Historical State Decoration – The Order of Lāčplēsis

In 1920’s – 1930’s, there were four official decorations in the Republic of Latvia: the Military Order of Lāčplēsis, the Order of the Three Stars, the Order of Viesturs, and the Cross of Recognition.

The Military Order of Lāčplēsis is not bestowed nowadays. It was awarded from 1920 to 1928.

The Order of Lāčplēsis

The Military Order of Lāčplēsis and the Order of the Three Stars were awarded by the Board of the Orders. In 1938, when the Order of Viesturs and the Cross of Recognition were founded, the authority of the Board of the Order was restricted to the Order of Lāčplēsis, the other decorations being conferred by the Chapter of Orders. In 1940, the Occupation rule abolished the decorations of Latvia. After the restoration of Latvia’s independence, the Order of the Three Stars was restored on 25 October 1994.

The Military Order of Lāčplēsis was the first and highest state decoration in Latvia. It was founded on the initiative of the Supreme Commander of Latvian Army Colonel Jānis Balodis. The honour was conferred on soldiers of Latvian Army and the former Latvian Riflemen Regiments for merit in military action as well as on foreigners who had taken part in the struggle for the liberation of Latvia or given other type of contribution to the founding and development of the state of Latvia.

The decoration had three classes: I, II and III. The person had first to be awarded the lowest, Class III before he/she could receive higher, Classes II and I of the Order respectively (this precondition did not necessarily apply to foreigners).

The medal of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis was a white enamelled fire-cross with red and golden edging. On the medallion in the centre of the face side, there was a picture of folk-hero Lāčplēsis wrestling with a bear. At the ends of the Cross, there were crossed swords. On the reverse side, there was date 11 November 1919 in a medallion, and on the hands of the cross, a phrase “Par Latviju” (For Latvia) was engraved. On the edges of the cross, there were initials H.B. engraved, which was the trademark of silversmith Hermanis Banks. The insignia of the Order consisted of a multi-ray silver star with the medal of the Order in the centre plus moiré ribbon with three red and four silvery stripes of equal width. The Military Order of Lāčplēsis was designed by J. Liberts. The holders also received a diploma designed by R. Zariņš that gave a brief description of the achievement for which the decoration had been awarded to the particular person.

Bestowing the Order

The date when the Army of Latvia expelled Bermondt-Avalov troops from Riga, the 11th of November 1919, is symbolically accepted as the foundation day of the Order. However, for the first time, the decoration was awarded on 11 November 1920, after the Constitutional Assembly had passed the Law on the Military Order of Lāčplēsis (on 18 September 1920). By the resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers dated 13 August 1920, the first recipients of the decoration were seven highest-ranking commanders of the Latvian Army: General Pēteris Radziņš, Colonels Mārtiņš Peniķis, Krišjānis Berķis, Jūlijs Jansons, Jānis Apinis, and Colonel-Lieutenants Oskars Dankers and Jānis Puriņš. These recipients were also appointed members of the Board of the Order. Later seven Members of the Parliament were also accepted into the Board, namely, Jānis Goldmanis, Kārlis Kasparsons, Rainis, Jūlijs Celms, Voldemārs Zāmuēls, Jānis Rubulis, and Markus Gailītis. The Board was chaired by the President of Latvia. The first President of Latvia to fulfil this mission was Jānis Čakste.

Issues related to the rewarding were decided by the Board of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis, chaired by the President of Latvia. Apart from the President of Latvia, the Board consisted of seven members of the Parliament and seven holders of the highest classes of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis. Each particular case was first dealt with by a specially appointed commission in each regiment of the Army. The commissions examined each specific application, wrote a detailed description of the candidate’s achievement, summarised testimonies of the witnesses, and submitted the resulting form or list of candidates to the Minister of War who assessed it and, if it met his approval, passed it to the Board of the Order, which made the final decision.

The Statutes of the Order were elaborated by A. Stalbe, a holder of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis. The Statutes consisted of 62 paragraphs describing both the procedure of the awarding, the insignia as well as the duties and rights of the holders of the decoration. The decoration had three classes and was to be awarded exclusively for military achievements on persons who had fulfilled their duty to the state by challenging and outstanding heroic deeds. Before receiving a higher Class of the Order, the holder first had to be awarded the lowest. Sixty subparagraphs of the Statutes gave a detailed description of the achievements that can earn the Order.

The Statutes also described the privileges that the holder of the decoration enjoyed. They were entitled to receive the insignia of the Order free of charge, to place the pictures of the decoration on their personal stamps and stationery, to wear the military uniform during their absence from active military service and to receive medical services free of charge. The Holders of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis enjoyed a privileged treatment in military training institutions and were given preference when competing with other candidates of the same qualifications for high-ranking positions in the army or the fleet. They also were entitled to a vacation twice the typical duration and holder of a certificate of the Order could travel by rail for half the standard fee. The mortal remains of the deceased members of the Order were buried with military honours.

The first Award Ceremony of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis took place on Esplanade Square in Riga on 11 November 1920, with President of Latvia Jānis Čakste personally presenting the decorations. The last meeting of the Board of the Order, dealing with issues pertaining to the awarding of the honour took place on 1 November 1928. The last Award Ceremony took place on 11 November 1928 in Liepāja with the decorations being presented by President of Latvia Gustavs Zemgals.

Recipients of the Order

In eight years while the Military Order of Lāčplēsis existed, decorations of Class I were conferred on 11 persons, among them were Generals Jānis Balodis and Krišjānis Berķis, Colonels Fridrihs Briedis and Oskars Kalpaks, Estonian General Johann Laidoner, Polish Marshal Jozef Pilsudsky, French Marshal Ferdinand Fosch and Genera Eugene J’neuner, King of Italy Victor Emanuel and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and King of Belgium Albert I.

Class II of the Order was bestowed to 61 people (18 Latvians and 43 foreigners), whereas Class III was conferred on 2,072 persons (1,600 soldiers of the national army, 202 former Latvian riflemen, and 271 foreigners).

During the celebrations of 11 November 1929, the establishing of the Fellowship of the Holders of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis was suggested. The development of the Fellowship was completed on 19 November 1931, and it functioned until the Soviet occupation. The Fellowship resumed its activities in Esslingen, Germany in 1947. Later the Board of the Fellowship transferred its headquarters to the USA. There were sections of the Fellowship also in the UK, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden. The Fellowship exists no longer.

Once in every five years, the President of Latvia hosted a get-together evening for the families of the holders of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis. The event included a banquet and presentation of precious gifts (such as a coffee-set decorated with the symbols of the Order). On Christmas, children of the holders of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis received small gifts. As of 11 November 1933, the Fellowship of the Holders of the Military Order of Lāčplēsis issued magazine Lāčplēsis.

Along with Latvians (soldiers of the Latvian Army and Latvian riflemen), the Order has been conferred on 11 Lithuanians, 47 Germans, 15 Russians, 9 Poles, 4 Jews, and 3 Belarussians. Among the holders of Class III of the decoration, there are also three women: Valija Veščunas-Jansone, Līna Čanka-Freidenfelde, and Elza Žiglevica. The Order has been conferred on soldiers of the Armies of Estonia, Poland, Finland, France, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, USA, and Japan. Among the members of the Order, there are not only people but also the Fortress of Verdun, which was awarded for the heroism of its defenders during the First World War. Once there were rumours abroad that Latvian riflemen were entitled to change their decorations of the tsarist Russia (the Order of St. George or the Cross of George) for the Military Order of Lāčplēsis. It is not true.