In the third and final part of a special three-part series dedicated to the pivotal events of Feb. 23-25, 1918, Piret Kriivan, host of Vikerraadio's "Estonia's Story," spoke with Tallinn City Archives director Küllo Arjakas about the events of Feb. 25, including what was arguably the first battle fought in defense of the newly independent Republic of Estonia.
Feb. 25, 1918 was a Monday. The German Army had advanced toward Tallinn from the Western islands and toward Paide from Northern Latvia without any real resistance, with the exception of skirmishes with pro-Estonian units who had managed to gain power a day or two prior in some parts of the country.
In Tallinn, overnight on Sunday night, a series of small firefights broke out between the Bolsheviks and the Estonian Home Guard (Omakaitse), primarily in the port area, between the edge of Old Town and the old power plant, where the Russians had retained control of a small area. The Russian side suffered some fatalities, the bodies of whom were taken with them.
In the late hours of Feb. 24 and early hours of Feb. 25, a skirmish broke out between the Great Coastal Gate and the old power plant in which Johann Muischneek sustained an ultimately fatal injury. Tallinn Secondary School of Science graduate Feliks Kallis and a third, unidentified man were likewise injured.
Members of the Estonian Home Guard retreated to the shelter offered by Fat Margaret Tower, taking with them he injured Muischneek, who later succumbed to his injuries.
Latvian first to die for independent Estonia
In 1936, a commemorative plaque, the ultimate fate of which was unknown, was dedicated to Muischneek on the 16th century artillery tower. In 1991, when the Tallinn Secondary School of Science celebrated its 110th anniversary, a new commemorative plaque, now in the possession of the Estonian Maritime Museum, was dedicated to Muischneek, stating that Tallinn Secondary School of Science graduate and Home Guardsman was the first to die in a battle for the independent Republic of Estonia by Fat Margaret's Tower on Feb. 24, 1918.
As it turned out, however, many details regarding Muischneek were incorrect, including his having supposedly been a captain in the Russian Army and having attended Tallinn Secondary School of Science at all. It also turned out that Muischneek had been born Jānis Muižnieks near Võnnu, or the present-day Cēsis, Latvia.
According to church records, Muischneek died single at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, killed by a ricocheting bullet while defending the Great Coastal Gate from Russian sailors and the Red Guard. He was buried in Rahumäe Cemetery.
Independent Estonia's first parade
On Feb. 25, 2nd Lt. Konrad Rotschild, who had been appointed Tallinn city superintendent by the Estonian Salvation Committee, issued an order of the day to fly the Estonian tricolor. Recollections about the day conflicted, however it was likely, Arjakas believed, that not many blue, black and white flags were seen around town after all, as the order simply didn't reach many city residents.
Still others recall that there were many flags flown that day, but that they were in fact flags of Imperial Germany, as the city's Baltic German population had more or less heard that German forces were on the way and anticipated their arrival. It was likely, based on city demographics, that there were more German flags flown on Toompea Hill and in the city's Old Town, while more Estonian tricolors could be seen around the edge of the Old Town.
Nonetheless, the nascent republic would still manage to see its first parade that morning, even as the German Army marched toward the capital.
The morning's exact timeline was difficult to pinpoint, as information included in various sources conflicted, but sometime before noon, Konstantin Päts, prime minister of the new Estonian Provisional Government, emerged from Tallinn Secondary School of Science, in front of which the city's firefighters, Home Guard units, units of the Estonian Regiment and spectators were lined up.
Standing on the front steps of the school, Päts read the Estonian Declaration of Independence, or the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia, after which the orchestra present played "My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy," the Estonian national anthem.
The procession then began to move toward Peter's Square, known now as Freedom Square, but by the time the front end of the parade had reached the edge of the square, the first advance forces of the German Army had reached the city center by way of Pärnu Highway as well.
The parade nonetheless continued, with participants moving on to Town Hall Square, where the anthem was sung a second time. After this, some of the participants returned to the school building, while others had already begun to scatter. Around 1 or 2 p.m., German forces had occupied Peter's Square and Town Hall Square.
Arjakas believed it was entirely likely that Päts did in fact read the Manifesto from the front steps of the school at 11 a.m. that day, however whether what preceded this at 10 a.m. could be considered the first meeting of the Estonian Provisional Government or not was debatable. According to the recollections of Minister of Finance Juhan Kukk, which Arjakas noted tended to be unreliable, the Estonian Provisional Government held its first meeting at Tallinn Secondary School of Science at 10 a.m. on the 25th, where decrees and decisions were adopted that were to be announced to the public immediately together with the makeup of the provisional government.
It is unknown who exactly attended this meeting, but it was likely included about half of the ministers making up the Estonian Provincial Government. There is also no information regarding exactly what decrees or decisions were adopted that day.
Estonian diplomacy's first achievement
On the night before Feb. 25, a Salvation Committee delegation, including committee member Konstantin Konik, Minister of War Andres Larka and a number of officers, took a train from Baltic Station to Pääsküla to meet with the advancing German Army there.
