The story of Pavel Absolon is one of the harrowing and curious tales present with the Through Veterans’ Eyes collection as he is possibly the only man to ever receive a Canadian pension for service in the First World War despite starting the war technically at war with Canada.
Born in 1895 in the village of Mokrá Luká, today in modern Slovakia, but at the time a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a vast country of many competing ethnic groups ranging from the dominant Germans and Hungarians who sought to maintain their power, and smaller groups of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Rumanians, and Serbs who wished for equal rights, or in some cases the demise of the Empire. This ethnic contention reached a breaking point on June 28th 1914 when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, thus sparking the First World War.
Pavel Absolon was quickly caught up in the coming war, enlisting in, or possibly being conscripted by, the Austro-Hungarian Army in July 1914. Absolon was sent to the Polish Front to fight against the Russians, until he was captured by the Russian Army in the spring of 1915. As a prisoner of war, Absolon’s war should have been over. However, the Allied Powers recognized the benefits of propagating themselves as the champions of self-determination and of the rights of small nations so as to undermine the cohesion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Russians appealed to minority groups amongst their prisoners and to those still fighting in the Austro-Hungarian Army to desert their imperial overlords and fight for their own freedoms.
Pavel Absolon became one of these new freedom fighters and with thousands of other Czechs and Slovaks formed the Czechoslovak Legion, which fought against his former country for an independent Czechoslovakia. The Legion and Absolon fought on the Eastern Front until 1917 when the Russian Revolution threw their existence into jeopardy. After Vladimir Lenin made peace with the Central Powers, the Czechoslovak Legion vowed to fight on with the Western Allies. Doing so however, was extremely difficult. The Legion was isolated in Russia, separated by thousands of miles and millions of hostile troops from their nearest allies. The Legion decided the best course of action would be to travel along the Trans-Siberian railroad, from which they could reach the Pacific Ocean. The Legion’s withdrawal quickly became complicated as Russia was rapidly descending into civil war and the Legion increasingly came into conflict with Lenin’s Red Army. The Western Allies, who opposed Lenin, felt the Legion would best serve the war effort by staying in Russia. The Legion continued to fight on in Russia and for a time controlled huge swathes of the country before finally being evacuated in 1920.
His long war over, Pavel Absolon made his way to newly independent Czechoslovakia, where he married in 1921. Despite fighting for so hard for his country, Pavel decided to leave Czechoslovakia in 1926 and immigrate to Canada. There he became a farmer in London, Ontario and had two children, a son in 1930 and a daughter in 1931.
His war experience had left Pavel badly scarred. His right eye had been damaged in battle and he suffered longstanding breathing troubles. By the late 1940s he became permanently disabled due to Bronchogenic Carcinoma (a type of cancer).
In 1951, his son pleaded with his father to seek help from the government. As the Czechoslovak Legion had been a part of the Allied war effort and during its time fighting the Red Army was under British command, William felt his father should receive a pension as an ex-imperial. After receiving proof from Czechoslovakia that Absolon had in fact been a part of the Czechoslovak Legion, the Government announced “the inclination is to accept his claim that he fought with us as an ally.” However, they very explicitly stated they would only consider his service 1916 to 1918, prohibiting him from receiving a pension for his service in the Austro-Hungarian Army, involvement in the Russian Civil War and subsequent service in the Czechoslovakian Army.
Absolon did receive a pension as a Great War veteran in 1951 but this brought little respite. His wife died in 1952 and Pavel himself would die of cardiac failure the following year in 1953. Pavel Absolon was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in London, Ontario. His son requested his father receive a proper veteran’s headstone, but this was denied. This was a final injustice to the legacy of a man who had heroically fought for his people’s freedom and come to Canada with the hope it would be a more tolerant land.