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The Lithuanian Wars of Independence, also known as the Freedom Struggles (Lithuanian: Laisvės kovos), refer to three wars Lithuania fought defending its independence at the end of World War I: with Bolshevik forces (December 1918 - August 1919), Bermontians (June 1919 - December 1919), and Poland (August 1920 - November 1920). The wars delayed international recognition of independent Lithuania and the formation of civil institutions.



After the Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was annexed by the Russian Empire. The Lithuanian National Revival emerged during the 19th century and the movement to establish an independent nation-state intensified during the early 20th century. During World War I, Lithuanian territory was occupied by Germany from 1915 until the war ended in November 1918.

On February 16 1918, the Council of Lithuania declared the re-establishment of independence from all previous legal bonds with other states. The declaration asserted the right to self-determination, meaning the creation of a state within ethnic Lithuanian territories. The publication of the Act of Independence was initially suppressed by the German occupation forces, but on March 23 1918, the Germans acknowledged the declaration; their plans had shifted to the establishment of a network of satellite countries (Mitteleuropa). However, Germany did not allow the Council to establish a Lithuanian military force, police force, or civic institutions. On November 11, 1918 Germany signed an armistice on the Western Front and officially lost the war and control over Lithuania. The first national government, led by Augustinas Voldemaras, was formed. Voldemaras issued a declaration that Lithuania did not need a military force, as it was not planning to engage in warfare, and that only a small militia was needed. This view was unrealistic, since military conflicts soon erupted.

Formation of the army

The first legislative act creating an army was passed on November 23, 1918. Its development and organization moved slowly due to lack of funding, arms, ammunition, and experienced military commanders. On December 20 Antanas Smetona and Augustinas Voldemaras went to Germany to request assistance. This arrived at the end of 1918, when Germany paid the Lithuanian government one hundred million marks in reparations; the organization of the new Lithuanian army proceeded under the auspices of the German army, which was withdrawing in stages. However, the departure of both leaders created a difficult domestic situation. The Council of Lithuania released Voldemaras' cabinet; Mykolas Sleževičius became Prime Minister of Lithuania and formed a Cabinet on 26 December 1918. Perceiving an imminent threat to the state, he issued a proclamation several days later. Directed at Lithuanian men, the proclamation invited volunteers to join a force to defend the country.

Lithuanian volunteers who agreed to join the military force were promised free land. Fulfilling its Armistice obligation to support Lithuanian independence, Germany initially tried to organize a volunteer force from units remaining in Lithuanian territory, but those attempts failed. Crimps were sent to Germany to recruit volunteers. A division of volunteers was soon formed, who were paid 5 marks per day plus 30 marks per month. The first units began arriving in Lithuania during January 1919, although some of them were sent away because they were in a poor condition. By the end of January, 400 volunteers were stationed in Alytus, Jonava, Kėdainiai, and Kaunas. They formed the basis for the 46th Saxonian division, renamed in March to the Southern Lithuanian Saxonian Volunteer Brigade. The brigade consisted of the 18th, 19th, and 20th regiments. The last of these German troops, also known as Freikorps, would leave Lithuania during July 1919.

After successful attempts at mustering a voluntary force to defend Lithuanian territories, mobilization was begun on March 5, 1919 to expand the Lithuanian armed forces. It applied to men born between 1897 and 1899. At the end of summer 1919, the Lithuanian army numbered about 8,000 men. During the battles that followed, 1,700 Lithuanian volunteers died, more than 2,600 were injured, and 800 were missing in action. Historian Alfonsas Eidintas cites the total deaths as 1,444.[1]

War against the Bolsheviks

Lithuanian - Bolshevik war
Date December 1918 - August 1919
Location Lithuania
Result Lithuanian victory
pro-German Freikorps
 Russian SFSR
Flag of the Lithuanian-Byelorussian SSR.svg Lithuanian-Byelorussian SSR
Lithuania 8,000 Lithuanians in 1919
10,000 pro-German Freikorps
Advance of Bolshevik forces (red arrows). The red line shows the Bolshevik front in January 1919.

On November 13, 1918, the Soviet Russian government renounced the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which had assured Lithuania's independence.[1] The Bolsheviks attacked Lithuania from the east trying to prevent its independence and to spread the global proletarian revolution. These actions succeeded in some states, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine, which were also briefly independent but then fell under Soviet rule soon after the civil war in Russia had ended. In Lithuania this effort was not successful.

