Today is the Lāčplēsis Day! What does 11 November mean for Latvia?

11.11.2016. 12:50

What is 11 November in Latvia?

The Lāčplēsis Day is marked on the calendar as a commemoration day when tribute is paid to those who fought for Latvia’s freedom. Lāčplēsis (Bearslayer), a legendary character from the Latvian national epic, has been depicted in literary works and films, and symbolises the greatness of the nation. His heroic deeds symbolise human bravery in defending one’s homeland from the aggressor.

The state of Latvia was proclaimed on 18 November 1918. Its existence, however, had to be defended against the supporters of former German and Russian empires and the Red Army of the Soviet Russia. This military conflict was later named the Latvian War of Independence.

On 11 November 1919 in Riga, the Latvian Army overwhelmed the German and Russian White Guard troops under Bermont’s command and freed the left bank of the River Daugava. The victory over the Bermontian army made it possible for Latvia’s newly established independence and statehood to take root and survive. This is a symbolic date reminiscent of people who stood united as they fiercely engaged with a well-armed enemy which had advantage in numbers – and won against the odds. On 11 November, Latvia honours those who, in a crucial moment, selflessly gave their lives so that the Latvian state can live.

Therefore, this day has become the epitome of Latvian soldiers’ victory in the War of Independence and presents a suitable occasion when to commemorate all Latvian freedom fighters who fought in all wars.

Other Western countries also mark 11 November, but in relation to another event a year earlier – the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne on 11 November 1918, which meant the end of World War I.

Outline of the historic events of 11 November

After defeat in the Battle of Cēsis in June 1919, in accordance with the Ceasefire of Strazdumuiža signed on 3 July, German troops were ordered to leave Latvia in the shortest time possible. Nevertheless, German general Rüdiger von der Goltz had no intention to abide by this demand. His German troops merged with the forces led by a Russian general Pavel Bermont-Avalov to form the West Russian Volunteer Army, which launched an attack on Riga on 8 October at dawn.   

Three army corps under Bermont’s leadership advanced rapidly on the Latvian capital. Despite resistance put up by the Latvian troops, the assaults of the West Russian Volunteer Army forced Latvians to retreat across the River Daugava. A stream of refugees flowed towards Jugla in the outskirts of Riga. On 10 October the fate of Riga and that of entire Latvia “hang by a thread”, as the papers wrote at the time. Still, the Latvian army fought back fiercely that day, and managed to halt the enemy’s advances by the bridges over the Daugava.

On 15 October in the morning, a group of about 100 volunteers launched a mock attack from the right bank of the Daugava across the Iron Bridge to Pārdaugava. Their mission was to divert the adversary’s attention from Daugavgrīva – the direction of the main attack. Earlier, as they were marching through the streets of Riga to the bankside, the troops sang Div’dūjiņas (Two Doves Soared High), a folksong about soldiers bidding farewell to their loved ones before going to battle. They felt that many of them will never return. This episode – the attack across the Iron Bridge – was later immortalised by sculptor Kārlis Zāle in a bas-relief on the Freedom Monument.

The same day saw the main offensive of the Latvian Army, supported by gunfire from British and French warships. The ships of these Entente powers were intensively shelling the districts of Daugavgrīva and Bolderāja and the rear of the Bermontian positions.  The allies came to Latvia’s assistance at the moment when they had made sure that the Latvian army will be able to put up and continue a successful defence.  Bolderāja had to be retaken by sending a landing force across the Daugava so that the attack could be continued from that location. Sustaining insignificant losses, Latvian troops captured targets of strategic importance – the Daugavgrīva Fortress and Bolderāja. The Latvian Army seized the initiative, and the whole Latgale Division moved to the left bank of the Daugava on 16 October.

On 11 November 1919 in Riga, the Latvian army defeated the German and Russian White Guard troops under Bermont’s command. Up till the end of November – beginning of December, Latvian troops were driving the enemy out of Latvia.  The victory over the Bermontian army made it possible for Latvia’s newly established independence and statehood to take root and survive. The defeat of Bermont’s troops enabled the Latvian government in 1920 to focus on fighting against the Red Army in the eastern front and successfully complete the liberation of Latvia’s entire territory from foreign invaders.

In the wake of the victory, 11 November was named “The Lāčplēsis Day”. In 1920, the Lāčplēsis Military Order was established, to be awarded for valour in combat during the Latvian War of Independence. Following Latvia’s occupation and the loss of its national independence in 1940, the celebration of the Lāčplēsis Day was banned. After Latvia’s statehood was re-established, the Lāčplēsis Day was declared a commemoration day by a law of 3 October 1990.

Author: Support Foundation of the Pocket Books in Latvia`s History