Russians Advance on Erzurum

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 220th installment in the series.

January 17, 1916: Russians Advance on Erzurum

As fighting in other theatres died down during the winter months, a long period of stasis on the Caucasian front suddenly ended with a surprise attack by the Russian Caucasian Army, which sprang into action against the understrength Ottoman Third Army in Eastern Anatolia and scored a major victory at the Battle of Köprüköy from January 11-19, 1916. This set the stage for an advance on the ancient city of Erzurum (above), occupying a key strategic position at the gateway to central Anatolia, the Turkish heartland.


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Following its disastrous defeat at Sarikamish, the Ottoman Third Army had withdrawn down the Aras River valley to strong defensive positions around the small village of Köprüköy, nestled between the imposing ridges of the eastern Pontic Mountains. However the Ottoman high command was unable to send reinforcements to the badly depleted Third Army, as all available manpower was needed to fight off the Allied attack at Gallipoli; thus the Third Army lacked the defensive reserves needed to plug the gaps in case of an enemy breakthrough.

With the approval of theatre commander Grand Duke Nicholas, who had been relieved as commander in chief of all the Russian armies and sent to the Caucasus in August 1915, the Russian commander General Yudenich staged a flurry of diversionary attacks on January 11 before unleashing the main assault on a weak spot in the Turkish line near the Cakir-Baba ridge on January 14. The diversionary attacks succeeded in distracting the Turks, who moved their only reserve away from the intended area for the main attack; the Russians rebuffed a counterattack by these forces on January 13.

Beginning before dawn on January 14, the Russian soldiers waded through snow higher than their waists along the southern slope of Cakir-Baba, regrouped, and seized the strategic Kozincan heights by the following day, leaving almost nothing between them and the village of Köprüköy on the Aras River. With a breakthrough tantalizingly close, Yudenich threw his Cossack reserve into the fight in hopes they could slog through the snow and surround the enemy – but the Turks withdrew just in time, retreating to the fortifications of Erzurum by January 17.

Overall the Ottoman Third Army suffered 20,000 casualties out of a total 65,000 men, while the Russian Caucasian Army lost just 12,000 out of 75,000. More importantly, the first great prize of the campaign in East Anatolia, Erzurum, was within reach.

A British war correspondent, Philips Price, recorded the aftermath of the battle and the Turks’ hasty retreat to Erzurum: “We saw many signs of the Turkish retreat, as we continued our way. Through the snow on the roadside protruded a number of objects, camels’ humps, horses’ legs, buffaloes’ horns, and men’s faces, with fezzes and little black beards, smiling at us the smile of death, their countenances frozen as hard as the snow around them.”

Meanwhile both sides had to continue enduring harsh winter conditions in the incredibly primitive environment of the eastern Anatolian mountains, which the Russian Cossacks were especially well suited for, according to Price:

Snug little zemliankas, dug into the earth and covered with grass, dotted the plateau and the sheltered hillsides. From the holes, that served as doorways, hairy Cossack faces looked out on wintry scenes of snow and rock. Here the reserves were waiting to be ordered up to the front. Mankind in this country becomes a troglodyte in winter… so they build themselves huts, half buried in the ground and covered with straw, where they can keep warm and rest for a few days… A deathly silence reigns over the white expanse of snow; and only the wolfish bark of a miserable pariah dog tells one there is any life at all.

Suffering Behind the Lines

The Russian advance in Anatolia could only serve to heighten the Ottoman government’s paranoia about Armenian subversion behind the lines, reinforcing their commitment to carrying out their genocidal policy of massacres and death marches against the Armenian civilian population.

The Armenian Genocide was no secret, openly discussed by the Ottoman Empire’s own allies. For example on January 11, 1916 Karl Liebknecht, a socialist member of the German Reichstag, asked a question addressed to the government:

Is the Imperial Chancellor aware of the fact that during the present war hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the allied Turkish empire have been expelled and massacred? What steps has the Imperial Chancellor taken with the allied Turkish government to bring about the necessary atonement, to create a humane situation for the rest of the Armenian population in Turkey, and to prevent similar atrocities from happening again?

Baron von Stumm, head of the German foreign office’s political department, responded to Liebknecht’s question with an answer that can only be described as a tour de force in euphemism:

The Imperial Chancellor is aware that some time ago the Sublime Porte, compelled by the rebellious machinations of our enemies, evacuated the Armenian population in certain parts of the Turkish empire and allocated new residential areas to them. Due to certain repercussions of these measures, an exchange of ideas is taking place between the German and the Turkish governments. Further details cannot be disclosed.

Liebknecht then returned to the attack but according to the official transcript was dismissed on grounds of parliamentary procedure: “‘Is the Imperial Chancellor aware of the fact that Professor Lepsius virtually spoke of an extermination of the Turkish Armenians…’ (The President rings his bell. – Speaker attempts to continue speaking. – Calls: Silence! Silence!) President: ‘That is a new question that I cannot permit.’” Indeed, the German government was determined to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by their ally.


