Photos Russian Civil War 1917-1922

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 freezing. The swamps and marshes froze solid, making them passable to infantry. 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 did, in fact, 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 Corps 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 objective was to pierce the German line and take and hold Jelgava. In hopes of keeping the attack a surprise, no artillery bombardment was done prior to the attack.
As the Latvians prepared for battle, a sudden and powerful snowstorm hit. Despite deep snow drifts and temperatures sharply plummeting to -35 Celsius, the order was given to commence operations. Starting late in the evening of December 22nd sapper 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 5 A.M., 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.
When the red signal flares failed to appear, the officers ordered their men to fix bayonets on the end of their Japanese Arisaka Type 38 rifles. Due to rifle shortages, the Russian government was compelled to purchase arms abroad, and 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 homeland 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 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, and this left the West Prussian regiment’s position exposed, who were situated southwest 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 later 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 machine guns made their marks on either side of him. After 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. Celms was one of the lucky ones. Many of the wounded froze to death where they lay before medics could get to them.
With the German line ruptured, the Latvians 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 had been brought forward for the coming Christmas celebration. Many men stopped to drink before pushing the 5 km to the Mangaļu homestead.
While the Latvians 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 usually 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, and although the distance was not great, their pace was slowed by the deep snow. They would not arrive until 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, descended on the Germans defending the Mangaļu homestead with fixed bayonets.
It was particularly brutal fighting. The combined Russian and Latvian troops were initially able to break the German defenses, but only briefly. Despite being fatigued from their march, Rottberg's men pushed the Russian forces back inflicting heavy casualties and taking almost 600 prisoners. The German victory was brief as well - although they fought valiantly, by the end of the day the Germans 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 the 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's 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 counterparts held their ground.
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 machine guns that guarded every approach. As long as the Germans held this hill, the Russian offensive to Jelgava could not continue.
On 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 MGs, artillery bombardments, 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.
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. Overall casualty figures are rough, but of the 1000 troops who were ordered to take Machine Gun Hill, only about 400 would survive to see the victory. The Latvian veterans would later refer to this action as the Blizzard of Souls.. 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.
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, where 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 shoot the retreating soldiers. The deep snow made it difficult to see where many of the barbed-wire defenses were causing many men to trip and becoming easy targets in the process. Karl Stumbris remembers piling up the frozen bodies that littered the area creating defensive positions where they could return fire.
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 Machine 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-martial 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 his personal appreciation. The Corps 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's face as he walked up and down the Latvian ranks. 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.
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 often underappreciated. 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 the Riga front. 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 Latvians showed a high degree of fidelity to Lenin, so much so 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 hid 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 Latvians 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.


Members of the 5th Zemgale Latvian rifle regiment in the Tirelis swamp, armed with Arisaka Type 38 rifles. Winter 1916-1917.


Latvian troops on Machine Gun Hill. One man holds a captured German Gewehr 88 rifle.


The Christmas Battle's battlefield.


Jukums Vācietis, pictured here wearing his Tsarist uniform. The former Colonel of the 5th Zemgale (Latvian) Rifle Regiment, a veteran of the Christmas battle, Vācietis would go on to lead the Red Army.
A photo that I had in my collection. Unfortunately, without a signature and accompanying information. Red Army soldiers in the early 1920s.


I have always been interested in this person. History has not preserved his name and his fate, but this heavy look has remained in history forever. He seems to have been through a lot.

Red Army soldiers.

Red commander with an English belt, model 1914.

During the Civil War, leather jackets were very popular with both whites and reds. Leather jacket and budenovka became the details of the iconic image of the red commander. Pay attention to the high-heeled cavalry boots.

A group of cadets of the Kremlin machine gun school of the command staff of the Red Army. August 1920.

Red soldier in English field uniform. She was the second most popular in the Red Army. It could only be obtained as a trophy.

V. Lenin and K. Voroshilov among the delegates of the X Congress (March 1921).
With a wounded hand - Voroshilov's adjutant Rafail Khmelnitsky.

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