Caucasus Campaign
Entente forces fight the Ottoman Empire for control of the Caucasus
2 November 1914 - 30 October 1918
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
The complex political situation in the Caucasus escalated into a full fledged war when hostilities began between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. After the February Revolution Russia stopped its advance into the Caucasus and signed a treaty with the Turks. Although the Russians withdrew from the conflict fighting continued as Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan declared their independence and fought against the Turks. In the end the Turks were defeated, but neither Armenia, Georgia or Azerbaijan could hold on to their independence: after the conclusion of the Russian Civil War they were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

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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.

Turkey's entry to the war did not merely add another member to the alliance of the Central Powers or another enemy to those the Entente were fighting already. It created a whole new theater of war, actual and potential, drawn in several dimensions: religious and insurrectionary as well as purely military.

The third front opened by Turkey's entry into the war, that in the Caucasus, was by far the most important, both for the scale of the fighting it precipitated and because of the consequences of the fighting. The Ottoman advance into the Russian Caucasus so alarmed the Tsarist high command that it prompted an appeal to Britain and France for diversionary assistance. This led to the campaign of Gallipoli, one of the Great War's most terrible battles but also its only epic.

Despite its initial failure in the Caucasus, which the Ottoman government took care to conceal at home, Turkey's influence on the war continued to ramify. For all its long decline, Turkey remained a menacing military presence in the memory of its neighbors, particularly its European neighbors.

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.

In 1897 only 34 percent of the population was Ukrainian or White Russian; the balance included three major groupings: Georgians (11.6 percent), Armenians (12 percent), and Tatars (16.3 percent). The Georgians were concentrated in the west and center, around Tiflis, and the Tatars to the east around Baku. The Armenians, as in Ottoman Turkey, had no obvious geographical focus, although they did constitute a narrow majority in Yerevan.

Copper, silver, zinc, iron, gold, cobalt, salt and borax were all to be found in the region. In addition to its natural resources, the Caucasus stood on the land route between Europe and Central Asia. Between 1908 and 1914, 70 percent of Persia's exports were routed through Russia.

Between 1878 and 1880, 75,000 Osman Turks were repatriated. Twelve thousand Russian peasant families were settled from elsewhere in the empire. Proportionately, the Muslim population declined. But nationalism, already strong among the Georgians, surfaced along with middle-class intellectualism among the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. The 1905 revolution moderated Russian policy temporarily but sufficiently to increase the foothold of the local independence movements.

In 1907 the Dashnaktsutyun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, formally adopted socialism. In 1912 a secret Azerbaijani organization, Musavat, was formed in Baku. Its public aim was to achieve political equality for all Muslims in Russia, while its private appeal rested on its call for the unification of all Muslim peoples. In the years preceding the war, Russia's policy in the region tightened once again. But nationalism, Islam and socialism, sometimes in conjunction, sometimes separately, threatened the stability necessary for sustained economic growth.

Russian diplomacy in the pre-war years aimed to neutralize and isolate eastern Anatolia, not overrun it. Its expansionism was directed towards Persia. By creating a cordon sanitaire between its own interests and Turkish irredentism, it freed itself for a forward policy in Azerbaijan. The southerly route adopted for the Baghdad railway was the most obvious manifestation of Russian success. In 1911 Germany recognized Russia's sphere of interest in northern Persia, and the two powers agreed that Russia would build the line from Tehran to Khanikin, south of Kirkuk, to link with the Berlin-Baghdad route.

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.

In the case of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but not Turkey, three Caucasian corps were to be used to feed Russia's western front. If Turkey joined the Central Powers, Russia still planned to concentrate in the west, leaving two of the three Caucasian corps to conduct an active defense. The advice from the Russian ambassador in Constantinople was that the Turkish efforts would be directed towards the Balkans.

The Russian viceroy in the Caucasus, Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, an ailing man without military experience, delegated effective command to his deputy, Myshlayevskii. His headquarters constituted a small and able team headed by Nikolai Yudenich. Both the HQ and Myshlayevskii's general reserve were based in Tiflis. The main Russian concentration, I Caucasian corps under General Bergmann, was formed up in the area of Alexandropol-Kars-Sarikamish-Karakurt to guard the approaches from Erzurum to Oltu and Kars. Lesser formations blocked the other main routes across the frontier, at Batum, from Bayazit to Erivan, and from the Persian Azerbaijan. The whole front was 600 km long.

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.

