Latvian Riflemen
This article is about Latvian military formations in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 and Russian Civil War
Russian Civil War
The Russian Civil War was a multi-party war that occurred within the former Russian Empire after the Russian provisional government collapsed to the Soviets, under the domination of the Bolshevik party. Soviet forces first assumed power in Petrograd The Russian Civil War (1917–1923) was a...

. For Red Army military formations in World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 see Latvian Riflemen Soviet Divisions
Latvian Riflemen Soviet Divisions
Latvian Riflemen Soviet Divisions were military formations of the Red Army during World War II created in 1941 and consisting primarily of ethnic Latvians.-Background:...


Latvian riflemen were originally a military formation of the Imperial Russian Army
Imperial Russian Army
The Imperial Russian Army was the land armed force of the Russian Empire, active from around 1721 to the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the early 1850s, the Russian army consisted of around 938,731 regular soldiers and 245,850 irregulars . Until the time of military reform of Dmitry Milyutin in...

 assembled starting 1915 in Latvia
Latvia , officially the Republic of Latvia , is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by Estonia , to the south by Lithuania , to the east by the Russian Federation , to the southeast by Belarus and shares maritime borders to the west with Sweden...

 in order to defend Baltic territories against Germans in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. Initially the battalions were formed by volunteers, and from 1916 by conscription among the Latvian population. A total of about 40,000 troops were drafted into the Latvian Riflemen Division.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Riga
Riga is the capital and largest city of Latvia. With 702,891 inhabitants Riga is the largest city of the Baltic states, one of the largest cities in Northern Europe and home to more than one third of Latvia's population. The city is an important seaport and a major industrial, commercial,...

, the capital of Latvia, became one of the most industrialised cities in the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

. 800,000 industrial workers, half of all those in the Baltic provinces, worked there. Despite the policy of Russification
Russification is an adoption of the Russian language or some other Russian attributes by non-Russian communities...

 which was introduced there, Latvian nationalist sentiments were more directed towards the Baltic-German landowners, who had formed the governing elite in the Baltic territories since the conquest of the Latvian tribes by predominantly German military orders in the 13th century Livonian Order. The Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party (LSDRP) was well organised and its leading elements were increasingly sympathetic to the Bolsheviks by the time of the 1905 Revolution. When punitive expeditions were mounted by the state following this, armed resistance groups - often affiliated to the LSDRP - were set up to conduct guerilla warfare against the Tsarist regime. Many of these seasoned fighters were subsequently recruited into the Latvian Rifles.

At the outbreak of war Indriķis Lediņš, the Latvian chief of police in Vladivostok
The city is located in the southern extremity of Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula, which is about 30 km long and approximately 12 km wide.The highest point is Mount Kholodilnik, the height of which is 257 m...

, had called for the establishment of Latvian Cavalry units.

At the outbreak of the First World War, recruitment to the Russian Imperial Army was conducted in a very heavy handed way, in some cases being met by riots. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Latvians were recruited and they soon constituted 80 % of XX Corps
20th Army Corps (Russian Empire)
The Twentieth Army Corps of the Imperial Russian Army was a World War I corps that fought on the Eastern theatre of war.Before World War I 20th Corps was stationed in the Vilno Military District, with corps headquarters in Riga.-History:...

 alone. In the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes
Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes
The Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes, also known as the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes, was the northern part of the Central Powers' offensive on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1915...

 (February 1915) the XX Corps was surrounded in the Augustov forests and nearly destroyed. About 20,000 Latvian soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured.


By April 1915, when the German Army was advancing into Latvian territory, some prominent Latvians, led by Jānis Goldmanis used their position in the Duma
A Duma is any of various representative assemblies in modern Russia and Russian history. The State Duma in the Russian Empire and Russian Federation corresponds to the lower house of the parliament. Simply it is a form of Russian governmental institution, that was formed during the reign of the...

 to call on the Tsar
Tsar is a title used to designate certain European Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers. As a system of government in the Tsardom of Russia and Russian Empire, it is known as Tsarist autocracy, or Tsarism...

 to establish all-Latvian battalions. As Germany was advancing into Latvia, they argued, such units would be particularly effective. At Jelgava
-Sports:The city's main football team, FK Jelgava, plays in the Latvian Higher League and won the 2009/2010 Latvian Football Cup.- Notable people :*August Johann Gottfried Bielenstein - linguist, folklorist, ethnographer...

 two battalions of the Latvian Home Guard had already held back the German advance guard. Following increasing German advances, the Russian Stavka
Stavka was the term used to refer to a command element of the armed forces from the time of the Kievan Rus′, more formally during the history of Imperial Russia as administrative staff and General Headquarters during late 19th Century Imperial Russian armed forces and those of the Soviet Union...

 approved the measure and on 19 July 1915 the Tsar approved the formation of the Latvian Rifles. Departure of the first latvian volunteers from Riga to training camp transformed to a wide national demonstration, because those were the first Latvian military units ever formed.
The first battalions consisted mainly from volunteers, especially refugees from Courland
Courland is one of the historical and cultural regions of Latvia. The regions of Semigallia and Selonia are sometimes considered as part of Courland.- Geography and climate :...

 and workers from the factories evacuated to inner Russia from Riga. Later a number of Latvians from other Russian units joined or were transformed to the Latvian Rifles.

