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1914 TO FEBRUARY 1917

The nationalism of the large nations of Europe was converted into selfish expansion at the expense of others. Economic rivalry exploded into military warfare on August 1, 1914: World War I had begun. The antagonists consisted of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and others) vs. the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Japan, and others; Italy after May 1915; U.S.A. after April 1917).

The memories of 1905 were still fresh; the loyalty of the Latvians to the Czar was in doubt. However, their hate of the arrogant Germans was greater than their contempt for the slovenly Russians. They chose the lesser of the two evils and declared enthusiastically their readiness to fight in the Russian army, especially because the German Baltic barons had recently started to colonize their estates by imported Germans, thus threatening the ethnic existence of Latvians.

According to plans the Russian army was supposed to be ready for war in six weeks. However, a German advance into Belgium and France prompted anxious pleas from the other Allies for a Russian attack on the Eastern Front. Consequently, the ill prepared army of Russia advanced into East Prussia two weeks after the declaration of war, untrained and inefficient, led by incompetent generals. The two Russian armies of Samsonov and Rennenkampf included tens of thousands of Latvians. Some regiments in the XXth Corps were 80% Latvian.

Most of the German Army was committed on the Western Front. The early Russian advance forced a withdrawal of two German corps [page 10] and a cavalry division from the Western Front[1], and may have saved France from a defeat. The Germans under General von Hindenburg and his chief of staff General Ludendorff concentrated first on the ill-provided Samsonov’s army and surrounded it at the end of August. Communications with Rennenkampf’s army were poor. Thus the Germans could attack the two Russian armies one at a time. Samsonov’s army was destroyed in a series of battles at Neidenburg, Tannenberg, Allenstein, Usdau, Ortelsburg and Willenberg which lasted several days. To erase the memory of the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg in 1410 (see Chapter I) the Germans named their victory “the battle of Tannenberg.” Casualties were estimated at over 30,000; 92,000 prisoners were taken[2]. Samsonov committed suicide.

Next the Germans turned against the equally ill prepared Rennenkampf’s army and defeated it in the battle of the Masurian Lakes in September. Thus the Germans converted a very dangerous situation on the Eastern Front into a great victory for them, and von Hindenburg and Ludendorff were lauded as the saviors of Germany. As a result of this reputation and subsequent other victories Hindenburg became the President of Germany in 1925. He appointed Hitler as chancellor in 1933. Ludendorff joined Hitler in the “beerhall putsch” of 1923 and became a leading Nazi.

The XXth Corps in which thousands of Latvians served was surrounded by Germans in February 1915 in the forests of Augustow. Most of the Corps was annihilated. They refused to surrender; the Latvians lost about 20,000 men. A contemporary Russian writer compared this desperate battle to the famous last stand of Napoleon’s Guard at Waterloo[3]. Among those taken prisoner was the wounded Captain Jānis Balodis, later the leader of Latvian forces during the War of Liberation.

Drowning in a flood of bad news, the Russians eagerly grasped for any good stories from the front. A young Latvian officer, Fridrichs Briedis, conducted several successful reconnaissances of the German rear, one such exploit lasting nine days, and became an instant celebrity. In the fall of 1914 Siberian Rifles scored some local successes in Poland and were glorified in the Russian press. Soon, however, the fame of the Siberian Rifles was eclipsed by the reputation of the Latvian Rifles which was established in 1915.

After the first battle of the Marne (Sept. 1914) and of Ypres (Oct.-Nov. 1914) the Western Front in France stabilized into trench [page 11] warfare. Both sides dug thousands of miles of opposing trenches guarded by barbed wire, and the front remained relatively immobile for several years, although great losses were suffered on both sides. On the Eastern Front the Germans gradually advanced and occupied Poland and Lithuania, and in May of 1915 reached Latvia.

