24: Caucasus Campaign


With the entry of the Ottoman empire into the war fighting quickly begins in the Caucasus Mountains as both Russia and Ottoman troops attack each other in turn.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 24. Last week we discussed the entry into the war of some of the Balkan and Middle Eastern countries and today we will be discussing the first military actions of one of these countries, the Ottoman Empire. We will once again be covering fighting that was occurring in a mountain range only this time it will be in the Caucasus mountains instead of the Carpathians and it will be the Russians fighting Ottomon instead of Austrian troops. While the area around the Caucasus often doesn’t get much attention when talking about the First World War is was definitely important, especially in early 1915. The size of the armies fighting numbered in the hundreds of thousands, more than what we will encounter in the Middle East or at Gallipoli later in the year. And if the Turkish troops could break through the Russians, they would find themselves right in the Russian heartland. With Turkish troops in this position the Russians would be forced to withdraw troops from Poland to try and push them back out. To quote Keegan in his book The First World War “The Ottoman advance into Russian Caucasia so alarmed the Tsarist high command that it prompted an appeal to Britain and France for diversionary assistance” This call for assistance would play a part in beginning the series of events that would eventually lead to the Gallipoli adventure that we will begin covering next week. This week is all about the Russian and Turkish attacks in the Caucasus mountains in late 1914 and early 1915. The Caucusus mountains are a mountain range between the Black and Caspian seas in Central Asia. Today this region contains the countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to name a few but in 1914 it was the border between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. The area is made up of some pretty imposing mountains, the average elevation in the areas of fighting was something like 6,500 feet. Of course it was also in the winter, and I feel like I don’t need to go on about the difficulties of winter fighting anymore.

One of the important people in all of the events of the Ottoman Empire during the war was Enver Pasha. In the last episode I mentioned his name when discussing the raid by the ships against the Russian Black Sea ports but I thought it would be a good idea to give a bit more background info since he will eventually end up commanding the Turkish troops we will discuss today. Before I move into this though it may be a good idea to get everybody up to speed on the Turkish uses of the names Pasha and Bey, which are honorific titles. In the military sense Pasha was used for men with the rank of General of above while Bey was used for officers of ranks below General. You over the next few episodes you may here several people with the last name Pasha and Bey, just remember that these are titles like the English Sir and not a surname like in English. Anyway, Enver Pasha was born in 1881 and would become a leader in the 1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman empire, he was already in the military and during the war he would become one of the primary leaders of the entire Revolution. After the Revolution he would continue his position in the military until in January 1913 a three man triumvirate including Enver would launch a successful military coup that would leave them in control of the empire. He would lead the Ottoman army that would recapture Adrianople in the Second Balkan War, gaining him much fame and notoriety. The Turks had lost this city in the first Balkan War and it had been a point of great national shame. When war broke out Enver would be the Minister of War with oversight over pretty much every military function of the government. He would be a key player in creating the Ottoman-German Alliance in late 1914, as we discussed last week, and much of his desire to ally with the Germans had come from some prewar trips to Germany to view their military training and tactics. Even before the Ottomans officially entered the war Enver had his eyes on the Caucuses region. In the early 1800s the Russians had been forced to use some pretty brutal military oppression in the region to keep it under control and Enver believed that this would make the local populace, which contained a large population of Muslims, receptive to having their Russian overlords replaced with Turkish overlords and he also hoped that if the Turkish troops could break through the Russian line they would be able to spark wide reaching revolt amongst the population. Add onto these beliefs that the Ottomans had lost territory in the region, including the cities of Kars and Batumi in 1878 and it is easy to see why he would put so much emphasis on launching attacks in the region. There were also military reasons why this was a good place to attack, it was very clearly a secondary front for the Russians, since the start of the war they had been constantly pulling the best troops from all over the empire to fight Germany and Austria and it left clearly inferior troops in their place. Most of these good troops had been moved hundreds of miles away and were committed to the front there, trying to move reinforcements back would be very difficult. The region however was still not the best for armies to try to attack through, they were mountains after all, a Russian General would be quoted as saying “The Caucasus may be likened to a mighty fortress, marvellously strong by nature … only a thoughtless man would attempt to escalade such a stronghold.” So there were certainly negatives to balance out the positives.

