Central & Eastern Europe / History / The Navigator

The Battle for Rīga

It is 100 years since a combined force of Germans and Russians were beaten back by a nascent Latvian army, backed up by British and French warships

“The heroic face of a truly Latvian Rīga has emerged. Up until now we have only seen a German Rīga. These days have witnessed the birth of a Latvian Rīga, which will be our heart, our spirit, our will.”

“We are still stuck in the epoch of the end of the Fist World War”.

So wrote Latvian liberal daily Jaunākās Ziņas (“Latest News”) on January 3 1919, in pained recognition of the fact that, for many Europeans, the “end of the First World War” was something that looked set to continue for quite some time.

The guns on the Western Front may have fallen silent on November 11 1918, but in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe they kept up an intermittent barrage for two or three more years. The fall of the Tsarist, Habsburg and Wilhelmine Empires created a new Europe of disputed borders, many of which were bitterly contested. Revolution in Russia, and the spread of its message, meant that societies were also faced by agonizing ideological choices. Latvia in particular spent the year of 1919 rent by red terror, white terror, proto-fascist militarism and ethnic fragmentation. In many ways, 1919 set the tone for the age of extremes that followed.

Latvia’s national day falls on November 18, the date in 1918 when the Latvian People’s Council declared the country’s independence, and chose Agrarian Party leader Kārlis Ulmanis as provisional prime minister. Another important date in the national calendar is November 11 1919, when a German-Russian army was thrown back from Rīga by a Latvian force supported by British and French naval guns. Nowadays celebrated as Lāčplēsis Day (Lāčplēsis being a legendary folk hero who fought against foreign oppressors), it was November 11 1919 that marked Latvia’s transition from fledging national entity to cohesive and lasting state.

The fact that the Latvians were backed up by British and French battleships points to a complex backstory that is well worth the retelling. It goes without saying that the achievement of Baltic independence – in 1918-1920 as in 1987-1991 – was largely the work of the Estonians Latvians and Lithuanians themselves. Both liberations were exercises in decolonization, carried out by people eager to demonstrate that their country was not a strategic lego-brick in the security sphere of an oversized neighbour. However the Western intervention in Latvia helped to swing events in a positive direction. Whether Western governments had actually planned this outcome in advance is, of course, another question.

The Western Allies became involved in the Baltic region because they were eager to prevent the spread of the Bolshevik Revolution. Unwilling to commit troops of their own, however, they had to make do with the military resources available on the ground. At first this meant reaching a modus vivendi with the German army of occupation, which had stayed in Latvia pending further instructions. As time went on, it became clearer that outright support for the Latvian independence movement would yield better results.

Latvian rifles

Allied policy in the Baltics was largely improvised by emissaries with few resources at their disposal and a paucity of clear instructions. Men like Stephen Tallents, the British civilian commissioner; and General Hubert Gough, his military counterpart; made policy on their own initiative in the hope that their masters in London would give retrospective approval. A young Colonel Harold Alexander (subsequently Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean during World War II) ended up leading a mixed unit of German-Latvian troops. Years afterwards Tallents and Gough wrote their memoirs, as did some of the other key figures in Latvia at the time: French mission head Lieutenant-Colonel Emmanuel du Parquet, British diplomat Herbert Grant Watson, and Anglo-American journalist Walter Duranty. While providing a rich fund of tally-ho expat literature that is very much of its time, these memoirs also reveal how resourceful these western representatives actually were, embarking on pragmatic courses of action which yielded impressively positive results.

Latvia had been under Russian rule ever since the early eighteenth century, but found itself under German military occupation at the end of World War I. The provisional government that nominally took power in November 1918 had no army of its own, and was reliant on a benign German presence to go about their state-building business. The Western Allies were desperate for the Germans to stay in Latvia because there was no-one else to keep order. A continued German military presence was also welcomed by Latvia’s German-speaking landowners (known as Baltic Barons or Balts), people who were fiercely attached to their lands in the Baltics but who also identified with a German or Tsarist Russian national agenda, rather than emerging Latvian sentiment.