On December 8, 1918, a temporary revolutionary government in the capital city of Vilnius was formed, consisting solely of members of the Communist Party of Lithuania. Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas became its chairman. The following day a workers' soviet was formed and declared that it had taken control of Vilnius. However, Voldemaras' government and a Polish committee also declared their control of the city at the same time. The Germans left Vilnius on December 31, 1918. On January 5, 1919 the Red Army took Vilnius and advanced further to the west. Local Polish paramilitary platoons led by general Władysław Wejtko fought the Red Army in Vilnius for five days; the Lithuanian government had left Vilnius along with the regular German Army. On January 1, 1919 local communists in the town of Šiauliai, about 200 kilometers west of Vilnius, rebelled and created a 1,000-man "Samogitian Regiment"; when the Red Army entered the town on January 15 Soviet power already existed there. On January 18 the Soviets and Germans signed a treaty and designated a demarcation line that barred Bolshevik forces from directly attacking Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city. The Red Army would need to attack through Alytus or Kėdainiai.

German volunteers led by Rüdiger von der Goltz arrived in Lithuania, took up positions along the Hrodna-Kaišiadorys-Kaunas line, and helped the Lithuanian forces, commanded by Jonas Variakojis, to stop the Red Army advance near Kėdainiai. On February 8, during the course of a reconnaissance mission, the first Lithuanian soldier to die in the wars, Povilas Lukšys, was killed near Taučiūnai. On February 10 the joint forces captured Šėta and forced the Red Army to retreat. The success of this operation lifted the Lithuanian army's morale. During the first half of February 18, the regiment of Saxon volunteers stationed between Kaišiadorys and Žiežmariai engaged in skirmishes on their line, and the joint force captured Jieznas in an operation held between February 10 and February 13. After this setback the Bolshevik 7th Riflemen Regiment began to disintegrate, and many soldiers deserted. The regiment could have been completely destroyed, if the Germans had not refused to pursue the retreating units.

On February 12 Bolshevik forces attacked Alytus. Lithuanian 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th companies of the 1st Infantry Regiment had to withstand pressure from the Red Army, while members of the German units left their posts. During this battle the first Lithuanian officer to die in the wars was killed: Antanas Juozapavičius, the commander of the 1st Infantry Regiment. After the loss of their commander the regiment began retreating towards Marijampolė. On the night of February 14-15, German forces retook Alytus.

Towards the end of 1918 the officer Povilas Plechavičius, together with his brother Aleksandras, began organizing partisans in Skuodas. On February 9 the partisans took an oath, and on February 16 they paraded in the town square. A partisan unit commanded by army officers was also organized in Joniškėlis.

The advance of Polish (blue arrows), Lithuanian (dark purple arrows), Latvian/German (white arrows from west), and Estonian/Latvian (white arrows from north) forces. The blue line shows the Polish front in May 1920.

The movement of the Bolsheviks towards East Prussia worried Germany, and they sent volunteers (Brigade Shaulen) commanded by General Rudiger von der Goltz to free the railroad line linking Liepaja, Mažeikiai, Radviliškis, and Kėdainiai. At the end of February the Lithuanian partisans, supported by German artillery, took Mažeikiai and Seda, and pursued Bolsheviks to Kuršėnai. On February 27, 1919, German volunteers supported by Plechavičius' partisans and Joniškėlis' partisans, defeated the The Samogitian regiment in a battle near Luokė. By that time the regiment had been incorporated into the Red Army's 2nd Latvian International Riflemen Division. On the same day the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Litbel) was declared. On March 7, 1919 the Germans took the town of Kuršėnai, on March 11 - Šiauliai, on March 12 - Radviliškis. On March 14 Lithuanian partisans and German forces captured Šeduva. The German troops were active in Lithuania until May 31, 1919.

In Kėdainiai a stationed volunteer regiment had secured its positions; in March it started small expeditions into nearby towns. Local volunteers with good knowledge of the location succeeded in driving Bolshevik supporters out of Ramygala, Truskava, and Krekenava, but these areas were soon recaptured by the Bolsheviks. These expeditions into several towns were successfully carried out until the end of March. As a reward for its successful operations, the volunteer regiment was given a name on March 22: the Separate Panevėžys Volunteer Regiment. Due to a succession of losses, the Bolshevik forces stationed in Panevėžys and Kupiškis rebelled, and were quelled only by a Red Army Division from neighboring Latvia. The Bolshevik morale underwent deeper declines, and between March 19 and March 24 their forces left Panevėžys. Lithuanian forces entered the city on March 26, but the Red Army retook it on April 4.

In April the Lithuanian army began moving towards Vilnius, taking Žąsliai and Vievis, but their advances stopped on April 8. In the meantime, on February 19, the Polish army had taken Vilnius from the Bolsheviks and forced them to withdraw their left wing from territories south of the Neris River. The shortened front line that resulted allowed Lithuania to send stronger forces to northeastern Lithuania, and carry out operations there. By May 3, the Separate Panevėžys Volunteer Regiment, supported by the 18th regiment of Saxonian volunteers, had secured Siesikai, Atkočiai, and Deltuva. They had also captured Ukmergė; Lithuanian units were the first to enter the city.

