Return to: home > history > Latvia 1919 > terrain

Latvian Countryside in 1919

Latvia, like the other Baltic republics, is part of the extension of the great Russian plain, from which it is separated by no features of note. It is therefore basically low-lying without anything even approaching mountains.

The country can be, for wargaming purposes, divided into the bulk of the country, which is particularly flat, and the various hilly portions.

The flat bits

The coastal strip is sandy and relatively flat in the Riga area and north. Forest often reaches right up to the dunes of the wide sweeping Bay of Riga (nowadays at least, partly because the Soviets shifted people away from the coast which allowed the forests to regain previously cultivated areas). There are some wonderful beaches, and those near Jurmala have long been a desirable holiday location, but the fighting was generally inland, so we shan’t need to investigate the seaside further. The Kurzeme coast is cliff-lined, but that was even further from any action.

The centre of the country, physically and economically, has always been the Daugava river basin and the farming land that surrounds it. Most of the bigger inland towns surround the basin, so that to the west and south it reaches out to Tuckums, Dobele and Bauska, whereas it is less extensive to the north and east of the river and only reaches to Ogre and Silguda. Along the coast into Estonia is also quite flat. In these places there are only gentle rises in the ground rather than hills, getting even flatter towards the Daugava. There were plenty of small roads, since the terrain is so easy-going. At the time these were dirt, sometimes tree-lined.

Rye and oats and were the principal cereals, plus quite a lot of barley and potatoes. The fields were quite large and the relative fertility of the soil meant less was given to dairy pasturage than in the less productive areas. Nevertheless farmers tended to have a few cows and pigs, less often sheep, as well as their horse, so some pasturage was always present.

Everywhere one looks there are forests, but this is partly because of the lack of hills to block vision. These woods are generally separated from each other, not particularly large and some distance back from the main roads. I seems likely that many are where they are because that particular land is not the best suited for agriculture, so their interiors may be boggy – swampy forests are very common in the Baltic.

The Riga area is particularly flat, which leads to a couple of unusual features. To the west of the city there was a very large swamp in 1919, now mostly drained, limiting easy access to the city to a couple of roads. (The area is now largely covered in trees, which is a modern thing.) To the north of the swamp the Lielupe river meanders parallel to the coast, reducing the avenues of approach to Riga from that side to a small coastal strip and the gap between the river and Lake Babit. To the east of Riga the ground also had a tendency to be boggy, but here the major features are large slowly draining lakes, which again reduce easy access to the city.

The three main rivers – the Daugava, Gauja and Lielupe – along with a number of smaller ones, all drain into this basin, and exit at almost the same point in the Gulf of Riga. Because they flow over such gently sloping land they are slow and wide, frequently with marshy edges. The Daugava is a particularly large river over its whole length in Latvia, reaching half a kilometre wide at Riga, and thus was bridged only at a couple of towns in 1919, but the gentle banks and slow current meant that a determined opponent could still get across, particularly where there are islands. In their lower courses the Gauja and Lielupe are serious obstacles, but not in the same league as the Daugava. Most smaller river crossings were ferries, using a pair of boats with planks between them guided by a rope and powered by the current.

The hilly bits

Together the undulating plains of the main basin and coastal areas add up to 75% of the country. The remainder is three upland areas – a very mildly hilly zone in the inland part of Kurzeme which extends southwards into Lithuania, another more broken one north of the Daugava which extends into Estonia and the third, much more swampy, in the extreme east of the country. These are picturesque, with forests and numerous lakes and rivers, but agriculture is less profitable, with erosion a serious problems.

None reach great heights – the highest point above sea level in the country is only just over 300 metres – but are quite different from the plains around Riga. Being morranic they differ from “ordinary” hills in that they do not particularly form ranges and thus there are no obvious lines of access through them, nor wide valley floors. They can also be quite steep, despite the fact that few reach more than a 100 metres from valley floor to peak. In between them are areas of reasonably flat farmland, but the hills themselves are mostly not particularly fertile and thus are heavily forested.

The Gauja river valley through this zone is the major access route north-east from Riga, leading on to Tartu and Pskov, and was the focus of some of the most important fighting, so deserves a closer look. Standing on the top of Cesis castle affords a view of the surrounding area of small hills entirely covered in trees, which is a slightly false impression because the lower, flatter ground in between the hills is often farmed and the whole area is now a national park anyway. Nevertheless, the landscape here is one of isolated farming areas in forest, rather than the other way around. The type of farming also differs from the plains, with more emphasis on grazing cows rather than growing crops, although in 1919 when farming was more subsistence oriented there were more crops grown here too. The Gauja and Rauna rivers which surround Cesis have carved steep sided valleys and the ground is quite broken along their courses. Other streams in the area, however, have far smaller gradients and there are some quite boggy parts, which may have also meant that ditches were more common than in the Daugava basin.

