3 | Christmas battles and aftermath
In my mind also remained Briedis' closing words, that one should not believe the German to be some sort of superman. He is the same kind of man as the rest of humanity, no wiser, no stronger, no braver. To cope with him was not all that difficult if one realised this and felt superior - as indeed one was, for example, when attacking a surprised enemy, for the attacker dictates the action to be taken. In the preparation for the Christmas battles, General Goppers also mentioned the astounding work performed by Briedis in cutting through the enemy wire, saying that Briedis had put forward the idea of smashing through the enemy without artillery support. P. Dardzans has said that after the battles of July 1916 a certain ensign Malcenieks appeared in the 1st battalion and was assigned to Dardzans (third) company. Malcenieks had been a great poacher from childhood, which required stealth, boldness and agility, and for that reason he became an enthusiastic and active practitioner of the techniques to bring Briedis' plans to fruition. With a large selection to choose from, he mainly formed his wirecutting groups from the third company. In preparing for the attack this is what happened in the first battalion: in 1916,
Radko Dimitriev and British major Tornhill visit the riflemen. (Bangerkis and Briedis can be seen between them.)
(facing page 33)
Among his company's St. George's Cross recipients.
(facing page 33)
'Approximately two weeks before the Christmas battles, a group of officers of the first battalion of the regiment and the leading wire-cutters with Briedis at their head made for the sector of the front to the east of Mangaji to reconnoitre the sector where the attack was to take place. Dressed in white overalls, we (some ten men at least) stopped in a small coppice of birch and osier about three hundred yards from the German trenches. It was midday and, even if cloudy, daylight. The German trenches and the strongpoint of Mangaļi with all their wire entanglements could be seen as if in the palm of one's hands. Briedis, under his breathe explained the intended operation, pointing out where the gaps had to be made and where the charges were to be placed. After about ten minutes we completed our reconnaissance and returned to the Russian lines.
'Again on 22 December we (several officers and wire-cutters) walked once again in daylight, to the same spot in front of the German trenches to refresh our memories about the local contours and to give Briedis the opportunity to give some additional instructions.'
More has been written about the Christmas battles than about any other. The fullest and most objective analysis seems to be that of General Penikis which draws comprehensively on sources.
In order that the 1st Daugavgrīva regiment could reach the sector of the attack at the appointed time (5 o'clock on 23 December/5 January), Briedis had ordered his own 1st and 3rd companies to send forward wire-cutters by 1.30. The 3rd company, under the command of Malcenieks, had by 4.30 cut a sufficiently wide path; the cutters of the 1st company, however, had been noticed by the enemy, and for that reason they had to interrupt their cutting until the enemy had quietened down. The start of the attack had thus to be postponed by 20 minutes and the path in the 1st company's sector widened by four delayed-action pyroxiline charges. The Germans became confused by the explosion and
The Daugavgrīva companies went forward at the run but the path for the Kurzeme 1st battalion had not been sufficiently well prepared and the men had to squeeze through the wire one at a time. The Daugavgrivans went along the 3rd company's path through the wire comparatively quickly and burst into the German trenches. But just at this place the Germans had a great number of dug-outs, from which the half-dressed Germans ran into the open, engaging us in hand-to-hand combat or firing at us from the dug-outs. These had to be cleared with hand grenades. The front companies of the 2nd Riga also rushed forward.
Having captured the area with the great concentration of dug-outs the 1st regiment pushed on further, but the Germans had hurriedly organised their resistance from a trench further back. We also needed to silence a German battery which was firing from Mangaļi on the flank of the attackers. Briedis directed a part of his battalion against it for the occupation of Mangaļi was not going as expected and the 5th regiment of the 2nd brigade, which was to attack on the other side of Mangaļi, had not moved forward at all. Around 8 o'clock, despite the enemy's stubborn resistance and frequent counter-attacks, the 1st brigade's units had pushed the Germans out of the first and second line of trenches, as well as from Mangaļi. About 9 o'clock the German heavy battery had been captured and so as not to allow the enemy any chance to reorganise, Briedis ordered the companies of his battalion to advance in the direction of Skangaļi (already more than a kilometre deep into the enemy position). Here too several units of the 2nd and 3rd regiments had joined up. At the beginning of this attack Briedis had been severely wounded, which had had a bad effect on the further activity of the Skangaļi groups. Still, even before midday they had taken Skangaļi.
P. Dardzans, commander of the first battalion after Briedis had been wounded and who had been a dose observer of Briedis' activities in this battle, wrote: 'Briedis' most brilliant achievements were at the beginning of the Christmas battles. The Latvian 1st brigade broke into the German lines using tactical methods worked out by Briedis. He was at the head of his battalion which, almost without losses, broke through the first German lines. All the regiments of the 1st brigade followed his battalion. It was a brilliant
Of course, being at the head of his battalion is not always to be taken literally - in such a case Briedis would hardly be in a position to command - and means rather that he was everywhere necessary to be able to see everything and to watch over everything.
In the Christmas battles the intended aim of the Latvians was not achieved - the occupation of Jelgava. The way in which the operation developed, full success could not be hoped for. But we gained the glory and were also appraised of what Bangerskis had warned in our growing from regiment to brigade: larger units would be expected to perform more important tasks and not at all those for which we were best suited; we might also incur greater losses, for which we did not have adequate replacements. The effect of losses would also be greater in just this sense. But one must also not forget that the losses on the German side in this month of continuous fighting had been considerable, and that their men had become extremely exhausted and at least one division which had been assigned to the Western Front had been seriously weakened and its dispatch there delayed.
On 3 February 1917 both the Russians and the Germans reverted once more to positional warfare. The 12th Army in these battles (despite losses of approximately 23,000 men dead, wounded and missing) could regard itself with pride. If the eighteen months of vicious combat had not until now led to a breakthrough on this front and no guns had been captured, then in these very Christmas battles (of 23 December- 2 January/5-15 January) the Latvian rifle regiments had successfully achieved this in two places, and together with the 53rd Siberian regiment had captured 32 guns and about 800 prisoners, not counting other trophies. Also as a result of a long month of combat they had brought about a remarkable improvement in their positions. The guns and prisoners, paraded through the city, had until then been a still unparalleled sight, and one which created a strong impression.