With some 13,000 men ready for action, the Estonian Army began a counteroffensive in January 1919. British ships were now in firm control of the sea, and on 4 January the two light cruisers, accompanied by the destroyer Wakeful, subjected several Russian positions near Narva to a heavy bombardment. A detachment of Finnish and Estonian troops was landed in the rear of the 6th Red Rifle Division at Kunda late on 10 January; the following day, Rakvere was retaken, and the Estonians advanced steadily towards Narva. A further seaborne operation was carried out on 18 January at Udria, and this contingent moved swiftly into the northern part of Narva. The rest of the city was liberated the following day. Leon Trotsky, who was personally directing the defence of the city, narrowly escaped being captured.
With the northern part of the country free of Soviet forces, attention turned south. Several armoured trains had been created to provide the Estonian Army with much-needed fire support. Mounting a variety of weapons, ranging from machine-guns to 6-inch artillery, the trains were a potent asset, though of course their deployment was dictated by the rail network. Another of the new formations raised during the winter was the Tartumaa Partisan Battalion, created by Lieutenant Julius Kuperjanov; the battalion’s young, energetic personnel rapidly gained a reputation for aggression and daring, and the unit liberated the town of Tartu on 14 January, attacking from aboard armoured trains that broke through the Bolshevik lines and entered the town before Estonian infantry disembarked. From here, it was possible to plan an attack to retake Valga, which was astride the only rail link to Riga and the south. The main approach to Valga from the north ran past Paju Manor, and this now became the focus of fierce fighting. Estonian partisans seized the manor on 30 January, but were swiftly driven back by a battalion of Red Latvian Rifles.
The Estonians found themselves at a disadvantage. Retreating Russian units had destroyed the railway bridge at Sangaste, a little to the north, preventing the Estonians from deploying their armoured train. By contrast, the Latvian Rifles had fire support from their own armoured train, in addition to several armoured cars. Undaunted, Kuperjanov led his battalion in an attack on the manor on 31 January across open ground. Along with many of his men, he was cut down by the withering fire of the defenders, but towards the end of the day a body of Finnish volunteers, in a battalion named the ‘Sons of the North’, arrived as reinforcements. The combined body of Finns and Estonians penetrated into the grounds of the manor, clearing it of Bolshevik defenders in bitter fighting. The following day, the Latvian Rifles withdrew from the area, allowing the Estonians to take Valga without further fighting.
With the railway line from Latvia now in Estonian hands, it became increasingly difficult for the Soviet forces in central Estonia to coordinate their movements, and they were forced to withdraw east. By the end of February 1919, all Estonian territory had been liberated by the nationalist forces. In addition, the Estonians captured 35 field guns, several dismounted naval guns, and thousands of small arms, together with copious stocks of ammunition. The need to rebuild Bolshevik positions in the north forced the Russians to divert troops from Latvia, where they had been enjoying considerable success. The Estonians now drew up a mutual defence agreement with the Latvian government, and began to prepare for an attack against Bolshevik forces in northeast Latvia.
Meanwhile, in the north the battered Seventh Red Army had received substantial reinforcements, and launched a major assault on Narva on 18 February. The Estonian 1st Division, reinforced by the White Russian Northern Corps, successfully beat off the attacks that continued until late April, though the city suffered considerable damage from artillery fire. To the south, a renewed Soviet attack overran southeast Estonia in the first half of March and a gap began to open between the Estonian 1st and 2nd Divisions. To counter this, the Estonian Army deployed its new 3rd Division in the gap and launched a counterattack, recapturing Petseri at the end of the month. Confused fighting in the marshy area continued for several weeks before the Estonians were able to secure their positions, with support from more new military formations: Latvians who had fled to Estonia were formed into a new brigade, and a further 7,000 anti-Bolshevik Russians and Ingrians (from Ingermanland, the region of Russia immediately to the east of Estonia) served alongside the existing Estonian and Finnish units. Throughout this phase of the fighting, the Estonians were able to make efficient use of their limited forces as a consequence of well-organised logistical support. By contrast, the Red Army’s supply system was chaotic, and its medical services almost non-existent.