There are also a few bits of the country where the swamps were particularly dense. One such area was the low country to the extreme east where, like the neighbouring Belarus, there is a large amount of swamp and swampy forest and plenty of lakes. Farming was even more restricted here, since hills are not favourable and the land so wet. However, this was only the scene of fighting vs the Soviets in early 1920, in winter when the water froze and the main terrain problem was the amount of snow.

The area around Limbazi, north of Riga, is also quite water-logged with quite a few small lakes as well as swamps. The forest cover is less dominant here than in the Cesis area, with large stretches of farming along the roads. The ease of defending such a difficult area may have ruled it out as an major avenue for the Iron Division’s main attack to the north.

The best fields would have grown cereals as in the flat areas, especially barley and rye, but being wetter potatoes were also more common. Flax was also grown in large amounts in these areas, and a bit of hemp. Dairy farming was common, so many fields were simple pastures (in fact, many of the crops were only grown to keep the cows over winter).

Features common to all the country

Whether in the flat or the hilly land though, many aspects of Latvia remain fairly constant. The fields are not hedged or fenced except sometimes along the roadside where, especially in the forested areas, very heavy lines of trees and scrub can accumulate. The soil is mostly quite sandy and entrenching must have been both easy, because the soil was easy to shift, and difficult because it tended to slide back down into the hole. Photos of trenches in 1919 mostly show them to be gently sloped with the troops lying prone.

Since not much of the country has any real gradient, streams and rivers have a tendency to meander lazily, with boggy patches along the edge, and frequently are tree lined, although this tends to be rather more like scrub in the flatter areas. Many waterways feel like they are just sitting on the surface of the land having not cut out any sort of gully, especially in the non-hilly zones.

Almost all of Latvia receives about 50cm of rain a year, though not necessarily in the same season, yet the fields do not appear to have been heavily ditched. Some roads had shallow ditches alongside, and also some fields too, but perhaps the tendency of the loose and sandy soil to collapse any deep ditch was the reason for this.

Forests were usually fairly clear of scrub and undergrowth, so did not present an enormous barrier to passage unless the ground was already broken or boggy. It was quite usual for artillery to set up on forest edges, for example.

Small villages are fairly rare, being more in the style of some houses accidentally close to each other than a proper village, and many farmers live in isolated farms or tiny hamlets (only in Russian-influenced Latgale do the farmers congregate more in tight villages). The larger villages follow the same rambling style – they generally do not form in a strip along a road, but wander off on side streets, with houses separated in apparently random fashion, forming an amorphous blob. Oddly, the villages (as opposed to the towns) tend to be off to the side of the main roads.

Farmsteads tend to be of several buildings, often surrounded by a wooden rail fence (usually rickety,  sometimes plashing). Stone walls are rare but do occur – for example the Straupe cemetery – in areas with suitable stones. Both country and village houses are often surrounded by trees, and frequently small orchards, though older photographs show less trees than nowadays.

The traditional building style in Latvia is the log cabin, and in 1919 these would be by far the most common country house. In most areas the overlapping logs are allowed to poke out in the corners, Russian style, although sometimes they are cut off flush. The logs used are generally quite large, giving walls perhaps 25 cm thick. A farming house was traditionally a long rectangular building, half-barn half-habitation, with a central door. To one side of the door the barn area, which often sheltered animals, was  not windowed. By 1919 the house side would often have a chimney and might have a couple of decent sized windows, but the older style was for very few, very small windows and no chimney. A farmstead would also have several smaller outlying buildings – animal dwellings, barns and perhaps a sauna – most of which would be largely without windows. The ricketiest outbuildings would be simple vertical plank jobs, but log construction was still normal for barns. Sometimes the buildings were given low bases of stonework, but country folk did not build stone dwellings. The roofs were normally thatched or shingled – in an unusual local style with very thin bark shingles – although by the 20th Century there would be some more modern variations, such as tar paper. Log buildings and shingle roofs were not painted.