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However the record of these events survived in the testimony of the few who managed to endure the death marches, only to be dumped in a string of smaller concentration camps in the Syrian desert, where they awaited final deportation to the main concentration camps (often described as “death camps”) at Deir-ez-Zor and Rasalyn. One young Armenian girl, Dirouhi Kouymjian Highgas, later described one of the smaller camps:

As far as the eye could see were acres and acres of tents. They all looked alike. Most of the tents consisted only of two sticks pounded into the ground, with dirty, ragged blankets thrown over them. The condition of the refugees was indescribable. They were half-clothed human skeletons, either squatting in a stupor in front of their tents, or lying on the ground with their mouths open, gasping for air, or shuffling aimlessly around, staring blankly into the distance. They did not acknowledge our arrival in any way.

Here she would have the frightening experience of seeing her own father breaking in despair:

In the evenings, we sat in our tent… We tried to sleep through moans and screams of the sick and dying. We were using any available place for toilets. The human smells, the stench of rotting flesh and other undefinable odors that hung in the air were unbearable. One night, I was awakened by the sound of my father crying. He was sobbing just like a child. I reached out to him and wiped his tears away with my fingers, and curled up on my mat, to sleep… It was almost too much sadness for a little nine-year-old girl to bear. But I didn’t move. I told myself I had to be brave. I must not allow myself to break down, adding yet another problem to my already overburdened family…

While the Armenians were subjected to state-sanctioned mass murder (along with Greeks and Assyrian Christians in some places), it’s worth noting that other Anatolian populations, including Turks and Kurds, also suffered widespread starvation and disease due to the disruptions caused by the war. Henry H. Riggs, an American missionary, painted a chilling picture of the conditions for Kurdish refugees fleeing the Russian advance in eastern Anatolia:

Many of these people had actually been driven out of their village homes by the advance of the Russians, and some had fled from places where the Russians had not yet arrived rather than await the coming of the foe… The sufferings of these Kurdish exiles, however, were hardly less pitiable than those of the Armenians… The mortality among them was terrible, and those who reached the region of Harpoot were – many of them – utterly broken and hopeless… Epidemic soon took hold among them, and one of the women who had gone down to help came back one day with the report that the Kurds were dying like flies…

Similarly Ephraim Jernazian, an Armenian pastor who was protected because of his connection to foreign missionaries, later recalled the universal suffering in Urfa, in what is now southeastern Turkey:

From 1916 through 1918 Urfa was plagued with famine. Many of the local poor and refugees died of starvation. In the evening at every doorstep could be seen people looking almost like skeletons, whimpering weakly, in Turkish, “Ahj um… Ahj um…” or in Arabic, “Zhu’an… Zhu’an…” or in Armenian, “Anoti yem… Anoti yem… [I am hungry… I am hungry.]” It was unbearable. As the night wore on, silence prevailed. Early in the morning when we opened our doors, in front of every house we would see dead from starvation a Turk here, a Kurd there, an Armenian here, an Arab there.

Like Riggs, Jernazian observed that food shortages were always followed by outbreaks of epidemic disease, spreading quickly among people made even more vulnerable by starvation. Ironically this presented a respite of sorts for persecuted Armenians, as their neighbors were too sick to torment them:

During the years of famine, the deplorable conditions became worse as various diseases began to spread. The typhus epidemic especially did its destructive work. Every day, in addition to the refugees, from fifty to one hundred townspeople died of typhus alone. Urfa presented a pitiful picture. When famine and typhus began to snatch victims from all classes, it seemed that for a while harassment of the few Armenians here and there was forgotten. Starving Armenians and Turks were begging side by side in front of the same market and together were gathering grass from the fields.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Why Steve Carell Required a Cold Set on The Office

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon

Many people know from personal experience how frustrating it can be to disagree on the ideal office temperature. Some people tend to run warm, while others keep a handy stash of blankets and scarves at their desks to keep the goosebumps at bay. If you're in the latter category, you'd probably have a tough time as an actor or crew member on the set of The Office. Though it would be a cool opportunity to see the Dunder Mifflin team in action, you'd have to work on a set that was consistently kept at 64°F.

As Insider reports, Steve Carell, who played Michael Scott, insisted the set remain at such a chilly temperature because of his very active sweat glands. As silly as it might sound, it's not a myth. Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight Schrute, revealed this behind-the-scenes secret in his 2015 book, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy.

Insider notes that Carell's requirement was not always appreciated by his castmates, who apparently suffered through the crisp temperatures until they finally got space heaters. Though the set's frequent frigid feel was rough, it probably saved the crew from having to re-shoot scenes spoiled by sweat stains.

[h/t Insider]