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Slovakia & the First World War

On July 28, 1914 a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. It was evident that this war would turn into a worldwide conflict. The alienated world had mindlessly entered the twentieth century, a century of the bloodiest wars. One hundred years ago, barely anyone could have imagined how full of dread, destruction and cruelty the war would be, how long it would take to restore order and how far-reaching the outcome. The Great War marked the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. Not only would the fate of future European relationships be at stake, but also the future of tiny nations. From early August 1914 the grip of war gradually tightened around more than thirty states. Once at war, they mobilised enormous contingents of soldiers, who would fight and die on battlefronts in Europe, Asia and Africa. The Slovak soldiers were among them.

By the end of 1914 the conflict had changed in character from an offensive to a positional war. Adapting to this meant creating a new means of defence — a system of trenches that protected soldiers in between attacks and great offensives. For 750 kilometres along the Western Front, the trench system ran from the North Sea to the borders of Switzerland. Similarly, trenches were built on the Eastern and Italian fronts. Trench warfare led to the need for all armies to develop new weaponry to break the impasse of the defensive trench networks. These included poison gas, flamethrowers and tanks. In addition to war on land, the fighting extended to the oceans, where submarines could lurk beneath the surface. The sky was soon dominated by aircraft and the first aerial combats.

In all countries at war, including multinational Austria-Hungary, the war machine dominated the national economies, with its emphasis on manufacturing weapons, ammunition, a variety of explosives, barbed wire, military uniforms and other protective gear. Apart from the soldiers, the apocalypse of the war also touched the lives of civilians — mainly women, children, and the elderly — who had to cope with the departure of the men to the front and to deal with the harsh conditions that accompany any war. Their helping hands swiftly substituted for the missing manpower in agriculture, industry and public affairs — for example, women thrived as clerks, postmen, taxi drivers and tram drivers.

Slovaks in the Austro-Hungarian Army

The mobilisation of Slovaks in the Austro-Hungarian Army was announced on July 31, 1914 and went smoothly. After the launch of combat operations, the Austro-Hungarian troops (comprised of a large percentage of Slovaks) were deployed to the Russian Front. The war powerfully impacted the territory that is present-day Slovakia. At that time, Slovakia did not exist as a unitary state and belonged to the territories of the Habsburg monarchy. Under the Austro-Hungarian mobilisation order, around 400,000 men — equal to one in seven inhabitants — departed for the battlefields. By the war’s end, 69,000 Slovak soldiers had lost their lives and more than 61,000 were left crippled.

As soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army, Slovaks fought on the Russian, Balkan, and Italian fronts; and by the end of the war they were also on the Western Front. The soldiers’ valour was distinguished, and so were their commanders. On the Russian Front, these troops excelled in the battles of Kraśnik and Komarów. Later in Italy, they proved their strength again during the battle in the Soča Valley and the final stages of the Piave offensive. Thousands of Slovak soldiers were fighting and dying, mainly in infantry and mountain units, as well as in the battalions of field artillery.

On the brink of the Great War, many ethnic minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had begun to show their discontent, and revolts began to multiply. Among the nationalist insurgents were a number of Slovak soldiers who rejected having to fight under the Habsburg coat of arms. One of their uprisings took place in Pressburg (present-day Bratislava) and another in Kragujevac, Serbia. However, the uprising attempt in Serbia failed, and forty-four young men died.

Although the material damage done by the First World War was great, even greater was the damage to the human psyche. Without a doubt, not a single family was left untouched by the tragedy of the war’s apocalypse. Part of the present-day Slovak territory (the Carpathian region) was devastated by the war. During the advance of Russian troops in the winter and spring 1914–1915, this area became the battlefield for the armies on the Eastern Front. Several municipalities in the northeast were occupied and destroyed by the Russian forces. Nearly 50,000 soldiers, on both sides, died as a result of the fighting in this area. Their remains rest together in about 200 war cemeteries in the Slovak lands. There are also hospital and prison cemeteries in Slovakia containing up to 13,500 soldiers from the 1914–1918 war. These are mainly found in southwestern Slovakia cities and towns such as Bratislava, Šamorín, Dunajská Streda, Veľký Meder, Komárno, but also in Nitra, Trenčín and Košice.

Slovak Independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Not only did Slovak soldiers fight in the Austro-Hungarian Army, but by the autumn of 1914, independent military units of Czech and Slovak compatriots had also begun to form abroad — such as the Nazdar unit in France and the Česká družina in Russia. By the end of 1915, the leadership of the Czechoslovak foreign resistance (the Czechoslovak National Council, represented by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Milan Rastislav Štefánik and Edvard Beneš) had been established in Paris. The National Council’s activities aimed at creating a common state of Czechs and Slovaks. One of the means to strengthen this idea with the Allied nations was to create volunteer troops of Czechoslovak legions that would fight alongside Allied troops. Independent Czechoslovak legions were gradually formed in Russia, France and Italy, containing a total of 100,743 legionnaires.

The blood of these Czechoslovak men was spilled on battlefields in Zborov and Bachmač, at the Somme and in Alsace, Piave, during battles at Doss Alt, Samara, Omsk Irkutsk, Kazan, Perm and on other battlefields of the Great War. The legionnaires’ commitment and participation in challenging battles on the side of the victorious states helped to prepare the way for the creation of an independent Czechoslovak Republic on October 30, 1918. Czechoslovakia was born at the end of the ‘Great War’ on the piles of rubble of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Czechoslovak statehood was confirmed by the Slovak political representatives through the Martin Declaration at the assembly in Martin on October 30, 1918.

Slovakia in the Post-War Months

During the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic at the end of the war, conditions were not easy since Slovak territory still remained under the control of the Hungarian authorities and army. The occupation of the Slovak lands by the Czechoslovak domestic and legionary troops took place in several stages, beginning in November 1918 and ending in late January 1919. Even in the following months, Slovakia had to confront the newly established Bolshevik Republic of Hungary, which contested the demarcation line between Slovakia and Hungary. The fighting lasted from April to June 1919, and only after the peace treaty was finalized at the Peace Conference in Paris was a ceasefire agreement signed in Bratislava’s Reduta on July 1, 1919 and the Hungarian Army had to withdraw. 

However, the military competition for Slovakia finally ended only in mid-August 1919 with the occupation of the Bratislava bridgehead, Petržalka. It was not only the last military act between the Czechoslovak Republic and Hungary, but it was also a kind of epilogue to the whole military combat that the Czechoslovak legionnaires had to endure during 1918–1919 to regain order in the Sudeten counties. This included conflicts in the north with the Polish Army for the area of Tešínsko, as well as battles with the Hungarian Red Army over Slovakia’s southern border.

Col. Miloslav Čaplovič, MA, PhD
The Institute of Military History, Bratislava