Latvians in the army of the Russian Empire

At the beginning of World War I, the territory of Latvia had been part of the Russian Empire for more than a hundred years. Latvians took part in all the major wars of the Russian Empire, but no direct war had taken place in Latvia for more than a hundred years since Napoleon's army invaded in the 19th century. at first. In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, the territory of Latvia was affected by mobilization and began recruiting men from the age of 18. After the general mobilization, the size of the army of the Russian Empire increased almost 4 times.

The origins of the Russian Empire date back to the Great Northern War (1700-1721), when the army was constantly transformed to improve its combat capabilities. With the victory in this war, the Russian Empire is founded, which includes the territory of the former Russian tsarist and the 18th-19th centuries. territories conquered in the 16th century, incl. Latvia and Estonia. Military reforms in the army of the Russian Empire are continuing, and the introduction of a recruitment system in the territory of Latvia is being started. 19th century on the other hand, many young Latvians and Estonians start studying in Russian military schools, as studying there is free and was a way to secure a place in society. Many of them become officers and also generals.

The war brought about by the First World War reached the territory of Latvia in the first days after the beginning of the conflict. For its people, the Russian Empire's involvement in the war first meant mobilization, the confiscation of food, clothing, fuel and vehicles, and the subjugation of all civilian life to war. The general mobilization, which began in full in the Russian Empire on July 31, 1914, followed the 1910 prescription, recruiting men between the ages of 18 and 43. In total, during the war, mobilization took place in the territory of Latvia seven times, mobilizing 120-140 thousand people. Latvian soldiers were included in the Russian troops deployed in the territory of Latvia.

The 20th Army Corps (sometimes referred to in the literature as the "Latvian Corps") was one of the most combat-capable parts of the Russian army, which was involved in the fighting in East Prussia shortly after the war. Despite initial success, the Russian army was defeated and forced to retire. In February 1915, the 20th Army Corps crashed when the Germans besieged and destroyed it in the forests of Augustów (northeastern Poland today). 15-20 thousand soldiers mobilized in the Baltic provinces (Estonia, Vidzeme and Kurzeme) lost their lives and disappeared, most of them Latvians.

Along with the order of August 1, 1915 to form Latvian rifle units in the Russian Imperial Army, 8 rifle battalions were established, which went down in the first battles in October 1915. After the end of the First World War, some Latvian riflemen remained in Russia and fought in the Civil War on various sides of the front, some participated in the Freedom Fights in Latvia. In 1921, with the advent of peacetime, a large number of former riflemen who had spent the last five years at war returned to Latvia.

More information sources

1. The blizzard of souls. Digital Museum. Available: https://www.dveseluputenis.lv/lv/laika-skala/notikums/64/1.-pasaules-kara-sakums-latvija/ [accessed: 01.04.2021.].

2. Jacobson, E. LA.LV publication “From the Sons of Peasants to Tsar's Officers”, 2014. Available at: https://www.la.lv/no-zemnieku-deliem-par-cara-virsniekiem [accessed: 01.04.2021].

3. Zariņš K. Publication of the Latvian War Museum “1914: Mobilization and Battles in East Prussia”, 2014. Available: http://www.karamuzejs.lv/lv/Petnieciba/publikacijas/01_1914gads.aspx [viewed: 01.04.2021. ].

4. Zariņš K. “The First World War in Latvia and the Fighters of Latvian Riflemen”, 2015. Available: https://www.sargs.lv/lv/pirmais-pasaules-kars/2015-07-15/pirmais-pasaules-kars- latvia-and-latvian-strelnieku-cinas [viewed: 05.05.2021.].

Related objects

Latvian Riflemen Monument in Riga

It is located in the center of Riga, in the Latvian Riflemen's Square near the Latvian Occupation Museum.

The monument to the Latvian archers was opened in 1971 at the Latvian Archers Square next to the former Latvian Red Archers Museum (tag: Occupation Museum). During the Soviet era, the topic was viewed through a narrow prism of the communist regime's ideology. The place served to represent Riga and create an idealized story, strengthening the myth of Latvians as fighters of the Soviet power.

