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.