Defence minister joins Finnish counterpart in key battle centenary memorial

Jüri Luik at the Battle of Paju memorial on 31 January.
Jüri Luik at the Battle of Paju memorial on 31 January. Source: Ministry of Defence.

Minister of Defence Jüri Luik (Pro Patria) took part in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Paju, a key engagement in the Estonian War of Independence.

Mr Luik was joined by his Finnish opposite number Jussi Niinistö, in the South Estonian town of Valga. The Battle of Paju and the Estonian victory there liberated the town, which is on the border with Latvia (the town effectively straddles the border, with Valka on the Latvian side) marking the completion of the liberation of the whole of South Estonia by Estonian forces.

The Tartu-Valga Combat Group, included the Finnish Põhja Poegade Regiment, who bolstered the outnumbered Estonians, more than doubling the size of the force (from 300) and bringing several machine guns and artillery pieces.

The Estonian-Finnish forces faced around 1,200 Bolshevik troops which included elite Latvian riflemen.

Fighting started on the night of 30 January, 1919, and continued through to late afternoon the next day. It was notably fierce; by the end over 150 Estonian losses (including 34 fatalities) were incurred, to twice the number of Bolshevik. The final episode of the engagement saw hand to hand combat in the grounds of Paju Manor, whence the battle derives its name.

Kuperjanov falls

One noted loss was Julius Kuperjanov, commander of the Tartu County Partisan Battalion, who died two days after the battle from wounds he sustained there. The present-day Kuperjanov Battalion, an infantry unit, of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) is named in his honour.

''The Battle of Paju was won, and Valga liberated, only because our Finnish brothers fought bravely and selflessly by our side,'' said Mr Luik in his speech at the memorial plaque outside St. John's Church in Valga.

''For this, they have our eternal gratitude and remembrance,'' he went on.

''Estonia has been strong when we have had good friends and allies. This remains the case today, and our goal is to do everything in our power to see that it remains this way,'' Mr Luik continued, noting the importance of a volunteer-based national defence, in tandem with reserves and strong allies, which emerged in the war of independence and survives down to the present day as embodied by the EDF.

Sowed seeds of present-day EDF

''Everyone has the ability to participate in the defence of their country. Let us preserve and value that spirit which gave courage and certainty to those who fought in the War of Independence, since it is with such support that our country will continue to exist,'' emphasised Mr Luik.

Mr Luik and Mr Niinistö also participated in a memorial ceremony at Paju Manor Park.

Mr Niinistö also inspected Armoured Train No. 7, Wabadus, a recently-completed replica of armoured trains used extensively in the independence war, usually to punch a hole through enemy lines which further troops could exploit. A reenactment of the engagement also took place.

Finnish defence minister Jussi Niinistö at the memorial. Finnish troops played a pivotal role in the engagement. Source: Ministry of Defence.

The Estonian War of Independence began in November 1918 when Bolshevik forces, themselves fighting for control of the vast lands to the east in the Russian Civil War, invaded the country. Estonia had declared independence in February of that year. The tide had already started to turn earlier in January 1919, not least with the liberation of Tartu. The war ended in February 1920 with the Treaty of Tartu, which recognised the existence of an independent Estonian state.

Various foreign personnel and units served in the war. As well as Finnish troops, soldiers from Denmark and Sweden played an important role, and Britain's Royal Navy engaged in securing the position of Tallinn and protecting Estonia's coastline from the Russian Baltic Fleet.

Some Estonian offensives went beyond the country's borders, notably the capture of the Russian city of Pskov to the southeast of Estonia, in May 1919 and the Battle of Cēsis in northern Latvia the following month. The enemy in this latter engagement was not Red forces, but rather at the opposite end of the spectrum, in the form of the Baltische Landeswehr. The Landeswehr constituted forces supporting the ethnically German aristocracy of Latvia and southern Estonia, in the process of being disenfranchised during the war.

Finland itself experienced a war delineated along similar lines in the first half of 1918, though this took the form of prinicpally a civil war, with a certain amount of German intervention on the side of ''White'' Finnish forces.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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