About 400,000 refugees from Courland and Zemgallia fled to eastern Latvia and to Russia (the total population of Latvia was 2,600,000) because the Cossacks were scorching the earth before the German advance. The Russian resistance was weak and demoralized. Therefore, when two Latvian Home Guard battalions repulsed the German vanguard at the town of Jelgava, their success attracted great attention. Consequently, when the Latvians petitioned the Russian Commander in Chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, to permit the formation of purely Latvian volunteer units for the defense of Latvia, such a permission was granted on August 1 (July 19) 1915 despite opposition by the German Baltic barons (but their influence at the court was greatly diminished because of the war). The units were named Latvian Rifle battalions, eight altogether, plus a ninth training and reserve battalion. The battle flags had inscriptions in the Latvian language, the language of command was Latvian - a victory for the Latvian nationalists in the continuing battle between Russification and nationalism.

The Russians yielded to Latvian demands for their own national military units because they expected the Latvians to defend Latvia more courageously than the demoralized Russians, and the defense of Latvia was essential to stem the German advance towards Petrograd (now Leningrad; St.Petersburg before the war). The Allies had asked that a serious effort be made to hold the front at the river Daugava which cuts Latvia in half[4]. The Germans reached some parts of Daugava in August of 1915.

The Latvians were anxious to form their own units because they saw that the incompetent Russian army was incapable to stop the Germans. In addition they had also political and national goals. In 1915 the goals were rather limited-the abolishment of the privileges of the German Baltic barons and a greater voice in local administration. However, the battles of the Latvian Rifles increased national consciousness and unity which culminated in a demand for independence a couple of years later.


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The flood of volunteers for the Latvian Rifles included even some Latvians returning from Brazil and Mexico[5]. A large number of Latvians already in the army requested transfers to the Rifles, but such requests were granted very reluctantly because Latvians usually were among the best in their present units. Consequently, many arrived in the Rifles illegally. Yet the Rifles never contained more than roughly one quarter of the total of Latvians in the army of Russia. The total has been estimated at 150-160,000[6], the number in the Rifles at 30-35,000[7] in September of 1916 when the battalions were reorganized into regiments. However, since the Rifles suffered heavy losses and were constantly replenished, the entire number of Latvians serving in the Rifles may have been 60-70,000 or even higher, and the total serving in the army of Russia may have been much higher also.

The commander of the 1st Battalion was Captain Rudolfs Bangerskis (in World War II the Inspector-General of the Latvian Legion, see Chapter IX). The much decorated First Lieutenant Briedis became the commander of the 1st Company in the 1st Battalion and quickly proved that the fame which had preceded his arrival was well deserved. The Germans were pressing towards Rīga and had established a bridgehead across the river Misa. On October 29 (16), 1915, in the first major action of the Rifles, Briedis’ company charged the bridgehead at night, overran the German battalion defending it, and captured 28 prisoners, a machine gun, and other weapons[8] [9]. In the impotent army of Russia any success against Germans was widely publicized, but a success when the Germans outnumbered the Latvians four to one was a sensation. Briedis was presented to the Czar upon his visit to the Rīga front.

On their way to the front the Rifles were cheered on in the streets of Rīga by tens of thousands of Latvian supporters. The first killed in battle were escorted through the streets of Rīga by tens of thousands of Latvian mourners. The Rifles became the focus of Latvian affections, jubilation and lament, joy and grief, pride and sorrow.

By the beginning of 1916 the front in Latvia was stabilized. The German advance had been stopped and converted into trench warfare, the same as on the Western Front. It has been reported that the German Field-Marshal von Hindenburg declared that he would have taken Rīga had it not been for “the eight bright stars in the sky,” meaning the eight Latvian Rifle battalions[10]. Briedis’ first success [page 13] at Misa was duplicated many times, both by himself and by the other Rifle battalions.

In February of 1916 the Germans launched a huge assault on Verdun in France. To relieve the pressure on the Western Front, at the request of Allies, the Russian army commenced an offensive on the Eastern Front in March. At the Rīga front two Latvian Rifle battalions broke through the German lines, but the adjacent Siberian Rifle regiments failed (most of them did not even leave their trenches, they confined their “assault” to a lot of firing over the embankment)[11]. The Latvians had to withdraw in bitterness due to the lack of support from the Russian regiments. Hundreds of casualties had been expended for nothing.

