Estonian War of Independence Veterans' League

Estonian War of Independence

The Estonian War of Independence (Vabadussõda, literally "freedom war"), which occurred in 1918-1920, took place during the Russian Civil War, was the Republic of Estonia's struggle for sovereignty in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. It resulted in a victory for Estonia and was concluded in the Tartu Peace Treaty.


In November 1917, upon the disintegration of the Russian Empire, a diet of the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia, the Estonian National Council (Maapäev), which had been elected in the spring of that year, proclaimed itself the highest authority in Estonia. Soon thereafter, the Bolsheviks dissolved the Maapäev and temporarily forced the pro-independence Estonians underground in the capital Tallinn. A few months later, using a moment between the Red Army's retreat and the arrival of Imperial German Army, the Salvation Committee of the Estonian National Council Maapäev issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence in Tallinn on February 24, 1918 and formed the Estonian Provisional Government. This first period of independence was extremely short-lived, as German troops entered Tallinn on the following day. The German authorities recognized neither the provisional government, nor its claim for Estonia's independence, counting them as a self-styled group usurping sovereign rights of Baltic chivalries.

History of the war

After the German Revolution with the capitulation of imperial Germany, between 11 and 14 November 1918, the representatives of Germany formally handed over political power to the Estonian Provisional Government. On November 16, the provisional government called for voluntary mobilization and started to organize the Estonian army, with Konstantin Päts as minister of War, Major General Andres Larka as the chief of staff, and Major General Aleksander Tõnisson as commander of the Estonian army, initially consisting of one division.

Red Army onslaught

On November 22, 1918, the Red Army attacked Narva, marking the beginning of the Estonian War of Independence. The first Bolshevist attacks at Narva were met by both German forces and Estonian defenders, but the Germans thereafter withdrew westwards. On November 28, the Red Army's 7th Army conducted an attack to capture the city with 7,000 infantry, 22 field guns, 111 machine guns, an armored train, 2 armored vehicles, 2 airplanes, and Bogatyr class cruiser Oleg supported by 2 destroyers. The second front was opened south of Lake Peipus around Pechory where the Bolshevik army had deployed the 2nd Novgorod Division with 7000 infantry, 12 field guns, 50 machine guns, 2 armored trains, and 3 armored vehicles. The Estonian military forces at the time were 2000 men with light weapons and about 14,500 similarly armed men in the Estonian Defence League (Home Guard).

On November 29, the Red Army captured Narva and Narva-Jõesuu. Estonian Bolsheviks declared a regional local government in Narva under the name of the Estonian Workers' Commune (Eesti Töörahva Kommuun). The Red Army took Valga on December 18, Tartu and Tapa on December 24. By the end of the year, the Red Army controlled Estonia along the front line east of Tallinn, west from Tartu and southwest of Ainazi. A mere 34 kilometers separated Tallinn and the front line.

On December 23, 1918, Colonel Johan Laidoner who was appointed Commander in chief of the Estonian armed forces, succeeded in recruiting 600 officers and 11,000 volunteers. He reorganized the forces by setting up the second division in Southern Estonia under the command of Colonel Viktor Puskar, along with commando type units, such as the Kuperjanov's Partisan Battalion and Kalevi Malev. The government also succeeded in obtaining foreign assistance: on December 5, Finland delivered 5000 rifles and 20 field guns together with ammunition; On December 31, the Royal Navy squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair arrived off Tallinn; On December 31, the British fleet delivered 6500 rifles, 200 machine guns and 2 field guns. The British ships also captured two Russian destroyers, Spartak and Avtroil, and turned those over to Estonia, which renamed them Vambola and Lennuk. In January 2, Finnish volunteer units with 3500 men arrived in Estonia. Three armored trains were built in Tallinn under the command of Captain Anton Irv.

On January 2-5, the Red Army advance was stopped along the entire front and the strengthened Estonian forces began a counter offensive on January 7. On January 9, Tapa was taken followed by Tartu on January 14. A combined assault by the Army and marine commando unit landed in the rear of the Red Army and Narva was taken on January 18. Thereafter, the front stabilized along the Narva River and the war moved down to the southern front. The Battle of Paju cleared the way to the important rail junction Valga that was taken by February 4 along with Võru and Petseri. The battle front now followed the historic Estonian settlement area. On the first Independence day, February 24, 1919, the Estonian forces consisted 19,000 men, 70 field guns, and 230 machine guns. The third Estonian division was formed with Major General Ernst Põdder in command. By the beginning of May 1919 the Estonian forces numbered 74,000 men. The Red Army had concentrated 80,000 men, 200 field and 230 machine guns supported by 5 armored trains against the Estonian forces.

The Landeswehr war

The Landeswehr War broke out on the southern front in Latvia on June 5, 1919. The Latvians had declared independence like Estonia, but the pro-British government of Kārlis Ulmanis was toppled by the German general Rüdiger von der Goltz, who installed a pro-German puppet government of Andrievs Niedra in Riga in May 1919. This was possible because under the terms of their armistice with the Western Allies, the Germans had been obliged to maintain their armies in the East to counter the Bolshevik threat. The Baltic German Landeswehr military formation, together with the "Iron Division" of the regular German army, started to advance northwards and demanded that the Estonian army end the occupation of parts of northern Latvia. It was widely believed that the real intent of the Landeswehr was to annex Estonia into a German-dominated state like the United Baltic Duchy that was proposed in 1918. In the fighting that ensued, the Baltic-German Landeswehr was defeated by the advancing Estonian Army in northern Latvia near the city of Cēsis in June 1919. (June 23, the anniversary of the Battle of Wenden (Võnnu in Estonian) is celebrated in Estonia as a national holiday "Victory Day.")

