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.

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Facts About the End of World War II

American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On August 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced the Japanese government had surrendered, a decision that would bring World War II to a close. Emperor Hirohito of Japan informed his own citizens on August 15, yet there was still work to be done. The written agreement that formalized the surrender wasn’t signed until September 2 of that year at a gathering aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Communities around the globe have celebrated August 14, August 15, or September 2 as Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day for short. Here are a dozen facts about the surrender 75 years ago this summer and the events that led up to it.

1. The Battle of Okinawa marked the last major battle in World War II.

Over 60,000 American soldiers and marines arrived at the shores of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. The island south of Kyushu formed a logical gateway for an invasion of Japan, and U.S. troops were prepared for a fight. Eighty-one days of incredibly savage combat by air, sea, and land followed, hampered by dense forest and volcanic crags. The Allies emerged victorious, but 12,000 Americans were killed in the effort. Japan’s forces lost around 90,000 troops, and 100,000 civilians also died in the battle.

2. Before V-J Day, V-E Day—Victory in Europe Day—fell on Truman’s 61st birthday.

Sworn into office on April 12, 1945, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman got to share an exciting piece of news early in his term. The Allies formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8—President Truman’s birthday. “Our victory is but half won,” Truman said. Though the violence in Europe had ended, things were coming to a head in the Pacific theatre.

3. To end World War II, the U.S. made a strategic decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of other Japanese cities.

An atomic bomb had been successfully tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. By deploying nuclear weapons against Japan, Truman and his advisors hoped to force an unconditional surrender—and avoid the need for a full-scale U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland.

For maximum impact, it was decided the ideal targets would be cities that had suffered little damage from earlier bombings. Because of its cultural significance as Japan’s former capital, Kyoto was taken off the list. The target committee opted to focus on other cities with significant military headquarters and industrial centers. Hiroshima stood as a major base of operations in the Japanese defense effort. Nagasaki was one of the country’s key seaports. Both places were wartime manufacturing hubs.

4. The USS Indianapolis's secret mission ended in the worst naval disaster of World War II.

Components of the 9700-pound nuclear fission bomb nicknamed Little Boy, destined to be dropped over Hiroshima, were delivered in secret to an American air base in the Northern Mariana Islands by the USS Indianapolis. After dropping off the materials, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by Japanese submarine and quickly sunk just after midnight on July 30, 1945.

Around 300 crew members immediately went down with the ship. The remaining 900 men floated at the surface, awaiting rescue. They endured dehydration and hunger, hallucinations, salt poisoning, and frequent, vicious shark attacks. By the time rescue came on August 2, there were only 317 survivors.

On August 19, 2017, a research team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen located the wreckage of the Indianapolis on the bottom of the Philippine Sea, 3.4 miles below the surface.

5. The number of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still unknown.

At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima. The blast's yield was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. “What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black, and brown … but nothing else,” recalled Akiko Takakura, an eyewitness who was then 20 years old. In minutes, dark smoke climbed nearly 4000 feet into the air. More than 90 percent of the city’s structures were damaged or destroyed.

Nagasaki was hit with an implosion-type plutonium bomb (called Fat Man) three days later. The blast’s effects—equaling 21,000 tons of TNT—were felt over an area of 43 square miles.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “No one will ever know for certain how many died as a result of the attack on Hiroshima.” The same goes for Nagasaki. Patchy census records, the obliteration of government buildings, and other factors make it impossible to get at exact figures. The initial blasts are estimated to have killed 70,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki, not including those who later died of radiation poisoning or other injuries.

6. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan less than a month before World War II ended.

At the Allies' Tehran Conference in November 1943, the Soviet Union had agreed to declare war on Japan three months after Germany's surrender to force an end to World War II while retaking occupied territory from Japan. That day came on August 8, 1945. About 1.6 million Soviet troops were swiftly dispatched to Japanese-occupied Manchuria (modern-day northeastern China). The USSR inflicted heavy losses during their engagements with Japanese forces in China, Korea, and the Kuril Islands.

7. Japan formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, ending World War II.

A crowd celebrates V-J Day and the end of World War II in Times Square.Dick DeMarsico, World-Telegram, Library of Congress // No Known Copyright Restriction

On August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies. The news rocketed around the world, launching joyous celebrations, parades, and patriotic displays to mark V-J Day. On September 2, aboard the USS Missouri, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the official Instrument of Surrender document crafted by the U.S. War Department. Also present was General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied powers.

“It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past,” MacArthur told the gathered crowd. The USS Missouri would go on to participate in both the Korean and Persian Gulf Wars before it was decommissioned for the last time on March 31, 1992.

8. The pair in the iconic Times Square kiss photo, taken on V-J-Day, didn’t know each other.

Titled “V-J Day in Times Square,” the picture was snapped by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine. Since Eisenstaedt didn’t write down the couple's names, their identities were a mystery for decades. Then Lawrence Verria’s 2012 book The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II seemed to put the matter to rest: It pegged George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the couple.

Except they weren’t a couple at all. Mendonsa was a sailor on a date with his future wife at the time. Upon hearing the news of Japan’s surrender, he excitedly grabbed Friedman—a dentist’s assistant he didn’t know—and planted a kiss on her lips. Unfortunately, Friedman wasn't into it. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she later said. “The guy just came over and grabbed!”

9. Frustrated soldiers in the Pacific theatre waited months to return home.

The United States couldn’t immediately bring all of its soldiers home once the Axis Powers surrendered. And that created plenty of tension overseas. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut, said on September 17, 1945 that every congressperson was “under constant and terrific pressure from the servicemen and their families” who wanted swift discharges.

Servicemembers stationed in Japan and the Far East began stamping the phrase “No Boats, No Votes” onto their homebound letters—indicating that if they didn't get picked up soon, leaders would hear about it in the following year’s congressional elections. Four thousand homesick troops held a mass protest in Manila on Christmas Day. Similar demonstrations took place in London, Paris, and Frankfurt.

10. The last World War II Japanese internment camp in the United States closed in 1946.

Around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned in internment camps across seven U.S. states beginning in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the detention of Japanese-Americans regardless of citizenship status or loyalty to ensure "every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage" following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The last of these camps, located in northern California, stayed open until March 20, 1946.

11. Some Japanese soldiers kept fighting long after the end of World War II.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was 23 years old when he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines on December 26, 1944. He and three enlisted men would remain there years after the war ended. Disbelieving reports of Japan’s defeat, the soldiers regularly fought with islanders they mistook for enemy combatants. One of Onoda’s comrades surrendered in 1950 and by 1972, police officers had shot the other two.

Lieutenant Onoda didn’t give up until after he was rediscovered by a Japanese traveler in 1974. A delegation including one of Onoda’s former commanding officers came to Lubang later that year to accept his surrender.

Two additional holdouts, Shoichi Yokoi and Teruo Nakamura, remained hidden elsewhere in the former Pacific theatre until 1972 and 1974, respectively.

12. Only one state officially celebrates the end of World War II.

Rhode Island is the only state in the union that celebrates the end of World War II as an annual legal holiday. Victory Day falls on the second Monday of August.