Category Archives: Caucasian Front

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

28 MARCH, 1916: Infested Waters

A few weeks back, while chatting about a Russian offensive on the Caucasian Front (16 February, 1916: The Walrus in Winter), I mentioned operations along the Black Sea coast.  It occurred to me then that I hadn’t been giving the Black Sea the attention it deserved, given that it was a war zone from the autumn of 1914 until after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 – so I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back there, and here it is.

On 28 March 1916, Russian torpedo boats in the Black Sea destroyed a Turkish munitions depot and ten merchant ships (most of them sailing craft).  Though this was a bumper haul and received some publicity in the Allied press, it had no great significance for either the Black Sea or the War in general, but it does sum up the first 18 months of the campaign quite nicely.  I’ll try and do the same.

I’ll start with why the Black Sea was a war zone, and a map (stolen, and used before) makes it fairly obvious.

Ottoman-Empires-rail-system-1914-1024x890The Russian and Ottoman Empires had been competing for decades to control the Caucasus region, and Russia’s ultimate territorial fantasy had long been to break into the Mediterranean by seizing the Dardanelles Straits, so the Black Sea was a natural area of contest and both sides had plans for a naval campaign before 1914.

They were modest plans. The Turkish Navy had been undergoing rapid expansion, but was still desperately short of modern warships and could barely cover its commitments in the Mediterranean, while the bigger, more modern Russian Navy was primarily concerned with defending St. Petersburg from German warships in the Baltic. Both sides therefore envisaged an essentially defensive campaign in the secondary theatre of the Black Sea, focused on disrupting the other’s supply routes, and the Russians expected – with some justification – to dominate proceedings.

Russian prospects looked even better when, on the outbreak of war in August 1914, the British government decided to hold on to the two modern dreadnoughts it was building for Turkey – but a few days later the Turkish Navy suddenly acquired two modern German warships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau.  They weren’t as big, powerful or deterrent as dreadnoughts, but once renamed (as the Yaviz Sultan Selim and the Midilli) and deployed in the Black Sea they were the fastest ships in the theatre, and only Russia’s five slow, pre-dreadnought battleships could match the Goeben‘s firepower.

The captain of the Goeben, Wilhelm Souchon, was nominally under Turkish command but – like ‘military advisers’ as we know them today – was actually working for Berlin and committed to pursuing German strategic interests.  In control of what was, for now, the region’s ultimate deterrent, its big guns an obvious threat to Constantinople, he enjoyed considerable autonomy and exerted an understandably powerful influence on Ottoman naval policy.  Once Turkey was committed to joining the Central Powers, at the end of October 1914, Souchon’s priority was distraction of Russian forces from other fronts, and he secured navy minister Djemal Pasha’s agreement to announce Turkey’s belligerent status by leading a surprise raid on the Russian naval bases at Odessa and Sevastopol.

The attack failed to do any lasting damage to ships or facilities, but it did convince the Russians to deploy their old battleships as a defensive unit.  During the next few months they operated only as a group and, apart from an inconclusive, 14-minute skirmish in November, the threat of their combined guns was enough to keep Goeben at bay.   Major warships on the both sides undertook occasional sorties as coastal raiders or escorts, but avoided each other, and the campaign quickly developed a pattern similar to that emerging in the Baltic.  Largely fought by small craft, it centred on disruption of enemy supply lines with minefields, backed by nuisance attacks on enemy coastal installations or harbours.

With more ships, better ships and better crews (their training much improved since a lousy performance against Japan in 1904–05), the Russians held the advantage from the start.  They had already laid more than 4,000 mines in the Black Sea by Boxing Day 1914, when the Goeben hit two of them and suffered serious damage.  The Ottoman Empire didn’t have a shipyard big enough to handle the Goeben, so repairs took months rather than weeks.  Although able to limp out for brief escort missions in February and March, by way of keeping the Russian fleet cautious, the battlecruiser was not fully operational until May 1915, and by then nothing an increasingly frustrated Souchon could do was going to shake Russian dominance.

Most Russian minelaying and commerce raiding – by destroyers, submarines and torpedo boats – was concentrated on the port of Zonguldak, some 200km east of the Bosphorus and the sole entry point for vital Turkish coal imports.  By the middle of the year the Turks had lost dozens of colliers, and before its end coal supplies had been effectively throttled, creating fuel shortages all across an Ottoman war effort heavily distracted by the demands on land and sea of the Gallipoli campaign.