Bolshevik Russia was also keen to take advantage of Germany’s surrender, and sought to recover territories it had lost at March 1918’s Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Many of the Latvians who had served in Tsarist armies, especially in the locally-recruited units known as Latvian Riflemen, had retreated into Russia in 1917 and adopted the Bolshevik cause. Many of these Riflemen would drift home in the ensuing months to fight for an independent Latvia, although an equal number remained fiercely loyal to Russia’s new rulers, and played a major role in ensuring the survival of the Soviet state. Meanwhile, anti-Bolshevik or “White” Russians gathered under former Tsarist officers (such as General Yudenitch, based at the eastern Estonian town of Narva), in the hope that Western Allies would come to their aid.

Song of the Modern Barbarians

We are the Modern Barbarians

We march forward man for man –

In unconquerable hordes,

In ever-swelling hordes!


We are the vandals of kindness –

We are the barbarians of Right –

We carry Freedom on our Shield –

The Freedom of the Human Race!

(“Song of the Modern Barbarians”; published in the January 12 issue of Sarkanais Karogs [Red Flag]; quoted by George Popoff in City of the Red Plague)


The road to a better Latvia is the road to Golgotha

(Jaunākās Ziņas; January 1 1919)

Having overrun eastern Latvia in a matter of days, the Red Army marched into an undefended Rīga on January 3. Their entry was witnessed by George Popoff, the 23-year-old son of a retired Tsarist general.  He noted their military band, “made up chiefly of dilapidated wind instruments, drums and cymbals, which blared forth its wild and discordant airs.” The soldiers and their officers were “dirty and almost in rags”, their rifles slung over shoulders with pieces of string.

In fact many in Rīga saw the entry of the Red Army as a liberation from German occupation. The provisional government had fled, and the Western Allies were nowhere to be seen. Latvian Riflemen made up the bulk of the revolutionary forces. A Soviet Latvia, it seemed, would at least be more Latvian than any currently available alternative.

Ulmanis and his ministers took refuge in the German-garrisoned port of Liepāja, where local newspaper Kurzemes Vārds reported on their arrival on January 9. In an editorial entitled “For the Optimists”, they argued somewhat hopefully that Bolshevik Russia was running out of supplies and couldn’t sustain itself for long; it was only a matter of time before the whole edifice of the revolution came crashing down.

Liepāja, however, was the only scrap of German-occupied Latvia left, the Red Army having quickly swallowed all the rest. It was into this situation that stepped General Rüdiger von der Goltz, a veteran of both the Western Front and the anti-Bolshevik campaigns in Finland who was appointed commander of Germany’s Baltic armies in February 1919. He found German fortunes at a low ebb. Liepāja was defended by the so-called “Iron Brigade”, the final remnant of an Eighth Army weakened by desertions. They were supported by the Landeswehr, a local force largely made up of Baltic German landowners, but also containing a Latvian battalion under Colonel Balodis. There was also a company of White Russians commanded by Prince Lieven, a Baltic magnate who was widely trusted by all sides and served as a useful point of contact for Germans and Allies alike.

Von der Goltz strengthened this force with the addition of volunteers from Germany proper – groups of war veterans or young cadets who had been horrified by Germany’s surrender to the Allies and who wanted to carry on fighting. Many of them had already served with so-called Freikorps, irregular units that had helped put down left-wing uprisings in German cities in the winter of 1918-1919. Armed with a nationalist ideology, an eagerness to fight Bolsheviks, and an almost total disregard for the inhabitants of the country in which they found themselves, the Freikorps were a grim precursor of the radical militant ethos that would overtake Germany in the years to come.

Volunteers who flocked to Liepāja included Waldemar Pabst, already notorious for ordering the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin in January, and a subsequent leader of the nationalist Kapp Putsch of 1923; Leo Schlageter, a future nationalist martyr executed by French authorities in the Ruhr in 1923; Peter von Heyderbeck, who went on to become a leader of the Nazi Sturmabteilung or SA; and Rudolf Höss, the future commandant of Auschwitz.

Also arriving in Liepāja in February 1919 was a young Ernst von Salomon, whose autobiographical novel The Outlaws (Die Geächteten; 1930) would become a classic of proto-Nazi literature. According to Salomon, the Freikorps were driven by a desire to “march over burning fields, to stamp over ruins and scattered ashes, to dash recklessly through wild forests, over blasted heaths, to push, conquer, eat our way through towards the East.”

The arrival of von der Goltz placed the Western Allies in something of a dilemma. They needed to encourage the build-up of German forces in Latvia in order to block the spread of Bolshevism, but were suspicious of longer-term German intentions.  The British had sent a squadron of cruisers into the Baltic in late 1918, in order to observe developments and secure shipping lanes. In early 1919 a second squadron arrived under Sir Walter Cowan, anchoring at Liepāja, where they were forced into uneasy cohabitation with the Germans.

