10 Things About Christmas Battles of WW I
As the year winds down to an end so, too, does the centennial for the end of World War I. Before we delve into the specifics of the brutal Christmas battles of the war, I thought it would be a good idea to recap some of the World War I-themed posts that appeared at RealClearHistory over the course of the year.
In addition to those pieces, World War I makes an appearance in the 10 Most Important Russo-Turkish Battles and the 10 Battles That Shaped Ottoman History. World War I was, if you’ll recall, an empire killer as much as anything.
I hope you enjoyed reading the articles as much as I enjoyed writing them and, more importantly, that you learned along with me. Most of all, I hope you were able to keep one simple fact in the back of your mind while reading about the history of World War I: Wars are horrific and I still don’t understand why they are glorified in the mainstream press and Hollywood. Here are 10 facts about the Christmas Battles of World War I:
10. The combatants. The combatants were the empires of Germany and Russia, and they clashed in what is now Latvia after the Germans seized the territory in an earlier 1916 offensive. The Russian leadership felt that a winter campaign in the Baltics would rouse wounded spirits among both the troops and the general public.
9. The battles didn’t actually take place on Christmas Day. They actually occurred in early January. However, under the old czarist Julian calendar, the battles occurred over the Christmas season, from Dec. 23-29. The Germans were caught by surprise because even though it was January in the West, it was Christmas season in Russia and the Germans believed the Russians would be celebrating their Christmas rather launching a major counter-offensive.
8. Casualties were high. The Latvian brigades in the Russian army suffered the worst fate. In total, the Russian empire counted about 23,000 casualties. The casualty number for the Germans is unknown. The Christmas battles were bloody as well as demoralizing.
7. The Siberians refused to fight. In a sign of things to come, the Siberian reinforcements refused to fight and the Latvian shock troops, which had seized a number of German fortifications after a costly, brutal offensive, were left to die in the German counter-assault. The Siberians did not want to die for Latvia, and they did not appreciate being forced to fight during Christmas. The Russian Revolution of 1917 occurred less than one year after the Siberians deserted their comrades from Latvia.
6. Temperatures were cold. The Russians waited for the bogs to freeze over before they attacked the German fortifications, so that their artillery could safely cross the swamps. So the blood of the combatants was mixed with ice and snow and steel and hatred and -30F temperatures. Finally, a -34F day literally froze fighting in place, and the two sides ceased fighting.
5. Latvian success was rewarded with incompetence. Against all odds, the Latvians broke the German lines, and they broke them good. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership did not anticipate the Latvians breaking German lines and there were no reinforcements on hand to shore up the positions of the victorious Latvian units. The Russian generals believed they were sending the Latvian squads to their deaths and had no B Plan for the initial assault.
4. Latvian sacrifices were eventually vindicated. The Latvian Rifle Brigades of World War I are widely venerated in an independent republic that survived the German-Russian fighting of World War I, the vicious Nazi-Soviet fighting of World War II, and the oppressive socialist apparatus from Moscow during the Cold War. Throughout the hard times of the Latvian people, the betrayed Rifle Brigades were remembered.
3. The Siberians were eventually slaughtered. The Siberians who refused to fight were not necessarily betraying their Latvian brothers-in-imperium. They knew they were cannon fodder. And, indeed, when the Siberians finally went to reinforce the Russian gains made, they were greeted with a massive German counter-offensive. The Siberians (and others) were left for dead. They received no food, no weapons, and no good tidings of comfort and joy.
2. Imperial citizens? The Russian Empire was immense, and the Christmas battles highlight just how cosmopolitan and diverse St. Petersburg’s imperial domain really was. Latvians fought side-by-side with Siberians, Russians, Poles, and Cossacks against the German military. How did imperial Russia unite all of these peoples into one coherent “nation”? The short answer is that it didn’t, but the longer answer is one worth pondering over the winter break.
1. The Russians lost the battles, and the war. In January (of both calendars) the Germans mounted a huge offensive that eradicated the gains made by the Russian Empire during the Christmas Battles. The Latvians in military and civilian circles felt so betrayed by their imperial overlords that when the Bolsheviks made their power grab, the Latvians were among their staunchest supporters. The Latvians were, of course, betrayed by the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union, too, but the oppressed had their Riflemen to console their downtrodden spirits.
Have a good Christmas, and I’ll see you next year!