In July of 1916, during the battle of Somme on the Western Front, when the Russians began an offensive against the Austrians in the south, a diversionary attack was carried out on the Rīga front. The results were practically the same as in March: the Latvian Rifles broke through the German lines at the cost of hundreds of casualties yet had to withdraw because the Russian generals failed to follow up the Latvian success with additional fresh reserves. To reduce the casualties suffered in the usual daytime frontal attacks, Colonel Andrejs Auzāns persuaded the Russians to allow his 7th Battalion to attack at night without artillery fire to achieve a surprise - a major departure from the usual Russian tactic, and frequently used by Briedis with smaller units. The surprise attack succeeded, but the whole offensive was a failure. After the July offensive the eight Latvian Rifle battalions were combined into a brigade with Auzāns as the commander[12] (before the establishment of the Rifles Auzāns was a general staff officer in charge of the Tashkent Observatory, and he had to overcome strong objections to be allowed to join the Rifles, his observatory position was considered much more important).

“The Island of Death” was the nickname of a bridgehead on the left bank of the river Daugava, about 30 kilometers south of Rīga. It was not a real island; it just seemed so because in back of it was Daugava and in front the German front lines. The bridgehead was 3 kilometers deep. Supplies and reinforcements had to be ferried across Daugava under German artillery fire. The bridgehead was subjected to mortar and artillery barrages daily. The Russian artillery supporting the Island of Death was stationed on the other bank of Daugava.

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The 3rd Battalion of the Latvian Rifles arrived in the Island of Death in April of 1916. It included the only woman in the Latvian Rifles: Līna Čanka. She had persuaded a boy to take the physical exam for her, using her dead brother’s passport, and arrived in the Rifles with shorn hair, dressed as a man. When discovered, she convinced the battalion commander to let her stay, and was decorated for bravery several times[13].

The 2nd and 3rd Latvian Rifle Battalions shared the defense of the Island of Death with some Russian battalions, usually two battalions in the bridgehead itself, the rest in reserve on the right bank of Daugava. The Germans had used poison gas for the first time in the second battle of Ypres in France in 1915. Since then all fronts were prepared for such attacks, and soldiers were issued gas masks. Due to the usual Russian negligence the Russian battalions in the bridgehead were without gas masks on October 8 (Sept. 25), 1916, when the Germans launched a chlorine gas attack. Thousands died a horrible death. The 2nd Latvian Rifle Battalion was recalled from reserve and ordered to replace the dying Russians - again without gas masks! After a protest at headquarters, gas masks were finally issued, and the 2nd Battalion took over the defense of the Island of Death, stumbling over the thousands of corpses in the trenches, hardly able to breathe with the masks on because of the unceasing gas attack by the Germans. Yet the German assault did not succeed; the Island of Death held[14].


Between September and November of 1916 the eight Latvian Rifle Battalions were transformed into eight regiments, divided into two brigades, the first one commanded by Major General Augusts Misiņš, the second by Colonel Auzāns.

For the first time there was a plan to use all Latvian Rifles together in a unified assault. This assault later became known as the Christmas Battle since it began on December 23, old style, but it lasted more than three weeks. The Christmas Battle may have been the most important battle of World War I on any front; not because of a great victory by either side; not because of the number of casualties or the territory gained; but because the establishment of a Bolshevik government in Russia may be traced directly to the disillusionment of the Latvian Rifles at the Christmas Battle.

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The Christmas Battle was a local operation, not connected to any other offensive on either the Eastern or Western Front. The Latvian Rifles expected to reach a very ambitious goal: the liberation of Courland and Zemgallia from German occupation, i.e., a complete expulsion of Germans from Latvia. The Russian goal was much more limited. The two Latvian Rifle brigades were united into a division under General Misiņš, attached to the VI Siberian Rifle Corps, and the officially announced goal of the operation was the occupation of “Machine-Gun Hill,” a German fortification in the sand dunes near the river Lielupe, about 30 km east of Rīga. The assault was denoted “a Latvian Rifle operation.” They had full responsibility for success or failure[15], but they also expected full support from the rest of the l2th Army and the VI Siberian Rifle Corps.

