Turkey in the First World War
The Caucasian campaign took place in Northeast Anatolia, an area of mountains and plains where several rivers have their source: the Euphrates, which flows to the Persian Gulf, the Aras which flows to the Caspian Sea, and the Çoruh which flows to the Black Sea. The land is wild and the climate harsh. Most of the mountains are above 3,000 meters. Snow starts falling in early September and can build up to 1.5 meters on the ground. During a blizzard, day becomes as dark as night, and one cannot see further than five meters. The temperature can drop under 30 degrees below zero. During the earlier periods of the 20th century the region was home to Anatolian Turks and a sizable minority of Armenians, while the density of the population was low compared to other parts of the Empire. The main theatre of operations during the war was the region between the Lake of Van and the Black Sea. Due to the characteristics of the terrain, this region was definitely unsuitable for offensive campaigns, but it offered some advantages for defensive actions. The western sector of this region was under the responsibility of the Turkish Third Army, and the eastern sector under the Second Army.
October 30, 1914 was the first day of the Islamic religious feast and in Erzurum, where the headquarters of the Third Army was located, Turkish troops were enjoying this special day. However, the ceremony had to be cancelled due to a cable arriving from the High Command in Istanbul. There had been an exchange of fire between Russian and Turkish vessels in the Black Sea and the Imperial Russian Army was expected to cross the Ottoman border at any time.
The Third Army, which was under the command of Hasan İzzet Paşa, was composed of the IX, X and XI Corps. Its headquarters was in Erzurum, where the IX Corps was located as well. The X Corps was stationed in Sivas, whereas the XI Corps was in Mamuretülaziz. Units of the Third Army were covering an area, which was nearly 1250-1500 kilometres wide and where the transportation infrastructure was far from adequate. The total manpower was 190,000 men including regular troops (83,000), reserves, personnel of the Erzurum Fortress, transportation units, depot regiments and military police. Additionally, there were around 60,000 animals in the service of the army.
The Russian offensive began on November 1, 1914, i.e. one day before the official Russian declaration of war. The Russian I Corps crossed the border and moving from Sarıkamış it proceeded towards the direction of Köprüköy, while the Russian IV Corps moved from Yerevan to Pasinler Plains. By November 4, Russian forces had already reached Köprüköy, and in the meantime they were also moving along the Karaköse-Muratsuyu line. The total strength of the Russian force was 25 infantry battalions, 37 cavalry units and 120 artillery guns.
On the day the Russian offensive was launched, Enver Paşa’s orders arrived at the headquarters of the Third Army: “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.” Hasan İzzet Paşa was not in favour of an offensive action in the harsh winter conditions. He was planning to remain in defence, pull the Russians to the Erzurum Fortress, and launch a counter attack when the time was right. However, he was ordered to attack immediately and there was nothing he could do.
The main Russian attack came along the Erzurum-Sarıkamış road, with a strong supporting attack from Oltu. On November 7, the Third Army commenced its offensive with the participation of the XI Corps and all cavalry units. This attack was not well organized; the cavalry failed to execute the encircling manoeuvre and the Kurdish Tribal Regiment proved to be a disappointment as well. After the withdrawal of the 18th and the 30th Divisions, the Russians gained territory and Hasan İzzet Paşa, in consultation with his German chief of staff, Col. Felix Guse, considered a retreat to Erzurum in order to prevent further losses of life. However, the commander of the XI Corps, Galip Paşa, objected and managed to persuade Hasan İzzet Paşa against the idea of retreat. Turkish forces managed to maintain their positions at Köprüköy, and the First Battle of Köprüköy was over without a winner.
By November 12, the IX Corps commanded by Ahmet Fevzi Paşa reinforced the XI Corps on its left flank, and with the support of the cavalry Turkish forces began to push the Russians back. The Second Battle of Köprüköy began under a snow storm. The troops had to move through rocky hills and frozen river, and having managed to cross an icy river by walking through the freezing water, the 3rd Infantry Regiment occupied Köprüköy and forced the Russians to retreat, albeit with minimal gain in strategic sense.
On December 8, the assistant chief of staff of the Ottoman Army, Col. Hafız Hakkı Bey, arrived in Trabzon on board the cruiser Mecidiye. He was sent by Enver Paşa to energize the Third Army. Hasan İzzet Paşa was planning to hold on to the defensive positions, spend the winter there and launch the offensive in spring when the weather was better. However Hafız Hakkı gave instructions immediately to begin planning a new offensive. Hasan İzzet Paşa and corps commanders doubted the feasibility of this plan, and in a cable dated December 18, 1914, Hasan İzzet told 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 Paşa wanted the complete annihilation of Russian forces through a winter offensive which was to be based on an encircling manoeuvre. He decided to take charge, and left Istanbul for the Caucasian front, arriving in Erzurum on December 21. He was accompanied by the chief of staff of the Ottoman Army, General Bronsart von Schellendorf, his assistant Kazım Bey, and the head of the operations office, Lt.Col. Feldmann.
Convinced that Russians could be encircled and annihilated in Sarıkamış, Enver was disturbed by Hasan İzzet’s cable. When these two generals, who had completely different perspectives regarding the campaign met in Köprüköy, Enver did not conceal his disappointment. This scene was later described by Kazım Bey, who was not only the assistant to the chief of staff but also Enver’s brother-in-law. He quotes Enver addressing Hasan İzzet: “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.” Hasan İzzet Paşa had lost his patience: “This is impossible! You see the surroundings yourself. It is winter, there are snow storms. Under these conditions, in this season, an army operation would be bound to fail. I will destroy the enemy as soon as the winter ends and roads are opened.” These words made Enver furious: “I would have you executed, if you were not my teacher” (it should be noted that Hasan İzzet Paşa had been Enver’s teacher at the Staff School.) As a result of his reluctance to attack, Hasan İzzet Paşa was forced into retirement, and Enver Paşa appointed himself as the commander of the Third Army.