The delegation was tasked with establishing contact with the command of the Imperial German Army and informing them of the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Estonia in hopes that Germany would not attack the capital city of a neutral country in a German-Russian conflict.
If the German Army would not refrain from marching into Tallinn, the delegation requested that they at least delay their arrival until noon on the 25th. The Germans agreed, as they wanted to be sure that the Russian Navy's Baltic Fleet had evacuated the port before their arrival, thus minimizing the risk that they would come under enemy artillery fire.
The Estonian Provisional Government, in any case, had been bought a few hours' extra time to act ahead of the arrival of the German forces the next morning, and a few thousand city residents would have more time in the morning to discover and read copies of the Manifesto and the Provisional Government's orders of the day that had been posted around town.
Manifesto translated into German
The night before the 25th, journalist Jaan Lintrop arrived in Paide with a copy of the Manifesto, of which copies began to be made. That morning, aided by Estonian soldiers who had arrived from Türi by train, Estonians began taking power in town. A number of local Bolsheviks were arrested in Paide that morning as well, and the Manifesto was read in Türi.
Paide town commandant Jaan Maide called for local Estonian troops and town residents to convene before the church at midday, where he read the Manifesto and the military unit's orchestra played the Estonian national anthem. Estonian soldiers also fired three shots in honor of the occasion. That day, copies of the Manifesto were made and the document was also translated into German, so that when the advance forces of the German Army reached Paide at around 6 or 7 p.m. that night, they had already been given a German-language copy of the Manifesto.
First battle for independent Estonia fought in Ambla
What Arjakas considers to be the first battle knowingly fought for a newly independent Republic of Estonia took place on the 25th as well.
Overnight on the 24th going into the 25th, Aegviidu postmaster Eduard Piibemann received a telegram from Tallinn indicating that Estonian independence had been declared in the capital city and that the final mail wagon dispatched from Tallinn would bring with it a copy of the Manifesto to Aegviidu.
Piibemann decided to act, and summoned local Home Guard members with whom he set up posts along Tallinn Highway so that they could confiscate weapons from the last of the escaping Russian soldiers. The morning of the 25th, however, Piibemann received calls at approximately the same time from the Ambla postmaster and Järva-Jaani pastor asking Aegviidu for help, as fleeing local Bolsheviks wanted to massacre trapped people before they left.
The Aegviidu town postmaster assembled as many members of the Home Guard in Aegviidu as he could find, once again announced the existence of the Manifesto, told the men about the calls for help he had received, and distributed the rifles they had managed to confiscate from fleeing Russians the night before. Piibemann also requisitioned five sledges and horse teams for transport. In all, about 20-24 men set out from Aegviidu toward Ambla.
Everything seemed quiet upon their arrival to Ambla, however, a larger squad of approximately 60-70 men, including Russian soldiers as well as Red Guard members, soon arrived from the direction of Järva-Jaani. The Aegviidu men were initially bold, and the opposite side was at a loss for how to respond when Piibemann read the Manifesto aloud to the Russians and thereafter commanded them to surrender their weapons. Once the Estonians began forcibly taking the guns from those Russians closest to them, however, Russian troops yet further way thereafter opened fire on the Estonian men.
What was initially just an exchange of fire quickly turned more serious as both sides took cover behind stone walls and fences. While the Estonians had the rifles they had confiscated from fleeing Russian soldiers the night before, the Russians were armed with a machine gun. The fighting in Ambla went on until around dusk that day, at the end of which four Estonian men had been killed, including railman Hans Rekka, farmer Gustav Tiismann and August Matsberg.
The deaths of these four individuals marked the first time someone had knowingly laid down their life for Estonian statehood, Arjakas found, as those participating in that battle were fully aware of the existence of the Manifesto and the fact that it had already been proclaimed in Pärnu and Tallinn in the days before.
Plans to take Rakvere shot down
The situation in Viru County, meanwhile, was different, as hundreds of armed soldiers belonging to various units of the 4th Estonian Regiment were located near Rakvere at the time. Until the 24th or 25th, Rakvere City Government had not been taken over by the Bolsheviks either; the previous government had continued to operate.
On the evening of Feb. 24, Viru County Workers Council notified the city government that they had decided for "strategic reasons" to relocate to Narva, and that Rakvere City Council should take over defense of the city effective Feb. 25 at noon. Rakvere city leaders understood this to mean that the Bolsheviks were set to leave the city and surrounding areas at any moment, and that it was clear that Bolshevik power in the region was set to collapse.
Late that night, Viru County Commissar Tõnis Kalbus received a telegram from Tallinn, one of several identical telegrams sent to various parts of the country, stating that Soviet power had collapsed and that Estonia had been proclaimed an independent country. Copies of the telegram were made using the county government's hectograph, which had been stowed in someone's private apartment for safekeeping for the time being; these copies were spread around town by hand the next morning.