In the beginning of March the mobilization began and Lithuanian forces increased their numbers. At the end of April the Lithuanian army's chain of command was reformed. General Silvestras Žukauskas was designated Chief of Staff, and on May 7 he assumed command of the entire Lithuanian army. A complete reorganization took place over the next new weeks, and the strengthened Lithuanian forces were now ready to push the Red Army back. Žukauskas decided to concentrate his Lithuanian forces in two areas. The first brigade, centered in the Ukmergė-Utena-Zarasai region, was called the Vilkmergė Group; the second brigade, centered in the Kėdainiai-Panevėžys-Rokiškis region, was called the Panevėžys Group. Operations planning was undertaken during the middle of May.

On May 17 the reorganized army carried out its first operation, capturing the town of Kurkliai. Preparations were made for an advance on Anykščiai, which was taken on May 19, along with Skiemonys and Alanta. On May 22 the Lithuanian forces launched an advance on Utena, reaching the village of Diktarai. The initiative was met by a counterattack, and the Lithuanian forces retreated. The attack was stopped for several days, and line Alanta-Skiemonys-Anykščiai was taken. A drive towards Utena started on May 31, and the city was secured on June 2.

The Panevėžys Group launched a drive towards Panevėžys on May 18. On May 19 the brigade secured Panevėžys and Raguva; on May 20 its field staff moved to Panevėžys. The city withstood a Bolshevik attack that took place on May 21 and 22. On May 24 Žukauskas ordered both groups to push farther. The Panevėžys Group advanced towards Kupiškis and secured Subačius on May 25. On May 30 they took Rokiškis; Bolshevik forces left Kupiškis on the night of May 30 - 31, and Lithuania secured that city on June 1. The advance continued, and on the 10th of June Lithuanian forces reached the territory controlled by Latvian partisans (Green Guard) and supplied them with munitions.

The Lithuanian successes continued, and by the end of August, the Bolsheviks were defeated near Zarasai. On October 2 Lithuania took Griva, a suburb of Daugavpils. The Lithuanian forces stopped at the Daugava River near the border with Latvia, and the front line stabilized. The short-lived Litbel government was discontinued.

On June 12, 1920, Lithuania signed a peace treaty with the Russian SFSR. Russia recognized Lithuania's independence and its right to the Vilnius region. This treaty was not recognized by Poland or by the short-lived Belarusian National Republic. Several historians have asserted that despite its treaty with Russia, Lithuania was very close to being taken over by local communist forces that were backed by the Bolsheviks. In this view, it was only the Polish victory against the Soviets in the Polish-Soviet War that disrupted these plans.[2][3][4][5] According to the historian Alfonsas Eidintas, the failure of the Bolshevik takeover attempt was due not to military events but to the Bolsheviks' failure to engage the majority of the Lithuanian population.[1]

War against the Bermontians

War against Bermontians
Date July 26 - December 15 1919
Location Lithuania
Result Lithuanian victory
 Lithuania West Russian Volunteer Army
Lieutenant-general Pranas Liatukas Pavel Bermondt-Avalov
~20,000 52,000[6]

The Bermontians, named for their leader Pavel Bermondt-Avalov and formally known as the West Russian Volunteer Army, were a mixed German-Russian army. The army included Russian prisoners of war, released by the German Empire after promising to fight against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, and members of the Freikorps, stationed in Latvia and Lithuania after Germany lost the war.[7] The official goal of this army was to fight Bolsheviks along with Aleksandr Kolchak's forces, but its actual agenda was the retention of German power in the territories they had taken during World War I.[8]

At first the Bermontians operated mostly in Latvia, but in June 1919, they crossed the Lithuanian-Latvian border and took the town of Kuršėnai. At that time the Lithuanians were engaged in battles with the Bolsheviks and could only issue diplomatic protests.[7] By October, the Bermontians had taken considerable territories in western Lithuania (Samogitia), including the cities of Šiauliai, Biržai, and Radviliškis. After they had annexed a town, the Bermontians enforced a rule that only the Russian language could be used to conduct administration.[9] They became notorious for robbing and looting the local populace, who began organizing local partisan groups.

During October 1919, Lithuanian forces attacked the Bermontians, achieving an important victory on November 21 and 22 near Radviliškis, a major railway center. The Lithuanians collected significant spoils of war there, including 30 airplanes and 10 cannons.[7] Later clashes were stopped by the intervention of an Entente representative, the French General Henri A. Niessel, who oversaw the withhdrawal of German troops.[9] The Lithuanian military followed the retreating Bermontian soldiers to prevent them from further looting and to ensure their complete evacuation. By December 15, the Bermontians were completely removed from Lithuania.

