The Great War - on the road to Czech independence
Most people, especially the younger generations, do not know much about the “Great War” (World War I – 1914-1918). It often is comprised into a few sentences.
1n June 2014, Hapsburg crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in the Serbian capital Sarajevo. This started World War I. When it finished in 1918, the “Great War” had cost over 15 million lives, with another 20 million military mentioned as wounded or missing. After the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up and several states regained or obtained independence, including Czechoslovakia. The one other fact most people remember is the trench warfare on the Western Front, especially around Verdun in France.
However, the history is much wider, and it is important even – or especially – a century later to preserve and remember that heritage. The links and similarities with contemporary conflicts is large. In the Austrian-Italian mountains, the “forgotten front” (Isonzo front) claimed as many dead, missing and wounded as the trench warfare on the Western Front, Verdun. Today, mountain ranges still show rock trenches and simple bunkers. In the midst of bitter cold winters, soldiers of the Central and Allied forces faced off for several years, with little gains on either side. Food for humans and transport animals had to be hauled up onto steep hills. Burying fallen comrades or hauling wounded to the back was a near to impossible task. As a diary mentioned it: the Italians attacked us during day with mortars and riffle charges, during the night we tried to repair the barbed wire and trenches protecting us. This time, we had to beat them back with bayonets. We lost five men today, the Italians about double.
Most Czech villages have small monuments commemorating the fallen. What most people do not know, is that all of these soldiers were killed far away from home; on Czech soil, no fighting took place! Some even died in POW camps in Sicily, Italy, far away from any front. Czechoslovak politicians in London were already negotiating for the country to regain its independence after over four centuries of Hapsburg dominance. Over time, close to 80 000 or more Czechoslovak people, both military and civilian, enlisted in the so-called Czechoslovak Legion. Many of them even broke away from the Austro-Hungarian army. The Legion fought on the side of the Allied, mainly in Russia. Blocked by events following the Russian Revolution, they were forced to cross Russia by confiscated trains eastward to Vladivostok to be able to return home after the war.
With developing education materials, trails, and new exhibitions, the Rozmberk Society tries to help preserve and keep alive both the tangible and intangible heritage of this war.