While Russian strength was steadily reinforced by new destroyers and submarines, and Russian raids on the Turkish coast were a regular occurrence throughout 1915, the Turkish Navy lost a cruiser during its only coastal raid of the year, in April, and lost the Breslau for seven months after it hit a mine off Constantinople in July.   The first of Russia’s new dreadnoughts, the Imperatrica Maria, reached the Black Sea at about the same time, and in theory its arrival cemented Russian dominance of the theatre – but in practice it made little difference at first.

Like its counterparts all over the world, the Russian Navy didn’t like taking risks with dreadnoughts, or for that matter with any other big, expensive ships.   Although Berlin ignored most of Souchon’s incessant calls for reinforcements in the Black Sea, two German U-boats had been sent there in the early summer, and the threat was enough to prompt a Russian ban on all offensive operations by major units from June.   With more U-boats expected (six had arrived by March 1916) the ban stayed in force until October, and when Russian offensive patrols resumed they took few risks.

The arrival of the second Russian dreadnought, Imperatrica Ekaterina II, in December didn’t immediately change anything.  With the blockade of Turkish coal supplies running smoothly, and the Ottoman Navy less and less of an offensive threat,  the campaign was still dominated by the ‘mosquito’ warfare of smaller craft into early 1916 – but by March the Russian Black Sea fleet was in the process of finding a new role.  On 4 March, Russian fleet units supported troop landings on the Black Sea coast at Atna, and in April they would perform the same task on a larger scale as General Yudenich took the major port city of Trabzon.

In a theatre complicated by Bulgaria’s alliance with Central Powers in late 1915 and Romania’s in mid-1916, the minelaying and raiding of commerce war would  continue and intensify, but from now on the Russian fleet would also perform an important army support role, transporting and landing thousands of troops during the next two years.  The turkey shoot enjoyed by Russian torpedo boats in late March was just a small propaganda event at the time, but with hindsight it was the firework display that marked the end of the campaign’s first phase.

I’ll finish with a tease of a ‘what if’.  In May 1915, just before fear of U-boats triggered a burst of caution, the Russian high command toyed with sending the Black Sea fleet into the Bosphorus to support the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles. The idea was soon dropped (as unlikely to make much difference to the disaster brewing on Gallipoli), but if imagining where we’d be with a different history floats your boat, have fun picturing the twentieth century with Russian warships all over the Mediterranean.

16 FEBRUARY, 1916: The Walrus In Winter

A month ago I mentioned that European weather in January 1916 was weirdly warm, but that exploiting it with any serious offensive action was beyond the military technology and orthodoxies of the day.  By mid-February, northern and western Europe were well into an almost equally extraordinary spell of wet weather, destined to last another week or so before a fall in temperatures signalled an unusually cold, wet March.  On the Western Front, where major offensives by both sides were still in preparation, weather conditions presented no more than a logistic nuisance – but soggy ground, mud and freezing cold were about to have their day in France and Belgium… and how.

So spare a small, forgiving thought for contemporary leaders when, amid the appalling carnage that took place on the Western Front in 1916,  the heritage lines get clogged with contemptuous dismissals of their idiocy.  Bad ideas, badly executed by bad generals were a problem by 1916, but commanders were not only dealing with a form of mechanised warfare that was still in the experimental stages, and working with unprecedented numbers of lightly trained, inexperienced troops, they were doing it under conditions created by one of the strangest winters in European history.

A little further south, on the alpine front between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, the weather was essentially normal for the time of year, that’s to say wintry, unpredictable and unsuited to fighting.  Both sides were still in recovery from the four fruitless offensives launched by the Italians in the Isonzo valley during 1915, but while Austro-Hungarian forces were being reinforced for a future attack on positions further west, in the Trentino region, Italian commander Cadorna was preparing his battered troops for yet another Isonzo assault.

