Stories About Monuments on Lāčplēsis Day

On 11 November 1919, Latvian soldiers celebrated victory over the West Russian Volunteer Army of Bermontians. This was the first significant military victory for Latvia and its allies ensuring de facto and de iure recognition of Latvia as an independent state. This is why every year on 11 November — the Lāčplēsis Day or the Latvian Freedom Fighters’ Remembrance Day — Latvia honours those who have fought for the freedom and independence of our country.

The Lāčplēsis Day is usually marked with solemn services, placing of flowers, torch parades and concerts, this way honouring the fallen soldiers and remembering historic events. Here, we are offering short stories about the military cemeteries and monuments in Tukums and vicinity dedicated to the fallen soldiers of WWI, because there are not many of those who know the intent of sculptors — the idea of why the have chosen to use a certain character at a specific site and what they have wanted to express.

A monument by K. Zemdega and the Military Cemetery at the Meža Cemetery in Tukums

The Military Cemetery at the Meža Cemetery in Tukums was set up in the fall of 1928 and consecrated on 4th November 1928. Civilians and military personnel executed in 1916 following a verdict by the German occupation court-martial were interred there. Initially, they were buried behind the gravel hill until in 1928 they were reburied, alongside some other Latvian soldiers who died fighting in the First World War and against the Bermontian Army. This is the final resting place for 44 individuals.

On 19 May 1940, in the presence of government and army representatives, the monument titled “Rifleman” by Kārlis Zemdega was unveiled at the cemetery. The character depicted in the monument is said to be “a young soldier, almost a boy, set in granite, holding a rifle and declaring an oath of allegiance to his nation.” This way the sculptor has tried to depict the soldier’s simple manner, purity of soul and solemnity.

The pedestal of the monument bears engraved writing: “Svēts mantojums šī zeme mūsu tautai / Un svētīts tas, kas drošs par viņu krīt.” (“Blessed legacy — this land to our people / And blessed be he who bravely gives his life for it.”)

The monument was consecrated by the army pastor P. Apkalns, in the presence of the Tukums region dean A. Virbulis and pastor A. Volbergs. The cemetery gate was made by Erdmanis following sketches by K. Zemdega, while the balustrades were made by A. Dūte, a stone-mason of Tukums. The making of the monument cost 8000 Latvian lats.

In 2019, 4 steles were set up next to the Military Cemetery and the monument by K. Zemdega bearing with the names of 51 cavaliers of the War Order of Lāčplēsis, who are linked to the territory of Tukums area. The granite steles were made within the framework of the project dedicated to the centenary of Latvia “Remember the Cavaliers of Lāčplēsis”, to honour the soldiers who died during Latvian Freedom Battles. The author of steles is the artist Jānis Strupulis.

The monument by K. Zemdega in Džūkste dedicated to those men of the congregation of Džūkste and Slampe who died in World War I and in the Latvian Freedom Battles

On 17 November 1935, the monument by Kārlis Zemdega dedicated to those men of the congregation of Džūkste and Slampe who lost their lives in World War I and the Latvian Freedom Battles, was unveiled in the centre of Džūkste. It was built from light grey Finnish granite.

K. Zemdega wrote this about the idea behind the monument: “This idea had come to me already before the commission to build the monument. Every tragedy is always accompanied by 2 symbols: fame (for victory) and pain (for the loss). The Džūkste monument (in a more narrow meaning) is a container which serves as a reliquary symbolically containing the remains of the fallen locals of Džūkste. The blessed dust scattered on the front lines of the world war and the freedom battles, whose graves are unknown or cannot be visited — for those, I wanted to carve a small granite vessel here in their motherland and to lift it high.

I adorned it with stars because our fame from this small granite vessel must be able to raise above the day-to-day life. Below, women are perched in agony over the fallen soldiers, but the character at the top wishes to proclaim fame that the fallen ones have gained. He does not hold the image of a real spear, but here I want to underline the victory of the spiritual battle. What he is thinking as he gazes into the distance — that is to be interpreted by the observer as they feel.”

The following words are carved on the front of the monument: “Pasaules karā un Latvijas atbrīvošanas cīņās kritušiem Džūkstes draudzes dēliem – Džūkstes draudze, Džūkstes, Slampes pagasti.” (To those sons of the Džūkste congregation who died in World War I and Latvian Freedom Battles – Džūkste congregation, municipalities of Džūkste, Slampe). The monument was built from funds raised by the locals of Džūkste and Slampe and cost 10,000 Latvian lats.

Monument by K. Zāle and the Military Cemetery in Smārde

The front line in 1915–1917 was situated near Smārde. In the fall of 1916, Latvian riflemen’s units won several battles in the area of Smārde, mainly those of reconnaissance. Battles often took place in the forest or hard to pass swamps of Smārde and led to many victims. The killed soldiers were buried right where they fell and leading to unknown, uncared for and scattered riflemen’s burial places until in 1931, the Smārde division of the Military Cemetery Committee collected the remains of 38 fallen soldiers from several locations and created the Military Cemetery near the Smārde station.

The sculptor Kārlis Zāle was commissioned to make the monument. On 8 May 1935, the foundations were laid, and the monument was unveiled on 21 June 1936.

The monument was traverse carved and it shows an allegoric relief character — a rifleman fallen into barbed wire holding on to a rifle in his hands. The sculptor’s intention was to depict the resilience and sense of duty of Latvian riflemen. Above the character is a carved text: “Latviešu veco strēlnieku un nacionālās armijas piemiņai” (To the memory of Latvian riflemen and the national armed forces), while the back of the monument bears the quote by R. Bērziņš: “Kaut varon’s snauž, viņš dzīvs ir savā tautā. Pēc lieliem (darbiem) dēliem tauta mūžam jautā.” (Though the hero sleeps, he is alive in his nation. And the nation keeps asking for big (works) sons.)

The monument in Smārde was built from the funds raised by the Smārde public organisations and the Military Cemetery Committee. It cost 5000 Latvian lats.

Let us light candles!

In 1988, the candle-lighting tradition started at the Military Cemetery where soldiers who died more than 100 years ago are buried. Back in the day, on 11 November, candles were also lit in windows of buildings to commemorate not only the importance of historic events, but also a symbolic victory of light over darkness. Over time, this tradition has lost its significance, but this year we invite everyone to return to honouring the Lāčplēsis Day at home.

The residents of the municipality of Tukums are asked to light candles on thresholds and in windows in the evening of 11 November. If you are travelling or hiking with the family or in a small group of friends to aplace where there are monuments to the fallen soldiers of WWI, we ask that you light candles also at these monuments.