Not everyone from Clarkson who fought in World War I was under the command of Gen. John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces. At least one of our local boys, Jaroslav Holas, went overseas to fight the Central Powers as a member of what was essentially the French Foreign Legion.
A brief item in the May 23, 1918 edition of the Colfax County Press caught my eye: “V.A. Chleboun, Andrew Necas and Lada Hanel were in Omaha, where the former two escorted Jaroslav Holas to the metropolis, who enlisted in the Boh-Slovanic army and the latter attended to business matters.”
What was the “Boh-Slovanic army,” you ask? After a lot of digging, I’ve decided that it was the name given by the Colfax County Press to units of Czech volunteers who were fighting in the French military. Formally, it was two rifle regiments (the 21st and 22nd Czechoslovak Rifle Regiments) that were formed in the last year of the war and fought under Czech officers as part of the French army. Something like the famous Lafayette Escadrille, a fighter squadron of the French Air Service that was comprised of Americans volunteers who went over there to fly before the U.S. entered WWI.
[The sharp-looking, red- and blue-clad soldier on the above left (aka The Target) is how the first members of the Foreign Legion were outfitted in 1914. The blue-clad figure on the right is dressed in the uniform of a private in the 21st Czech Rifle Regiment in France, 1918. Roušar (2006)]
Perhaps a little background for the thoroughly confused is in order. In 1914, Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia (i.e., the Czechoslovaks) entered WWI as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that, along with Germany, was fighting France, England, Russia, and eventually Italy and the United States. For the most part, the Czechoslovaks hated the Austro-Hungarian Empire and wanted independence, so they were reluctantly conscripted into the army. Most of the Czechs were sent to fight in Russia and the Italian Alps. If they were captured, many were happy to switch sides and fight against Austria-Hungary and Germany, but they had no home army to join. So the ex-POWs got themselves transported around the globe and ended up in France, as mainly Czech units in the French Army. Initially, they fought alongside Moroccans and other colonial members of the French Foreign Legion. They were joined by Czech and Slovak volunteers from the U.S. and elsewhere who were also interested in achieving independence for their homeland. Eventually, a total of 2,309 American Czechs and Slovaks fought as a part of the Czechoslovak Legion in France (Dziak 2012).
Jaroslav Holas was a carpenter who was born in Bohemia and immigrated to the United States. During the time that he lived in Clarkson he worked for V.A. Chleboun, who was in the building construction business. Holas registered for the draft in Lincoln Precinct (the area around Howells) and got a low draft number (176 out of 1038 registered in Colfax County). So he was almost certainly called up. He wanted to fight, but he didn’t enlist in the U.S. Army. Why? My guess is that he didn’t pass his physical. So he volunteered for fight in the French Army, an organization that had been bled white by their losses over the previous 3 ½ years and which probably had less exacting standards for infantrymen.
Holas left Omaha in May of 1918 and likely arrived in France by June, in time to join the 22nd Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment and get sent into action at Vouziers/Chestres (Northeastern France) in the waning days of the Great War.
A monument at a place called Chestres in Vouziers honors the 21st and 22nd regiments of the Czechoslovakian Regiments fallen in battle in October 1918. Donated by Czechoslovakia, it represents a Czechoslovakian soldier holding a grenade and proclaims “Passers-by, it was here and hereabouts that the 21st and 22nd regiments of Czechoslovakian volunteers made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of Czechoslovakia and for the glory and grandeur of beloved France. We honor the Heroes who died here … Pravda-Vitezi 1914-1918.”
Out of the total 9,600 Czech Legionnaires fighting in France, 630 were killed. Jaroslav (Jerry) Holas was one of the survivors. After peace was declared he traveled to Bohemia, got married, and brought his wife back to Clarkson. Here are a few more news items from the Colfax County Press:
Anton Hlavaty arrived here to pay a visit to his friend and comrade in the late war, Jerry Holas. The two served in the same company overseas, both being volunteers in the CzechoSlovak army. (CC Press, June 17, 1920)
F. A. Dvorak and Jaroslav Holas of Howells were in Clarkson, making arrangements to furnish the Clarkson Hotel and Cafe with ice this summer. We are informed that we may have an ice famine here this summer, since the crystal is getting short at this early stage. (CC Press June 24, 1920)
Mr. and Mrs. Jaroslav Holas, who have made their home here the past several years, are making arrangements to return to their native home, Czechoslovakia, where they expect to stay for good. Mr. Holas is a carpenter by trade and with the exception of the past few months, was employed by V.A. Chleboun. During the last three months he was employed at Omaha while his wife and child remained in Clarkson.
This will be Mr. Holas’ fourth trip across the Atlantic. He crossed the ocean when an immigrant to this country and crossed it twice during the world war with the American division of the 22nd Czechoslovak regiment, having seen active service on the western battlefront. After peace was declared he returned to Bohemia where he was married and in a few weeks came back to America. Mr. Holas also lived at Howells for a short time having worked for F.A. Dvorak. [F.A. Dvorak was a big time farmer and breeder of Poland China hogs north of Howells]
Mr. and Mrs. Holas will dispose of their household goods at an auction sale on July 26th, details of which will be made public later on. (CC Press June 19, 1924).
After this last item, Jaroslav Holas disappeared from the radar. It appears that he returned with his family to Czechoslovakia, the new country that he helped create. It would be nice to know if he prospered there, and what happened to our Freedom Fighter after the Czechs lost their independence again in 1938.
Okay, it’s trivia. I admit that I got hung up on a pretty obscure element of Clarkson’s part in World War I. But the next time someone asks you in a Trivial Pursuit game if anyone from Our Town was a member of the French Foreign Legion, the correct answer is… “Oui, Oui!”
Dziak, Robert 2012. The Czechoslovak Legions in World War 1. Master of Military Studies Thesis, U.S. Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA.
Roušar, Jaroslav 2006. The Czech Republic and Its Professional Armed Forces. Military Information and Service Agency, Ministry of Defence of the Czech Republic. Prague. 160 pages.