“The home front is always underrated by generals in the field. And yet that is where the Great War was won and lost. The Russian, Bulgarian, Austrian (Austria-Hungary) and German home fronts fell to pieces before their armies collapsed.”
British Prime Minister Lloyd George in his “War Memoirs”
World War I
World War I broke out in late July 1914. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, has commonly been regarded as the immediate trigger of the war. That event resulted in Austria-Hungary delivering an ultimatum to Serbia and when the latter failed to meet the demands of the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. As Russia feared the loss of her power in the Balkans she called for mobilization in favour of Serbia on 31 July. That was followed by the German declaration of war on Russia and France. Great Britain entered the war on 4 August.
The real causes of the war lay in the past. At the beginning of the 20th century the world had been divided mainly between Great Britain and France and especially Germany sought for the rearrangement of the status quo. There were, for example, sharp conflicts in the Near-East, where the interests of Germany and Great Britain clashed.
Two opposing military alliances took part in World War I: the Allies (centered around the Triple Entente) against the Central Powers. The core of the latter was Germany and Austria-Hungary, later accompanied by Turkey and Bulgaria. The Allies were Great Britain, Russia and France, later backed by Italy and the USA. Financial and military assistance of the latter eventually helped the Allies to win the war.
The war, which lasted for four years, three months and thirteen days was ended by the Paris Peace Conference (1919–1920). Germany was forced to sign to the Versailles Peace Treaty, which considerably weakened her competitiveness and sovereignty. In Eastern Europe and South-West Asia three empires collapsed: Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman. Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia gained independence; the former territories of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans joined Serbia and Montenegro (from 1929 Yugoslavia). Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland separated from Russia while the attempts of the Ukraine, Byelorussia and states in the Far-Caucasus to gain independence failed.
Estonia in World War I
Almost 100,000 men were mobilized from Estonia (including the Estonian part of the Livonian guberniya) to the Russian army, of those approximately 10,000 were killed. Though before the outbreak of the war men from Estonia had mostly served in regiments stationed in Estonia, Livonia, Kurland or in North-Eastern Russia, Estonians fought on all fronts.
Estonia was in the front’s rear. When taking into account also the Navy and Estonian national units there were approximately 200,000 servicemen on Estonian soil in 1917. Most of them served in units of Peter the Great’s naval fortress. In addition there were quite a few military plants in Tallinn, which produced military equipment from ammunition to ships.
World War I considerably changed the domestic life of Estonia and put pressure on the economy. Prices rose, money gradually lost its value and the black market, especially the production of moonshine, bloomed. In addition there was a shortage of the most important commodities (salt, sugar, petroleum, linen cloth, etc), for which end a ration card system was introduced. A considerable portion of working-age men were mobilized and therefore a number of farmlands remained untilled. Also the requisition of horses and cattle was a serious blow to agriculture. However, differently from major cities in Russia there was no direct hunger in Estonia.
At the beginning of the war a number of industries including the Mayer chemical plant, the Laakmann print shop and the Waldhof factory stopped their work. The latter was blown up by the panicking Russian soldiers in 1915 when German ships arrived at Pärnu Bay. The closing of factories led to the rise in unemployment, which was to some extent softened by the directing of workforce to rural areas and the needs of military industry. In 1917 the evacuation of the equipment of factories and also of the assets of Tartu University to Russia began.
At the end of October 1914 the use of the German language was forbidden in public spaces and the breaking of the rule could result in a fine of 3,000 rubles. Soon after all German newspapers were closed. However, the biggest blow to the Baltic-Germans was the closure of all German-language schools.
Military operations in Estonia
In order to protect St. Petersburg (Petrograd) from an attack from the sea the construction of a coastal defence positions on the shores of Estonia and Finland began in 1912. That system is known as Peter the Great’s naval fortress. By 1917 57 coastal defence batteries with cannons, 13 AA batteries, and a few bases for water planes had been built. Barbed wire entanglements and trenches were built in places of possible landings. In addition the Russian Navy laid almost 38,500 mines, of those about 10,000 in the Irben Straits.
Almost 15,000 men were on the islands of Western Estonia in 1917. Later an additional of 7,000 came, including the two battalions of the 1st Estonian Regiment. Rear Admiral Dmitri Sveshnikov held the front assisted by his chief of staff Captain Nikolai Reek. The Russian Navy on the Bay of Livonia consisted of two old armoured ships (Slava and Grazhdanin), three battle cruisers, 33 destroyers and additional smaller ships. The fleet was led by Vice Admiral Mikhail Bakhirev.
The German landing at Saaremaa Island (Tagalaht Bay) – operation Albion – began on 12 October 1917 and lasted for five days. Commander of the operation was General Hugo von Kathen who had the XXIII reserve corps at his disposal. It was supplemented by the 42nd infantry division under the command of Lieutenant General Ludwig von Estorff. The naval power prepared for the landing consisted of the battle cruiser Moltke, ten battleships, nine cruisers, 58 destroyers and six submarines, in addition there were 181 various supplementary ships and 124 motorized boats. The commander of the landing fleet was Vice Admiral Erhard Schmidt. 24,600 officers and soldiers along with 8,500 horses, 2,500 horse carts, 40 cannons, 220 machine guns and 80 mortars took part in the operation.
