Turkish Debacle at Sarikamish

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 162nd installment in the series.

January 6, 1915: Turkish Debacle at Sarikamish

When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in November 1914, it was a marriage of convenience, with both sides getting something they wanted out of the alliance. The Young Turk triumvirate led by War Minister Enver Pasha secured formal protection from Germany, which they viewed as the decrepit empire’s best chance of long-term survival; meanwhile the Germans were able to close the Turkish straits, cutting off Russia’s maritime supply route through the Black Sea, and also forced the Allies to fight on a number of new fronts including Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus.

Now engaged in the two-front war they had hoped desperately to avoid, the Germans urged Enver to take the offensive against Russia immediately in hopes of taking some of the pressure off overstretched German and Austrian forces in the east. Enver, who never lacked confidence in his own military genius, eagerly accepted the mission and immediately began planning an ambitious offensive by the Ottoman Third Army against the Russian Caucasus Army, which he would direct personally (from a safe distance, of course). The result was a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Sarikamish, which took place in Russia’s Kars Province from December 22, 1914 to January 17, 1915.


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In some ways this plan made sense. The province, centered on the chief city and capital of the same name, had been part of the Ottoman Empire from 1534 to 1878, when the Russians annexed it following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, so it was a matter of Turkish national pride to attempt to get it back. The failure of Russia’s opening Bergmann Offensive from November 2 to 16, 1914, when the Caucasian Army under General Georgy Bergmann invaded northeastern Anatolia only to be repulsed with heavy losses, boosted the morale of Turkish troops as well as Enver’s faith in their ability to carry out complicated maneuvers.

But the Turks faced even more formidable obstacles, beginning with the terrain itself: the Ottoman Third Army would have to attack the Russian Caucasus Army across the Allahüekber Mountains, towering over 9,000 feet, which meant traversing high-altitude valleys cut by steep gorges over primitive roads in winter conditions. To make matters even more difficult, Enver was planning a complex battle of encirclement, with three Turkish army corps approaching the Russians simultaneously from different directions, calling for carefully coordinated movements despite almost nonexistent communications.

In fact, considering all these challenges the Turkish attack went remarkably well at first. On December 22, 1914 elements of the Turkish Third Army, numbering 150,000 men altogether, began advancing against the Russian Caucasian Army numbering 65,000 men (some Turkish troops remained behind in defensive and support positions). As planned, the right wing consisting of the Ottoman XI Corps attacked the Russians frontally, pinning them down while on the left the IX and X Corps advanced behind the enemy force in order to attack from the rear. By December 25 the IX and X Corps had advanced well north of the Russians, having marched almost 50 miles in three days amid icy conditions, and were beginning to pivot south to cut off the Russian line of retreat and complete the encirclement.

But now the plan began to fall apart. After some initial success keeping the Russians pinned down in front, the commanders of the Turkish XI Corps gave their exhausted troops a break, and the Russian commanders immediately seize the opportunity to extricate their troops and withdraw to new defensive positions near Sarikamish (above, Russian trenches) while Russian reinforcements began arriving by rail via Kars, blocking the advance of the Ottoman X Corps on the left wing. As the New Year dawned Turkish casualties were mounting, including thousands of cases of frostbite, and it was becoming clear that Enver’s plan of encirclement had failed—and things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Bolstered by fresh reinforcements, on January 2, 1915, the Russians launched a counterattack against the left wing, and suddenly the encircling Turkish units were themselves encircled. Over the next few days the Ottoman IX Corps fought a brave rearguard action but was completely destroyed, while the X Corps barely managed to escape, also suffering heavy casualties as ragtag bands of starving, demoralized troops fled through heavy snow back to Ottoman territory.

By January 6-7 Enver’s dreams of glory had ended in complete debacle, although “mopping-up” continued until January 17. The cost was staggering: according to some estimates the Ottoman losses came to 90,000 dead, including 53,000 who froze to death, and thousands more who perished from disease—especially typhus, the great nonhuman killer of the First World War. However if Enver was upset by these losses, he concealed it well; Lewis Einstein, an American diplomat in Constantinople, later recalled, “Even when he returned from the Caucasus, where an entire army had been lost by his fault, he seemed perfectly happy, and went the same evening to a concert.” On the other side the Russians probably lost around 16,000 dead, although some estimates put the figure at double that.

