Kallas: Estonian independence war's bloodiest battle still relevant today

The prime minister, with members of the volunteer Estonian Defense League, at a ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of the Battle of Paju, January 31, 2023.
The prime minister, with members of the volunteer Estonian Defense League, at a ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of the Battle of Paju, January 31, 2023. Source: Government Office

The Estonian War of Independence of 1918-1920 spelled great loss of life, hardship and confusion for Estonia, while at the same time the opportunity victory provided for state-building has a modern-day parallel in Ukraine, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said Tuesday.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of the Battle of Paju, one of the key engagements of the conflict, the prime minister said: "Why is it our duty to help Ukrainians defeat evil? 104 years ago, our ancestors fought for Estonia's future."

"The War of Independence was arduous since the enemy was overwhelming, but yet the war had its turning point," she continued.

"This is that point at which an enemy starts to fall behind a homeland's defenders - whose military might may be numerically more modest, but its will to defend, and the motivation of the whole nation, is indescribably greater," the prime minister, speaking at the memorial site in in Valga County (pictured), went on.

"This is how our path to victory began," she added.

This was also relevant to Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine, nearing its first anniversary, the premier said.

"Ukraine has proven that, by acting smartly and demonstrating courage, it is also possible to fight off a major aggressor. Now, and to the best of our ability, we are assisting Ukraine to enable them to defeat evil so that not only they, but also the whole world, will be able to live in freedom and democracy."

Just as Ukraine today receives the backing, to various extents, from many Western nations, recently most vividly expressed by the donation of dozens of Leopard, Abrams and Challenger heavy tanks, the support of Western countries was key to Estonia's success on the battlefield, primarily against the fledgling Soviet Russian state, in the war which took place over a century ago.

"We desperately needed the help of our allies to defeat that overwhelming adversary. Finland, Great Britain, Denmark and Sweden reached out to us, not to mention the Ingrians and the Baltic Germans," the prime minister continued.

The Battle of Paju, January 31, 1919, was the bloodiest battle in the entire Estonian War of Independence, Kallas added, and was also notable as being the engagement where one of the most heroic leading figures on the Estonian side – lieutenant Julius Kuperjanov, the commander of the partisan battalion – fell in battle.

The battle reflected the importance of nearby Valga as an important rail junction, whose liberation significantly influenced the outcome of the conflict.

As reported by ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Tuesday, Olev Teder, chair of the Kuperjanov Society, said of the battle: "Considering the circumstances at the time, unit commanders carefully considered their decisions in line with orders they had received from higher command. Every drop of spilled blood dampened the enemy's angry ambitions, and brought victory closer."

The battle resulted in 51 Estonian and Finnish volunteer soldiers killed, along with 120 wounded, Teder said.

Nearly a year after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Prime Minister Kallas said, Estonia's will and ability to defend itself has only strengthened, as evidenced by a surge in numbers joining the Defense League (Kaitsellit) and its women's equivalent, Naiskodukaitse, the prime minister noted.

Representatives of both organizations took part in Tuesday's ceremony.

Ceremony at the Battle of Paju memorial, January 31, 2023. Source: Jürgen Randma

The ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of the Battle of Paju was held Tuesday evening at the village of the same name, a few kilometers to the northeast of Valga, and very close to the border with Latvia.

After heavy fighting, the Estonians' Tartu-Valga group was able to eject Red Latvian Riflemen from Paju Manor, despite facing a force around four times its size.

The Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion, one of the most prestigious units in the Estonian Defense Forces and a part of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, which covers South Estonia, is named after Julius Kuperjanov (1894-1919).

Ingria was the historical name for the region surrounding present day St. Petersburg, in Russia, and was the homeland both of Ingrians (Izhorians) and Ingrian Finns, both Finno-Ugric peoples.

The Baltic Germans made up the bulk of the landowning classes in Estonia and Latvia until the two countries became independent. Estonian and Latvian forces also ended up fighting, and defeating, German Baltische Landeswehr and Freikorps units, at the Battle of Cesis (Estonian: Võnnu) in Latvia, six months after the Battle of Paju.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja

Source: Government Office, Aktuaalne kaamera

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