What Enver wanted to do was to imitate the German success at Tannenberg, and he was going to use the same manoeuvre plan. But he was ignoring one thing: conditions at Sarıkamış were completely different from Tannenberg. The terrain was much worse, it was Caucasian winter and not European summer and the Turkish Army was not as well equipped as the Germans. But the German High Command supported Enver’s plan, since what mattered for the Germans was that Russians would withdraw some of their forces in Poland to strengthen their operations in the Caucasus.
There is also an interesting section about this issue in the memoirs of General Liman von Sanders: “Before the Caucasian campaign began, Enver explained to me his plans in detail. At the end of our meeting, he told me about his intentions, which were really buoyant, but also a little weird. He was going to march to India and Afghanistan after he was done with the Caucasus.”
Meanwhile a special detachment was formed from the 3rd Division, stationed in Thrace. This detachment would be deployed to the vicinity of Çoruh and its purpose was to pin down the Russians on the coast near Batumi. This would allow the X Corps to relinquish its defensive coastal operations and concentrate for offensive operations. The detachment was given to the command of the German Maj. Stange and became known as “Stange Bey Detachment”.
Unhappy with the leadership in the Third Army, Enver Paşa made further changes. Ahmet Fevzi Paşa, commander of the IX Corps, was replaced by Col. İhsan Bey and the commander of the X Corps, Ziya Paşa, was replaced by Col. Hafız Hakkı Bey. These two new commanders had little or no experience at the operational level.
The Sarıkamış Disaster
The Turkish Operation Plan involved a single envelopment using three corps. On the right flank, XI Corps would fix the Russians in place and conduct feint attacks. In the centre, IX Corps would towards the direction of Sarıkamış Pass. Hafız Hakkı’s X Corps, which was to be on the left flank, would drive on Oltu, cross the Allahüekber Mountains, cut the Kars road and drive the Russians to the Aras Valley, where the Russian forces would be destroyed by all three corps acting in unison. Meanwhile the Stange Bey Detachment would conduct highly visible operations to distract and pin Russian units.
Hafız Hakkı was excited and he could not wait to launch the attack. Excerpts from his letter to İhsan Paşa, commander of the IX Corps, dated December 19, 1914, reveal that his plans were overly pretentious and hardly based on concrete facts: “We have to make sure that the IX and X Corps arrive at Sarıkamış and Kars before the Russians. To achieve this aim, there are two conditions to be met: first, the initial attack has to be a sudden one and, second, after concluding the initial attack within a few hours, both corps should proceed at full speed. I am planning to destroy the enemy within one or two hours and then move to Oltu… I hope that the assault at İd will be concluded by the afternoon on December 22. Then we will march 30 kilometres a day and arrive in the Kars-Sarıkamış line by December 25.”
One of the most important sources about the Sarıkamış Campaign is the memoirs of Köprülülü Şerif Bey, who was the chief of staff of IX Corps. He mentions that they did not even possess a proper map of the region. He criticizes Hafız Hakkı: “The most unfortunate thing was that nobody, not even he himself, was asking What if these plans fail? He was not consulting the experienced officers in his staff.”
As the major offensive began, the total available offensive strength of the Third Army was 118,660 men, 73 machine guns and 218 pieces of artillery. Turkish intelligence estimated the Russians to have a rifle strength of about 65,000.
Hostilities began on December 22, 1914. The X Corps began its movement towards Oltu, which was occupied the next day. Around one thousand Russian troops were taken prisoner, four artillery guns and four machine guns were captured. IX and XI Corps were advancing as well.
The second day of the campaign was marked by an unfortunate event. For nearly four hours at Narman, the 31st and the 32nd Divisions fought each other. This big mistake is said to have been caused by problems with the maps. By December 24, the X Corps was well beyond Oltu after having marched a hard 75 kilometers in just over three days. It had reached the point where it would pivot toward the southeast to outflank and envelop Sarıkamış.
At seven in the morning on that day, the 29th Division departed from Bardız. Snow was not falling but the Bardız Plain was already covered with snow up to soldiers’ knees. It was extremely difficult to walk, and the animals pulling the howitzers were stuck in the snow. On the way, the division commander Colonel Arif Bey wanted to give the troops a break at the village of Kızılkilise, but Enver Paşa asked them to keep moving.
The troops did not have proper footwear. What they were wearing was nothing more than sandals. When they got wet, they turned to ice blocks around the feet. They were not allowed to have a break and warm themselves around a camp fire. They were doing their best to prevent frostbite, but for some, it was impossible. First the toes, and then the wrist. A few more steps on the snow and the wrists are locked, and then the frostbite spreads to the rest of the body. This was the inevitable for most of the Turkish youth on the plains of East Anatolia.
Around afternoon, Russian positions were visible. Col. Arif Bey approached the corps commander Col. İhsan Bey, and asked him if they could spend the night there, so that the troops could have a chance to rest, and attack the enemy before the dawn the next day. İhsan Bey agreed, but Enver was planning a night attack. He was ignoring the facts that the battalions were down to less than 200 men and the temperature was 26 degrees below zero. Allahüekber Mountains were like a white inferno of snow. In the darkness, the silence of death was deafening.
That night, the 86th and the 87th Regiments managed to push back the Russian forces and capture the hill Çamurludağ. The town of Sarıkamış was believed to be located beyond that hill, but soon the Turkish officers realized that this was not the case. The town was actually 8 kilometers from the hill. The reason for this mistake was the poor quality of the maps. Fortunately, reinforcements were arriving. The 17th Division had reached Çamurludağ after a non-stop walk of 22 hours.