Nobody has much good to say about General Cadorna’s long, ugly campaign on the Italian Front, and quite right too, but in February 1916 even he deserved some sympathy.  Italy had entered the War bent on territorial gain but in no economic condition to fight it, and was dependent from the start on Allied promises of military and economic aid.  Nine months on, with public and press criticism of the military campaign mounting and urban food shortages becoming serious, Allied aid had become critical to national survival but was delivered only on the condition that the Italian government did exactly as Britain and France asked.  In December 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, Italy had of course agreed that any Allied offensive should be supported by attacks on other fronts, so once Haig and Joffre had finalised their plans for offensives on the Western Front, Cadorna had no choice about mounting an attack. Given the requirement to do so quickly, he had little practical choice about its general location.

Elsewhere, the Eastern Front was still paralysed by winter, Salonika was inert, British plans for an advance into Palestine were still brewing, and the Mesopotamian campaign was locked around the siege of General Townshend’s troops in Kut.  In Africa, German Cameroon had just reached the end of the line, and in German East Africa a new South African commander, Jan Smuts, was preparing a major British offensive against General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s resolute defence.  In other words, the First World War was under starters orders for the year… unless you were in Armenia.

When I last gave the Caucasian Front its due (15 August, 1915: No Silver Lining), it lay fallow while both sides were busy elsewhere – Ottoman armies at Gallipoli, Russian coping with German advances on the Eastern Front.  West of the front line, remaining Ottoman authorities then spent the latter part of 1915 attempting to wipe out the Armenian people, while on the eastern side Russian General Yudenich could only hold his positions until the high command provided sufficient reinforcements for an attack.  The vast improvement in Russian industrial output, as discussed back in June, meant that by the end of the year Yudenich had built up a force of some 300,000 troops, including reserves.  This outnumbered Ottoman forces at the front by at least three to one and Yudenich, aware that reinforcements were on their way from Gallipoli, chose to launch an offensive before they arrived.

On 10 January, in deep snow, Yudenich launched his advance into Armenia with preliminary attacks all along the front. Ottoman forces, most of them still in winter camp, were taken by surprise, and a week later the Russians broke through the lines at Köprukoy, inflicting some 25,000 casualties but failing to surround the rest of the Turkish Third Army, which retreated into the reputedly impregnable fortress city of Erzurum.

By the end of the month Russian forces had besieged Erzurum, and a century ago today, on 16 February 1916, the garrison surrendered, giving up some 13,000 prisoners and 350 (largely obsolete) artillery pieces.  Two days later, a secondary advance to the south took the town of Mus.  All this deserves a map, but as I’ve mentioned before the Internet is a little short on remotely comprehensible maps of the Caucasian Front, so this is the best I can do:

400px-Russian-Caucas-Front-1916
You’ll just have to work this one out for yourselves…

The fall of Erzurum and Mus ended the first phase of a genuinely successful campaign. Alone among senior Russian commanders at the time, Yudenich understood the concentration and reserve strength needed to achieve a breakthrough, knew how to take enemies by surprise and was open to innovation. Crucially, he also recognised the inherent dangers of over-extension that had been ruining grand offensive plans since 1914, and pursued strictly limited objectives. Better yet, because regional commander Grand Duke Nikolai was busy with factional intrigue in far off Tbilisi, Yudenich was left to get on with being a good general without interference from Stavka.

Having caught the Turks unawares and under strength, and broken through their lines, Yudenich made no attempt to exploit the victory by sweeping onward into the heart of Turkey, as the likes of Ludendorff would surely have done (and as British commanders in Palestine were hoping).  Instead he sprung another surprise by turning his armies northwest from 22 February, and using naval landings to occupy Black Sea coastal positions before taking Trabzon in April.

In the summer, Yudenich expanded his area of control with an attack west of Erzurum, advancing the front line some 150km and taking the town of Erzincan in late July.  The advance nipped most of a planned Turkish offensive in the bud, and although the Ottoman Second Army did advance at the southern end of the front to take Bitlis in August, Russian counterattacks had recovered all the lost ground by the end of the month.  At that point, aware that the theatre was of secondary importance to Stavka and unlikely to be heavily reinforced, Yudenich cashed in his chips and spent the rest of the year consolidating his gains.

The long-term strategic importance of the Erzurum Offensive is debatable, given that the collapse of both competing empires made it irrelevant to the political future of Armenia, but in the short term it did protect at least some of the region’s population from the further predations of genocide-inclined Ottoman officials.  Its main claim to fame, or at least to my interest, is that (with the qualification that it benefitted from some very poor defending by ill-equipped Ottoman forces) it can honestly be called efficient and successful, which is more than you can say for anything else attempted by the major powers since the autumn of 1914.

