Book review, Cooperation, EU – Baltic States, Latvia

International Internet Magazine. Baltic States news & analytics Sunday, 10.12.2023, 01:06

Danish contribution to Latvian independence: a century’s experience

Eugene Eteris, European Studies Faculty, RSU, BC International Editor, Copenhagen, 31.05.2019.Print version
Danish volunteer soldiers took part in the Latvian war for independence: about 200 Danish voluntaries risked their lives (and almost ten times as many were ready to do so) in order to counter international threats to a new Republic. Besides, Denmark rendered a great moral and material assistance showing that Latvia was not alone in the hostile world.

Denmark’s role in the renewal of Latvia’s independence through Danish-Latvian relationship has been strong from the very beginning, i.e. hundred years ago. And Denmark has consistently supported Latvia on her road towards the EU and NATO.  


Danish historian at the Royal Danish Defence College, Ph.D. Mikkel Kirkebaek has written a beautiful brochure on the Danish soldiers’ participation in the Latvian battle for independence. Full of vivid description and evidences’ reminiscences, it will serve as a valuable account of Danish-Latvian cooperation and friendship. *)  


Danish people, through a contingent of volunteering soldiers, actively assisted Latvia in establishing her nationhood: during 1919, more than two thousand Danes volunteered to participate in the war for independence in the Baltic countries; mainly due to financial problems, however, only approximately 200 men came to join initially the Estonian army but actually fought longer on in the Latvian territory.


*) Kirkebaek M. Danish volunteer soldiers in Latvia’s war of independence. -Embassy of Denmark, Latvia. Riga, 2019. – 32 pp.


Note: Mikkel Kirkebaek (b. 1973), PhD. Historian and author of several books and articles about Danish volunteer corps; he is a researcher at the Institute for the Study of Military History, Culture and War at the Royal Danish Defence College.

Nice book’s introduction

The book is nicely introduced by the two forewords: by Hans Brask, Danish Ambassador and Guntis Ulmanis, President of Latvia during 1993–1999; the latter’s great grand uncle Kārlis Ulmanis has been one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Latvia and the country’s Prime Minister during 1918–1934, as well as the President during 1934–1940.

Quite noticeable, that Mr. G. Ulmanis called it “constellations of circumstances” that offered Latvia a “window of opportunity” occurred at the end of the First World War and in the early 1990s” to strive for independence (p. 5). And he was right, Latvia learned lessons: first, small nation can preserve their independence only in making partnerships with international security and economic communities (hence, the EU and NATO have been Latvia’s foreign policy priorities); secondly, in the Baltic Sea’s geopolitically sensitive region, small nations absolutely need trustworthy allies; Denmark has been one of such allies, noted Mr. G. Ulmanis.


Short Danish troop’s history

Between 1917 and 1920, situation in the Baltic Sea Region has been chaotic both politically and geographically: during these years, the region’s traditional great powers (Germany and Russia) have been eliminated from the Baltic Sea’s eastern parts and the new states appeared, i.e. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

However, in 1917, the German military forces managed to get control over the entire Baltic region; but then a ceasefire was declared on November 11, 1918; it marked the war’s conclusion, but the German troops were still situated on great region’s territories as far as Narva in northern Estonia.

But even at that time, on November 18, 1918, Latvian nationalists, in the newly created “Peoples Council of Latvia,” declared Latvian independence and formed a provisional government led by Karlis Ulmanis


Latvian national forces began their armed and political struggle for an independent Latvia, beginning what would come to be known as “the Latvian war of independence”. The struggle went on two fronts: removing German troops from their territory as well as keeping the Russian Bolsheviks away. Without weapons, money and manpower, however, Latvian national movement needed external assistance for their struggle to succeed.

By the end of 1918, there was an intense new states’ diplomatic pressure on the Scandinavian countries to ensure that they would send a joint Scandinavian force to the Baltic States.  

Although it was against the Danish rules to fundamentally oppose sending Danish weapons and soldiers to the Baltic States - due to the policy of neutrality - the Danish government decided to allow for the recruitment of volunteers “opening doors for the preparations for a Danish military expedition to the Baltic states as a private enterprise” (p. 12).

As soon as the German troops were leaving the Latvian territory, the Russian Bolsheviks entered the Latvian territory: on January 4, 1919 Rīga was conquered and Prime Minister Karlis Ulmanis and the Latvian the government had to flee to Liepaja (Libau).