Meanwhile, the units of the X Corps, commanded by Col. Hafız Hakkı, have been marching for 14 hours. They were exhausted. Because of fatigue and hunger, the fear of frostbite and Russian machine guns was slowly being replaced by absolute indifference. In the early hours of December 26, at the eighteenth hour of its march, the 91st Regiment of X Corps came under enemy fire. After nearly two hours of fighting, the Russians left the scene. The regiment hit the road again and soon a snow storm began. Under these conditions the 91st Regiment managed to reach Kosor in 21 hours after leaving Penek, a distance of just 8 kilometres. Other units had reached their destinations at a similar rate. While Enver Paşa was ordering the night attack in a rush to reach Sarıkamış, elements of the X Corps were spending the night in the villages of Kosor, Arsenik and Patsik, which were 40, 35 and 30 kilometres from Sarıkamış respectively. Allahüekber Mountains were in front of them. It would take them at least two more days to reach Sarıkamış.
The attack was launched at 7:30 am. Russian units were positioned in the forest north of Çerkezköy. When the Turkish troops began to advance, they were met with heavy machine gun fire. At the same time, Russian artillery was pounding the Turkish howitzers. Turkish guns were repositioned and they opened fire, but to no avail. The Russian artillery was doing its job without facing any significant resistance. The fighting went on for the whole day. In the evening, commander of IX Corps, İhsan Paşa, approached Enver Paşa and said: “We are lacking the forces we need for an assault. We are out of reserves. The enemy can take the Yeniköy road and take Çamurludağ, hence occupying our rear positions. Since we do not have any reserves, we are not able to move units there. With your permission, we can regroup and put the units back in order. By doing that, we can launch an offensive tomorrow morning.” Enver Paşa accepted this suggestion.
After spending the night of December 25/26 in three villages, units of X Corps, i.e. the 30th, 31st and 32nd Divisions, began to march again. They departed at 5 am and they had to cross the Allahüekber Mountains. This was the beginning of the end.
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 “death march” was completed in 14 hours and the remainder of X Corps managed to reach its first destination, the village of Beyköy. A headcount was made and the result was terrible. The casualty rate was a massive 90 percent! Only 1,400 men of the 30th Division could make it to Beyköy. The mountains had swallowed 15,000 souls. The figures were no better for the other two divisions. So many men lost, without a single bullet being fired. In his memoirs, an officer from the 93rd Regiment of the 31st Division, which took a parallel road to that of the 30th Division, describes the fatal march as follows: “We left the village when it was still dark. The privates were following the corporals in complete silence. We had local guides and according to the maps we had, we believed we could reach the summit in three hours. We walked twice that long, and the road was still going up. As we climbed higher, the scenery became wilder, but more beautiful. It looked as if the whole place was made of endless snow and rivers. We could see the hills covered with snow and ice below us. I could not imagine how our artillerists could make it up this steep snowy mountain. We were climbing under difficult circumstances but we kept order and discipline. Finally, we reached the highest point, which was a wide snow plain... We were exhausted. A sharp wind blew over us, and then came a snowstorm. Visibility was nil. Nobody could speak or say anything, let alone help each other. The long marching column dissolved. Soldiers went away wherever they could see a black point at the edge of a forest or a riverbank, any place where they could see smoke from a fire.The officers tried hard, but no one listened to them. I can still remember the scene. A private kneeling in the snow beside the road, screaming, wrapping his arms tightly around a pile of snow, biting it and scratching it with his finger nails. I tried to help him stand up to take him back to the road. He did not respond at all and he kept on doing it. The poor man had gone mad. We left more than ten thousand souls like that, in one single day under the snow in those cursed glaciers."
The 93rd Regiment, initially of 5,000 troops, reached its destination, the village of Başköy, with only 300 men. In order to save the other regiments from the same fate, commander of the 31st Division, Col. Hasan Vasfi Bey, issued the following order: "1.) The order for all units to arrive in Başköy tonight is invalid. The walking distance between Arsenik and Başköy is not less than 7 hours. The road passes through a plain in curves. Both men and animals freeze to death there. I saw many frozen soldiers and animals on the road. Ammunition, machine guns and other equipment are scattered all over the field. It was a very sad scene. Attempting to cross the plain at night will be nothing but murder. At the west side of the plain, to the direction of the village of Yayla, there is a big pine forest. If the units have already left the village of Arsenik, they must spend the night in the forest and make sure than fires are lit to warm themselves. They must not sleep or they will get frost bite. They can arrive at Başköy the next day and stay in the village; 2.) Tomorrow is a rest day for all units; 3.) If you have not left Arsenik yet, take good guides with you and use the Issızdere road."
The next day, when the sun rose, the scale of the disaster became clear. Only 3,400 from the 30th and 31st divisions had survived the Allahüekber Mountains (out of 32,300) and most of them were sick. The 32nd Division was stuck in Bardız, pinned down by a superior Russian force. The Russians had separated the 30th and 31st divisions in the rear.
Responding to Enver Paşa’s orders, Col. Hafız Hakkı cancelled the rest day and ordered what was left from his corps to move to Divnik-Çatak line, destroy the Russian units at Novoselim and encircle the enemy retreating from Sarıkamış. But the Russians were not retreating. In fact, they were strengthening the defense of Sarıkamış. Meanwhile Enver Paşa himself ordered the 29th Division of the IX Corps to launch a renewed attack on Russian positions around Sarıkamış.
The 87th Regiment, commanded by Lt.Col. Lütfullah Bey, managed to enter Çerkezköy. This victory however was short lived, because the troops immediately found themselves trapped in the village. The Russian unit led by Col. Barkovski had not evacuated the village. Fighting went on during the day, and the next morning the Turkish soldiers in Çerkezköy were taken prisoner.
Enver Paşa saw that it was futile to attempt to force Sarıkamış with the IX Corps alone. He decided to wait for Colonel Hafız Hakkı’s X Corps and declared December 28 a rest day. Meanwhile the X Corps had reached the Sarıkamış-Kars railroad and destroyed the track. The same day the 31st Division reached Sarıkamış. Colonel Hafız Hakkı wanted to order his troops to attack, but what he saw was only around 1,000 shivering men left from the division’s initial power of 14,000. He ordered a retreat so that the troops could rest and save their energy for an attack the next day. As the Turkish troops came to the village of Yağbasan, they came under Russian machine gun fire. After a brief clash, Russians went back to Sarıkamış.
