Great nations and empires have formed military units based on ethnic
groups or tribes since Antiquity. ere are national formations in some
armies even today. Before the Great War, most of continental Europe had
established universal conscription as a basis of mass armies relying on a
vast pool of trained reserves. e Russian Empire sought unity in its
recruitment and formation systems. However, the German Kaiserreich
and the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy were different from Russia in
terms of their constitutional origins as unions of separate states.
erefore, as commanders-in-chief, the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs
presided over several nominally independent armies that were to a varying
degree integrated into imperial armed forces. When the empires entered
the Great War, Royal Prussian, Bavarian, Saxon and Württembergian
troops as well as Imperial Austrian and Royal Hungarian units had often
retained their own commanders, uniforms and tactical peculiarities.
Sometimes they even took their oath to their King, not the Kaiser.
Empires with overseas possessions also formed units based on an ethnie
or nationality. e reasons were somewhat different from continental
states. In some cases, officers from the imperial homeland led local
recruits in Asian, African and American colonies and protectorates. In
other cases, local men fought under the command of local chiefs and
warlords, maintaining their own traditions, tactics, and sometimes even
pursuing their own goals. Because of the climate and tropical diseases, for
which there was no cure until the 19th century, it was difficult to deploy
European soldiers in many colonies. But in the Great War, military
migration took another direction, as large numbers of colonial and
dominion soldiers from Australia and New Zealand to Algeria and Senegal
were brought to the fronts of Europe.
e Estonian War Museum’s annual conference for 2017, marking the
100th anniversary of the establishment of Estonian national units within
the Russian imperial army, will aim at a comparative study of national
formations in the Great War. It will analyse the political and military goals
of the empires in recruiting and forming national units. To what extent
were national formations tools for imperial war propaganda and
mobilization, to what extent were they supposed to rouse national
separatism against those empires? How important was the initiative by
national leaders themselves? Obviously, internationalist agitation by the
Bolsheviks, which competed with nationalist agitation, cannot be
discounted as well. When empires collapsed, a number of those national
units became the germ for armies of new states, which fought in
independence or freedom wars; but there were national formations on the
other side, in the Red Army, too. What was the effect of national units in
the long term? Clearly, there were attempts to revive the policy in the
Second World War.
In terms of tradition, many Eastern and Central European armed forces
still draw their history and origins from the battlefields of the First World
War and the continuation wars.
WE ARE INVITING PAPERS AND PANEL PROPOSALS ON THE FOLLOWING TOPICS:
• e utilization of martial traditions of minority ethnicities and hereditary groups in the armies of the European continental empires from the
19th century – from Cossacks to Polish Ulans and Hussars and from Bosniaks to Finnish rifle battalions and dragoon regiments.
• Imperial diversity and the territorial build-up of troops – the armies of the Kingdoms of Prussia, Saxony, Bayern, Württemberg, and imperial
Austrian and royal Hungarian troops and royal Czech Landwehr within Imperial armies, and Caucasian and Central Asian troops within the
Russian imperial army.
• e formation of new national units at the beginning of the First World War – Latvian riflemen, Finnish Jägers, the Polish Legion, etc. Political
aims or military utility?
• e build-up of national formations on the basis of prisoners of war – the Czechoslovak Legion, Slavic Legion, the West Russian Volunteer
• e status of members of national formations, national versus imperial propaganda, language, uniforms, insignia, etc.
• National formations within the command structure – relations of national units with higher commands within the imperial armed
• National formations and the processes of state-building. e role of national units in the development of nation states.
• National formations and party politics. Relations between the national units and soldiers’ committees. Soldiers’ congresses.
• National formations in war – weapons, equipment, operations, battles, casualties.
• Principles of recruitment. e build-up of officer corps of national formations and replacement of casualties.
• National formations in wars of independence – deployment without re-organization, or as the core of new units.
• War weariness and veteran policies – the treatment of the veterans of the Great War in new nation states.
• e use of the experience of national units in the Second World War – old wine in new bottles?
• e preservation of the traditions of national formations in modern armies.
Speakers and their topics
Chosen works can be found in the Estonian War Museums's yearbook (linked).
- Dr Serhiy Choliy (National Technical University of Ukraine, Kyiv) – "The Local Military Privileges of Late Habsburg Monarchy (1867–1918): Dichotomy of regional traditions
and state centralism"
- Gavin Wiens (University of Toronto)
– "Fighting in the Shadow of the Eagle and Lion: Saxons and Württembergers in the German Army, 1914–1918"
- Dr Eyal Pascovich (University of Haifa, Israel)
– "The Jewish Legion in the British Army during the First World War"
- Michał Przybylak (War Studies University, Warsaw)
– "From Childhood of the Riflemen’s Association through middle-age of the Polish Legions to adulthood in the
Polish Army. History of the rebuilt Polish Army, 1914–1920"
- Dr Ciro Paoletti and Loredana Vannacci (Italian Commission of Military History)
– "The Czech Army Corps in the Italian Royal Army in 1918"
- Dr Daniel Marcelino Rodrigues (IE University, Spain) – "The Armée d’Afrique between Myth and Reality: Fighting for France, fighting the World Wars"
- Valdis Kuzmins (National Defence Academy of Latvia)
– "Latvian Rifle Regiments and their Impact on Latvian Military Culture"
- Prof dr Maciej Górny (Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Science)
– "Turning Points: Kostiuchnówa, Zborov and the Decline of Imperial Loyalty"
- Tobias J. Burgers (Free University of Berlin)
– "Japan, the Great War, and how its mobilization for WWI eventually mobilized it for WWII"
- Dr Vilma Bukaitė (Lithuanian National Museum) – "Changing Our Army: Political Self-Identification in Diaries and Letters of Lithuanian Authors in 1915–1919"
- Dr Tomas Balkelis (Lithuanian Historical Institute)
Political Radicalism among Lithuanian Soldiers and Officers in the Russian Army, 1917–1918"
- Prof dr Jonas Vaičenonis (Vytautas Magnus University)
– "The Development Challenges of the Lithuanian Armed Forces from November 1918 to May 1919"
- Dr Blaž Torkar (Military Schools Centre/Military Museum of the Slovenian Armed Forces)
– "The Army of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs"
- Dr Ruslana Martseniuk (Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv)
– "The Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen in 1914–1918"
- Dr Andrii Rukkas (Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv)
– "The Creation of Ukrainian National Military Units within the Russian Army in 1917"
- LTC Agur Benno (Estonian Embassy in Moscow)
– "The Development of the Insignia of the Estonian National Units in Comparison with Similar Formations"
- LTC Vitali Lokk (Estonian Defence Forces)
– "The Formation, Activities and the Importance of the Supreme Committee of the Estonian Soldiers in the
Formation of National Units in 1917–1918"
- Dr Liisi Esse (Stanford University Libraries)
– "The Forgotten Soldiers? The Fate of the Estonian WWI Veterans during the Interwar Period"