Beyond ending Enver’s dream of raising a revolt among the Turkic peoples of south Russia and Central Asia (at least temporarily), the Battle of Sarikamish would have a far-reaching, and tragic, impact on subsequent events. First, despite the outcome the mere fact that the Turks had taken the offensive at all alarmed Russia and its Western Allies, helping persuade Britain and France to attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by forcing the Turkish straits and capturing Constantinople—setting the stage for Gallipoli.

For their part Sarikamish, where Armenian volunteer troops fought alongside the Russians, only served to stoke the Ottoman government’s preexisting paranoia about the disloyalty of their own Armenian population. With the Christian Armenians aiding the Russians, the Young Turks feared the possibility of guerrilla warfare and uprisings behind the lines throughout eastern Anatolia, further complicating their already daunting war effort against Russia. Within a matter of months the Turks would decide on a simple, unspeakably brutal solution: genocide.

See the previous installment or all entries.

12 Epic Facts About David Lynch's Dune

Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In 1984, more than a decade of development hell culminated in the release of Dune, the long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel about a messianic figure rising from a desert planet where a mysterious spice was harvested. After several different filmmakers tried (and failed) to bring it to the screen, Dune finally arrived via David Lynch, a then up-and-coming filmmaker who’d never been tested on a film of that size and scope.

The result was one of the most fascinating cinematic messes of the 1980s, the product of a tricky adaptation process, editorial clashes, and a filmmaker who never felt satisfied with the work he was doing under the watchful eye of his producers. In celebration of its 35th anniversary, here are a dozen facts about the making of Dune, from last-minute casting choices to battles over the final cut.

1. It took years to get Dune made.

Though Dune didn’t make it to the big screen until 1984, the journey from page to film actually began more than a decade earlier with producer Arthur P. Jacobs, best known for science fiction hits like Planet of the Apes. Jacobs announced his production of Dune in 1972, seven years after Frank Herbert’s novel was initially published. Jacobs’s production eventually unraveled and the producer passed away in 1973, leading to an effort from French producers to get the film made. That, too, eventually fell apart, leaving the rights to be claimed by yet another producer.

By the late 1970s, producer Dino De Laurentiis had purchased the rights to Dune, hoping to make the film with his daughter Rafaella, who adored Frank Herbert’s original novel. Then came the problem of finding a director, which Dune had struggled with before.

2. Several directors tried to make Dune.

Back in 1972, when Jacobs was working to get his adaptation of Dune off the ground, he announced that director Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) would direct the film. Ultimately, the adaptation proved too unwieldy and costly for Jacobs to mount, and the rights were passed along to French producers who’d purchased them for director Alexandro Jodorowsky, best known at the time for his surreal Western El Topo.

Jodorowsky launched an extravagantly ambitious plan to adapt Dune into something that was very much his own vision, conceiving the project as an epic that would run as long as 14 hours, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a cast including everyone from his own son Brontis as Paul Atreides to Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí as the Emperor. After three years in pre-production, Jodorowsky had already burned through much of the film’s budget, and the project stalled while gaining its own legendary reputation. Jodorowsky’s vision for the project was ultimately immortalized in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

In 1980, with De Laurentiis now driving the project, the director’s chair was offered to Ridley Scott, then fresh off his own sci-fi success with Alien. Scott was interested, but several factors—including Universal Pictures’ anxiety over the project’s budget—led him to ultimately walk away in favor of yet another sci-fi project: Blade Runner.

With Scott out, Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis went searching for another director. That’s when they saw a new historical drama called The Elephant Man.

3. David Lynch was hired for Dune because of The Elephant Man.

A photo of David Lynch
Getty Images

At the end of 1980, David Lynch only had two feature films to his name: The experimental nightmare Eraserhead and the acclaimed historical drama The Elephant Man, both of which were black-and-white films that showcased Lynch’s knack for striking visuals. The Elephant Man catapulted Lynch into mainstream visibility and critical acclaim. The film earned eight Academy Award nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, and won three BAFTAs, including Best Film. It also drew the eyes of Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis, who saw Lynch as the perfect up-and-coming visual stylist to tackle Dune. Despite their love of The Elephant Man, the De Laurentiises did not go back and watch Eraserhead until after Lynch was hired.

“If I had seen it without knowing him, I probably would have walked out,” Rafaella De Laurentiis later said of Lynch’s debut feature.

