Blood and Ice- The forgotten story of the Christmas Battle

Blood and Ice- The forgotten story of the Christmas Battle

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A Misunderstood Monument

In Riga’s old town there stand an imposing monument. It’s called the Latviešu strēlnieki, or Lativan riflemen monument. It consists of three men wearing Tsarist era uniforms clutching rifles standing back to back. With resolute expressions they gaze outward. They stand as sentinels, one looking toward the Gulf of Riga the other two silently watching Latvia’s borderlands. The monument was erected during the Soviet era and was intended to commemorate the Latvians who sided with the Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution. Many tourists who pass by may simply dismiss the monument as a reminder of a not too distant Soviet occupation. Yet while Latvia has removed most Soviet statues and monuments, this one has been allowed to stay. The meaning of this monument has changed overtime. Today Latvians see these riflemen as a memorial to those who first volunteered to fight for Latvia. That fight would culminate on Christmas day 1916 in the trenches of the Great War.

Members of the German 8th army in Latvia
Members of the German 8th army in Latvia

The Baltic Front

The road to the Christmas battle started in in the opening months of the Great War. In late 1914 while much of the German Imperial forces were clashing with the Allies on the Western Front, Imperial Russia saw an opportunity to invade Germany. Ninety-five Imperial Russian divisions invaded Germany though East Prussia. While it appeared the Russians had every advantage on their side; due to incompetent leadership, Russian forces were soundly defeated in a series of battles known as Tannenberg and the Masurian lakes. The entire Russian Baltic XX corps were shattered; its forces losing close to 42,000 men. The Germans seized the opportunity ordering the 8th army to invade Russia’s Baltic Providences.  German forces initially met with little resistance and quickly occupied all of Lithuania. By May 7th, the Latvian port city of Liepaja was in German hands. Yet this was about as far as they would get for the moment. Two battalions of Latvian home guard stood their ground and held off the superior German forces long enough for regular Russian troops to arrive to reinforce them. The Latvians fought with a tenacity that shocked the Germans. A renewed offensive in July pierced the weak Russian defenses and the German 8th army occupied Jelgava (a major Latvian city) and the rest of the Courland region. At this point almost half of Latvia was in German hands. The Germans maintained a line stretching from Daugavpils to the Gulf of Riga effectively cutting Latvia in half. The 8th army was within striking distance of Riga, Latvia’s providential capital. Riga was a major industrial center with a large number of factories which were needed for war material production. More importantly Riga’s ports remained ice free during the winter months allowing the Imperial Russian Baltic fleet to continue to operate. Riga’s lose to the Germans would definitely hinder Russia’s war effort.

While Riga may have been close in proximity, some of Latvia’s topography provided a natural defense more formidable than the Imperial Russian army. A series of dense marshes known as the Tīrelis, Ķemeri, and Ragaciems swamps guarded the approach to Riga. The 8th army command realized the danger attempting to cross the swamps would be. Moving heavy equipment such as artillery and machine-guns though the swamps would have been close to impossible. The army also risked the danger of attacks from local Latvian home guard units who would have known better how to maneuver in the swamps. These combined issues would massively threatened the success of any attempt to march on Riga. Instead it was decided to do what the German had done on other fronts, build a massive defensive line and wait.

Wartime photo of the German Wall
Wartime photo of the German Wall

The swamps would prove just as much an obstacle to Imperial Russian forces as they were to the German 8th army. The 8th army command realized that time was on their side. They could dig in and wait for German successes on other fronts which could bring a conclusion to the war, or, at the very least, free up troops for the Baltic front. This defensive line would stretch more than 30 km and would become known as the German Wall. The Germans would wait behind the German Wall for almost two years. All the while building up and strengthen their defenses daring the Russians attack them.

