The Lithuanian-Soviet War of 1918

It was December 1918 when a war that lasted eight months, erupted between the Republic of Lithuania and the Proto-Soviet Union, a mere the month after the end of the first World War. This conflict was simply a part of the Soviets’ large-scale westward offensive between December 1918 – August, 1919. A campaign that led the Soviets to go into areas that were abandoned by the Ober Ost (Ober Ost were known as the Supreme Commander of all German Forces in the East during WWI) that were being withdrawn back to Germany, after its defeat. This assault pursued the retreating German units with the simple aim of combining Poland and the Baltic States (being Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) into the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet forces made contact with the Lithuanian borders, with around 18,000 men (5,000 of which were Lithuanian), there wasn’t much opposition towards the Soviet assault. This left them to their own devices claiming one Lithuanian town after another.
Lithuanian captured cities

  1. Zarasai & Švenčionys: 22nd Dec
  2. Utena: 23rd of Dec
  3. Rokiškis: 27th Dec
  4. Vilnius (Capital city): 5th Jan
  5. Ukmergė & Panevėžys: 9th Jan
  6. Šiauliai: 15th Jan
  7. Telšiai: 25th Jan

By the end of January 1919, about 2/3 of Lithuanian territory was under the Soviets’ control. The Soviets were brought to a halt near the Venta river by Latvian and German units, which allowed the front to partially stabilize and the southern part of Lithuania was better protected so they became complacent.

As the Germans were retreating from Ukraine through Hrodna, the Germans and Soviets signed a treaty on the 18th of January. This treaty was to draw a temporary border of sorts, a clear-cut line that went through Daugai, Stakliškės and about just over six miles east of Kaišiadorys – Jonava railway. At the time, Kaunas was the temporary capital city of Lithuania. During the interwar period, this treaty prohibited the Bolshevik military from conducting an assault on Kaunas, the 2nd largest Lithuanian city.

lithuania-soviet-tactic.jpg
Where the Soviets could strike Kaunas from.

The Soviets needed to surround Kaunas and strike through Kėdainiai or Alytus to be able to take the temporary capital. However, on the 7th of February, the operation to take Kaunas initiated, and the 2nd rifle regiment of the Lithuanian division of about 1,000 men launched their assault on Kėdainiai.

Under the command of Jonas Variakojis, there were only a couple of hundred Lithuanian military men from Panevėžys. They endured the Soviets advance at close proximity to Kėdainiai with the help of the German military and they successfully stood their ground.

On the 9th of February, the Soviet 7th rifle regiment successfully seized Jieznas, but an assault was initiated by local Lithuanians from Kaunas and the nearby city of Prienai. Even though the Lithuanian forces were only 300 men strong, they successfully pushed the Soviets back. This was achievable because, just before the Red army could strengthen their position in Jieznas, they were betrayed by their own commander and thus they were overcome by the locals.

Lithuanian and German forces pushed back the Bolsheviks that were based close to Kėdainiai into withdrawal, and, by the 10th of February, successfully seized Seta (about 22.3 km outside of Kėdainiai.) This victory helped lift up morale in the Lithuanian forces and helped in preventing the Soviets from surrounding and taking Kaunas from the north.

Lith retreat soviet assault

After such a defeat for the Soviets at Jieznas, they did not surrender and continued their advance on Kaunas. On the 12th of February, about 2,000 men formed the 3rd and 4th Soviet regiment. Both regiments initiated their assault south of Kaunas in the city of Alytus. The 1st formed Lithuanian infantry regiment could not endure the pressure from the Soviets as it had no backing from the German military, thus the regiment had to pull back towards Marijampolė and Prienai.

Between the 14th of February through to the 15th of February, one company of Lithuanian forces, supported by German units, returned to Alytus and claimed it back from the Soviets, successfully defended Kaunas yet again and the front was stable once more for some time. After the loss of Alytus, the Soviets received new instructions, commanding to withdraw from their offensive position and to instead take a more defensive approach. This change worked in favour of the Lithuanian military as it was able to instruct and coordinate their enlistees.

F.Baltushis-Zhemaitis
Feliksas Baltušis-Žemaiti

The Soviet international division of approximately 3,000 men took over the Samogitia region in Northern Lithuania, in an attempt to reach the Baltic sea to block the Latvians from getting any German provisions, with the aim of weakening their enemy. In northern Lithuania it was mostly local communists that were operational. Their most sizable attainment was that of a 1,000-man Samogitian regiment that was full of Russian POWs, Criminals and German defectors. This regiment was under the command of one man: Feliksas Baltušis-Žemaiti, a Lithuanian Red army major general.

There were no units of any other Lithuanian locals in Samogitia apart for the partisans in the city of Skuodas. These partisans were assembled together by two brothers: Povilas Plechavičius and Aleksandras Plechavičius.