Light infantry units in the Russian army were called archers. In World War 1, Latvian riflemen formations were created to fight against the German army in the homeland. They were motivated, dangerous and disciplined fighting units. The high level of education and German language skills were useful for reconnaissance and surprise attacks. When the Russian Empire collapsed and Germany completely occupied the territory of Latvia, a very large number of Latvian residents went to Russia, where they continued to face the agitation of bigots. Initially, support for Lenin's ideas and participation in the Russian Civil War grew. Disappointment followed later, and most Latvian soldiers turned away from leftist ideas and returned to Latvia. The soldiers who remained in Russia were mostly killed in "Stalin's purges" (1936-1938). Latvian archers had great merits in the creation of the Latvian state and its army.

Today you can see the monument and the adjacent Museum of Occupation.

Memorial stone for Latvian riflemen in Plakanciems

In Plakanciem, Latvian riflemen won their first victory in the historic night battle of October 29, 1915 - only a week after the 1st Daugavgrīva Latvian riflemen battalion had left Riga and started operations at the front. The successful battle of Plakanciems began the heroic struggle of our archers. The night attack near the Misa River also had an invaluable moral significance - no one questioned the fighting abilities of the Latvian archers, they quickly became popular and many Latvians from the Russian regiments joined our national units.

The commemorative stone was made by order of the Ķekava district municipality by the Ķekava district stone processing and restoration company "Akmens prāvaškas centrs "AKM"" - stone craftsmen Guntis Pandars and Pēteris Zvaunis.
Success in the Battle of Plakanciems was ensured by careful continuous four-day reconnaissance, the sudden attack plan prepared by the commander of the 1st company, Friedrich Briež, and the heroism of our soldiers.
The situation at the front at that time was very tense, as German soldiers in several places continued to slowly approach Riga. Near Plakanciems, they recently crossed the river Misa and started to set up a front bridge position, deploying the 2nd battalion of the German 376th infantry regiment and 4 machine guns.
The attack of the Latvian archers was based on surprise, quick action and coordination of various actions. Four hand grenades were issued to each rifleman of the 1st company, 60 soldiers put on their white coats because a thin snow had just fallen. When the attackers crept close enough to the German positions, at 22.00 the signal was given and the strike began. Both of our machine guns fired at both flanks of the enemy so that the Germans could not bring up reserves. Throwing hand grenades, Latvian riflemen quickly stormed the German trenches, Russian artillerymen fired at the bridge over the Misa river and the enemy's main defense line. The enemy soldiers were confused - suffering heavy losses, they retreated across the river and left the bridgehead in the hands of the attackers. One of our companies had defeated an enemy unit four times larger!
Latvian archers lost six fallen - Juri Buteniek, Frici Ārmani, Rudolf Hofmani, Kristaps Krūmiņa, Jānis Nauri and Kirijana Šnurov. They are all buried in the Riga Brothers' Cemetery. Of the eight wounded, two later died - Jāzeps Brūveris (buried in the Pleskodāle cemetery) and Jānis Skuja (buried in the Riga Brothers' cemetery). German losses – 31 soldiers killed, 34 captured and 45 wounded. The attackers received a machine gun and 35 rifles as trophies.

Cemetery of Latvian riflemen killed in the First World War and brothers of soldiers killed in the War of Independence

Located in Valmiera City (Center) Cemetery, Lillijas Street 7.

A granite obelisk can be seen, the details of which are forged by the sculptor Wilhelm Trey.
The monument was unveiled on June 22, 1923. About 150 soldiers are buried in the brothers' cemetery.

Several fighters of the First World War and the War of Independence were buried outside the Brothers' Cemetery, including the first dead of the Cēsis Regiment School Company, LKOK Edgars Krieviņš.

At present, there are 14 sets of graves of different lengths in the brothers' cemetery, on which 139 white wooden crosses have been erected, but there are no more plaques with the names of the fallen on the crosses. One black granite cross has survived.

During the communist occupation, intensive civil burials were made in the cemetery of the brothers. After the restoration of independence in 1994, the plan of burials in the brothers' cemetery was changed, and the cemetery clusters are now established crosswise, only one of which has retained its former orientation.

Related stories

A commemorative badge dedicated to Admiral Makarov has been found in the courtyard

A small military relic can testify to an extensive historical story. And although the badge represents the events that took place during the Russo-Japanese War, it shows the variegated military history and the involvement of our Latvian riflemen in other military conflicts both before and after the Wars of Independence.