Latvian Riflemen. They are armed with American made Winchester rifles
Latvian Riflemen. They are armed with American made Winchester rifles

Latvia Raising

Russian authorities in Riga were near panic with the German’s rapid advance in the Baltic governorates.  Eighty-five thousand skilled Latvian factory workers in Riga were evacuated to Petrograd to keep them out of the hand of the Germans. Close to half the Latvian population fled north instead of staying under German occupation. The situation presented Latvian politicians with an unique opportunity. Previously the Russian government had forbidden the formation of ethnic Latvian regiments led by Latvian officers because they feared this would provide Latvia with the tools it would need to break from the Russian empire. With Latvia teetering on the brink of complete German occupation, the Latvian political establishment realized that this was the perfect opportunity to present a plan to create regiments of Latvians who would protect their homeland and drive the Germans out. Additionally, these Latvian soldiers would create a proto-Latvian national army, in the event of independence from Russia once the German menace was dealt with. In April of 1915, Latvian Duma member Janis Goldmanis called on Tsar Nicholas II to authorize the raising of Latvian rifle regiments. Initially the plan was met with resistance, but after the fall of Jelgava, the Russian government realized that it would not be long before Petrograd itself would be threatened. The Russian high command needed troops who would be willing to fight.  Who better to do this than those fighting for their homeland.  On July 19, 1915 the Russian General Staff recommended that Latvian rifle battalions be formed. Two battalions were initially formed: the 1st Daugavgrīva Rifles and the 2nd Riga Rifles. Those who were recruited were told that they would be fighting under their own Latvian flag. The recruits took this to mean that Imperial Russia was ready to allow Latvia autonomy, possibly even independence at some point. With this news there were no shortage of Latvian recruits.

It should be noted that those Latvians who advocated the formation of these battalions did not do so out of love for the Russian Empire. With the war going badly for Russian forces on almost every front there was a real fear that the Baltic governorates would be annexed by a victorious Germany. All three Baltic governorates had large German minority populations. Many of these Germans had family histories going back 200 years or more in the Baltic. While many had never been to Germany, they considered themselves German and still spoke the German language. These factors keep them ethnically distinct from their Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian neighbors.  These so-called  Baltendeutsche made up a wealthy gentry, landowning and merchant class. Many owed massive estates which were unobtainable for ethnic Latvians. While the Baltic Germans lived well, the Latvians were relegated to be poor farmers and laborers. This class division creating a seething hatred on the part of the Latvian who saw the Germans as foreigners in their land. The Russian high command realized if any troops were going to make a stand against the German army it would be the Latvians who were literally fighting for their own land.

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Latvian riflemen

Latvian Riflemen

The initial Latvian rifle battalion was sent to the Riga front where it preformed well. Russian high command was satisfied and authorized the formation of further battalions. In all, eight combat battalions and one reserve battalion were raised. Within a year these battalions would be formed into regiments with each regiment named for a region of Latvia. Officers would be Latvian, and all orders would be issued in the Latvian language. In all total between 60-70 thousand Latvians would serve in these regiments.

The Latvian riflemen received no special distinctive uniforms or insignia. They continued to wear the Tsarist cap cockade indicating they were part of the Russian army. They did receive special shoulder boards trimmed with a black, white, and red cord indicating volunteers status.

The riflemen took their place with the Russian 12th army alongside the VI Siberian Corps on the Riga front. A bitterly cold Baltic winter was just beginning. To the German 8th army it appeared that winter would be uneventful; however, that quiet was about to be shattered.  A new offensive was ordered by the Russian high command and it would be spear-headed by the Latvian riflemen.

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Members of the 5th Zemgale (Latvian) rifle regiment in the Tirelis swamp, winter 1916/1917 . They are armed with Japanese Type 38 Arisaka rifle

Preparing for battle

In 1916 France was engaged in the titanic battle for Verdun. In hopes of drawing German troops away from the Western Front, France and Great Britain pressed Russia to launch an attack in the east. Russian high command ordered the 12th army to initiate this campaign. The Russia 12th army was commanded by General Radko Dimitriev. Dimitriev had been recently reassigned from the Caucasus front for poor performance. With his new assignment, he was given an opportunity to redeem himself. Russian intelligence had indicated that German troops manning the German Wall on the Riga front were members of the 6th Landwehr-brigade. These troops were militia, and many of them were middle aged men armed with antiquated Gew 88 rifles. They lacked the training and combat experience of the regular German troops. The Russian 12th army was also superior in numbers with 184 battalions opposed to the German 8th army’s 66 battalions. General Dimitriev sincerely believed he had the upper hand against his German enemy. He had superior numbers to be sure, but Dimitriev also knew that his men would be facing Landwehr troops, certainly not the best of the German army. His orders to his troops would in part read, “Purge away and terminate these weak and hungry Landwehr troops who would stand in your victorious way.”      