The Estonians had fought off two invasions, and it appeared that the Bolsheviks were interested in peace negotiations. The Hungarian Communists offered themselves as mediators, but Estonia came under pressure from its western supporters, particularly the British, who threatened to withdraw their support; there was still hope that Estonia might be used as a base for an attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks, and this would clearly be impossible if Estonia and Russia were to agree terms for peace. After a period of preparation, the Estonians and their allies decided to launch an attack of their own. Estonian accounts describe the operation that followed as an attempt to push the Bolsheviks as far as possible from Estonian territory, but the major role played by White Russian forces suggests that there was at least a hope that such an attack towards Petrograd might destabilise the Soviet regime and perhaps give a non-Bolshevik party a chance of seizing power.
On 13 May, Yudenich ordered Rodzianko to commence an operation named ‘White Sword’. His 3,000-strong corps attacked at Narva, surprising and overwhelming the 6th Red Rifle Division. Supported by naval units off the coast, the White Russians advanced swiftly and, in anticipation of their arrival, the garrison of the Krasnaya Gorka fortress mutinied. This was a devastating development for the Bolsheviks, as the presence of White Russian forces in this fortress – on the Baltic coast, perhaps two thirds of the way from the Estonian frontier to Petrograd – would effectively make it impossible to defend Petrograd. Despite being aware of the mutiny, the Estonian authorities took several days to pass the information to Rodzianko and Yudenich; instead, they encouraged the Ingrian detachment within their forces to try to reach the area, perhaps preferring that the lands to their east should come under the control of the friendly Ingrians rather than the White Russians. The Ingrian force proved too weak to reach the mutineers, and eventually the Estonians informed Rodzianko, nearly two days after the mutiny had commenced.
Before either the White Russians or the Royal Navy warships operating in the Gulf of Finland could come to the aid of the mutineers, Josef Stalin – who had been given the task of defending the Russian capital – intervened. Born Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in his native Georgia, he was educated at first for the priesthood but became an atheist and was involved in revoutionary groups before he had finished his studies. He was an early adherent of Lenin and proved adept at organising Bolshevik groups in the early years of the 20th century, resorting to criminal means to secure funds and showing the first signs of the ruthlessness that was to become his hallmark. Like Trotsky, he was arrested and exiled to Siberia, but travelled to Petrograd after the February Revolution, supporting Kerensky at first but then playing a leading role in the work of the Bolshevik Central Committee during the October Revolution. He was appointed People’s Commissar for Nationalities’ Affairs but like many leading Bolsheviks was required to take command of the formations of the fledgling Red Army against White Russian forces; he soon became known for his uncompromising policies towards White Russian officers, ordering the execution of many, as well as taking draconian measures against Bolshevik deserters and peasants who showed any reluctance to support the Bolsheviks.
Outside Petrograd, Stalin acted with characteristic resolution and force. Two of the large warships in Kronstadt were ordered to commence a bombardment of the fortress, while a force of naval volunteers assembled as an infantry formation to storm the position. After two days of rebellion, even as Rodzianko, finally aware of developments, was ordering his troops to try to reach the mutineers, the ruins of Krasnaya Gorka were back in Bolshevik hands. In another characteristic act, Stalin ordered the execution of nearly 70 Russian naval officers from the Kronstadt base, on the basis that they had been planning a similar revolt. Although Stalin claimed to have documentary evidence of this, including proof that the British had financed the planned mutiny, no such document was ever produced.
A second Estonian offensive took place south of Lake Peipus, and a combined Estonian and White Russian force known as the Petseri Battle Group crossed into Russia and seized Pskov on 25 May. Almost immediately, the White Russians appeared to lose interest in fighting against the Red Army, turning their attention against those that they regarded as Bolshevik sympathisers and supporters. Given the prejudices of the region at that time, it was almost inevitable that all Jews were automatically regarded as being in this group, and there was widespread looting, murder and imprisonment. From Pskov, the Estonians pushed on to the Velikaya River, but it became increasingly clear to the Estonians that their advance was unsustainable, not least due to the growing resentment of the local population towards the behaviour of Rodzianko’s troops. The Estonians removed the White Russians from their own line of command, and the Northern Corps reorganised itself into the Northwestern Army. The Bolsheviks counterattacked on 19 June with the reorganised 6th Division, reinforced by the 2nd Division, and rapidly eliminated most of the gains made by the Northern Corps.
