The Battle of Schmarden

The skirmish of Schmarden was one in a long line of battles fought along the eastern front during the First World War. Like countless other battalion-sized operations, it would probably have slipped into total obscurity, if not for the fact that the German Landwehr Bataillon that conducted the attack was reinforced by the Pionier Kompanie of the Königlich Preussisches Jägerbataillon Nr. 27.

Just south of Schmarden, today’s Smārde in central Latvia, the Russian troops had managed to create a forward line of defenses that extended close to the German lines, and a decision had been made to perform a nighttime attack to destroy this forward line. A German battalion of reserve infantry would perform the attack in two waves, with the first wave capturing the target and moving up 500 meters past it, in order to let the second wave destroy the fieldworks. After this was done, all German troops would then withdraw back to their starting position.

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The pioneer company parading during the summer of 1917. The officer riding on horseback is the German lieutenant Basse, who commanded the company during the battle at Schmarden. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Unknown

To facilitate the destruction of the fieldworks, it was decided that combat engineers were needed, and it so happened that nearby the 27th Royal Prussian Jäger Battalion had a company of engineers grouped as the battalion reserve. This unit was made up of Finnish volunteers, who had managed to leave the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland in order to reach Germany and get military training there. This was all done in anticipation of the coming War of Independence. The members of the battalion, simply called Jääkärit in Finnish, came to provide the core of the ‘White’ Finnish Army in the Finnish Civil War of 1918, and several of the key officers in the Finnish Army during the Second World War had received their training in the clandestine battalion. As such, the importance of the battalion for the development of the Finnish armed forces is hard to overstate.

In July of 1916 the infantry component of the battalion was responsible for a rather calm stretch of the frontline in today’s Latvia, but the engineers had been held in reserve and hadn’t seen any real fighting. The attack near Schmarden would be their baptism of fire. Probably due to this, the company would not operate as a whole unit, but the engineers were attached to German squads either in pairs or in small groups of three. Exactly a hundred years ago, at midnight the night between the 24 and 25 of July, the troops started moving.

While the sky was relatively dark, the tall vegetation in no-man’s land meant that the Russian sentries was alerted by the sound of troops moving, and soon the advancing forces were fired upon by not only rifles and machine guns, but heavy weapons and artillery as well. Despite this, they managed to press on, and soon reached the first line of defences. These were relatively lightly defended, but when moving up the additional 500 meters they met harder resistance in the main and rear trenches.

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A map of the the movements of the battalion during its stay at the frontline in 1916-1917. The battle of Schmarden took place at no.2. Source: Jaakko Suomalainen/Wikimedia Commons

The battle as a whole was a rather messy affair, with the advancing troops becoming split up and intermixed. It also seems like the Russian positions weren’t completely destroyed, and the withdrawal was complicated by both Russian and German artillery targeting the no-man’s land. According to the battle reports, the Finnish engineers had by and large shown great courage, and five of the sixteen Russian prisoners of war captured were captured by the Finns. However, it was also reported that in the heat of the battle some had forgot that their primary task was the demolishing of the Russian fortifications, with the Finns at times having advanced in front of the German infantry, and some even ditching their shovels to be able to keep up with the more lightly equipped infantrymen! Still, the general consensus seems to have been that the engineers performed well for being completely ‘green’, and Lt.General Wyneken is said to have thanked the Finns for their part in the fighting.

Unremarkable as Schmarden was, the total losses for the Finns were two soldiers killed in action and a further seven suffering minor wounds, it marked the first time since 1809 that a Finnish combat unit had taken part in an attack against a Russian force on the battlefield. It was also destined to remain the single major offensive operation undertaken by the 27th Jäger Battalion. Schmarden Day is today each year celebrate on the 25 of July as the service branch day of the Finnish combat engineers, so happy Schmardenin päivä to all my pioneeri readers!

The description of the battle is largely based on this text on from the homepage of the Ostrobothnian Guild of Combat Engineers. 

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