Today in World War I: the Battle of Sarikamish ends (1915)

The Battle of Sarikamish was an overwhelming Russian victory whose outcome put the Ottomans on the defensive in World War I’s Caucasus theater of operations right up until the 1917 October Revolution took Russia out of the war altogether. Its military impact was fairly substantial–World War I might have been much different if the Ottomans had been able to make a sustained offensive into Russia via the Caucasus–but the Ottomans ultimately gained back the territory they’d lost as a result of this battle. Sarikamish’s greatest 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 the most immediate ones, owing to one man’s desperate need to dodge the blame for his failures on the battlefield.

The state of Europe and the Caucasus in January 1915; note Sarikamish there on the right (via mental_floss)

The Caucasus Campaign began in November 1914, with Russian forces invading Ottoman territory. Despite how that initial Russian offensive may make it seem, the Caucasian front was far more an Ottoman priority than a Russian one. The Russians devoted considerably more resources to the European front, and as things bogged down there they shifted tens of thousands of soldiers to Europe from the Caucasus. But the Ottomans saw the war in part as an opportunity to reverse the losses they’d suffered in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. They also viewed a successful Caucasian offensive as a chance to stir up revolutionary fervor among the Turkic populations of the Russian Empire. You can see the degree to which the Ottomans prioritized the Caucasus in the fact that it was 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 made most of the decisions in the empire in the period leading up to and including the war. As it turns out, Enver’s close oversight was a big part of the Ottomans’ problem.

What the Russians lost in professional military capacity when they shifted resources to the west to counter Germany, they got back, at least in part, thanks to a large outpouring of support from Armenians living in the Caucasus. Ottoman Armenians, like Ottoman Greeks, Ottoman Bulgarians, Ottoman Serbs, and so on, had lived for centuries under the dhimmi “protected second-class” system, guaranteed certain rights but taxed more heavily than their Muslim neighbors and subject to a number of other legal and social restrictions. The Armenian community had thrived throughout the Middle East as merchants and traders, but by the 19th century it–like the Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian communities, and many others besides–had developed a strong nationalistic sensibility. This Armenian nationalism led to clashes with the Ottoman authorities, which led to violence against the Armenians. Worse, as the empire lost its European possessions it only came down harder on the Armenians, as it tried desperately to hang on to Anatolia. Eastern Armenia, which had become part of the Russian Empire in 1828 at the end of the Russo-Persian War, became a staging ground for the development of Armenian nationalism and efforts to liberate Western (Ottoman) Armenia. When the war started, and with Russian encouragement, Armenians formed volunteer militias, tens of thousands of fighters strong, that joined up with the invading Russian army.

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 direct command. This, as you’ll see in a moment, in fact ensured that the whole effort would be a giant military disaster.

The whole Ottoman operation was a mess from start to finish. One of the three corps, the X Corps, suffered something like 90% losses simply from attempting the impossible winter march through the imposing Allahüekber Mountains. When the IX and XI Corps launched their attack on Sarikamish on December 29, they were expecting reinforcement from the X Corps at the key moment in the battle, but that reinforcement obviously never came because, for all intents and purposes, 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. The Russian forces, commanded by General Nikolai Yudenich (d. 1933), eventually moved out of Sarikamish, which Enver interpreted as a retreat, but in reality they were re-positioning to envelope the Ottomans.

I could have written this 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. The losses were so severe that the entire Ottoman Third Army, its Caucasian force, was crippled. Enver’s failure was total: he’d designed an intricate plan of attack that probably looked great on paper but depended on the pieces coming together perfectly, which almost never happens and certainly isn’t likely to happen in the dead of winter in the Caucasus. He failed to account for conditions, 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?

Enver Pasha (Wikimedia)

To be fair, the Armenians fighting alongside the Russians were invaluable to the Russian effort, but those were mostly Russian Armenians, not Ottoman Armenians. But whomever they were, it’s clear that when Enver returned to Constantinople and publicly claimed that he’d been defeated by Armenian perfidy rather than his own considerable errors, he was doing so simply to try to cover up his failure. 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, 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 shifted 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 needed the chaos that was 1917 in Russia before they were able to right the ship. Russia’s collapse and eventual withdrawal from the war allowed the Ottomans to gain back the territory they’d lost and then some. In fact, most of the territory that the Ottomans were looking to get back, the territory they’d lost in 1878, does belong to Turkey today.

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