Countryside in 1919
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
The country can be, for wargaming purposes, divided into the bulk of
the country, which is particularly flat, and the various hilly portions.
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
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,
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
houses are often surrounded by trees, and frequently small orchards,
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
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
bark shingles – although by the 20th Century there would be
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
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 –
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.
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
Modern statistic give the ground use as forest – 42 %;
land – 27 %; meadows and pasture land – 13 %; peat
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.
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
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 –
halls, churches, and dwellings of the rich. Riga and
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
For an idea of the countryside, you can look at the topographic map-cards
produced around the 1920s
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.