Before Enver and the Turkish leaders could begin their attacks the Russians would pre-empt them. These attacks would occur in a pretty specific piece of the Caucasus mountains between the Black sea and the Lake of Van, this is where most of the action in the theater would occur. For the most part the mountains here were a bit lower, about 3,000 meters high, than in other areas along the front so offensive action should have theoretically been easier. This front was held by the Turkish Third Army, with the Second Army being on the Caspian sea side. The third army was made up of a bit under 200,000 men on a front that consisted of about 1500 kilometers, this left a very small number of men per kilometer, in the west a force of 200,000 men would man a front of less than 50 miles or so. Into these troops the Russians would begin their attack on November 1, 1914, this was technically one day before the Russians declared war, but who’s keeping track really? In a bit of funny timing it was on November 1st that Enver would send orders to the Third Army with the message “The enemy does not seem to be superior. The X Corps needs another 2-3 weeks to arrive in the frontline. In order to win some time and boost the morale of the army, I am considering separate attacks on the enemy. You will attack to the rear of the Russians, Kurdish Tribal Regiments will infiltrate beyond the enemy line and the forces in Van will attack to the Persian Azerbaijan.” The Russians would use about 25 infantry battalions supported by cavalry and over 100 guns to make the attack. The plan was for the Russian first corps to attack from Sarikamish and move towards Koprukoy with the Russian Fourth Corps supporting them to the west with the objective of Pasinler. When the attack began the Russian troops would quickly reach Koprukoy, it would take them less than 3 days to advance the almost 100 kilometers between Sarikamish and Koprukoy. After reaching their objective quickly they continued down the road that connected Sarikamish and Koprukoy onto its next destination, the Turkish fortress at the town of Erzurum. On November 7th the Third Army would finally launch their counter attack. These attacks didn’t go very well, the cavalry which was supposed to get around behind the Russians failed in this task and the highly spoken of Kurdish Tribal regiments were also unable to fulfill their flanking role. This attack, just in general, wasn’t very well organized, this would be a hallmark of the Turkish attacks in the region. The one good thing about the attack was that it stopped the Russian advance and it allowed the Third Army to recapture part of Koprukoy and hold onto it. For the next few days the front was relatively calm but as time passed Turkish reinforcements arrived in the form of the Ninth Corps which allowed them to launch another attack. Over several days of attacks these troops were used to push the Russian back several miles before there was a break for a few more days. After this rest there was yet another Turkish attack, this time they were able to push the Russian back several more miles, but not completely out of Turkey. After this attack what is considered the first phase of the Caucuses Campaign was over with the Russian still in command of about 25 miles worth of Turkish territory in a salient along the Sarikamish to Erzurum road. The Turkish Third Army had up to this point taken about 15,000 casualties, pretty high for the army but it would look small compared to what would come next. The front would stabilize for a few weeks while both sides took a deep breath before the impending winter action. All along the front the weather was slowly getting worse.

In early December Enver wasn’t very pleased with the progress being made by the Third Army so far in the region, for somewhat obvious reasons, they had advanced about negative twenty five miles so far in the war. To rectify this situation Enver sent his Chief of Staff Hafiz Hakki Bey to be the commander of the Third Army to try to get the attacks restarted. When Hafiz arrived on site and surveyed the situation he sent this as part of his message to Enver “We have to consider eight or nine days for a large scaled encircling manoeuvre. However, during this time the XI Corps, which will remain at the front, might be jeopardized. Even if we execute the manoeuvre with two corps, they will probably face difficulties against the enemy.” Enver was not exactly thrilled with this message, he had sent a man who he believed would start attacking almost immediately was instead taking a cautious approach. He was forced to take another action to get the offensive started again, on December 21st Enver himself arrived to take personal command of the Third Army. When he arrived he is quoted as telling Hafiz upon arrival that “You have made mistakes and you have failed. The Russian Army was supposed to be annihilated here. Now, you will take action immediately and you will destroy the Russians at Sarıkamış.” Enver’s plan was to execute a double envelopment of the Russians, just like Ludendorf had at Tannenberg, another general is now falling for the good old temptation to try for a double envelopment. I haven’t went back and counted but I think we are at about 2 for 7 or so in these attempts so far in the war, not a very good win percentage, but now the Turks will take their turn in the attempt. He hoped that by getting around the Russians the Turks would be able to cut them off from their bases and cause a mass surrender. To accomplish these grand goals Enver had three corps that comprised of somewhere around 150,000 men against a Russian strength of something like 100,000 numbers are a bit shady in this and most other instances of the battle. They also had around 100 machine guns and over 250 pieces of artillery. The goal would be to get around the Russians and to meet up in the city of Sarikamish which at this point was around 25km behind Russian lines. The conditions that the troops would be attacking in would be less than ideal. Winter was starting to hit the region very hard and temperatures were getting to the below zero range at least in farenheit especially in the high altitudes and snow was becoming a more and more common occurrence all along the front. They would also be attacking in an area where they had exacty one railway to support the army with only a few roads that weren’t in great repair to assist. The snow also of course didn’t help the movement of supplies along these roads, and the snow was only going to get deeper.