4. David Lynch turned down Star Wars to make Dune.

After The Elephant Man became a massive critical success, Lynch began work on the film that would become Blue Velvet, but at the same time other filmmakers were looking at the director to take on more commercial projects. According to Lynch, he was at one point considering working on an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (which was finally adapted as Manhunter by Michael Mann in 1986), but an even bigger offer had also arrived on his table. George Lucas was looking for a filmmaker to take on directing duties for his third Star Wars film, and wanted Lynch.

“I went to meet George Lucas, who had offered me the third Star Wars to direct, but I’ve never even really liked science fiction,” Lynch later recalled. “I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing.”

So, Lynch turned down what would become Return of the Jedi, ultimately in favor of taking on Dune.

5. David Lynch hadn’t heard of Dune before he was offered the film.

David Lynch, despite his leaning toward various genre quirks in his works, was never a particular fan of science fiction, which put him in an interesting position in the early 1980s when he was offered two major science fiction projects in the wake of The Elephant Man’s success. He was so out of the loop on major sci-fi stories, in fact, that when Dino De Laurentiis called him, he had a difficult time understanding exactly what he was being offered.

“And Dino says, ‘I want you to read this book, Dune,’” Lynch recalled. “I thought he said ‘June,’ you know, and I said, ‘June’? He said, ‘No, Dune.’ And so then a friend of mine said, ‘Man! That is a great science fiction book,’ and I said, ‘I know, that’s what I heard.’ So I started reading it.”

Lynch went on to get so deep into Dune that he wrote half a dozen drafts of the screenplay, and consulted frequently with author Frank Herbert.

6. Kyle MacLachlan was cast in Dune because he was an unknown actor.

Kyle MacLachlan and Ramón Menéndez in Dune (1984)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When it came time to cast Dune, Lynch and Rafaella De Laurentiis knew it was important to strike the right tone with the actor who would play the film’s hero, Paul Atreides. To do this, they decided that instead of pursuing a known star, they would seek out an unknown young actor who could lend a somewhat mysterious presence to the film. De Laurentiis sprang into action and organized casting agents for a nationwide search to find the film’s Paul. While casting scout Elizabeth Leusting was combing the Pacific Northwest for talent, she came across a 25-year-old actor who’d been performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Kyle MacLachlan was nearly finished with school and was already planned to make a move to New York City to begin auditioning on his way to an acting career. Instead, he was put on the fast track by winning the lead role in Dune.

MacLachlan’s casting wasn’t just the launch of his screen acting career. It was also the beginning of a lengthy collaboration with Lynch which included Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet, as well as the iconic cult TV series Twin Peaks.

7. Helena Bonham Carter was Dune’s original Princess Irulan.

As the cast of Dune was coming together and preparing to begin production on the film in Mexico City, the producers ran into a major obstacle. Helena Bonham Carter, the original choice to play Princess Irulan, had a scheduling overlap between Dune and A Room with a View, which she was already shooting. Because the schedules conflicted and A Room with a View “wouldn’t let her out” of work on that film, there was what Virginia Madsen later called a “mad scramble” to find a replacement actress.

Madsen, then an relative unknown, went in to audition in an all-white outfit which David Lynch later saw a Polaroid of. Based on her “classic look,” he chose her as Princess Irulan, which she later called her “big break.”

“Really all I had to do was that monologue, and I was really a glorified extra,” Madsen said.

8. David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis clashed over the edit.

Dune is a massive, densely detailed novel that establishes a vast sense of place and continuity, which made it a particular challenge to adapt. Once Lynch had a usable screenplay to make the film, the massive scope of Dune translated over into production in Mexico City, where 75 sets and thousands of costumes were made to bring Lynch’s vision of Herbert’s universe to the screen. By the end of production, Lynch had put together a work print that was 4-5 hours long, and eventually trimmed that down to a cut of the film that was somewhere near three hours.

De Laurentiis was having none of that. The producer believed the film needed to be closer to two hours in order to be theatrically successful, and set about condensing Lynch’s original cut down to his preferred runtime. Sequences were cut or heavily abbreviated, and De Laurentiis even oversaw reshoots to add certain elements, including the opening in which Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) speaks directly to the camera to set the stage for the story. The additions were made after test screening audiences complained the film was hard to understand, but they arguably only muddied the waters even more.

Though he was dissatisfied with his lack of final cut on the film, Lynch has resisted any opportunity to go back and recut Dune, so much so that when the film was expanded for a television release, Lynch asked that his name be replaced with “Alan Smithee,” the traditional pseudonym for directors who don’t want to be credited on films they’re unhappy with.

