1918 – 1920 I Wars of Independence - timeline

The end of World War I marked the beginning of the Wars of Independence for Latvia and Estonia. By repelling multiple enemies the two young countries proved their ability to exist as independent states.

November 1918
Soviet Russia invades Latvia

Soviet Russia annulled the Brest-Litovsk treaty, by which it had given Germany the Baltic territories.  The Red Army crossed Latvia's border on November 22, and on December 9, it took over Daugavpils without a battle. The Latvian red riflemen units were part of the Red Army.

28 November 1918
The outbreak of the War of Independence

The Red Army invades the town of Narva, instigating armed conflict between Soviet Russia and the Republic of Estonia.

29 November 1918
Founding of the Commune of the Working People of Estonia in Narva, seemingly an independent Estonian Soviet republic

In reality, this was a puppet state of Soviet Russia founded solely for the purpose of portraying the conflict as a civil war. All the while, underground communist agitators were actively undermining the Estonian cause on the home front – something they would continued to do throughout the War of Independence.

December, 1918
Red Army continued its rapid advance in Northern Estonia.

The rapid advance of the Red Army in Northern Estonia continued in December 1918. One after the other, Jõhvi, Kunda, Rakvere, Tapa and Aegviidu fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. In January 1919, the Red Army was only 40 km away from Tallinn. In Southern Estonia, the Red Army began its advance on 2 December 1918 in three columns (approx. 5000 men in total) from Pskov and moved towards the west. The first column moved towards Tartu, the second moved in the Võru-Valga-Valmiera direction and the third was active in Latvia in the Põtalovo (Abrene)-Gulbene-Plaviņa direction. On 8 December 1918, the Red Army occupied Võru and on 18 December, Valga. On 22 December, Tartu fell, despite the numerical superiority of the Estonian forces and the Northern Corps of the Russian White Army.

December 7, 1918
An agreement with Germany on establishing forces to defend Latvia

The new Latvian state did not have an army, so the temporary government of Latvia contracted with an authorised person from the German government on the establishment of armed forces.  These included an Iron Brigade (later division) consisting of volunteers from the 8th German Army, as well as the Landeswehr, which was established by Baltic Germans and included Latvian companies.

December 17, 1919
Formation of government for Latvia led by Pēteris Stučka

Supporters of the Bolsheviks in Moscow proclaimed the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic led by Pēteris Stučka. 

23 December 1918
Colonel Johan Laidoner is appointed commander-in-chief and tasked with pushing the Red Army out of Estonia.
January 1919
Frontline was stabilised

By the turn of the new year, the Red Army in Estonia was exhausted and the frontline stabilised. During the first week of January, the Red Army’s advance was stopped and a counter-attack was organised. At the same time, behind the frontlines, the Estonian Army was formed. Compulsory mobilisation was carried out, new units were sent to the front.

A squadron of the British Royal Navy arriving in Tallinn as well as Finnish volunteers were of great help to Estonia. The knowledge that we were not alone in fighting Soviet Russia significantly raised the morale of the troops and the population

By 5 January 1919, 14,000 men were mobilised and Estonian forces launched a counter-attack. On 19 January 1919, Narva was liberated and by 22 January, Estonian forces controlled Narva River along its entire length from Narva-Jõesuu to Vasknarva.

On 11 January 1919, armoured trains began advancing along the Rakke-Tartu railway towards Tartu, liberating the city with the help of the Kuperjanov Partisan Battalion on 14 January. After liberating the city, armoured tanks, along with the 2nd Division of the Estonian Army, launched an attack, reaching the Estonian border by the end of January. On 1 February, Estonian forces liberated Valga and Võru. On 4 February, Estonian forces occupied Petseri on the southern front. On 24 February 1919, General Laidoner reported to the Estonian Provincial Assembly that the enemy had been chased out of Estonian land.

January 3, 1919
The Soviet Red Army enters Rīga

As Soviet military units approached Rīga, the Landeswehr units failed to delay them at Inčukalns.  Most locals supported the Bolsheviks, so the temporary government was forced to move to Liepāja.  The Student Company accompanied it, while other units retreated to Jelgava.  The Soviet Latvian government led by Pēteris Stučka arrived in Rīga by train on the night of January 3.  For the next five months, "red terror" ruled Rīga, Kurzeme and Vidzeme.  Famine spread, and people began to detest the Bolsheviks.  The Bolsheviks controlled nearly all of Latvia, except for the area around Liepāja.

