The Baltic Campaign, 1918-1919

22 November 2018 | Liz Robertson

On 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front, but Europe was not at peace.

Tara Finn, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historian

The consequences of the Russian revolution in 1917 had caused Russia to agree a ceasefire with Germany in December 1917, followed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 which dismantled the Russian Empire.

Some of the countries affected, such as the newly independent Poland, had retained a strong sense of their own identity, despite having been divided between three empires simultaneously.  The drive for Polish independence had been of long standing.  By contrast, its equivalent in the Baltic States was a more recent phenomenon.

At the end of the First World War the Reds (Bolsheviks) were still fighting the Whites (Tsarists) for control of Russia.  The question of who ruled also determined what constituted sovereignty territory. The Baltic States were potentially part of the prize.  The Armistice agreement in November 1918 indicated a concern for the status of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which had been part of the former Russian Empire.

German forces were instructed by the Allies to remain in the Baltic to act as a safeguard against Bolshevik moves against the new states.  German Major-General Rüdiger von der Golz’s ‘Iron Division’ successfully cleared Latvia of Bolsheviks and then advanced into Estonia, before being instructed by the Allies to withdraw.

On 22 November 1918 the British Government sent a naval force to the Baltic under Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, prompted by the Estonian government’s request for arms to defend themselves against the Bolsheviks.  This consisted of five light cruisers, destroyers and a mine sweeper force as escort.  Admiral Sinclair’s initial instructions were vague, reflecting both conflicting and confused thinking in the British Government and a lack of accurate information about the situation on the ground.[1]  However, the Government recognised that the presence of Bolshevik ships on the Baltic coast represented hostile intent.

Baltic waters were dangerous.  Both sides had mined the waters during the war and the British had no maps to show where the dangers lay. Several British ships were sunk by mines in the winter of 1918-19.  Ice and the extreme cold made the conditions even more treacherous.  Additionally, there was direct fighting as the Bolsheviks aimed to put the British fleet out of commission.

In January 1919 Rear Admiral Walter Cowan was sent to replace Admiral Sinclair.  His remit, in support of the Armistice Agreement, was to keep the sea lanes open for the Allies and support the national governments of Estonia and Latvia, particularly by providing further weapon supplies.  Brigadier-General Frank Crozier was invited to train the new Lithuanian army and brought a large group of British officers with him to do so.  The country had little access to the sea, making naval support less suitable.  Air forces also operated in the Baltic, the Bolsheviks using planes that had been supplied to the Russians by the British and the French during the First World War.

Back in Britain, the Baltic campaign was contentious.  Both press and public opposed the idea of British forces becoming involved in another war so soon after the Armistice. 
Tara Finn, FCO Historian

There was further unease as Russia had been an ally and now the Bolsheviks were the enemy.  The newly autonomous Baltic countries fought fiercely to defend their nascent independence. That they were able to do should not just be credited to support of the Allies – British and Commonwealth forces and despite their misgivings, France and the United States – but to the Baltic citizens’ commitment and determination.

Naval and military resources were not the only ways that Britain was involved in the region.  Diplomatically, between 1919-21 British officials played a role in determining several boundary disputes in the Baltic.  These boundaries remained in place until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, when the maps changed again as a new shadow fell over Europe.

[1] France and the US were unsupportive of British involvement in the region and concerned about British aspirations for the region.