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 Soviet Russian attack.

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 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 3, 1919
The Soviet Red Army enters Rīga

As Soviet military units approached Rīga, the Landeswehr units failed to delay them at Inčukalns.  Most people 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!

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 Bolshevik forces in Kurzeme and Northern Lithuania was taken over by General Rüdiger von der Goltz.  He commanded the Landeswehr and Latvian units, Iron Division, and the 6th German Reserve Corps.  On March 3, these units launched an operation called "Thaw" to liberate Kurzeme 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 attack continued, and the Soviet Latvian army was pushed back to the Lielupe River via several battles.  An attack to Rīga began on May 22.  The Bolsheviks were defeated and fled, rapidly leaving Rīga and Vidzeme and taking up positions in Latgale.  The Soviet Latvian government left Latvia at first, but it returned to Rēzekne in July.

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 Saratov ship 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 Rīga.  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
The front moves out of Estonian territories

The front moves out of Estonian territories to North-western Russia and Latvia.


June-July 1919
The campaign against the Landeswehr takes place

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, 1919
Battles at Cēsis among Latvian-Estonian and German military forces

The temporary Latvian government agreed on military co-operation with the Estonian government, and the Northern Latvian Brigade was established in March 1919 under the command of Col Jorģis Zemitāns.  Latvians from Estonia and Northern Latvia were drafted.  When Rīga 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.  After the Bolsheviks were kicked of Estonia, the Kārlis Ulmanis government allowed the units to enter Vidzeme.  No agreement was reached on their right to be in the region, and that led to an increased conflict among Latvian, Estonia and German units.  The battle at Cēsis involved temporary Latvian government units and the Estonian army, and they defeated the German Landeswehr and the Iron Division.  The defeated units retreated to Rīga, and after an armistice concluded at Strazdumuiža on July 3, they retreated to Zemgale.  The Landeswehr was made up of Baltic Germans, and it was reorganised into a Latvian military unit that was sent to the front lines in Latgale.

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

This battle was won by the Estonian forces. The final date of the battle, 23 June, would go on to be celebrated as Victory Day in Estonia.

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 was put in command of the army, which initially involved two divisions.  The Southern Latvian Brigade was turned into the Kurzeme Division with the 1st Liepāja, 2nd Ventspils and 3rd Jelgava infantry regiments.  The Northern Latvian Brigade was turned into the Vidzeme division with the 4th Valmiera, 5th Cēsis and 6th Rīga infantry regiments.  In August, work was done to prepare the Latgale Division with the 7th Sigulda, 8th Daugavpils and 9th Rēzekne infantry regiments, the aim being to liberate Latgale.  The Zemgale Division was established in January 1920 with the 10th Aizpute, 11th Dobele and 12th Bauska infantry regiments.  The army was supplemented with artillery units, mounted units, and engineering and technical units, among them, aviation and navy.

The fight against Bermont-Avalov

On October 8, a Western Russian volunteer army commanded by Pavel Bermont-Avalov attacked Rīga.  Bermont was an ambitious officer from the Russian Empire's army, and he was firmly opposed to the Bolsheviks.  The aim was to reinstate the power of the tsar in Russia, and so early in 1919, with support from Germany, Bermont-Avalov started to look for Russian prisoners of war who would join his efforts.  This group arrived in June in Kurzeme, and after a defeat at Cēsis, some German forces joined with Bermont's efforts.  The aim was to establish countries in the Baltic region which would oppose the Bolsheviks, but would be loyal to the Germans.  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 Rīga for about a month.  On November 11, 1919, Bermont-Avalov and his men were kicked out of Rīga, and on November 21, they were expelled from Jelgava.  Soon the forces were completely defeated.  During the war, Latvia's temporary government was forced to find refuge in Cēsis for one day.  As soon as the situation stabilised, it returned to Rīga, where some members of the Cabinet of Ministers enlisted in the army.

​5 December 1919
The start of peace talks with Soviet Russia
3 January 1920
An armistice comes into effect
February 1, 1920
The Army of Latvia liberates Latgale from the Bolsheviks

Bermont's attack against Rīga delayed the liberation of Latgale, which was an important prerequisite for organising Constitutional Council elections in Latvia.  In late August, the Polish army established a front line against the Bolsheviks to the south of Daugavpils, and by December, it had attacked the city several times.  That month, the commanders of Latvia's army agreed with the Polish forces on a simultaneous and co-ordinated operation to liberate Latgale.  The Poles attacked Daugavpils on January 3, and that was the start of the process.  Latvia s army attacked Northern Latgale on January 9, and on January 20, the Latvian army and the Landeswehr began an attack against Rēzekne.  By late January, all of Latvia was under Latvian and Polish control.

2 February 1920
The signing of the Treaty of Tart

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 the defeat of German forces in Kurzeme, Latvia's temporary government declared war on Germany on November 25, 1919.  The war ended on July 15, 1920, and less than a month later, after long and complicated peace negotiations, a peace treaty was signed with Soviet Russia on August 11.  Soviet Russia promised to waive its right to Latvia and her people for time eternal.  Latvia's War of Independence lasted for 628 days, and the result was a country that was based on territories that had historically been populated by Latvians - Kurzeme, Zemgale, Sēlija, Vidzeme and Latgale.