The Latvian riflemen battalions were formed after a great show of gallantry by Latvian troops in a World War I battle near the Rune hills near Jelgava on May 2 and 3 1915. Latvian troops stopped the German invasion from penetrating to Riga. This caused a surge of patriotism in the Latvian people and a request for permission to form battle units consisting only of Latvian soldiers filed with Grand Knaz Nikolay Nikolayevich. Since Latvia’s territory (Latvia itself not existent as a country yet) was under great danger of invasion, the leadership of the Russian army accepted the proposal. It were decided that eight battalions would be formed. The Latvian troops would have to swear allegiance to the Czar of Russia and would enjoy the standard privileges of soldiers. The battalions were to be wartime-only units.
In early August, the formation of the battalions began. Males aged 17 to 35 enrolled on a voluntary basis, although there were exceptions. The response of the people was enthusiastic. In 1915 and 1916, 8000 volunteers joined the battalions, spurred on by patriotism, hatred against the Germans, poverty and lack of food caused by the German invasion. Even Lithuanians and Estonians joined the Latvian battalions later on, trying to remain close to their native lands.
The first commanders of the battalions were Rudolfs Bangerskis, Fridrihs Briedis, Ludvigs Bolsteins. Colonel Fridrihs Briedis should receive particular attention. He always shone on the battlefield. He was brave and reckless and he ignored the reality when it did not suit his needs, going ahead to simply do his job. He had received the highest possible medals of the Russian army and, after receiving command of Latvian troops, tried to shape them to his own image.
In the October of 1915, the Germans had reached Olaine on the Riga front, moved their right flank to the east coast of island Dole and pressed with the left flank to lake Babite. Further movement was stopped by the swamps, possible to cross only in winter or very dry summer. There was only one way forward – through a narrow slip of land containing the Riga railway and the highway to the city.
Radko Dimitrev, a Bulgarian general, was on October 21 made Commander of the Riga fortified area. He was an ineffectual and airy man, many of whose plans were downright infeasible and destructive for troops. Because of this, the Riga front was weak and moving inwards. It was, that is, until the first Daugavgriva Latvian battalion was send to hold the passage towards Riga on October 25. In the dark, rainy night, while German airships were bombing the bridges and railways of Riga, two commands of the battalion went to the front. Not having slept or eaten for more than a day, the soldiers of these commands crossed the Tirelis swamp by waging across knee-deep and pushed back four commands of the German Landsturm. Three riflemen fell. A few days later, two commands of the then-captain Briedis attacked the better-armed and larger German battalion of the 376th Army and stopped its offensive, completely upsetting German plans. Incidents like this were typical of the early parts of the war.
Towards the end of 1915 and in the beginning of 1916, more of the Latvian battalions were send into battle – the Fourth, the Fifth, the Sixth, the Seventh and the Eighth. There were 10000-12000 riflemen on the front lines.
The Offensive of March 1916 marked a low point for the Latvian riflemen. Due to the Russian command’s ineptness, 369 men were lost (656 according to other sources). Latvian officers did not have options of criticizing or refusing to obey the orders of their superiors, although these orders often sent Latvians into sure death. This, accompanied by a sudden early spring and early use of too much ammunition and low morale in some parts of the army, led to devastating results on the Latvian battalions. There were few successes in the offensive, but it was reported by the Russian general R. Dimitrev: “Latvian soldiers are above all criticism, and it is not because of them that our operation failed.”
This deepened the crisis that began with the Offensive of March. The offensive was a large attack on German troops near Daugavpils to push them away from the city and free the Daugavpils-Riga railway line for use. Approx. 45000 men were deployed in the offensive, 7500 of them Latvian.
The Russian headquarter made mistake by mistake. The pre-attack artillery sunk charge after charge in the swamp, doing no harm to German troops and indicating where attacks would be following. Russian (and Latvian) troops were sending in a trickle, although the total number of troops available was much greater for the Russian side than for the Germans – a concentrated attack would most likely have proved successful. Casualty followed casualty.
The offensive was a failure. The Russian army decided to make no more offensives on the northern front lines after this. Latvian riflemen had gained much recognition in the battles, however. They had fought where others had faltered, conquered impossible odds and kept fighting even when it was obvious they would be defeated. Russian newspapers dedicated glowing editorials and articles to Latvian riflemen, which created interest in the Western allies.
The battle is one of the more representative battles of the heroism of Latvian riflemen. The ‘Island of Death’ was a ca. 2 square kilometers wide well-fortified position near Ogre and Sloka enclosed by German forces on three sides and the river Daugava on the fourth side. It earned its appellation for the bloody battles that took place in the area.
In the middle of February, the third Kurzeme Latvian riflemen battalion was sent to the area of Ogre not far from what was to become the Island of Death. In March, the German artillery commenced attack. The Russians had deployed neither sufficient infantry nor artillery in the area. The third battalion suffered heavily. It was withdrawn and increased by 400 new recruits and reassigned to the Island of Death area to relieve the 12th Siberia battalion currently there.