February also saw the appointment of seasoned civil servant Stephen Tallents (then only 35) as His Majesty’s Commissioner to the Baltic States. Tallents went on a reccy to Liepāja in March 1919, and quickly came to the conclusion that the German army was the only thing stopping the Bolsheviks overrunning the whole country.  It took until May to organize an Allied Military Mission led by the British General Sir Hubert Gough. Gough was already head of the allied mission to Finland; the Baltics were simply added to his portfolio.

Very few of these emissaries to the Baltics were given clear instructions, and co-ordination between Allies frequently left a lot to be desired. When Gough arrived in June 1919, he found an American mission under Greene, the British civilian mission led by Tallents, and a French military mission in the Lithuanian provisional capital of Kaunas. The French subsequently felt they needed a presence in Latvia too, Lieutenant-Colonel du Parquet arriving to head their mission on May 20.

There were plenty of Russian experts in London or Paris but few people who knew anything about the Baltic States. According to du Parquet, the French mission applied to the war ministry for travel expenses, only to receive 2000 yen; officials had assumed that “Lettonie” (French for Latvia) was an island off the coast of Japan.

The nearer von der Goltz got to the city, the more of Rīga’s citizens were shot.

The initial priority for the Allies was to establish whether a combined dislike of the Bolsheviks was sufficient to persuade Germans, White Russians and Latvians to fight together. The question of whether the Latvians were simply a source of anti-Bolshevik manpower, or a worthwhile cause in their own right, was largely answered by events on the ground. 

In March 1919 an offensive by von Der Goltz threw the Bolsheviks out of western Latvia and captured the regional centre of Jelgava, only 45km southwest of Rīga. Success on the battlefield encouraged von der Goltz to get rid of the provisional government of Ulmanis in April, replacing it with a puppet administration headed by pro-German pastor Andrievs Niedra. Ulmanis took refuge on a boat in Liepāja harbour, protected by the Allies, who were beginning to realize just how reliant on German power they had become. For von der Goltz, the time was ripe for an attack on Rīga; capturing the city would preempt any allied plans to bring his forces under control.     

Communist Soup

Nothing was so heartbreaking as to see not only poor people, but also ladies dressed in their old fancy clothes, in faded and ridiculous silk dresses in this theatre of desolation, going along the streets, cooking pots in hand seeking their share of the communist soup.

(Lieutenant-Colonel Emmanuel du Parquet. L’Aventure Allemande en Lettonie)

Despite significant initial sympathy for the Bolsheviks, revolutionary rule over the Latvian capital had not been a great success. Latvian communist leader Pēteris Stučka favoured total revolution rather than gradual reforms, but was unable to provide the food and work that would have secured committed support. The middle classes, meanwhile, were subjected to property requisitions and ritual humiliations. Arbitrary executions of alleged opponents rose in proportion to reversals on the battlefield. The nearer von der Goltz got to the city, the more of Rīga’s citizens were shot.

The participation of large numbers of Latvian women in the Soviet regime scandalized conservative opinion. Observers like Popoff claimed that most of the executions had been carried out by teams of gunwomen; “mostly former domestic servants or prostitutes”, who demonstrated “a degree of cruelty and sadism to which men never attained.” The misogynistic view that the revolution was powered by harlots with guns became one of the enduring myths of the Stučka regime.

Rīga’s short-lived Bolshevik government, with Pēteris Stučka in the middle. Wikimedia commons

Von der Goltz’s attack on Rīga commenced on May 22. The city was quickly taken once the attackers had captured the bridges, with the young Baltic-German Baron von Manteuffel leading his Landeswehr men to the opposite bank of the river. Manteuffel himself was killed during the storming of Rīga citadel, where Baltic-German hostages were believed to be awaiting execution.

Landswehr commander Fletcher was appointed governor of the city, unleashing a White Terror that was just as indiscriminate as that presided over by the Reds. According to Tallents, who arrived here at the beginning of June, about 4000 suspected Bolsheviks were rounded up and executed according a quota system – 22 men and 8 women per day.

When du Parquet arrived in Rīga he found Landeswehr everywhere on the streets, groups of civilians being led away by bayonet point, and sporadic gunfire at night. “The only nourishment available was the communist soup prepared in the people’s kitchens, which had to be kept functioning lest the population die of hunger.”   

