Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

Editorial Postscript:
The Allied Part in the Czechoslovak Intervention

by Peter Sedgwick

The danger of Russia falling entirely under the power of Germany was imminent, and it became clear that the Allies could no longer hold aloof ... In June, however, hope appeared from another quarter. Siberia, the land of the peasant proprietor, had never been Bolshevik at heart, and it was here that the reaction started against Bolshevism. It was assisted by the presence of the Czechoslovak army, which had maintained its organization after the Russian collapse, and was encamped at different points along the Siberian railway. When the anti-Bolshevik movement in Siberia began, the Czechoslovaks became masters of many points on the railway, as well as the port of Vladivostok ...

The serious situation of the Czechs, who were now liable to attack by the Bolsheviks from the west, while being cut off from all communication with the Allies by a considerable Germano-Bolshevik force astride the Siberian railway, brought the question of Allied intervention to a head ... The Czechs were greatly exhausted, the Bolshevik forces op-posed to them were constantly increasing in numbers and efficiency under German instructors ...

Attempts to disorganize the rearward communications of the Czechs along the Trans-Siberian Railway by fomenting strikes among the railway employees failed, thanks largely to the vigorous action of a battalion of the Middlesex regiment under Lieut.-Col. John Ward, M.P. ...  [1]

from The War Cabinet, Report for the Year 1918 (London, 1919)


The actual relationship between the behaviour of the Czechoslovak Corps and the various intervention plans of the Allies was quite complex. Considerable differences existed between British and French policy on the proper use of the Czechoslovak troops, and the actual incident that led in May to the Czechs’ seizure of the trans-Siberian line (the often-recounted scuffle between Czech and Hungarian soldiers at Chelyabinsk station on 14 May) was of a spontaneous, fortuitous character. The tendency of recent chroniclers [2] has been to emphasize the unplanned sequence of misunderstandings and mishaps that sparked the Czechoslovak rising. Trotsky’s provocative action in ordering the Czechoslovaks to be disarmed or else shot down (25 May) is often quoted as the salient incident in the affair; even in the summer of 1918, Karakhan, the Soviet Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs, told Lockhart that ‘in attacking the Czechs Trotsky had made a political mistake, though he had been fully justified by the bad faith of the French in this connection’. [3] (Later Stalinist historiography even suggested that Trotsky had deliberately provoked the Czechs in order consciously to further Allied interests.) [4] In his autobioraphy, Lockhart (somewhat disingenuously, as will be evident rom the next paragraphs) places all the blame on the French. [5] ‘I succeeded in securing Trotsky’s good will and, but for the folly of the French, I am convinced that the Czechs would have been safely evacuated without incident.’ Yet, as Ullman makes abundantly clear, the main trend of French policy, from December 1917 through to May 1918, was to insist that the whole of the Czecholovak forces in Russia be evacuated with all speed to France, via Archangel, Murmansk or Vladivostok, to relieve the critical manpower shortage on the western front. [6] It was the British who repeatedly pressed for the deployment of the Czechs within Russia itself, in a twofold project that encompassed, first, the use of the westernmost section of the Czechoslovaks ‘in resisting Gernan aggression and intrigues at Archangel and Murmansk and along the railways leading to these ports’ [7], and, second, the lunching of the easterly Czech contingents near Vladivostok ‘to start operations in Siberia’, following which there could be ‘little doubt that the Japanese would move and the Americans would find it impossible to hold back’. [8] Both these early attempts by Britain to involve the Czechs were predicated on Bolshevik cooperation or at least acquiescence; but they were very soon replaced by a similar two-part plan, this time no longer anti-German but anti-Bolshevik (more plausibly, perhaps, since the nearest German troops were hundreds of miles from Archangel and thousands from Vladivostok), in which the Czechs would both second a White officers’ rising in the north and head a sweep westwards from Vladivostok, with (if possible) French officers in their command, to link up with the northern counter-revolution in the vicinity of Vologda. [9]

Previous accounts have, however, failed to reflect fully the part played in these schemes by British and French intrigues, both in Moscow and in the two Foreign Offices. From 19 April onwards, Lockhart had been sending back telegram after telegram urging an immediate Allied intervention in Russia, regardless of Bolsheik consent; from 23 May he was pressing for a massive Allied invasion which would not even be preceded by an ultimatum designed to force the Soviet government’s acquiescence. Lockhart’s shift from his previous attitude of pro-Bolshevik conciliation was associated in large measure with the extensive contacts he had formed, in the fortnight preceding his 19 April telegram, with all the main counter-revolutionary groups in Moscow. [10] In Lockhart’s own catalogue of ‘the various counter-revolutionary organizations in Moscow’ with whom he had relations after the Bolshevik refusal of Allied intervention he includes ‘the Czech Council, which was not then openly anti-Bolshevik’. [11]

