By the standards of the Great War, the Turkish army that was encamped near Sardarabad in Eastern Armenia was an after-thought. 13,000 Turkish and Kurdish soldiers, with 40 pieces of heavy artillery (albeit many outdated cannons), sat waiting to continue the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the rapidly disintegrating Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic on May 21st, 1918. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk having effectively broken up the Russian Empire, the fate of the Caucasus lay in a state of political flux, with the Turks, Bolsheviks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians and even Germans vying for a measure of control of the oil-rich region. The political vacuum had emboldened the Turks to invade and the fledging Transcaucasian Republic lacked the resources – and political will – to challenge it. By May of 1918, most of Western Armenia had been conquered and Eastern Armenia looked ripe to fall as well.
The call to defend what remained of Armenia echoed throughout the countryside. “Carts drawn by oxen, water buffalo, and cows jammed the roads bringing food, provisions, ammunition, and volunteers” as thousands of Armenians rallied at the capitol of Yerevan. For the civilians of Yerevan, defeat would not just mean a loss of political independence but very likely the loss of their lives. The Turkish invasion had continued the Ottoman policy of Armenian genocide which had already claimed up to 1.5 million Armenian lives. For in the words of one British historian, if the Armenians failed to stop the Ottoman invasion “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” – Adolf Hitler
The fate of the Armenian people had been part-and-parcel of Europe’s general concern of the treatment of Christian minorities within the Ottoman Empire since the mid-19th Century. Having defended the Ottomans against the Russians, including fighting for the Turks in the Crimean War, Britain and France began to question the relative wisdom of propping up a regime in Constantinople that so plainly repressed the rights of fellow Christians. As subsequent revolts occurred throughout the Ottoman Empire, freeing Christian populations like the Serbs and Greeks, while prompting even greater restrictions and cruelties from the Turks in response, Western Europe began applying pressure to the Ottomans lest they lose support in their wars against the Tsar.
The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 highlighted this dilemma. The Russians had defeated the Turks, gaining Christian populations in Europe and the Caucasus and placing the “Armenian Question” in the forefront of European diplomatic concerns. In the aftermath of their defeat, the Turks had run rampant in their remaining Armenian provinces, killing, raping and converting the populace. Such actions made it politically difficult to support negotiating a removal of Russian forces from Armenian territory. What guarantees could the Turks provide they wouldn’t continue their violence against Armenians in those lands once their temporary Russian protectors had left? The resulting Congress of Berlin gave back Turkey the lands they had lost with only modest, unenforceable language on improving the treatment of Armenians in the treaty. The meaning was lost on no one – the Ottomans had slaughtered thousands of their own civilians following their military defeat and not only had the West given them back most of their territory, but done nothing to hold the Turks accountable for their behavior. As novelist Victor Hugo noted, “If a man is killed in Paris, it is a murder; the throats of fifty thousand people are cut in the East, and it is a question.”
In the spring of 1915, with his armies having been consecutively defeated trying to invade the Russian Caucasus and Persia in a matter of months, Enver Pasha had a culprit – the Armenians. In the decades following the Congress of Berlin, with every major political shift in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had inevitability been blamed and attacked. The Young Turk revolution that neutered the Ottoman monarchy? Armenians were killed as enemies of the revolution. The Balkan Wars? The Armenians were “internal tumors” that needed to be removed lest the Turks lose their Anatolian homeland. The 1913 failed counterrevolution that tried to bring back the monarchy? The Armenians were now too loyal to the Young Turks and thus had to be ethnical cleansed again. Enver was simply reading from a playbook that had served the Turks for nearly 40 years.
Defeat on the battlefield meant the few remaining Armenians in the military could no longer be trusted. Enver transformed all Christian soldiers in the eastern provinces into labor battalions, digging ditches and building roads. Thousands of new labor battalions conscripts were required of Armenians and when the city of Van, home to a near-majority Armenian population, attempted to resist, the local Ottoman commander insisted “I shall kill every Christian man, woman, and” (pointing to his knee) “every child, up to here.” The Turks made good on their threat – 55,000 Armenian civilians, half the Armenian population of Van, were killed in a month-long siege.
Van would become the turning point for both the Ottomans and the Armenians. The Armenians had previously agreed to follow Turkish orders for conscription and the surrender of their weapons, believing that refusing to submit to such orders would be the rationale for further repression. But it was clear the Turks intended to answer the “Armenian Question” once and for all. Thousands of Armenian political figures and intellectuals were rounded up in late April of 1915. Most were executed; some were tortured first until they “confessed” to an empire-wide plot to overthrow the Turkish government. The Turks had their “evidence.” The thousands of former soldiers now placed into labor battalions were killed as enemies of the state. Armenian civilians in eastern Anatolia would be forcibly relocated to the Syrian desert. The head of the Young Turk political party, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), Talaat Pasha, made it plain what the deportations intended to do – it was the “definitive solution to the Armenian Question.”
