Napoleonic wars in Latvia 1812

Alexander triumphal arch

Alexander triumphal arch dedicated to the victory over the French in 1812


While the French “Grande Armee” led by Napoleon I itself headed on route to Moscow in 1812 to meet its ultimate defeat and destruction, other French and allied Prussian armies entered the territory of Latvia. The Napoleonic warfare in Latvia has been poorly researched and mostly forgotten. However, there are many interesting and tragic events like the burn down of the Riga suburbs and many battles that took part on the frontlines. Therefore the story of Napoleonic wars in Latvia is worthily to be told.

The French Revolution (1789-1794) and the rise of the Corsican officer Napoleon set the whole Europe on fire. There were few countries that Napoleon had not yet invaded; even Egypt was on his hit list. Those few countries that enjoyed relative peace and freedom from France were Russia, Great Britain and Sweden. Russia started to prepare for war with France already in 1797 when by Czar Paul I ordered to get conscripts in the Baltic provinces. The period of duty in Russian army was for 25 years and many tried to escape it by deserting or bribing. Only nobles, clergyman, scholars and landowners were free from the draft. When in 1805 Russia joined the war against France the size of the drafted man increased. The territory of Latvia was entered by French secret agents who tried to make Latvian peasants to start uprisings. Most notable French inspired uprising took place in Kauguri on 1802 where only guns and cannons could stop the peasants. On 1806 at many places in Courland revolts erupted because of the close presence of French troops. Napoleon had captured Warsaw and many waited for a liberator to set them free from hated German landlords and Russians.

However, in 1807 Napoleon and Czar Alexander I signed a peace treaty that made both allies. Russia joined the French imposed naval blockade of Great Britain and got free hand on Finland and Balkans. We can compare the Tilsit peace treaty with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In both cases, Russia guaranteed its counterpart relative security and assistance and also gained free hand to annex nearby countries. And in both cases Russia was unwilling to fulfill its obligations and provoked its ally to attack her. Russians arrested British ships and confiscated their products. In return British sent naval expeditions near the Russian coastline. Russians made their own patrol ships accompanied by Cossack patrols on beaches. The main naval defense base was the fortress of Daugavgrīva at the mouth of Daugava near Riga. On 1808 Russia started war against Sweden. Now for the first time the coast of Courland was used by Russian border guards.  There were small skirmishes with the British fleet. After the defeat of Sweden and annexation of Finland the border guard of Courland was disbanded.

The Russian-French relations worsened. Russia was unwilling to fulfill the blockade of the Great Britain that hurt the Russian economy. Also Napoleon and Alexander I had disagreements over Constantinople, Poland and Scandinavia. The last straw for Napoleon was the new customs tariffs that broke the treaty of Tilsit. Napoleon realized that war is inevitable and started to prepare for attack against Russia, before it attacks on him.

Russia was aware of the danger. The Russian War minister Barclay de Tolly convinced the Czar to prepare for war. Army was reorganized; the size of the field army was increased. Russians relayed on the fortresses of Riga, Daugavpils (Dinaburg) and Kaunas. Riga still had stone walls, while much of 31 000 population lived outside them. That sparked danger and descent of the Baltic Germans Barclay de Tolly in 1811 visited Riga and ordered to improve the fortifications. Many new military objects were built. On May 1812 the new commander of the Baltic provinces was Magnuss Juhan Gustav von Esen a Baltic German from Estonia. He was also the General Governor of Riga. Russian forces were small: 30 infantry battalions, 4 cavalry squads, 7 artillery batteries and some Cossack units. About 12-13 thousand poorly trained men. Riga was also guarded by the fortress of Daugavgrīva with some 3000 soldiers, 40-50 ships and 2-8 cannons and 50-70 sailors on each ship. The fortress of Daugavpils was defended by 3300 men by the command of the general Hamen. In June rumors spread about the arrival of Napoleon in Konigsberg. Many landlords from Courland fled fearing the peasant revolt. From 21 to 24 June all stock of crops from country was moved to Riga. The church of St. Peter and Dome Cathedral was turned into barn. The streets were covered with straws to prevent the explosions of the French cannon balls. Even cattle and horses were ordered to be sent to Riga, but that order was not fulfilled.

On the night of June 24 without the declaration of the war Napoleon’s army invaded Russia. At the first day the fortress of Kauna was taken. The Grand Army consisted 650 000 men, 182 000 horses and 1100 cannons. Only 350 000 of the whole army were French about 20 nations were forced to take part. After four days Vilnius was taken and the interim government of Lithuania was established. After that French head to Vitebsk. Napoleon’s original intention was to meet and defeat the Russian army in open battle near the border. After that he would dictate the peace terms.  However, the Russian army retreated inland and as more Napoleon pursued them the more his army went further away from the French supply points. That was the Russian trap.