Of Izzet’s two corps, IX corps, based in the Trabzon-Erzurum-Erzincan area, was fully mobilized by virtue of its proximity to the main towns and the sea-lanes of the Black Sea. XI corps, inland at Malatia, Kharput and Van, had more problems, resting on poorer communications and reliant on recalcitrant Kurdish reservists.

Izzet’s staff lacked the necessary knowledge of the country to be able to tell him which routes were accessible and which not, and local lore proved unreliable. His chief of staff, Felix Guse, one of the few Germans in the Third Army, had only recently arrived at Erzurum.

The Caucasus committee, founded in August 1914 by an Ottoman senator, Fuad Pasha, embraced the recognition that independence and nationalism were the goals of all the Caucasian peoples, while trying to harness these forces to Turkish ends by achieving those objectives under Turkish protection. By the winter of 1914, therefore, Enver was having to recognize that the strength of opposition to Russian rule lay in directions which might take the peoples of Turan away from Turkey, not towards it.

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.

The supply and administration of the army, despite the efforts of the German military mission led by General Liman von Sanders, remained dilatory, but the Turkish component of the army made up for shortcomings by its ability to live on very little and to march great distances without complaint.

Turkey's decision to attack Russia in the Caucasus, its attempt against Egypt and its need to find forces to oppose the British expedition to the Tigris and Euphrates, appeared to create a military vacuum in the eastern Mediterranean that could be exploited by those with ambitions on its territory.

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 destruction of the stocks of crude oil and the disruption of production in the region would halt Russia's railways in two to three months, thus causing the collapse of the entire eastern front.

Matchabelli asked the Germans for 50,000 rifles and 5 million rounds. The German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, offered 14,000 outmoded rifles and 1.4 million rounds, but then, owing to the blockage of the Budapest-Bucharest route, could not deliver them.

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.

More than other parts of the Russian Empire, Georgia was uniquely suited to the growth of a strong socialist movement. There was a tradition of radical peasant activism, especially in western Georgia. There was a small but well-educated urban class eager for political modernization. A growing proletariat proved receptive to progressive ideals. A nobility ambivalent toward Russia provided an articulate and wealthy class of patrons.

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.

Russia suffered other defeats on the northern sector, where irregulars ejected several garrisons, and for a time the port of Batum appeared vulnerable. The Grand Duke Nikolai was sufficiently perturbed to ask for an Anglo-French 'demonstration' at the Straits to draw Turkish forces away. However, by the time they responded with the first attempt by warships to force a passage, the crisis in Transcaucasus was long past.

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.

His German advisers were privately sceptical, but failure would not affect the Eastern Front, while success would draw Russians away from it, so they did not try to dissuade him. Izzet Pasha and two of his corps commanders expressed doubts, so Enver dismissed them.

Of the 95,000 Turks engaged, 75,000 met death, wounding, frostbite, or captivity. Of 65,000 Russians, 16,000 were dead and 12,000 wounded or frostbitten.

After Sarikamis the Russo-Turkish front was quiet for almost a year, except for localized campaigns in Persian Azerbaijan in April and around Lake Van in May-June. The Turks were preoccupied with reorganization, the Gallipoli campaign and ethnic cleansing in Turkish Armenia. The Russians could not contemplate an offensive because the Caucasus Army's needs had low priority compared to those of the Eastern Front proper.

Much of the credit for the Russian victory belonged to Mishlaevski's Chief of Staff, General Nikolai Yudenich, who subsequently held command in the Caucasus with great success until the end of Russia's part in the war.

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.

In the spring of 1915 as the Russians approached Lake Van, the region’s Ottoman administrator ordered the execution of five Armenian leaders. The Armenians in Van rose in rebellion, allegedly in self-defense. Within ten days about 600 leading members of the Armenian community had been rounded up and deported to Asia Minor.

In the confused and uncertain situation on the ground, the issue of immediate responsibility for what followed is now almost impossible to unravel. The Ottoman army’s discipline, already weak, was not best served by defeat on the battlefield and inadequate supply arrangements. Looting and pillaging were aids to survival as well as instruments of terror. It was operating in conjunction with Kurds, who were as ready to spill Armenian blood as any Anatolian Turk. Any fears they may have had of an enemy in the rear, not uniformed and ready to operate in an underhand way, did not lack foundation. The best that could be said of the Armenians’ loyalty to the Ottoman Empire was that it was conditional.