“The state of Rīga was simply terrible”, wrote an unidentified British Navy Petty Officer, whose letters home were circulated among War Cabinet staff desperate for first hand information. “We gave away biscuits and everything we could spare but it was simply terrible to see a struggling, cursing mass of men, women and children fighting for scraps which one in ‘Blighty’ would not have given to a dog.”

Flushed by the success of taking Rīga so easily, the Germans then overplayed their hand. An eastward march by the Landeswehr was met by an Estonian army backed up by a newly-raised, British-equipped Latvian force under Krišjānis Berk*is and Jorg*is Zemitāns. Defeated near the town of Cēsis on June 23, the Germans were chased all the way back to Rīga.

“It was an empty city, certainly the most cowed and nervous city that I ever saw.”

Tallents and du Parquet arranged armistice talks in Stradzumuiža 12km east of the city. The Germans were ordered to withdraw to Jelgava by July 5, and promised to leave Latvia completely by October - although it was still unclear how this withdrawal would be enforced.

Acting in the name of General Gough, who had arrived in Liepāja on June 27, Tallents proclaimed the restoration of the Ulmanis government and himself as acting governor of Rīga. Neither Ulmanis nor General Gough were due to arrive until July 8, and it was Tallents’ job to stabilize the city in advance of their arrival.

He established himself in the so-called Knights House, the former assembly of the Livonian nobility which had served as the HQ of both Stučka and Fletcher before him. Stučka’s headed stationery was still lying around, and both Tallents and Colonel Alexander used it to write jokey letters home. 

Tallents found himself in charge of a traumatized city. The port was inactive, the factories had been stripped of machinery, the huge Provodnik rubber factory was idle. Of the pre-war population of 500,000, two thirds had fled, and those that remained were in a state of sullen shock. “It was an empty city, certainly the most cowed and nervous city that I ever saw.” A huge American-led relief operation ensured that the city was fed.

Signs of Bolshevik rule were everywhere apparent. Tallents was taken to see a house that had been used by the Bolsheviks to store property looted from the bourgeoisie. “One room was full of brass candlesticks; another of children’s toys, that included regiments of dolls and droves of teddy-bears.”

British diplomat Grant Watson saw antique shops piled high with fine furniture, adding that the Baltic barons were desperate to sell, while members of the allied missions saw the whole think as a great opportunity to go shopping for bargains.

The Allies were now committed to supporting a Latvian army. “Liepāja’s naval port is already filling up with English instructors, officers and munitions”, Ulmanis told local newspaper Kurzemes Vārds on July 3.

On July 8 Ulmanis arrived in Rīga aboard the steam-ship Saratov to be greeted by Tallents, who promptly resigned from the governorship. Later that evening a gala concert at the former German Theatre was held with Ulmanis and Tallents in attendance; Tallents remembered that “white-dressed girls pressed roses on us as we went”.


A handsome young man from the Caucasus, with his thick black moustache, his flashing black eyes and his national dress.

(Rüdiger von der Goltz on Bermondt-Avalov)

Western writers of the inter-war years had a habit of portraying key East European politicians as comic-opera figures, unschooled in the savoir-fare displayed by their western counterparts. The self-styled Prince Pavel Mikhailovitch Bermondt-Avalov was a person who fully deserved such a treatment.

He arrived in Latvia in June 1919 at the head of a group of White Russian volunteers, hoping to coordinate anti-Bolshevik activities with White Russian forces already under the command of Prince Lieven. However Lieven had been badly wounded during the assault on Rīga of May 22, leaving a power vacuum into which Bermondt effortlessly moved.

When the German government signed the Versailles Treaty on June 28, it removed any possibility that they would continue to support von der Goltz’s forces in the east. The arrival of Bermondt offered von der Goltz a potential way forward. Instead of ordering his whole army to return to Germany, he could enroll them into Bermondt’s newly-formed “Western Russian Army” instead, allowing them to remain in the Baltics on the pretext of fighting Bolshevism. The relatively unknown Bermondt suddenly found himself at the centre of von der Goltz’s last great Baltic game.

According to his own account, Bermondt was born in Tbilisi in 1881 the son of Prince Mihail Avalov and a princess Kugusheva, who subsequently married a cavalry officer called Bermondt. Subsequent research has suggested that he was actually born in 1877 to a military bandmaster called Bermondt; the Avalov part of the story was a later invention.