War against Poland

Polish-Lithuanian war
Date September 1 - October 7, 1920
Location Lithuania
Result Inconclusive
 Lithuania Poland Poland

In June 1920 the Russian army had taken Vilnius. Shortly after their defeat in the Battle of Warsaw, the withdrawing Red Army handed the city over to Lithuania under the terms of the peace treaty signed on June 12. Negotiations were started in an attempt to avoid an armed conflict between Poland and Lithuania. On October 7, the Suwałki Agreement was signed. However, on October 8, before the agreement was to formally take effect, General Lucjan Żeligowski, acting on orders from the Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski, staged a mutiny by Polish troops. The Vilnius and the Suvalki regions were overrun. Initially the Polish forces did not meet much armed resistance, and a later Lithuanian counter-offensive was stopped by Military Commission of League of Nations. Since the Vilnius region was controlled by Poland, the Lithuanian government declared Kaunas the temporary capital of Lithuania. The dispute over Vilnius would continue throughout the interwar period.

Żeligowski's Mutiny

After a staged mutiny arranged by Polish Chief of State Józef Piłsudski carried out of Polish forces led by general Lucjan Żeligowski took control over Vilnius in the fall of 1920. Shortly after Lithuanian forces started to gain upper hand in this conflict rebel forces were supported by Polish regular army. This military action is considered as continuation of Polish-Lithiuanian war in historiography.

Armed conflict with Latvia

In the summer of 1919 the Lithuanian army, advancing against the Bolsheviks, crossed the Latvian border and reached the Daugava River, remaining in the eastern part of the ethnically-mixed Augšzeme region. The army, declaring that it would not proceed past Lithuanian borders, had committed to leaving the area as soon the war with the Bolsheviks ended. In January, 1920, the Latvian and Polish armies took Daugavpils from the Bolsheviks, and the Lithuanian army was relieved of this direct front line against the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, during the summer of 1920 the Lithuanian army was still stationed in this disputed territory. On October 12, 1920 the Latvian army used the Polish-Lithuanian conflict to attack weakened Lithuanian positions.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Eidintas, Alfonsas (1999). Lithuania in European Politics. Edvardas Tuskenis, Vytautas Zalys. Macmillan.,M1.  
  2. ^ Alfred Erich Senn, The Formation of the Lithuanian Foreign Office, 1918-1921, Slavic Review, Vol. 21, No. 3. (Sep., 1962), pp. 500-507.: "A Bolshevik victory over the Poles would have certainly meant a move by the Lithuanian communists, backed by the Red Army, to overthrow the Lithuanian nationalist government... Kaunas, in effect, paid for its independence with the loss of Vilna."
  3. ^ Alfred Erich Senn, Lietuvos valstybes... p. 163: "If the Poles didn't stop the Soviet attack, Lithuania would fell to the Soviets... Polish victory costs the Lithuanians the city of Wilno, but saved Lithuania itself."
  4. ^ Antanas Ruksa, Kovos del Lietuvos nepriklausomybes, t.3, p.417: "In summer 1920 Russia was working on a communist revolution in Lithuania... From this disaster Lithuania was saved by the miracle at Vistula."
  5. ^ Jonas Rudokas, Józef Piłsudski - wróg niepodległości Litwy czy jej wybawca? (Polish translation of a Lithuanian article) "Veidas", 25 08 2005: [Piłsudski] "defended both Poland and Lithuanian from Soviet domination"
  6. ^ Lieutenant Colonel Jaan Maide (1933). [ "II"] (in Estonian). Ülevaade Eesti Vabadussõjast (Overview of Estonian War of Independence 1918–1920). Estonian Defence League.  
  7. ^ a b c Simas Sužiedėlis, ed (1970-1978). "Bermondtists". Encyclopedia Lituanica. I. Boston, Massachusetts: Juozas Kapočius. pp. 335-336. LCC 74-114275.  
  8. ^ (Lithuanian) Kamuntavičius, Rūstis; Vaida Kamuntavičienė, Remigijus Civinskas, Kastytis Antanaitis (2001). Lietuvos istorija 11–12 klasėms. Vilnius: Vaga. pp. 354–355. ISBN 5-415-01502-7.  
  9. ^ a b Eidintas, Alfonsas; Vytautas Žalys, Alfred Erich Senn (September 1999). Ed. Edvardas Tuskenis. ed. Lithuania in European Politics: The Years of the First Republic, 1918-1940 (Paperback ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 38–39. ISBN 0-312-22458-3.  

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