To assist the main invading force, the allied Prussian army had to secure the Napoleon’s army background. The commander in charge was Alexander Macdonald with his 10th corpus (302 00 men). Prussians entered Courland with 20 infantry battalions, 24 squadrons, 3 horseman and infantry batteries with 8 cannons in each, 3 field engineers, 5 artillery and 2 pontoon units. Together – 22 officers and 17 180 soldiers. Prussia was promised that in case of victory it would gain the Baltic provinces. The main Prussian tasks was to defend the Neuma river and the main supply line, restrict the Riga garrison from offensive actions, be ready to cross river Daugava to endanger the Russian right flank, capture Daugavpils, siege and capture Riga and take over Courland to gain the resources.

On 26 June drunk Russian cavalry officer Apushkin warned the general governor of Courland Fridrich von Ziver that he had spotted fast approaching enemy along the road to Dobele heading for Jelgava. Ziver reported this to Riga sparking great panic. In the end it turned out that Apushkin had mistook the dust clouds made by cattle herd that was lead by Russians themselves, for enemy army. Apushkin was arrested and demoted to the simple soldier.

On 16 July the corpus split near the city of Panavezys. The army divided in three wings one heading to Jelgava (Mittau), other to Jaunjelgava (Friedrichstadt) and Jēkabpils (Jacobstadt), other went to Leipāja (Libau) and Ventspils (Windau) to take over the ports.  The Russian 1st Army led by Barclay de Tolli crossed river Daugava and retreated to town of Drisa and later to Smolensk. Only Russian forces remaining were the 1 Corpus lead by Peter Ludvig Adolf Vitgenstein.

Liepaja was taken without a fight in 19 July and Prussians moved further into Courland. On 18 July Prussians captured the town of Bauska and Skaistkalne. Russians organized a counter attack to recapture Bauska. Russians moved forward with 8 infantry battalions, 4 cavalry squadrons and 2 batteries. Near Bauska at Kārļa Muiža Prussians met Cossacks and pushed them back only to be ambushed by more hiding Cossacks. Exited Cossacks started to chase and became attacked by two Prussian dragoon squads.  Cossacks were forced to draw back. Prussians learned from captured Cossacks, that Russians had established near Iecava and decided to wait for the arrival of the main troops. At midday Prussians head towards Iecava. Prussians defeated the Russian majority and Russians retreated to Riga. On 20 July Russians evacuated Jelgava. Latvian peasants were hoping that they will receive the same rights as the peasants in France. However, the Prussian administration issued a statement that serfdom will not be abolished for now. Instead more taxes were collected to support the invading army.

After Jelgava was taken next target was Riga. The worrying part for Russian administration was the vast suburbs of Riga outside the walls of Riga. Since the living space within thr walls was too small, people built houses outside them. But, that lead to their destruction incase of war. From 1559 to 1812 these suburbs were burned down for seven times. On 29 June the state of siege was declared in Riga. Craftsmen were forbidden to leave. All explosive and flammable mixtures were taken away. A food reserves for four months were placed even in churches. The House of Blackheads was turned into war hospital but the Great Guild into war supply storage. British gunboat squadron entered river Daugava. After the battle near Iecava on 19 July, general Essen ordered to burn down the Jelgava suburb of Riga- today’s district of Torņkalns and Āgenskalns. After the capture of Jelgava on 21 July more suburbs named after Moscow and Petersburg were ordered to be burned down. However, the protests by the civilians made Esen halt his intentions. But, soon he learned about the coming of the Prussian troops and in 23 to 24 July ordered to burn down remaining suburbs. Prussians approached Ķengarags and Katlakalns. Hesen was worried about Prussians being so close and ordered to burn down everything outside the walls. Russians wanted a free field for fire. In result 5 churches, 702 living houses, 35 state estates and 36 storages perished. According to data gathered in 1813 the damage done to civilians was 16 821 rubles. 6882 people were left homeless. In following years Russian royal family made donations and Alexander I gave credits to Riga to cover the losses.

The burning of the Riga suburbs 1812

The burning of the Riga suburbs 1812

Many thought that Esen made a hasty decision by burning down the suburbs and in the result he was fired. He was replaced by Italian marquise Paulucci. A year after he went to rehab at Baldone and ended his life in suicide.  Prussian forces actually did not want to attack Riga at that moment.

From 24 to 29 July a frontline was established from Sloka to Daugavpils that without serious changes held intact until 20 December when Prussians abandoned Courland. Prussian staff was located at Olaine and Pētermuiža. Fortifications were made to prevent Russian counter attacks.

However, few battles took place. At 4 August Russians made attack on Sloka. Together with gun boats and artillery fire they hoped to seize the Prussian forts. On 7 August it was achieved, however small firefights took place around Sloka until October. On 22 August Russians attacked the Prussian controlled town of Ķekava. The Prussians were taken by the surprise and town was captured. Later at 24 August Prussians managed to gain back many lost positions.

