The February Revolution gave tens of thousands of Estonians who had been mobilised into the Russian Army the chance to return to their Estonian homeland in order to join the Estonian national military units that were being formed. The role of the Estonian regiments in subsequent developments was exceedingly important. In February of 1918, the national military units contributed decisively to the establishment of the independent Republic of Estonia. Additionally, it would have been impossible to win the War of Independence that broke out at the end of that same year if Estonian soldiers had remained scattered all over vast Russia.
Quite a lot has been written about the national military units because of their importance. Nevertheless, there are parts of their history that have yet to be researched, and unanswered questions to this day. One such time interval is their ‘Haapsalu period’, so to speak, meaning the timespan from October of 1917 to April of 1918, when the 1st Estonian Infantry Regiment was deployed in the town of Haapsalu and its surroundings, and the 1st Estonian Artillery Brigade was in the process of being formed. This article examines the activities of these military units over this brief timespan with the aim of assembling, systematising and analysing the dispersed and only too often rather scant information on them. The standpoints and assessments presented in earlier historiography are also reviewed.
In the summer of 1917, the 1st Estonian Infantry Regiment had earned the reputation of a military unit with good training, discipline and morale. This, of course, was in comparison to other units of the Russian Army, which quickly became demoralised in the tumult of revolution, losing their will and capacity to fight. At the same time, the Estonian Regiment had no actual combat experience. The regiment was admittedly deployed at the Riga sector of the front in September of 1917 but it was left in reserve at Valmiera. In response to the landing of German forces on Saaremaa (Operation Albion), the regiment was redeployed in Haapsalu, where it arrived on 2 October. It was initially planned to use the Estonians in the defence of Hiiumaa, but at the last moment, the regiment received orders to head for Saaremaa. Proceeding from the situation prevailing in the battlefield at sea (Russia’s warships were forced to leave the Väinameri Sea), two battalions and four detachments were successfully transported from the mainland to the islands, but they were taken prisoner on the island of Muhu. The remaining subunits of the regiment were stationed in the military harbour at Rohuküla in the meantime.
The remains of the Russian military units that escaped the grip of the Germans on the islands had lost the last of their capacity to fight, desperately searched for chances to escape, and started looting the areas that were being abandoned to the enemy. Thefts, robberies, burnings, and the killing of livestock became massive in the Haapsalu area. Some murders were also committed. In such a situation, the military leadership had to act in the name of two objectives at the same time. First of all, a new defence line capable of repulsing possible landing attempts by German forces had to be established along Estonia’s western coast. Secondly, public order had to be restored as quickly as possible and looting had to be stopped. There were scant reliable forces to depend on to carry out these tasks. Colonel Aleksander Tõnisson, commander of the 1st Estonian Infantry Regiment, received an order in the evening of 4 October to move his unit to Haapsalu, restore order there, carry out an evacuation, and form and man an initial defence line.
The organisation of defence on the west coast has been examined in earlier historiography in the context of the Estonian Regiment and has overemphasised the part played by Colonel Tõnisson’s advance party. This squad was part of a considerably larger operation, in the course of which the so-called Estonian Army Group was formed (under Major General Aleksandr Vikhirev). Its main force consisted of the 45th Infantry Division and the 4th Don Cossack Division, and a number of various military units. Colonel Tõnisson’s advance party was only the 1st Estonian Infantry Regiment, which was not at full-strength, and it was responsible for only a narrow battle sector in the vicinity of the Bay of Haapsalu.
The Estonian Regiment had an important role in restoring public order. Yet we must not forget the efforts of the Russian army command and other army units in the fight against the wanton behaviour of demoralised soldiers. Since the size of the Estonian Regiment was small after the Muhu operation, they were initially able to restore order only within the town of Haapsalu. The situation changed in mid-December, when the commander of the 1st Estonian Infantry Division divided Estonian territory up into regiment districts allotted to the different national military units. From that point onward, Haapsalu County became the area of responsibility of the 1st Estonian Regiment and the regiment sent defence detachments to several villages and manorial estates. Additionally, one company was used to enforce public order in Tallinn and another company was assigned to guard property in Rakvere. Yet historical literature has bypassed in almost complete silence the actions of Colonel Tõnisson in organising the evacuation of material valuables, even though the Russian army command especially highlighted his services in this field of activity.
In parallel with the above mentioned actions, the restoration of the fighting capacity of the regiment had to be looked after. The subunits that were taken prisoner in the Muhumaa operation had to be replaced. The re-formation of the 1st Battalion took place quickly using the regiment’s own reserve units, but it took time to reinforce the 2nd Battalion and the detachments. Soldiers drawn from different military units were used to reinforce the 2nd Battalion. The men brought in as reinforcements brought with them attitudes that differed from those that had previously prevailed. This was manifested in a drop in both discipline and the will to fight. Demobilisation and the decision to switch to a territorial way of outfitting Estonian military units also contributed to these changes – in this way, the ‘old core’ of the regiment was dissipated.
Historical literature expresses appreciation for the political attitudes of the 1st Estonian Regiment – opposition to bolshevism and a nationalist spirit. Yet such attitudes were characteristic primarily of the regiment’s officers, the more educated soldiers and the regiment’s ‘old core’. Attitudes among the newly added men were considerably more erratic and at times even altogether contradictory. The 1st Estonian Infantry Regiment admittedly remained the most nationalist-minded unit of the national military units, but the massive agitation carried out by the Bolsheviks had growing effect. Nevertheless, the 1st Estonian Infantry Regiment vehemently demanded in November of 1917 that the Estonian Maanõukogu (Provincial Assembly) declare itself the exclusive bearer of the highest authority in Estonia, meaning separating Estonia from Russia, and offered the Maanõukogu and the Maavalitsus (Provincial Government) the chance to continue their work, which the Bolsheviks had interrupted, in Haapsalu under the protection of the 1st Estonian Regiment. The regiment also took over power from the Bolsheviks in Haapsalu on 20 February 1918, even though this was carried out by relying on very small detachments that were firmly nationalistically minded.
The formation of the 1st Estonian Artillery Brigade began at the turn of the year from 1917 to 1918. Lieutenant Colonel of the General Staff Andres Larka was appointed its commander. Its formation nevertheless was not completed and we cannot speak of a unit capable of combat. Yet a large proportion of the necessary weaponry was successfully acquired – this was thanks to Ukrainians who had served in the 45th Infantry Division’s artillery brigade. They gave the brigade’s equipment to the Estonians when the Ukrainians departed for their own homeland.
A large proportion of soldiers who belonged to the national military units left Haapsalu ahead of the arrival of German forces. While the national military units deployed in Southern Estonia (the Estonian Reserve Battalion and the 3rd Estonian Infantry Regiment) were already disbanded during the first days of the German occupation, the units that operated in Northern Estonia managed to remain intact. Even more so, the Estonian Army started being developed around the 1st Estonian Infantry Division, since the Republic of Estonia had been declared on 24 February 1918 and its Provisional Government had been formed. The 1st Estonian Infantry Regiment continued to be stationed in Haapsalu (the second attempt to form the artillery brigade was made in Tallinn) and it was to once again begin recruiting men to reinforce its units. Alongside this, primary emphasis was placed on strengthening discipline and organising military training and guard duty. Politics, which had proliferated in the army under Bolshevik influence, was decisively eliminated. Yet already on 20 March 1918, the commander of the German 68th Army Corps, Lieutenant General Adolf von Seckendorff, issued the order to disband the national military units, and on 15 April, the commander of the regiment, Major General Ernst Põdder, reported to the General Staff of the Estonian Army that the regiment had been disbanded.