Mobile museum tracks Czechoslovaks epic fights and flight from Russia

A mobile museum on rails is criss-crossing the Czech Republic is a bid to recreate the exploits of Czech soldiers serving in allied armies during WWI. The main focus is on the so-called Czechoslovak legionnaires in Russia, when they started out fighting against Austro-Hungarian and German armies and eventually found themselves battling the new Bolshevik regime in an epic struggle along around 5,000 kilometres of the Trans-Siberian railway.

Legiovlak, photo: Kristýna MakováLegiovlak, photo: Kristýna Maková Legiovlak is an ambitious and impressive museum on rails which for around three years now has been stopping at Czech towns and cities passing on a 100 year old history lesson about how Czech and Slovak soldiers served in allied armies during WWI, many after deserting or being taken prisoner from the Austro-Hungarian army.

These Czechs and Slovak units eventually found themselves in almost every army and on almost every front. But it was in Russia that their impact was greatest and longest, as around 50,000 soldiers found that they were longer fighting alongside the Tsar’s army but trying to make a rapid escape from Russia to the east along the only route open to them – the Trans-Siberian railway. And tension with the ruling Bolsheviks after 1917 turned into open conflict as Russia collapsed into civil war.

And it’s this escape story which is the main focus of the Legiovlak exhibition. The exhibition is made up of around half a dozen rail wagons which have been restored to look like those which the Legionnaires used on the Trans-Siberian railway. They include an ambulance, staff car, shop, living quarters, postal wagon, black smith’s workshop, and armoured car with a difference. To make the wagon bullet proof, pebbles were packed between the wooden boards that made up the wagon. There’s a guided tour, film, you can handle one of the period rifles, and make your purchases at the shop; albeit for souvenir and books rather than the tinned food and extras that the soldiers would have been chasing.

ʺWe are planning to continue until at least 2020 so that this would be in line with the actual history.ʺ

Pavel Kohout from Hradec Králové is one of the small uniformed team that accompany the Legiovlak on its travels. He outlined some of the broad aims of the museum on a recent stopover at the spa resort of Mariánské Lázně:

ʺThe LegioVlak is a mobile museum which goes from town to town across the country. It shows how our predecessors who took part in WWI actually lived and existed. We precisely wanted to remember the 100th anniversary of some of these events. We said to ourselves that if we did not do it now when would we. Some people might still be living who have some recollections of the Second World War but there are no longer any people living who were directly involved in WW1. That is why, for example, we want to tell schoolchildren who come here on morning tours and the general public about that time. We want to explain what happened with the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia and that state and underline that this did not happen on its own but had to be paid for. There were a lot of volunteers who took up rifles and went to fight and spilled their blood for Czechoslovakia to exist.ʺ

Legiovlak, photo: Kristýna MakováLegiovlak, photo: Kristýna Maková The message that there was no gain without pain is particularly apposite during 2018, the year which marks the centenary since the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. It was the presence of the Czech and Slovak legionary forces in allied armies that often represented one of the few cards that Czechoslovakia’s founding fathers held as they argued for independence. And the Russian legion was a trump card, although Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk at some times did not want to play it the way the Allies wanted and refused enter into an outright war with the new Bolshevik government in Moscow.

More important to TGM was getting the legionnaires home, though it’s estimated that the occupation of the Trans-Siberian railway complicated life considerably for the Austro-Hungarian and German armies as well and prevented tens of thousands of their prisoners in Russia from making the shorter trip back home where they could have been used on the Western front during key battles in 1918.

And that homeward journey proved a drawn out and complicated affair with the Czechoslovak legion at some times governing wides swatches of Russia as they tried to get troops to Vladivostok so that they could be shipped home. Pavel Kohout again:

ʺThere were a lot of volunteers who took up rifles and went to fight and spilled their blood for Czechoslovakia to exist.ʺ

ʺThis moving museum started to crisscross the Republic in 2015. This year is our fourth season. We are planning to continue until at least 2020 so that this would be in line with the actual history. The last soldiers did not back in 1918 when the First World War ended but those in Russia in 1919 and as late as 1920. It’s a sort of sad historical paradox that the very last military transport from Vladivostok came in at the port of Trieste exactly on November 11, 1920. That’s exactly two years after the end of World War 1.ʺ

The organisation behind Legiovlak was created by the returning soldiers themselves and has been kept alive since by their descendants and other enthusiasts for the period and sagas of the legionnaires. Pavel Kohout:

ʺThe idea originated some time in 2008. There was a contract to initially build three wagons which were later shown off at a transport fair in Brno. They were later shown off to the public and expanded into the moving collection which we have got today. The Czechoslovak Legionnaires Association which is behind the initiative was created in 1921 from the members of the various legions which took part in World War 1. The organisation was banned during the totalitarian eras of the Nazis and Communists but restarted its activity after the Velvet Revolution.ʺ

Legiovlak, photo: Kristýna MakováLegiovlak, photo: Kristýna Maková Kohout says the very visual history lesson is much needed because many young Czechs are now pretty vague about what happened 100 years ago. Even adults are hazy about what the legionnaires did as their exploits were hushed up by the Nazi and communist regimes. And now we’ll take a tour of some of the exhibition wagons starting with the shop where the attendant helpfully speaks English, like some of his counterparts 100 years earlier who were in fact young American volunteers.

ʺHere we are in the shop in the wagon. We have here, for example, salmon from the United States because the American YMCA came to Russia and joined the forces of the Czechoslovaks and helped them with food and entertainment. They brought chess, the cinema and movies, and helped support theatre and free time entertainment with Czechoslovaks. I believe there were dozens of them. It took place between 1918 and 1920 and they cooperated with the American and Japanese Red Cross and they supported Czechoslovak hospitals.ʺ

As Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach; and the logistics of supplying a force spread out over thousands of kilometres must have been immense even though they were in control of the main transport artery at the time. In Russia, the Czechoslovak legion’s logistical challenges encouraged them to set up businesses and embark on international trade:

ʺThere were plants for making sugar, spirits, presses for metal working and railway equipment, arms factories, and coal and gold mines.ʺ

ʺThe leadership of some military operations had a much more daunting challenge and that was to food, clothe, and house. It was a difficult task to complete. On the Trans-Siberia railway there were many abandoned factories and workshops which the Czechoslovaks managed to re-start. There were plants for making sugar, spirits, presses for metal working and railway equipment, arms factories, and coal and gold mines. There were more than 300 such plants. They either produced goods that the army needed or they were exported to other countries, such as China or Japan and even as far away as the United States and the money was used to get goods in Russia which simply weren’t available.ʺ

Treating the wounded often involved sending special ambulance wagons up the lines where they could carry out emergency operations. But a much more sophisticated health service was also created for soldiers as well as the local population:

The Legiovlak exhibitions are free with details of stops on the site legiovlak.cz. Most of the explanations and the guided tours are in Czech.

ʺThey also had fast ambulances which were sent up the railway line to the front. They were able to operate on them on this type of improvised operations table. When the fighting started against the Bolsheviks they weren’t able to get access to anaesthetics and medicines. So, most of the operations at the time took place with the patient fully conscious. You can see from this photograph that a few legionaries are holding down a colleague, In spite of that, in 1919 a medical commission came from Czechoslovakia and determined that the Legionaries had created a better and more accessible health system than was available in Czechoslovakia itself.ʺ