Yudenich was not the only general to have begun solving the offensive conundrum posed by the state of the military-technological world in early 1916.  Australian General Monash had, for instance, been learning similar lessons on a smaller scale in the cauldron of Gallipoli.  For now though, they were voices in the wilderness, drowned out by the sweeping strategies of leaders desperate to end the agony with one killer blow.  It would be another two years before the pragmatic good sense of their step-by-step approach to victory would find much general acceptance, and that, as history’s grim statistics record, was a terrible shame.

5 AUGUST, 1915: No Silver Lining

A year in, and I’m going for a slight change of approach, partly because some of the tasks I’ve set myself turn out to be a bridge too far for someone with a life – Big Guns spring to mind – and partly because the initial impetus behind this extended rant is becoming less and less pertinent. I started blogging in an attempt to provide some small antidote to the crass, partial and tabloid reporting of the War provided by the British commemorative industry, but the heritage business has, in its market-driven way, moved on.

The Blessed BBC is still plugging away with a commemorative effort, and is at least managing some kind of global approach, albeit predicated on the modern idea that emotion and information are one and the same. The broadsheet newspapers are still providing the occasional discussion of events that changed the world a hundred years ago, and their very few readers can at least rely on a degree of expertise from correspondents. The tabloid press has lost interest in anything but ‘human interest’ horror stories, and the Anglophone Internet is still pouring out a torrent of bare facts, Top-Gear-style military talk for boys and patriotic jingoism for the benefit of those interested enough to go looking. Very little if any of it is having much impact on the public at large, and so there’s not much left to correct or criticise.

Instead I plan to concentrate on making the one big point nobody else seems much concerned to emphasise: that the modern world was shaped by First World War, and that no single event in human history, including the Second World War, can match its power to explain how we live today. That should, in theory, mean less military detail and more sweeping generalisations, less justification of my opinions and more accessible one-liners by way of expression. So here’s a quick look at the Battle of Malazgirt, an action that means nothing to most British people, but that helped define the future of the vast, near-eastern region known as the Caucasus.

A hundred years ago today, Russian General Yudenich, a commander making a solid reputation for efficient defensive warfare using very limited resources, launched a counterattack intended to halt a limited Turkish offensive on the Caucasian Front. The offensive had been ordered by Turkey’s disastrously ambitious war minister, Enver Pasha, to clear Ottoman Armenia of Russian forces.

The advance had begun on 10 July. Despite interference from Armenian nationalists and a lack of manpower made more acute by diversion of troops to the Gallipoli Front, it had made some progress, forcing Russian forces around Lake Van to retreat to the north and east. Ottoman units took the town of Mus on 27 July, with grim consequences for its Armenian population, and were ordered into further advance, in spite of problems caused by long, feeble supply lines, but in line with the optimism and opportunism that characterised Enver’s approach to warfare.

Yudenich drew the attackers forward and gathered what reserves he had before counterattacking on 5 August, directing his main thrust against the Ottoman northern flank at the Plain of Malazgirt and backing it with secondary attacks all along the line. The Turkish offensive collapsed into headlong and costly retreat, but Yudenich was losing troops to a simultaneous crisis on the Eastern Front and in no position to exploit the victory. By late August the front had stabilised along a sparse and broken line east of Rize, Erzerum and Bitlis.  I realise this would be clearer with a map, or at least with transliterations of the place names involved, but there are no decent maps to be had and far too many transliterations, so anyone that interested should consider it a research challenge.

So what? So that was the end of Enver Pasha’s offensive ambitions in the Caucasus for a year, and the Russians were in no position to launch another offensive in the area until early 1916. The breathing space enabled those Turkish forces still occupying the bulk of modern Armenia to continue and expand the attempted genocide known as the Armenian Massacres, and that consequence of renewed stalemate on the Caucasian Front is still a live, dangerous issue in the region.