”Prince” Bermondt-Avalov

During World War I Bermondt served as adjutant to General Mishchenko, based at the Belarusian town of Logischin near Pinsk. According to an anonymous Latvian source who served in the same place and wrote a series of articles for Rīga newspaper Jaunākās Ziņas in October 1919, Bermondt was a man who was always at the centre of social gatherings. He was also something of a ladies’ man, popular with the nurses of the Russian Red Cross. “Many a tear was shed on his behalf… I myself was witness to the sighs of those whose hearts were broken or whose souls were destroyed.” Bermondt was also the object of dislike among military colleagues who knew that he was basically a poseur who had never been involved in a real battle.

Once in Jelgava, Bermondt came across as a dashing, inspirational figure with big ideas, but was neither a good organizer nor a talented military mind. For the Allies, who were now committed to a policy of supporting the Latvian provisional government, it was imperative to get both von der Goltz and Bermondt off Latvian soil. They suggested taking Bermondt’s army by ship to join the White General Yudenitch in Narva. Bermondt refused, suggesting a cross-country march through southern Latvia instead.

Once it became clear that the Allies would never agree to a large German-Russian force operating on Latvian territory, von der Goltz and Bermondt came up with an alternative plan. They would attack Rīga, depose the Latvian government and open up the road to Petrograd, presenting the Allies with a fait accompli. Von der Goltz was recalled to Germany on October 5, but the bulk of his army stayed behind, ready to join Bermondt on his big push.

The Battle of Rīga

Let’s go! Forward! To the battle!

Neither do we wish to serve the East

Nor do we wish to slave for the West.

(Daugava by Janis Rainis; quoted in Aija Brasliņa, Concepts of the Age, in Latviai Topot)

In the early hours of October 8 Tallents “was woken by the marching of bands of students and schoolboys through the streets”. News of Bermondt’s offensive had reached Rīga, and Latvians were spontaneously gathering to defend their city.

Du Parquet remembered October 8 as a day of great emotion. He saw enrolment offices in Rīga “besieged” by “aged, young, children, workers, businessmen and students.” Guns were handed out among the volunteers, who were sent to man defensive lines in the Rīga suburbs. Among them were “grey-haired old men, and children barely taller than their rifles, all marching through town singing patriotic songs.”

Bermondt’s army came at Rīga from the west and the south, but encountered fierce resistance from a Latvian army that was better motivated and better equipped than anything they had encountered before. Bermondt’s Germans managed to take the Rīga suburb of Torņakalns on the west bank of the Daugava, but found the bridges too well defended to cross the river.

Latvians dug in on the eastern bank, where Tallents saw “Latvian students manning trenches dug in the Riga quays, and dead men lying on the iron railway bridge.”

British and French ships came up river as far as Bolderaja, 10km north of Rīga, to warn off the Bermondt army from making any further advances. When British patrol boats were targeted by German batteries, Admiral Cowan ordered the bombardment of German positions at Daugavgrīva on October 15. A Latvian battalion used this covering fire to cross the river using an improvised flotilla of barges, ferries and pleasure steamers, finding little resistance on the other side. According to Tallents, a charismatic Latvian Lieutenant Goldfelds “got a brass band to play selections from light opera in front of the German trenches and attacked as the music ended”.

The Latvians were provided with a victory they could truly celebrate. “The heroic face of a truly Latvian Rīga has emerged” declared writer Kārlis Skalbe on the front page of October 21’s Jaunākās Ziņas. “Up until now we have only seen a German Rīga. These days have witnessed the birth of a Latvian Rīga, which will be our heart, our spirit, our will.”

However the German bombardment of Rīga continued, if anything getting more intense. “It was uncomfortable in the city” Tallents recalled, “A piece of shell, for example, entered the Knights’ House one morning and destroyed the pyjamas of the two members of the mission staff who were sharing there”.

On November 3 the Latvians went on the offensive, landing troops near Majori northwest of Rīga under covering fire from British cruiser HMS Dragon. It took them a week to make significant headway, but by November 10 the Bermondt army was beginning to crumble under the growing threat of Latvian encirclement. A Latvian cadet battalion crossed the river via the Daugava bridges; while a student battalion crossed the already frozen river just upstream. There was hand-to-hand fighting in the suburb of Torņakalns, but by the morning of November 11 the Latvians had regained control of the west-bank suburbs.  The bells of St Peter’s Church, with its famously tall, skyline-dominating tower, rang out in celebration.