Meanwhile, Alexander-Sinclair had been relieved by Admiral Sir Walter Cowan and the British 1st Light Cruiser Squadron. Whilst Cowan’s warships were able to control the Estonian coastline, the presence of Russian warships in Kronstadt continued to pose at least a theoretical threat. Fortunately for Cowan, he found himself working alongside a British naval officer, Augustus Agar, who was operating coastal motor boats on behalf of the British Foreign Office, attempting to maintain links with British spies inside Russia. One of them, codenamed ST-25, was the last important agent still on Bolshevik soil, but arranging a rendezvous to collect him seemed almost impossible. Frustrated in his attempts, Agar contacted Cowan and offered to use his motor boats to attack the Russian battleships that had been used to bombard Krasnaya Gorka. There was an exchange of signals with London, as a result of which Cowan was advised that the motor boats were to be used for intelligence purposes only, unless specially directed by an officer of flag rank. Cowan was determined to get his ships into action, and decided to stretch his orders to the limit; he advised Agar that he could not specifically order the motor boats to attack the Russian battleships, but if they did Agar could count on Cowan’s support.
On 17 June, Agar set off with two boats. One turned back after developing mechanical problems and news arrived that the Russian battleships had withdrawn and been replaced by the cruiser Oleg, which had been part of Raskolnikov’s disastrous foray against Tallinn, but Agar pressed on undaunted and made his approach to Kronstadt during the short hours of the summer night. After a fierce exchange of fire with Soviet destroyers, he approached the Tolbukin lighthouse where he was forced to run his boat aground on a breakwater to make repairs. Still under constant fire, he and his men patched up the boat, and then launched a torpedo at Oleg before turning and running for the Finnish coast. The 7,000-ton cruiser, which had fought in the Russian Navy’s battle with the Japanese fleet at Tsushima in 1905, was struck by the torpedo and sank. Agar and his crew made good their escape in the resultant confusion, still under fire. For this mission, he was awarded the Victoria Cross and promoted to lieutenant commander.
Agar wasn’t finished. Cowan wished to eliminate any further threat from the battleships of the Russian Baltic Fleet and planned a new raid on Kronstadt. This operation was codenamed ‘RK’ in honour of Cowan’s friend Admiral Roger Keyes, who led the raid on Zeebrugge in April 1918. On 18 August, Agar led a group of seven small boats towards Kronstadt. On this occasion, he stayed outside the port while the other six boats, led by Commander Claude Dobson, made an attack at night, while British aircraft carried out an air raid to distract the defenders. Cowan’s destroyers and cruisers waited a short distance away, ready to intervene if the Russian warships attempted to pursue Agar’s force.
The attack achieved complete surprise; the small flotilla passed the silent Russian guardship at the entrance to the harbour and made their attack, and the first that the Russians knew of the presence of the British was an explosion as a torpedo struck the submarine depot ship Pamiat Azova, which swiftly sank. Lieutenant Gordon Steele was aboard a boat commanded by Lieutenant Archibald Dayrell-Reed, with orders to attack the battleship Andrei Pervozvanni:
As Dayrell-Reed’s boat entered the harbour, fire was opened on us, first from the direction of the dry dock and afterwards from both sides. We headed for the corner where our objectives, the battleships, were berthed. Almost simultaneously we received bursts of fire from the batteries and splashes appeared on both sides. Instinctively I ducked as the bullets whistled past. I turned round and was about to remark to Dayrell-Reed, ‘Where are you heading?’ as we were making straight for a hospital ship, when I noticed that his head was resting on the wooden conning tower top in front of him. He had been shot through the head. Despite his considerable weight, I was able to lower him into the cockpit. At the same time I put the wheel hard over and righted the boat on her proper course. We were now quite close to Andrei Pervozvanni. Throttling back as far as possible, I fired both torpedoes at her, after which I stopped one engine to help the boat turn quickly. As I did this we saw two columns of water rise up from the side of Petropavlovsk [the second Russian battleship] and heard two crashes. I knew they must be Dobson’s torpedoes which had found their target. Then there was another terrific explosion nearby. We received a great shock and a douche of water. I realised that the cause of it was one of our torpedoes exploding on the side of the battleship [Andrei Pervozvanni]. We were so close to her that a shower of picric acid from the warhead of our torpedo was thrown over the stern of the boat, staining us a yellow colour which we had some difficulty in removing afterwards. [Missing] a lighter by a few feet [we] followed Dobson out of the basin. I had just time to take another look back and see the result of our second torpedo. A high column of flame from the battleship lit up the whole basin. We passed the guardship at anchor again. Morley [the mechanic aboard the boat] gave her a burst of machine-gun fire as a parting present and afterwards went to see what he could do for Reed.
