The Latvian Rifle Regiments were formed by a Tsarist government in 1915 so desperate for manpower that it began to allow national formations. Latvia wasn't just occupied, but in danger of being absorbed into a greater Germany, which had fired up a massive rise in Latvian nationalism, allied with a strong dose of Socialism.
The Latvian Rifles were almost the only units to remain at the front after the rest of the army started melting away after the February Revolution. Already one of the better units in the Tsarist Army, they became easily the best large formation on the revolutionary side at the start of the civil war.
When the Bolsheviks took power, the Latvians' presence close to Petrograd (along with the strongly revolutionary fleet) became vital – they were able to provide the military muscle Lenin needed, whereas anti-Bolshevik forces were too distant to prevent the coup.
For a while Lenin used the Latvians as a fire brigade, rushing the various units to the points in the most desperate need.
On 13 April 1918 the various Latvian Rifle Regiments were merged into the Latvian Soviet Rifle Division. At this point the division had 9 rifle regiments in 3 brigades, 1 cavalry regiment, 2 artillery divizions, aviation and armored car detachments. In all about 18,000 soldiers.
About 18% were communist and about 60% workers and farmers. Many of the men were only Latvian by descent, and had been living in Russia previously – it became quite trendy to be a "Latvian", and recruitment was high.
The division operated as separate units for a while however.
It was during this period that the Latvians became known for their ruthlessness in putting down anti-Soviet rebellions. (The Cheka was also staffed quite heavily with Latvians, which did not make them any more popular.)
In January 1919 it became the 1st Rifle Division of the Soviet Army of Latvia as it invaded Latvia following the withdrawal of Germany. The division was brought up to nearly full strength by drafting locals.
The Bolshevik regime in Latvia was initially welcomed, but lost no time in destroying that good will with its brutality. It was soon greatly hated, and when the Freikorps attacked the Soviet Latvian Army quickly collapsed. Desertion was already high, but it became catastrophic as the division retreated.
Utterly broken it was pulled back to refit. With there no longer being a Soviet Latvia, on 26 June 1919 it returned to being the Latvian Rifle Division, and was put into the 15th Army.
On 8 July 1919 losses meant it became the 53rd Rifle Division. However it continued to refit, and on 3 August 1919 it was the Latvian Rifle Division again. (Many of the new men were Latvians from other Red Army units. Eventually almost all Latvians not in the VOKhR or Cheka were moved to the division.)
Those Latvians that remained were the most committed Communists or, as often as not, men of Latvian origins who hadn't been living in Latvia anyway so had no reason to desert in the Baltic. Fully rested, and with some of its spirit back, in October it was moved to the "Strike Force" against Denikin's advance on Moscow. It was in the spearhead of the Orel fighting and helped in the capture of Belgorod and Kharkov.
We have an order of battle for that time:
1st Latvian Rifle Regiment – 705 bayonets (7 companies), 12 HMGs
2nd Latvian Rifle Regiment – 664 bayonets (6 companies), 12 HMGs
3rd Latvian Rifle Regiment – 690 bayonets (6 companies), 12 HMGs
4th Latvian Rifle Regiment – 741 bayonets (9 companies), 12 HMGs
5th Latvian Rifle Regiment – 658 bayonets (6 companies), 12 HMGs
6th Latvian Rifle Regiment – 719 bayonets (6 companies), 12 HMGs
7th Latvian Rifle Regiment – 720 bayonets (6 companies), 12 HMGs
8th Latvian Rifle Regiment – 611 bayonets (6 companies), 12 HMGs
9th Latvian Rifle Regiment – 569 bayonets (6 companies), 12 HMGs
1st to 4th Squadrons – in total 618 sabres, 2 HMGs, 8 "Lewis"
1st Light Artillery Divizion
1st to 3rd Light Batteries – 4 guns (76.2mm), 2 HMGs
2nd Light Artillery Divizion
4th to 6th Light Batteries – 4 guns (76.2mm), 2 HMGs
3rd Light Artillery Divizion
7th to 9th Light Batteries – 4 guns (76.2mm), 2 HMGs (except 7th only 3 guns, 2 HMGs)
1st Battery – 3 howitzers (122mm)
2nd Battery – 2 heavy guns
In the rifle regiments, by ethnicity, 95% were Latvians; in artillery, sapper and medical units, 65% were Latvians. Just under 20% were officially Communist.