In the end the Bolsheviks were ordered to head towards East Prussia. This movement by the Soviets brought great concern to Germany; they dispatched enlistees under the command of General Rüdiger von der Goltz.  As the end of February approached, the Lithuanian partisans, who were assisted by the German military, successfully seized control of Mažeikiai and the city of Seda. These accomplishments allowed them to chase the Bolsheviks to Kuršėnai (positioned between the cities of Telšiai and Šiauliai.)

On the 27th of February, the Samogitian communist regiment faced its crushing defeat near Luokė at the hands of German enlistees backed up by Plechavičius partisans and partisans from the city of Joniškėlis. After the defeat, the Samogitian regiment dispersed, and, by Mid-March, the German military seized control over Kuršėnai, Joniškėlis, Šiauliai, Radviliškis and then came to a halt. After such a substantial push, the Joniškėlis’ partisans were able to continue guarding the front along the Mūša river and the Lithuanian military gradually established themselves for an offensive assault against the Soviets.

Subsequently, Panevėžys volunteer regiment seized its position and grew its strength after the battle of Kėdainiai. Once this regiment reached a certain amount of power, they began to carry out small excursions into neighbouring towns and cities. Their fundamental objective was simple: cripple the enemy unit’s morale and heighten the morale of local residents and Lithuanian enlistees. This campaign to diminish the Soviets’ spirit was a successful one, and it showed when the Bolshevik units based in Panevėžys and Kupiškis rebelled. They were, however, only crushed by a separation in the Soviet military in nearby Latvia. This catastrophe made the Bolsheviks morale undergo further deterioration, and, between the 19th of March and the 24th of March, the Bolsheviks abandoned Panevėžys.

On the 26th of March, the Lithuanian military made its move in the city and seized control. This only lasted until 4th of April when the Soviet military claimed the city once more. On the 5th of March, the Lithuanian government issued mobilisation of all men born amidst 1887 and 1889, which rapidly increased the headcount of the Lithuanian military, and by the 3rd of May the official number of able men reached to 440 officers and 10,729 privates. Ultimately, only a fraction of the men were trained properly, outfitted and assigned to their military units.

From the month of February through to April, the Lithuanian military was vigorously undergoing training and a chain of command was finally established. Brand-new military units were assembled. Following that Lithuania received a fresh cargo of artillery, munitions and crisp uniforms for the Lithuanian soldiers.

LadygaK
General Kazys Ladiga

With the military gaining its supplies, it wasn’t long before the first offensive was set on course. The first offensive was executed between the 3rd of April and the 8th of April 1919. At the time, the Polish military got involved and the Lithuanians made sure to take advantage of the Polish assaults against the Soviets in the Hradna area in order to assess enemy vigour and seize back control of their official capital, Vilnius. The Southern troops were formed on the basis of the 1st gunner regiment, under the leadership of Kazys Ladiga. This regiment was to attack from Alytus and along the Daugai-Valkininkai line (about 35 km from one side to another.)

The northern troops assembled on the basis of the 2nd gunner regiment under the leadership of Juozas Butkus and was to commence an assault from Kaišiadorys and along the Žasliai-Vievis line (about 32.5 km in total.) Both assaults were successful at the beginning, however, due to the lack of support from German military, the Soviets assembled their units and put a halt to the Lithuanian advance. As their flanks on either side were not defended, the Lithuanian military came to the conclusion to withdraw from its offensive position.

Silvestras-Žukauskas
General Silvestras Žukauskas

The Polish military kept applying pressure on the Soviets through their large-scale assaults, causing the Lithuanian military to make the appropriate adjustments in its approach. On the 26th of April, General Silvestras Žukauskas was nominated as Chief of Staff. Not long after he assumed his role, Silvestras decided to mount an offensive assault in Northeastern Lithuania. The first target he assigned was to seize control Ukmergė, and, on the 3rd of May, the Panevėžys enlistee regiment that was being assisted by the 18th regiment of Saxon enlistees, successfully secured the city.

This objective was no easy task to achieve; it had very high risks as it left Kėdainiai (a city north of Kaunas) undefended and, as such, it opened a direct path to Lithuania’s temporary capital. Even with such a risk, it didn’t matter as the undertaking of this operation was a successful one, with the Lithuanian military also taking in about 500 Soviets as prisoners and about 50 Polish men, who were apprehended by the Soviet military in skirmishes that were occurring near the city of Vilnius. At the time, Poland and Lithuania were still civil, so the Polish men that were apprehended by the Soviets were freed and they returned home to Poland.

lsOn the 7th of May General Zukauskas assumed command of the entire Lithuanian army. This transpired to be one of the best things to happen as he initiated a complete overhaul of the Lithuanian military, splitting it into two separate groups. The first company was assigned the city of Ukmergė and was given the name of ‘Vilkmergė group‘. This group also consisted of a battalion of Saxon enlistees. The second company was named the ‘Panevėžys group‘. Both groups had their own objectives: the first company was charged with pushing along the Utena-Zarasai line, and the second company was charged with seizing back control of Panevėžys and then to push along the Kupiškis-Rokiškis-Obeliai line. At first, the company was commanded by Jonas Variakojis and was aided by Joniškėlis partisans from the north. The Lithuanian military made its entrance into Širvintos, where they came across Polish troops, so decided to cooperate together to mount a joint operation to take Giedraičiai (just over 23 km distance from Širvintos) on the 9th of May.