January 5, 1919
Establishment of a separate Latvian battalion

Units loyal to the temporary Latvian government retreated to Jelgava, and that is where the 1st separate Latvian Battalion was established under the command of Colonel Oskars Kalpaks.  The units continued to retreat to the Venta River.

​7 January 1919
Reorganised Estonian forces, backed up by Finnish volunteers, launch their counter-offensive

By the beginning of February, all Estonian territories had been liberated from the Bolshevists. Volunteer units, including the highly motivated crew of the armoured trains and the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion, were instrumental in the liberation process. From here on, not a step further!

January 20, 1919
Latvian units in Estonia

The representatives of the Provisional Government of Latvia in Estonia agree with the Government of Estonia on the formation of Latvian units in the territory of Estonia under the command of Col Jorģis Zemitāns.  The unit were named as the Northern Latvian Brigade.

31 January 1919
The Battle of Paju

The Battle of Paju is fought between the Tartu-Valga unit of the Estonian People's Forces and the Red Army Latvian Riflemen. The battle for Paju Manor resulted in the Estonian forces capturing the town of Valga and an important railway node. Julius Kuperjanov, who was leading the Estonian offensive, was fatally injured in battle. This was one of the bloodiest battles in the War of Independence. The Estonian side lost 34 men in the battle, while a further 12 later died of their injuries, two were missing in action and 92 were injured. Counting those who were killed in action, died of wounds and went missing (likely killed near the end of the battle), the Red Army lost close to 30 men. At least 40 were wounded.

March-May 1919
Liberation of Kurzeme and Rīga of the Bolsheviks

By February, the command of all anti-Bolshevik forces in Courland and Northern Lithuania was taken over by General Rüdiger von der Goltz.  He commanded the Landeswehr with Latvian units, Iron Division, and the 6th German Reserve Corps.  On March 3, these units launched an operation called "Tauwetter” (“Thaw") to liberate Courland and Zemgale.  During a misunderstanding on March 6, Colonel Oskars Kalpaks and three other officers were killed by friendly fire.  Command of the Latvian units was taken over by Lt Col Jānis Balodis.  The offensive continued, and the Red army via several battles was pushed back to the Lielupe River.

1919
Fightings in Southern Estonia

1919, most of the fighting took place in Southern Estonia. In Northern Estonia, the front remained at Narva River until the end of the war. In late February, the Red Army began a new attack in the direction of Võru and Valga, occasionally reaching just a few kilometres away from the cities.

The 3rd Division was formed in March 1919, led by General Major Ernst Põdder. Armoured tanks and armoured vehicles with infantry battalions (Kuperjanov Partisan Battalion and Kalev Battalion) were joined to form the Armoured Tank Division, led by Captain Anton Irv, and by Captain Karl Parts after Irv’s death in April.

 April was the most critical period of the War. Estonian forces managed to repel the attack of the Red Army that lasted for two months.

 

April 16, 1919
A coup in Liepāja against the temporary Latvian government

Hoping to establish policies more favourable to Germany, the Pfeffer Battalion and Landeswehr attack battalions overthrew the Latvian temporary government with the support of von der Goltz.  They established a pro-German government run by Oskars Borkovskis, who was replaced by Andrievs Niedra on May 10.  The temporary government led by Kārlis Ulmanis took refuge on the ship “Saratov” in the Liepāja port.  Warships from the Entente guarded it.  Niedra's government lasted until the end of June when, after a loss at a battle at Cēsis, it turned over its authority to the Entente.  The Ulmanis government returned to Liepāja on June 27, and on July 8, the “Saratov” brought it back to Riga.  This period of time is known in Latvian history as the "period of three governments."

​23 April 1919
The Estonian Constituent Assembly convenes in Tallinn

Its greatest accomplishments are adopting the national constitution and the Land Act. The latter enabled the radical land reforms of 1920, which were designed to nationalise and distribute the lands owned by large landowners (the majority of whom were of German descent) among the peasantry, and particularly among veterans of the War of Independence.

May 1919
Battles in Soviet Russia and in Latvia

The Northern Division of the Russian White Army started preparing their assault on Petrograd. The plan of the Estonian military command was to assist the Northern Division in order to create a buffer zone between Estonia and the Red Army.