At the end of the month (January 21), the Latvian delegation, led by Ulmanis, arrived in Copenhagen and started talks with the Danish government to encourage volunteer troops to assist in their fight for independence.

Next year (January 15, 1919), the national representatives - Estonian Ants Piip and Latvian Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics - participated at the Paris Peace Conference (it established a new territorial and political order in Europe after World War I). In addition to the recognition of several independent states in the Baltic region, the Baltic representatives asked for some loans to safeguard independence. The British Treasury, the main financial supporter’s policy tool, was inclined to support the recruitment of volunteer soldiers from Scandinavia paid with Baltic or Scandinavian funds. It seems all sides at that time were “firmly convinced that it would be in Denmark’s interest to stop Bolshevism in the east before it spread to the west” (p. 13).

The initial construction of a Danish voluntary expeditionary force has been prepared by two people: a young student, Iver Gudme and the experienced businessman Aage Westenholz. Both had had experience through participation in Danish aid program during Finnish Civil War in 1918.  

There were, however, two stumbling blocks on the way: the Latvian government failed to obtain the financial resources needed to realize the Danish-Latvian military cooperation in 1919; at the same time, the Danish Military Ministry prohibited the recruitment of permanent military personnel for foreign services.

Despite all the troubles, at the end of March, 1919, 200 Danish volunteer soldiers had been shipped under the command of Danish reserve officers. The corps departed by ship from Copenhagen (March 26), and after transit through Finland, the voluntary Danish force arrived in Estonia (April 4, 1919). The military leadership was put on the shoulders of Lieutenant Richard Gustav Borgelin, who, after arriving at Tallinn, was appointed Estonian captain.

After a quick advance through Estonia, the corps on May 29, 1919 entered the Latvian territory; so, it was exactly a century ago...

The political and military situation in Latvia at that time was extremely complicated: Russian Bolshevik-forces occupied most of the country at the beginning of 1919. However, it was possible to assemble an anti-Bolshevik alliance: of Latvian national troops, Russian “white troops” (opposing Russian revolution) and German volunteers consisted of local German-Balts and “Reich-Germans”. The positive effect was quick to come: by the end of March 1919, most of Kurzeme was freed; and at the end of May the united alliance’s forces liberated Rīga.

Danish soldiers’ appearance on the Latvian soil expired on September 1, 1919; after that they returned to Denmark. The efforts of the Danish corps were not forgotten in Latvia: they were praised for its endurance during the Latvian campaign; for example, the company’s commander Richard Gustav Borgelin was awarded the highest Latvian military order, the Order of Lachplesis (Bearslayer); at the end of May 1927, another four corps’ participants received this military honor (p. 30).   

Military and moral support

For the new Latvian state, it was of great moral importance that Western troops volunteered in Latvia to participate in the national independence war; that meant the Latvians had not been alone in the hostile world. Therefore, the efforts of the Danish corps were not forgotten in Latvia.

The efforts of the Danish corps may not have had a decisive military influence on the outcome. In their tough struggles against German forces, the Latvian forces themselves liberated their country. The Danish aid was a welcomed and treasured contribution, but the Latvians themselves freed Latvia, concluded the book’s author.

His timely research has taught Latvians to learn from historical experience and to appreciate trustworthy allies’ assistance, both military and economic, depending on the time.  


The support goes on…

The most significant and latest Danish contribution to Latvian security in the region has been the Latvian Land Force Infantry Brigade’s participation in the international peace-keeping missions (as part of the Danish Division) with other regular joint exercises. Since 2019, as part of this force, NATO multinational division North, will be based in Latvia.

In this way, the Latvian Republic’s founding fathers’ aspirations, i.e. Kārlis Ulmanis and his associates “to place the armed forces of Latvia under the command of a Danish officer, to some extent have been realized” (p.7). 

As Kirkebaek noticed: the Danish defense would increase its presence in the Baltic States: as part of the NATO’s defense in the East, Denmark has contributed 200 soldiers to the NATO force “Enhanced Forward Presence” in 2018; it is likely that a similar contribution would take in spring 2020. At the same time, Denmark has offered to lead a new NATO division headquarters in Rīga, which will support the Baltic countries’ defense planning.  

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