Mehmed Talât, the minister of the interior, announced that Armenians living near the war zones would be deported to Syria and Mosul. His justifications for the decree were rooted in the needs of civil order and military necessity, and it was sanctioned by the Ottoman council of ministers. The latter included provisions designed to safeguard the lives and property of those deported. But three days earlier the council had told all senior army commanders that, if they encountered armed resistance from the local population or ‘opposition to orders ... designed for the defense of the state or the protection of public order’, they had ‘the authorization and obligation to repress it immediately and to crush without mercy every attack and all resistance’.

It is impossible to say precisely how many Armenians died. The initial violence was not centrally orchestrated, although it was indirectly sanctioned by the pan-Turkish flourishes of Enver and others. Once it had begun, however, it did provoke the very insurrection that it had anticipated. The violence of war against the enemy on the outside enabled, and was even seen to justify, extreme measures against the enemy on the inside.

The American consul in Erzurum, Leslie Davis, reported in July from Kharput, the principle transit point, that ‘the Turks have already chosen the most pretty from among the children and young girls. They will serve as slaves, if they do not serve ends that are more vile’. He was struck by how few men he could see, and concluded that they had been killed on the road.

Many thousands of Armenians also succumbed to famine and disease. Mortality among the 200,000 to 300,000 who fled to the comparative safety of Russia rose to perhaps 50 percent, thanks to cholera, dysentery and typhus. The Ottoman Empire, a state unable to supply and transport its own army in the field, was in no state to organize large-scale deportations. The Armenians were put into camps without proper accommodation or adequate food.

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.

Serbia's collapse in October and Bulgaria's entry into the war on Germany's side had reopened the land route from Germany to Turkey. German weapons, especially artillery pieces, could now flow unimpeded to the Turks.

The British pleas for help gave the Grand Duke Nikolai an additional reason to act quickly. He approved Yudenich's plan, and the offensive began in early January 1916.

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.

Russian supply services, which included 150 lorries, were superior to their Turkish equivalents. These were entirely dependent on beasts of burden, had few good roads and had been disrupted by deportation or worse of the Armenian conscripts who provided clerical and labor services in the Third Army, and of the Armenian farmers who provided much of its food.

Like Enver's 1914 plan, Yudenich's required the troops to march over high mountain plateaux and ridges in blizzards and deep snow. But unlike Enver's troops, the Russians were adequately equipped and fed, and carefully trained beforehand.

The fortifications of Erzerum comprised 15 forts with about 300 mostly obsolete guns. A ridge, over 9,600 ft (2,900 m) high, between the northern and central forts was presumed impassable, so was neither fortified nor occupied. The Russians moved on to it, but after an entire battalion froze to death they rotated troops so that most spent only a few hours there at a time. The fort system was attacked at several points. Simultaneously the town of Mus on the north-south road was to be captured, to block any Turkish reinforcements or supplies that might be on their way.

The assault began, and after four days the Third Army abandoned Erzerum. The Russians entered the city the next morning, and captured Mus on the same day.

The next phase of Yudenich's plan involved an advance along the Black Sea coast, and was noteworthy for skillfully conducted combined operations using shallow-draft barges to land troops, and the big guns of warships to provide the heavy artillery support that the army lacked elsewhere.

The Turkish Third Army was turned out of several defensive positions along the coast by a combination of naval bombardment and landings of troops behind them. The Russians halted about 30 miles (48 km) east of Trabzon because of faulty intelligence reports that a large Turkish force was in the vicinity, but then resumed the offensive and entered Trabzon.

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 new Russian Provisional Government formally ended the institution of the Caucasus viceroy, replacing it with a special commission. In practice, however, power was vested in an array of local soviets controlled by socialist parties or by self-serving elites who sought to take advantage of the disorder. Virtually overnight, across the Caucasus mayors became ministers, newspaper editors became diplomats, and underground activists stepped into the public arena as would-be presidents and prime ministers.

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.

Leaders in the provinces and districts of the south Caucasus established a Transcaucasus Commissariat — which excluded Bolshevik representation — to serve as a government until the results of the Bolshevik Revolution could be assessed and its impact on the Caucasus fully understood. The Bolsheviks returned the favor: they were now making peace above the heads of the politicians most immediately threatened by the collapse of the Caucasus and Anatolian fronts.

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.

Although Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan spent their brief existence (from 1918 to 1920 and 1921) fending off attacks from all sides, they were nevertheless of critical importance. Not only did they represent the first instance of modern statehood for the south Caucasus — and, in Azerbaijan’s case, the world’s first Muslim parliamentary republic — but they also created rivalries over territory and identity that would return to haunt the new, post-Soviet countries some seventy years later.