Review: Freeing the Baltic 1918-1920, Geoffrey Bennett

Rating: 5 out of 5

Mr Bennett’s overview of the British squadron’s fight to support the independence of the Baltic nations flows. The book is extremely readable, and though I have some small things to point out regarding the style, these do not detract from a very good read.

The author continuously used adjectives that would be considered out-of-date by now (e.g., “Letts” instead of “Latvians”) and even when he wrote it, the author’s inspiration seems to have been the style of official communiques at the time. Also, the narrative relies on citations and quotes from memoirs and government papers to a very high degree, often breaking his own narrative to insert three or four paragraphs of Lloyd George’s or Sinclair’s or some Soviet historian’s research. This isn’t bad per se, but when the author’s words flow so well, I am not sure why he did this instead of picking out the most salient points from each.

The undoubted hero of the story is sir Walter Cowan though the introduction also shows the prior mission into the Baltic by Admiral Sinclair in the latter part of 1918. Unlike Sinclair, however, for Cowan we go back to the roots of that fighting man and also investigate the circumstances that led a naval officer to take part in the Boer War. The author was undoubtedly a fan, though he also tried to present sir Walter in a neutral light: as evidenced in the long tangent that he takes to investigate whether the mutinies experienced in the Baltic were because of sir Walter or despite sir Walter’s presence.

The action primarily focusses on Estonia to begin with, with the task of securing her shores. After that, there generally are two parallel lines: one to observe sir Walter’s task force blockading the Soviet Red Fleet and another to observe the events in Latvia where British ships offered support in one way or another to Ulmanis’ government. The Latvian port events are also the setting for numerous anecdotal stories, likely come down from the sailors, like when von der Goltz’s troops blocked in a pier the British troops were at, and they sailed to the adjacent pier. Nevertheless, the only figure from the Baltic nations to be given much space is Pitka who seems to have impressed everyone on the British side he met.

Overall, a very strong read and still seems to be one of the best books about British activities in the Baltics during their fight for independence.

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