Richer folk, such as the local pastors or teachers, might have nicer houses built from brick, or at least with the logs covered with planks and painted. There wasn’t a great deal of commercial activity in the countryside but there were breweries, brickworks, etc scattered around and these might be in stone or brick.

Churches are only present in the larger villages, and since they have to serve the surrounding neighbourhood as well as the village, tend to be on the large side. Small churches are quite rare in fact, although it may be that the oldest wooden ones have not survived into modern times. In areas with a significant religious minority (Catholics and Orthodox) it is not unusual for a country area to have one large church for each denomination, both in the same village. The dominant Lutheran churches generally resemble similar north German ones, and are most frequently white plaster-surfaced (though brick is also seen) with tall steeples on square towers. Orthodox ones tend to be less ornate than in Russia and frequently have Germanic features, though with onion domes rather than steeples. Country cemeteries are almost always covered in trees, and frequently are on forest edges.

A major feature of the Latvian countryside still is the manors of the Barons, from which they controlled their estates. These vary from biggish houses through to huge palaces, but many are sufficiently big that today they have become schools and institutions. Since the owners were usually Baltic German, the majority were built in standard west European styles, with most tending to a semi-classical style with great pillars and pale plastered stone- or brickwork. The manors are generally found a couple of kilometres off from the main road of the area, or clustered around a bigger town, but quite separate from the nearby villages. They often had an attached area of parkland and woods, and nearby a few outbuildings for the servants and administrators, often built of stone in a European style.

Features which have not survived into the modern era are the windmills, large haystacks and inns. Judging by the lack of modern remains, windmills were usually quite little and built entirely of wood, except for the base of stone. The Russian Civil War saw large haystacks used as observation points, and they may well have been used that way in Latvia too. The inns of old Latvia were quite large and very much the focal point of country places, if only because the Tsarist licensing laws were quite draconian. They might be log or stone.

Towns were not frequent in the Latvian countryside and, apart from the industrial ones of Riga, Daugavpils and Liepaja, tended to be on the small side. However, since the towns contained the only large scale billeting possibilities (especially important in winter), the crossing points for the major rivers and also the best railway facilities, they were often the immediate objective of an attack in 1919. If not built at a river crossing, then normally towns would be on top of hills rather than in valleys.

Big or small, the Germanic influence was strong in the towns and the homes of the wealthy in the centre of town would not look out of place in Hamburg or Berlin. Stone or brick construction were normal and roofs were tiled or metal. The civic buildings and churches were also north German looking and often fairly grand for such small towns – the palace of the Dukes of Courland in Jelgava is absolutely monstrous. The town centres were cobbled and since they served as the focal market place for a region they tended to have a large square in the centre. Many contained a castle tower on a local high point, more or less ruined, which might compete with the church steeple, also frequently on a hill, as the best observation point for the local area.

The buildings for the less well off in the suburbs were sometimes two-storied, especially in the bigger towns, and normally log-construction, although the fire-risk of thatch meant that they had tiled or papered roofs, or at the least shingle. By 1919 most had their logs covered by horizontal planking, generally painted a pale grey, green, blue or, most commonly, mustard. Minor streets were dirt. Houses fronted straight onto the streets, with any garden behind. Trees appear to have been common in the towns.

The big industrial cities had large areas of apartments in which to quarter the workers and middle classes identical to those of similar western European cities. Although there were naturally slums for the poor the weather prevents people from living in completely substandard accommodation, although not from overcrowding. Early Baltic factories were standard European brick rectangles, with tall smoke stacks and general ugliness. Although quite heavily industrialised, there appears to have been few factories in the countryside, concentrating instead on the biggest cities.

How it differs today

Travelling through the area one can see that in many ways the land has altered little, but modernisation and centrally imposed Soviet policies must have had some effects. Without the ability to travel back in time and see it is hard to be sure, but the following appears to have changed.

Obviously society is more urban, so towns have grown considerably in size. The old-style buildings remain frequent, but rarely have thatch or bark shingle any more. The churches and manors were greatly neglected in the Soviet era, but are frequently being restored, although the parks have often been turned into farm land.

Less obviously, the area under open-field cultivation has decreased considerably (though it is again increasing). Initially spurred by the devastation and depopulation of two world wars, marginal land which used to support subsistence agriculture has been lost now that cash farming is standard, so forests have reduced the amount of farmed land, particularly in the hilly areas. Small farmers were not encouraged during the Soviet era and much land was abandoned. Even when they did remain, it seems that farmers were reluctant to clear or drain land when there was no clear personal profit for themselves, so small boggy and scrubby areas may well also be more common than previously. Large swamps however might be drained as a collective enterprise, such as the peat cutting plants to the west of Riga.