Enver Paşa was with the IX Corps. The commander of this unit, İhsan Paşa, was frustrated due to Enver Paşa’s frequent intervention in his own command. He could see that Enver Paşa was overly optimistic, but the only thing he could do was to remind him of the facts. On December 28, he submitted to Enver Paşa a written report about the current situation of the corps. Enver Paşa's reply was: “Today I saw corps and division commanders in the rear. Everyone must be in the front. Our reports always mention low numbers of men. I can observe myself that the Russian companies do not have more than 20 men either”.
Enver Paşa was thinking that the Russians were retreating to Kars. In fact, what Enver thought to be a retreat, was actually an encircling movement. He was delighted, but this feeling was soon replaced with disappointment when a Russian prisoner of Turkic origin was brought to his presence. The prisoner said: “Russians are preparing to encircle your forces at Sarıkamış with a force of five regiments.” This shock enabled Enver Paşa to see the truth. The IX Corps, which reached Sarıkamış, had melted away. The X Corps, which was supposed to come to the rescue, had lost 90 percent of its men on the slopes of Allahüekber Mountains. The XI Corps was at the Aras region, fighting the Russians there. A regiment had entered Çerkezköy, only to be taken prisoner there. And now the Russians were about to encircle the remaining Turkish forces.
That day, the first good news from the Caucasus arrived in Istanbul. Ardahan was taken. The Stange Bey Detachment, which had left Istanbul on the warship Yavuz, was disembarked in Rize. The detachment was then reinforced with nearly two thousand volunteers. It had moved south and entered Ardahan on December 27. Unfortunately, the detachment was not strong enough to keep the town. A few days later, three Russian infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment threw the detachment back. The “Stange Bey Detachment” managed to resist the Russians for more than two months and on March 1, 1915 it went back to its initial line.
By the evening of December 29, Turkish troops had occupied the western outskirts of the town, as well as the train station and the barracks of the Russian Yelizavetpolski Regiment. General Prejevalski, commander of the Russian forces in Sarıkamış, decided to use his last reserves in a final attempt to draw the Turks out of the town. His chief of staff, Col. Temrin, managed to take the train station with a bayonet charge. Now the Russians were gaining the upper hand and the Turkish troops were forced to leave the town.
Russian artillery fire caused severe casualties on December 30. Enver Paşa received two reports on that day. One was from the chief of staff of the IX Corps, Lt.Col. Şerif Bey, and the other from Col. Hafız Hakkı Bey. Both reports were stating the same thing. The corps did not have any capacity to launch another attack. They were simply too weak. Enver’s response was: “The offensive is to go on at full strength.”
On the last day of 1914, bad news arrived at Enver’s headquarters from Bardız. The 32nd Division had had to abandon its positions to the Russians. This meant that Bardız and Kızılkilise roads were now in Russian hands, and the Turkish forces were inside a semi-circle. Retreat through the open mouth of the circle could be a rational decision, but Enver Paşa took the risk and ordered them to attack.
Hafız Hakkı Paşa was hoping for reinforcements. Since he believed it could be still possible to take Sarıkamış, he did not order his army to retreat. However, the Russians were advancing now. The circle was getting narrower. In the afternoon of January 4, after touring the front line on his horse, he returned his headquarters and said in French: “Tout est perdu, sauf l’honneur.” (Everything lost, except honor.) Then he smiled and said to İhsan Paşa, this time in Turkish: “It is over.” He was hoping that some of the troops left on Allahüekber Mountains could be still alive. This was not the case.
Suddenly, the headquarters found itself under Russian fire. The Russians had captured the entire 28th Division. Hafız Hakkı Paşa managed to save himself, but eight senior officers including İhsan Paşa surrendered to the Russians. The 17th and 29th Divisions were taken prisoner as well. The captives, 108 officers and 80 soldiers, were taken to Sarıkamış. Hafız Hakkı Paşa safely reached the headquarters of the X Corps. There he found out that the IX Corps fell to the hands of Russians and ordered a total retreat. Early in the morning of the next day, they began to march towards Erzurum.
It took four days for Enver Paşa and the German officers accompanying him to reach Erzurum. He cabled 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.”
Enver also sent a farewell message to those he left behind: “Friends, for nearly one month I have been with you and I saw how you attacked the enemy in battles which went on for days. Although the weather was harsh, you ignored all kinds of poverty and broke the resistance of the enemy. You drove the enemy out of the motherland and you took enemy territory. These efforts of yours will never disappear. The entire nation, including the Sultan himself, congratulates you. I am now returning to Istanbul. God willing, you will achieve much more, you will destroy the enemy and you will bless the souls of our martyrs. I leave you to God’s protection. Don’t forget that God is always by our side."
Enver left Erzurum with his staff for Istanbul via Sivas. At the train station in Ulukışla, he met his uncle, Halil Paşa, and said to him: “The entire force has been lost.” Upon his arrival in Istanbul, Enver Paşa banned all kinds of publications about Sarıkamış. His pretext was a patriotic one: “Preventing spies and traitors from demoralizing the public through propaganda and lies.”
There are no exact figures about the Turkish casualties in Sarıkamış. The official history published by the Turkish Army states that Turkish losses amount to 60 thousand men. This figure is based on Russian accounts that 7,000 prisoners have been taken and 23 thousand Turkish dead have been buried. To these numbers, 10 thousand dead in the area of the XI Corps and another 20 thousand dead behind the battle lines are added. All these Turkish soldiers have died because of frost and sickness.
Today, most often the tragedy of Sarıkamış is associated with the personality of Enver Paşa. However, one should look more closely at the factors that led to the one greatest military disasters of the World War. Command mistakes have played a crucial role in this catastrophe, but other elements such as cold weather and frost, epidemics and insufficient logistics were also important. The combination of all of these caused thousands of Turkish soldiers to perish on mountains without firing a single shot.