Three of the British boats were sunk by Russian gunfire, with the loss of 15 crew killed, including Dayrell-Reed, and nine captured from the sinking boats; the Russian account states that the guardship actually spotted the boats as they penetrated the harbour, but chose not to fire for fear of hitting friendly vessels beyond the boats. This does not of course explain why the guardship failed to raise the alarm. For their part in this action, both Dobson and Steele were awarded the Victoria Cross.
Agar had intended to use the attack as cover for another attempt to reach agent ST-25, but was unable to do so. The agent’s real name was Paul Dukes, and he had worked for many years as a concert pianist in the Petrograd Conservatoire, gathering intelligence and helping White Russians to escape to Finland. It was a remarkable achievement for a man without any training before he was sent to Russia – he was merely told to establish contact with the agents of his predecessor, the naval officer Francis Crombie, who had been killed by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. Without knowing even the names of these agents, he succeeded in re-establishing and even building on the network. He wore many disguises and adopted a variety of aliases, infiltrating the Russian communist party, the Comintern (the international organisation dedicated to worldwide revolution) and even the Cheka – he had a forged document that stated that he was a member of the Cheka, allowing him to pass most checkpoints without question. For a while, he adopted the role of a poor Russian, growing his beard and hair, but when he heard that the Cheka were seeking him he shaved and smartened his appearance, taking pride that many of his acquaintances no longer recognised him. Not long after, he was aboard a tram, disguised as a Russian soldier, when he saw a known Cheka and realised he had been spotted by a known informer:
I did not wait to make sure … Passing the Tsarskoselsky station I jumped off the car while it was still in motion, stooped beneath its side till it passed, and boarded another in the opposite direction. At the station I jumped off, entered the building and sat amongst the massed herds … till dusk.
Under his guise as an ordinary Russian, he was conscripted into the Red Army. His observations of the causes of the failure of the various White forces are interesting:
The complete absence of an acceptable programme alternative to Bolshevism, the audibly whispered threats of landlords that in the event of a White victory the land seized by the peasants would be restored to its former rulers, and the lamentable failure to understand that in the anti-Bolshevist war politics and not military strategy must play the dominant role, were the chief causes of the White defeats. This theory is borne out by all the various White adventures … the course of each being, broadly speaking, the same. First the Whites advanced triumphantly, and until the character of their regime was realised they were hailed as deliverers from the Red yoke. The Red soldiers deserted to them in hordes and the Red command was thrown into consternation … Then came a halt, due to incipient disaffection amongst the civil population in the rear. Requisitioning, mobilisation, internecine strife, and corruption amongst officials, differing but little from the regime of the Reds, rapidly alienated the sympathies of the peasantry, who revolted against the Whites as they had against the Reds, and the position of the White armies was made untenable. The first sign of yielding at the front was the signal for a complete reversal of fortune.
Taking advantage of his army unit being dispatched to the front line in September, Duke managed to persuade his commanding officer – who was a tsarist – to allow him to travel to Russian-occupied Latvia with two other soldiers rather than the rest of the regiment. When they reached Latvia, they jumped from their train and disappeared into the forest, joining thousands of other ‘Greens’ – soldiers who chose to be neither Red nor White, but avoided both factions by hiding in the forests. With secret documents concealed about his person, copied onto sheets of toilet paper, Duke finally reached safety.
