Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, December 29, 2014

100 Years Ago: 29 December — Sarikamiş, Opening Moves in the Caucasus

Sarikamiş, Opening Moves in the Caucasus, December 1914 

(Excerpted from Strategy and Tactics, Issue #290)
By Michael Kihntopf

The Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I in October 1914 when Enver Paşa, the minister of war, ordered the Breslau and the Goeben, newly acquired battle cruisers manned by German and Turkish crews, to shell the south Russian ports of Odessa, Novorossijsk, and Theodosia.  The Russian military commander of the Caucasus took almost immediate action in retribution for the naval attack by marching his ill-prepared army across the border with an objective of capturing the Turkish fortress at Erzerum.  Initially the Russians advanced without making contract until they reached the Arras River on 4 November. The Russians managed to push the Ottoman soldiers back, capturing Köprüköy on 7 November, but their victory was short-lived. On 11 November, Hasan İzzet Paşa, the Turkish commander of the 3rd Army, attacked along both banks of the Arras River with devastating results. By 14 November, the Ottoman divisions threatened encirclement by nearly cutting the Russians off from their Kars-Erzurum retreat route. Only the arrival of the 4th Turkistan Rifle Brigade by rail saved the day. Unsure of how strong the Russians were, the Turkish commander broke off combat, allowing the Russians to retain a 40km-deep salient into Turkish territory. İzzet chose not to press any further action with winter so close.

Turkish Troops in the Caucasus 

Enver did not think in such terms. He envisioned winter as the best time to strike because the Russians would not expect such an attack. Furthermore, intelligence showed him that the Russians had centered their forces along the road leading from Erzurum to Kars with an insecure flank on the north. In that disposition Enver saw an opportunity to recreate the Battle of Tannenberg, where the Germans had so decisively defeated a superior Russian force.

Enver’s plan called for two corps to move around the Russian force’s northern flank while one corps on the Arras River kept the Russians' attention in a diversion. The two encircling corps would capture Sarikamiş, cutting the rail and road routes to Kars, thus isolating those forces on the frontier and destroying them. Enver’s corps would then sweep on to capture Kars and the Caucasian capital at Tiflis. He took this plan to Liman von Sanders, who was the Chief of Staff for the Ottoman Empire’s military.    

Able Russian Commander Nikolai Yudenich Planning an Operation

Sanders saw the plan as too ambitious considering the theater and time of year. The Caucasus in winter was a virtual frozen desert. Snow fell in meters and the mountain slopes the army would negotiate were swept by gale force winds that packed ice crystals. Temperatures dropped to nearly polar levels. Sanders reasoned that soldiers would have to endure some of the worst conditions imaginable. In addition, he said that the timing of the whole operation was too constraining. Enver expected two corps to cover the distance of 60 kilometers in five days at elevations reaching 2000 meters on roads that would be barely discernible because of heavy snows. Enver dismissed Sanders criticism and preferred to listen to other German officers who approved of the plan in order to gain favor. Buoyed by dubious but sincere encouragement, Enver decided to go ahead with the plan. 

Enver’s first act in starting his plan was to relieve the prudent and highly experienced commander of the 3rd Army with himself. He based this decision on the general’s criticism of his plan. Although İzzet saw the plan as doable, he cautioned that the soldiers needed training and practical equipment, a process that would take at least six months.  Enver saw the Russians as vulnerable at that moment and not half a year later. The change in leadership led to the resignation and the forced retirement of the three corps commanders. Nevertheless, 3rd Army began concentrating in early December 1914. Its objective was the Bardiz Pass through Id. From the pass, the corps would move on Sarikamiş. The soldiers would move along primitive roads that reached altitudes of between 1500 and 2000 meters. The way would have been relatively easily passed if it were not that it was subject to ice and snowstorms and driving gale force winds.

Movement began on 20 December. The corps had five days to reach Sarikamiş. The two corps were soon strung out along the roads reaching Sarikamiş in pieces, which allowed the Russians to concentrate their forces for a counterattack that annihilated the Ottoman divisions.

Captured Ottoman Soldiers Under Russian Guard

Turkish forces had begun the campaign with 95,000 soldiers against the Russian 65,000. By the end of the operation on 3 January 1915, the Turks had suffered 75,000 casualties. Out of the 20,000 survivors, 18,000 were part of the XI Corps that had provided a diversion along the Arras River. For the Russians, casualties were just as devastating. They too suffered from the effects of the elements. There were 16,000 killed and wounded with an additional 12,000 victims lost to disease and frostbite. In one unit alone, the Turkistan Rifles Regiment, 700 men out of 2500 were still effectual. As for the leadership, Enver Paşa never again commanded a military operation.

For a detailed description of the Battle for Sarikamiş please refer to the magazine Strategy and Tactics, #290, which is on sale now.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.