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Schmarden – An attack by Jaeger combat engineers on 25 July 1916

The Battle of Schmarden is an important part of Finnish war history. In the battle Finnish combat engineers belonging to the 27th Jaeger Battalion of Finnish volunteers fought alongside German soldiers belonging to the 1st Reserve Jaeger Battalion. The attack began at midnight with the objective of destroying the forward positions of the Russian forces. The attack was a success, and the Finnish combat engineers carried out their mission with bravery and honour.

Combat engineer training and formation of the combat engineer company

Finnish volunteers underwent training in Lockstedt, Germany. From the start, attention was paid to combat engineering skills, including the use of explosives. From the German perspective, training Finns would support their operations to the north of their front line against Russia by means of armed resistance and sabotage. As the number of Finnish volunteers increased, a training group was established at Lockstedt (Ausbildungstruppe Lockstedt) that included both infantry units and a combat engineer (pioneer) company in which a total of 343 Finnish Jaegers would serve by February 1918, when the 27th Jaeger Battalion was disbanded.

The Battle of Schmarden

In the spring of 1916 the Lockstedt training group was designated the 27th Jaeger Battalion (27th Royal Prussian Jaeger Battalion), which was ordered to gain combat experience on the Eastern Front. The Finnish Jaegers were first sent to the front line at the Misa river, where the Combat Engineer Company served as reserves to the battalion and carried out work on fortifications. In July the company was given somewhat surprisingly the order to support a German battalion in a reconnaissance attack to destroy a Russian forward position and destroy the Russian fortifications there. According to German practice, the combat mission required 2 to 3 specially trained combat engineers to accompany each Jaeger group.

The Finnish combat engineer company of almost 200 men joined the German 1st Reserve Jaeger Battalion at midday on 24 July 1916. The Finnish Jaegers initially raised eyebrows among the German soldiers, but after chatting and getting to know each other they began their mission. By midnight, as a crescent moon shone between the clouds, the men were ready behind their front line fortifications to the south of the village of Smārde.

The attack began at midnight. The attack advanced across open ground, initially without attracting the enemy’s attention. Approximately halfway across, the enemy opened fire. The German battalion reinforced by the Finnish combat engineers attacked in two waves, the first of which was to drive out the enemy from the forward position and the second to destroy it.

The attack succeeded according to plan, the task was accomplished. Some of the troops, however, advanced too rapidly and came precariously close to the Russians’ main line of defence, exposing themselves not only to enemy fire but also to their own artillery and mortar fire. Upon hearing the order to “Kehrt marsch” the troops withdrew in an orderly fashion to their own positions, bringing with them their own wounded soldiers along with captured enemy soldiers. Alongside their German comrades, the Finnish soldiers too managed to take a significant number of prisoners.

At dawn the paramedics gathered the wounded and fallen, including one Finnish Jaeger, Paavo Heikki Kinnunen, a sailor from Rääkkylä. Another Finnish Jaeger, Matti Jaakko Fält, was declared missing. Having lost an eye to a rifle bullet, he spent three days lost in no man’s land before making it back. Fält was awarded an Iron Cross for his valour, but he succumbed to his injuries almost a year later in a military hospital in Hanover. In addition to Fält, nine others Finnish Jaegers were wounded. German casualties included 8 fallen and 43 wounded (Mees and Wittig 1929). The number of casualties reflects the severity of the night-time battle.

The successful attack and the role played by the Finnish Jaegers were acknowledged in the German 8th Army’s Order of the Day. In addition to receiving the plaudits of their German superiors, eight Finnish Jaegers were awarded the Iron Cross, 2nd Class.

Significance of the battle

The Battle of Schmarden was one of the most significant engagements of the 27th Jaeger Battalion, even though only the combat engineer company took part. What makes the battle particularly significant is that part of the Jaeger Battalion participated in a purely offensive battle and using modern “strike group tactics” (Stosstruppentaktik).

Professor Matti Lauerma has described the significance of the battle as follows: The Battle of Schmarden remained a unique event in the history of the 27th Jaeger Battalion the only offensive battle in which such a large contingent of Finnish Jaegers took part. The casualties incurred in the battled were relatively heavy compared to the battalion’s other engagements, but the battle experience, confidence and reputation gained at Schmarden were certainly worth the price.

“Schmarden Day” has become established as the annual heritage day of Finnish combat engineers, one that has been celebrated without interruption even during the wars. Today’s combat engineers must also live up to the example set by the Jaegers in which their skills not only as engineers but also as infantry troops is a matter of honour. Strike with your pickaxe – for the Fatherland!

LtCol, Doctor of Military Sciences Vesa Valtonen