The Caucasus Campaign was fought between the forces of Russia and the Ottoman Empire as part of the Middle-Eastern Front of the Great War. Later the conflict expanded, with Russia joined by Armenia, the British Empire and the Central Caspian Dictatorship - a short anti-Soviet administration proclaimed at Baku - and the Ottoman Empire aided by the German Empire, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the end, although the Russians withdrew from the conflict after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Ottoman Empire was defeated.
Russia's military concern for the Caucasus in 1914 was not its defense against Turkey but its internal security. Until 1864 Georgia had been Russia's principal frontier problem, with guerrilla warfare in the region shaping the soldiering experience of many. The extension of the Russian border in 1878 to a line south of the River Aras had increased the polyglot composition of the province's peoples. It also re-emphasized the colonial nature of Russian rule. Thus, the region was not ethnically Russian, but nor was it — if viewed as a whole — anybody else's. The region was economically desirable. Economic growth confirmed rather than submerged the ethnic tensions. Russia's solution to all this inherent volatility was Russification.
Almost every scenario concerning the Caucasus suggested to Russia's military planners that the front would retain its secondary status. The Russians took the Turkish military threat with sufficient seriousness to raise the number of divisions which they reckoned they might confront in the Caucasus from eleven to eighteen. But they seem to have done little else to explore Turkish intentions. The theater of operations was effectively an enormous valley bounded by two mountain ranges, the Caucasus to the north and the Taurus to the south. The configuration of this line made Batum and Kars the pivots of defence; neither they nor the line itself were adapted as bases for attack.
Russian assumptions were right. The reports sent back from Constantinople, talking of Enver Pasha's plans for a Caucasian offensive, were rubbish, designed presumably to keep the Germans in play. Between August and November 1914 little was done to prepare the Turkish 3rd army for major operations. Its commander, Hassan Izzet, was not forewarned and was taken by surprise when war was declared. Erzurum's fortifications were outmoded and incomplete. Izzet's principal task was therefore defensive, to protect the town by anticipating the likely lines of Russian advance from the direction of Kars and Oltu.
Under the Young Turks, the Ottoman forces had undergone a program of modernization. The army, organized into four Armies, based at Istanbul, Baghdad, Damascus and Erzinjan, could put thirty-six divisions into the field. Divisions were weaker in artillery than their European equivalents, but the material was modern, and there were sixty-four machine-gun companies.
In September 1914 a Georgian nationalist committee was established in Berlin under the direction of Prince George Matchabelli and Mikheil Tsereteli. Germany recognized a potentially independent Georgia. German support for Georgia was nominal rather than actual. But its motivation — to create an army out of nothing but diplomacy — was one which Matchabelli kept in play. In September and October 1914, schemes were floated variously to exploit Armenian nationalism, Azerbaijani nationalism, and revolutionary socialism in order to bring Baku's oil production to a standstill. The political effects of German involvement confirmed that Enver's putative allies in the Caucasus were more often Christian than they were Muslim.
The Georgian aim was independence for Georgia and neutrality in the Caucasus; their kingdom, once independent, would embrace not only its Christian population but also the Muslims. Their objective, therefore, was an alliance with Turkey, not Turkish suzerainty. Enver could not afford to renounce Georgian manpower, but nor could he bring himself to abandon the pan-Turkish dream. If Turkey wished to have a say in the settlement of the region it would have to use its own forces and upstage its German ally.
With the severe Anatolian Highland winter beginning, Russia's Army of the Caucasus neither expected nor planned a major offensive, especially as Stavka had told its commander, Myslayevsky, to expect no reinforcements. However, I Corps under the command of General Georgy Bergmann tried a limited offensive. The Turkish Third Army's commander, Hasan Izzet Pasha, enticed him forward for several days, then launched a counter-offensive threatening him with encirclement. Bergmann pulled back hastily.
The November victories went to Enver Pasha's head. He arrived in Erzurum, intent on destroying Russia's Caucasian Army and sparking revolts among Russia's Turkic subjects. The offensive included an outflanking maneuver that required two divisions to spend two days traversing a barren high plateau with no warm clothing, no hot food and minimal rations. Many soldiers froze to death. The decisive Battle of Sarikamish began, and the Russians finished mopping up after a few weeks of fighting.
The victory was to have one lamentable local outcome. Among the troops the Russians had employed was a division of Christian Armenians, many of them disaffected Ottoman subjects. They took the opportunity offered by Russian sponsorship to commit massacre inside Turkish territory. Their participation in the campaign, and the declaration in April 1915 of a provisional Armenian government by nationalists on Russian-held territory, lay at the foundation of the Ottoman government's undeclared campaign of genocide against their Armenian subjects. Between June 1915 and late 1917, nearly 1 million men, women and children died, force marched into the desert to die of starvation and thirst.
The situation began to change following the arrival of the Grand Duke Nikolai, whom the Tsar appointed Viceroy and Commander in the Caucasus in September. The Entente evacuated Gallipoli, and the Caucasus Army's Chief of Staff, General Nikolai Yudenich, realized that this would free Turkish forces for use elsewhere, principally against his front. There was a 'window of opportunity' of several weeks for destroying the Turkish Third Army, and there was another appeal for help from an ally. This time it came from the British in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), whose attempt to advance to Baghdad had been stopped at Ctesiphon. They had been forced to retreat. The British therefore asked for a Russian attack in Anatolia, to draw some Turks away.
Yudenich correctly assumed that the Turks would not expect a Russian offensive in the depths of winter - the Third Army's commander, Kamil Pasha, and German Chief of Staff, Major Guse, were both away. The Russians also controlled the sea, and had air superiority. The Turks chose to stand at Kopriikoy, 64 km east of Erzurum, and concentrated five divisions there, leaving only one to guard the south-north road from Bitlis, at the west end of Lake Van, to Erzurum, along which most of Erzurum's supplies came. In the end they would be driven back, and Erzerum itself would fall. The Turks would retreat all the way to the Black Sea coast where they would suffer another string of defeats before the offensive came to an end.
In February 1917, workers in Petrograd staged an uprising that ushered in the creation of a provisional government for the old empire. For much of 1917 the disintegration of the Russian lines created a kind of equilibrium: the Russians were too weak to press their advantage, but Ottoman forces were engaged on other fronts and were too poorly provisioned to capitalize on their enemy’s political crisis.
The Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in October 1917 brought some degree of clarity to the confusing situation. The real threat was no longer political chaos but rather the political ambitions of the Bolsheviks. No representatives of the new Transcaucasus government were included in the peace talks between Bolshevik Russia and the Central Powers at Brest Litovsk in March 1918. The resulting Treaty of Brest Litovsk provided for the evacuation of Russian troops from precisely those border districts over which the Tsarist forces had been fighting for the entire war — and which were regarded by Transcaucasus leaders as essential buffers against Constantinople.
Once the Treaty of Brest Litovsk had been signed, a hastily convened meeting of Transcaucasus politicians in Tiflis responded by declaring war on the Ottomans. The Transcaucasus government had little choice but to make a formal break with Russia. The Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia was declared an independent country in late April 1918, but it was to be a fleeting entity. A little more than a month later, its constituents — Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia — went their separate ways. The independence of these new states was likewise to prove ephemeral: after the Great War they were to be included in the Soviet Union.