Finally, when the glaciers withdrew from Latvia after the Ice Ages they left behind many boulders, which can be quite large and interfere badly with modern ploughing methods. The larger stones are thus cleared out of the way, since modern tractors are strong enough to do this, whereas previously the farmers just had to work around them. But since the boulders are heavy they are not moved far, only to a spot between two fields, which soon grows covered in scrub and trees. This means that the cultivated areas of Latvia are now covered with an enormous amount of small copses. But old photographs show that this was not the case in 1919 – there were still plenty of small woods and lines of trees, but the huge number of very small clumps of trees is a modern phenomenon.

Modern statistic give the ground use as forest – 42 %; cultivable land – 27 %; meadows and pasture land – 13 %; peat bog, swamp, and marsh – 10 %; and other – 8 %. Two-thirds of the forests now are Scotch pine or Norway spruce. Forest cover was probably more like 30% in 1919, of which conifers were 75%. Statistics from just before WWII have peat and bogs as 15 to 20%, but the draining of the great swamps, such as near Riga, will explain much of this difference.

What this means for a wargamer

The battles were mainly fought in open field areas, even in the forested zones, although attackers might launch themselves from cover or try to sneak around positions in woods. Defenders might set up in trees too, especially rear positions such as reserves and artillery, but the front line would normally be defending some basically open area to allow better visibility of approaching enemy and speedier communication. Forests would normally be comparatively easy going when their hollows did not hide bogs.

The Daugava basin area should contain large slow rises rather than hills, and entirely flat is quite possible. In the hilly zones the main cultivated areas are still reasonably flat, so a table should contain mostly large rolling hills with interspersed flat bits. The cultivated areas will have no fences or hedges, and few ditches unless the area is boggy, but might be scattered with the occasional copse or scrubby bit. The rye fields seem to have provided excellent cover during the Cesis fighting, with troops being able to sneak up on their opponents in them.

Roads would normally be straight unless following the edge of some waterway and some might be tree or even hedge lined, especially in a basically forested area. In flat stretches the large ones would often have small ditches that might have some slight defensive advantage. Tsarist-era railways were noted for their simple construction, so when travelling across basically flat dry areas I expect that they had little by way of embankment.

Streams should meander a bit, and might be widened by swamps and be completely or partially lined with trees. Any area between hills without a stream to drain it would most be more or less swampy. Most streams would not have much by way of gully, though obviously have to be on lower ground than the surrounding farms.

The Daugava was navigable with very large vessels up to the bridge in Riga. The Lielupe is large enough that the Iron Division felt it worthwhile to have a flotilla for it, though this probably worked only in the northern part.

Small farms will be everywhere, but just because a place is marked with a name on a map does not mean that a decent sized village was there – it might be just be an inn, church and a few scattered houses or perhaps a manor estate with large central manor and attached houses and farm buildings. Villages will be on a road, of course, but not necessarily a major one. Any area can include a smaller manor house but a large church will normally be in or near a large village.

Country peasant houses can be represented by north Russian style log cabin models, which are close enough and easy to find. Manor houses and churches can be represented by north German ones of the same vintage. Individual farms can be modelled with some trees and fences, and even the towns often have lots of trees.

Towns centres can be represented by German city buildings – town halls, churches, and dwellings of the rich. Riga and Liepaja’s apartments were fairly standard plain blocks. The outer lying buildings should be mostly one-storey planked houses without thatch. In fact, although towns and cities were often the objectives of the battles, they very rarely saw any street fighting and there seems to be no reason to need to model them.

I would guess that the traditional log construction would stop most bullets and shell fragments, so would class all buildings as light stone even when obviously not, but conversely the lack of decent windows would make defending the huts very difficult. Manor houses and churches would normally rate as thick stone, with much better windows for defending in the case of the manors.


Latvia produced some topographic maps in 1:75,000 just after independence that would be just the ticket for gaming, but I have not found them for a reasonable price.

For an idea of the countryside, you can look at the topographic map-cards produced around the 1920s (this will open in a new window).

I have made do with 1:100,000 Soviet ones from the 1970s, which I got cheap. I can scan these for anyone who wants a particular location and is prepared to wade through the Cyrillic.

Return to: home > history > Latvia 1919 > terrain