this threat. The Bolsheviks recaptured Kazan the following month, and their growing numbers began pressing the Czechs backward. In the East the Legion finally met up with stiff organized Russian resistance as they approached Irkutsk on the shore of Lake Baykal in September. While they persevered in battle, the Russians managed to blow up one of the many railroad tunnels in the region, which brought the Czech’s eastward advance to a complete halt.
After the death of Emperor Franz Josef, his son Charles I took reign over Austria-Hungary. Fearing the breakup of the Hapsburg Empire, he made an announcement in October proclaiming his intentions to form a semi-independent Czechoslovak State. While this move might have quelled rebellion early in the War, no one in the Czech National Council believed the empire would survive the conflict. On October 14, 1918, Masaryk turned the National Council into a provisional government for the future state, and on the 28th the people of Prague revolted and declared an independent Czechoslovakia. On November 14th, three days after the Armistice with Germany was signed, a Czech republic was declared and Tomas Masaryk was made president by acclamation.
General Stephanik oversaw the return of Czech troops serving in France and Italy, but the end of the Great War had no effect the Czech Legion still fighting in Siberia. Czechoslovakia would only continue to exist if agreed upon at the Paris Peace Conference and Masaryk needed leverage. The interventionist forces in Siberia all had different ideas of why they were there. British and French commanders would have liked to topple the Bolsheviks while the Americans had no clearcut political aims. Japan fielded a large army but was more interested in securing Manchuria than fighting Bolsheviks, and they would not move past Lake Baykal. This only left the Czech Legion to prop up the Siberian government and fight the Red Army. They would not be coming home as expected for they were now the pawns of international politics.
The situation in Siberia only grew worse after Admiral Kolchak arrived in Omsk at the bequest of the Allies and declared himself Supreme Governor of All Russia. Most Czechs resented their new role in reimposing an imperial dictatorship on Russia and demoralization quickly set in. The conflict now degenerated into increasing political executions and reprisals that turned much of the local population against the Whites. The military situation quickly deteriorated and the Red Army captured the White capital of Omsk in November 1919. Now the Legion would be engaged in an eastward flight as White resistance collapsed. They tried to reinstate a neutral stance but they remained plagued by partisan activity as the countryside rose up against them. In February 1920 The Legion sighed an armistice with the Red Army in Irkutsk. They turned over the gold reserve and Admiral Kolchak who they were protecting in exchange for safe passage to Vladivostok. All the remaining Czech Legion would be united there by May and the last soldiers would depart Siberia for their new homeland in September.
Czechoslovakia proclaimed its independence from Austria-Hungary on October 28, 1918, but this move would only be internationally recognized in September 1919. While both Austria and Germany would be forced to recognize Czech independence and the new borders drawn up by the Versailles Treaty, they remained unsettled for some time. Czechoslovakia was soon at war with the new Polish State as both competed to seize more territory from German Silesia. With ethnic populations dispersed throughout the region, tensions continued to build and mass migrations followed. Hungary would also invade the Czech republic in May to regain lost territory.
Many postcards relating to Czechoslovakia’s struggle for independence during World War one would be published in the postwar years to help boost patriotism and national identity. While some of these draw on universal themes of freedom, others are closely tied to local events or personalities that have become more obscure, at least to outsiders, over time.
Part of the effort to reinforce national identity in the new Czech republic was by delving into the past. Even though long part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Bohemia had a distinct history that was often tied to more recent events. It is not uncommon to find postcards of the Czech Legion engaged in battle mixed with soldiers that fought in other historic struggles such as the Thirty Years War.
A number of Czech legion cards carried imagery that was heavily borrowed from other revolutionary traditions. The most obvious is iconography is from the French Revolution, where liberty personified as Marianne or the martyred drummer boy, Joseph Bara, lead troops into battle. This theme grew in intensity by 1919 when the Allies were contemplating the formation of Czechoslovakia. Many Czech cards at this time also began to portray the Statue of Liberty in conjunction with independence themes. This may have been in part inspired by the visit of George Creel from the Committee on Public Information in the United States. Exiled from the Paris Peace Talks, he began making generous promises to the Czechs that none of the Allies was willing to grant.
Prague was a very active publishing center while still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and many postcards were produced there. While cracks of decent can sometimes be found in their tone, these publishers generally produced cards supporting the Empire and the Great War when it came. In most ways these cards are indistinguishable from those printed in Austria or Hungary, except that the only printed language on them might be Czech.
One of the more notable firms located in Prague was the printer Andreas Haase. During World War One he produced an outstanding set of artist drawn charity cards aimed at aiding railway workers. While some of these cards have clear military references, their main focus is on the railway workers and their equipment.
The Prague photo studio of Husnik & Hausler was making photographic photo separations for printers at the turn of the 20th century. Soon they began publishing tricolor view-cards under their own name. While a number of their cards carried patriotic Czech subjects, there was only so far they could carry this theme while part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially during the Great War. In the postwar years they revisited military subject matter and published cards depicting the Czech Legion in its struggle with Austria-Hungary for independence.
A large postcard series was issued after the Great War by a committee set up under J. Blazek to raise money for a freedom memorial. These cards depict the life and struggles of the Czech Legion, and reproduce artwork produced by soldiers who were active in the conflict. While there are scenes of combat, most cards depict the many varied landscapes of France, Italy, and Russia where the Legion campaigned. While these cards are undated and rarely ever postmarked, the artwork on them is often accompanied by dates.
Emil Artur Longen was a primarily a landscape painter who worked in a very expressive style. His views of the Champagne region of France where Czech soldiers fought were used to illustrate postcards produced for the life and struggles of the Czech Legion series.
The first private school in Central Europe to promote higher education for women was Minerva in Prague, founded in 1890 by the Bohemian poet Eliska Krasnohorska. By 1912, if not earlier, they were publishing Art reproductions on postcards as a fund raising method. During the First World War many of these works of art contained patriotic or military themes.
Josef Mathauser’s career as a painter largely fell within the 19th century. While he produced traditional portraits and rural scenes in an academic style, much of his work revolved around historical and religious narratives. Some of his patriotic Czech themes showing great historic battles were placed on postcards, but by the Great War he seemed more interest in themes calling for peace. He created images for postcards until his death in 1917.
The Croat Milivoj Uzelac moved to Zagreb just before the Great War where he began to study art. In 1915 he moved to Prague to further his studies at the Academy. He would eventually find work producing cartoons for satirical publications. Many of these images were highly critical of the War and those leading it, so he adopted the pseudonym Honoré de Trottoir for safety. His images are very expressive and often gruesome in the spirit of Goya. While these cartoons found their way onto postcards, it is uncertain if they were published during the War. At the end of the conflict, Uzelac returned to Zagreb.