It was the 18th of May when the freshly restructured Lithuanian military executed its initial operation, and the first battalion, the Vilkmergė company, seized control of Kurkliai and Anykščiai. On the same day, the Panevėžys company launched its own assault on the city of Panevėžys, successfully capturing it on the 19th of May. Even though the Panevėžys company was prosperous in its offensive, the Bolsheviks retaliated on the 21st of May. Regardless of the fact the Soviet military put in the supplies and effort to capture the city again, they left Panevėžys without confrontation just two days later.

On the 2nd of May Lithuanian military launched an assault on the city of Utena, however they were confronted by a counterattack from the Soviet army, which forced the Lithuanian units to fall back. The fall back was a strategic move by the Lithuanian military; it gave them a chance to adjust their strategy for the next assault on Utena (which took place on the 31st of May). This time the attack was successful. The Lithuanian army seized control of Utena on the 2nd of June.

LSwar

Following the group’s success at Panevėžys, they then manoeuvred towards Kupiškis and captured the city of Subačius. On the 30th of May, partisans from Joniškėlis, perforated through enemy lines and took Rokiškis. After the success of the Lithuanian army at Rokiškis, the Soviet military were apprehensive that the Lithuanians would surround them. Taking this into consideration, on the night of the 30th of May through to the 31st they abandoned the city of Kupiškis, allowing the Lithuanian military to seize the city on the 1st of June.

This was just the beginning of a more stable and successful Lithuanian army who were pushing out the Soviet military. After the acquisition of Utena, the Saxon enlistees felt confident enough to leave the front and, by Mid-July 1919, they left Lithuania. Even though the Saxons left, the Lithuanian military was determined and kept putting pressure on the Soviet military. On the 10th of June, they entered the territory under the control of Latvian partisans and provided them with supplies. Two days later, the Soviet military launched a counterattack on the Lithuanians, which brought them to a halt.

On the 20th of June the Soviet military initiated another assault, however, they were cornered in a small region around Zarasai close to the Latvian border.  Due to this attack on the Soviets, and the Polish military increasing threat towards the Soviet military, the front was stabilized. The Soviets were reticent for well over a month (there were a few episodes involving scouts and outpost watchmen, but nothing major).

LatLit

The Red army was making the most of this time to rearrange and toughen their military by making their position more secure.  They began utilizing natural barriers like waterways, lakes and hills and they strengthened these barriers by placing barbed wire and creating trenches. Even though the Soviet military had an extensive military force, it was not enough to withstand a well-constructed plan to advance Daugavpils (Latvia). The assault was to take place on the 9th of August, however the plans were pushed back to the 23rd of August as the Ukmergė company made their move on the city first and through that they successfully captured Zarasai two days later.

The Lithuanian military moved about 30 km into Soviet domain. Once again, neither side of their flanks were defended by the Polish or their own Panevėžys company. The day after the seize of Zarasai, the Panevėžys company made headway with the Polish military at their side, following the railroad towards the town of Turmantas. The Lithuanian company was able to navigate around the former reinforced Soviet position, putting intense pressure on the Soviet military as they had to pull back.

Gathering in Daugavpils, the Lithuanian – Soviet front was cut down, meaning the Lithuanian military was able to focus its forces. Not long after, on the 28th of August 1919, the Soviets began pulling back to the north across the Daugava River (which goes through Latvia mostly) and, two days later, the only place that was still under Soviet control was Griva a neighboruhood outside of the city of Daugavpils. Once the Soviets were pushed out of Lithuanian land, the front was stable again. Both military units were divided by the Daugava River, although this worked in favour for the main Lithuanian military whose strength was then able to be redistributed in other areas of Lithuania. This also included holding down and defending the line with Poland.

In the end, there were some issues… Possibly some of those were planned assaults on the Bormentians in the Northern area of Lithuania, calling claim to the territory that was seized by soldiers for themselves and completely ignoring Latvia’s objective stance. This, of course, only led to further conflicts but instead it was between Lithuanian and Latvian military. Through British intervention, the matter in regard to the Lithuanian – Latvian border was resolved in March 1921. Not long after this, Poland lay claims for territory in Lithuania, and a focus on the region of Vilnius, and it was these claims that caused yet another conflict to occur. There were three wars in total that formed the Lithuanian wars of independence; The Lithuanian-Soviet war (also known as the Lithuanian-Bolshevik war), The Lithuanian-Bormentians war and the Polish-Lithuanian war.

In the end, this was a complicated situation, and the best person to describe it all was Ivor Norman Richard Davies, a British-Polish historian. He stated, “The German army was supporting the Lithuanian nationalists, and the Soviets were supporting the Lithuanian communists, and the Polish military was fighting everyone.”

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