“We killed anything that fell into our hands, we set fire to everything that would burn. We saw red; we lost every feeling of humanity.”

Skalbe wrote another piece for Jaunākās Ziņas on November 13, this time extolling the achievements of Latvia’s new army. At last, Skalbe wrote, Latvians would be famous for fighting for their own freedom and independence rather than serving in the ranks of some foreign power. 

The Bermondt army withdrew across Lithuania to Eastern Prussia, but not before von Salomon’s Freikorps had embarked on one final sortie. “We ran across the snowfields and broke into the forest. We took them unawares and raged and shot and killed. We hunted the Letts across the fields like hares, set fire to every house, smashed every bridge to smithereens and broke every telegraph pole. We dropped the corpses into the wells and threw bombs after them. We killed anything that fell into our hands, we set fire to everything that would burn. We saw red; we lost every feeling of humanity.”

Bermondt himself had never been anywhere near the front. He retreated to Germany where he lived out the life of an exiled reactionary, raging against Weimar, Versailles and the western powers, and entertaining paranoid fantasies of being hunted down by the agents of the left. 

The Epilogue

I came to think of Riga, before I left it, as the pleasantest and most tranquil city of Eastern Europe.

(Stephen Tallents, Man and Boy)

Rīga in the wake of Bermondt’s defeat was still had the air of a city in which things were not quite settled. Head of the French mission du Parquet wrote of “chases and gunfire in the streets during the night, the constant circulation of patrols which, from daybreak onwards, would stop all foreigners and check their papers.”

New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty found a city of broken glass and unlit street lamps, empty of people. Writers like Duranty had come to Rīga in search of adventure, and were in a way no better than the young German Freikorps who had come to serve under von der Goltz. He certainly lacked for nothing. The Latvians gave him a ten-room apartment vacated by a Baltic German family. “Amply supplied with comforts from the British political canteen, I was able to give Anglo-American parties which ‘joined hands across the sea’ in a free and cordial manner.” He usually took lunch, preceded by a “pre-lunch cocktail” in the club-room of the British mission. Duranty, like all those who came to Latvia in 1919 and wrote memoirs afterwards, belonged to an ex-pat circle in which westerners socialized with each other, and treated the locals as Ruritanian colour.

Latgāle 1920: a group of Landeswehr officers with Colonel Alexander (centre) and Stephen Tallents (second from left)

Despite the rout of May 1919, Red forces were still in control of the southeastern province of Latgāle, and the Latvian authorities still had some way to go before restoring authority over all their territories.

Latvian units were now joined by the Baltic Landeswehr, who had ben persuaded to break with von der Goltz back in the summer and who had been put under the command of the 28-year-old British Colonel Alexander. A colourful, self-possessed character with no small amount of charisma, Alexander resembled Bermondt in his taste for military theatre, but differed from the Russian in being a man of genuine soldierly talent. Duranty spotted him wearing a “khaki uniform, Russian high boots and a grey astrakhan cap, of the type worn in the Cossack regiments”, adding that Alexander was the kind of person who got “a real kick from danger.” As an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, Duranty wrote, Alexander was ideally suited to lead a bunch of German landowners in the Baltic.

A joint Latvian, Landeswehr and Polish offensive in Latgāle started in early January 1920. The Landeswehr captured the key regional town of Rēzekne on January 21, and the whole of the province was cleared by the end of the month. The offensive was carried out in deep snow and in temperatures that were at times as low as minus twenty degrees.  Soldiers moved around by sled; artillery bombardments were carried out by armoured trains.

“The drinks were vodka, port and beer. Some of our guests drank them separately, others preferred them mixed.”

For Colonel Alexander the Latgāle front as a bit of an adventure, taking time off to go skiing in the rolling, fir-clad terrain of Latgāle. “We are only waiting for the moon to rise and go wolf-hunting”, he wrote in one letter home.

However it was also a bitter struggle in which neither side took any prisoners.

When British agent Paul Dukes (known by his code-name of “ST25”) slipped out of the Bolshevik zone by crossing Lake Lubāns in a rowing boat, he was surprised by the hostility with which he and his companions were greeted on the other side. The Latvians were ready to shot him out of hand. “The extremity of the passions aroused in the Bolshevist wars had to be experienced to be believed. The Reds were regarded by their foes not as civilized enemies but as demons in human shape for whom no cruelty or torture could be sufficient punishment.”