In his memoirs, Şerif Bey writes: “Let us make up our mind about this: For us, Sarıkamış has not only been a great lesson, but also a bright chapter of our history. Future generations should know that we met this fate because we sought salvation following a wrongly created man. History has witnessed that a great Turkish army has fought due to the greed of an ignorant and mad commander.”
It can be said that Şerif Bey has been too harsh on Enver Paşa. His mistakes played surely an important role in the disaster, however Enver Paşa should not be made a scapegoat. Turkish historian Ramazan Balcı provides a well-written analysis of Enver’s role: “He had climbed up the ranks too fast, which did not allow him the time to do field service. He was lacking the practical knowledge on how to command armies. This shortcoming was causing him to underestimate the hardships faced by the soldiers and he was also failing to analyze the operational necessities. Enver and Hafız Hakkı have been very active, but they failed to calculate the difficulties the army would face. Both during the period when the Third Army was gathering around Erzurum and during the operations, soldiers were ordered to walk extremely long distances. Under the hard conditions of winter, physical limits of a human being should have been calculated better. Naturally, units failed to reach their walking targets and they dissolved. Operations to be executed under this kind of extreme conditions require an absolute consensus among commanders and soldiers. However even the high ranked officers did not have the same level of determination.”
The official history of the Turkish Army makes the following conclusion: “The mistake was not that the campaign was carried out in winter. It was the way how 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 Sarıkamış.”
The strategic situation was stable. The Russians were not advancing deeper into the Anatolian mainland. They stayed at their pre-war border in the north while keeping the Turkish towns of Eleşkirt, Ağrı and Doğubeyazıt in the south. This stability gave the Turkish Third Army the opportunity to recover, reorganize and position itself on new defensive lines. However, there were simply not enough forces to secure the whole East Anatolian region.
When the weather conditions became milder, the new Russian offensive began. On May 6, 1915, Russians began to advance through the Tortum Valley towards Erzurum. Turkish 29th and 30th Divisions managed to stop this assault and in an attempt to take back the lost territory, the X Corps counter-attacked the Russian forces. By June 13, Russian units were back to their starting line.
In the southern part of the Caucasian theatre of war, Turkish forces were not as successful as they have been in the north. On May 17, Russian forces entered the town of Van and they continued to push back the Turkish units. Malazgirt had already fallen on May 11. Supply lines were being cut, whereas the Armenian rebellions were causing additional difficulties. This region, south of Lake Van, was extremely vulnerable. Turks had to defend a line of more than 600 kilometers with only 50,000 men and 130 pieces of artillery. They were clearly outnumbered by the Russians. The region was mountainous, thus difficult to defend.
On June 19, 1915, Russians launched another offensive, this time northwest to Lake Van, and Russian forces began to march from Malazgirt towards Muş. However, they were not aware of the fact that the Turkish IX Corps, together with the 17th and 28th Divisions was moving to Muş as well. Although the conditions were extremely difficult, Turks were executing a very efficient operation of reorganization. 1st and 5th Expeditionary Forces were positioned to the south of the Russian offensive force and a “Right Wing Group” was established under the command of Brigadier General Abdülkerim Paşa. This group was independent from the Third Army and Abdülkerim Paşa was directly reporting to Enver Paşa. Turks were ready to face the Russian attacks.
Encouraged from this achievement, Abdülkerim Paşa cabled Istanbul and asked for permission to continue with the assault. Enver Paşa was delighted and he asked Abdülkerim to attack to the direction of Eleşkirt and Karaköse and clean up the border region from all Russian elements.
By August 5, the Right Wing Group had advanced 20 kilometers into the Russian territory, but the left wing of the IX Corps was remianed vulnerable, because Abdülkerim Paşa was repeating the mistakes made in Sarıkamış, allocating all of his forces for offense and not leaving any units in reserve. Russians spotted this vulnerability and attacked there. The 29th Division came to help, but the Turkish offensive formation was already in danger of being encircled. Abdülkerim Paşa had no option but to retreat and Malazgirt fell to Russians again. By August 15, hostilities had ended. 10,000 Turkish soldiers died and 6,000 were taken prisoner by Russians as the result of the Turkish offensive.
Reorganization of Turkish forces in East Anatolia in spring 1915 was truly a great achievement. However this new spirit was wasted again. Casualties were so high that it was not possible anymore for the IX Corps to gain its strength through reinforcements. X and XI Corps were weak. However, Russians had suffered casualties as well. Guns remained silent in the Caucasian front for the rest of the year.
The Ottoman High Command failed to make up the losses of the Third Army during the rest of the year. Fighting in Gallipoli was sucking all the resources and manpower. The IX, X and XI Corps could not be reinforced and in addition to that the 1st and 5th Expeditionary Forces were deployed to Mesopotamia. The Caucasian front was deemed to be of secondary importance, and the Third Army was left weak. As of January 1916, the total strength of the Third Army was 126,000 men, with only 50,539 being infantry. There were 74,057 rifles, 77 machine guns and 180 pieces of artillery. They were facing a Russian force of 200,000 men and 380 pieces of artillery. The IX, X and XI Corps were defending the Erzurum road and taking defensive positions concentrated around Köprüköy. The defensive strategy was based on the assumption that the Russians would not bother to attack.
On January 10, 1916, the Russian General Yudenich launched a major winter offensive. At that time, the commander of the Turkish Third Army, Mahmut Kamil Paşa, was on leave in Istanbul, and his chief of staff, Col. Felix Guse, was recovering from typhus in Germany. The attack came as a shock for both the Third Army and the Ottoman High Command in Istanbul. The initial offensive was directed at the XI Corps and in four days the Russians managed to break through the Turkish defensive line. During the following days, the Turkish units were forced to leave the Köprüköy lines and by January 18, the Russian forces had already approached Hasankale, a town on the road to Erzurum and the new location of the Third Army headquarters.