World War I

From 1915 to 1917, the Latvian Riflemen fought in the Russian army against the Germans in positions along the Daugava river. In 1916 Latvian battalions were transformed to regiments as conscription started among the local population.
In December 1916 and January 1917, the Latvian riflemen suffered heavy casualties in the month-long Christmas Battles
Christmas Battles
Christmas Battles was offensive operation of Russian army during World War I, conducted in the area of city Jelgava, Latvia by 12th. army of the northern front from December 23 until December 29 1916 . Army was commanded by Gen...

, which began with a surprise attack on German positions during Christmas
Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday generally celebrated on December 25 by billions of people around the world. It is a Christian feast that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, liturgically closing the Advent season and initiating the season of Christmastide, which lasts twelve days...

. Suffering heavy casualties, Latvian riflemen managed to break the German line of defence but the effort was wasted as the attack was not followed through. The Russian Army lost over 26,000 soldiers in the failed attack. The casualties included 9,000 Latvian riflemen, about a third of the total number at that time. The heavy casualties resulted in a strong resentment against the Russian generals and the Tsar among the riflemen. This resentment led to an increased support for the Bolshevik
The Bolsheviks, originally also Bolshevists , derived from bol'shinstvo, "majority") were a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which split apart from the Menshevik faction at the Second Party Congress in 1903....

s, who were advocating an end to the war.
Structure of the United Latvian Rifleman division. Formed in 1917.

1. Latvian rifleman brigade
  • 1. Daugavgrīva latvian rifleman regiment
  • 2. Riga latvian rifleman regiment
  • 3. Kurzeme latvian rifleman regiment
  • 4. Vidzeme latvian rifleman regiment

2. Latvian rifleman brigade'
  • 5. Zemgale latvian rifleman regiment
  • 6. Tukums latvian rifleman regiment
  • 7. Bauska latvian rifleman regiment
  • 8. Valmiera latvian rifleman regiment

Red Latvian Riflemen

In May 1917 the Latvian Regiments transferred their loyalty to the Bolsheviks. They became known as Red Latvian Riflemen and actively participated in the Russian Civil War
Russian Civil War
The Russian Civil War was a multi-party war that occurred within the former Russian Empire after the Russian provisional government collapsed to the Soviets, under the domination of the Bolshevik party. Soviet forces first assumed power in Petrograd The Russian Civil War (1917–1923) was a...

. The Riflemen took an active part in the suppression of anti-Bolshevik
Anti-bolshevism has two principal forms:* Anti-bolshevik Anti-communism* Anti-Bolshevik Communism...

 uprisings in Moscow
Moscow is the capital, the most populous city, and the most populous federal subject of Russia. The city is a major political, economic, cultural, scientific, religious, financial, educational, and transportation centre of Russia and the continent...

 and Yaroslavl
Yaroslavl is a city and the administrative center of Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia, located northeast of Moscow. The historical part of the city, a World Heritage Site, is located at the confluence of the Volga and the Kotorosl Rivers. It is one of the Golden Ring cities, a group of historic cities...

 in 1918. They fought against Denikin
Anton Ivanovich Denikin
Anton Ivanovich Denikin was Lieutenant General of the Imperial Russian Army and one of the foremost generals of the White movement in the Russian Civil War.- Childhood :...

, Yudenich, and Wrangel
Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel
Baron Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel or Vrangel was an officer in the Imperial Russian army and later commanding general of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Southern Russia in the later stages of the Russian Civil War.-Life:Wrangel was born in Mukuliai, Kovno Governorate in the Russian Empire...

. In 1919 the division received the highest military recognition of that time: the Honorable Red Flag of VTsIK
Red Banner
Red Banner was a symbol of the USSR associated with the Soviet state flag.Military units, institutions and organizations awarded with the Order of the Red Banner are referred to with the honorific title "of the Red Banner" Red Banner was a symbol of the USSR associated with the Soviet state...

