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What is 'Lāčplēsis Day' and why do Latvians mark it?

November 11 is Latvia's day to remember those who have fallen in defense of the Latvian nation and its hard-won freedoms.

Usually a day characterised by services, parades and the lighting of candles at Rīga Castle and other public places around the country, due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year's event will be a more private and personal affair to be marked at home, in private.

Known as 'Lāčplēsis Day' (Lāčplēsis being the name of Latvia's mythical warrior hero), while it coincides with the date upon which the 1918 Armistice at the end of the First World War is commemorated in many other countries, the Latvian events are subtly different, officially marking the day a year later in 1919 when a crucial victory against allied German and White Russian forces under Count Pavel Bermondt-Avalov was won by the fledgling republic, which had declared independence a year earlier. 

During the decisive battles in and around Rīga, Latvia lost 743 soldiers, of whom 57 were officers, according to the Latvian Army.

It is often observed that though 1918 is regarded as the final year of World War One, in Latvia harsh military conflicts continued for a considerable period after that date, with Latvia receiving crucial support from its northern neighbor, Estonia, to repel not only the West Russian Volunteer Army but the Red Army, too.

Latvia also received valuable assistance from British and French warships. Later, in 1920, Polish troops helped the Latvian Army expel the Red Army from Daugavpils and the surrounding area before ceasefires with Germany and Soviet Russia were eventually signed.

But as with other remembrance events, Lāčplēsis Day is not only a day of historical commemoration but is also used to express appreciation for the service and sacrifice of all those who have served in the armed forces since and who do so today.

President Egils Levits reflects upon the meaning of Lāčplēsis Day 2020 in these comments:

Lāčplēsis Day marks the greatest victory in the history of the Latvian army. Every year, on 11 November, we pay tribute to Latvian soldiers who set out to defend the newly founded Latvian State in a War of Independence.

Our army had to fight the War of Independence in very harsh and even hopeless conditions at times. Latvia was devastated, ravaged by outbreak of diseases and hunger. But the dream of free Latvia had been fulfilled.

We, too, must remain strong, take care of each other and face the current challenges together in a united front. I invite everyone to light Lāčplēsis Day candles at home this year. Let us commemorate these victories alone and together with our loved ones. Let us pay our respect to those who fought for our Latvia.

More details about the historical context and meaning of Lāčplēsis Day can be found in this helpful explanation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and this excellent independently-made online timeline.

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