216: Baltic Independence Pt. 2


With the retreat of the German army in November 1918, the Latvian began a fight for their future.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 216. This podcast is brought to you by all of the excellent people who have chosen to support it on Patreon. By becoming a supporter you can gain access to special ad free versions of all of the episodes, special Patreon only episodes, and most importantly my eternal thanks. If that sounds interesting, head on over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to find out more. This is our second episode about the events in the Baltic countries after the war. Last time we focused on the events in Estonia and in this episode we will focus on Latvia. Latvia would be a key battleground between the Latvian Nationalists on one side, Latvian Bolsheviks on the other, and then groups of German soldiers known as the Freikorps and the Landeswehr which would act as a bit of a wildcard in between. This mixture of forces would result in fighting that would move back and forth throughout Latvia as each side saw their fortunes wax and wane.

During the First World War, and until November 1918, Latvia would be occupied by German forces after they captured the territories from the Russians during the offensives of 1915. After the Germans retreated the Bolsheviks would announce the creation of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic in mid-December 1918. They would make this announcement from Latvia’s largest city Riga, the city which was also the focal point of Bolshevik support in the country. Bolshevik support had been strong in the city even before they came to power in Russia, in fact during most of 1918 the Russian Bolsheviks were heavily reliant on a group of Latvian volunteers known as the Latvian Rifles. This unit of the Red Army would be its most reliable troops for most of 1918 and they would be present for many of the most important battles of the Russian Civil War in 1918, only later would they be brought back into Latvia itself to help fight for their own territory. The most immediate threat to the Latvian Bolsheviks was the Socialist government that had been created by Karlis Ulmanis. Ulmanis’ government had been based in Riga before the Bolsheviks took over the city, at which point he was forced to flee to the coast. This flight was necessitated by the fact that Bolshevik support was much greater, both politically and militarily, and Ulmanis’ government would find itself in the position of having to resist the Red militias and military units, which numbers up to 45,000, with just a few thousand troops. This massive initial imbalance of strength would allow the Latvian Soviet government to solidify itself in a way that the Soviets in Finland and Estonia never were able to, and it would make give the Latvian SSR a much better chance of survival.

This advantage would be squandered, and quite quickly. The reactions of the Latvians to Bolshevik rule were similar to what was being seen at this point in other areas that were under Bolshevik control. That meant that as the Bolshevik leaders started to put economic and societal changes in place they would turn first one group and then another against them. The first group would be the rural peasants. They would resist the policies of central purchasing and distribution by the leaders in Riga, who paid prices that the peasants felt were far below what they could get on the open market. This is similar to the reaction of the Russian peasants when the leaders in Petrograd began grain requisitions, the big difference was that in Latvia the Bolshevik leaders were not strong enough to enforce their requisitions. Their attempts to force the rural populations to acquiesce, which involved the execution of thousands of people, just inflamed the situation even more. In the spring of 1919 they would also find that even the industrial workers in Riga, who had previously been strong supporters of the Bolsheviks, were beginning to revolt. In the case of the workers the continued economic problems proved to be too much, with food being far too scarce and the reality of further fighting being undesirable.

As I mentioned the Latvian nationalists, after fleeing Riga, were critically short of troops, they basically did not have any. Out of desperation Ulmanis would turn to the Germans for help. He would use the Baltic German leader August Winnig to initiate contact with other Baltic Germans and also sympathetic leaders in Germany. Winnig would use the situation to his advantage, and he worked out a deal that would give Latvian citizenship to any foreign soldiers who fought for Latvia for at least a month. This was important because Winnig planned to invite German volunteers into the country, who would then become Latvian citizens which would bolster the power of the Baltic Germans in the future Latvian state. As soon as the agreements were in place advertisements began to appear in Germany, advertisements for volunteers to serve in Latvia. They ads promised the opportunity to help defend the Baltics, and Germany itself, from Bolshevik aggression and the opportunity to receive land grants when the fighting was over. The call found many receptive men. The German army was demobilizing, and this left millions of men that were now on their way back to a civilian life. Among all of these veterans of the First World War that did not welcome the return to a civilian life. They saw service in the Baltics as an opportunity for further military adventures. If everything went well they would have their salary from the time that they spent fighting and then if they survived maybe an opportunity at a new life after the fighting. The volunteers that answered would join what was known as the Freikorps.

