Estonia emerges

1918 - 1939

Germany withdraws

​In the last year of the First World War, Estonia – then part of the Russian Empire – declared its independence. Encouraged by the disintegration of the Russian Empire in 1917, as the Russian Civil War broke out, the Salvation Committee of the Estonian National Council chose the 24 February 1918 as the moment the Estonian people would forge their own future. The German Empire – at that point occupying Estonia - did not recognise the new state although with the defeat of the Central Powers and the capitulation of Imperial Germany, Germany withdrew its troops and formerly handed power to the Estonian Provisional Government.

The Estonian Salvation Committee, consisting of Konstantin Päts, Jüri Vilms and Konstantin Konik, was the executive body of the Estonian Provincial Assembly that issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence.

War of independence

However, a new challenge awaited this fledging state as the Russian Bolshevik Government, one of the warring factions in the Russian Civil War, chose not to recognise an independent Estonia and the Estonian War of Independence followed. Seeing the German forces leave Estonia, the Soviets saw an opportunity to expand their own sphere of influence.


However, despite this initial set back, the Estonians resisted strongly and with support from other countries, most notably the UK, were able to defeat both the Soviet forces and the armies of the Baltische Landeswehr in a series of battles, resulting in victory.

Estonian soldiers who fought in the Estonian War of Independence.

Soviet Offensive

The war began with the Soviet attack on Narva on 28 November 1918 which quickly fell to the Red Army. The city was unprepared for a serious assault and lacked the supplies or manpower to effectively repel one. The city effectively became a Soviet puppet state.

Battle of Lagna

"Brothers, Hurry to Join the Nation's Army!" Estonian Army Recruiting poster in 1918.

​Utria amphibious landing

On 17 January 1919, Estonian forces – the majority of whom were Finnish volunteers - undertook an amphibious landing at Utria beach. They were lead by an Estonian admiral named Johan Pitka and also were advised and assisted by a Swedish military contingent lead by a senior Naval officer, Martin  Ekström, and accompanied by two other officers – Captain Alexsander Paulus and Captain Anto Nestori Eskola. In total, the Estonian force numbered around 1900 men.  (Ekström – described in some sources as an ‘adventurer, gained noteriety as leader of the Swedish Nazi organization National Socialist Bloc and for his role in the Vyborg Massacre during the Finish Civil War in 1918.)

Facing the Estonian forces was the Soviet 6th Rifle Division, commanded by Nicolai Ivanov who led a total of 2700 soldiers. The 6th Rifle Division had previously taken part in the attack on Narva, the military action which had started the Estonian war of Independence. The landing was successful and resulted in the Estonians being able to advance further on and eventually capture Narva at the cost of 30 casualties. In contrast, the defending Russian forces fared less well and suffered around 300 dead.

Armored train gifted to the Estonian National Army by the British in 1919.

Fall of Narva

By January 1919, the Estonians had launched a counterattack against the Soviet forces with the intention of liberating parts of Northern Estonia which were occupied by the Russian forces. Narva was successfully captured on 17 January and in seeking to capitalise on this success, the Estonian forces pushed on, advancing into Southern Estonia. The Estonian Tartumaa Partisan Battalion along with supporting armoured trains and led by a Lt. Julius Kuperjanov, and eventually liberated Tartu – the second biggest Estonian city.

In response, the Soviets sent a detachment of elite Latvian riflemen to try and halt the oncoming Estonians as their advance threatened the town of Valga, where the sole railway connection to Riga, the capital of neighbouring Latvia, existed. So, it was of significant strategic importance to the Russians to hold on to this connection. The Estonian Commander-in-chief. Johan Laidnor reinforced his own Estonian forces with Finnish volunteers – titles ‘The Sons of the North’ and led by Colonel Hans Kalm.

Estonian soldiers during the War of Independence.

Paju Manor

If the Estonians were to liberate Valga, they first needed to capture Paju Manor. Estonian Partisans had already briefly captured it on 30 January but were not strong enough to consolidate their gain and were soon forced out by the more numerous Soviet forces. The Estonian commander, Julius Kuperjanov attacked again with 300 men, a couple of artillery pieces and 13 machine guns. Their armoured trains were unable to support the attack due to the destruction of the nearby Sangaste railway bridge. Facing the Estonians were 1,200 Latvian soldiers with double the number of artillery pieces and 13 machine guns, as well as an armoured train and several armoured cars.

The Estonians attacked directly, charging across open ground, and suffering heavy casualties from the Soviet machine guns. Kuperjanov himself was wounded in the assault, dying from his wounds two days later. Despite their losses, the Estonians pressed on – now led by Lieutenant Johannes Soodla and accompanied by reinforcements – 380 Finnish Sons of the North joined the attack bringing an additional four artillery pieces and nine machine guns.

By the evening, with heavy losses on both sides, the Estonians and their Finnish allies had managed to break through the Soviet defences, resulting in intense hand-to-hand fighting breaking out with the Latvian defenders. The pressure of the relentless attack forced the Latvians into retreating where they took further losses from the Estonian and Finnish artillery as they withdrew. With the capture of Paju Manor, the route to Valga was now open and undefended and the Estonian captured it the next day without facing any further resistance.

With Valga liberated, the Soviet’s lost their sole railway link to Riga and prevented the use of their armoured trains – a military asset the Soviets relied heavily on. This eventually led to the gradual liberation of all Southern Estonia.

In memory of Julius Kuperjanov’s heroics in battle, the Tartumaa Partisan Battalion was renamed Kuperjanov's Partisan Battalion and the name continues even to present day with the Kuperjanov Battalion being part of the modern Estonian Defence Force. The battle itself is commemorated by a granite monument at the site of the battle.

Memorial to the battle of Paju


Offensives into Russia and Latvia

Estonian armoured train.

Fighting the Landeswehr

Estonian soldiers with British 18 pound guns during the Estonian War of Independence.


Tartu Peace Treaty

On 2 February 1920, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed between the Republic of Estonia and Bolshevik Russia, recognising Estonia as a sovereign state, to which the Soviets were to pay a sum of 15 Million gold roubles as a former part of the Russian Empire; it also provided for the return of Estonian properties evacuated east during the Great War.

This helped gain Estonia international recognition which led to it becoming a member of the League of Nations in 1921.

Soviet diplomat Adolf Loffe signs the Treaty of Tartu, February 2nd, 1920.

A new constitution

The new Estonian constitution was guided by the following principles:

  1. All citizens of the Republic of Estonia, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin, and political views, shall enjoy equal protection under the law and courts of justice of the Republic.
  2. All ethnic minorities, the Russians in Estonia, Germans, Swedes, Jews, and others residing within the borders of the republic, shall be guaranteed the right to their cultural autonomy.
  3. All civic freedoms, such at the freedom of expression, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of association, and the freedom to strike as well as the inviolability of the individual and the home, shall be irrefutably effective within the territory of the Republic of Estonia and based on laws which the Government shall immediately work out.
  4. The Provisional Government will be charged with the immediate organization of the courts of justice to protect the security of the citizens. All political prisoners shall be released immediately.
  5. The city, county, and township local governments will be called upon to continue their work, which has been violently interrupted.
  6. For maintenance of public order, people's militia, subordinated to local governments, shall be immediately organized and citizens' self-defence organizations established in the cities and rural areas.
  7. The Provisional Government in instructed to work out without delay, on a broad democratic basis, bills for the solution of the agrarian problem, and the problems of labor, of food supply, and of finances.

The Estonian Declaration of Independence.