That December the temperature started to rapidly drop below zero Celsius.  The swamps and marshes froze solid making them passable. General Dimitriev ordered the attack on the German Wall to commence in the early morning hours of December 23rd in the hope that the Germans would have their guard down due to the Christmas holiday. The Germans in fact did have their guard down. Not only did the German high command believe Russian forces would be unlikely to launch an attack due to the Christmas holiday, but recent intelligence gained from deserting Russian soldiers had led them to believe the Siberian IV corp was in the process of being transferred to the Romanian front.  The 1st and 2nd Latvian brigade were chosen to spear-head the attack, to be followed by several Siberian Infantry regiments. The adjective was to pierce the German line and take and hold Jelgava. In hope of keeping the attack a surprise, no artillery bombardment were done prior to the attack.

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The Christmas Battlefield

The Attack

As the Latvians prepared for battle, a sudden powerful snow storm hit.  Despite deep snow drifts and temperatures sharply plummeted to -35 Celsius, the order was given to commence operations. Starting late in the evening of December 22nd sappers teams from the 1st Daugavgrīva (Latvian) Regiment were ordered into no-man’s land to cut a series of passages through the barbed wire. The sappers had been well trained. One of the members of this team recalled spending a week learning to cut barbed wire without making a sound in perpetration for the battle. The sappers wore white coveralls over their uniforms to camouflage themselves against the snow drifts as they cut paths through the wire for their comrades. Aside from the frigid temperatures, many men sank up to their knees in the snow as they tried to work quickly to keep the attack on schedule. Due to a combination of the snowstorm which  muffled the sounds made by the wire cutting teams and the white snow suits which made the men hard to see, the Germans remained blissfully unaware that an attack was imminent.

At just before five am the 1st and 2nd Latvian Riflemen Brigades were ordered to assemble in the front line trenches where they would await the command to go over the top. At this point the falling snow had turned into a bitter-cold rain. Most of the men wore heavy wool overcoats which restricted movement. Some had been lucky enough to be issued a goat skin padded jacket which was somewhat less cumbersome. Many wore a Bashlik, a wool hood with two long flaps that could be wrapped around one’s face leaving only the eyes exposed for extra warmth in extreme temperatures. The officers had been told to watch for two red flares which would indicate the sapper teams had failed to cut the passages in the wire. While the men waited, as was the Russian army tradition a Russian Orthodox priest walked up and down the line offering God’s blessings. Perhaps ironically these Latvian riflemen were more likely to share the Lutheran or Roman Catholic faith of their German enemy.

Latvian riflemen preparing to go into battle
Latvian riflemen preparing to go into battle