The battle that would come to be known as the Battle of Sarikamish would begin on the 22nd of December 1914. It would begin with the attack of the X Corps toward the city of Oltu, which was captured the very next day including the capture of about 1,000 Russian prisoners. The ninth and eleventh corps also found themselves advancing. The Ottomans weren’t without their problems, most of the divisions had went into battle without ideal maps and there are reports of two Turkish divisions attacking each other for several hours. This sounds just completely absurd, and it is in some ways, but one thing that must be remembered is that much like the Austro-Hungarian army the Ottoman army had a lot of different ethnicities and nationalities in their army so a few units mistaking one another for Russians isn’t the craziest thing that would happen on this front over the course of the war. On December 25th Enver would order further attacks and the attacks would be launched the very next day early in the morning. They would run into the Russians in strength outside the village of Cerkezkoy in a forest outside of the town, here they experienced the heaviest machine gun and artillery fire that they had experienced so far. As they encountered this heavy fire the attack started to bog down and eventually stop after an advance of only about 10 kilometers. This is the point where weather really started to turn against the attacking Turkish troops, it was reaching 26 degrees below zero all along the front and this with Turkish troops marching into battle wearing the same sandals that they were probably wearing months earlier in the summer. Their feet were literally freezing solid over night. These cold problems were just exacerbated by the fact that the Turkish troops were marching or fighting for over 24 straight hours by the time that the attack ended on the 26th. Anybody who has done any stringent activity in the cold can tell you that it is even more draining both physically and mentally in an environment where you can freeze to death. While this fighting was happening in the forest these Turkish troops in some way had it easy compared to the troops that were marching over the Allahuekber Mountain passes in an attempt to outflank the Russians. Here I will hand it over to Atlay Alti who wrote an article on TurkeysWar.com where I think he does a pretty good job describing the situation as these Turkish troops were walking over the passes “There was no snow falling on the mountains and the sun was shining. The higher the troops climbed, the stronger became the wind and the colder it got. Walking in thick snow was extremely difficult. One by one, the soldiers began to fall. They were freezing to death. It was a terrible sight. Those marching in the back could see two columns of gray dots climbing up the mountains. One row was slowly proceeding whereas the other one was standing still. As they moved higher, the number of the gray dots in the not moving column increased. The troops were tired, hungry and sleepless. They did not have proper winter suits and boots. The conditions were extremely harsh. Most of them did not have any chance at all. They fell on their knees when they ran out of energy. They could not move or speak. Soon they felt dizziness. This feeling spread all over their body and they began to sleep, never to wake up again.” The casualty rate of the troops marching over these passes would end up being atrocious, 80% in most units, some divisions were as high as 90% casualties. Almost all of these losses were to frostbite or other cold related problems and not enemy action. The X Corps would actually make it to the outskirts of Sarikamish but it would make it there as a shadow of its former self. The Russians would begin a counterattack led by a General Mishlaevski and this attack would retake about half of the gains the X Corps had been able to make in the town of Sarikamish. By the 30th the Turks had lost all of the city. The Russians just weren’t pushing against the troops inside the town though, they were also slowly moving around to their flanks and began to cut off the roads leading into the town and by the end of the 30th they had captured several of these vital roads and the Ottoman troops within the town found themselves in serious danger of being surrounded. The Troops would fight on for a few more days contesting every step of ground but eventually Enver would order a retreat, an order that came far too late for the X Corps which were surrounded and forced to surrender. The surrender was on the second of January when the battle sort of officially ended. Most historians give most of the credit for the victory to Genearl Nikolai Yudenich, Mishlaevski’s Chief of Staff much like Ludendorf gets most of the credit as Hidenburg’s Chief of Staff. We will meet Yudenich again later in the war as he will become the commander of all of the Russian troops in the region. As Enver and his army retreated he would send a message to Istanbul, “Although the offensive against the Russians has not been concluded with the absolute defeat of the enemy, it enabled us to drive the enemy outside our frontiers, occupy some parts of enemy territory and damage its army. Our efforts will be concentrated first on resting the army after fifteen days of continuous fighting, then on a renewed offensive. I shall depart for Istanbul now, leaving the command of the army to Hafız Hakkı Paşa. I request that all this and my move will be kept confidential.”

