In tattered clothes, on frostbit feet, what remained of the Ottoman 3rd Army lumbered down from the mountains around Sarikamish in the Russian Caucuses. 150,000 men had launched the Ottoman Empire’s first offensive of the Great War. An estimated 42,000 had returned, defeated by a combination of Russians, Armenains, frigid temperatures, disease, and overwhelming hubris by their commander. The final death throes of the 3rd Amry on January 17, 1915 would linger for months – even the commanding General of the Ottoman forces in the Caucuses would die, having contracted typhus while touring the battle’s front line.
The “sick man of Europe,” as Tsar Nicholas I had referred to the Ottoman Empire 62 years earlier, had coughed.
Sultan Mehmed V hadn’t wanted to join the Central Powers. In fact, he didn’t want to the join Europe’s war at all.
But the supposed supreme leader of the Ottoman Empire had little say in the matter. The Sultan’s role had significantly shrunk as near centuries of malaise prompted the “Young Turk” revolution of 1908, restoring the Turkish Constitution and Parliament. And the Empire’s repeated defeats in the Balkan Wars just years prior to the Great War, which cost the Ottomans most of their remaining European territory, had prompted yet another coup in 1913 which brought to power a triumvirate of civilian leaders known as “the three Pashas.” Mehmed V was now an afterthought, and after 30 years of semi-solitary confinement in Topkapı Palace, Mehmed hadn’t exactly been groomed to be a political leader. He preferred writing poetry to drafting legislation.
Enver Pasha was more than happy to fill the void. One-third of the “three Pashas,” Enver saw the burgeoning conflict in Europe as a chance to regain lost territories and glories for the Ottoman Empire. Like Germany’s Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Enver hid behind the thin pretext of only being the Empire’s Minister of War while orchestrating an Ottoman entry on the side of the Central Powers. Diplomats elsewhere knew better, half-jokingly referring to the Empire as “Enverland.”
There had been little doubt which side the Ottomans would chose if a war broke out. An Ottoman alliance with the Entente was all but impossible. Russia had been the Ottoman’s implacable enemy for over 340 years – the two empires had already fought 11 wars, one as recently as 1878. Britain had eyed the Ottoman possessions in the Middle East greedily, hoping to expand upon their Egyptian protectorate or at least counter Russian ambitions in Persia. Meanwhile Germany had provided economic and military support to the Ottomans and assisted with the expansion of the famed Orient Express, which connected southern Germany to markets in the Middle East and India.
A victorious Entente would, by Ottoman calculations, eventually divide up the Empire whether Turkey fought with or against them. A victorious Germany, however, might help preserve the Empire from foreign pressures long often for needed reforms to be enacted. The Ottomans signed a secret treaty with Germany (without the Sultan’s signature, prompting some speculation that the treaty was invalid) to declare war on Russia in early August. By October of 1914, the Ottoman navy was shelling Russian ports.
The problem for the Sarikamish Offensive was not the target itself. The province, centered on the chief city and capital of the same name, had been part of the Ottoman Empire for 344 years before Russia annexed it in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. The problems were more fundamental – starting with Enver’s expectations for what an offensive would unlease. Enver envisioned leading a rebellion of Turkic peoples against the Russians. It wasn’t the first time Enver thought in such grandiose terms; he had the Sultan issue a jihad against the Entente at the start of the war, which was largely ignored.
But the Turks faced even more formidable obstacles, beginning with the terrain itself. The Ottoman 3rd 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 worse, 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.
Enver claimed his plan was drawn from the best inspirations of Napoleonic and German military thinking. That Germany’s chief military adviser Otto Liman von Sanders insisted the operation was fruitless didn’t matter. Even the Ottoman commander in charge of the Caucuses, Hasan İzzet, opposed the plan, knowing the difficultly of getting through mountainous passes in winter with troops ill-equipped for such conditions. For his frankness, Izzet was removed just a week before the offensive would commence. Enver would be leading the operation at Sarikamish.
