World War I trenches by Väike Strait

Sõjasündmused algasid saartel 29. septembril 1917, kui Saksa armee maabus Saaremaal Tagalahe ääres.

World War I reached the shores of these islands on 29 September 1917, when the German army landed at Tagalaht on Saaremaa.

Although the islands of Saaremaa and Muhu formed part of Peter the Great's Naval Fortress, construction work began late in 1915, with fortifications and trenches going unfinished or being in bad condition due to their hasty construction. The locals earned a fair amount from helping with the construction work. Even people from the village of Linnuse assisted in digging the trenches. 

The fortifications near Orissaare were superior, but the German marines had captured those positions on the first day of Operation Albion and used them against the Russian forces.

The fortifications around the Väinameri Strait were overseen by Counter Admiral Dmitri Sveshnikov. His Chief of Staff was Nikolai Reek, whose foster parents were from Saaremaa. Reek later rose to the rank of general in the Republic of Estonia.

The commander-in-chief of the forces stationed in Muhu was Alexei Martynov, whose 118th Infantry Division, comprising 15,000-20,000 men, was sent as reinforcements to defend the island before fleeing in panic shortly before the arrival of the Germans.

The trenches by the strait on both sides of the Väinatamm causeway were manned by what was known as the Tallinn Battalion of Death: just 800 men, arriving on 1 October, led by Captain Pavel Shishko. Fighting over the causeway had taken place the day before. The Muhu end of the causeway was littered with artillery and ammunition left behind by the retreating Russian forces. At first, the fleeing Russian soldiers could be seen crossing the causeway, but after nightfall this came to an end, as the Germans had taken over the other end of the causeway. The next morning two small boats approached the Russian defensive positions and opened fire. The Battalion of Death responded in the same manner, opening fire, at which the boats pulled back. This happened again on the mornings of 3 and 4 October. The Russians made use of an abandoned older type of artillery gun left behind near the road, setting it up in the woods. A dogfight took place between a German and a Russian fighter plane in the air above the trenches. The German plane and its two pilots came down in the village of Linnuse. On 3 October, the Battalion of Death abandoned the trenches on the southern side of the road and gathered near Vahtna, expecting a German landing, as it was impossible to attack over the causeway. On the evening of 4 October the Germans began the fierce bombardment of the coastline of Muhu. The Battalion of Death received orders to retreat from the Väike Strait. The Väinatamm causeway was covered with mines. Later it turned out that only one mine detonated, doing little harm.

The 1st and 2st Estonian Battalions arrived on the island of Muhu on 3 October and were met with chaos and disarray in Kuivastu. Staff Captain Peeter Kann, in the ranks of the battalion, had been born and raised on Muhu. The battalion had no chance of participating in any combat, as there was a complete lack of organisation.

Most of the men were taken prisoner by the Germans in a skirmish in Raugi on 5 October. The Germans were quick to ask the first men captured about the windmills. Due to the windy weather all of the mills were grinding grain, and the women in Koguva with their bright red skirts had climbed to the top of the Andruse-Tõnise windmill to take a look at the enormous warships. The Germans were certain that this was a code for something, so they bombed the windmill. Luckily the women had already left by the time they did so. In total, 114 men and five officers managed to flee from the Battalion of Death. Around 200 men from the Estonian Battalion made it safely across Suur Strait and returned to their unit. Among them was Peeter Kann. Altogether, 5000 men and 600 officers were taken prisoner on Muhu (among them 1598 soldiers from the Estonian Battalion).

The dates are according to the old calendar.

Back then it was called Zinoviev Bridge in honour of the Governor of Livonia.

The Battalion of Death comprised loyal and determined fighters who swore to fight till there was no more breath in their body.

Used sources and references:

Muhu Muuseumi arhiivikogu materjalid.

Oskar Kurvits, Eesti rahvusväeosade loomine 1917-1918, 1. Eesti Polk.  Tallinn, Ühiselu 1930

Related objects

World War I trenches by Väike Strait

The clearly visible segment of World War I trenches by the Väike Strait is situated next to the Kuivastu-Kuressaare road near the popular tourist attraction of Eemu Windmill on the island of Muhu.

These trenches make up a small part of a larger area of defensive fortifications and facilities covering many kilometres. They were dug from 1915-1917 as a defensive measure against the advancing German army and were used during both world wars.

The renovated site is a great example of the military history of Muhu. This zigzagging trench is clearly visible. It is easily accessed by visitors, as it is situated right by a main road with a car park next to it. Historic wire fencing only adds to the scenery.

This example of military history complements the historic Eemu windmill, an industrial heritage site nearby, which survived World War I but was destroyed in World War II, before being restored in 1980.