Briefly in 13th Army, it moved to 14th Army (October 1919 - March 1920) and back to 13th Army (March - September 1920). Finally it ended in 6th Army (September - November 1920)
During this time it operated against Makhno (February to March), fought in the Crimea (April), took and defended the Kakhovka Bridgehead (August to October) and finally stormed the Crimea (October - November 1920). Desertion was rife, and they were at time mutinous, but while their motivation may have been lacking they were still veterans in a war mostly fought by mobilised peasants.
The Division was disbanded on 28 November 1920 as part of the peace agreement signed with Latvia. Most of the men returned to Latvia, while the commanders often stayed in Russia (the more Communist among them perhaps fearing retribution – the Red Terror in Latvia had been very nasty).
Chief of divisions: I.I. Vatsetis (13 April - 17 July 1918), A.V. Kosmatov (acting, 18-25 July 1918), A. Aven (25 July 1919 -11 January 1919), G.G. Magul (12 January - 26 March 1919), A. Martusevich (27 March - 20 October 1919), F.K. Kalnins (20 October 1919 - 4 July 1920), J. Latsis (4-15 July 1920), K.A. Stutska (15 July - 28 November 1920).
RMS: Peterson (13 April 1918 - 12 January 1919), Dozit (13 April 1918 - 24 June 1920), Yurevich (13 January - 1 May 1919), Yanel (6 May - 1 September 1919), Krustun (6 September - 11 November 1919), Butkov (24 June - 18 July 1920), Apun (18 July - 28 November 1920).
Note that many of these commanders do not have Latvian names.
As one of the elite units of the Red Army, the Latvians seem to have been better equipped than most. The order of battle before Orel – with every sub-unit having nearly full complements of men, MGs and guns – is quite unusual.
Uniforms seem to have been entirely normal Red Army ones, basically the old Tsarist ones stripped of insignia. The Osprey Elite Series Armies of the Baltic Independence Wars 1918-1920, has some colour plates, including a Latvian rifleman.
Their flags were of the normal Red Army sort, but the writing in Latvian.
Formed on 17 August 1918 from reserve regiments of worker's as the 7th Reserve Soviet Rifle Division. On 25 October 1918 it became the 2nd Moscow Worker's Division, then on 27 November 1918 the Special Red-Military Division, and on 2 December 1918 the Special International Rifle Division. Finally on 12 February 1919 the 2nd Rifle Division of the Latvian Soviet Army
The division was part of the Latvian Soviet Army from January to June 1919, taking part in the invasion and then retreat. It then went to the 15th Army (June 1919), where it fought General Iudenich. Afterwards it fought against in the Daugavpils region against the Latvians. On 30 June 1919 units of the division were broken up and went into the compositions of the 1st Latvian Division, as well as the 4th, 10th and 11th Rifle Divisions.
This unit seems to have been formed from four regiments of workers from the Moscow area, some of whom were foreign. With the invasion of Latvian, it drafted large numbers of Latvians to complete its make up. It collapsed completely in the face of the Latvian Freikorps, most of the Latvians defecting, necessitating its break-up.
There were also independent Soviet Latvian units operating in Siberia, including in Penza, Saratov and Vitebsk, in the early war.
It's not well known, but the Whites in Siberia had two Latvian units, the Troitsk and Imanta regiments, which were eventually repatriated to their homeland via Vladivostok. They did not fight much though.
Raymond Leonard. "From War through Revolution: The Story of the Latvian Rifles". CO: 32nd Annual European Studies Conference. Nebraska, 2007
Currently still available at the Wayback Machine
N. A. Nefedov. "Red Latvian Riflemen" from "Veche" Magazine, Numbers 4, 5 and 6, 1982.