The Christmas Battles
On the night before Christmas Eve, 5 January 1917 (23 December 1916 O.S.), the Latvian Riflemen began a ferocious surprise attack on German positions in the Tīrelis swamp west of Rīga (map). In the most recent history of Latvia in the 20th C (available in English, French, and Russian as well as Latvian, from Jumava), Ilgvars Butulis notes that the Russian Army mobilized 120 000 -- 140 000 men from Latvia in the First World War; the most famous units were of course the Riflemen, but tens of thousands of Letts also served in the Home Guard and other formations. In the Augustów marshes of Poland (then East Prussia) in February 1915, for example, the First Army's 20th Corps (composed primarily of Latvian officers and enlisted men), lost ca. 20 000 soldiers whilst enabling the retreat of the Russian Tenth Army. Butulis: "The German High Command compared the Latvian soldiers to Napoleon's guard, which 'dies, but does not surrender.'"
In the distortions of Latvian history emanating from Moscow (see my three previous posts), the ferocity of the Red Riflemen (some of whom formed Lenin's Praetorian guard) is often mixed with allegations regarding our supposed pro-German sympathies prior to World War Two -- to blacken the shallows, or carefully select shadows. My favorite sentence in Edward Lucas' trenchant analysis of the recent Amnesty International report on Estonia is: "It is a bad piece of work, ahistorical and unbalanced." The key word would be ahistorical -- much of the propaganda the Kremlin and certain "useful idiots" in the West try to pass off as history is really image-making and demonization, and it is essentially ahistorical. The historical enemy of Latvia was Germany until relatively recently -- the nature of the Dark Knight did not change; the empires and their effects on Latvia and Latvians did, and thus the relations to the two Great Powers behaving as grindstones did. Certain persons acting as spokesmen for the defiantly ahistorical see no changes and observe no differences -- the current Ambassador of Russia to Rīga, Viktor Kalyuzhny, for instance, recently reiterated his belief that there is no difference whatsoever between the EU and the USSR (he was, however, very disturbed when he saw portraits of Hitler and Stalin on the same wall in the Occupation Museum... some differences seem to matter more than others).
The Latvian Riflemen fought so very hard in World War One because they were finally able to fight under their own flag (circumscribed -- their main slogan became "a free Latvia in a free Russia"), because of their hatred for Germany (born of centuries of oppression by Germans), and because they were often fighting on their own land, much of which was brutally occupied by German forces for a prolonged period. Ninety years ago this Christmas, at -35 degrees centigrade, they lost a third of their comrades in arms. Fighting valiantly for the liberation of Jelgava and Semigallia, they awaited reinforcements that never came. They did this in the service of a Czar who extolled their bravery -- and who led an autocratic regime that sent them on suicide missions, renamed their farmsteads in Russian, and attempted to ban the use of Latvian in their correspondence with their families.
The photograph is from the Latvian State Forest Service. The plaque marks the "road to Golgotha" in the Christmas Battles, planted as a park by students and former Riflemen under the supervision of the Forest Service and their Workers' Association between 1932 and 1935.