World War I: Latvia (1914-18)

Figure 1.--Here we see a postcard photograpg Russian boy in a Winter Uniform during 1916. The boy may have been the son of a Russian military commander. He looks to young to be in a military school. We know he was not at home with his sister and mother, but rather in Latvia which would have been at the front lines. Pass the cursor over the image to see the message on the back. The message on the card reads "On kindly memory to sister Nastya from Ljosha (Alexei), 4/XI.1916, Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia now).

Latvia at the time of World War I was a part of the Russian Empire. The initial fighting was in East Prussia and Poland, but after Hindenberg and Ludendorf snashed Russian armies at Tannenburg and other battles (1914), the Germans moved into Poland and the Baltics (1915). Terrible Russian losses caused theRussian Army to mutiny and the Tsar to abdicate. This was followed by the Nolshecick Revolution (October 1917). Latvian nationalists were anti-Communist abd formed the Latvian National Ccouncil (LNC) (October 29, 1917). German occupation forces did not allow the LNC to organize an independent government or recruit an army. The Germans were intentent on organising Latvia as a Baltic duchy. The Soviets and Germans finally signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918). The Treaty obliged the Bolsheviks to accept the loss of Latvia and the other Baltic states. The Allied offensive in the West broke the German Army and an Armistice was signed ending the War (November 11, 1918). The German defeat in the West changed the situation in the East. The Germans were required to abrogated the Treaty of Brest-Litosk. This meant that the status of the Baltic states was unclear. The Latvians established a People's Council which proclaimed an independent republic. Karlis Ulmanis was the first prime minister (November 17). The next day The Council declared Latvian independence. The Latvians, however, had to fight the Bolshevicks to secure their independence.

Russian Empire (1795-1918)

Latvia at the time of World War I was a part of the Russian Empire. As a result of the Polish Partitions, Russia obtained control of at first Livinia (1795) and subsequently Courland as well which lasted until the Russian Revolution (1917). The Russian abolished serfdom in the early 19th century, but in actuality mostly German landowers continued to exercise autocratic authority. Tsarist authorities emarkened on Russification effort in the 19th century. The desire was to create a unified nation state. The stringest effort was made in Poland where revolts chaallenged Tsarist authorities. Tasrist autjorities moved to restrict the autonmy granted to Finland and the Baltics. Tsar Alexander III in particular pushed Russification. Alexander refused to confirm the privileges of the largely German Baltic nobility that formed the basis of local autonomy. Tsarist offiials reorganized the the German dominated Baltic police system to conform to the Russian system (1888). Gradually the Latvian peasantry saw there oiverlords shift from German to Russian. The Russification effort also involved cultural matters. Schools were taught in Russian rather than German or Latvian. Publication in both German and Russian was restricted. The cultural restrictions in particular tended to fuel Latvian national sentiment.

Outbreak of World War I (1914)

Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia for the assaination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia was committed to defend the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas exchanged telegrams, but ther personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy. The Tsar ordered a mobilization. France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once moibilized posed a forbidable danger to Germany. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. German armies crossed the Belgian birder (Aufudy 4). This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, into the War. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany's decession to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of brining Britain and the Empire with its immenense military and material resources into the War.

Latvian Riflemen (1915)

While Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire, that does not mean that Latvians were loyal to the Empire. Tsarist authorities were suspicious of both the Baltic Germans and also of the local ethnic populations (Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians). Concern over the loyalty of the Baltic population was why tsarist authorities did not formed ethnic non-Russianm units in the Baltics. Rather the Baltic people were drafted into overwealmingly Russian Tsarist units. Heavy handed Russian conscription caused resistance to conconsription even riots in Riga. As the German Army began moving east toward Latvia (April 1915), prominent Latvians, led by Jānis Goldmanis in the Duma call for Tsar Nicholas to approve the creation of Latvian battalions. Theyargued that Latvian units would most effectively resist the German advance into Latvia. Two battalions of Latvian Home Guard were fighting effectively at Jelgava. German advances finlly convinced the Russian Stavka (High Commnd) to approve Latvian units (July 1915). The Tsar thus approved the formation of the Latvian Rifles. While loyalty was an issue, it was probably easier to raise these local units as the Germans pressed firward. We are not sure why this was done in Latvia and not elsewhere in the Baltics. By this time the Russians were in control of Lithuania and the Estonians were privanly considered not loyal enough. The General Headquarters approved the request and organized eight regular and one reserve Latvian Riflemen battalions which were named after Latvian towns (July-August 1915). About 8,000 men volunteered. The units had Latvian officers and the use of the Latvian language was tolerated.