This proved costly for the Latvian battalion. The men on the island were separated from the rest of Russian forces by the river Daugava. When the Germans attacked in the night, there was no way for them to contact the Russian fortifications across the river and ask for reinforcements. Only in the morning did help arrive with supplies and only in the morning it was possible to transport the dead away from the Island of Death, though there was scarcely enough place for the living there, much less the dead. In May, the German artillery destroyed two ferries that connected the Russian fortifications with the Island of Death fortifications – transport hindered even further. Then, a tempest flooded the trenches of the Island. Now, riflemen had to sleep in water as well.
On October 1916, one of the best Russian battalions still on the Island of Death was destroyed by gas attack. Due to carelessness, all gas masks had been taken away from the Island by leaving troops. The gas floated on, killing troops on the other side of Daugava as well. It was in this time the second Riga Latvian battalion was also ordered to move in. The commander of the battalion, captain Klavinsh, refused to obey unless his troops were furnished with new gas masks. Suddenly, the command “discovered” that they still had 40 000 gas masks around and unused. These had been lying in warehouses while soldiers had been dying from gas poisoning.
When the Latvian riflemen moved in, all they saw was death, pain and faces filled with the pain of torture. The lieutenant, sick with poisoning, that was in command now reported that 2000 men were already dead, but the rest were holding the lines. The Latvians replaced them. The positions were constantly under attack as medical supplies were transported to the Island. Latvians had trouble breathing in the new masks. Many pulled them off, preferring death by poisoning to death by asphyxiation. On the morning of the next day, a ghostly sight met the eye. The poisoned troops that had been screaming and jerking in death throes the night before were stiff and unmoving now. Through the glass of their gas masks, the Latvian riflemen saw that everything around them had died – the grass, the trees, the people, the birds and the mice. All was covered by green death – rifles, cans, bottles, everything was clothed in a green sheen. There was foam around the mouths of the dead. The Germans stopped attacking at the sight of what they had caused. 1470 soldiers of the 173rd Army and 3000 soldiers of the 174th and 175th Armies were buried. The Riga battalion lost 20 men; 120 were injured. The Germans had lost nine men and had 41 injured. Three battalions remained on the Island of Death.
On October 2, the second battalion was moved to a calmer area from Ikskile to Ogre. The Latvian battalions involved in protecting the Island of Death had lost 300 men and had 1500 injured. Their involvement in the Island of Death ended. From then on, the Island was protected by Russian troops.
The battles began as special Latvian troops, led by Colonel Briedis, opened a path for access to the German front lines near Riga by using the cover of a blizzard to destroy the Germans’ foremost defense perimeters. After this, the Daugavgriva battalion attacked. The Christmas battles started on December 23, 1916 and ended on January 18, 1917 and it was the battles that made the name of the Latvian riflemen shine the brightest.
Once the German front lines were vulnerable, the Latvians went ahead as ordered to attack. A whole day was spend in battle, pressing the Germans backward slowly, but, as many times before, parts of the Latvian troops must retreat again because promised reinforcements did not arrive. Colonel Briedis was heavily wounded.
Other brigades still fought near and behind enemy lines, enlarging the tear in German front lines. They fought for two days and two nights without a break, but it was not over even though it was Christmas night already. During this night, the riflemen decided to attack Lozmetej-hill (the reader might remember that this battle was described in one of Sky Forger’s songs). They sung a few Christmas corals and attacked, dealing swift and heavy damage. A relatively small group of men took Lozmetej-hill (Machinegun-hill), also taking 1000 hostages and much invaluable battle machinery, and killing a large portion of the German forces in the immediate vicinity.
From this position, there are immense opportunities for attack, but the Russian command is again silent. The offensive is not continued and geographical area of Kurzeme remains in the hands of the Germans. German troops are transferred from France to Latvia’s territory to help maintain the front line, so much Latvian riflemen are feared, but those with the ability to command the riflemen are incapable of doing so.
After a while, the Latvian troops have been replaced in their newly taken positions by Russian troops. A few days later, the Russians succumb to German attack and the positions are lost. Latvian troops are ordered to march back to help into well-prepared ambushes and open death, yet, with immense losses due to the half-witted command, they regain the positions.
Finally, a silence falls over the area. After these battles, the Latvian riflemen are applauded in Russian and Western press. The Latvian riflemen are national heroes and great is the grieving over the fallen. The battles of Christmas have killed more than ten percent of the Latvian forces. There is great resentment against the incompetent commanders, not mitigated much by awards and promotions. Deliberate treachery towards the Latvian troops has been suggested, but has not been proven. Stupidity was more than enough cause for anger, however.
The above-mentioned are just a few of the battles of the Latvian Riflemen, and very little detail is given. Should you wish to know more, there are many books written on the subject, also in English. We hope that what little is available here, has given you a better understanding of what Latvian Riflemen were and why there’s an album dedicated to them.
Source: E. Andersons – Latvian History 1914 – 1920, Daugava 1967 (shortly)