War in the Russian territory

Although Estonian forces had attained control over the territory of Estonia, the Bolsheviks were still active and the Estonian High Command decided to push their defense lines across the border into Russia. The offensive began on May 13th. By then, Estonian land, naval and air forces comprised 74,500 men, including a 5,600-strong White Russian Northern Corps. This had its origins back in the autumn of 1918, when a small White Russian force constituted with German consent in the Pskov area retreated from the Bolsheviks and joined up with Estonian national forces. The Estonian May offensive was extremely successful and the Northern Corps mobilized members of the local population on the Russian territory under their control. On June 19, 1919, the Estonian Commander-in-Chief General Laidoner removed the White Russians from his command and they were renamed the North-Western Army. Shortly afterwards, General Nikolai N. Yudenich took command of these troops.

The Bolsheviks began a counter-offensive in July 1919, which regained much ground lost during the Estonian offensive, but the Northwestern Army survived. With arms provided by Britain and France and supported by the Estonian army, Estonian warships and the Royal Navy, the Northwestern Army began an offensive on September 28, 1919, with the aim of capturing Petrograd. White Russian forces approached as close as ten miles (16 km) from Petrograd, but the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky gathered "an army of workers and soldiers", which was able to repulse Yudenich's troops and force their retreat back into Estonia where the Estonians, ever distrustful of the Whites, disarmed and interned them. The Bolsheviks continued to make determined assaults on fortified positions at the Estonian border, but were halted by Estonian forces.

Foreign assistance

Substantial British involvement in the struggle in the Baltic region in 1918-19 as part of the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War took several forms:

  • British naval forces in December 1918, after lobbying in London by Estonian politicians, brought needed military equipment, training and also artillery support from Royal Navy ships;
  • British protection of the Estonian left flank by naval action in the Gulf of Finland. Among other operations, British motor torpedo boats in conjunction with RAF aircraft conducted the first combined air/sea assault in history on the Bolshevik fleet in Kronstadt torpedoing several Bolshevik warships at the cost of 3 boats. British officer Augustus Agar won a Victoria Cross for sinking a Soviet cruiser and then a DSO for leading a second attack that sank two major warships;
  • Equipment supplied by the British to the White Russian Northwestern Army included six tanks together with their volunteer crews, who were the only British troops to fight alongside the Northwestern Army. British tank crews pushed to within 12 miles of downtown Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) in the autumn of 1919. All six tanks survived the battle, despite having developed some mechanical problems.
  • About 3,850 Finnish volunteers participated as part of the Kinship Wars units Pohjan Pojat and I Suomalainen Vapaajoukko.
  • The Swedish volunteer unit to support the Republic of Estonia in the Estonian War of Independence under the command of Carl Mothander was formed in Sweden in early 1919. In March 1919, 178 volunteers took part in scout missions in Virumaa. In April, the company was sent to the Southern front and took part of the battles near Pechory.
  • A Danish volunteer unit of 200 men was formed under the command of capten Richard G. Borgelin. The regiment took part of battles against Bolsheviks in Latvia and near Pskov. R. Borgelin was promoted to colonel and awarded a manor for his services.

While the British navy provided considerable support, the historian William Fletcher concludes that "the British naval force would have had little effect on the outcome of Baltic affairs had not the Estonians and Latvians provided a vibrant and disciplined land and sea force".

Prelude to peace

Influenced by the success of the Estonian military, Soviet Russia had been attempting to conclude a peace since the spring of 1919. On April 25, 1919, Hungarian Communists offered to mediate a settlement between the Bolsheviks and the Estonians, but Admiral Cowan threatened withdrawal of support to the Estonians unless they rejected the Hungarian offer. The Russians then publically broached the subject of peace talks in a radio broadcast on the 27th and 28th of April. A subsequent broadcast by the Russians on July 21 led to the British journalist Arthur Ransome sounding out the Commissar for Foreign Relations Georgy Chicherin on the subject of peace talks. As a result the Soviet government made a formal offer for peace talks on August 31, 1919. The Estonians accepted this offer on September 4th and negotiations began in ernest on November 17 with an exchange of prisoners. The peace treaty was finally concluded on 31 December 1919. A ceasefire came into effect on January 3, 1920.

Tartu Peace Treaty

On February 2, 1920, the Peace Treaty of Tartu was signed by the Republic of Estonia and RSFSR. At this point, the Bolshevist regime had not been recognized by any Western power. The terms of the treaty stated that Russia renounced in perpetuity all rights to the territory of Estonia. The agreed frontier corresponded roughly with the position of the front line at the cessation of hostilities. In particular, Estonia retained a strategic strip to the east of the Narva river (Narvataguse) and Setumaa in the southeast, areas which were lost in early 1945 - shortly after Soviet troops had taken control of Estonia, when Moscow transferred land East of the Narva River and most of Estonia's Pechory county (Setumaa) to the RSFSR.

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