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The Russian Invasion of Turkey in World War 1

The core of the Ottoman Empire, which now constitutes the country of Turkey, straddled some of the most important trade and invasion routes of Europe and the Middle East. To the west of the country, lay the Dardanelles which gave the Ottoman’s control over access to the Black Sea. To the South East, Turkey controlled the Holy Land and Syria. And to the North East, the Ottoman Empire controlled the important routes into the Caucasus and the Southern flank of the Russian Empire.

Russian Cavalry Advancing Into Turkey, 1916

These territories were both a boon and a weakness for the Ottomans and their allies. On the one hand it gave the Ottomans the ability, at least in theory, to project their forces into some of the most important theaters of operation of World War 1. But in practice, systemic weaknesses in the Ottoman command and control, logistics, and troop quality meant that in fact, these areas were used as invasion routes into the Ottoman Empire by its enemies. The Caucasus proved to be one of the weak points of the Ottoman Empire, and was used by the Russians to penetrate deep into the Turkish territory.

The Russian successes against the Ottomans were in stark contrast to their failure on the main Eastern front facing the Germans and the Austrians.

Below is an account adapted and translated from a French article chronicling the Russian advance into Turkey in 1916.

In the Caucasus, the Russian troops commanded by the Grand Duke Nicolas
returned to fight against the Turks. Neither the formidable difficulties of the terrain, or
the deep snow, nor cold which reached 26 degrees below zero, nor the obstinacy of the Turkish resistance, could not stop the army entrusted by the Grand Duke to General Yudenich.

Victorious at Kuprikeni the Russian army now rushed to the vast fortress of Erzerum. On 15 February 1916, the central fortifications of Erzurum were taken. The next day,
after a hand to hand fight that made rivers of blood run in the streets, the
whole place was falling. The Russians had taken the first nine forts of the town and had penetrated into the city but had not surrounded it. This was the same method used by the
Germans in Liege and Novogeorgievsk.

Kurdish Cavalry in the Service of the Ottoman Empire, World War 1

Erzerum Arx-er-Roumi (literally the “Citadel of the Romans” as this had been an important fortress even back in the days of the Byzantines), was the master key to Eastern Anatolia.. The fortress rises at the intersection of two main roads, one running from
Araks in the valley of the western Euphrates, and one that runs from the port of Trebizond on Black Sea to the great Persian city of Tabriz. The fall of this fortress sent shock waves throughout the whole world, and could have borne great fruit if only the Russian leadership had been more competent and able to exploit this success.

After the fall of the great fortress, the Russians attacked the port of Trebizond on the Black Sea, which fell on April 17, 1916. With the port now under their control, the Russians could send reinforcements and supplies by sea. The Ottoman Turk divisions which had invaded Persia (Iran) found themselves cut off from supply and had to withdraw.

Ottoman Turkish Infantry

However the allies did not meet with success everywhere. To the south a British army was under siege at Baghdad by superior Ottoman forces. Attempts to break the siege by the British advancing from the south and by the Russians from the south failed at the British defenders in Baghdad had to surrender.

Nevertheless by the summer of 1916 the Russians had resumed their offensive. Now they had to combat the summer heat and flies in addition to the Ottomans. On July 16, the Russians entered Baïbourd; on July 25 they took Erzincan. Thus, the entire high Armenian plateau belonged to the Russians. From there the Russians were in a position to seize Kurdistan and Lazistan. The Ottoman empire was crumbling.

Realizing the existential threat posed by the Russian advance, the Ottomans regrouped and organized a counter offensive with 27 divisions, reinforced by German offices sent to lead the Ottoman troops. The Ottoman attack failed and soon turned into a rout.

The Turks were forced to evacuate their front line
trenches before Erzindjan. At the same time, they were driven out of the mountains
south of Mush. Most serious still: in the direction of Baghdad, they
retreated hastily abandoning their equipment, thereby increasing their
disarray. In a rage, the Ottoman troops assassinated the German Marshall  von der Goltz, whom they blamed for the defeat.

This defeat only compounded the Ottoman Empire’s difficulties as it was faced with military demands beyond its powers to meet. In order to suppress the Arab revolt which had taken over Mecca, the Ottomans were forced to deploy 9 divisions. It had to maintain another 11 divisions on its European front. In addition combat raged in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and in Palestine.

Although Turkey possessed vast reservoirs of manpower, limited resources only allowed it to train and equip relatively small armies, even as it faced the combined strength of the British and French empires on multiple fronts. Turkey was beginning to unravel.