Christmas Battles

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Christmas Battles
Part of the Eastern Front of the First World War
Ziemassvetku kaujas 1917.gif
German scheme of the Riga front and Christmas battles.
Date December 23-29, 1916 (Gregorian) January 5-11, 1917 (Julian)
Location Tīreļpurvs (Tirelis swamp) near Riga.
Result Indecisive
Belligerents
Russia Russian Empire  German Empire
Commanders and leaders
Russia Nikolai Ruzsky
Russia Radko Dimitriev
German Empire Friedrich von Scholtz
Strength
Russian 12th Army
~40 000
German 8th Army
~25 000
Casualties and losses
13 000. Among them ~8000 Latvian Rifleman (2000 dead).

The Christmas Battles (Latvian:Ziemassvētku kaujas; German:Aa-Schlachten; Russian:Митавская операция) were offensive operations of the Russian army during World War I in the area of Jelgava, Latvia, by the Russian 12th Army of the Northern Front. They took place from December 23 (January 5) until December 29 (January 11) 1916 (1917). The Army was commanded by Gen. Radko Dimitriev; it was opposed by the 8th German Army.

The battles took place in a swampy region, Tīreļpurvs (Tīrelis swamp), between Lake Babīte and Jelgava. The main assault force was the VI Siberian Rifle Corps which included two Latvian Rifleman brigades.

Background[edit]

The German 8th army's advance was stopped near Riga in October 1915. Almost immediately German forces started to fortify their positions. A huge, 30 km. long wall (the so-called:German Wall) built out of sand and wood was constructed across Tīreļpurvs, separating both armies for more than a year.

German fortification German Wall across the Tirelis swamp.

The Russian 12th army was divided into three groups before it attacked. The main task force was Babīte group which consisted of 48 battalions and 208 cannon. On the opposite side were 19 German battalions from the 6th Landwehr-Brigade. The core of the Babīte group was the VI Siberian corps. which included both Latvian Rifleman brigades.

Battle[edit]

After the failure of the 1916 campaigns on the Romanian territory the Russian commanders of the 12th Army received an order to attack on the Riga front. It was planned to attract the German reserve troops, thus helping their allies to resist on the Verdun battlefield. In mid-December 1916, frost started, making it possible to navigate through the frozen bog and to force the German fortifications. It was quickly decided to launch an attack at Christmas. The main objective was to take Jelgava (Mitau).

Latvian Rifleman in the trenches during Christmas Battles

The attack began early in the morning of the 23 December (5 January) and surprised the Germans, who thought that Russian troops would be celebrating Christmas. Latvian Riflemen were the advance guard of the Russian army, and their main task was to take the first German lines and clear the way for the main forces. Riflemen used their white winter outfits and cover of the heavy snowstorm to cut passages through the German barbed wire barriers. After that, the main forces of the two Latvian rifleman brigades rushed forward and in the surprise attack, without any artillery support, crossed the German wall and after brief fighting took the first German battle line. The battle continued the next two days with varying success as all Latvian units were involved in heavy fighting and German forces received their first reinforcements from Jelgava. After a bloody fight the German second defensive line at Mangali homestead was broken. However, further attacks stopped as the Russian commander-in-chief had no reinforcements and 17th Siberian regiment refused to go to battle. This decision was supported by several other units from the II and VI Siberian Army Corps.

The Germans, however, received strong reinforcements from Jelgava and soon started to counter-attack Russian and Latvian positions. Despite low temperatures (-35 °C), Latvian riflemen managed to hold back German attacks for 48 hours. On 25 December (7 January) Russian troops launched an attack on heavily fortified sand dunes on the northern side of the Tirelpurvs. A central part of those fortifications was a fortified hill, which later got the name Ložmetejkalns (Machine-gun hill). On Christmas morning 3rd. and 7th. the Latvian rifleman regiment, together with the 53rd Siberian regiment, suffering heavy losses, was able to partly surround German forces. The 2nd Latvian Rifleman brigade attacked from the back and thus finally broke the German resistance at Machine-gun hill. Many German soldiers managed to retreat but about 1000 were taken prisoners. It was the biggest Russian victory at the Riga front and the German army lost one of its strongest fortifications.

Overall, a more than 7 km. wide gap was made in the German lines. However, the command of the 12th Russian Army did not organize a follow-up attack, perhaps because it was not ready for the Latvian riflemen's success.

January battles-German counterattack[edit]

After their partial defeat in the Christmas battles, the German 8th Army organized a counterattack to conquer back their lost positions. The Germans received strong reinforcements and many fresh divisions were stationed in Jelgava. In the early morning of 23 January a massive artillery barrage started, which was soon followed by an infantry attack along the whole battle line. The main German forces consisted of the 1st. Reserve division (1. Reserve-Division) and 2nd Infantry Division (2. Infanterie-Division). They attacked across Tirelis swamp against the Latvian and Russian positions. Latvian rifleman and Siberians desperately defended their positions for three days. The Russians tried to launch three counterattacks, but all of them failed. In one of those counterattacks Latvian riflemen were forced to attack across an open field against German machine guns and thus suffered heavy losses (especially the 3rd Kurzeme regiment). The temperature dropped to -38°C making it impossible for either side to continue active warfare. The Germans managed to conquer back 4/5 of their lost positions, although 'Machine-gun hill' stayed in Russian hands.

Aftermath[edit]

The Christmas battles won the Latvian riflemen a reputation as capable warriors, but also huge losses as the Latvian Riflemen suffered casualties of more than a third (Latvian riflemen lost about 9000 soldiers). Christmas Eve's battle slogan of liberation of Jelgava and all of Courland was proved to be just a slogan without serious coverage. 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 Bolsheviks, who were advocating an end to the war. However 12th Army Command severely punished Siberian Riflemen, who refused to go to battle - 92 of them were transferred to the war tribunal and condemned to death, and several hundred were sent to Siberia.

Reconstructed fragment of the German Wall and bunker in the Museum of the Christmas Battles. (2009)

Today Tirelis swamp and the nearby forests are part of the Museum of the Christmas Battles which in its turn is branch of Latvian museum of War. The museum was created to honour Latvian riflemen and all other soldiers who fought in the Riga front during the First World War. Many of the old trenches are still visible today, and there are also many reconstructed fortifications and bunkers.

References[edit]