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.
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.