At the Grave of the Unknown Estonian (2)
On Remembrance Day, Cēsis resident Mike Collier visited one young man who helped to make Estonia and Latvia what they are today.
Even by Baltic standards, Cēsis has more than its share of military graveyards. The northern Latvian town of around 15,000 (Võnnu in Estonian, Wenden in German) has always been a place of strategic importance as the graves of local Latvians, Russians of the White and Red varieties, Baltic Germans, Imperial Germans and Third Reich Germans all testify. There is even a small 'Turkish' graveyard, final resting place of captured Central Asian prisoners from the Russo-Turkish war.
Each of these sites has its own pathos - the Turks stranded in the chilly north, the overgrown tangle of the German WWI cemetery, the grim script recording the ages of the town's schoolboy defenders during the struggle for independence. But the one I tend to visit on November 11 in lieu of all the others is more pathetic still - a single grave on a little overgrown hillock just outside the city limits that is the final resting place of an unknown Estonian fighter.
What is known is that he died here and he died in 1919. The date surprises many of us from the West who were told the First World War, the Great War, the War To End All Wars, took place from 1914 to 1918.
But here in the Baltic states, while the Treaty of Versailles settled the war on paper and led to the formal recognition of the three new Baltic republics, there was still an awful lot of dirty, disappointing, deadly fighting to be done. As well as the Soviets who had replaced the tsar but remained just as hostile to the freedom of the Baltic states, the Landeswehr - displaced German troops who felt they had the right to be masters in their former Baltic dominions - still held control over large swathes of territory.
It was these Germans who in June 1919 clashed with Latvian patriots and a large number of Estonian troops advancing to help their southern neighbors after pushing the Bolsheviks out of southern Estonia. In the forests and hills, the swamps and rivers around Cēsis, a victory was won that ensured not just Estonia's freedom but Latvia's too - a fact recorded in iron script in both languages on the stone war memorial in the middle of Cēsis.
Located down a deeply-pitted road, with the hulks of a few Soviet-era farms and factories nearby slowly rusting to the sound of a continuous electric hum, it is not a particularly beautiful spot save for a few soaring fir trees that cast deeper shadows than do the anemic birches.
The sign saying 'Pieminas vieta' (Memorial site) points back across the road into a tangle of forest that leads nowhere. In fact, you need to walk in precisely the opposite direction, up the hillock where the ground becomes a little less spongy. After just fifty metres, the grave appears, looking tiny at the foot of one of the giant firs, almost like a child's grave. A wooden cross has a plastic sign attached to it: "Siin puhkab tundmatu eesti sõdur" (Here lies an unknown Estonian soldier). There is nothing else, not even a Latvian translation. This is an Estonian place.
I lay my flowers on the tiny tump behind the cross. I tried to find them in Estonian colours, but on Lāčplēsis Day - the Latvian remembrance day - it wasn't surprising that blood red and white was all that was available. I light a candle and take off my hat for a minute, feeling the damp rise up my neck from the swamp and sodden farmland all around.
It must have been a particularly lonely death this young man endured, not so far from his homeland but away from it nevertheless. The last thing he would have seen was this Latvian land all around him and my one wish is that he did not have time to curse it as he fell, that in June the sun still felt warm and the surprise was so great that he did not have time for regrets.
To die defending your own home is a great sacrifice. To die defending your neighbor's is something truly remarkable and worthy of remembrance, particularly by another stranger who has benefited from Latvia's freedom and Estonia's sacrifice.
War creates odd alliances and enmities, so perhaps it isn't as strange as it first seems that I, an Englishman, should feel it is important to visit the grave of an Estonian in the middle of Latvia.
I put my hat back on, walk down the hill and only then do I remember that exactly the same thing happened last year. I reach up and push the sign it around on its axis so that it points properly towards the grave again. The wind must have blown it around during the previous twelve months, I suppose, but it adds to the feeling that someone is nearby.