1914 - 1918 I WW1 - timeline

Before the establishment of the Estonian and Latvian states, Latvian and Estonian soldiers served in the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. Although both countries proclaimed independence at the end of the war, this did not bring peace for their people. Latvia and Estonia had to defend their existence against several military forces with political ambitions. Germany tried to claim the territories of Latvia and Estonia, Baltic Germans attempted to establish their own country there, Soviet Russia fought to annex the Baltic countries, and officers of the former Russian Empire had a goal to defeat Bolsheviks and return the Baltic provinces to Russia.

28 June 1914
The outbreak of World War I

The war was fought between two coalitions: the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and Italy, which joined the Entente soon after). The Baltic States were of strategic importance to Russia during the war. First and foremost, the region was crucial in the defence of Petrograd, the then capital of the Russian Empire. Prior to the war, a number of significant military fortifications had been erected in Estonia. Construction work continued into the war years, including on Peter the Great's Naval Fortress. Military factories and a port were constructed in Tallinn, which became a base for the Baltic Fleet of the Imperial Russian Navy.


July 1914
Mobilisation of reservists and recruits

It is estimated that approximately 80,000 men were enlisted from Estonia into the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. Around a tenth of them died in combat. For many Estonian intellectuals, the war was an opportunity to quickly earn the rank of an officer: by 1917 there were more than 2000 Estonian officers serving in the Russian Army.

July 28, 1914
The Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war against Serbia

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war against Serbia and invaded and bombards Belgrade with artillery.

August 1, 1914
Germany declares war on Russia

At the beginning of World War I, the territory of present-day Latvia was part of the Russian Empire.  There were Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Vitebsk provinces.  Russia declared general mobilisation, Latvian soldiers were part of the Russian military units that were in Latvia, and they were sent to Eastern Prussia.  In August 1914 and February 1915, the Russian army suffered defeats at the Masurian lakes and at Augustov.  Many Latvians fell in battle or were captured.

By the end of April 1915, the Germans began an attack in the direction of Lithuania and Kurzeme.  Liepāja fell on May 7, and by the end of the month, the Germans had occupied Kurzeme all the way to the Venta River.

August 1, 1915
Establishment of voluntary Latvian riflemen's battalions

On July 13, the Germans began an attack from the western parts of Kurzeme and Lithuania.  By the end of July, the Germans had occupied part of the Kurzeme province, which is now the western area of Latvia.  The Germans continued to move to the East, taking positions on the banks of the Daugava River.  Latvian politicians agreed that it was necessary to establish national military units in the Russian army so as to defend Rīga and rid Kurzeme from the Germans.  A command was issued on the establishment of the first two voluntary Latvian riflemen's battalions.  The slogan was "Gather Under Latvian Flags!" An enrolment commission began its work on August 12, and 472 men volunteered during the first two days.

The front lines at Rīga and the Daugava River

The front lines were stabilised in the territory of Latvia, and a trench war began with many unsuccessful attempts to break the front lines.  There were battles at Ķekava and Jēkabpils in March and July, as well as at Ilūkste.  In August, there were battles at Smārde.  Between April and October, the Latvian riflemen fought on Death Island, and that kept the Germans from crossing the Daugava River on their way to Rīga.  The Germans used poisonous gases, and 240 riflemen perished.

The so-called Christmas battles at the Tīreļpurvs Swamp occurred from December 23-29 (old calendar).  The aim of the riflemen was to liberate Jelgava and Kurzeme, but they suffered terrible losses.

30 March 1917
The Russian Provisional Government decrees that the lands with a majority ethnic Estonian population be merged into a unified Estonian autonomous governorate led by a Governorate Commissar.

With the institution of the post of Governorate Commissar came the formation of a legislative diet called the Provincial Assembly, elections for which were held in spring and summer. This sparked a surge in political activity and the founding of political parties. The idea began to spread among nationalist politicians of attaining statehood for Estonia within the Russian Republic. There was also a surge in the popularity of Bolshevists, who oversaw the formation of workers' councils in cities and among the military units stationed in Estonia.


April 1917
The formation of Estonian military units

The formation of Estonian military units, which by that December had been merged to form the 1st Estonian Infantry Division. Tens of thousands of Estonian soldiers who had been scattered across military units in the Imperial Russian Army returned for the formation of the Estonian military units in 1917. This provided the basis for the Estonian army that would prove victorious in the War of Independence.


The Russian army collapses and Rīga is occupied

As the war dragged on, people and politicians in Russia were increasingly dissatisfied with the rule of the tsar, and during the February 1907 revolution, the tsar was forced to abdicate in favour of a temporary government.  The Bolsheviks overthrew the government in November, and the radical wing of the Communist Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, led the process.  The Russian army was weak, German made use of that fact, and it occupied Rīga in early September 1917.  Latvian riflemen delayed the attack at the Jugla River, thus rescuing Russia's 12th army.

Autumn 1917
The front reaches Estonia

The German Naval Infantry occupied the islands of Western Estonia in October 1917.


15 November 1917
The Provincial Assembly declares itself the highest authority in Estonia

This provided a legal basis for self-determination, even though the assembly was disbanded by the Bolshevists that same day.


24 February 1918
The Estonian Salvation Committee declares the independence of the Republic of Estonia

The declaration was made during the brief window when Russian forces were retreating but German forces had yet to occupy all of Estonia. The next day, a provisional government was formed in Tallinn (with Konstantin Päts as prime minister) which only enjoyed power for a few short days before the German troops occupied Tallinn. The German Empire did not recognise the newly-founded Republic of Estonia. There was an attempt to create the Baltic Duchy, as a client state to Germany, from occupied Estonian and Latvian lands. This would have been governed by Baltic Germans. The plan failed following the defeat of the Central Powers in November 1918. Germany then began evacuating its troops from Estonia.


November 11, 1918
The end of World War I

By late February 1918, the German army had occupied all of Latvia and Estonia.  The Russian army collapsed, and Russia withdrew from the war on March 3, when the Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed between the Germans and the Soviet Union.  The full occupation of Latvia by the Germans meant that Latvian riflemen retreated to Russia and joined the Bolsheviks.  They became Latvian red riflemen as part of the Soviet Red Army.

11 November 1918
The end of World War I

The Provisional Government returned to power and the Estonian Defence League was created to lend it military support.


12 November 1918
The Provisional Government decides to form a regular army.

On 16 November 1918 the compulsory mobilisation of professional soldiers and the voluntary mobilisation of others was announced. Thus the Estonian Defence Forces were born.


November 18, 1918
Latvian independence

A merger of nationalist and anti-Bolshevik forces in Latvia established the People's Council, which declared Latvia's independence and established a temporary government led by Kārlis Ulmanis.  The new government gradually took over governance from German occupation and military institutions.

19 November 1918
German government representatives sign a treaty handing over control of Estonian territories to the Estonian Provisional Government