Within just one week, the Turkish defensive formation was dissolved. Casualties totaled 10,000 and an additional 5,000 had been taken prisoner. 16 pieces of artillery had been lost and 40,000 men had found refuge in Erzurum Fortress. Losses of the XI Corps were especially high. Meanwhile the Russians were now planning to take Erzurum, a heavily fortified Turkish stronghold. Erzurum, with its 235 pieces of artillery, was considered as the second best defended town in the Empire, after Edirne.
On February 11, Russians began to shell the fortified formations around Erzurum. Fierce fighting erupted. Turkish battalions of 350 men had to defend against Russian battalions of 1,000 men. Reinforcements were arriving but there were only very few of them. In three days Russians managed to reach the heights overlooking the Erzurum plain. It was now obvious for the command of the Third Army that the town was lost. Turkish units began to retreat from the fortified zones at the front and also evacuate the town of Erzurum.
Early in the morning on February 16, 1916, Russian troops marched into Erzurum. Turkish units had successfully withdrawn and avoided encirclement, however casualties were already high. 327 pieces of artillery were lost to Russians. Support units of the Third Army and around 250 wounded lying at the hospital of Erzurum were taken prisoner. Meanwhile remnants of the X and XI Corps established another defensive line, 8 kilometers east to Erzurum.
Istanbul was still celebrating the victory in Gallipoli. However, news from the eastern front and the loss of Erzurum changed the atmosphere in an instant. Enver Paşa ordered the V Corps (consisting of 10th and 13th Divisions) to be deployed to the Caucasian front. On February 27, he replaced Mahmut Kamil Paşa with Vehip Paşa, then commander of the Second Army and one of the heroes of Gallipoli. Vehip Paşa arrived in Erzincan, the new location of the army headquarters, on March 16. His first task was to bring an order to the Third Army, which at that time had only 25,500 men, 76 machine guns and 86 pieces of artillery battle ready. Erzurum was lost, together with its hospitals and logistics support.
Meanwhile Russians were moving full speed ahead. In March 1916, they landed in Rize, an important port in eastern Black Sea Region, marching to west and occupying another port, Trabzon, on April 16. This was bad news for the Third Army, because now they were cut off from reinforcements and supply through Black Sea. In addition to those difficulties, the arrival of the Second Army was delayed, because there were limited means for railroad transportation and it was the units deployed to Mesopotamia who were given priority in transportation.
Facing so many difficulties, Vehip Paşa decided to divide the front in three operational zones: (1) Southeastern zone: North of Diyarbakır, to be held by Mustafa Kemal’s XVI Corps; (2) Central zone: Commanded by X Corps’ Yusuf Ziya Paşa, supported by IX and XI Corps as well as the 2nd Cavalry Division; (3) Northern zone: Black Sea coast, to be held by Fevzi Paşa’s V Corps.
In late June, Fevzi Paşa’s V Corps attacked into the Eastern Black Sea Mountains (Pontic Alps) in order to recapture the port of Trabzon, which was now used by the Russian for seaborne reinforcements. Although minor successes were registered, the main objective was now achieved due to lack of adequate forces. By June 28, the Turks were ten kilometers to the sea, however they had to stop there due to a strong Russian defense.
Meanwhile the Russians were preparing for a counteroffensive aiming to relieve the pressure on Trabzon and threaten the Turkish city of Sivas. They launched their attack, which came to be known as the Çoruh Campaign, on July 2; and as they were on the outskirts of Bayburt, they engaged the Turkish X Corps. The Turks fought bravely, but they could not hold the ground. Bayburt fell on July 17.
The Russians did not stop at Bayburt. Using the town as a bridgehead they renewed their attacks, crossed the Karasu River, pushing back the Turkish IX and X Corps. On July 25, Russian advance forces entered the city of Erzincan. Vehip Paşa had no option but to leave the town to the Russians and retreat to west in order to prevent further Russian penetration into Anatolia. Çoruh Campaign had gone on for 12 days during which the Turks have not only lost important towns, but also 17,000 men killed and around the same number taken prisoner.
Although the Turks had received a remarkable blow, Ahmet İzzet Paşa decided to attack one week after the conclusion of the Russian offensive. It was now the Second Army’s task to save the Third Army from disaster and recapture the town of Erzincan. The Turkish offensive commenced on August 2, 1916, in three corps-sized groups, III, IV and XVI Corps. In the earlier periods of the campaign, Mustafa Kemal’s XVI Corps managed to take Bitlis and Muş, however this initial success did not bring victory. Russians were strengthening their lines and two weeks after the launch of the Turkish offensive they were strong enough to respond with counteroffensives. At the same times, the Turks were suffering from severe supply and logistics problems. By late September, the Turkish attack was finished. During these two months, the Turks had gained some ground, at the cost of around 30,000 killed and wounded.
The rest of the year 1916 was spent by the Turks with organizational and operational changes in the Caucasian front. Fortunately for the Turkish commanders, the Russians were quiet during this period. The winter of 1916-1917 was extremely harsh, which made fighting nearly impossible. This situation did not change during the spring. Meanwhile Russia was in political and social turmoil, which was also influencing the army ranks. The chaos caused by the October Revolution put a stop to all Russian military operations and the Russian forces began to conduct withdrawals. Neither the Russian soldiers nor the Russian people wanted to go on with the war anymore. The Turks on the other hand, could not take advantage of this situation; since their units were not in good shape either. They were under great pressure from the British in Palestine and Mesopotamia, therefore withdrawing the majority of their forces (five divisions) and sending them south. The year 1917 passed by without fighting in the Caucasian front. The Russian army slowly disintegrated until there was no effective military force. The Armistice of Erzincan, signed on December 16, 1917, officially brought an end to the hostilities.
