Category: eastern front

Allies Broker Estonian-German Truce

Col. Alexander (center) pictured in 1920 in his role as commander of the Landeswehr.

July 3 1919, Riga–Since the German defeat at Cēsis, Estonian forces had slowly been pushing the Germans south towards Riga, reaching the northern outskirts, where the Daugava met the Gulf of Riga, on July 2.  German efforts to initiate a truce had been rebuffed, but soon found support from two sources–the Allies, who just wanted this conflict to be over, and Ulmanis’ Latvian government (which had been exiled by the Germans in April) which was none too thrilled at the prospect of Estonians entering Riga.

A truce went into effect on July 3.  The Baltic German Landeswehr and the German Freikorps units would withdraw well beyond the Daugava, and the Germans were to return to Germany (though Goltz would attempt to delay this for as long as possible).  The Landeswehr would be placed under the command of the British Colonel Alexander (who would play a more prominent role in the Mediterranean campaigns of the next war).  The Estonians would withdraw back to Estonia, while Latvian troops loyal to Ulmanis would return to Riga, which they did in the next few days.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Estonians Defeat Baltic Germans At Cesis

June 22 1919, Cēsis–Baltic German and German Freikorps forces under Goltz had taken Riga from the Bolsheviks in late May with a swift victory, but not all of Latvia was under control of the puppet government under Niedra set up by the Germans in late April.  In the east, there was still a Bolshevik presence, and in the north, Estonian troops and Latvian volunteers had crossed the border, attacking the Bolsheviks from the rear.  Goltz saw the latter as a threat, as the Estonians still recognized the Ulmanis government in Latvia that the Germans had overthrown.  Goltz moved most of his troops north, which the Estonians saw as a hostile move, and fighting broke out on June 5 around the town of Cēsis.  An American officer brokered a ceasefire a few days later, but was broken by a German attack, complete with gas shells, on the 19th.

By the 22nd, however, the Estonians and Latvians had the upper hand; the Germans had too broad of a front to defend, and were unable to concentrate enough forces to break through, while the Estonians were able to outflank the German position on the west (and threatened to do so on the east as well).  The Germans withdrew from Cēsis late on the same day. The German Freikorps had never been thrilled that they were fighting Estonians as opposed to Bolsheviks, and their morale dropped precipitously as the Germans and Baltic Germans withdrew towards Riga.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Baltic German Offensive Retakes Riga

Baltic German forces on a bridge over the Daugava in Riga.

May 22 1919, Riga–Rüdiger von der Goltz had set up his own puppet government in western Latvia in April, and it remained in power despite Allied objections.  In May, he decided he was ready to take the rest of Latvia from the Reds, who had held Riga since the start of the year.  He received some encouragement from the government in Berlin; Foreign Minister Brockdorff-Rantzau hoped that victories over the Reds would prove useful in convincing the Allies that a crippled Germany would not be in their best interests.  Officially, the offensive was to be a Latvian one; however, most of the troops involved were Baltic Germans or Freikorps units from Germany, and Latvian-speaking forces would only play a subsidiary role.

The Germans attacked at dawn on May 22, taking the Reds by surprise.  By noon, they had reached the Daugava, and in the afternoon they crossed the river with four machine guns and took Riga.  Five months of Red rule had not been kind to the city, and even the Germans were welcome amid food shortages and political terror.  Of course, the Germans then proceeded to carry out a white terror of their own, shooting many suspected Bolsheviks in the coming days.

Red forces put up stiffer resistance south of the city, backed by an armored train, but they too were forced to retreat beyond the Daugava by the end of the day.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Germans Set Up Puppet Government in Latvia

Andrievs Niedra, head of the new German puppet government in Latvia, pictured in Germany in 1920.

April 26 1919, Liepāja–Despite the end of the war, the Germans still had a considerable presence in Latvia, with a force of German and Baltic German volunteers under Rüdiger von der Goltz.  Neither the Latvian government nor the Allies were thrilled by their presence, but they had little other choice given the presence of the Bolsheviks in Riga.  The Germans and Latvians had even been able to mount a counteroffensive in March, retaking Jelgava from the Russians.