In collusion with Lockhart, moreover, the agents of the British and French Military Missions in Moscow played a major part in instigating the northern element of the two-part intervention plan against Bolshevism. Before the outbreak of any violence between the Czechoslovaks and the Soviet authorities, Lockhart forwarded to London [12] a dispatch from his aide Captain Denis Garstin: ‘I have been approached secretly by two large organizations of old army who say if Allies will help them they will mobilize in Nizhni area ... If Allies will land at Archangel, hold Vologda and join with loyal Russians in that area they would be increasing enormously chances of Japanese arrival ... Chief cause of present inactivity is lack of any rallying-point for those elements who are patriotic yet anti-Bolshevik.’ In this, the first version of the intervention project that can be traced, Garstin proposed an Allied drive down to the area ‘east of Vologda and Volga controlling railheads of Archangel and Siberian railways’. Two Allied divisions would be needed: this figure, and the plan as a whole, had (he stated) received the assent of General Lavergne of the French Mission, as well as of Italy’s military representative in Russia. Garstin’s plan did not specifically mention the Czechs (though the further development of the idea in Colonel Steel’s General Staff paper of 24 May did, as we have seen, include the Czechs as a major element). But one is tempted to speculate that Lavergne’s ciphers back to Paris may have done so: at any rate, a dispatch from the British ambassador in Paris, Lord Derby, sent shortly afterwards (on 17 May), conveyed an abrupt turn in the views of the French government, which now – so far from insisting on the immediate evacuation of the Czechs – offered a scheme for anti-Bolshevik intervention in the north very similar to that of Garstin except that it included the Czechs as a constituent. [13] ‘Allied policy in Russia’ (according to this expression of the current French official view) ‘can now rely only on itself, and requires ... occupation with least possible delay of White Sea bases in order to keep in touch, i.e. ports of Murmansk and Archangel at head of line to Petrograd and Vologda, defence of principal stations on these lines which can be undertaken by small naval contingents already on the spot Or to be sent there and Serb and Czech contingents now moving in that direction.... The healthy elements who are now dispersed by anarchy in Russia can only rally round nucleus of foreign forces.’

The wheels of the cumbersome machinery that governed a combined Allied military operation now began to turn. Even as the Czech Corps was taking over the trans-Siberian line, the Permanent Military Representatives attached to the Supreme War Council at Versailles were being asked to consider ‘whether some force ought not to be sent to northern Russia as a nucleus round which the Czechs, Serbs and loyal Russians could rally’. The Representatives’ recommendation for ‘the dispatch of a small contingent of four to six American, British, French or Italian battalions, under a British commander-in-chief’ was submitted to the Council’s meeting in early June and ratified there. [14] It was in anticipation of the landing of this force that Ambassador Noulens encouraged Savinkov to launch the Yaroslavl rising of 6 July. However, the Allied forces did not get to Archangel until 2 August when Poole’s 1,200, mostly French troops, disembarked; subtantial contingents (4,800 Americans, 2,400 British and 900 French) were not assembled there till early September. By this time, of course, it was much too late for any link-up with the Czechs. Ironside’s northern force of 16,000, which was in position at the end of 1918, was never able to get even half-way to Vologda, the main objective of the original plan. [15]

Two features of the turn of actual events require some explanaion, since they run counter to the whole intention of the Allied plan involving the Czechoslovaks. We have Clemenceau’s indigant reply, of 22 May, to the British Foreign Secretary’s soundngs on the possible use of the Czechoslovaks to begin intervention in Siberia. [16] Clemenceau was at pains to reinstate the traditional policy of his government, which insisted that the Czechs be evacuated forthwith to fight on the western front. This fresh insistence may well, however, have proceeded from a French reluctance to follow British plans specifically in the Siberian theatre: Siberia was later in 1918 to prove a rich source of French suspicions as to Britain’s alleged possible expansionism. [17]