9. David Lynch learned a valuable filmmaking lesson from Dune.

Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984)
Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Dune was David Lynch’s third feature film, and it turned out to be his first and, to date, only exercise in big-budget franchise filmmaking. Ever since Blue Velvet his career has been marked by smaller budget, often downright experimental, feature films so singular that they’ve earned their own adjective: Lynchian. There’s a reason for this, even beyond Lynch’s pursuit of his own particular filmmaking interest. On Dune, he learned a very specific lesson that would help to define his future as a director.

“When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death, die the death. And died I did,” he recalled. “When you have a failure, like they say there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s so freeing. It’s beautiful, in a way.”

10. Dune helped get Blue Velvet made.

David Lynch has come to look back on Dune as a disappointing exercise in compromise, but he also acknowledges that making the film was “both great and horrible, side by side.” Though he clashed with De Laurentiis over the cut of the film, he did still find a kinship with his producers that went beyond the difficulties of making the film.

“I love Dino and I love Rafaella and I loved working with them,” he later said. “We were like a family. I just know the way they are and they know the way I am. We loved each other in spite of it.”

De Laurentiis obviously loved Lynch back, and had faith in what he could do if he was granted more artistic freedom on a smaller film, because the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group financed Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet. That film, a nightmarish mystery that once again starred Kyle MacLachlan, is still considered among Lynch’s greatest artistic successes.

11. There were big sequel plans for Dune.

At the time Dune was in production, Frank Herbert had already published four novels in his Dune series, with two more – Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune – set to follow in 1984 (the year Dune was released) and 1985. That meant there was a vast sandbox of intellectual property for De Laurentiis and company to play in if the film was successful, and the producers certainly intended to keep going. After completing work on Dune, Lynch went right into working on the screenplay for a sequel, and MacLachlan was contracted to return for up to four more films if Dune proved a success. Years later, Virginia Madsen recalled that her own contract for Dune was for three movies, as the producers “thought they were going to make Star Wars for grown-ups.”

Of course, Dune ultimately grossed a little more than $30 million worldwide on a budget of at least $40 million, so no sequels were in the cards.

12. Frank Herbert enjoyed David Lynch’s Dune.

Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984)
Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Nearly two decades passed between the time Frank Herbert published Dune and the release of David Lynch’s film adaptation. Along the way, Herbert saw the many different attempts to bring his story to the screen, and he spent a good deal of time in consultation with Lynch as the director developed his version of the Dune screenplay. So, when it was completed, how did he feel about the film?

In an interview with Lynch from around the time of Dune’s release, Herbert seemed quite pleased with the film, particularly the visuals.

“I get asked a specific question a lot of times, if the settings, the scenes that I saw in David’s film match my original imagination, the things I projected in my imagination. I must tell you that some of them do, precisely,” Herbert said. “Some of them don’t, and some of them are better. Which is what you would expect of artists such as David and Tony Masters. I’m delighted with that! Why not take it and improve on it visually? As far as I’m concerned the film is a visual feast.”

Additional Source: Lynch on Lynch, Revised Edition (2005), edited by Chris Rodley

Rewind Time With This Blockbuster-Themed Party Game

Amazon/Big Potato Games
Amazon/Big Potato Games

With only one Blockbuster location left in the world, the good old days of wandering video rental store aisles and getting chewed out for late fees are definitely a thing of the past—but like so many relics from the '90s, the pull of nostalgia has ensured that Blockbuster (or at least the brand) won't disappear for good. Now the video store is back in the form of a party game from Big Potato Games that is designed to test the movie knowledge of you and up to 11 friends.

Marketing itself as “a movie game for anyone who has ever seen a movie,” the Blockbuster party game consists of two parts. In part one, players from each team compete head-to-head to name as many movies as they can that fit under specific categories (e.g., movies with Tom Cruise, famous trilogies, movies with planes). In the second half, two teams face off against each other to test their skills at a game of movie-related charades. The catch? Players can only describe movies in one of three randomly chosen ways: acting out scenes, rattling off a famous quote, or describing the films with one word.

The real selling point of the whole package is that Big Potato fit all the game cards and buzzer into a box that is virtually identical to the old-school Blockbuster VHS rental cases, right down to its distinct color scheme and shape. All it's missing is the membership card. 

The Blockbuster board game costs $26 on Amazon and $20 at Target. That’s a fair price for getting the chance to rewind time.

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