Latvian rifle units created in 1915 during World War I in response to a petition of the Latvian bourgeoisie to the tsarist government, which calculated that new Latvian units might provide a strong defense against the German troops for the Baltic Region.
At first the Latvian rifle battalions (eight in all) were made up of volunteers, but in 1916, Latvians began to be drafted into them. By the end of 1916, eight rifle regiments had been formed (about 38,000 soldiers and 1,000 officers). These were assigned at first to two brigades and later, in December 1916, were merged into the Latvian Rifle Division. In the autumn of 1915 the Latvian Rifles began to fight in the Riga base of operations as part of the Twelfth Army of the Northern Front. The Bolsheviks carried on a great deal of revolutionary work among the Latvian riflemen, more than 80 percent of whom were industrial workers or farmhands. Many were members of the Social Democracy of the Latvian Territory (SDLT), which adhered to Bolshevik positions. On Mar. 26, 1917, in Riga the Provisional Committee of the Bolshevik organization of the SDLT and Latvian rifle regiments was formed, which played a major role in preparing the main masses of the soldiers and progressive officers in the Latvian regiments to play an active part in the Great October Revolution of 1917.
In August 1917 during the German offensive, the stubborn resistance of the 2nd Latvian Brigade in fighting on the Mazā Jugla River (southeast of Riga) disrupted the plan to surround the Twelfth Army. During the October Revolution, by order of the military revolutionary committee of the Twelfth Army, the Latvian Rifles checked the advance of the counterrevolutionary units on Petrograd from the Northern Front. On Nov. 22 (Dec. 5), 1917, the 6th Latvian Regiment was sent to Petrograd, where it was used to maintain revolutionary order and to participate in the suppression of counterrevolutionary revolts. On November 26 (December 9) a Latvian composite company arrived in Petrograd to take up the defense of Smol’nyi, the seat of the Soviet government, along with Baltic sailors and Red Guards. The same unit later served as guard of the train on which the Soviet government was moved from Petrograd to Moscow on Mar. 10–11, 1918; it was then expanded into the 9th Latvian Regiment and assigned to guard the Kremlin. On Jan. 9 (22), 1918, the 1st Latvian Regiment and a battalion of the 4th Regiment were sent to Byelorussia to put down the revolt of the Polish Corps under Gen. J. Dowbór-Muśnicki. The 3rd Regiment took part in the struggle against the Kaledin revolt.
In February 1918, when German troops occupied Latvia, the remaining Latvian rifle regiments retreated while fighting to Soviet Russian territory. On Apr. 13, 1918, the Soviet Latvian Rifle Division was formed, under the command of J. Vācietis and consisting of nine rifle regiments, a cavalry regiment, light and heavy artillery battalions, an air detachment, and an armored detachment. The division helped to suppress the Left Socialist Revolutionary revolt in Moscow in 1918 and the Yaroslavl revolt of 1918, as well as anti-Soviet outbreaks in such cities as Murom, Rybinsk, Kaluga, Saratov, and Novgorod. In August 1918 the 5th Latvian Rifle Regiment, as a result of its heroic defense of Kazan, was the first military unit to be awarded the Honorary Revolutionary Red Banner by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. The Latvian Rifles fought in the Volga region, the Urals, Archangel’sk, Tsaritsyn, and elsewhere.
In early 1919, when Latvia was liberated from the German occupation forces and White Guards, the Latvian units were expanded to form the Army of Soviet Latvia, consisting of two divisions. After the withdrawal from the central regions of Latvia in the summer of 1919, the Latvian Rifles, having suffered great losses, were re-formed into the Latvian Rifle Division, which took part in the rout of Denikin’s forces in the fall of 1919 and was awarded the Honorary Red Banner by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. The 5th Latvian Regiment distinguished themselves in combat against General Iudenich’s troops near Petrograd and received a second Honorary Red Banner. In 1920 the Latvian Division fought against Wrangel’s forces, taking part in the establishment and defense of the Kakhovka base of operations and in the storming of Perekop. In November 1920 the Latvian Division was disbanded.
During the Civil War of 1918–20 as many as 140 Latvian Rifles were awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Many well-known Soviet military leaders came from the ranks of the Latvian Rifles, for example, J. Vācietis, R. Eidemanis, R. Bērziņš, J. Bērziņš, K. Stucka, and J. Lācis. In 1971 a memorial monument-museum to the Red Latvian riflemen (sculptor, V. K. Albergs; architects, D. J. Driba and G. R. Lūsis-Grīnbergs) was opened in Riga.
REFERENCESIstoriia latyshskikh strelkov (1915–1920). Riga, 1972. (Translated from Latvian.)
Kaimin’, Ia. Latyshskie strelki ν bor’be za pobedu Oktiabr’skoi revoliutsii, 1917–1918. Riga, 1961.
Spreslis, A. I. Latyshskie strelki na strazhe zavoevanii Oktiabria, 1917–1918. Riga, 1967.