Vehip Paşa was well informed about the situation in the region, thanks to a report by Lt. Hüsamettin, who had escaped imprisonment in Russian hands and made his way to Trabzon. According to this report, what was left from the Russian Army was incapable of holding the frontier line, British and French representatives were involved in forming Armenian and Georgian battalions and furthermore, the Armenians, with the support of Russian Bolsheviks, were planning to rid the entire southern Caucasus from Muslim Azerbaijanis.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, Enver Paşa was making his own plans. Considering the revolution in Russia as a great opportunity, he wanted not only to recover the pre-war frontiers, but also to reclaim what was to Russians in the war of 1877-1878, which would then be a springboard for the Turkish domination of Central Asia. He ordered reinforcements to be deployed to the Third Army and operations to begin as soon as the Turkish forces were combat-ready. Turkish forces were to face the Armenian National Army, which, according to a report of Kazım Bey, was composed of 36 regiments (a total of 15,000 men) equipped with armaments left by the retreating Russians.
The Turkish offensive began on February 5, 1918, towards the east of the line between Tirebolu and Bitlis. It was a blitzkrieg conducted by the Third Army and the lost territories were recaptured from the Armenians in lightning speed. Kelkit was liberated on February 7, Erzincan on February 13, Bayburt on February 19 and Tercan on February 22. The important Black Sea port of Trabzon was taken back on February 25, and incoming sea-borne reinforcements began to arrive in this port, which added substantially to the Turkish combat strength.
Armenians fought to keep the city of Erzurum, which was nevertheless liberated by the Turkish I Caucasian Corps on March 12. Malazgirt, Hınıs, Oltu, Köprüköy and Tortum followed over the following two weeks.
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
As the Turks were reacquiring the lands they had lost, peace negotiations between Russia and the Central Powers were on the way at Brest-Litovsk (in current-day Belarus). With the treaty signed on March 3, 1918, all territories Russia had captured from the Ottoman Empire in the war of 1877-1878, specifically Ardahan, Kars and Batumi, were to be returned. However, the treaty was not stating how and when this was going to happen and since they were already evacuated by the Russians, Kars and Ardahan were occupied by Armenians and Batumi by Georgians. On March 14, 1918, the Ottoman government began negotiating with the representatives of the recently formed Transcaucasian Federation (Mavera-yi Kafkas Konfederasyonu) in order to determine the conditions of peace in the Caucasus. The Ottoman side demanded absolute adherence to the terms of Brest-Litovsk, whereas the Armenian and Georgian delegates were trying to secure concessions and to keep at least Kars and Batumi. In the meantime, as talks were being held in Trabzon, Turkish forces were advancing towards these towns. The conference i soon went into a deadlock and Enver Paşa ordered Vehip Paşa to resort to military means in order to ensure the fulfillment of the terms set at Brest-Litovsk. In other words, the army was going on an offensive to capture the three cities in question. Batumi was especially important for Enver Paşa, who saw this port city was a gateway opening to the Caucasus, Persia and Central Asia.
Whereas Enver wanted first to save the Muslims in the Caucasus and then embark on the conquest of Central Asia, Vehip Paşa was more cautious, because he believed that such an operation would unite the Armenians and Georgians against the local Muslims. Furthermore, in his opinion, even if the Caucasus could be occupied, there were simply not enough forces to ensure the security there, which would lead to anarchy. Vehip Paşa was also not sure about to what extend he could get support from the local Muslims. Despite his criticism of Enver’s plans, he had no option but to go on with preparations. In a letter he received from Istanbul, Enver Paşa was saying “As the reward of three years of spilling blood and being subjected to hardships and disasters, it is the duty of the government to physically occupy Batumi, Kars and Ardahan, which had been lost by the Ottoman Empire in the past, but secured their future with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.”
Vehip’s plan was to execute the offensive in three flanks. In the center, the Şevki Paşa Group composed of I and II Caucasus Corps and the 5th Infantry division under the command of Yakup Şevki Paşa was going to drive towards Kars. In the left, i.e. along the Black Sea coats, the VI Corps would proceed towards Batumi and on the right the IV Corps would attack towards Van and Doğubayazıt.
The offensive started (or rather gained momentum, since the troops were already in motion) on April 3, 1918, on which day Ardahan was liberated by the Şevki Paşa Group. The 9th Caucasus Division followed the retreating Armenian forces to Sarıkamış, the scene of a great tragedy three years ago, which was captured on April 5. The I Caucasus Corps commanded by Colonel Kazım Bey continued to chase the Armenian units. Kağızman was liberated on April 8 and on the same day the offensive towards Kars was commenced with the order issued by Yakup Şevki Paşa to Kazım Bey.
9th and 36th Divisions began to march towards the town of Selim, which was heavily fortified by the Armenians. The operation was briefly halted on April 11 as news came from the conference, which was still in progress in Trabzon, about the representatives of the Transcaucasian Federation accepting the evacuation of the three cities mentioned in the terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Realizing that it was only a deception to gain time, the advance towards Kars continued the next day. Selim was captured, after four days of fighting, on April 22. Now, it was the turn for Kars.
After beating the Turks at Sarıkamış in 1915, Russians had fortified Kars in a very efficient manner, which meant that even if the Turks could capture it, it would be only a pyrrhic victory. This is why Kazım Bey decided to siege the town and force the Armenians to surrender rather than attempting to capture the city. The siege was laid by the I and II Caucasian Corps as of April 23.
It did not take too long for the Armenian officers to surrender. Through French intermediation, General Nazarbekov, the Armenian Corps Commander based in Yerevan, asked for ceasefire, to which the Turkish response was that it would be only possible through the unconditional surrender of the city. Realizing that they had no option, Armenian officers decided to comply with Turkish demands. On April 25, Cpt. Talat Bey went to the city to take it over from General Deyev. At the same time the batteries surrounding the city were occupied and in the evening a regiment from the I Caucasian Corps entered into the city and took it under control. The next day at 10 am, Col. Kazım Bey himself entered the city as the “Liberator of Kars.” Later he would write in his memoirs: “After 40 years of slavery, the Fortress of Kars and all those hands were joining back the motherland. I spread the good news and celebrations began everywhere. It was a great joy for me that it was my corps, which had liberated Erzincan and Erzurum in the dead of winter, to have the honor of raising the Turkish flag over Kars. This was my greatest ideal since I was a child.”