The Freikorps would be led by Generalmajor Rudiger von der Goltz. Goltz had previously been the German commander of the troops that had been sent to Finland. Just days after arriving in Latvia Goltz was made it clear to the leaders in Latvia that now that he had arrived he was, at least militarily, in charge. While Goltz certainly believed that the Bolsheviks were the primary enemy, and that he was in Latvia to halt their movement west, but they were also not the only enemies that he was concerned about. Goltz believed that he was fighting several different enemies, including the Ulmanis’ Latvian government which he was theoretically in the employ of. Another entry on Goltz’s list of enemies were the soldier’s councils that had been formed in the Latvian military units. Even the non-Bolshevik units were radicalized in Goltz’s mind, and he felt that one of his first objectives had to be to bring them under German control. This mindset did not endear him to with the local Latvians, at all, and almost immediately there would be concerns both in the Latvian civilian in military leadership that the Germans were dangerous. There had already been concerns about the Baltic Germans, and now the Latvians realized that they had agreed to allow them to form their own foreign military force. The final enemy two enemies on Goltz’s list were the Latvian Bolsheviks and the Entente. Speaking of the Entente, they had some thoughts on this new German military adventure. The armistice had forbidden any foreign German military involvements, but the Entente would make a special exception for the events in the Baltics. They would use Article 12 of the armistice to allow the Freikorps to assist, the articale allowed for German military expeditions as long as they were done with the knowledge and acceptance of the Entente. With the fear of Bolshevism as its height in Paris, the Entente saw the Freikorps as just another way of slowing its advance west.

Freikorps numbers began to rapidly increase during February 1918. It was at this time that the original German Iron Brigade, which had been made up of Baltic Germans, was expanded into a division and another division was created, the 1st Guards Reserve Division, which would originally be made up of 5,000 men. It is probably important to note that divisions during these campaigns in eastern Europe had a much broader definition than during the First World War. During the war there were hundreds of divisions that were generally all roughly the same size, in the fighting after the war divisions varied wildly. With all of the new troops ready to fight, von der Goltz and the Latvians began to retake the country. Their first objective was to push south to secure the area towards Lithuania. This would be done by the 1st Guards Division who advanced toward the village of Siauliai. At the same time the iron Division pushed towards the city of Jelgava. Jelgava is a city about 20 miles outside of Riga and if it could be taken it would function as a staging point for an advance on the capital. The third objective would be attacked by the Landeswehr, a unit made of entirely of Baltic German and Latvian troops. They would move toward the village of Tukums to the northwest of Riga. These attacks would begin on March 3rd, and right from the start it was successful. All three objectives would be captured in the span of 2 weeks, which left most of the Latvia in the hands of, well, the Germans. After the success of this operation Ulmanis would begin to state his displeasure over the actions of the German troops. When they moved into these newly captured territories they would often kill many of the enemy troops that surrendered, and then they would execute any civilians that were believed to have worked with the Reds. The new fear among the Latvians was that they had just replaced Bolshevik domination for German domination. This German domination was becoming more apparent every day, with Goltz taking actions to make sure his authority was not questioned, like leaving three battalions of loyal troops in the city of Liepaja where Ulmanis’ government was stationed until Riga was retaken. These battalions took on the role of military police, and any actions by Latvians that were against their wishes were quickly suppressed.

In April Goltz and the Baltic Germans would proceed with the next step of their plan to take full control of Latvia. After an official announcement from Goltz, making it clear that he was the only military authority in Latvia, a new government was created. This new government was led by the Baltic Germans, with some token Latvian representation. It would depose Ulmanis as the anti-Bolshevik government of Latvia. The Western Powers were displeased with these developments, their relations with the Baltic Germans had never been very good, and they had only been getting worse since the Freikorps arrived in Latvia. Unfortunately, there was basically nothing that the Western countries could do. when they demanded the reinstatement of Ulmanis, to which Goltz simply threatened to leave the county and take all of his troops with him. Nobody was under any illusions that at this point it is likely that if Goltz left then it would not result in Ulmanis retaking control, but instead a Bolshevik Latvia.

