A hundred years ago, the world was about to be plunged into a conflict whose impact can still be felt today in many parts of the globe. Indeed, the creation of independent Czechoslovakia was only made possible by the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, around one million Czechs fought in World War I in Austro-Hungarian uniforms, and tens of thousands died on a broad stretch of territory from northern Italy to Ukraine and Poland. One of the country’s leading experts in this field is Radim Kapavík of Signum Belli 1914, a Brno-based military history club which researches and documents the graves of Czech soldiers killed in the Great War. He says the lack of information about Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian Army was the main reason for forming the club.
“We felt there was very little information about Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and about the history of WWI from the Czech point of view. There was not even basic information about units composed of Czech soldiers despite the fact that Czechs made up about 20 percent of the entire army.
“For Czechs, this was an important part of their history so we came together and began researching this. But we do other things as well – we preserve the memory of those times – not only war cemeteries but also diaries and memories of Czechs who fought in the war. We were quite surprised how much of such materials can still be found today.”
You said this was an important part of Czech history which suggests it is not anymore. How do you think Czech people today look at the war?
“I think that more and more people are interested in WWI due to an increasing interest in genealogy. These people are researching their family histories, and if you do that and live in central Europe, you inevitably get to the First World War. The war was the most important even in the life of one whole generation.
“More and more people come to us who are looking for places where their great-grandfathers are buried, and usually, these people know nothing about the war as such. But thanks to genealogy, they find out how important these events were and this sparks an interest in many of them.”
Many people know about the legions which formed in Russia, France and other places and fought against Austro-Hungary and Germany. But why do you think the people who were in the Austro-Hungarian army are not commemorated?
“For a long time, they really weren’t. After the collapse of the empire, it was party of the newly-formed Czechoslovakia’s official ideology that the legionnaires fought on the right side, and the others on the wrong side. Even the military traditions of the new Czechoslovak army were only based on the legions. Even today, the Czech army ignores the Austro-Hungarian military traditions.
“But I think there is another, less official attitude to the war, something we can see in regional museums of military history clubs. These people are aware that most Czechs fought on the opposite side than the legionnaires.
So how many Czech soldiers died in the war, and where are they buried?
“About 1.5 million men from today’s Czech Republic were mobilized; out of them, about one million were ethnic Czechs, the rest being mostly German. Between 200,000 and 300,000 of all those mobilized were killed, about 150,000 of them were Czechs. In Czechoslovakia after the war, there were some 200,000 war invalids who needed state help.
“As for the cemeteries, I have to say that even today, these are not very well mapped so it’s difficult to list all the places with Czech war graves. But we can say they are buried on every front of the war, especially in Slovenia where heavy fighting took place in 1917; also in southern Poland, in Galicia, where fighting occurred in 1914 and 1915, and in Slovakia where the Carpathians saw some heavy battles in the winter 1914-5.
“In Slovakia alone, there are around 200 WWI cemeteries with 60,000 bodies but we only know 6,000 names. So you see it’s difficult to say how many Czech soldiers are buried there.”
You told me you were working on this with colleagues from other countries – so what are some of the international projects your group is working on?
“Together with our colleagues from Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, we founded the Visegrad Working Group for Military Cemeteries which reconstructs and renovates cemeteries, mainly in Slovakia and Poland but we have also organized some field work in Slovenia. The main goal of these activities is to reconstruct forgotten cemeteries, and to clean the ones that are not maintained.”
This year marks the centennial of the outbreak of the war – are you commemorating the anniversary in any special way?
“We in Signum Belli 1914 don’t ourselves organize any events this year because there are already a plenty of them held by other institutions and organizations in those countries. But we are participating in a lot of them.
“We are also working with Czech TV on a documentary about Czech soldiers in WWI; we cooperate with museums, and we will take part in a conference that will be held in Prague in September. We are also helping our Slovak colleagues with organizing a big re-enactment event in Humenné in October.”