Russia’s victory in the Battle of Sarikamish was so overwhelming that it put the Russians on the offensive in World War I’s Caucasian Theater for good–or, uh, until Russia quit the war following its 1917 revolution. And so its military impact is a little mixed, despite the lopsided outcome. Had the Ottomans been able to sustain an offensive in the Caucasus this early in the war things might have turned out much differently. On the other hand, the Ottomans managed to reverse all the gains the Russians made after Sarikamish following Russia’s withdrawal. As it turns out the battle’s biggest impact was felt off the battlefield, by the Armenian people. The Armenian Genocide was a long time coming and had multiple causes, but Sarikamish was one of its most immediate. And that has to do with one powerful man’s ego, and his desperate need to dodge the blame for his failures on the battlefield.
The Caucasus Campaign began in November 1914, with Russian forces invading Ottoman territory. Even though the Russians fired the first shot, so to speak, the Caucasian front was far more an Ottoman priority than a Russian one. For the Russian’s Europe was the priority, and when things bogged down there they shifted tens of thousands of soldiers to that theater from the Caucasus. For the Ottomans, meanwhile, World War I was an opportunity to reverse the losses they’d suffered in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War and, if they really hit the jackpot, to stir up revolutionary fervor among the Turkic peoples of the Russian Empire.
You can see the degree to which the Ottomans prioritized the Caucasus in the fact that their operations there were directly overseen by Enver Pasha (d. 1922), the Ottoman Minister of War and probably the most powerful member of the triumvirate (which also included Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha and Minister of the Navy Djemal Pasha) that governed the empire in the period leading up to and including the war. As it turns out, though, Enver’s close oversight actually made things worse, and its his ego that’s going to cost the Armenians so dearly.
What the Russians lost in military capabilities when they shifted resources to Europe they got back, at least in part, thanks to a large outpouring of support from Armenians living in the Caucasus. Mostly this aid came from Armenians living in “Eastern Armenia,” which had become part of the Russian Empire in 1828 at the end of another Russo-Persian War. Eastern Armenia saw the development of of Armenian nationalism, and part of that emerging nationalism became fixated on the liberation of Western (Ottoman) Armenia. When the war started, and with Russian encouragement, tens of thousands of Russian Armenians formed volunteer militias that joined up with the invading Russian army, hoping to achieve that liberation.
The initial Russian invasion was blunted by mid-November, and things stabilized with the Russians a few miles inside Ottoman territory. The Ottoman commander on the scene, Hasan İzzet, was content to leave things like this for the rest of the winter, but Enver Pasha had bigger plans. He devised a very intricate, Napoleonic-style assault on the Russian lines, involving three corps attacking simultaneously along different parts of the line while a fourth unit conducted a diversion. This plan depended on all four elements hitting their mark precisely on time and in force. To “ensure” that it succeeded, Enver dismissed the more cautious İzzet and assumed command himself. This, as you’ll see in a moment, ensured that the effort would be a giant disaster.
Having given zero apparent thought to the logistics of implementing such an intricate plan in the dead of a Caucasian winter, Enver Pasha was presumably surprised when the whole thing collapsed. One of the three attacking corps, the X Corps, suffered something like 90% losses simply from attempting the impossible winter march through the imposing Allahüekber Mountains to get into position. When the IX and XI Corps launched their attack on the town of Sarikamish (which is in northeastern Turkey today) on December 29, their expected reinforcement from the X Corps never came because, well, there was no X Corps anymore. Soldiers in the other two corps died nearly as often from hypothermia and illness as from the actual fighting.
I could have written this post on January 7, because the battle really ended that day, when the defeated–annihilated, really–Ottomans began to fall back to Ottoman territory. But a few Ottoman units outside of Sarikamish held on until January 17, so here we are. Their losses were so severe that the entire Ottoman Third Army, its Caucasian force, was crippled. Enver’s failure was total: his grand plan looked great on paper but depended on the pieces coming together perfectly, which almost never happens and certainly wasn’t likely to happen in those conditions. He failed to account for the weather, failed to predict how the Russians would respond, and failed to bring along enough of a reserve force to adjust if anything went wrong. Obviously, then, the Armenians were to blame. Wait, what?
To be fair, the Armenians fighting alongside the Russians were invaluable to the Russian effort, but those were mostly Russian Armenians, not Ottoman Armenians. Though when Enver returned to Constantinople and publicly claimed that he’d been defeated by Armenian perfidy, so as to cover up his failures, to the Ottoman people that became a distinction without a difference. Unfortunately, such was Enver’s stature that his claims were not only believed but were then allowed to inform policy. In February all Armenians serving in the Ottoman military were demobilized due to fears that they were compromised by Russia. In April the empire began deporting prominent Armenians, and by May it was undertaking mass deportations, which turned into death marches to concentration camps on the outskirts of Anatolia.
As for the Caucasus theater, things continued to mostly go in Russia’s direction, with some periodic setbacks, until mid-1916. That’s when the Ottomans put Mustafa Kemal in command of the Caucasian front (which by this time had moved well into Anatolia), and he was able to at least slow down the Russian advance. Even with the future Atatürk in charge, though, the Ottomans couldn’t really right the ship until the 1917 revolution sent Russian packing.