In this atmosphere of charged relations with the Western Powers, the Freikorps leaders began to discuss their next step, an attack on Riga. There was little concern that the Bolshevik defensive forces in the city would be much of a problem. Goltz and the others considered them to be little more than a speed bump. However, there was concern that an aggressive attack by the Freikorps might further inflame the Western powers, who were at this point in May 1919, nearing the end of their discussions at Versailles. Goltz’s plan to mollify the concerns of the Western Powers was to put the Landeswehr units in the primary attack and since the Landeswehr were made up entirely of Baltic Germans from Latvia an attack into the capital could be claimed as simply Latvians retaking their capital from the Bolsheviks. The fact that those Latvians were ethnically German was just an interesting coincidence. The attacks against Riga would begin on May 22, and they would experience great success. The city had, by this point, turned completely against the Bolshevik leaders. There had been multiple waves of arrests and executions, and many within the city were starving. They saw the advance of the Landeswehr not as conquerors, but instead like a relief force that was finally arriving to save them. Of course, as soon as the Landeswehr were in control of the city they unleashed their own wave of terror against real and perceived Bolshevik sympathizers.

With Riga under German and Baltic German control Goltz began to plan for his next steps, however orders arrived from Berlin that he was not to advance beyond Riga. In fact, he was forbidden from personally entering Riga. These orders were prompted by concerns from Berlin, with the negotiations between Germany and the Western Powers at a critical point they did not want anything to happen that would cause issues. On May 28th a new player would enter the game, and Latvian and German units would make contact with advancing Estonians. At first the relations between the Estonians and the Germans was good, however their differences would soon result in fighting. The German-installed Latvian government, led by Andrievs Niedra, requested that the Estonians retreat back to the north. This was something that, even if the Estonians wanted to work with the Niedra government they could not do. In May 1919 the Estonian and White Russian forces were advancing towards Pskov and the Estonian troops in Latvia were providing important security for that attacks’ southern flank. Instead of retreating to Estonian territory the Estonian leaders instead sent a message to the Landeswehr, demanding that they retreat to the south of the city of Cesis in north eastern Latvia. The Estonians were so forceful because they believed that the Germans had no intension of fighting against the Russians in the east. Therefore they wanted to take control of everything to the north and east of Cesis to provide for their own security, but this would also leave them in control of a good amount of Latvian territory. This was an acceptable side effect because the Estonians were working with Latvian leaders to provide support for their goal of retaking control of Latvia. After the message about Cesis was sent on June 4th the Estonians prepared to advance against the german forces. They would be joined by Latvian units as well. From June 5th to the 9th fighting would occur between the Estonian and Latvians on one side and the Baltic German Landeswehr on the other. They would be fighting for possession of Cesis, which would start under Estonian control. The Estonians, and some Latvian artillery, would be forced out of the village of June 6th. The next day Estonian reinforcements arrived and they prepared to attack, which they did on june 8th. These attacks would be, by and large, uncoordinated, which prevents them from retaking Cesis. However, the next day they would try again, and this would cause a reaction from the Germans. They would move up units from the Iron Division to take up positions in the town. This was one of their few reserve units, and when the Estonians began an attack to the West, at Ledurga on June 22nd, there were few German troops available to react. A successful attack on Ledurga threatened to cut off the German forces at Cesis, and so they would be forced to retreat unless Ledurga could be quickly retaken.

The Iron Division was assigned the task of retaking Ledurga, but they would not be able to accomplish this task. Due to this failure the Germans would retreat to a line of German First World War trenches between Riga and Cesis. Overall the retreat from Cesis could be seen as the point where the attempts by the Baltic Germans to install a German-central government in Latvia fell apart. Morale in the German units was collapsing, and the Estonians seemed to only get stronger as time went by because they were gathering more Latvian troops. Just a few days after reaching the german trenches, another retreat would be ordered, this time to defenses outside Riga. This retreat, even though it represented another defeat, would also help the Germans to stabilize. The area that they were defending was much more compact, and they had more troops available. With their previous numerical advantage nullified the Estonians and Latvians found it difficult to continue attacks directly on Riga. However, some units of Estonian troops, advancing along the coast, were able to find the flank of the German defenses and push through it, with the Landeswehr once again forced to retreat they would seek a ceasefire agreement.

With such an advantageous position, the Estonians sought large concessions in exchange for this ceasefire. They would require the Landeswehr and Freikorps to give up Riga, and to retreat to the south and west to Tukums and Jelgava. This would be just the first step, and eventually the Freikorps would have to exit the country entirely. At this same time the Estonians, with their primary objectives complete, agreed to move north and back into Estonian territory. This was important to Ulmanis and the Latvian leaders who were now growing fearful of Estonian power in the country. These concerns led to the Estonians allowing Latvian troops to be the only ones that moved into Riga itself on July 5th. With the Estonians and Freikorps agreeing to leave the country, that left the Latvians and the Landeswehr. The Landeswehr agreed to be put under the command of a British Officer, Colonel Alexander, and to move into Eastern Latvia to fight against the Bolshevik forces that were still in possession of the eastern third of Latvia. They would accomplish this goal, and Colonel Alexander would later go on to be a Field Marshal of the British Army, leading British troops during World War 2 in the Middle East and Italy.