Meanwhile, the Russians were making progress against the White Russian and Estonian forces in and around Pskov, and on 10 August the Bolsheviks tentatively offered to recognise Estonian independence in return for a voluntary evacuation of Russian territory by the Estonian forces. This was, of course a welcome development for Estonia, but both the White Russians and the British opposed such a development. The British military attaché in Tallinn, Brigadier Frank Marsh, summoned both Estonian and White Russian officials to the British Embassy in an attempt to push through an agreement that would satisfy British support of both an independent Estonia and the White Russians. He informed the Russians that it was imperative that they formed a Northwest Russian government; this would then have to recognise Estonian independence – unless they did so, the Western Powers would no longer support them. Yudenich had little choice but to agree. However, it appeared that Marsh – and his superior, General Sir Hubert Gough, head of the Western Powers’ military mission to the Baltic – had greatly exceeded their authority in forcing such a recognition of Estonia; Kolchak was still refusing any such recognition, and many officials in London were furious about the developments in Tallinn. Meanwhile, Russian troops recaptured Pskov on 8 September.
Politicians from all three Baltic States met in Tallinn on 14 September, where they agreed that they would negotiate for a collective peace with Russia. Formal talks with the Estonian government began on 16 September in Pskov, but were broken off after two days. Part of the reason for this was that the Baltic States had attended a conference in Riga on 26 August, where they met representatives of the Entente Powers. Here, they were urged to support a planned attack by General Yudenich; clearly, supporting such an attack would not be possible if they were actively negotiating a peace settlement. But, given what had been agreed in Riga, it seems odd that there was any point in meeting the Bolsheviks in Pskov. Perhaps it was intended to mislead the Russians; perhaps it was an indication of different factions within the Baltic States pursuing different agendas.
On 10 October, Yudenich launched his Northwestern Army in an attack towards Petrograd. He had spent the months since his previous attack increasing the size of his force; it now numbered over 18,000, with artillery support and two armoured trains. His force even included six British tanks, crewed by British volunteers. The forces opposing him were numerically greater, but were severely handicapped by poor supplies and chaotic organisation. He had tried to secure Finnish support for the attack, but although Mannerheim was in favour, the Finnish president, Kaarlo Ståhlberg, refused permission. Admiral Kolchak, who was nominally the leader of the White Russian cause, had previously refused to recognise Finnish independence from Russia, and Yudenich’s somewhat belated assurances that he would ensure recognition of Finland were in vain.
At first, the attack of the Northwestern Army enjoyed considerable success. The Bolshevik forces were now under the command of Trotsky, Stalin having returned to Moscow. The contrast between the leadership of the two sides could not be greater; Trotsky, the great orator of the revolution, inspired his fellow citizens to take up arms for the defence of the Russian capital, while Yudenich and Rodzianko squabbled about who should command the army in the field. From the moment they crossed the frontier, White Russian soldiers began to desert, even when they were advancing and winning battles. Some joined the Reds, but most were simply taking advantage of being on Russian territory to try to make their way to their homes. Kingisepp fell on 12 October, and, the following day, 1,600 Estonian troops came ashore near the fortress of Krasnaya Gorka. Despite fire support from Estonian and British warships, the attempt to capture the fortress failed, though fighting continued until the end of the month before the Estonians withdrew. On 20 October, the leading elements of Yudenich’s force reached and captured Pavlovsk and Tsarskoe Selo, on the southern outskirts of Petrograd.