However, by mid-April, the Germans were clearly overstaying their welcome.  Members of the Latvian government were arrested by a Freikorps unit, and Goltz did nothing to free them.  The Latvian Prime Minister, Ulmanis, fled to a British ship in the Liepāja harbor.  The Allies demanded that the Ulmanis government be restored; instead, on April 26, Goltz had the Baltic Germans set up a government of their own under a conservative Latvian, Andrievs Niedra, and Goltz threatened to withdraw from Latvia completely if the Allies persisted.  The Allies had little power in the Baltic to back up their demands, and preferred the Germans to the Bolsheviks; Goltz got his fait accompli.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Poles Take Vilnius

Polish forces entering Vilnius (likely on the 21st).

April 19 1919, Vilnius–As in the rest of the Baltic states, the Russians attempted to return their authority to Lithuania after the armistice, declaring the creation of a Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic in December 1918.  In January, they seized Lithuania’s historical capital, Vilnius, from a hastily-formed militia organized by Polish officers.  The Red advance halted soon thereafter; there were still many German troops evacuating the area, and to prevent inadvertent clashes, the Reds agreed to halt short of Kaunas.  This allowed the Lithuanian government time to regroup and recruit German volunteers.

Newly-independent Poland also had designs on the region; Lithuania had been in union with Poland for many centuries before the partitions, and many areas (the city of Vilnius in particular) had a large Polish population.  Piłsudski wanted to advance east and north against the Reds to secure as much territory for Poland as possible; the way was open to the East in a way it was not to the West.  The Poles began their advance on April 16, and on April 19 Polish cavalry took Vilnius from the Reds.  They quickly secured the train station and sent a train south to bring infantry forward.  

Piłsudski himself entered the city triumphantly on the 21st, and promised self-determination for the area’s inhabitants:

I wish to created an opportunity for settling your nationality problems and religious affairs in a manner that you yourselves will determine, without any force or pressure from Poland.

For this reason, although military action and bloodshed continue in the area, I am introducing a civil administration, not a military one, to which in due course I shall call local people.

The Lithuanian government, which wanted the city for themselves, was outraged at the Polish takeover of the city.  The first shots were exchanged between Polish and Lithuanian troops a week later, though for the most part both Poland and Lithuanian forces remained focused more on the Russians than each other.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Poles Take Vilnius

Polish forces entering Vilnius (likely on the 21st).

April 19 1919, Vilnius–As in the rest of the Baltic states, the Russians attempted to return their authority to Lithuania after the armistice, declaring the creation of a Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic in December 1918.  In January, they seized Lithuania’s historical capital, Vilnius, from a hastily-formed militia organized by Polish officers.  The Red advance halted soon thereafter; there were still many German troops evacuating the area, and to prevent inadvertent clashes, the Reds agreed to halt short of Kaunas.  This allowed the Lithuanian government time to regroup and recruit German volunteers.

Newly-independent Poland also had designs on the region; Lithuania had been in union with Poland for many centuries before the partitions, and many areas (the city of Vilnius in particular) had a large Polish population.  Piłsudski wanted to advance east and north against the Reds to secure as much territory for Poland as possible; the way was open to the East in a way it was not to the West.  The Poles began their advance on April 16, and on April 19 Polish cavalry took Vilnius from the Reds.  They quickly secured the train station and sent a train south to bring infantry forward.  

Piłsudski himself entered the city triumphantly on the 21st, and promised self-determination for the area’s inhabitants:

I wish to created an opportunity for settling your nationality problems and religious affairs in a manner that you yourselves will determine, without any force or pressure from Poland.

For this reason, although military action and bloodshed continue in the area, I am introducing a civil administration, not a military one, to which in due course I shall call local people.