Despite the hurdles, the Ottoman attack made good initial progress. On December 22, 1914 the Ottoman 3rd Army’s 150,000 men hit the Russian Caucasian Army’s 65,000 troops, still bloodied from their November fiasco. The Ottoman XI Corps pinned down the Russian front line as the IX Corps and the X Corps made their way around the Russian Army’s flanks. Within the first three days of the Sarikamish Offensive, the Turks had progressed 50 miles into Russian territory – remarkable considering how few Ottoman troops were dressed for the conditions – and were now turning the Russian flanks. The Russian Caucasian Army looked to soon be surrounded.
Enver’s wildly ambitious plan had met early success – a tremendous credit to his troops. But the cost of marching in the frigid mountains sapped his men’s strength quickly. Recognizing the limits of the XI Corps’ endurance, Ottoman commanders halted the offensive to give their men time to rest. No longer pressed on the front lines, the Russians immediately retreated to Sarikamish itself, joined by reinforcements who had just arrived by rail. The encirclement had failed and now the Russians were at near parity with the Ottomans in terms of the number of troops engaged.
By the start of 1915, the Russians struck at the individual Ottoman wings as the XI Corps, at the center of the front line, struggled to keep up, leaving the IX and X Corps exposed. Harassed by local Armenian guerrillas recruited by the Russians, Ottoman troops found themselves unable to get reinforcements or even communicate between the three Corps of the 3rd Army. Col. Hafiz Hakki, Enver’s brother-in-law and one of the Corps commanders, knew by January 2nd that the offensive had failed and that the entire 3rd Army was now in danger. But Enver refused to acknowledge his error, wiring Hakki that “the offensive is to go on at full strength.”
By January 6th, the 3rd Army’s headquarters was under attack. Three entire Ottoman divisions had surrendered. The reinforcements that the 3rd Army had been counting on did arrive from Constantinople on the Black Sea, but the troop transports were promptly sunk by Russian warships. Hakki, finding himself one of the few high level officers still alive or not captured, ordered a general retreat. In reality, the retreat had already occurred, with the surviving troops crossing the border to find Enver and his German advisers awaiting them. 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.”
The scale of the defeat horrified the rest of the Central Powers. Ottoman casualties were difficult to pin down, with estimates as high as 90,000 killed and 50,000 taken prisoner – many of the survivors were 3rd Army reinforcements and not part of the original invasion force. Col. Hafiz Hakki was promoted to General and given the command of the entire Ottoman Caucuses – and died just weeks later from typhus, which had already claimed the lives of thousands of Ottoman soldiers.
The Russians, reeling just weeks earlier, lost perhaps as few as 16,000 men (one estimate had the number as high as 30,000). Nevertheless, as one German officer attached to the army wrote later, the Ottoman 3rd Army had “suffered a disaster which for rapidity and completeness is without parallel in military history.”
Still, if defeat concerned the Central Powers, victory hadn’t allayed the fears of the Entente. The Allies had assumed the Ottomans weren’t capable of offensive action. Coupled with a failed Ottoman attack against the Suez Canal just weeks after Sarikamish, the Entente now believed the Ottomans needed to be driven out of the war. Defeating the Turks would lessen the pressure on the Russians, open up the Straits and allow the Tsar’s troops to be easily supplied, plus possibly bring in Bulgaria and Greece on the side of the Entente (both were former Ottoman territories) and open up a southern front against Germany and Austria. The ashes of Sarikamish proved fertile soil for the seeds of Gallipoli.
Sarikamish would have another lasting impact on the Great War. Enver blamed the defeat on the Armenian volunteer troops that fought for the Russians; increasing Ottoman fears that the Empire’s own Armenian population might rise up in revolt. The Armenians had been simmering for decades following several massacres during the 1890s, and a proposed peace summit in July of 1914 had only served to push the Armenians towards a policy of alliance with Russia in hopes of annexation. Defeat at Sarikamish provoked an immediate Ottoman crackdown.
Within months, the Armenian genocide would begin.