The Soviet withdrawal from Latgāle was confirmed by the Treaty of Tartu in February 1920. The Landeswehr were absorbed into the Latvian army in March 1920 and Alexander gave up his command. A farewell dinner was held on March 20, and he was awarded the Baltic Cross by the Latvians.

The spring of 1920 saw a degree of normality return to the Latvian capital.

“The gardens of Rīga” wrote du Parquet,”reassumed their aspect of freshness and coquettishness from the first signs of spring, and the foreigner arriving in the city in June 1920 could hardly suspect, in this long promenade between grassy mounds and flowerbeds, that barely six months had passed since the same scene was under bombardment by German artillery.” The military bands were playing in the parks again, and there was live music in the cafés and restaurants. 

The Latvians were able to hold elections to a constituent assembly in April. The Social Democrats emerged as largest party, although a nationalist-Agrarian coalition headed by Ulmanis was able to keep them out of power. The assembly met for the first time on May 1 1920, and the British mission held a party in the Knights’ House the following day. Attended by representatives of all political classes and by the diplomatic community, it lasted until 3.30am. As Tallents drily observed: “the drinks were vodka, port and beer. Some of our guests drank them separately, others preferred them mixed.”

Throughout the inter-war period, the Western Allies remained aware of the strategic importance of the countries of middle Europe, sandwiched as they were between a resurgent Germany and an unpredictable Soviet Union. However they were too far away to be militarily helped, and diplomacy was based on avoiding tough decisions on the defense of Central Europe rather than guaranteeing borders and bolstering local rulers. Local rulers in any case had become something of a liability. Estonia suspended parliament in 1924; Lithuania followed suit in 1926. Parliamentary government survived in Latvia until 1934, when Ulmanis became paternalist dictator of a corporate state. By the late 1930s, the Baltic States were pretty much near the bottom of a pile of faraway countries of which we knew little.

Stephen Tallents, arguably the one foreign actor who had the biggest impact on Latvian independence, is nowadays more celebrated for his subsequent career in the public relations industry than for anything he achieved in 1919. His colleague General Gough is remembered for his failures on the Western Front in World War I, not for his diplomatic achievements in the war’s immediate aftermath. Allied involvement in the Baltic States grew out of a fear of Bolshevism and a desire to stem its advances. Policy makers imagined that they would be helping White Russian forces to overthrow the revolution and re-impose the Tsarist Empire. The fact that this project failed, and the Western Allies had to be content with a policy of containing Bolshevism with a cordon sanitaire of small independent nations, was seen as a retreat rather than something to be celebrated. The Western Allies’ latent feelings of loyalty to Tsarist Russia ensured that Latvian independence was not formally recognized by France and Britain until January 1921, even though they had been dealing with a de facto independent Latvia ever since June 1919. 

And as far as popular memory is concerned, Britain’s botched interventions in the Russian Civil War, and doomed schemes to dethrone Lenin through secret-service intrigue, have always made better copy than events on the Russian periphery. And in pop-cultural terms, we tend to remember Reilly Ace of Spies rather better than Rīga 1919. 

© Jonathan Bousfield


  • Awaloff, General Fürst. Im Kampf gegen den Bolschewismus. Hamburg 1925.
  • Benett, Geoffrey. Cowan’s War: The Story of British Naval Operations in the Baltic 1918-1920. London 1964.
  • Dukes, Sir Paul. The Story of ST25. London 1938.
  • Duranty, Walter.  I Write as I Please. London 1935.
  • Footman, David. The Civil War and the Baltic States. Part I: Von der Goltz and
  • Bermondt-Avalov. In St Anthony’s Papers on Soviet Affairs. Oxford 1959.
  • Gough, General Sir Hubert. Soldiering On. London 1954.
  • Grant Watson, Herbert A. An Account of a Mission to the Baltic States. London 1957.
  • Nicolson, Nigel. Alex. London 1973.
  • Du Parquet, Lieutenant Colonel. L’Aventure Allemande en Lettonie. Paris 1926.
  • Popoff, George. City of the Red Plague. London 1932.
  • Von Salomon, Ernst. The Outlaws (trans. Ian F D Morrow, 1931). London 2013.
  • Tallents, Stephen. Man and Boy. London 1943.