The Turkish position on the Armenian deportations – then and now – stated that they were justified in the name of national security. But even if one takes such statements at face value, they cannot justify the implementation of the deportations. Villages and cities were emptied, with Armenian property being confiscated. Adult men (really, any male 12 or above) would be separated from the rest and either conscripted or shot. Turkish commanders told their soldiers to “do to [the women] whatever you wish”, resulting in a systematic campaign of rape. Many of those women who survived both the sexual assault and deportation found themselves in Damascus where they were displayed sometimes naked and sold as sex slaves. But relatively few made the journey alive. In one example, 40,000 Armenians were deported out of the city of Erzurum, forced to make their way to the eastern Syrian desert city of Deir ez-Zor. Fewer than 200 arrived.
The deportations were likely intended as death marches, given the lack of food or water that Turkish authorities had prepared. But just because the Ottomans had intended to exterminate the Armenians didn’t mean they were well-organized in doing so. Much of the dirty work was outsourced to other ethnic groups like Chechens or Kurds who viewed the Armenians as allies to the Russians who had equally oppressed and brutalized them. Bodies – evidence of the Turkish campaign – were littered across Anatolia and thousands of the dead were thrown into rivers and canals. Corpses could be found clogging waterways including the Tigris as far south as the Persian Gulf. The scale of the campaign was nearly impossible to conceal and the Turks hardly attempted to hide what they were doing.
Surviving the march was basically trading one hell for another. By the fall of 1915, an estimated 870,000 Armenians had arrived in Syria – only 500,000 would be alive by the time of the next census of the camps at the start of 1916. The camps would be subject to Turkish reprisals and raids from Arab tribes eager to loot what they could. News was spreading of the Turkish atrocities. Even Germany began to criticize their Ottoman ally, informing Taalat Pasha in early 1916 that Berlin fully expected all Armenians to be allowed to return home once the war was over. Taalat responded by moving 200,000 Armenians out of the Deir ez-Zor camps, killing some directly and leaving the rest without food or water to succumb to the elements.
By 1917, there were almost no Armenians left within the Ottoman Empire. An estimated 90% had been killed, deported out of the country, or forcibly converted to Islam. Vast amounts of ink were spilled in the West condemning the Turks, with lofty promises of war crime tribunals for those responsible. No sentences were ever passed. The closest example of justice would come from the assassination of Taalat Pasha in 1921 by an Armenian student in Berlin. The following trial would focus on Taalat’s role in the genocide, bringing to light the extent of the butchery but also hardening relations between the new Turkish Republic and the West.
If the Turks believed they had answered the “Armenian Question” once and for all, the surrender of Russia brought the question back to light. Thousands of Armenians had escaped to Russia or Russian-occupied territories. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had granted the Ottomans key sections of the Russian Caucasus that housed most of those Armenians, but these lands now had their own independence within the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The Republic had been an ad hoc Menshevik creation as Tsarist Russia fell and the neither the Provisional Government nor the following Bolsheviks had much political power to exercise. Coupled with Turkey’s ever-encroaching occupation, the locals need form some kind of government to at least negotiate, leading to the Republic’s formation. But the Transcaucasian Republic lacked any real sense of public support or internal unity, and coupled with the total lack of military forces, the best the Republic could do was repeatedly negotiate surrenders of territory to the Ottomans, who then would follow up those treaties with yet a further invasion, staring the process anew.
The Ottoman invasion of eastern Armenia would be the death knell for the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The group’s Georgian delegation gained German support for independence and left the Republic. In fact, German troops would enter Georgia and in June 1918 would fight alongside their new Georgian allies against the Turks as Germany prized access to oil fields over their Ottoman alliance. Only after suffering casualties at the hands of experienced Germans troops and advisers did the Turks agree, in part, to recognizing Georgia.
Turkey might have found herself losing the larger war effort and diplomatically isolated from even her allies in their Caucasus campaign, but without some military check on their advances, there was no reason to stop advancing. The Georgians and the Azerbaijanis were willing to submit to peace at any price, especially since most of the Ottoman territorial demands would come at the expense of the Armenians. The Armenians would draw a line in the sand at Sardarabad.
While the Armenians would field an army only half the size of the Ottomans, the Turks recklessly advanced, either unaware or indifferent to the presence of Armenian artillery. For the most part, the Turks had advanced in Armenia against unorganized, token opposition. Now confronted with a determined enemy, the Turks resorted to making up stories to their commanders about transports sinking in the river to try and explain away their losses. In a nine-day battle, the Turks and their Kurdish allies lost an estimated 3,500 men – a pittance measured against the deaths on other Great War battlefields, but significant enough to halt the Turkish advance and bring them again to the negotiating table.
The subsequent Treaty of Batum may have been viewed as overly favorable to the Turks, granting them the gains they had received in eastern Armenia and other economic concessions, but the treaty did recognize the now three independent nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. And it meant a chance at survival for the thousands of Armenians who had escaped Turkey’s genocide.