Soldiers given new resting place

Ümbermatmistseremoonia Krabi memoriaalis.

PHOTO: Arved Breidaks / Lõuna-Eesti Postimees

The remains of two soldiers who died fighting in the Estonian War of Independence were reburied at the Krabi Memorial of the Unknown Soldier near the Latvian border the day before yesterday. There is hope it will prove possible to identify one of the men.

The event was historic in that War of Independence casualties from Estonia have not been reburied before. Estonian soldiers have been reburied from Latvia to where the fighting between Estonia and Soviet Russia spilled a century ago.

“There are very few cases where soldiers have remained on the battlefield on which they died for a century,” said military archeologist Arnold Unt.

Little is known about the two soldiers other than that they both died in the confusing spring-winter of 1919. Whether they were shot while out scouting, in the heat of battle, or perhaps in the process of deserting? Whatever the case, their bodies were found by locals and buried. One of the soldiers was buried in Hinnimäe, the other in Tikutaja.

Estonian and Soviet forces had worn one another out around the Krabi Manor, Vana-Laitsna, and Kornet in early 1919. “Soviet forces were not strong enough to crush Estonians, while the latter were short on fresh men,” Unt said. “The men had spent too long at the front; it was winter, cold, and food stores were sporadic. Some deserted, others were captured. Officers had a hard time keeping tabs on soldiers, why someone was missing. That was the nature of the war then,” the archeologist said.

Memory preserved

It is little wonder men were left behind in the woods and buried by locals in those circumstances.

“It was a time during which men were left in Northern Latvia or around these parts to be found by locals a week later and buried, as country folk are in the habit of taking matters into their own hands,” Unt said.

The memory of buried soldiers persisted. Their graves remained marked also during decades of occupation.

“The two sites remained marked throughout the long Soviet occupation; even if it was just a twig cross or a small stone circle. That is why we know where they are today,” Unt said.

The archeologist added that many other burial sites have been lost or linger as vague memories. A soldier is allegedly buried near Mõniste, according to a newspaper article and a vague description by a local resident. Finding such a grave is like looking for a needle in a medium-sized haystack. “You have to work very hard and might still find nothing,” Unt admitted.

Unt said that the two soldiers were reburied at Krabi, where the remains of a single unknown soldier lie, because of the Protection of War Graves Act. The recent graves had become unsuitable.

“The grave of the man who fell in Tikutaja laid under clear-cut areas for the past few years,” Unt explained. He added that it was difficult to find the grave in the underbrush. The grave in Hinnimäe could have remained where it was but for the danger of it being forgotten. “The nearest dwelling has been abandoned for some time; it is such a remote place that people simply do not go there, and the grave would be forgotten at length,” he gave the reason why.

Answers in summer

The remains of the two War of Independence soldiers were paid attention yesterday the men had probably never dreamed of when they were alive. The ecclesiastic service was performed by Senior Chaplain Raivo Nikiforov of the Defense League and Pastor Mait Mölder of the Rõuge St. Mary’s Congregation. Commander of the Defense League Maj. Gen. Meelis Kiili gave a speech and President Kersti Kaljulaid had sent a wreathe to be placed at the memorial.

“This is a beautiful day in June to remember Victory Day and the War of Independence, as well as other wars fought on Estonian soil and in its forests,” said Valdur Raudvassar, a 78-year-old history buff whose father also fought on the southeastern front.

“For me, the War of Independence is a constant memory. When my father returned from prison in 1956, his first question was: I wonder what has happened to Päts and Laidoner?” Raudvassar recalled. “We really did not know at the time. Father had fought on the southeastern front all the way to Pskov and his memories were interesting to listen to.”

Raudvassar said that the front moved back and forth on the southeastern front in 1919. “It was back and forth for a time; however, Estonia launched an offensive on the southern front on May 26, and two days later, we took Aluksne, disrupted railroad lines, and Estonians finally reached the Väina River,” the hobby historian said.

Even though the identities of the reburied soldiers remain unknown, Unt hopes it will prove possible to identify one of them thanks to the contents of a wallet that was found.

“We found a wallet and surprisingly the remains of a few documents with the Hinnimäe soldier which we have made sense of together with the National Archives’ paper restorers and experts from the Estonian Forensic Science Institute enough to know the contents of the documents and have a firm suspicion as to whom the person was,” Unt said. “Right now, we are working on confirming or overturning that suspicion with the help of natural sciences,” Unt said. He added that results will likely be in this summer.