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.

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