Against the intervention project we also have to set the fact that the Czechoslovak rising that took place in the very midst of the May discussions did not include any movement towards the north. On the contrary, the Congress of delegates from all the Czech contingents which met at Chelyabinsk on 23 May decided unanimously, against the wishes of their National Council’s spokesmen and of the French military representatives who were present, to disregard the order that half of the Corps should make northwards for Archangel. (This refusal stemmed from a determination to avoid splitting up the threatened forces of the Corps.) The local quarrel between Czechs and Bolsheviks therefore deprived the planners of the Archangel-Vologda operation that they had contrived for the Czechs; but the actual intervention that took place, involving 70,000 Czechoslovaks from Penza to Irkutsk and thence (from the end of June) to Vladisvostok, gave them all that they could have wished for – including Britain’s aim of drawing in the Japanese and the Americans. A revealing map drawn up by the British General Staff [18] is headed ‘Proposals for Allied enterprise in Russia (assuming French concurrence)’; it shows the Czechs in occupation of Vladivostok and the Trans-Siberian Railway, and moving to link up with Ataman Semyonov at Chita and with General Poole in the Archangel-Vologda region. All the elements in this grand design were in fact fulfilled – with the exception of the Czech participation in the northern ‘enterprise’. In successful counter-revolution, no less than in successful revolution, ‘spontaneity’ appears to coalesce fruitfully with conscious direction.


The policies of Thomas Masaryk and Eduard Beneš, the main spokesmen for the Czechoslovak national movement in the West, took some time to develop into a line of unambiguous support for Allied intervention to overthrow Bolshevism. In a discussion in the middle of May 1918, with Lieutenant-Colonel L.S. Amery of the War Office, Beneš had declared only a conditional willingness for half of the Czechoslovaks (those gathering at Archangel) to be used ‘in connection with an Allied intervention in Russia’. [19] Beneš’s conditions were:

  1. that the Allied powers should declare publicly their support, for Czechoslovak independence;
  2. that ‘intervention should be a real one, i.e., to be carried right through up to the western frontiers and involve actual operations against the Germans or Austrians’.

Beneš was opposed to dragging the Czech Corps back into Russia ‘merely to be made to participate in Russian internal disturbances’.

Beneš thus appears to have tried to placate both the British demand for a Siberian intervention with the Czechs, and the French insistence on their return to France to fight on the western front; the question of Czechoslovak participation in the Archangel-Vologda invasion, which was then being considered by the British and the French authorities, did not enter into this discussion. In his memoirs, Beneš says that the Czechoslovak National Council abroad opposed intervention in Russia until July 1918 [20]; the Amery conversation of May reveals, however, that this opposition was less than absolute. Up to a point, Beneš’s two conditions were met. On 6 June the British government informed him that they now recognized his Council as the supreme organ of the Czechoslovak national movement in the Allied countries, and on 29 June the Council received fuller recognition from France; this went at least part of the way to meet the first pre-condition for Czech intervention. On the second point, while the action involving the Czech Legion was not carried ‘up to the western frontiers of Russia’, it did incorporate ‘actual operations’ against the Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war, who, in the extraordinary Allied mythology of the time, were counted as among the active reserves of the Central Powers, working in secret collusion with the Bolsheviks. Apart from the change in French policy that followed the lessening of pressure on the western front, these factors may have weighed in the National Council’s decision during the summer of 1918 openly to support the intervention across Siberia.

This support was not, however, to be given as an actual order, from the Council’s central officials to the Czechoslovak contingents in Siberia, until early August. It was then that General Dietrichs, the Legion’s commander at Vladivostok, ‘announced at the Czechs have received definite orders from Masaryk to fight Germans in Siberia [sic] instead of being transported to Europe and that these orders will be obeyed’. [21] This was already well after the Czechoslovak troops had seized Vladivostok from the Soviets (on 29 June), an action which was to be quickly endorsed by the Allied representatives on the spot (including the French). Earlier, and certainly in the crucial month of May, National Council policy opposed the Czech move eastwards: as have seen, the Czechoslovak Legion’s delegate conference at Chelyabinsk (23 May) actually overruled the advice of the Council representatives from Moscow, who wanted them to proceed towards the northern ports.

This advice of the Moscow Czech officials may have reflected some involvement on their part in the abortive northern intervention scheme; or it may simply have expressed their accordance with the main line of policy (i.e. evacuation) advocated by the French who were their main financial backers.

Central French policy, indeed, remained in opposition to the Czech involvement in Siberia, even after it was well under way. As we have seen in the previous section, Clemenceau refused on 22 May to countenance the British plan for Siberia; he quoted Beneš specifically as having refused to condone the use of the Czechoslovaks as the ‘point of departure’ for Allied intervention. [22] Even on 28 May, with the Legion’s action across Siberia now in full spate, Pichon, the French Foreign Minister, was reaching an agreement with Lloyd George for the regular transportation of 4,500 Czechs per month from Vladivostok to Vancouver (and thence to France). [23] This decision alone illustrates how misleading it is to suppose that the Allied governments had sufficient intelligence of Czechoslovak movements in Russia to enable them to plan positively for an all-Russian intervention involving the Czechs. The Bolshevik accounts (including that of Victor Serge) are inclined to assume perfect intelligence on the part of the Allies.