At approximately the same time, the White Russian forces under Denikin in southern Russia were making good progress and it seemed as if the Bolsheviks might be overthrown. Yudenich was aware of the fragility of his army and the numbers of desertions it was suffering and was anxious to reach Petrograd as soon as possible; however, he was also aware that if he were to reach and capture the Russian capital, he would then inherit a huge problem. The city was close to starvation, and whoever controlled it would be responsible for finding sufficient food supplies to prevent a mass uprising. Hoping that the British and others would be able and willing to come to his aid, he ordered his troops to press on as rapidly as they could. Even Lenin began to consider abandoning Petrograd, but Trotsky had no intention of allowing any such thing. He insisted that the cradle of the revolution could be turned into a fortress, in which every house would be a strongpoint and the White forces would be bled to death. Critically, the rush by Yudenich’s troops to reach Petrograd included a division that had actually been ordered to march to the southeast of the city in order to cut the railway line from Moscow. With this vital supply route intact, the Bolsheviks were able to bring up substantial supplies. On 21 October, a Bolshevik counterattack recaptured the southern suburbs of Petrograd. The Fifteenth Red Army drove up from the southeast and attacked towards Volosovo, threatening the supply lines of the Northwest Army. Heavily outnumbered, Yudenich had no option but to withdraw towards Estonia. On 15 November, his troops retreated from Kingisepp, abandoning their last major possession inside Russia. As they fell back, they encountered villages and towns full of White Russian supporters, who had intended to follow them into Petrograd:
Every village, every house and every shelter of any sort were literally overflowing with miserable, hungry, freezing people. There was not a single sheltered corner where the retreating soldiers could warm themselves and rest. The fighting men therefore had to live without shelter during days and nights when the temperature was 10–18 degrees below zero.
Yudenich intended to withdraw to Estonia and regroup, but the Estonian government had no intention of allowing this. As the White Russians reached the border, most were disarmed. The official reason was that Estonia did not wish to allow such a large well-armed body of demoralised men to wander within Estonia; another explanation is that the Bolsheviks had offered to recognise Estonian independence in return for bringing the war to an end.
For Yudenich, this was the end of his attempts on behalf of the White Russian cause. He was placed under arrest by the Estonians but was released after pressure from Britain and France. He left the region and made his home in France, where he avoided involvement in White Russian circles. He died near Nice, in 1933. He left behind him the disarmed men of the Northwest Army who spent a terrible winter finding whatever shelter they could. Thousands died of starvation and disease; a few of their officers managed to travel to join White forces elsewhere, but for most it was enough to find a way out of their predicament. Many drifted back across the border into Russia and made their peace with the Bolsheviks, returning to the homes they had left many years before. Others made new homes in other parts of the world; few were allowed to settle in Estonia.
The Soviet forces that had pursued Yudenich’s retreating army now attacked towards Narva in an attempt to seize the city as a final bargaining chip in the peace negotiations. The Seventh Red Army made some initial gains, but was forced to halt at the end of November to regroup. Peace talks opened on 5 December in Tartu, and, hoping to exert leverage in these negotiations, the Bolsheviks renewed their attack on 7 December, with the Fifteenth Red Army joining the assault nine days later. After breaking through the Estonian lines, the Russians crossed the frozen River Narva south of the city, but the following day the reinforced Estonian 1st Division counterattacked, slowly driving the Bolsheviks back despite suffering heavy losses. In the peace negotiations, the Bolsheviks suddenly made a surprise demand for a strip on either side of the Narva to be kept free of fortifications; when the Estonians refused, they made a final attack on 28 December. By the end of the year, exhaustion and snow brought all combat operations to an end, and the Bolsheviks dropped their demand.
A ceasefire came into effect on 3 January 1920, and the Treaty of Tartu was signed on 2 February. The treaty specified the border between the two nations, with a strip of land to the east of Narva remaining in Estonian control, and allowed for movement of displaced Russians and Estonians to their homelands. It also included a renunciation of any Russian claim to Estonian territory and a transfer of gold from Russia to Estonia, representing Estonia’s share of the gold reserves of the Tsarist Russian Empire. For both sides, this treaty represented a significant landmark. For Estonia, it amounted to a ‘birth certificate’ for the nation, while for Lenin’s Russia, it was the first treaty agreed with a foreign power. Estonia had gained her independence, but at a substantial cost: military casualties in the war were estimated at over 3,500 dead and nearly 14,000 wounded. In addition, Narva had suffered substantial damage, with many civilians killed or wounded. Nevertheless, the nation could look forward to a new future.