Of the Turkish troops involved in the fighting under 25,000 of them were still alive and fit for duty. It is estimated that 30,000 of them died due to cold related causes like exposure, hypothermia, and frostbite. The official Turkish history claims that 60,000 more were casualties from the fighting with around 7,000 surrenders and 23,000 killed. Add to this about 30,000 casualties that were either missing or wounded, it isn’t a stretch to think that most of these are also related to the cold. The official Turkish history would have this to say about the campaign “The mistake was not that the campaign was carried out in winter. It was the way it was executed that had the fault. A logistically better planned assault that conforms with strategic and tactical rules and enables combined action could well make it possible to beat the Russians in winter and this could only be possible with the Turkish soldier… If the timing had been better, even Enver Paşa’s plans could be appropriate. However the plan was executed in a wrong time and it was followed by a chain of further mistakes. The fact that the chain of command did not function properly is one of the main reasons of losing the battle of Sarıkamışh.” Due to the casualties suffered on both sides the front would remain calm for a few months before flaring back up again starting in May when the Russians launched another unsuccessful attack, after a month of fighting and some seesawing back and forth the front ended up pretty much where it was at the end of the battle of Sarakamish. The Russians would attack again a week later and this time they ran into some fresh Ottoman reinforcements who were able to push the Russians back about 20 kilometers. It is after this Russian defeat that the theater was de-emphasized, this time by both sides. By mid-summer Gallipoli was becoming a black hole that swallowed up every Turkish resource available and in Poland the Russian position was deteriorating rapidly. Basically fighting didn’t end in 1915 in the Caucasus because one side was a winner, but instead because both sides found other things that they thought were more important.

Before we move away from this theater for quite some time there is one final topic that must be discussed and that is the Armenian Genocide. It is possibly one of the saddest stories of the war, at least from my perspective. The Armenians had a long history of oppression within the Ottoman Empire and after the Battle of Sarikamish, in the search for scapegoats for the horrible defeat, the blame found its way onto the Armenian people. Quoting Keegan again here “Among the troops the Russians had employed was a division of Christian Armenians, many of them disaffected Ottoman subjects, who took the opportunity offered by Russian sponsorship to commit massacre inside Turkish territory. Their participation in the campaign, and the declaration in April 1915 of a provisional Armenian government by nationalists on Russian-held territory, underlay the Ottoman government’s undeclared campaign of genocide against their Armenian subjects” After the battle any enlisted Armenians found themselves stripped of weapons and sent to work in Labour battalions, these labor battalions were used by the Turkish armies in every theater and were mostly made up of ethnicities that the Turkish commanders didn’t trust enough to provide with weapons and the battalions were used to build trenches and roads and other labor intensive projects needed by armies in the war. However rumors began to circulate of Turkish commanders using forced conscriptions in towns in areas heavy with Armenians as a way to remove the men for the cities. When the men were removed from the city they would be massacred before killing squads would move into the town. This rumor was getting around and in April 1915 the City of Van, a primarily Armenian city refused to hand over the requested 4,000 conscripts to join the army. When this refusal was made the Turkish commander began a siege of the city that would last for over a month before it was broken by the Russian attack in May. Beginning in April 1915 a series of arrests, massacres, and mass deportations began to occur. The number of Armenians that would be killed during the war is still a subject of debate we know it was at least 500,000 but it could be anywhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million. And remember, while we have been discussing a lot of deaths up to this point in the podcast these deaths are soldiers who knew they were in danger, these poor souls were men, women, children, elderly all unarmed and unable to defend themselves. After the war the Turkish state, while finding the deaths of so many Armenians to be regrettable, would begin to deny the use of the word genocide which in this day and age carries a very strong stigma with it, the word is defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” Turkey doesn’t dispute the fact that many Armenians died during the war, they just dispute that it was a deliberate, state sponsored killing spree that sent them to their graves. Turkish officials claim that the deaths were due to famine, difficulties due to deportations, and some isolated acts of violence. To this day this is the official position of Turkey on this subject. I don’t pretend to be as knowledgeable about the subject as many historians, some of which have dedicated their lives to researching the Armenian deaths, but what I have read has convinced me that the usage of the word genocide is very much applicable in this case. Regardless of the word you use to describe it, or how it is categorized in history, or if it appears in Wikipedia on the list of worst genocides, the death of up to 1.5 million people is always a tragedy and even if a war full of tragedies it still stands out.

Thank you for listening to another episode of the History of the Great War podcast, next week we begin our several part epic detailing the Gallipoli campaign, which will go down in the annals of British history as one of the most infamous military campaigns of the war and even the entire history of the empire. It will be a story that will take at least the next 5 episodes to tell, so I hope you will join me next week.