Historical Piece: How Latvian Riflemen Corrupted The Russian Army – Part II

Dear Readers:

As we approach the Hundred-Year anniversary of the Great October Revolution in Russia, we continue to read this interesting piece by journalist and archivist Vladimir Veretennikov, an ethnic Russian who lives in Latvia and writes about Russian history.

Where we left off, it was the Glory Days of World War I.  This war was the purest possible example of Imperialist War.  There were no good guys in this war.  Just monarchies and autocrats fighting each other for their patches of plunder.  All the nations of the planet, like sheep, had to line up on one side or another.  An entire generation was sent into the slaughterhouse.  It was this War that gave birth to the Communist Revolution.

The war corrupted everybody, even the Socialist International.  Life-long Marxist intellectuals, who previously liked to quote that “The Proletarians have no country”, the moment war was declared, suddenly discovered that they were Uber-patriots of their own King, Queen, Kaiser, or Tsar.  In all of this meat-grinder, only one tiny faction of the movement held fast and declared “a plague on all houses” — and this was the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian wing of the Socialist International.  Anybody who has witnessed the hysteria and patriotic fervor that grips any nation when war breaks out, can comprehend the guts it takes to say “Bah Humbug!” to your own country when it rushes into war uncocked.  Generally the only people with enough balls to buck the national war machine are either (1) dedicated and consistent pacifists; or (2) hardened Communists like Lenin.  As I have written in previous blogposts, even Lenin was isolated within his own party, even most of the Bolshevik leadership got soft and squishy around the edges, at the notion that they had to call for the defeat of the Russian army in the middle of a killing war.  While also urging German Communists to call for the defeat of their own army.  And calling for soldiers on both sides of the trenches to fraternize with each other, become friends, refuse to hurt each other; and turn their rifles on their Imperial Overlords who had pitted these hapless gladiators against one another.

The Latvian Front

Returning to Veretennikov’s narrative:  Russian soldiers and the newly-formed Latvian Riflemen (“Strelki”) battalions were fending off German troops at their lonely outpost on the Dvina River, known as the “Island Of Death”.  The cruel Germans used everything they had in their arsenal, including poison gas.  The casualties were significant, and it’s not the kind of death you would wish on anybody, even your enemy.

Recall that Latvia was at the time a subject of the Russian Empire, and therefore was fighting the Great War on the side of Russia, England and France; and against Germany.

General Ivan Tiulenev earned his spurs on the front lines of WWI

Towards the end of 1916, beginning of 1917, famous and very bloody battles took place on Latvian soil. The Latvian Riflemen fought side by side with Russian Siberian units against the German troops.  Veretennikov quotes Latvian writer Vilis Lācis, who describes the horrors of these battles in vivid detail.

Some famous Russian names stand out in these clashes:  Ensign Nikolai Gumilev, who enlisted in the war as a volunteer; Konstantin Rokossovsky, later to be a Marshal of the Soviet Union; and Cavalier Ivan Tiulenev, who also later went on to serve as a General in the Soviet army and awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and the St. George Cross.  Gumilev was a Russian patriot who fought for Russia and despised the Bolsheviks.  He was executed by the Cheka in 1921 for participating in a pro-Monarchist conspiracy.  Rokossovsky and Tiulenev are examples of the other side of the fence:  After the Revolution, they went over to the Communists and helped to build the new Red Army; thus providing a certain continuity of transition from Russian to Soviet statehood.  See, Communism is stateless; and yet Mother Russia always endures.

The Ice Starts To Shift.

During the so-called “Christmas Battles” of 1916, the first signs appeared of an ideological crack in the patriotic Russian armor.  The brass had decided on a major Christmas offensive to oust the German troops from Latvia.  The Russian 12th Army of the Northern Front was counterposed by the German 8th Army.  As wiki summarizes:

Latvian soldiers on Machine Gun Hill.

The battles took place in a swampy region, Tīreļpurvs (Tīrelis swamp), between Lake Babīte and Jelgava. The main assault force was the VI Siberian Rifle Corps which included two Latvian Rifleman brigades (“strēlnieki” who are a very important part of Latvian folklore and the first sign of having independence from Russia).

It was in the course of this clash, specifically the Battle of Machine-Gun Hill, that, for the first time, an organized group of soldiers refused the order to advance on the enemy.  The Russian officers picked out 92 of the ringleaders of the mutineers and had them shot.  Nonetheless, the offensive was called off.

And next thing you know, boom!  — the Tsar is gone and Russia is suddenly declared a Republic…

[to be continued]

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2 Responses to Historical Piece: How Latvian Riflemen Corrupted The Russian Army – Part II

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    “See, Communism is stateless; and yet Mother Russia always endures.”