The Legion’s role in Allied intervention plans for Russia was intimately linked with the successive stages of diplomatic recognition accorded to the Czechoslovak National Council by the British government. When, during the middle weeks of May, Beneš was pressing London for recognition, the Foreign Office was first inclined to withhold any such commitment until the United States had been consulted; but by 20 May Cecil was convinced that ‘all political encouragement possible’ should be given to the Czechoslovaks, without waiting for American agreement, since Britain was counting on ‘the Czechoslovak forces in Russia to form the nucleus of intervention at Archangel and Vladivostok’. Britain’s Washington ambassador, in a cipher dated 6 June, was asked to inform the US government that Britain’s limited recognition of the National Council (granted in the previous week) had been necessary in view not only of the Czechs’ cooperation on the fronts in western Europe, ‘but also of the fact that there are some 50,000 Czechs in Russia ... whom we have every hope of organizing into an effective force to combat the enemy either in the eastern or the western theatres of war’. [24] The Czechoslovak National Council itself soon became eager to utilize the Legion’s actions in Siberia as a bargaining-counter with which to secure full recognition as a government by the Allies. On 16 July Beneš wrote to the journalist Wickham Steed asking for support in the proclamation of a Czechoslovak Provisional Government from the Czech forces in France and Italy: ‘I should like this to coincide with the Allied intervention in Siberia so that the proclamation of Czechoslovak independence may form part of the process of intervention in Siberia.’ [25] In further memoranda, over the period later in the summer when Beneš was in London pressing his case with the Foreign Office and War Office, the Siberian connection was further exploited. [26] The National Council’s ultimate policy was still the evacuation of the Legion to the west but in the meantime ‘these troops may render considerable service to Great Britain and her allies by facilitating an intervention in Russia’. The Legion was to be left ‘provisionally in Russia to carry out military operations, to hold the Trans-Siberian Railway for the Allies, to enlist the Russian population and to prepare the necessary basis for the Japanese and American intervention’. But the subjection of the Legion to Allied orders should cease, with Janin, Stefanik and the National Council being ‘given real sovereignty as a government’ [27] over the Czech contingents.

Beneš was at pains to establish the reliably anti-Bolshevik character of his countrymen, stressing that ‘The Czechoslovak army on principle shoot every Czech found fighting with the Red Guards and captured by them, for instance at Penza, Samara, Omsk, etc. (200 at Samara).’ [28] The interventionist refrain was repeated as a justification for recognition in both memoranda: ‘The recognition of the Czechoslovak National Council as a Government would render enormous assistance to the idea of an intervention in Russia ... It would serve as the basis for American and Japanese intervention.’

Beneš’s diligent lobbying met with a favourable response: on 9 August Balfour issued a declaration according ‘Allied nation’ status to the Czechoslovaks on behalf of Britain and recognizing the National Council, in accordance with the formula requested by Beneš, as ‘the present trustee of the future Czechoslovak government’. There is no evidence that the specific considerations put by Beneš (i.e. recognition as the cover for intervention) influenced the Foreign Office; humanitarian grounds, in removing any pretext for Czechoslovak prisoners to be shot by the Austrians as rebels, seem to have been important. [29] But the situation of the Legion in Siberia cannot have been far from the British governent’s judgement of its obligations; on 4 August a special meeting of the War Cabinet had been called with the critical plight of the Czechoslovak Legion (hemmed in at Lake Baikal and Khairovsk) as the sole item on its agenda. [30]

The house of the Czechs and the Slovaks was thus constructed, by the founders of the new state, on an Anglo-French mortgage sought on the security of the Legion’s exploits in the international war against Bolshevism. And on the battlefields of the intervention, Czechoslovak nationalists shot their Czechoslovak Red prisoners, as the first act in the new nation’s own civil war.


[1] John Ward (1866-1934) was a liberal MP who had in the 1880s been an ardent Socialist (member of the SDF) and a founder of the Navvies’ Union (he had worked as a navvy from the age of twelve). Breaking with Socialism on the foundation of the Labour party, during the First World War he recruited five labour battalions for the Middlesex regiment, where he served as commanding officer, and was knighted for his services in 1918.

[2] Such as: G.F. Kennan, The Decision to Intervene (Princeton, 1956); R.H. Ullman, Intervention and the War (Princeton, 1961), Chapter 6 ; Peter Fleming, The Fate of Admiral Kolchak (London, 1963), Chapter 1 et seq.