When the red single flares failed to appear, the officers ordered their men to fix bayonets on the end of their Japanese Arisaka rifles. Due to rifle shortages, the Russian government was compelled to purchase arms abroad. The Latvians had been issued a mixture of Japanese and American made rifles instead of the Russian 1891 Mosin-Nagant that much of the rest of the Russian army carried. The men stepped forward and waited for the shrill call of a whistle which would signal the attack. Leonards Celms, a member of the 6th Tukuma (Latvian) Rifle Regiment would later recall his officer walking up and down the line reminding the men that they were fighting for their own home-land and that they would soon liberate Jelgava. At precisely 5:00 am the whistles were blown and the Latvians rushed forward, climbing over their own defenses and into the snow drifts of no man’s land. The Germans manning the first line of defense were caught completely off guard; however, they were able to regroup and mounted a defense with the use of their Maxim Machine Guns.  Some parts of the German line broke quickly while other sectors managed to put up more of a fight. The 3rd Kurzemes (Latvian) Rifle Regiment had the bad luck of  finding themselves faced with a determined West Prussian battalion drawn from Posen. The Prussians at first were able to repulse the Latvians, inflicting heavy casualties on the regiment, but their victory was short lived. The 7th Bauska (Latvian) Rifle Regiment and the 8 Valmiera (Latvian) Rifle Regiment pierced the German 49 Landwehr Regiment’s line of defense, but this left the West Prussian regiment’s position exposed, who were situated south west of the 49th Landwehr Regiment. A second attack by the Latvians broke the Prussian battalion’s defenses and forced the survivors to fall back to the German’s second defensive line at the Mangaļu homestead.

Leonards Celms recalled hearing what sounded like bird calls as he approached the German line.  He learned that the bird calls were actually German officers and NCO alarm whistles alerting of the attack.  Celms recalled the shock he felt seeing his comrades falling in droves as German Maxim Machine Gun bullets made their marks on either side of him. After some brutal fighting, much of it with the bayonet, the Latvian riflemen managed to occupy the German position. By 5:30 am some of the German’s first trench lines had been secured by the Latvians. Perhaps due to miscommunication or not believing the Latvian troops would move as fast as they did, Russian artillery began to shell the newly occupied German position. This inflicted a number of casualties on the unfortunate Latvians. Leonards Celms was badly wounded during the fighting for the German 1st line trenches, and was carried off back to the Russian lines. As he was being carried away, he recalled seeing piles of fallen Latvian soldiers who had been killed by German machine gun bursts. Celms was one of the lucky ones. Many of the wounded froze to death where they lay before medics could get to them.

Latvian dead
Latvian dead

Fight for the Mangaļu homestead

With the German line ruptured, the Latvian regrouped and prepared to push to Mangaļu homestead, the German’s second line of defense. Before pushing further, the Latvians discovered that the Germans had left behind crates of wine and liquor which has been brought forward for the coming Christmas celebration. Many men stopped to drink the spirits before pushing forward the 5 km to the Mangaļu homestead.

While the Latvian’s began their push, the German 8th army high command realized that with the collapse of their first line of defense and with Russian offensive rapidly moving toward their second line, the entire Riga front was in danger of collapsing. At 6 am Major v. Rottberg was ordered to move three of his reserve infantry battalions and two artillery batteries from Jelgava to counter attack and push the Russian offensive back. Other generally non combat support troops in the area were also mustered, armed and ordered to the front. The high command realized they had a growing battle on their hands and ordered another five battalions who were located in southern Latvia and Lithuania to start making their way to the Riga front. Rottberg’s troops marched toward the fighting via the Riga highway.  Although the distance was not great, their pace was slowed by the deep snow. They would not arrive till the afternoon, utterly exhausted from their grueling march.

While Major v. Rottberg was attempting to bring his troops forward the Latvians now supported by members of the 10th and the 53rd Siberian Regiment with fixed bayonets descended on the Germans defending the Mangaļu homestead. It was particularly brutal fighting. The combined Russian and Latvian troops were initially able to break the German defenses, but it only lasted briefly. Despite being fatigued from their march, Rottberg’s men pushed the Russian forces back inflicting heavy causalities and taking almost 600 prisoners. The German victory was brief. Although they fought valiantly, by the end of the day the German were forced from their defensive line at the Mangaļu homestead after repeated determined attacks from the Latvian and Siberian troops. At this point the Latvian and Siberian troops were exhausted and fresh reinforcements were needed. General Dimitriev, upon seeing the Germans were on the run, ordered 17th Siberian Regiment into battle. The 17th Regiment refused their orders and stayed put. The Latvians and those Siberians from the 10th and 53 regiments who had gone into battle were on their own and to General Dimitriev frustration there were no more reinforcements to send.