The German forces saw quick success as the Russian army, being infected with revolutionary ideas, was no opponent. And even if patriotically minded officers tried to organize resistance, many Russian soldiers greeted the Germans with white flags. Also additional men sent form the mainland could not stop the advance of the Germans. The effectiveness of the German operation was also proven by the fact that only 184 Germans were either killed or reported MIA during the taking of the islands of Western Estonia whereas 20,000 Russians – among them five generals – were taken as POWs and a considerable amount of ammunition and gear was taken as spoils.
With the capture of the islands of Western Estonia and the moving of the fleet to the Baltic Sea the Germans hoped to lead way towards St. Petersburg. But the revolution in Russia and later in Germany changed the course of the war.
Revolution in Russia
By 1917 Russia had been at war for three years. Permanent losses and retreats had grown a resistance against the war and therefore both the soldiers as well as average citizens desperately waited for the end of the war. The social unquiet was amplified by demonstrations in St. Petersburg, which gradually grew into an all-Russian revolution at the end of February 1917. Tsar Nicholas II was removed from the throne and power went to the Provisional Government.
However, Russia did not leave the war. The Provisional Government even tried new advances on the front, but they did not fulfill their mission. In addition another domestic issue came up – minorities, including the Estonians, started to demand for autonomy or independence. In March and April the Estonian part of the Livonian guberniya was added together with the Estonian guberniya and the Governor of the Estonian guberniya was appointed. On 5 June the Estonian Provisional Land Council (Eesti Ajutine Maanõukogu, or the Maapäev) was installed.
During the war Germany supported political extremes in Russia hoping to destabilize the situation and make the opponent leave the war. One of such movements was the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, which promised the people peace, bread and land. As the Provisional Government failed to keep the state together the Bolsheviks came to power in November 1917 after a coup. Already at the end of November a peace was declared on the Eastern Front. But after the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations failed, Germany and her allies started a new advance on the Eastern Front. Russian soldiers, unable and unwilling to fight, retreated with almost no resistance whatsoever. The German army was able to occupy Estonia, Northern Latvia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine in a few days. On 3 March 1918 the Lenin government was forced to conclude the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Soviet Russia gave up all her lost territories and left the war.
Estonian national units
In March 1917, after the revolution in Russia, the formation of Estonian national units began. By the end of the year four infantry regiments, a rear battalion, an engineer company and an artillery brigade had been formed. In October 1917 the formation of the 1st Estonian Division began on the basis of those units. Podpolkovnik (Lieutenant Colonel) Johan Laidoner of the General Staff was appointed Commander of the Division and Podpolkovnik Jaan Soots became his Chief of Staff. Most of the Estonian officers and soldiers with front experience were gathered in those national units and they formed the core of the Estonian army in the following War of Independence (1918–1920).
The Estonian Declaration of Independence
On 24 February 1918 (after the Russians had left and the German forces had not yet reached Estonia) The Estonian Salvation Committee (the Päästekomitee) declared Estonia an independent state. Germany did not recognize that and therefore the German forces occupied Estonia. The Estonian Provisional Government went underground, all national units were disbanded and in June arrests of the Estonian political elite began. Nevertheless, the Provisional Government managed to get de facto recognition from Great Britain, France and Italy. After the Compiegne Armistice on 11 November 1918 between Germany and the Entente the German occupation powers gave power back to the Provisional Government.
1. Tsar Nicholas II with Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich (the tallest man) laying the cornerstone of Peter the Great’s naval fortress. Tallinn, 1913.
2. Staff Captain Rudolf Reiman with subordinates during World War I.
3. In a trench at the Daugava River.
4. Staff Captain Johan Laidoner and other officers of staff (1915).
5. Trench life in Latvia. Future engineer of the Armoured Train Division Eduard Jürgens with pipe.
6. Ready to go! Bomber Ilya Muromets, which was also piloted by Estonians.
7. Armoured car Austin I (Great Britain, armour 5–8 mm, two 7,62 mm Maxim machine guns). During World War I the Russian army had almost 300 armoured cars.
8. Armoured cars Putilov-Garford (Russia; armour 7–9 mm, weight ca 11 tons, one 76 mm field-gun and two 7,62 mm Maxim machine guns) and Austin I with crew.
9. Armoured cars Austin I with crew.
10. Armoured cars Putilov-Garford with crew.
11. Russsian soldiers.
12. Mobilized men at the medical draft board.
13. Staff Captain Rudolf Reiman with his wife during World War I.
14. The revolution has reached the front.
15. A manor wrecked in artillery fire at the Daugava River.
16. Houses wrecked in artillery fire at the Daugava River.
17. The revolution has reached the front.
18. Polkovnik (Colonel) Aleksander Tõnisson in the garden of the Haapsalu Castle. October 1917.
19. Officers of the 1st Estonian Division. March 1918.
20. Soldiers of the 1st Estonian Division at field practice (1917).