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A short history of British-Latvian relations.
Britain is a major trade partner of Latvia. In eleventh place among exporters to Latvia, the UK is equal first place (with Germany) as a destination for Latvian exports. This is a continuation of much older trading traditions going back to the middle ages. In the 1920s, the British consumer bought 40% of Latvian exports. Today Britain is Latvia’s principle market for timber. Some thirty British companies have representation in Latvia and the UK is currently in the fifth place in terms of foreign direct investment. However, the good relations that exist today between the two countries have not sprung out of a purely mercantile past.
While Britain celebrated the armistice in November 1918, the Baltic States continued to struggle for their independence. German troops remained in occupation following the cessation of hostilities in Western Europe and both the Bolsheviks and the ‘White’ Russians refused to recognise the independence of the three Baltic States. Britain and her Allies had already accorded the Baltic States recognition, but it was not until the Armistice that it was possible to take military steps to assist them.
While it was decided not to deploy any land forces to the Baltic States, the British Government took the decision “in the case of the Baltic provinces, to protect, as far as we can, the nascent nationalities with our Fleet.” From the outset British Naval Forces were to prove vital to Latvia’s struggle for independence. In April 1919, following an attack upon the Latvian General Head Quarters, President Karlis Ulmanis sought refuge upon the SARATOV; a merchant vessel operating under the protection of the Royal Navy. President Ulmanis was to remain aboard the SARATOV until 27 June when he landed at Liepaja to resume the reins of government.
The British operation in the Baltics lasted until 1920. At its conclusion the lives of 128 British seamen had been lost. Each November the British Ambassador lays a wreath in the Gulf of Riga to commemorate the deaths of 9 men on board the HMS DRAGON. These men fell to a volley of fire from a shore battery whilst repelling the advance of pro-German forces upon Riga.
In his visit to London in 1996, President Guntis Ulmanis, the great-nephew of Karlis Ulmanis, laid a wreath at the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall. In May 1998 President Guntis Ulmanis lunched on board the visiting Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Somerset, 79 years to the day after his great-uncle boarded the Saratov
Kane DD-235 departed Newport 20 August 1920 for her shakedown cruise to Gibralter, Brest, Copenhagen. Danzig, and the Gulf of Riga. She was just outside the Gulf in the Baltic Sea 1 October 1920 and supposedly well-clear of the minefields laid in World War I when a mine exploded, bending her port engine shafts and port propeller struts. After repair at Landskrone, Sweden, and overhaul at Chatham, England, she sailed 21 May 1921 for the Mediterranean.