Even after signing the ceasefire agreement with the Estonians and Latvians, and losing the Landeswehr as an ally, von der Goltz was not ready to give up and go back to Germany. When looking around for other options he began discussions with the little known White Russian leader Pavel Bermont-Avalov. They planned to gather the Freikorps, and Russians, Latvians, and Lithuanian volunteers to march into Western Russia. This was a drastic change in plans, the men of the Freikorps had originally joined with promises of free land in Latvia, but this was going to be much different and so they were all given a choice about what to do. Many chose to go back to Germany, especially those that had families to return to, but many others agreed to stay. overall this moment of change helped make the Freikorps a more efficient fighting force. After the ceasefire morale and discipline had reached a new low, with looting and plundering becoming almost the norm. When those that no longer wanted to be Latvia were allowed to leave, those that stayed, although smaller in number, had much higher unit morale and discipline. As his contribution to the venture Bermont-Avaolov would contribute about 10,000 Russian troops, mostly made up of men who had been released from German prisoner of war camps. These troops would be drastically outnumbered by the Germans, but Bermont-Avalov was serviing a more important in Goltz’s eyes, giving him an excuse to stay. All of these troops would be combined into the new West Russian Volunteer Army which would work with the West Russian government that it hoped ot create. These changes did little to change the views of the other political entities in the region. In Germany the Weimar government, initially supportive of the Freikorps activities were not almost desperate to bring them back to Germany to prevent further Allied anger. The Western Allies were becoming more adamant, now that the Bolshevik threated seemed to be reduced and Western supported governments were in place in Latvia and Estonia, that all German military units had to come back to Germany. The British even went as far as threatening to reinstate the blockade of Germany if it did not happen. The Latvians fully believed that, even if the German troops had joined an army with Russian in the title, they were still very much a threat to Latvia. Goltz would ignore the orders from Berlin to bring his troops home, but the growing political pressure on Goltz and Bermont-Avalov forced them into action.

The West Russian Volunteer Army had a total of just over 50,000 men, but very few of them would be available for any offensive effort. The vast majority of the troops would be required as security forces in the areas under their control in Western Latvia. The maximum available for an attack would be 8,000 men. These men would be committed to an attack on Riga, which completely justified Latvian concerns. I am honestly not completely certain what Bermont-Avalov and Goltz hoped to achieve with this new attack, but attack they would on October 8th. From the very beginning the small advances that were made were hard fought and costly. On October 10th they got within artillery range of Riga, but there was not a lot of artillery ammunition to actually use, and the infantry advanced stalled. Bermont-Avalov offered a ceasefire, with the core piece of this agreement being that the Latvians would support his attack into Russia. There was no immediate reply from the Latvians, who at this were very skeptical about signing ceasefires involving the Germans. For four days little happened, and Goltz travelled back to Germany to try and garner further support for his troops and to arrange for the shipment of winter uniforms. While he was gone the Latvians would launch a counter attack. These attacks would be supported by British ships who would bombard Bermont-Avalov’s positions near the coast, allowing the Latvian units to advance. Steady progress was made throughout the last half of October and early November. Bermont-Avalov then resigned as leader of the West Russian Volunteer Army, and the army fell apart. The remnant of the Freikorps asked to be brought back into the German Army while they also retreated into Lithuania. They were closely pursued by the Latvian troops, who were at this point committed to pushing all foreign military units out of their country by force. They went so far as to officially declare war on Germany.

The last Freikorps units would be pushed into Lithuania in late November, and the Lithuanians would join in pushing them into East Prussia. In the east the Latvians, in conjunction with the Landeswehr, renewed their attacks against the Bolsehviks, driving them back into Russia. The Latvians rejected all of the Russian ceasefire offers, but their attacks soon bogged down due to just the scale of the territory and the size of their forces. There would be another surge of progress when Polish troops arrived in early 1920, but in February the armistice would be signed with the Bolsheviks. Throughout the summer of 1919 the Latvians would sign official treaties, first with Germany and then with Soviet Russia. Latvia was not a country, but for its independence it had paid a high price. By the time that the treaty with Russia was signed Latvia’s population was only 3/4 of what it had been in 19194, with a full quarter of its 1914 population, or 700,000 people being either killed, deported, or voluntarily leaving the country.