Throughout World War I the rear of the Eastern Front was a fertile ground for spies, profiteers, and rumormongers. It was commonly believed that any decision made in the Russian Army Headquarters was known to the Germans within hours. General Hoffmann, Chief of Staff of the German Eastern Front, confirms that during World War I only one attack came unexpected - the Christmas Battle[16]. The decision for the operation was kept secret among a few officers of the l2th Army, the VI Corps, and the Latvian Rifles. When the battle started and was at first successful, a great outcry was created in Petrograd to have it called off (among others the Czarina Alexandra and her notorious protégé Rasputin were involved. The Czarina on Rasputin’s advice sent a telegram to Czar Nicholas asking him to halt the attack[17]). Treason had been caught napping.


The night before the assault some dress in their best clothes as for a wedding, some write letters, and most them sharpen their bayonets while singing about Courland and the girls waiting for them there. After all, this is the first time the eight regiments will attack together. If in the past we have been successful in battalion-size attacks, imagine what eight regiments will do! They can almost taste the Christmas dinner waiting for them in Courland.

The start of the assault was the Latvian specialty: a surprise attack at 5 A.M. without preparation by artillery fire. Snow was falling. Shortly after midnight advance parties in white camouflage coats began to cut through the German barbed wire silently, as they [page 16] had trained for weeks. A few were wounded by random German fire, and they died silently with clenched teeth. Their comrades covered the spreading telltale blot of blood with snow. And so the Germans suspected nothing. At 5 A.M. the front exploded. Additional passages through the barbed wire were blasted by pyroxylin, and some were bridged with mats. The Latvians overran the German positions. Yet the support from the VI Siberian Rifle Corps was almost nonexistent. Siberian Rifle units which were sent to reinforce the attack claimed they got lost and never reached the front[18], or even revolted openly and refused to obey orders[19]. Briedis, whose battalion led the attack, was wounded. Machine-Gun Hill was taken on the third day of the battle. 1000 German prisoners and 32 artillery pieces were captured - the largest victory on the Rīga front during the entire war[20]. Yet Courland was still in German hands. The Latvian casualties in the Christmas Battle reached 8000 (the rapid accumulation of casualties was popularly referred to as a Blizzard of Souls), but without the support of the Russian so-called “steam-roller” of masses the breakthrough was contained since the Germans diverted two divisions from the Western Front[21]. After a few days the battle-weary Latvian Rifles were replaced by Russians who promptly collapsed under the German counterattacks. Thus the Latvians were called out again to break the German attack. Attacks and counterattacks continued until the end of January, 1917. Machine-Gun Hill remained in Latvian hands, but the dream of liberated Courland had turned into the nightmare of the Blizzard of Souls, a waste of Latvians by incompetent Russian generals, rumors of treachery behind the front lines, and reports that Grand Duke Nicholas had remarked “I spit upon your Courland!”[22].

A few weeks later the Czar was overthrown.

[1] B.W.Tuchman, The Guns of August (Dell Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1963), pp.329-330.

[2] Ibid., p.343.

[3] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, p.62-63.

[4] Bilmanis, p.277.

[5] J.Porietis, Strēlnieku Leģendārās Gaitas (The Legendary Campaigns of the Rifles, in Latvian) (Pilskalns, Lincoln, Nebr., 1968), p.22.

[6] A.Plensners, Divdesmitā Gadsimta Pārvērtības (Metamorphoses of the Twentieth Century, in Latvian) (Grāmatu Draugs, Brooklyn, 1978), p.152.

[7] Ģērmanis, OberstVācietis…, p.82.

[8] M.Akmenājs, A.Plensners, Briedis (in Latvian) (Zelta Ābele, Stockholm, 1963), p.20.

[9] Porietis, p.47.

[10] Bilmanis, p.278.

[11] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, pp.101-2.

[12] L.Auzāne-Vītoliņa, Auzāns (in Latvian) (Zelta Abele, Stockholm, 1955), p.18.

[13] Porietis, pp.135-7.

[14] Ibid., pp.115-124.

[15] Ģērmanis, OberstVācietis…, p. 116.

[16] Porietis, p.194.

[17] Ibid., p.241.

[18] Ibid., p.217.

[19] Gērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, pp.124-5.

[20] Ibid., p.129.

[21] Ibid., p.134.

[22] Bilmanis, p.278.

See the map - World War I, front lines 1915-1918

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