The Germans regrouped and spent the next day, Christmas Eve, launching several counter attacks on Mangaļu homestead as new reinforcements arrived, but the Latvians and their Siberian counter parts held their ground.

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Machine Gun Hill

Bloody Machine Gun Hill

There was still one section of the German line that held. Near the middle of the German defenses stood a particularly elevated sand dune. The hill would later gain the infamous Latvian moniker, “Ložmetējkalns“, or Machine Gun Hill. The Germans had heavily fortified it with rows of barbed-wire, and a blockhouse at the top bristling with Maxim Machine guns that guarded every approach. As long as the Germans held this hill the Russian offensive to Jelgava could not continue.

Christmas morning  the 3rd Kurzeme (Latvian) Rifle Regiment, the 7th Bauska (Latvian) Rifle Regiment with the 53rd Siberian regiment were ordered to occupy Machine Gun Hill. Repeated frontal assaults were bloodily repulsed by the Germans with machine-guns, artillery batteries and hand grenades. As the Russian attack slackened, the 2nd Riga (Latvian) Rifle Regiment was ordered to join the assault. The men from the 2nd managed to fight their way around the back of the hill, diverting some of the German forces. A renewed frontal assault from both sides of the hill broke the German resistance. When the combined Latvian Siberian forces finally occupied Machine Gun Hill, they created a 7 km gap in the German line. Had General Dimitriev been able to organize a follow up attack there is the very real possibility that the Germans could have been pushed out of Jelgava all together. However,with the Siberian corp in revolt and refusing to move to the front, it was not to be.

Latvians on Machine Gun Hill
Latvians on Machine Gun Hill, one man hold a captured German Gew 98 Rifle

 

A Blizzard of Souls

The Latvian troops and their Siberian allies had managed to completely break the German line while taking some 1000 German prisoners in the act. The victory came at a staggering cost. Machine Gun Hill was littered with dead. Over-all casualty figures are rough, but of the 1000 troops who were ordered to take Machine Gun Hill, only 400 would survive to see the victory. The Latvian veterans would later refer to this action as the Blizzard of Souls, as so many lost their lives. Karl Stumbris, a member of the 3rd Kurzeme (Latvian) Rifle Regiment, later recalled seeing Colonel Kalnins, the regimental commander, sitting on a tree stump at the top of Marchine Gun Hill, lamenting, “Where are my troops, where are my Kurzemniek?” Hearing Kalnins’s melancholy words, Stumbris remembered thinking that Colonel Kalnins knew exactly where his men were, dead and lying scattered in the snow about Ložmetējkalns.

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The White Crosses, painted by Latvian riflemen, and Christmas Battle veteran Jazeps Grosvalds.

The German Counter Attack

The Russian forces would not have long to enjoy their gains. Realizing the precarious position that they were now in, the Germans organized a counter attack. In the early morning hours of January 23, German artillery pounded the Russian positions with a brutal barrage. It was followed by an infantry attack by the 1st Reserve and 2nd Infantry division. The Latvian riflemen and the Siberians did their best to hold back the German attack, but they found themselves quickly losing ground. In desperation several counterattacks were launched to regain the lost ground but they were bloodily repulsed by the Germans. There was one section of the line that the German were unable to retake, Machine-Gun Hill, there the Latvians refused to fall back.

After several bloody attempts to regain their lost ground, the Russian command ordered their forces to fall back to their old lines. Karl Stumbris would recall the retreat was almost as bloody as the counter attacks had been. The open ground made it easy for the Germans to pick off the retreating soldiers in the back. The deep snow made it difficult to see where many of the barbed-wire defenses were causing many men to trip becaming easy targets. Karl Stumbris remembers piling up the frozen bodies that littered the area with his comrades to create defensive positions where they could shoot back.

