National Archives searching for forgotten souls

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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Photo: autor tundmatu

1914–1918. With about 100,000 mobilised into WW1 from Estonian and Livonian National Archives searching for forgotten souls.

An unprecedented Internet campaign is in pipeline by National Archives to find out about participants in First World War. 

This summer it was a hundred years since WW1 started and a grass roots web environment, to be completed by 2015, will include scanned versions of the mobilisation lists. To begin with, these are hoped to be re-printed by human hands. From there, the fate of each soldier may be entered next to names. At that, the archives set its expectations not on historical sources alone, but on people’s knowledge of their family stories and local legacy.  

Also, several Estonian War of Independence memorials feature names of those perished in WW1 – with the lists of soldiers entered into the Internet, the names may be linked. A similar project has been undertaken by the British National Archives which, as helped by people, indexed the names found in diaries of the soldiers.  


According to historian Tõnu Tannberg it is next to impossible for us now to imagine what the country boys must have felt, sent as cannon fodder to the frontlines – running into things seen by us at least on movie screens and pictures.

«Up to then, war used to be two-dimensional – on land and sea,» he explained. «Now, air battles were added. As well as machine guns, tanks, and poison gases..»

WW1 also claimed the life of my own great-grandfather, Aleksander Andresson. Having conducted a little «poll» at the Postimees office, I realised people tend to be totally unaware how their great-grandfathers or great-great-grandfathers died, to say nothing about specifics. A colleague did recall a relative who died in the Great War... but that was all.

This is a war quite forgotten, as are the people – seldom buried in Estonia, they rather found rest in nameless mass graves on the battlefields. And still the dead were much more numerous than in the War of Independence – some 10,000 they say.

Had my great-grandfather not left behind a widow and five children, to be raised by the wife alone, he’d probably be forgotten as the rest. But he isn’t, because the great-grandmother had a mighty hard time and everybody realised something vital was lacking in the family. But a large majority of the men that went to war had neither family as yet nor a grave once they perished.

Furthermore, for the nation crucial events soon followed, with the triumphs and tragedies like the War of Independence, the Republic of Estonia, the Soviet occupation, another war, then the Nazi occupation, and on top of that yet another Soviet occupation complete with deportations. And thus the First World War was wrapped away in the shrouds of time.

As admitted by Mr Tannberg, even in the pre-WW2 Republic of Estonia, WW1 was little investigated as compared to the War of Independence for instance. The main benefit of the war, for Estonia, might be the seasoning of our officers under whom the War of Independence was won. And, of course, it was the confusion stirred up by WW1 that helped Estonia to break free at all.

To our present knowledge, about 100,000 Estonians went to the war and the general statistics would imply a tenth never came back. «But this is just guesswork,» said Mr Tannberg.

But how then will people manage to remember stuff for the archives-project – having forgotten it all?

«Not totally hopeless,» says the historian. «I’ve gotten quite fascinating feedback myself, this year – look, in the folder here, on my desk, I’ve got a correspondence. Turns out, people have a surprising amount of photos, letters and other bits of information.»

Among other stuff, Mr Tannberg obtained data regarding a man who was mobilised at the very onset of the war and only made it back home at the end of 1917.

«The man has written memoirs and, by precise dates, written down his entire path of war,» said the historian who hopes to be greatly helped by those delving into family trees and local history.

Prussian hell

Accounting of the deceased and sometimes even those mobilised tends to be patchy, as administration wasn’t top notch in Russian army.

«For the first years of the war, the numbers of the mobilised are quite precise as yet,» said Mr Tannberg. «But when one comes to 1916, the problems begin as accounts were quite falling apart.»

According to the old calendar, the fist mobilisation in Estonia happened in mid-July 1914 with reservists drafted. Pretty soon, mobilisation into the state territorial defence army was also declared.

As overall obligation for conscription was established in 1874, only the youth were conscripted in times of peace. At that, lots were cast as the army did not need them all. After service, these youth were considered the reserves. Those left out by casting lots were enlisted in the territorial defence army.

For the latter, trainings were occasionally organised and people remained on the roll from age 21 to 43. On top of these, the 20 year old youth were naturally in the war as well. 

Thus, in the very first year of the war, the regular conscripts and reservists were mobilised from the Estonian areas, with three territorial defence army mobilisations after that – totalling 36,000 men. 

According to Mr Tannberg, it is basically possible to follow where the men were dispatched in the first year of the war, while the overall picture is still missing. «Of the men mobilised initially in Estonia, in 1914, a large part was taken to East-Prussia where they were rather... slaughtered,» he said.

While recalling the start of the war, National Archives are also coming out with a collection of articles. They will also publish a collection of memoirs, diaries, and letters; also, Mr Tannberg intends to have a WW1 photo album printed, with comments.

From the battlefields in Poland

To the honourable editorial desk of «Postimees» in Tartu

We would entreat the honourable «Postimees» desk to heed our plea and, according as is fitting the spirit of the honourable newspaper, to have it considered.

We Estonians are doing battle here in the land of Poland for the tenth month now already. As we now hear and know, the Germans have invaded or about to invade our native soil of Estonia. But we Estonians are here and have to defend Poland with our bodies and our blood while our children and wives, fathers, and mothers are there to be trampled by the enemy. Why is the war not over yet? – Why is not peace signed? – Enough of the battles, enough! Battling for some fatherland – while we have our own. Down with the war! – Enough, we are fed up! – Why don’t they make peace? – Down with the war! – Down with the war! – Down with the war! –

In the name of lots of Estonians fighting in Poland


* The name and exact date of the letter are not known. Under censorship, quite definitely Postimees was unable to publish the letter.