Estonian War of Independence

​When the German troops were leaving Estonia in late 1918, Soviet Russia wanted to invade Estonia and establish Bolshevist power. On 28 November 1918 the Red Army started an offensive to the border town Narva and thus began the armed conflict between Soviet Russia and the Republic of Estonia. The conflict is known as the Estonian War of Independence and it lasted until February 1920. In addition to fighting against Soviet Russia, the War of Independence included two short-lived and smaller-scale armed conflicts in Latvia – battles with the Landeswehr (summer 1919) and the troops of the White Russian general Bermondt (October 1919).

​The Red Army attack starting at the end of 1918 hit Estonia in an extremely difficult situation. The administration and army of the young republic were only then being formed, and had very little experience. The army lacked sufficient weapons and equipment. Food and money were scarce, the towns were in danger of starvation. Although the majority of population did not support the Bolsheviks, their faith in the survival of national statehood was not high. People did not believe that the Republic of Estonia would be able to resist the attacks of the Red Army.

​The Estonian government nevertheless decided to oppose the Bolshevist aggression, hoping for help from the Western countries (i.e. the former Russian allies in World War I) and Finland. They were not let down – in December 1918, the British Royal Navy arrived in Estonia with a cargo of weapons; Finland also sent weapons and in January 1919 about 4000 volunteers came too. External help was essential, but it would have been insufficient without Estonia’s own decisive steps. Active organisational work was conducted, and new army units were formed. On 23 December 1918, the energetic colonel Johan Laidoner was appointed Commander in Chief. At the first opportunity he planned a counter-attack and forced the Red Army out of Estonia.

​The start of the war was not successful for Estonia, because the enemy attack could not be resisted. On 29 November 1918, the Estonian Workers’ Commune, a formally independent Soviet Estonian republic, was declared in occupied Narva. This was essentially a Soviet Russian puppet state, established in order to present the events in Estonia as a civil war. At the same time the underground communist agitators continued their subversive activity throughout the War of Independence in the Estonian rear and in the army.

The militarily more numerous Red Army managed to conquer about half of mainland Estonia the early January 1919. Only about 30 km separated them from the capital, Tallinn. However, things suddenly changed – on 7 January the now rearranged Estonian troops (15,000 men), together with the Finnish volunteers (at that time 500 men), began a counteroffensive. In about three weeks the entire Estonian territory was liberated from the Bolsheviks. A significant role was played by the volunteer units, e.g. the highly motivated armoured train crews, and the battalion of Julius Kuperjanov.​

​Forcing the enemy out of the country increased faith in the authority of the state, and enabled another mobilisation that was crucial in continuing to fight the much bigger Red Army. In May the Estonian troops contained about 75,000 men, by the end of the year the number had increased to 90,000. Besides Estonians, local Baltic Germans and Russians also fought in the War of Independence against Soviet Russia. Another key factor in continuing successful warfare was the foodstuffs, military equipment and weapons provided by Great Britain and the USA in 1919. The underground communist propaganda was seriously undermined by the revelations about mass murders committed by the Bolsheviks (among others, they had killed the Estonian Orthodox bishop Platon in Tartu).

​In February 1919 the Estonian government and army command set an aim to push the front as far from Estonia’s borders as possible. For that purpose they hoped that the Russian Whites would come to power in north-western Russia and the local nationalists in Latvia. In that region, the Russian Whites had formed the Northern Corps (later North-Western Army). In February, in accordance with the Latvian government, Latvian troops were formed in Estonia. The repeated attempts by the Estonian army to push the warfare to Russia and Latvia failed until May 1919. At the same time the Red Army considerably supplemented its forces against Estonia (between February and May, 6-8 percent of the Red Army forces or about 80,000 men were active), and carried out offensives, which were not successful either.

​On 23 April 1919 the Estonian Constituent Assembly gathered in Tallinn. Its greatest achievement was the adoption of the constitution and land legislation. On the basis of the latter, a radical land reform was carried out in 1920, mainly aiming to nationalise the lands of the German manor lords and distributing land to the peasants, especially those who took part in the War of Independence.

​To a certain degree, the radical character of the land act was influenced by the so-called Landeswehr war waged in June and July 1919. In the course of that war, the Estonian troops defeated the German army group based in Latvia and headed by Major-General Rüdiger von der Goltz, which consisted of many representatives of the Baltic German nobility from Latvia and Estonia. As a result of Landeswehr’s defeat, the government of  Kārlis Ulmanis came to power in Latvia, and Estonia now enjoyed having a friendly neighbour in the south. As eastern Latvia was still occupied by the Red Army and the army of the Latvian Republic needed some organisation, the Estonian military command partly undertook the protection of the front there (until December 1919).

​The first turnaround in the War of Independence was the general offensive of the Estonian troops in January 1919, and pushing the front out of Estonia in May 1919 was the second. This considerably reduced the danger of another Bolshevist invasion. In the middle of May, the Estonian troops together with the Northern Corps started an offensive towards Petrograd, and conquered a large territory east of Lake Peipsi; in August, however, the troops retreated in order to protect the Estonia’s borders.

​The Bolsheviks decided to make peace with Estonia and thus exclude it from among the enemies of Soviet Russia. In August Moscow officially offered peace to Estonia. The Estonian politicians and the higher military were divided into two in this matter, trying to work out whose victory in the Russian civil war (Whites or Reds) would be more advantageous for Estonia. The majority thought that the Whites who were reluctant to recognised Estonian independence, constituted a bigger threat. In autumn 1919 it was realised that the Russian Whites were about to lose, so the only chance of getting the economically struggling Estonia out of the gruelling war was to make peace with the Bolsheviks. Another factor supporting this decision was that throughout 1919 the Republic of Estonia had failed to get de jure recognition from the Western countries.

​Peace talks with Soviet Russia started on 5 December 1919 in Tartu. The simultaneous offensive of the Red Army aiming to influence the talks, did not produce the desired effect. An armistice was announced on 3 January 1920. On 2 February the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed – the Republic of Estonia and the Soviet Russia recognised each other, declared the end of the war and determined the post-war cooperation plans.

​The War of Independence cost the Estonian troops about 2300 men, about 13,800 were wounded (including about 300 killed and 800 wounded in the Landeswehr war), plus the losses of the foreign volunteers and the allied forces.

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