Estonians in the Tsarist army

During the Great Northern War (1700-1721) Estonia and Livonia were united with the Russian empire in 1710. Estonian territory was included in the Russian military system, which initially only meant indirect tasks (billeting troops etc.), as no men were recruited there. The Russian army rank and file was then composed by drafting men, i.e. a small number of conscripts was selected on a regular basis, who then had to serve for 25 years.

With the Russian military activity growing at the end of the 18th century, the recruiting was extended to the non-Russian provinces of the empire. Ukraine was included in 1780 and the Baltic territories in 1796. The first soldiers were recruited in Estonia in 1797. Until general compulsory conscription was established in 1874, about 95,000 men were recruited from the Estonian territories, i.e. about 1230 men a year. Only about 20% returned home afterwards. Many died in battle or due to dismal living conditions; those who survived mostly lost contact with their relatives.

Estonians took part in all the wars waged by the Russian empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Russo-Turkish Wars, the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. The biggest number of people participated in WW I – over 100,000 Estonians altogether. About 10,000 were killed or never seen again.

The Russian military reform carried out in the 1860s established Junker schools, with a lower educational level and simpler curriculum than in military schools. Such schools laid the foundation for the emergence of the first Estonian officers. There had been only a few in the tsarist Russian army. Between 1870 and 1914, about 300 officers of Estonian origin graduated from the Junker or military school, plus about 150 reserve ensigns. During WW I more than 2300 Estonians became officers, bringing the total number of Estonian officers in WW I to 3000.

In the early 20th century at least 60 colonels and lieutenant-colonels of Estonian origin served in the Russian army, plus eight or nine Estonian generals. Among the latter, only two came to Estonia after the War of Independence (Lieutenant-General Heinrich Rautsmann and Major-General Aleksander Silberg).

Thirteen or fourteen men acquired a higher military education graduating from the General Staff Academy. According to incomplete data, at least 120 officers of Estonian origin were killed in WW I.

About two thousand Estonian officers serving in the Russian army fought in the War of Independence (1918-1920) on the Estonian side. The others, about a thousand men, took part in the Russian civil war on different sides. In the early 1920s most of them also came to Estonia.

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