[3] Lockhart’s report to Balfour, 1 November 1918, in Public Record Office, File FO 371/3337.

[4] Fleming, op. cit., p.25n.

[5] R.H. Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent (London, 1932), pp.272, 284-5.

[6] Ullman, op. cit., pp.151-5, 171.

[7] Foreign Office telegram 93 to Lockhart, 20 April 1918; in Milner MSS, Box 109.

[8] Lord Robert Cecil (Foreign Under-Secretary, acting in Balfour’s absence in the United States) to Clemenceau, 18 May 1918 ; given in Ullman, op. cit., pp.169-70.

[9] Memorandum (headed ‘Very Secret’ in red pencil) from Colonel R. Steel, for Director of Military Intelligence, War Office, The Direction of Allied Operations in the north east of Russia; in Milner MSS, Box 110, File C-1; summarized partly in Ullman, op. cit., p.194.

[10] Ullman, op. cit., p.163-4.

[11] Lockhart, Memorandum on the Internal Situation in Russia, 1 November 1918, Section 2, The Counter-Revolutionary Forces, in Public Record Office, File FO 371/3337. Just how far Lockhart’s own contacts with the Czechs’ Moscow representatives were on an anti-Bolshevik basis is open to conjecture. According to his son’s account, it was the French Intelligence official de Vertemont who ‘was trying to persuade the Czechs to take up arms under French officers against the Russians’ while Lockhart himself was trying to negotiate with Trotsky to secure their evacuation (Robin Bruce Lockhart, Ace of Spies (London, 1967), p.71). This would imply that the local French policy in Moscow was one of implementing the programme for the Czechs which had been advocated by the British (i.e. anti-Soviet embroilment), while Britain’s man in Moscow was pressing, on the contrary, for the policy of evacuation which had been the traditional line of the French government. This conjunction is not impossible, but a conscious division of labour in a double game cannot be ruled out.

[12] Lockhart’s telegram 175, 10 May 1918; in Milner MSS, Box 110, File C-1; summarized without actual quotation in Ullman, op. cit., pp.193-4.

[13] Lord Derby (Paris) to Foreign Office, telegram 648, 17 May 1918; in Milner MSS, Box 110, File C-1.

[14] As summarized in the account given by the then Secretary to the British War Cabinet: Lord Hankey, The Supreme Command (London, 1961), Vol.2, p.874.

[15] Ullman, op. cit., pp.195-6, 225, 243; R.H. Ullman, Britain and the Russian Civil War (Princeton, 1968), pp.18-21.

[16] Ullman, Intervention and the Civil War, pp.170-71.

[17] See Chapter 10, note 30.

[18] Undated, but located among the documents of early June; sheet 67 in Milner MSS, Box 110, File C-1.

[19] Memorandum by Amery, Notes of a Conversation with Dr Beneš, 14 May 1918; in Milner MSS, Box 118, ‘Czechoslovaks’ file.

[20] E. Beneš, My War Memories (London, 1928), p.392.

[21] Telegram from Sir J. Jordan (Peking) to London, 6 August 1918; in Milner MSS, Box 112.

[22] Ullman, Intervention and the Civil War, p.171.

[23] Record of War Cabinet Conversations, 29 May 1918; in Public Record Office, File Cab. 23/17.

[24] Beneš letter of 14 May, the discussion of recognition by Foreign Office officials (on 20 May) and the telegram to Washington are in Public Record Office, File FO 371/3135 (folders 85869 and 89425).

[25] ibid., folder 127473.

[26] Two separate communications by Beneš are extant, both with the title Memorandum concerning the Recognition of Czechoslovak National Sovereignty; these overlap to some extent in content. The earlier, dated July, is in Public Record Office, File FO 371/3135 (folder 130680) and formed the subject of Foreign Office deliberations. The other was presented the first place to L.S. Amery at the War Office and was forwarded by the latter to Milner on 1 August; in Milner MSS, Box 118, ‘Czechoslovaks’ file. Reference will be given to each memo separately where an extract departs from their common text.

[27] FO memorandum by Beneš.

[28] Milner memorandum by Beneš.

[29] Balfour’s and Cecil’s sympathetic consideration of the case, on the grounds of saving prisoners’ lives, is in Public Record Office, File FO 371/3135, folder 127473; the discussion of the text of the declaration is ibid., folder 135903. Beneš himself noted in his memoirs that he regarded ‘the negotiations which resulted in this declaration as the most important political activity of the National Council during the war’; Beneš, My War Memories, p.407.

[30] War Cabinet meeting No. 454, 4 August 1918: minutes in Public Record Office, File Cab. 23/7.

Last updated on: 7.2.2009