Military Campaign (1914-18)

World War I began when Germany demanded that Russia ceased mobilizing its vast army. When the Tsar refused, the Germans declared war (August 1, 1914). Shortly thereafter, the Germans began the war in the west by attavking France through Belgium--executing the Schiliffen Plan. This was the principal German offensive of the War, designed to be the war-winning offensive. The Russians honoring their treaty with France, launched a major offensive in the East against the smaller German army left in eastern Germany. The Germans as a result had to divert troops from the Western offensive abndcrush them east. The initial fighting was in East Prussia and Poland, but after Hindenberg and Ludendorf snashed Russian armies at Tannenburg and other battles (1914), the Germans moved east into Poland and the Baltics (April 1915). The Germans captured the port city of Liepāja (May 7) and Talsi, Tukums and Ventspils (May 18). The Russian Supreme Command ordered the evacuation of the whole population from Kurzeme (Junw 29). An estimated 400,000 refugees fled east. Some went to in Vidzeme, but most continued all the way to Russia. The Germans occupied the western coastal province of Kurzeme. The Russian War Ministry ordered the evacuation of the factories in Riga and the workers (July 19). This was accomplished with some 30,000 rail cars loaded with military equipment and the factory machinery. Latvians at the time were integrated into Russian army units. With the approach of the Germans, Latvian petitioned the Army General Headquarters to establish separate ethnic Latvian military units (The Latvian Rifles) in order to defend Latvia. Russian authorities eventually apprioved the request, desperated for any support to help stop the Germans. Formation of the Latvian Rifles began (August 1915). The Latvian Rifle units were assigned to the 12th Russian Army with Tsarist generals. [Latvian War Museum] The Riflemen fought in positions along Daugava River. There during Christmas Battles (December 1916 - January 1917), the Latvians experienced very heavy casualties. [Latvian War Museum] It was at this time the Russian Revolution erupted in Petograd and the Russian Army began to desintegrate (February 17). The Germans occupied Lithuania and most of Latvia (Febuary 1917) but at the time that the Tsar had been deposed had not yet occupied Riga and Estonia further north. The Russian Privisional Government attempted to continue the War. The Russians and Latvioans tenatioously held on to Riga. The Germans finally entered Riga (September 3, 1917). The Bolsheviks seized control of the Revolution (November).

Home Front

The Germans occupied much of Latvia early in the War (1915). Then for 2 years the front stabalized. The front in the Baltics for 2 years ran along the Daugava river in Latvia. Riga was heavily industrialized and the Russians dismantled over 500 Latvian industries and along with the equiment and machinery transported them to central Russia. Latvia was thus greatly affected by the War. Industry was focused on military production, although the Russians had moved large factories east ad they were never returned after the War. Agricultural production was impaired by the shortage of agricultural labor. About 75 percent of the men drafted were from rural areas. There was also great loss of livestock. [Raun, p. 95.]

Ober Ost

Russian Revolution (October 1917)

Terrible Russian losses caused the Russian Army to mutiny and the Tsar to abdicate (February 1917). The Provisional Government continued the War. The Bolshevicks made peace a major issue. The Bolshevicks finally seized control (October 1917). The terrible military situation increased Latvian and LSDU support for the Bolshevik Revolution. The Latvians hoped that this would mean a "free Latvia within free Russia." LSDU activists formed the soviet "Iskolat Republic" in the area of Latvia that was not yet occupied by the Germans.

Latvian National Council

The Latvian Provisional National Council organized in the area under German control. They were joined by te Riga Democratic Bloc. The Latvian National Council (LNC) was formed (October 29, 1917). The LNC was ardently nationalist, anti-Communist and opposed the landed barons were mostly German.

Treaty of Brest-Litosk (March 1918)

The poorly organized and led Russian Army suffered enormous losses. The Russian tied down large German armies in the Eastern Front, making it impossible for the Germans to concentrate their strength against the French and British on the Western Front. The Russians finally cracked in 1917. Revolution broke out in Russia. The Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government in November 1917. The Russian Army had collapsed in front of the Germans. The Russian people were starving as deperate. The Bolsheviks who had pledged bread and peace had no alternative but to seek terms. The Bolsheviks attempted to obtain modest terms from the Germans. As a result, a peace treaty was not finalized for several months. With the collaspse of the RussiAn Army, however, the Germans were thus able to force a humiliating peace on the Bolsheviks--the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918). The Germans insisted on very onerous severe terms, (The same Germabns would complain about the severity of the Versailles Treaty.) The Bolsheviks had to ceede the Ukraine, its Polish territories, the Baltics (much of Latvia and Lithuania), and Finland. The Treaty transferred Kurzeme and Vidzeme to the Germans. The Bolsheviks gave up land for peace. This thus allowed the Russians to withdraw from the war, although at enormous cost.