In September Prussians were planning to start attack on Riga. However, Napoleon halted this. After the battle at Borodino he wanted to propose peace negotiations. Also in August Russians made a daring raid on Danzig (Gdansk) forcing French to move forces to that location. That made the Prussian attack force much weaker. On 22 September new commander in chief Fabian Gothard Schteinheil with his 25 000 soldiers entered Riga. He led a successful campaign against Sweden and conquered Finland. On 26 August Russians advanced to Rundāle and Jelgava. At Rundāle where past dukes of Courland had built a magnificent baroque castle Prussians had placed large cannons for desired siege of Riga. Russians wanted to capture them. After many days of fighting slowed down by autumn rain, Russians retreated on 30 September. The attack was a failure and both commanding officers Hesen and Schteinheil were fired.

On Latvian eastern region Selonia also small battles were fought. Jēkabpils the main center in the region was taken without any resistance on 22 July. The main commander Macdonald was leading the capture and stayed there until 13 August. Russians indented to recapture the city. Jēkabpils is located on the shores of river Daugava and on the other side the town called Krustpils (Kreuzburg) was located. Prussians built a bridge connecting both cities, but after close up of the Russian forces the bridge was removed. Krustpils had large Medieval fortress that became the main point of action. It was captured by Russians at night of 12 -13 November. Also the Jaunjelgava was more important strong point. The fights for this town were so harsh that it was retaken by both sides many times. Only on November it was finally taken by Russians.   On 15 November Russians crossed the ice and captured Jēkabpils.

Bitter battle was fought for the fortress of Daugavpils on 13-16 July. The fortress was important defense position on route to Petersburg. Commanded by Peter Vitgenstein the fortress was meant to be taken by the Italian duke Nikola Charles Udino. In daring raids across the river Daugava, French failed to capture the fortress. Some Portuguese soldiers also took part in this battle. At 16 July Udino was ordered to move to Orsha to join the main force. Russians learned about this and surprised the French near the village of Ezerosi. Russians gained victory inflicting heavy causalities on French. After the victory over Napoleon, Russian military took great attention on rebuilding and upgrading the Daugavpils fortress.

Despite the numerous requests by Napoleon for Macdonald to cross the river Daugava, he never did that. With his force he could do that and join other French armies. Riga and Daugavpils would be left behind enemy lines. On 11 December Macdonald received sad news about Napoleon retreating from Moscow. The full evacuation of Courland begun. About 30% of the corpus force was lost since June. The remaining men were ill and hungry. Polish and Bavarian soldiers were atrocious and burned and looted many homes. On 18 December the retreat begun. On 21 December Jelgava was taken by Russian troops. At 27 December Russians took Klaipeda (Memel). At the night of 30-31 December Prussian general York signed a capitulation to Russia.

Despite the initial orders not to destroy Courland, at the end it was ravaged by the invaders. Places were Prussians established their bases were damaged, like the Rundāle palace that was turn into war hospital. Many churches were damaged and looted.

In the end Russian army marched all the way to Paris. Stalin was always envious on Alexander I because Stalin’s army “only” reached Berlin. Many monuments commemorating the victory of 1812 were built-in Riga. On 15 September 1817 a Victory Column was built at the Riga Castle square. 7,15 meter tall column with the sculpture of the goddess of Victory Nike stood for many years until First World war when it was evacuated. However the barge carrying the sculpture capsized and it was lost forever. The column stood until 1938, when it was removed by Kārlis Ulmanis government. On 1987 it was indented to restore the monument and place at Jēkabs square. But, the protests from society halted this. Now the parts of the monument lay at Riga city depot at Varoņu Street 3.

Another monument was the Alexander Triumphal Arch built-in 1817 at the end of the Alexander Street (now Brīvības Street). On 28 August 1818 Alexander I himself came trough the arch on his way from Paris.  On 1904 the Arch was moved to Šmerlis because it stood in the way of the first Riga viaduct. On 1936 the arch was moved to Viesturdārzs park where it now serves as an entrance.

Last monument dedicated to war of 1812 was monument to Barclay de Tolly since he originally came from Riga. The monument was placed on 1913 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the war. On 1915 it was evacuated and was lost. During the Stalin’s rule, the site of the monument was actually indented for the Stalin statue. However, his death prevented this. On 2002 businessman Evgeny Gromberg managed to restore the monument on its old pedestal.

Such was the Napoleonic invasion in the territory of Latvia at 1812. The greatest battles were not fought here, however they played important role in Latvian history. The wave of French liberal reforms eventually came to Russia and forced to abolish the serfdom. The leadership of Riga learned from the mistakes of the 1812 and demolished all the stone walls. Riga became modernized city with industrial capabilities and grew larger. The Russian victory in 1812 made Russia closer to the Western world. The modernization that begun after the defeat of Napoleon benefited the whole Europe.


The Victory Column of 1812



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