The Military Order of Lāčplēsis (Lāčplēša Kara ordenis) is the first state award created in the Republic of Latvia to honor heroes of the Latvian War of Independence and World War One. Establishment of the order and its recipients at the time and today symbolize the fight for Latvia’s freedom, as well as demonstrate the efforts to eternalize the War of Independence and its heroes. The name of the national epic poem hero “Lāčplēsis” included in the name of the order gave it a legendary and grand significance. Along with the centenary of the decisive battle of the Latvian War of Independence, in 2019, the centenary of the order is celebrated, as well. The symbolic meaning of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis and the fate of its recipients over the next decades make the order an exciting prism through which to view the entire history of Latvia of the 20th century and heroism as an idea and value.
History of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis
On 20 September 1919, the Latvian Provisional Government accepted the suggestion of officers to create a war order in Latvia. Soon after, the development of the regulations and visual design of the order started. On 18 September 1920, the Constitutional Assembly passed the regulations of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis. The regulations were based on the regulations of the Russian Empire Order of St. George and the French Legion of Honor. Young artists and well-known professionals submitted sketches of order’s design to the Ministry of Defense. All sketches were summarized by the artist–autodidact, Jānis Aleksandrs Liberts.
The orders were made by the goldsmith’s workshop “Hermann Bank” in Riga, and the ribbons were made in France. From 1922, the recipients of the order were issued an impressive diploma created by the graphic artist, Rihards Zariņš.
Awarding ceremony of soldiers was organized and supervised by the Council of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis led by the President of the Constitutional Assembly (later the President of State). The Council included seven recipients of the order and seven members of the Constitutional Assembly (later members of the Parliament (Saeima)).
The Military Order of Lāčplēsis was awarded from 1920 to 1928. Until 1924, the Militray Order of Lāčplēsis was the only state award, therefore, it was also used as a diplomatic order awarded to foreign politicians. The 1st Class of the order was awarded to seven foreign soldiers and statesmen who facilitated the independence of Latvia.
The holders of the order were provided different benefits that were expanded further on, for example, they were entitled to receive a higher category land property during the agrarian reform, free education to the holders of the order and their children, and other benefits.
The society of the recipients of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis was established in 1930 and became the defender of their interests. The association not only financially supported its poorest members, but also organized the social life of its members and issued the magazine “Lāčplēsis”. The activities of the society were suspended along with the Soviet occupation in 1940. It restored its activities in 1947 in the refugee camp in Esslingen, Germany; later the board of the society was based in the USA. In 1997, when only three recipients of the order were alive, the society terminated its operations.
As a commemoration of the decisive victory of the Latvian army on 11 November 1919 in Riga, the celebration of Lāčplēsis Day was organized every year on this day. Also on the same day, until 1928, the Military Order of Lāčplēsis was awarded. After the occupation of Latvia in the summer of 1940, the celebration of Lāčplēsis Day was suspended and, after a short restoration during the Nazi occupation period, in 1944, the celebration was banned again. During the Third Awakening, after more than 40 years, on 11 November 1988, commemoration events of Lāčplēsis Day were restored and during the events, the recipients of the order who were still alive were honored.
11 Heroes – Recipients of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis
Captain Kārlis Kevešāns (1886–1977) was one of the 206 Latvian Riflemen who were awarded the Military Order of Lāčplēsis for heroism during World War 1. He has a special link with the National History Museum of Latvia because he was a collector of awards and badges of the Republic of Latvia. In 1972, he and his colleague not only gave the museum a self-made catalog of awards but also a significant number of awards as well.
Approximately one-third of all the recipients of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis were engaged in agriculture after the War of Independence. One of them, Kārlis Grīnvalds (1893–1976), worked at his agriculture farm “Medņi” in Saikava Parish. During the Soviet occupation, he was imprisoned for kulak’s tax debt of 7,119 roubles payable to the Soviet government for the farm he had developed.
The former Director of the National History Museum of Latvia (State Historical Museum at the time) Captain Valdemārs Ģinters (1899–1979) was also among the recipients of the order. After demobilization from the army, he started studying archaeology and became an internationally known archaeologist. During World War 2, Ģinters was involved in the illegal Latvian Central Council and organized the evacuation of war refugees by sea to Sweden.
Student and volunteer of Women Aid Corps, Elza Žiglevica (1898–1919), was one of the three women who were awarded the Military Order of Lāčplēsis. She was severely injured by the shrapnel of the exploding grenade, while she was supplying food to Latvian soldiers. Later she died at the hospital, her life story became an example of heroism and selfless sacrificing and she was widely honored for her selflessness.
The people involved in the War of Independence from the Soviet standpoint were patriots of Latvia, therefore, not wanted by the occupation regime. The recipient of the order, a peasant from Aknīste, Ernests Lācis (1894–1984), was arrested in 1945 and deported to a labor camp in Nizhny Tagil, Russia SFSR.
The recipient of the order, Ernests Priedkalns (1892–1964), was able to adapt to the conditions of different political regimes and lived in Latvia his entire life. He worked for administration institutions of Riga for many years. From 1925 to 1933, he was the Chairman of the Association of Non-Party Liberators of Latvia.
The recipient of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis, Augusts Apsītis-Apse (1895–1947), participated in both world wars. He served the Russian Empire army, Latvian army and as well the 15th Waffen Grenadier Division of SS 34. After World War 2, he was arrested by the Soviets and sent to the labor camp in Vorkuta, Russia in which he died.
Military missions of the Allies supported the Latvian army in its fight for an independent state. Baltic German Konrāds Dekerts (1891–1941), born in Latvia, served as lieutenant of the French military mission. In the autumn of 1919, he was infiltrated into the military forces of Bermondt and acted as a spy gathering valuable information about its army and their strategy for the Latvian Provisional Government.
At the end of World War 2, in fear of the return of the Soviet regime, several hundreds of recipients of the order left Latvia as war refugees. Jānis Punte (1896–1982) was also forced to leave his homeland. He spent his old days in the United Kingdom, wherein Rowfant manor, in 1977, he planted 1,900 spruce-trees “Spruce-Grove of Lāčplēsis”.
Eleven people were awarded the 1st Class the Military Order of Lāčplēsis – four of them were Latvian soldiers. Among them General and public official Jānis Balodis (1881–1965). During the War of Independence, he became Commander-in-Chief of the Latvian army. Balodis was one of the co-creators of the authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis. During the Soviet time, he was repressed and deported to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
After their death, 130 soldiers were awarded the Military Order of Lāčplēsis. Twenty-three years old worker from Riga, Arnolds Puriņš (1896–1919), was one of them. He was a machine-gunner of the armored vehicle “Lāčplēsis” and died in battle on 8 October 1919.