. Jukums Vācietis
Jukums Vacietis
Jukums Vācietis was a Latvian Soviet military commander. He was a rare example of notable Soviet leaders who were not members of the Communist Party ....

, formerly a colonel in the Latvian Rifles became the first commander-in-chief of the Red Army
Red Army
The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army started out as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s the Red Army was among the largest armies in history.The "Red Army" name refers to...


The Latvian Red Riflemen were instrumental in the attempt to establish Soviet rule in Latvia in 1919
Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic
The Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic was a short-lived socialist republic formed during the Latvian War of Independence. It was proclaimed on 17 December 1918 with the political, economic, and military backing of Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik government in the Russian SFSR...

. They suffered great losses of personnel due to the decreasing popularity of Bolshevik ideas among the Latvian Riflemen and Latvians generally, and the majority were re-deployed to other fronts of the Russian Civil War. The remaining forces of the Red Army in Latvia were defeated by Baltic German volunteers
Baltische Landeswehr
Baltische Landeswehr was the name of the unified armed forces of the Couronian and Livonian nobility from 7 December 1918 to 3 July 1919.- Command structure :...

 and newly formed Latvian units initially under Colonel Kalpaks and later under Colonel Jānis Balodis
Janis Balodis
Jānis Balodis was an army officer and politician who was a principal figure in the foundation and government of independent Latvia. He was commander in chief of the army and navy during the Latvian war of independence and later was a cabinet member and vice president...

,loyal to the Latvian Republic in western Latvia, by the Estonian Army and allied Latvian forces in northern Latvia, and finally by a joint campaign
Battle of Daugavpils
Battle of Daugavpils was the final battle of the joint Polish and Latvian Operation Winter against the Red Army. It took place in late December 1919 in the area around the city of Daugavpils...

 of the Polish and new Latvian army in Latgale, south-eastern Latvia.

Following the 1920 peace treaty
Latvian-Soviet Riga Peace Treaty
The Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty also known as the Treaty of Riga, was signed on 11 August 1920 by representatives of the Republic of Latvia and Soviet Russia...

 between Latvia and Bolshevist Russia
Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic
The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic , commonly referred to as Soviet Russia, Bolshevik Russia, or simply Russia, was the largest, most populous and economically developed republic in the former Soviet Union....

, 11,395 former Red Riflemen returned to Latvia.

Other former Riflemen remained in Soviet Russia and rose to leadership positions in the Red Army, Bolshevik party
Communist Party of the Soviet Union
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the only legal, ruling political party in the Soviet Union and one of the largest communist organizations in the world...

, and Cheka
Cheka was the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created by a decree issued on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin and subsequently led by aristocrat-turned-communist Felix Dzerzhinsky...

. Many, however, were later executed or imprisoned (often dying in GULag
The Gulag was the government agency that administered the main Soviet forced labor camp systems. While the camps housed a wide range of convicts, from petty criminals to political prisoners, large numbers were convicted by simplified procedures, such as NKVD troikas and other instruments of...

 camps) during the Great Purges, when most "old guard" Bolsheviks and high-ranking military and intelligence officers (as well as many intellectuals) were persecuted by Stalin as potential rivals or traitors. Latvian Communists were among the most persecuted groups. When the USSR occupied Latvia in 1940
Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940
The Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940 refers, according to the European Court of Human Rights, the Government of Latvia, the State Department of the United States of America, and the European Union, to the military occupation of the Republic of Latvia by the Soviet Union ostensibly under the...

, many of the surviving Red Riflemen returned to Latvia.

It should be noted that the most famous pre-World War II Soviet Communist leaders from Latvia were not from the Red Riflemen: Martin Latsis
Martin Latsis
Martin Ivanovich Latsis was a Latvian-born Soviet politician, revolutionary and state security high officer...

, Yakov Peters
Yakov Peters
Jēkabs Peterss or Yakov Khristoforovich Peters was a Latvian Communist revolutionary, Soviet politician, chekist, and terrorist. Together with Feliks Dzerzhinsky, he was one of the founders and chiefs of the VChK...

, Arvīds Pelše
Arvids Pelše
Arvīds Pelše ; , Iecava, Bauska District, Latvia – May 29, 1983, Moscow) was a politician and functionary in the Soviet Union, an historian in his profession- Career :...

, Jānis Bērziņš, Yan Rudzutak
Yan Rudzutak
Jānis Rudzutaks was a Latvian Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet politician.Rudzutaks was born in the Kuldīga district of the Courland Governorate , into the family of a farm worker. In 1903, he started working in a factory in Riga. Two years later, he joined Latvian Social Democratic Labour Party...