German Objectives

The Germans had occupied Lithuania and much of Latvia since 1915. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty essentially ended the War in the East. Many Germans believed that victory in the West would soon follow. The Treaty and the cesation of hostilities gave the Germans the ability to engineer the changes they planned in the East. The goalto reshape Russia's former western possessions to a new German East. This was a huge challenge given the extent of the territory and the varied peopls inhabiting the territory. The Germans set out to build a great military state named “Ober Ost”, the title of the Supreme Commander in the East, Oberbefehlshaber Ost. [Liulevicius, p. 7.] This was a logical step as the German Army was in control of much of the territory. The military in Germany itself by 1917 had essentially seized control of the German state and was directing the economy. General Erich Ludendorff commanding Ober Ost had created a vast administrative structure in the areas the Army had occupied. A principal German practice to comtrol occupied territories was Verkehrspolitik (movement policy). German occupation officials used regulations governing the movement and people and food to control the occupied areas. The controls help to direct economic activity to suppot the war effort. The Germans employed surveillance, registration, and documentation to achieve their objective of harnassing local resources to support thewar effort. The Germans closed off Ober Ost to the outside world. For administrative purposes it was divided into administrations, administrative regions, and districts. The movement of the local populations was severely restricted. This created problems because the German authorities did not draw the administrative boundaries along established etnic and settlement patterns. As a result families and friends often found themselves seapated. Itenerate merchants (peddlers), often Jews, were adversely affected. Military courts were established to punish violations and the penalties could be quite severe, including large fines and seizures. The German objectives were not just economic and political. The Germans also imposed a culture component to its policies in Ober Ost. Here the objective was as the Germans saw it the humanitarian provision of advanced German culture to the barely civilized populatin of Eastern Europe. In came as a surprise to amnt Germans that the population of Ober Ost was not all that anxiouss to have theur society and culture reorganized along German lines. While the Germans could control movement, the cultural mission was a much more difficult undertaking. Here they made little progess in the short time they had beforedefeat in the West. One impact of their often arrgant and oppresive efforts, irronical, was instead of undermining the local culture was to strngthen it and fuel ethnic and linguistic natioalism.

Armistice (November 1918)

Allied offensives on the Western Front cracked the German front forcing them back toward Germany. The German Navy mutined. Riots broke out in Germany cities. The General staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. He abdicated and fled to the neutral Netherlands. A German Government was hastily formed and asked for an armistice based on President Wilson's 14 Points. After determining that the request came from a civilian German Government and not the Kaiser or German military, the Allies accepted the German offer. The gun fell silent after 4 years of vicious fighting at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918). There had been over 8.5 million soldiers killed and 21.2 million wounded. Versailles Peace Treaty (1919). The German defeat in the West changed the situation in the East. German control of the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine did not last long. The Armistice which ended the War (Novenmber 11, 1918), aborigated Breast-Litiovsk. This meant that the status of the Baltic states was unclear. Britain granted de facto recognition of an independent Latvia on the same day. This opened the possibility of an independent Latvia. The Bolsheviks were, however, determined to seize control of the former Tsarist territories.

Independence (November 1918)

After the German defeat on the Western Front and the Armistace, the Germans began to withdraw from the area of Latvia they controlled (November 11). Latvian nationalists thus seized its independence in the turmoil resulting form World War I and the Russian Revolution (1918). The Latvians established a People's Council which proclaimed an independent republic. Karlis Ulmanis was the first prime minister (November 17). The next day The Council declared Latvian independence (November 18).

Russian Civil War (1918-22)

This led led to a distructive Civil war between Reds and Whites (1918-22). The old Imperial Army was shatered by the Germans. Many soldiers mutinied and killed their officers. People's Commisar for War Leon Trotsky organized a new Red Army, recruiting massive numbers of peasants and workers. The Bolshevicks attached political officers to all Red Army units to keep warch over the officers (many who had been in the old Imperial Army) and explain Communism to the largely illiterate peasant recruits. The Bolshevicks were especially concerned with the younger untained generation, untained by the Tsarist past and capitalism. The Civil War waged throughout Russia made it impossible for the Bolsheviks to concentrated their forces in an effort to retake the Baltic Republics.

War with the Bolshevicks (1918-20)

The Latvians after the departure of the Germans had to fight the Bolshevicks to secure their independence. Britian recognized their indepebndence, but it would have to be won on the battlefielsd. The Bolsheviks set up the the puppet Iskolat Republic in the area of Latvia not occupied by the Germans. They moved against the new independent Latvian Republic. The Bolshecicks captured Riga and installed a Soviet Government. Fighting between Allied forces, the Bolshevicks, Lettish (Latvian) nationalist forces, and Balts (Baltic Germans) continued for nearly 2 years. Here a young British officer, Harold Alexander, played an important role leading the Landeswehr (essentially a small German force) in Latvia. Foreign troops evacuated (early-1920) and the Latvians signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union recognizing Latvian independence (August 11, 1920).


Latvian War Museum

Liulevicius, Vejas. War Land on the Eastern Front (Cambridge; The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2000).



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Created: 6:30 PM 8/21/2006
Last updated: 12:11 AM 8/22/2011