15 January 1923 is one of the most prominent and joyful dates in the history of Lithuania that often does not receive the attention it deserves. On that day insurgents of Lithuania captured Klaipėda City and annexed it de facto to the bulk of territory of the Republic of Lithuania. It was one of the most daring as well as successful Lithuania's military operations that gave outcomes - dependence of Klaipėda Region to Lithuania - that benefit Lithuanian nation till today.
As the State of Lithuania reestablished itself in XX c. on a national basis, it did not pose itself the goal of resuming former lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that were not Lithuanian from the ethnical point of view, i.e. inhabited by people of other than Lithuanian nationality. In the beginning ethnographic boundaries of former Lithuania were reached and validates in the East via successful fight against Russian Bolsheviks and respective agreement with Soviet Russia, however, a considerable part of the territory, including capital Vilnius, was lost due to failure in struggling Polish forces. In the context of re-establishing the State of Lithuania on the principle of nationality, the idea of annexation of Lithuania Minor after long centuries under German occupation to the Republic of Lithuania was consistent and logic.
Political background of Klaipėda Revolt
When World War I ended, delegation of Lithuanian politicians called for annexation of Lithuania Minor to the Republic of Lithuania in Paris Peace Conference - a venue of victorious allies to set a new order of the European countries' coexistence. That demand was partly satisfied as Klaipėda Region got separated from Germany. However, Memel Territory was not recognized for Lithuania as Greater Lithuania itself was not granted juridical recognition by the great Western states. It was the result of prevailing opinion that despite of self-determination spirit alive among liberated nations Lithuania along with other nations of the Baltic States should remain in the Russian Empire. It was a universal belief that the Bolshevik rule would not last and the coming back former order would restore geopolitical stability.
Furthermore, Lithuania's international status was aggravated by Poland's plans to annex it. The great Western states were intending to create a certain buffer zone to preclude Bolshevik spread westwards in case they had retained political power in Russia. Poland was considered the principal pillar for the purpose. The country received every support from the West, especially France. In its turn Lithuania was seen as weak and unreliable state, therefore Western states preferred it annexed to Poland thus adding up to Poland's strength. For that reason Lithuania remained unrecognized internationally de jure for the longest period from the Baltic States (not until 1922). The League of Nations (corresponding to the contemporary United Nations) placed Klaipėda Region under temporary administration of France.
Another reason to stop return of the region to Lithuania was economical interest in and intentions to rule Klaipėda of the France's supported Poland. In 1922 a tendency developed that the international community would establish „free state of Klaipėda", Freistaat, were Poland would have great influence despite the fact that as soon as 1918 citizens of Lithuania Minor had expressed their position „to abandon stepmother Germany and unit with mother Lithuania" by the Act of Tilsit. It became apparent that Klaipėda was slipping from Lithuania's hands though it had been promised for the latter by the Peace Treaty of Versailles. The total of circumstances induced Lithuanians of Klaipėda Regions and Government of Lithuania take up strong measures.
Course of Klaipėda Revolt
In 1923 circumstances came eligible to begin the revolt. The Conference of Ambassadors was soon to make the decision regarding Klaipėda's status that did not seem to be in Lithuania's favour. Attention of international community was focused on the Ruhr Valley captured by French forces. A considerable merit for encouraging the Government of Lithuania to decide to launch a military operation should be for acknowledged for determinate members of the Lithuanian Riflemen Union.
On 1 January 1923 the Supreme Committee of Rescue of Lithuania Minor delivered a request to secure Lithuanians of Klaipėda Region from German persecution. Under total classification Lithuania formed Special Purpose Detachment from cadets of Military School, members of 5th and 8th Infantry Regiments of Military Police School, 1st Cavalry Regiment, Electrotechnical Battalion, Auto-battalion, Military Aviation, volunteer soldiers and officers of General Staff, and riflemen of Vilkaviškis, Kaišiadorys, and Panevėžys platoons. The insurgent army comprised around 40 officers, 584 regular soldiers, 455 riflemen and about 300 citizens of Klaipėda Region, with Jonas Polovinskas-Budrys in charge. On January 6 members of Special Purpose Detachment boarded Kaunas-Klaipėda train. At the border they changed into civilian clothing with a special mark - arm-bands bearing letters „MLS" (Volunteer of Lithuania Minor). Insurgent army had to process the operation in three groups: the first for actions in Klaipėda, the second - for Pagėgiai and protection of border with Germany, and the third - for Šilutė.
The operation began on January 9 with declaration of the Supreme Committee of Rescue of Lithuania Minor's manifest in Šilutė claiming dismissal of the region's German administration. Insurgents crossed the border on January 10 and seized Šilutė and Pagėgiai towns without encountering resistance on the same day. Klaipėda was encircled and assault was begun on January 15. Prefecture of France surrendered that afternoon. 12 insurgents, 2 French military and one gendarme of Germany were killed in the Revolt.
Outcome of the operation
France protested and demanded to remove insurgents from Klaipėda Region but Lithuania's Government denied any connection between the Revolt and central administration of Lithuania. No major reaction resulted as the issue of Ruhr Valley was handled simultaneously.
On 16 February 1923 Conference of Ambassadors announced an agreement between Lithuania and the winning allies of World War I transferring Klaipėda Region to Lithuania. Memel Territory officially became an autonomous part of the Republic of Lithuania with the signing of Klaipeda Convention in Paris in 1924.
By staging that scrupulously planned and daring military operation Lithuania resumed its territory after centuries under German rule and possesses it to this day. Importance of the victory of 1923 was not diminished by the fact that Germany tore the region off Lithuania in 1939. It is highly likely that in other case Klaipėda Region would have fallen under the rule of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic as a spoil of war after World War II just like the present Kaliningrad Oblast did. However, after the war Klaipėda Region was returned to Lithuania as that is were it belonged before occupation of Nazi Germany in 1939.
Lithuanian soldiers who fell in Klaipėda operation:
Capt. Eduardas Noreika,
Lt. Viktoras Burokevičius,
Pte. Jonas Petkus,
Pte. Jonas Simonavičius,
Pte. Povilas Trinkūnas,
Pte. Adolfas Viliūnas,
Military School cadet Vincas Stašelis,
Police School student Vincas Vilkas,
Reifleman Algirdas Jasaitis,
Rifleman Flioras Lukšys,
Rifleman Jonas Pleškys,
Rifleman Antanas Ubavičius.
Picture source: http://www.archyvai.lt/exhibitions/klaipeda/paroda.htm