    Dialectics 101. Just as the seed is not a plant itself, it though contains a future plant within, which “birth” requires the “death” of the seed. In its turn the plant later “gives birth” to other seeds.

    “However, patriotically-inclined Latvian youth had been agitating for the creation of “national” units. Once the decision was made to go ahead with this plan, the enlisting of volunteers began in Riga, in August of 1915. On the very first day of enlistment 71 men signed up. Three battalions were put together in short order. They tasted their first blood in battle on 25 October, not far from the railroad station Mangaļi. ”

    Several important notes here for those, unfamiliar with the military or with peculiarities of the Russian Empire’s provinces a century ago.

    First of all – let’s have a map of Russian gubernias for some context:

    As you can see – the borders of the Czarist time governorates in the Baltic region do NOT correspond to the borders of the modern Baltic “ethno-states”. And there were reasons for that.

    Second – yalensis omitted one important thing as to who was the largest group of the early volunteers into ethnic Latvian units. The article correctly states that they were the students. Enter the ethnic factor and history.

    As in many other Baltic gubernias, in Liefland governorate the noble class there was slightly less than entirely of the ethnic Germans, who can trace back (with varying degree of accuracy) their ancestry all the way to the Livonian Ordenstadt crusaders. Ethnic Latvians, therefore, consisted the bulk of peasantry – piss-poor as it goes. Ethnic German nobles, needless to say, were the staunch defenders and supporters of the Russian Monarchy, many of them made a name for themselves (one has to recall count von Palen, chief of gendarmes Benkendorf… or baron von Ungern while we are at it).

    But you can’t stop the dauntless march of progress, so, quite naturally, Lieflyand governorate’s big city got themselves their own intellectual elite which, how it was fashionable at the time, engaged in all kinds of intellectual pursuits… which resulted in one and only conclusion – nationalism is a must. During the Revolution of 1905-07 there were enough of terror attacks and murders of both members of the “Regime” and of peasant uprising against local landowners. One just have to read the newspapers of that time (easily available online) – student killing a gorodovoy, student killing a Lutheran pastor, who preached peace and loyalty to the Throne, students and various revolutionaries staging demonstrations that end up in clashes with the police and army… My favorite is a news piece from 9 June 1905, about how a prison riot in Libava assisted from the outside by a “crowd of hooligans” ended up in the thrashing of 4 bordellos…

    Revolution of 1905-07 ended up inconclusively, putting under the wraps but not extinguishing many social ills. Flash forward to the Great War – and Czarist government decides to issue weapons (en masse) to the “unreliable elements” and put them in close proximity to the easily impressed rank’n’file. As the article points out – the total mobilization (i.e. not volunteers only, but conscription employing) in Liefland governorate began after the creation of the first ethnic units. Which meant one thing – lots and lots of dirt poor Latvian peasants will end up in the army, together with their urbanite and “svidomite” betters belonging to the same ethnos… and commanded by either ethnic Germans or Russian officers. Hmm… what could POSSIBLY go wrong?!

    Third – the military training of the volunteer units. Or the lack of it. The article is not precise in it, but the enrollment of the volunteers began on 12 August 1915. Their “baptism by battle” happened the same year on 25 October, but actually, they had been sent to the front line on 23 October. As mentioned above – for the most part, these volunteers were urbanites and students. Now, do the math – how many days did they have for the military training?

    The answer – not enough by any possible range. Russian Imperial Army required 4 months for the new recruits to be considered proper soldiers and viable for the combat duty. That’s the bare minimum – how to march in formation, physical training, training at the shooting range, how to dig a trench, the basics of the garrison and sentry duty, etc, etc. Not yet something so sophisticated as the unit cohesion tactics on the battlefield. Granted, the Great War forced the Imperial military planners to “adjust” accordingly and so they had to introduce orders in several Western reserve units the requirements for the training process to be done in 6 weeks – 2 months tops. Key words here – “reserve units”.

    Tl;dr. – the situation on the Baltic military theatre of the Great War was so serious, that they had to sent greenhorn units as a stopgap measure to slow down the German advance – with the disastrous results for the defenders.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks for these additions and corrections, Lyt.
      Yes, the picture does seem pretty clear of Russian generals using these untrained Latvian boys as simple cannon-fodder!

      In spite of which, I think Veretennikov tries to give them their due, that they fought not too badly at first. Before they became “corrupted” by Bolshevik propaganda! (Probably didn’t take all that much to turn them, anyhow…)


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