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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 20 November 2018

Alexander and the Baltic Landeswehr

I was in the Guards Chapel in London last July and came across the memorial to Field Marshall Harold Alexander. He is best known as the Supreme Allied Commander in Italy from September 1943 until the end of the Second World War. He was commissioned into the Irish Guards and there is a very fine statue of him outside the Guards Museum.

With my usual fascination for obscure conflicts, I noticed that his list of commands included the Baltic Landeswehr 1919-20. What on earth was an Irish Guards Colonel doing commanding what sounds like a German unit in 1919?

It has to be said that details of the Latvian conflict are a little thin on the ground. The Royal Navy’s intervention is well covered and I have a decent book on the Estonian War of Independence. 

However, we do know that Alexander was part of Sir Hubert Gough’s Allied Mission to the Baltic (an interesting character in his own right) tasked with removing Germans from the region and supporting the Baltic States against Bolshevik efforts to recover this territory. Fighting in the region was very confused with German forces trying to establish territory for themselves and local Germans (known as Balts). There were also nationalist units controlled by the newly formed Baltic States and the Russian White and Red armies.

The Baltic Landeswehr was originally commanded by a German of Scottish descent, Major Alfred Fletcher, who largely replaced native Latvians with Germans. After their defeat at the Battle of Wenden in June 1919, the allied mission negotiated the Strasdenhof armistice, which saw the withdrawal of German troops. Alexander took over the Landeswehr in July 1919, which left him in the bizarre situation of commanding a brigade sized force officered by his ex-enemies on the Western front.

The most detailed account of his service I have found is in Nigel Nicolson's biography 'Alex: The Life of Field Marshall Earl Alexander of Tunis' (London 1973). He spoke good German so there was no language difficulty and he started by removing the Germans, but not the Balts. He reorganised his command into three battalions and a cavalry squadron.

By October, he was in the front line undertaking major raids against Bolshevik positions. He then persuaded the Landeswehr to stay in position when a civil war was going on behind them. This loyalty held even when he was wounded in an attack on the village of Lievenhoff and spent two weeks in the hospital.

A major offensive was launched in January 1920, which liberated most of Latvia. The Landeswehr played a key role in that campaign, advancing 100 miles in 20 days and capturing over 800 prisoners. The opposition was not strong, but the weather was appalling.

Alexander was something of a romantic - a sort of Baltic Byron. He even considered purchasing an estate and staying in Latvia. However, the peace treaty resulted in the Landeswehr becoming a regiment in the new Latvian Army and he headed for home.

There are a few photographs of Alexander in the uniform of the Baltic Landeswehr knocking around the web.


Mark Collins posted these on Twitter. I doubt if those were regulation mittens!

There is a collection of mail sent by the British forces attached to the military mission. Most British troops understandably wanted to go home at the end of the First World War. There was also plenty of political opposition amongst the ranks and at home against the allied military intervention in the Russian Civil War. I did rather like this card, although perhaps not the most romantic effort to say, 'so get on with it'!

Overall, an interesting story that clearly had a big impact on Alexander. He met a number of his Balts again during the Second World War in Italy and later, when Governor General of Canada, secured visas for some of them.

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