The Northern Division began their assault on 13 May and by early June they occupied the majority of the Saint Petersburg Governorate. The Northern Division’s advance also helped the situation on the southern front, and Estonian forces were able to launch their assault. On 25 May, they occupied Pskov, which was transferred to Russian whites the next day.

Troops from the 3rd Division of the Estonian Armed Forces began their advance towards Valmiera on 17 May 1919, albeit unsuccessfully at first. Latvian units, Baltic Landeswehr and Iron Division liberated Riga on 22 May, helping the advance of the 3rd Division. As a result of the new assault, the Red Army was forced to retreat and Valmiera was liberated on 26 May. On 29 May, troops reached the Limbaži-Smiltene line. To raise the morale of the population and the 2nd Võnnu Division, the troops marched through Võnnu on 30 May and through Rauna village on 31 May.

 On 27 May, all other units of the Estonian 2nd Division, including the 1st Volmari Regiment of Latvia and a group of Danish volunteers, launched an attack towards Latvia from Southeastern Estonia. The main attacking force was the 1st Cavalry Regiment. The attack proved to be extremely successful; occupying Alūksne on 30 May achieved a large-scale breakthrough of the enemy’s lines and pushed the defence lines deep into the rear of the enemy. Gulbene railway junction was occupied on 31 May; by 5 June the troops had reached Daugava (Väina) River and occupied Krustpils and Jēkabpils in Southern Latvia.

By 5 June, Estonian forces liberated most of Northern Latvia from the Red Army and civil authority was transferred to Karlis Ulmanis’ government.

 

 

May 22, 1919
Liberation of Riga

An attack to Riga began on May 22.  The Bolsheviks were defeated and fled, rapidly leaving Riga and Vidzeme and taking up positions in Latgale.  The Soviet Latvian government left Latvia at first, but it returned to Rezekne in July.

June 1919
The campaign against the Landeswehr takes place

When Riga was liberated from the Bolsheviks, Iron Division and Landeswehr units continued to move toward the north-east. In early June, they encountered the Estonian army and the Northern Latvian Brigade units. This conflict concluded with the Estonian forces defeating Major General Rüdiger von der Goltz and his army, which comprised German troops and Baltic German nobility from both Estonian and Latvian territories. By defeating the Landeswehr, Estonia secured a friendly neighbour on its southern border in the form of the Republic of Latvia when Kārlis Ulmanis and his cabinet came to power. As Eastern Latvia was yet to be liberated from the Red Army and Latvian forces needed time to reorganise, the Estonian High Command decided to support them by defending the Latvian front until December 1919.

June 19-23, 1919
The Battle of Cēsis (Võnnu in Estonian) is fought in Northern Latvia between the Estonian forces and the German Landeswehr

After the clashes in early June and a 10-day ceasefire, no agreement was reached on the right of both sides to be in the region, which led to an intensified conflict between Latvian, Estonian and German units. Temporary units of the Latvian government and the Estonian army took part in the fight near Cēsis, and they defeated the German Landeswehr and the Iron Division. The defeated units retreated to Riga, and after the armistice concluded on July 3 at Strazdumuiža, they retreated to Zemgale. The Landesver was formed by the Baltic Germans and was reorganized into a Latvian military unit, which was sent to the front lines in Latgale. The last date of the battle, June 23, will be is celebrated in Estonia as Victory Day.

July 10, 1919
Establishment of the Latvian army

The Latvian army was established by merging the Southern Latvian Brigade that was commanded by Col Jānis Balodis and the Northern Latvian Brigade that was commanded by Col Jorģis Zemitāns.  General Dāvids Simansons took the command of the army, which initially involved two divisions.  In August, work was done to prepare the third division, but the fourth division was established in January 1920. The army was supplemented with artillery units, mounted units, engineering and technical units and aviation and navy.

July-August, 1919
Occupation of Pskov and Saint Petersburg Governorates

As a result of the assault launched in May 1919, the Northern Division occupied most of the Pskov and Saint Petersburg Governorates. Estonian and British fleets, as well as a regiment formed by Ingrian Finns, aided the advance of the Northwestern Army.

The Red Army launched a counter-attack in late May; by the end of August the Northwestern Army held onto Jamburg and Oudova County.

 

October 8, 1919
The fight against Bermont-Avalov

A Western Russian volunteer army commanded by Pavel Bermondt-Avalov attacked Riga. He was an ambitious officer firmly opposed to the Bolsheviks, hoping to reinstate the power of the Tsar in Russia. His army was formed with former Russian prisoners of war in Germany and German freikorps, who joined it after the loss in the battles of Cēsis.