8 APRIL, 1915: Wars Within War

In a world riddled with national, ethnic and religious divisions, big wars can serve as a convenient cover story for smaller ones. That was as true in 1915 as it is in 2015. A few months into what we call the First World War (and off the top of my head), the merry-go-round of the Balkan Wars was still spinning, Japan was still pursuing its war of conquest with China and the Boers of South Africa were still fighting the British Empire. Meanwhile the diplomatic desperation of warring European powers was stoking warlike rivalries all across the globe – from Greek territorial disputes with Turkey to the naval arms race among South American republics – and the distractions of their masters were encouraging ethnic, national or religious have-nots to rise for their causes within empires great and small.

For one particular set of rebellious have-nots, the Armenians of the Caucasian region in northeastern Turkey, 8 April 1915 marked the beginning of a terrible end. On that day, the Ottoman Army and government began enforced deportations of Armenians from the Caucasus, officially inaugurating a series of measures that have been variously and controversially described as genocide or simple resettlement, but are generally known in Western Europe as the Armenian Massacres.

According to neutral estimates, between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were living in Ottoman Turkey at the start of the War, and another million or so were living across the frontier with Russia. Unlike their traditional enemies, the Kurds, and other large ethnic minorities inside the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had no recognised homeland, but the majority were scattered near the Russian border. The Russian Empire had been encouraging a surge in Armenian nationalism since the turn of the century, arming and supplying a number of minor revolts before 1914, and trouble erupted in the region after the Ottoman government refused demands for an Armenian national congress in October 1914.

Most moderate Armenian leaders fled to Bulgaria at this point, but the more extreme nationalists crossed the frontier and formed a rebel division using Russian equipment. This force invaded in December, and killed an estimated 120,000 non-Armenians in an extended rampage around the northeastern Caucasus while Ottoman forces were busy preparing and carrying out their own offensive into Russia. As the campaigning season of 1915 got underway on the Caucasian Front, armed Armenian rebels were still at large in the frontier zones and the Ottoman government in Constantinople, with some justification, regarded the region’s Armenians in general as solidly pro-Russian. The deportations that began on April 8 were intended to clear the battlefront of hostile elements.

Armenians in the Russian Army, fighting the mutual enemy.

Whether or not the government intended this as the beginning of an attempt at genocide – a matter of searing controversy to this day, and not something I’m fit to judge – that’s essentially what happened. By June all non-Muslim civilians were required by law to take up ‘duties’ near the Empire’s battlefronts, but this was doublespeak for relocation to areas under firm military supervision, and exemptions effectively restricted the order to Orthodox and Protestant Armenians in the Caucasus. Deportations continued until late 1916, and deportees were often appallingly treated. Many were given only hours to prepare for long journeys without transport or protection to resettlement regions that were usually infertile or poorly supplied. Thousands of Armenians died of starvation or exposure, thousands more were killed by hostile (usually Kurdish) tribesmen, and there is no doubt that at least some Ottoman officials colluded in the slaughter in search of a ‘final solution’ to the Armenian question.

At least some Ottoman soldiers were quite happy to pose with their victims.

This particular small and nasty war swiftly became part of the wider War as news of the deportations was released through Armenian contacts with the Western press, especially strong in the USA. Entente propaganda went on to claim that the ‘massacres’ had killed a million Armenians, while the Ottoman regime blamed supply and transport shortages for 300,000 deaths. Modern estimates put the figure at around 600,000, but are essentially a matter of educated guesswork. The same is true of the numbers killed in subsequent ethnic warfare around a fluctuating Caucasian Front, which resumed in 1917 and continued into 1918, and of the thousands more who died trying to return to their homes after an exhausted Ottoman regime and a new Armenian Republic signed the Treaty of Batum on 24 May 1918.

The Massacres were big news in the States, and still are.

The Armenian Massacres, or whatever you want to call them, are hardly forgotten history, ongoing controversy about numbers and motives has seen to that.  But if you’re inclined to dismiss the catastrophe as a footnote to the First World War, it’s probably worth remembering that overall Armenian casualties in this nasty war within a war were on a very similar scale to those suffered by the entire British Empire.

18 NOVEMBER, 1914: The Forgotten Front

A hundred years ago today, an Ottoman army began advancing eastward from the Anatolian city of Erzurum.  This was the opening move of a six-year war on what is known as the Caucasian Front, initially fought between the Ottoman and Russian Empires for control of the region.

