The “Island of Death” was the battlefield site on the left bank of the Daugava River across from Ikskile where Latvia’s first battalions of riflemen (about 8000 volunteers recruited into the 12th Imperial Army of Russia) saw protracted fighting and died in the hundreds as they held off a 1916 German onslaught toward Riga that lasted many months.
What used to be a Daugmale county peninsula jutting into the river near a strategically important temporary bridge can now only be reached by boat, since the Riga hydroelectric dam flooded the isthmus. But in 1916 the German forces could have been poised to threaten Riga from this very spot.
NBS Colonel Janis Hartmanis, author of a just-published monograph, (funded under local Ķekava district government auspices), about the Latvian riflemen’s battles at the Island of Death, describes the scene as having been “daily shooting, artillery from both sides, because the Germans were in positions raised above the relief and the whole defense was quite complicated.”
The Island of Death was also notorious as one of the first sites where chemical weapons were ever deployed, killing almost one-and-a-half thousand men. In fact, its name is said to have been given by the Latvian riflemen who were urgently called in to replace the fallen gassed soldiers.
President Janis Čakste presided over the unveiling of the monument, designed by sculptor Eižens Laube, on July 27, 1924. It was the fledgling nation's first memorial to its freedom fighting soldiers.
The tragic battles were also immortalized by poet Aleksandrs Čaks in his poem “Mūžības skartie” (“By eternity touched”), written during the 1930s.
Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis was on hand to pay respects to the men who held the tiny piece of land for close to a year, despite the Russians finally handing it over to the Germans.
“The Russian soldier proved again that he’s not prepared to fight for foreign lands, whereas the Latvian soldier showed that he’s ready to defend his land,” Vejonis told LTV news program Panorama.
Meanwhile, men’s folklore group Vilki leader Edgars Lipors explained why the riflemen would have sung bawdy and raucous songs rather than sorrowful ones normally associated with wartime themes.
“It’s a magical feedback. If we sing lustily, then death can’t catch us and there are a lot of drastic songs like that. When I was young I thought the songs were all supposed to be mournful, but it turns out at least two-thirds are really quite jolly and saucy,” said Lipors.
The gathered people were clearly drawn to the reenactment of the battles with their attacks, retreats, exploding bombs and – in the end – fallen soldiers. Of course, the Latvian riflemen celebrated their victory…