My Family's World War One Connection?
I was recently perusing through the family archives (a cardboard box in my nan's cellar) when I stumbled across these photographs. The curious thing is that no one in my family seems to know who these two gentlemen are or whether they're even relations of ours! I'm convinced that the little chap on the right is. He bears a strong resemblance to my mother's maternal grandfather.
After some careful digging, here's what I managed to find. Starting with the man on the right (bottom on mobile), as I have the least information for him. His uniform suggests that he is an Austro-Hungarian artillery soldier, predating the First World War. Something to do when I next get my hands on the original photographs would be to examine them for any distinguishing features and photographic and printing techniques which could determine their age. Unfortunately, neither photo features any handwritten notes or dates which could help us contextualize and discuss them more accurately. Helpful, right?
Meanwhile, the attire of the man on the left (top on mobile) matches that of a decorated captain of the Czechoslovak Army dating from the late 1920s. He is also a former Italian Legionnaire who served in the First World War. At first, I thought he might be Josef Jäger, a relation on my mother's maternal grandmother's side. His name features on the First World War memorial in my family's village of Stezery in the Czech Republic. Note that he is listed as an Italian Legionnaire.
Mind you, I am aware that there was (still is?) another family in the village with the same surname, albeit spelt differently. Anyhow, since the man pictured in the photo survived the War, he cannot be Josef Jäger. We can determine that he is an Italian Legionnaire by inspecting his medals. From left to right, these are as follows.
• War Cross. This medal was awarded from November 1918 to Czechs and Germans and Austrians who fought with distinction for the Czech lands in the Great War. This later extended to include servicemen involved in border conflicts with Poland and Hungary in 1919. These disputes emerged as a result of Czechoslovakia becoming an independent sovereign state following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More on this to come.
• Revolutionary Medal. Instituted by the exiled Czechoslovak Provisional Government in Paris in July 1918. This medal was issued to servicemen who contributed to securing independence for Czechoslovakia.
Be mindful that the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia still formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy. So, technically, they were an enemy of the Allies. However, the geopolitical landscape of Central Europe was shifting during this period. Strong nationalist sentiments rose throughout Europe, culminating in the empire's eventual collapse.
In Bohemia and Moravia, these mounting tensions led to the formation of the legendary Czechoslovak Legions. These voluntary armed forces fought alongside the Allies against Austria-Hungary in France, Italy, Serbia, and Russia. Their experiences justify an entire post themselves.
The former territories of Germany and Austria-Hungary were divided and succeeded by the creation of Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the First Czechoslovak Republic. The latter was established on 28 October 1918 by its founding fathers, Edvard Benes, Milan Stefanik, and Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia.
• Inter-Allied Victory medal. Introduced in March 1919 by fourteen victorious allied nations to acknowledge the services of each of their citizens in the Great War.
Czechoslovakia awarded this medal to its Legionaries who served under the French, Russian, Italian, and other allied armies. France made its Czech and Slovak population choose between military service or internment as enemy aliens. No prizes for guessing which one they went for...
• Italian Commemorative Medal. Awarded from July 1920 to military personnel who rendered services in Italy between 1915 and 1918.
The Italian Front saw brutal fighting against its old adversary, Austria-Hungary. The Italians fought to pressure the latter into relinquishing its control over their territories and to unify Italy. This motivated their defection to the Allies' side come May 1915.
Whomever this captain is, he is undoubtedly a distinguished patriot. His experience helps us resurrect an almost forgotten dimension of the First World War. It also reinforces just how turbulent and complicated the sociopolitical climate of this period was. The events of the First World War and those which followed would shape the future of Czechoslovakia and Europe as a whole.
Thanks are owed to my cousin Karel for kindly lending his expertise in identifying the aforementioned medals.