On the other flanks, it was also going well for the Turks. Along the Black Sea coast, the 123rd Regiment, departing from Trabzon, entered into Çayeli on April 2, a few days later after the 37th Caucasus Division liberated Artvin and Andanuç. The main objective of the latter unit was Batumi, which was captured on April 14, after two days of fighting. Meanwhile, on the right flank, the IV Corps entered the city of Van on April 6, to find out that the local Muslim population has been subjected to atrocities in the hands of the Russians and Armenians. Doğubayazıt was liberated one week later.
As the Turkish forces were proceeding eastward, peace negotiations resumed on May 11, 1918 in Batumi. However, this did not stop the military operations. As fighting with Georgians in the regions around Akhaltzikhe and Gyumri continued, the Turks’ demand for using the Transcaucasian railways against the British in northern Persia was refused, which left Yakup Şevki Paşa with no option but to invade this region. Gyumri was captured on May 15 and Karakilise on May 28.
Meanwhile, the Turks were taking a harsher stance at the talks in Batumi. The head of the Turkish delegation, Halil Bey, demanded all nations within the Transcaucasian Federation to establish their own independent state, on the grounds that if this was not going to be the case, peace would be impossible. The three nations were not enthusiastic to continue with the federation anyway. The Azerbaijanis were pro-Ottoman, whereas the Armenians and Georgians were trying to stop the Turkish advance, at the same time having differences of opinion among themselves. On May 26, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic dissolved, breaking up into three independent states: Democratic Republic of Georgia, Democratic Republic of Armenia, and Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The Ottoman government signed separate peace treaties with all the three republics on June 4, 1918.
Enver conceded to German pressure and stopped the Turkish expansion into Georgia; however, he did not give up his pan-Turkic project. On June 8, he ordered a major transformation of Turkish forces in the region. From the units of the Third Army, a new Ninth Army was formed and given under the command of Yakup Şevki Paşa. A new Eastern Army Group, commanded by Vehip Paşa (later during the same month he was replaced by Halil Paşa, the hero of Kut), would coordinate the operations of the Third and Ninth Armies. The new commander of the Third Army was Esat Paşa.
Since a northward expansion was now out of question, Enver wanted to move to east and to south, i.e. to Azerbaijan and Persia respectively. As early as March 1918, he was putting together the idea of an “Army of Islam”, which would mobilize Muslim supporters in the Caucasian region, move down through Persia and entrap the British forces in Mesopotamia. On July 10, 1918, this new army was activated. It was composed of the 5th Caucasus Infantry Division, the 15th Division, an independent brigade and an independent regiment, to be commanded by Nuri Paşa, Enver’s stepbrother. The headquarters of the Army of Islam was located in Gence, the capital of the newly founded Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
Following a series of clashes outside Baku, the Army of Islam launched its first attack on the city on July 31. Only a few days earlier, a coup d'état had overthrown the Bolsheviks in Baku and a new government, the Central Caspian Dictatorship, was formed. It was a British-backed anti-Soviet government and there were around 1,500 British troops in Baku. The Turkish attack went on until August 2when the Turks called it to halt. A second assault was performed on August 5, but this one also failed to achieve its objectives and facing a counter-attack of the Russian/Armenian/British forces, the Turks had to retreat to the west.
The morale was low among the Turks. The Army of Islam had suffered severe casualties; the number of combat ready troops was as low as 3,500. Although they had no problems with food and water, they were running out of ammunition. Nuri Paşa cabled the headquarters of the Third Army and asked for reinforcements: 5,000 fresh troops, four batteries, airplanes, 28,000 artillery bullets, 1,500 boxes of rifle bullets and 20 transportation vehicles. Such a support was necessary before another major offensive could be launched against Baku.
Guns remained silent around Baku for a couple of weeks. Nuri Paşa was receiving the reinforcements he had asked for (three regiments from the 15th Turkish Division arrived the Baku front on September 9) and the Russian/Armenian/British forces in Baku were busy with strengthening their defenses. Between August 26 and September 1, there have been minor Turkish attacks, which remained inconclusive. Meanwhile, Nuri Paşa was planning the major offensive. Around 8,000 Turkish troops and more than 6,000 Azerbaijani militia had gathered at the outskirts of the city and it was time for the Army of Islam to attack.
The offensive was launched in the early hours of August 14, 1918. The 15th Division commanded by Süleyman İzzet Bey attacked from the north and the 5th Caucasus Infantry Division commanded by Mürsel Paşa attacked from the west. In both sectors, the Turks fought successfully and by the end of the day, the defenders of the city realized that the situation was hopeless. At 3:00 pm on the next day, Baku surrendered to the Army of Islam. After three months of fighting, Turkish troops were now in Baku, which was returned to its real owners, the Azerbaijanis. The liberation of Azerbaijan was completed.
In his report submitted to Enver Paşa, Nuri Paşa wrote that during the battle of Baku, there has been street fighting between the Muslim populations and the Armenians in the city; a number of Armenians and a few Russians were murdered, however the total number of people killed would not even constitute one percent of the total number of Muslims massacred in Baku in March 1918.
After the capture of Baku, Nuri Paşa directed his attention to Dagestan, where the Muslim population was being oppressed by the Bolsheviks. A Northern Caucasus Army was composed by the 15th Infantry Division and Dagestani militia, and under the command of Yusuf İzzet Paşa it was assigned the task of capturing the towns of Derbent and Petrovsk. The offensive began on October 5, but had to be halted after two days, due to strong resistance. The attack was resumed on October 20 and Derbent was captured on October 26. The Northern Caucasus Army continued with its drive northwards along the Caspian Sea arriving in Petrovsk two days later. This city fell on November 8. The capture of Petrovsk was the last Turkish offensive operation in the First World War. The Armistice of Mudros, signed on October 30, had ended the war for the Turks.
By the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire had lost the Palestine and Mesopotamia campaigns, but it had managed to reacquire all the territory, which it had lost to the Russians, in Eastern Anatolia.
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