Unless you’ve studied the First World War in some detail, or spent time in the area now covered by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, you may not have heard of the Caucasian Front.  And I’m guessing the British heritage media aren’t planning to make it a big part of the commemoration extravaganza, so here’s a beginners’ guide to where it was and why it was a war zone.

The area known as the Caucasus is the strip of land, south and west of the Caucasian Mountains, that separates the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea.  Some 400 kilometres across, it has obvious strategic value as a trade route and is rich in natural resources, particularly oil. Like that other great international through-route, the Balkans, the Caucasus began the twentieth century as a patchwork of ethnic groupings and would-be independent states under the control of wider empires, in this case the Russian Empire to the north and east, the Ottoman to the south and west.  In 1914 this frontier zone represented the least complicated opportunity for either empire to indulge in territorial expansion.  Here’s a map, not perfect but the best I could steal at short notice and, of course, removable on request.

Ottomon_invasion

From a Russian perspective, control of the Caucasus was a necessary first step towards the Empire’s ultimate aim of controlling the Dardanelles Straits and entering the Mediterranean.  Since Russia’s defeat by Japan in the war of 1904–05, expansion into western Europe had been the watchword in St. Petersburg.  Although strategic thinking was principally focused on the prospect of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and care was taken to maintain reasonably good relations with Constantinople, plans had been laid by 1914 for a land invasion of the Caucasus in conjunction with a naval offensive in the Black Sea.  Advanced army bases on the frontier had been established at Kars and Ardahan, while Russian agents were busy across the border, equipping Armenian nationalists for revolt against Ottoman rule.

In Constantinople, the ambitious, militarist Young Turk government had been in power since 1909, promoting a pan-Turkish movement that demanded territorial expansion.  This was hardly feasible in the Balkans or the Middle East, where the Ottoman Empire was crumbling rather than growing, and that just left the land south of the Caucasian Mountains.  By 1914 pan-Turkish expansionism had found expression in a rising tide of hostility towards Armenians and a wealth of contacts with ethnic Turkish groups living inside the Russian Empire.

The outbreak of war between the empires in late October 1914 triggered border skirmishes during the following days, but Turkish frontline troops soon retreated into the hills while war minister Enver Pasha prepared an ‘Eastern Army’ for a major offensive from Erzurum, a task slowed by the lack of a railway system in the region. Russian forces, smaller and denied major reinforcement by the demands of the Polish campaign further north, restricted offensive operations to providing support for an Armenian rebel division that crossed the frontier in mid-November.  As the Turkish invasion force began its advance on 18 November, under Enver’s personal command, the rebel division exploited the lack of troops left behind to embark on a campaign of raids against non-Armenians and slaughter an estimated 120,000 civilians during the months that followed.

The Turkish invasion, aimed at Kars and Ardahan, achieved its initial objective by forcing the Russians to come out of and fight, but that was all.  In worsening weather conditions, compelled to use predetermined routes through passable valleys, short of ammunition and supplies (most of which were delivered by peasant women on foot), and distracted by rebel activities to their rear, Enver’s two armies inched forward.  The force attacking Ardahan became hopelessly bogged down and never reached its target, and although the southern wing was approaching Kars by Christmas it was routed by defenders around the eastern Anatolian town of Sarikamish and forced into retreat.  The Russians, still too weak to mount a serious counter-invasion, edged their way into forward positions across the frontier, and the Caucasian Front’s opening campaign petered out into stalemate.

Offensives and counter-offensives would crisscross the region until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, and rebel activity inside Turkish Armenia would be answered by genocidal Ottoman countermeasures known to the world as the Armenian Massacres. After 1917, a power vacuum would leave the region in turmoil, as Armenian, Georgian and Azerbiajani nationalists sought to establish an independent republic of Transcaucasia, only to descend into border disputes of their own.  Fighting continued to plague the front as post-War Turkish and Soviet regimes continued to press their claims, and finally came to a stop in 1920, when they partitioned the region between them.

So, millions died and a geopolitical hotspot was devastated, violently reshuffled in ways that still trouble us today.  The Caucasian Front may be forgotten by most westerners and ignored by their commemorative industries, but it mattered and made a real difference, not just to the peoples it scarred at the time but to the wider world we live in now.  Let’s keep an eye on it for the next few years.