The Entente provided military, material and technical aid to Latvia in the fight against Bermont-Avalov.  Estonia briefly sent an armoured train to help out.  The front lines were in the city centre of Riga for about a month.

September-November, 1919
Northwestern army

In September 1919, the Northwestern army started planning a new attack on Petrograd, as the Estonian government was looking for an opportunity to make peace with Soviet Russia and this would endanger the Northwestern Army’s existence in Estonia and Northwestern Russia. The attack that began on 28 September 1919 was successful. By 21 October, they reached Petrograd. British and Estonian fleets helped the attack from the sea. The Estonian high command sent a regiment of approximately 2000 men that would occupy the sea fortress around Krasnaja Gorka to help the Northwestern Army. On the southern front, Estonian units launched an attack towards Ostrov and Porhov to make the Northwestern Army’s advance on Petrograd easier, but due to harsh weather conditions and terrain the attacks were unsuccessful. Estonian soldiers did not want to go deep into Russian territory – war weariness had begun to take its toll. By the end of October, the Northwestern Army ran out of energy and the army, including many war refugees from Northwestern Russia, fled to Estonia.

On 11 November 1919, the Estonian Provisional Government decided to disband the Northwestern Army. However, units ready for battle remained on the frontline until the end of the Independence War.

To assist the Latvian Army in their fight with Bermon-Avalov’s Western Army, two armoured trains from the Armed Train Division were sent to Riga on 11 October 1919, a total of 11 cannons, 60 machine guns and approx. 400 men. Trains left when the Latvian Army took initiative and led a counter-attack.

 

November, 1919
The last battles with Soviet Russia

In November, the Red Army was again at the Estonian border and the fiercest battles of the Independence Army were fought on the Viru front in November and December 1919. The Soviet war command sent two armies to fight against Estonia, a total of 60,000 men. Estonia countered with 20,000 men. The situation on the southern front was calm. Soviet Russia could not break Estonian defences and a temporary ceasefire was signed on 31 December 1919.

November 11, 1919
Victory at Riga

Bermont-Avalov and his men were kicked out of Riga. The Lāčplēsis War Order is created in honor of this event. Nowadays, this day in Latvia is celebrated.

November 25, 1919
War with Germany

After the defeat of German forces in Courland, Latvia's temporary government declared war on Germany.  An Interim Agreement between Latvia and Germany on the Resumption of Communications was concluded on  July 15, 1920. Attack against Riga delayed the liberation of Latgale, which was an important prerequisite for organising Constitutional Council elections in Latvia. 

​5 December 1919
The beginning of peace talks with Soviet Russia
January 3, 1920
Liberation Latgale from the Bolsheviks

In late August 1919, the Polish army established a front line against the Bolsheviks to the south of Daugavpils. By December Latvia and Poland agreed on a simultaneous and co-ordinated operation to liberate Latgale. It began on January 3 when the Poles attacked Daugavpils. On January 9, a latvian offensive in Northern Latgale began, but on January 20, the Latvian army and the Landeswehr began the liberation of Rēzekne.

3 January 1920
An armistice between Estonia and Soviet Russia comes into effect.

On 31 December 1919, during Tartu peace talks, a ceasefire was signed that envisioned an end to all military operations between Estonia and Soviet Russia starting from 3 January 1920 at 10:30. According to the ceasefire, all military operations were halted until 10 January, after which either side could resume operations with 24 hours’ notice. Fortunately, this didn’t happen and the Tartu Peace Treaty between the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia was signed on 2 February 1920.

February 1, 1920
The secret ceasefire

A secret ceasefire between Latvia and Soviet Russia comes into effect. Latvia needed the secrecy of the agreement to avoid disagreements with Poland and also with the Entente countries. The beginning of peace talks with Soviet Russia.

2 February 1920
The signing of the Treaty of Tartu

The signing of the Treaty of Tartu, in which Russia recognises the independence of Estonia in perpetuity and renounces all claims to Estonian territories.

August 11, 1920
The end of Latvia's War of Independence

After long and complicated peace negotiations, a peace treaty was signed with Soviet Russia on August 11.  Soviet Russia promised to waive its claims to territory and peoples of Latvia for time eternal.  Latvia's War of Independence lasted for 628 days.