World War I

​In 1914 the conflicts between the great powers led to the outbreak of World War I. There were two opposing coalitions: the Entente (Great Britain, France, Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria, also Italy, which later sided with the Entente). They fought for world hegemony. Russia wished to expand its territories to the Balkans and elsewhere in south-eastern Europe, and increase its impact in world politics.

​The Baltic region was strategically important to Russia, especially in defending the capital Petrograd. Before WW I, various military objects had been established in Estonia. During the war extensive work went on for building the Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress. Tallinn became the base for Russian Baltic Sea fleet, with a newly established harbour and warship factories: 30,000 foot soldiers and 20,000 sailors were settled there.

​In summer 1914 mobilisations started in the Estonian and Livonian provinces. In the course of World War I, about 100,000 Estonians were conscripted into the Russian army, one tenth of whom were killed in action. Estonian territory was untouched by battles until autumn 1917. However, many war refugees from Latvia arrived in Estonia in 1915. Estonia became the rear of Russian Northern Front, where 100,000 Russian soldiers had been gathered in early 1917.

​After the Russian revolution in February 1917, the Estonian national politicians requested autonomy from the Russian Provisional Government. On 30 March the Government decreed that the area inhabited by Estonians was joined into one autonomous Estonian national province governed by a provincial commissar. The latter had to form an advisory body, the Provincial Assembly, elected in spring and summer. A vigorous political activity followed – new parties were formed, which introduced their views and battled for seats at the Assembly.

​The nationally-minded politicians began toying with the idea of requiring the status of a state in federated Russia. The popularity of the Bolsheviks increased at the same time, as they stressed the workers’ class solidarity and opposed the aspirations of extended national autonomy. The Bolsheviks started to organise workers’ councils in towns and the Russian troops located in Estonia.

​Forming national troops in Estonia began in April, and in December they had been gathered into one infantry division. In 1917, tens of thousands of soldiers returned to Estonia, previously scattered around the various Russian army units. When the War of Independence broke out in 1918, the Republic of Estonian was able to rely on these soldiers and officers.

​In autumn 1917 war reached Estonia. In September-October the German troops invaded West-Estonian islands. The Russian troops located in Estonia had by then lost their combat power. The Estonian national troops managed to keep better discipline, but they were not equal opponents to the German regular army either.

​After the coup d’état in Russia in October 1917 the Bolsheviks tried to seize power in Estonia also, but succeeded only partially. Estonian national politicians did not recognise the Bolshevist coup and on 15 November 1917 the Provincial Assembly declared itself the highest power in Estonia. On the same day the Bolsheviks dissolved the Assembly

​The Bolsheviks started persecuting nationalist politicians and the military. They, in turn, seriously considered declaring an independent Estonian state, having no wish to remain part of Bolshevist Russia. It was decided that independence would be declared at the first opportunity, i.e. primarily the onslaught of the German army that would force the Bolsheviks out of the country.

​On 1 February 1918 Russia changed from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar (calendar reform), which was valid elsewhere in Europe. Thus 1 February was immediately followed by 14 February.

​The German onslaught on the eastern front began on 18 February according to the new calendar, and next day the Council of Elders of the Provincial Assembly gave their mandate to the three-member Estonian Salvation Committee. On 24 February 1918 the latter declared the independent Republic of Estonia with the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia, using the situation where the Russian troops were fleeing, and the invading German army had not yet conquered the whole country. The next day, an Estonian Provisional Government was formed in Tallinn (with Konstantin Päts as prime minister), which could operate only a few days before the German troops arrived in Tallinn.

​The German empire did not recognise the newly declared Republic of Estonia. An attempt was made to create the Baltic Duchy on the territories of Estonia and Latvia where local Baltic Germans would rule. With the defeat of the  Central Powers in World War I in November 1918, this plan was abandoned. Germany began withdrawing its troops from Estonia. On 19 November 1918 the representatives of the Estonian Provisional Government signed an agreement with the representative of the German government about handing over power on Estonian territory.

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