Occupation in the First World War

In the summer of 1915, the German army launched an invasion of the Russian Empire’s Polish and Baltic provinces. The advance halted only a few miles from Riga, leaving a large portion of Latvia under German occupation. In 1917, a renewed offensive led to the conquest of Estonia. Here we provide some sources from Orthodox priests who lived on the islands off the Estonian coast, which were conquered by the German army in October 1917.

Father Aleksander Klass (1868-1935)

Father Aleksander Klass (1868-1935)

No. 1: Letter of Father Aleksander Klaas, Saaremaa (16 January 1919)

The Germans, 35 Jaegers, arrived first at Orissaare [on the island of Saaremaa] in the evening of 29 September 1917. A versta away from Orissaare, they divided into two parties: one went to occupy the village of Orissaare, the other to the manor of Thomel. Despite the fact that 120 Russians (headed by the assistant commandant, who had two armoured cars at his disposal) were placed close to the manor and Orissaare, the Germans quickly occupied these two points. They attacked quickly and unexpectedly. On Saturday 30 September at around 10 in the morning, they had already taken the manor of Neienhof: at around 9 in the evening, Russian soldiers attacking from the direction of Kuressaare dislodged them and forced them to retreat to Orissaare, thus paving the way for their own retreat across the Zinoveskii bridge to the island of Muhu.

At the time of the clash at Neienhof, I was performing the vespers for the eve of the holy day of 1 October. Those praying were one lady parishioner and some members of the clergy’s families. At the end of the first part of the vespers, the wife of psalmist Kuzeok suddenly ran in with a cry, telling us to leave the church since the school building had been hit by shells, and the church was threatened with the same. Calming those praying and concluding the vespers (I even shared out prosphora bread), we all rushed out the church: bullets were flying around us like bees. An hour later, the Germans retreated from Neinhof and came right by the church as they headed to Orissaare. At 9, psalmist Uffert’s wife arrived and told us that, according to a Russian soldier, a new clash would soon happen here. Finding myself in a difficult position (the church and the vicarage were surrounded on all sides by trenches and dugouts), I, gathering my family and leaving my property and house to the whims of fate, crossed two vertsa to the village of Viaata, which in my opinion would remain outside the field of fire. With us from the church we took only the holy antimension, the liturgical bread, and the anointing oil. We did not serve in the church on Sunday, even though we [briefly] went back home from the village on Sunday and Monday and found my house entirely in order. For the most part, the people in the surrounding villages abandoned their homes and took their property to safer spots. Early in the morning on Sunday began the clash by the Peida Lutheran church, which concluded on Monday evening when the Russians surrendered. On Monday, there were minor skirmishes in Neinhof, Veere, Mui, Metsaar and Neno (1-2 versta from the church) with advancing Russian troops seeking a path to the sea. When on Monday evening the Russian soldiers surrendered, the entire German army with their commanders gathered in Tornimäe and established their military camp there.

On Tuesday morning, when I returned with my wife from the village, my eyes were presented with a terrible picture: the entirety of the large church courtyard was full of German soldiers, wagons, and machine guns: the doors to the barns and sheds had been broken, the houses and sheds were full of soldiers. Wherever you looked there were piles of rubbish, the remains of food, heaps of potatoes and herring, etc. There was no way to enter the house: [I was only able to] squeeze in thanks to a German officer I called. The rooms were full of soldiers, the wardrobes and cupboards had been opened and emptied; the desk was broken apart and its drawers emptied, the room was full of papers. I could not see my things, the best had been stolen. The hall was occupied by the officers, who invited my wife and I there. I saw that my leather bag was there with all my things, but I did not have the courage to say anything.

I went to the church. It was full of straw: the candle cupboard had been broken and emptied. The candle holders in the chandelier had all been bent and the candles removed. Dressing gowns, overcoats, blankets, rags, and candlesticks covered [the floor]: the bier had been turned into a dinner table. I went to the altar: soldiers in hats cleaning their guns were all around it, as were straw, books, bloodied rags, empty cans, and boxes of food. I went to the altar and bowed to the earth. I wanted to kiss it, but there was no room for this: it was covered in metal kettles, mugs, and canteens: bits of food (meat and bread) were scattered around, along with cigar and cigarette butts. On top of all of this was a guitar. At this point, I began to cry. Hearing this, the Germans said ‘Vater’. I looked: the cross and Gospels, and some other things, were [still] there, but then I remembered about the collection tin and went to look. Everything was in place. I thanked the soldiers as far as I was able. In answer, I was told that they had not touched the church things: they asked me to take them away, which I did, putting them in the officers’ room in my home.

No. 2. Letter of Father Aleksei Allik, Hellamaa (28 December 1918)

Father Aleksei Allik (1853-1932)

Father Aleksei Allik (1853-1932)

To the church and the priest (and in general all the clergy), the German soldiers were respectful and polite, from the simple soldier to the high officer. They thus related to the people. In the church, they stood respectfully and they put money into the collection tin.