On the evening of the 25th, a group of Estonian soldiers from the 4th Regiment and some more active Estonian youth held a secret meeting at Rakvere High School at which they decided they would take power in Rakvere. Just as the meeting was ending, final details were being discussed and the attendees were waiting for weapons to be delivered, a small group of Red Guard members who had gotten wind of the meeting reached the school and attacked, but as it was already dark, none of those fleeing through the back door and windows were hit. Nonetheless, plans to take control of Rakvere the next day were abandoned.
In the course of the same skirmish, Russian troops and Red Guard members arrested five Estonian youth who were to spearhead operations the next day as well as surrounded the Writers' Commando of the 4th Regiment, as they understood that said commando included more active and better educated men who supported Estonian national forces.
Late that night, ahead of their retreat, Soviet and Red Guard units looted military depots and stores of clothing in Rakvere, managing to half empty them and take the contents to the train station. An attempt was made at robbing the 4th Regiment's cash box, however the sentry posted to guard it fought back and successfully fended off the would-be robbers.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 26, the last train departed Rakvere toward Narva with the five young Estonian men arrested just hours before on board. The Estonian units in the city decided to attempt to stop the train, and a firefight broke out around the train station in which Ensign Arved Maasing was killed.
Soon afterward, the German Army reached Rakvere.
News of independence reaches Narva
At approximately 2 a.m. on the 25th, the same telegram that had been sent to Rakvere also reached Christian Kaarna, editor-in-chief of the paper Meie Elu in Narva. As soon as the telegram arrived, concerned about various potential provocations, Kaarna and other Narva city residents first went to the telegraph office to confirm whether the message they had received was legitimate or not. The telegraph office official not only confirmed that the telegram was legitimate, but that he had also gone against orders given by the Bolsheviks to report all private telegrams to them. As a result, local Bolsheviks were unaware that news regarding Estonia’s proclaimed independence had reached Narva.
At around 7 a.m. on the 25th, a meeting attended by about 40 men, including soldiers and members of various political parties, took place at the offices of Meie Elu during which they discussed their next steps, including whether to immediately usurp power from the Bolsheviks in Narva or not. Some were in favor of going this route, however others noted that the Estonians did not have enough power on their side in the city, which was at the time full of retreating Russian troops and armed Bolsheviks, and nobody could be sure how they would react. That day, Narva residents decided to dispatch representatives to Tallinn, Tartu and Rakvere to seek reinforcements.
2,500 copies of the telegram from Tallinn were printed in Narva on the morning of the 25th, and volunteers began to distribute them throughout the city, including to random passersby. A copy of the telegram was also read aloud at Narva Trade School. As soon as the Bolsheviks became aware that something was going on, the Kreenholm Red Guard began to retaliate, and the first arrests were made. Among those arrested was the director of the printing house where the copies of the telegram had been printed.
At around 9 or 10 a.m., Bolsheviks announced from the steps of Narva Town Hall to people in the square that no independent republic of any kind had been proclaimed in Tallinn, that the Bolsheviks were still firmly in power and it was just some White Guardsmen and their supporters that had staged a rebellion. As of noon that day, copies of the telegram from Tallinn were no longer being handed out, and Narva ultimately remained in the hands of the Bolsheviks for another week.
At the time, the area was filled at the time with considerable Red Guard units, the Narva Red Guard, Red Guard units who had retreated from Viru County as well as Bolsheviks and their armed supporters who had retreated to Northeastern Estonia from Northern Latvia and Southern Estonia and reinforcements sent in from Petrograd.
Given the drastically different situation on the ground, Narva, which would not be occupied by the German Army until March 3 or 4, would end up one of the only major cities in Estonia where the independence of the Republic of Estonia would not be formally proclaimed in the days leading up to or following Feb. 24.
Estonian tricolor first flown from Tall Hermann tower
In addition to other events of significance across the country to take place that day, Arjakas noted one more significant first to take place on the morning of Feb. 25. Namely, Johan Schmidt, Johannes Lippus and Artur Sälg, three officers of the 3rd Estonian Regiment, decided to fly the blue, black and white Estonian flag from Tall Hermann, the tallest tower of Tallinn’s Toompea Castle.
By this time, Toompea Castle had fallen mostly into disuse, but the three officers managed to find Johannes Üksi, then an official in the castle, and ordered him to produce the keys to the tower. The four of them then ascended the tower together, bringing with them a blue, black and white flag from the Headquarters of the 3rd Regiment.
After reaching the top, it was discovered that the flagpole’s pulley system was broken and the flagpole was icy besides, and after several failed attempts to raise the flag, it was decided that the three men would stand on one another’s shoulders. Sälg, the lightest of the three, then climbed to the top and simply tied the flag to the flagpole, reaching approximately half-mast.
The first Estonian flag to wave at the top of Tall Hermann remained there from the morning of Feb. 25 until two or three days later, when the Germans finally ordered it to be taken down.
Editor: Aili Vahtla