London in 1914 was home to thousands of people from around the world. While not as diverse as it is today, there were people from dozens of nations in Britain’s capital. One of these minority communities was made up of Czechs.
In 1911 there were around 8,700 people living in London who were citizens of Austria-Hungary or had come from that Empire and become naturalised as British citizens. Czechs were not enumerated separately at that point as they were part of Austria-Hungary’s enormous population, but in 1921 there were 984 Czechoslovak residents in London (of whom around 700 were Czechoslovak citizens).
When the Great War began, Czech men – and other Austro-Hungarian citizens in Britain – became ‘alien enemies’. Keen to show their loyalty to their new country or to strike out for independence for the Czechs (or both) – many Czech men joined the British Army.
Others agitated for Czech independence from Austria-Hungary through the Czech National Alliance, such as their secretary Francis Kopecký. In January 1917, the Alliance opened new offices near Piccadilly Circus, in which they displayed a roll of honour of Czech soldiers in the British Army. From their office, the Alliance distributed their propaganda “explaining the problem of the Czechs and their aspiration for independence from Austria, and also why they have the cause of the Allies at heart” (as the Times described it).
One of the Czech men who served in the British Army was Joseph Kořinek, whose family lived in Carlton Road, Kentish Town, having left Austria in the first decade of the twentieth century; by 1911 he was working (aged 15) as an electrical engineering apprentice. He joined the army in the Great War and served as a signaller in “A” Battery, 91st Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, part of the 20th (Light) Division. Sadly Joseph died (aged 21) just before the Armistice – on 5 November 1918 – probably in either number 30 or number 22 casualty clearing station near Cambrai. Whether he was one of the men in the photo, we will probably never know.
Illustrated War News, 10/1/1917
Topfoto have this wonderful photo from Trafalgar Day celebrations in London in 1916. In the background is a banner carrying the words: “London Czechs salute the heroic British Navy and the glorious memory of Nelson”