In this, the Catholics especially stood out. The Catholic priests and the Lutheran pastors once came to serve in the church, which was filled with soldiers, but nothing sacrilegious was noted. In the command post, the priest was treated entirely respectfully: they separated him from the crowd, took his hand, bowed, and gave him a place to sit. In homes, they [the soldiers] strove not to litter. To the Orthodox population, the Germans related the same as to the Lutherans: politely, gently. They did not enter a room without knocking, upon meeting they bowed: in work, they tried to help personally [….]

The population pleasantly remembers such foreign behaviour to this day. The soldiers and people with authority made no distinction between Lutherans and Orthodox. They said that different confessions exist in Germany, and all have freedom.

German troops landing at Saaremaa, October 1917.

German troops landing at Saaremaa, October 1917.

No. 3. Letter of Father A. aAR (16 December 1918)

The invasion of the Germans into the Ööriku parish [on the island of Saaremaa] occurred on 29 September with the spilling of the blood of the peaceful parish residents. In the village of Tagafer, two of our parishioners were shot: Mikhail Kask (60 years old) and Johan Prisk (60 years old) from the village of Pahila. They were returning home from work and did not know that the enemy had already taken the village. This was a harbinger of the approaching storm.

I lived through four terrible days between 30 September and 3 October - these were days of the ‘battle’ (if one can call it that) between the Germans and the Russians. Machine guns constantly rattled, cannon shells flew, shaking the [window] glass, planes and zepplins fluttered over head, and explosions and search lights unceasingly lit up the area. Here was the terrible picture of war, previously unseen and unheard of by the peaceful residents - it struck fear in them. But, thank God, we survived these days, terrible in terms of noise and sight: after this, [Kaiser] Wilhelm’s men in grey showed themselves. The first regiment stayed at our church on 2 October. The officers ordered that I open the church door, but when I went for the keys the soldiers broke it down. In the church itself, I did not note anything sacrilegious: at my request, they did not enter the altar. The soldiers had already broken into the hay loft and pulled out 100 puds of hay for the horses. They walked around the vicarage looking for Russians and grabbed whatever fell into their hands.

On the evening of this day (2 October), a machine gun detachment, 300 horses, and around 1,000 soldiers were in the village and by the church. The regimental staff took the entire apartment of the priest. The horses finished off the remaining feed […]. During the night, they received the order to leave: one lieutenant took off with my slippers, which I had given to him in the evening. They also took the church’s horse. Everything that the soldiers thought was useful or expensive had been taken from the house. So, as we found out the following day, either the colonel himself or his batman had filched from the desk drawer all our valuable property: a ring, women’s watches, a bracelet, a savings account book (which they probably took for the money), my silver cigarette case, and my watch. In the account book was a ticket for a 900 rouble state loan and a receipt for 500 roubles of church money.

I made an application to the commandant for the stolen things, to which I was informed: ‘the German soldier does not do this kind of thing’.

From the psalmist Vegene they took [a lot of] hay; on 1 October, they also took lady’s watches, underwear, boots and so on. From 4 October began the hardest time for the parishioners, especially in the coastal parts of the parish, since at the Jõe jetty a German ship was stationed: in the night, the sailors would search for prey. Every single family lost something to the sailors. Suddenly at midnight, a terrible knocking would be heard at the door (or they directly broke through the door and windows, as in the villages of Pulli and Gobs) and then they searched for anything good and expensive. From one peasant, they stole (among other things) children’s underwear and diapers. These night campaigns ended when one of them managed to take a cow, a bull, a pig, chickens, and geese, and another clothes, hats, boots, money, and so on. When the coastal villages were emptied, these campaigners ranged further afield. So on one wonderful night, they found themselves among us: they twisted the heads off 19 geese and put them in a sack. The night raids continued thus an entire month, until November.

The commandant in Levala obviously considered all of the church buildings his own, from the day of the invasion of Saaremaa until the very last. In particular, the vicarage served the Germans as if it were a canteen. Throughout the entire winter, two officers and their batmen lived with us: they used everything which was necessary to them, whether if be furniture, dishes, horses, etc. But at least they were permanent residents: when they left, various wandering soldiers, officers, and officials at the order of the commandant came to us. When such ‘guests’ arrived, they asked us to take all the animals out of the barn and turn them over for their needs. So for three weeks in the autumn, two gendarmes lived with us, saying that they had been ordered to quarter here: they took two rooms each and took up the kitchen during meal times, graciously permitting us to use it.

Source: EAA.1655.2.4031

Operation albion (10 - 20 October 1917).

Operation Albion (click for greater detail).

Operation Albion (click for greater detail).