Lenin's own. Red Latvian Riflemen
Lenin’s own. Red Latvian Riflemen

A Bitter Conclusion

The cost of the Christmas offensive was great. Of the 13,000 casualties sustained by the Russian forces during the battle, close to 9,000 of those men were Latvian. With the Germans managing to regain almost all of their formerly held lines, with the exception of Marchine Gun Hill, the Riga front maintained the same stalemate it had been before the Christmas offensive. The Latvians had proven themselves to be excellent soldiers and up to the task of fighting the Germans; however, the heavy casualties and the lack of support they had received when they had broken the German line embittered them against Tsarist Russia. The 12th army high command did what they could to rectify the problems starting with the court marshal of the men from the 17th Siberian regiment who had lead the revolt against going into battle. Ninety-two Siberians were sentenced to death and many more were sent to prison camps. In an attempt to show appreciation for the sacrifices made by the Latvian troops, the Tsar sent an envoy to express the Tsar’s personal appreciation. The Corp commander, the aged General Vassiliev, also came and visited the Latvians and decorated a number of the men with the Cross of St. George. Colonel Kārlis Goppers, the commander of the 7th Bauska (Latvian ) rifle regiment, later recalled how the old General stood before the men, removed his Papakha hat and respectfully bowed to them. Tears ran down General Vassiliev face as he walked up and down the Latvian ranks, knowing the sacrifices they had made during the battle. It was all too little too late. The Latvian resentment would continue to grow, and eventually morphed into support for the Bolsheviks. When the Russian revolution broke out in 1917, the Latvian riflemen put their allegiance behind Lenin.

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Jukums Vācietis, pictured here still wearing his Tsarist Uniform. The former Colonel of 5th Zemgale (Latvian) Rifle Regiment, a veteran of the Christmas battle. Vācietis would go on to lead the Red Army.

 

A Battle that Cast a Long Shadow

The Christmas battle is not Verdun or Passchendaele. It will probably never be as well studied as many of the larger battles of the Western Front. Outside of Latvia the battle is almost unknown. Still the battle had a far reaching effect that is under appreciated. After the Christmas battle, the embittered Latvians made for easy targets by Bolshevik agitators. When the Russian revolution broke out, all the talk of Latvian nationalism that had been a rally cry when the rifle regiments were formed was abandoned for Soviet Bolshevism. The new Red Latvian Rifle Regiments formed by the Soviets were made up of veterans of Riga font. Many if not most were Christmas battle veterans. They would go on to fight viciously for the survival of Lenin’s Soviet Regime during the Russian Civil War. Many historians have questioned whether Lenin would have been able to maintain his grip on power without his Latvian riflemen. The Latvian’s showed such degree of fidelity to Lenin that he used them as a Praetorian guard during some of the most tumultuous days of his government. In July of 1918 an internal revolt broke out in Moscow pitting Left Socialist-Revolutionaries against the Bolsheviks. While Lenin cowered behind the thick fortress walls of the Kremlin, it was his Latvian riflemen who managed to put the revolt down in a bloody fight in the streets of Moscow. The leader of those troops was none other than Jukums Vācietis, the former Colonel of 5th Zemgale (Latvian) Rifle Regiment, himself a veteran of the Christmas battle. The Latvian were some of the only troops still loyal to the Bolshevik regime in Moscow at that point. It is unlikely Lenin’s government could have survived the night without them.

It is impossible to say for sure what might have happened had the Latvian received the support that they needed during the Christmas battle. Still it does beg the question, had the Latvians been victorious that cold Christmas Eve would they have they sided with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution? Without his loyal Latvian riflemen, would Lenin’s Bolshevik regime survived to become the U.S.S.R.? It is impossible to know for sure. Still what is known is many of those embittered Latvians would go on to hold powerful positions in the government of the U.S.S.R. Jukums Vācietis himself became the first commander and chief of the Red Army and can be credited with helping Lenin triumph in the Civil War. Many other former Latvian riflemen worked for the Cheka, Lenin’s brutal secrete police, who effectively terrorized citizens of the U.S.S.R. into loyalty. Their importance should not be underestimated. It maybe that the Christmas Battle and it’s effects on the Latvians who fought it would cast long shadow. With the influence the U.S.S.R. had on the history of the world, that shadow would be long indeed.

 

 

 

 

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