, Pēteris Stučka
Peteris Stucka
Pēteris Stučka, sometimes spelt Pyotr Ivanovich Stuchka ; b. in Koknese parish, Governorate of Livonia — d. January 25, 1932 in Moscow) was the head of the Bolshevik government in Latvia during the Latvian War of Independence, one of the leaders of the New Current movement in the late 19th...

, Robert Eikhe. All of them, except for Stučka (who died in 1932) and Pelše, perished in the Great Purges of 1937–1940.

White Latvian Riflemen

In 1917, a smaller number of Latvian Riflemen (mainly officers) did not side with the Bolsheviks. Some were very active (Kārlis Goppers
Karlis Goppers
General Kārlis Goppers was a Latvian military officer and the founder and President of Latvijas Skautu un Gaidu Centrālā Organizācija...

, Frīdrichs Briedis
Frīdrihs Briedis
Frīdrihs Briedis was a Latvian colonel and one of the most famous Latvian Riflemen commanders. He was posthumously the recipient of all classes of the Order of Lāčplēsis.-Early life:...

, etc.) in trying to prevent Bolshevik ideas from spreading among the Latvian soldiers, but the physical and moral exhaustion after the bloody Christmas and January battles was fruitful ground for bolshevik ideology. Opponents left, or were forced to leave, military service or joined the White forces. During the last phase of the Civil War, two Latvian regiments were created in the Far East of Russia (Troickas and Imantas), but they did not take part in military action, and were sent to Latvia, by then already an independent nation.

Post-Soviet views

How to describe the Red Riflemen is a hot issue in Latvia after the fall of the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

. There has been disagreement over whether the memorial to the Red Riflemen in Riga should be demolished or kept. Some see the Red Riflemen as pro-communists and want the statue removed, while others see them as pro-Latvian and want the statue to remain. The building now housing the Latvijas Okupācijas Muzejs (Occupation Museum of Latvia) was originally (in Soviet times) the Latvian Red Riflemen's Museum.

Latvian Rifleman in popular culture

Latvian pagan metal
Pagan metal
Pagan metal is an umbrella term for heavy metal music which fuses extreme metal with "the pre-Christian traditions of a specific culture or region through thematic concept, rustic melodies, unusual instruments or archaic languages", usually referring to folk metal or black metal. The Norwegian band...

 band Skyforger
Skyforger is a heavy metal band from Latvia which was formed in 1995 out of the remains of doom metal band Grindmaster Dead. Most of their songs are about pagan gods and warfare; they also play traditional Latvian folk songs and metal covers. Although Skyforger is known for their folk metal, their...

has the album Latviešu strēlnieki (Latvian Rifleman). It is dedicated to Latvian rifleman's and their battles in the First world war.

See also

  • 4th Rifle Division (Poland)
    4th Rifle Division (Poland)
    The Polish 4th Rifle Division was a Polish military unit, forming, together with the Polish 5th Rifle Division of the Blue Army, the only part of the Polish military which took part in the Russian Civil War...

  • Aftermath of World War I
    Aftermath of World War I
    The fighting in World War I ended in western Europe when the Armistice took effect at 11:00 am GMT on November 11, 1918, and in eastern Europe by the early 1920s. During and in the aftermath of the war the political, cultural, and social order was drastically changed in Europe, Asia and Africa,...

  • Estonian Liberation War
    Estonian Liberation War
    The Estonian War of Independence , also known as the Estonian Liberation War, was a defensive campaign of the Estonian Army and its allies, most notably the White Russian Northwestern Army, Latvia, and the United Kingdom, against the Soviet Western Front offensive and the aggression of the...

  • Estonian Red Riflemen
    Estonian Red Riflemen
    Estonian Riflemen, Estonian Red Riflemen, Estonian Red Army, Estonian Red Guards were military formations assembled starting 1917 in the Soviet Russia.- Formation :...

  • Freikorps in the Baltic
    Freikorps in the Baltic
    After 1918, the term Freikorps was used for the paramilitary organizations that sprang up around the German Empire, including in the Baltic states as soldiers returned in defeat from World War I...

  • Latvian War of Independence
  • Lithuanian Riflemen's Union
  • Ober Ost
    Ober Ost
    Ober Ost is short for Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten, which is a German term meaning "Supreme Commander of All German Forces in the East" during World War I. In practice it refers not only to said commander, but also to his governing military staff and the district...

  • Polish Rifle Squads
    Polish Rifle Squads
    The Polish Rifle Squads was a Polish pro-independence paramilitary organization, founded in 1911 by the Youth Independence Organization Zarzewie in the Austro-Hungarian sector of partitioned Poland....

  • Ukrainian Sich Riflemen
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