The Lithuanian government, which wanted the city for themselves, was outraged at the Polish takeover of the city.  The first shots were exchanged between Polish and Lithuanian troops a week later, though for the most part both Poland and Lithuanian forces remained focused more on the Russians than each other.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Russian prisoners in German or Austro-Hungar…

Russian prisoners in German or Austro-Hungarian captivity. Note their use of steel helmets, supplied by the French.

Russian prisoners at a POW camp behind the G…

Russian prisoners at a POW camp behind the German lines, date unknown.

Wilson and Lloyd George Propose Conference Wit…

January 22 1919, Paris–The sudden end of the war left Allied efforts in Russia in an awkward position.  Their official purpose, to prevent the Central Powers from having a free hand in Russia after Brest-Litovsk, was no longer relevant, and the Allied public had no interest in a full-scale war in Russia to depose the Bolsheviks.  Lloyd George wanted a way out, and wanted to invite the Bolsheviks to the peace conference.  While he did not like the Bolsheviks, “To say that we ourselves should pick the representatives of a great people was contrary to every principle for which we had fought.” Talking only to the Whites and the Russian émigrés would be to follow the same course Britain had during the French Revolution, which “led [Britain] into a war that lasted about twenty-five years.”

Clemenceau, understandably, had a much different perspective.  A veteran of the fight against the Paris Commune in 1871, he had no patience for the Bolsheviks and certainly would not invite them to his city to let them cause trouble.  Backed by Wilson, Lloyd George proposed a compromise on January 21–a separate conference to handle any matters falling within the former boundaries of the Russian Empire (apart from Poland and Finland).  The Bolsheviks would be invited, along with the various White governments and the states that had declared independence from Russia since the revolution.  The conference would be held on Prinkipo [Büyükada], an island in the Sea of Marmara near Allied-occupied Constantinople, starting in mid-February.  Clemenceau strongly objected, but decided not to break with the British and French.  Sonnino was even more adamant, but could not back up his anti-Bolshevik attitudes with any commitment of Italian troops.

On January 22, the Council of Ten agreed to Lloyd George’s proposal, and the invitation was extended by radio the next day.  The conference, it was hoped, would work out a peace between the various Russian factions, would normalize relations between Russia and the Allies, and settle the question of Russia’s new western and southern borders.  As a pre-condition for the conference, the Allies called for a ceasefire on all fronts of activity between all parties.

The non-Bolshevik governments in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Crimea accepted the proposal, although in some cases with preconditions of their own.  Georgia declined to attend, believing its independence secure.  The Whites felt betrayed by the Allies, and most of their governments rejected the invitation or lodged strong protests.  The Bolsheviks were of two minds about the invitation–they wanted Allied troops, weapons, and money out of Russia, but they also believed world revolution was imminent and that negotiations were pointless.  On February 4, they responded, avoiding the question of a ceasefire and offering large concessions of territory and raw material to the Allies.  Effectively, this was a repeat of Brest-Litovsk; Lenin simply hoped to gain enough time for the revolution to spread.  

Wilson said that “This answer was not only uncalled for, but might be thought insulting.”  Lloyd George thought the same, and came under considerable political pressure at home from both the Conservatives and many within his own party (especially Churchill).  Combined with continued French opposition and the non-cooperation of the Whites, the proposal quietly died.

Sources include: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War; Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

Russians Attack Narva

image

An annotated aerial photo of the Narva area, showing some of the action of November 28.

November 28 1918, Narva–After the Armistice, the Bolsheviks quickly repudiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and sought to reclaim land they had been forced to give up in the treaty.  Chief among these was Estonia, which had been ceded only after the Germans occupied it during their brief resumption of the war in February and March 1918.  In late November, the Red Army crossed the Estonian border near Narva, only around 80 miles from Petrograd.  They were supported from the sea by a cruiser and two destroyers.  The defenders, consisting of Estonian militia units and one German infantry regiment which had not yet left the country, were forced to withdraw after a brief battle on November 28.  South of Lake Peipus, the Reds had attacked a few days earlier, driving back a White Russian force under General Yudenich (formerly of the Caucasus front).

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.