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.
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.
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 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.