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

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Russia's Caucasian Army: A Record of Achievement

Russian trenches in the Forests of Sarikamish

An assessment of the operations of the Caucasian Army from November 1914 to November 1916 produces a very different picture from that usually derived from studies of the Russian Imperial Army's battles in World War I. Unlike Central Europe, the record in Transcaucasia was one of a string of major victories, only occasionally disrupted by minor reverses. The extent of these victories is clear from statistics that demonstrate that of the 400,000 casualties suffered by the Turks between November 1915 and March 1917, no fewer than 300,000 were lost in fighting the Russians.

General Nikolai Yudenich Was
a Superb Commander Under
Grand Duke Nicholas
Some may suggest that this record of victories reflects the fact that conditions were somewhat different in the Caucasus from those in Europe or that the Turks were less worthy opponents than the Germans. Indeed, it is true that the Pan-Turkic and Pan-Islamic movements provided, at least initially, an ideological element that was lacking elsewhere in Europe. Furthermore, this at times also fueled guerrilla movements (Adzhar, Laz, and Kurd) that were largely absent in Europe during World War I.

Trench warfare was as prevalent in the Caucasus as in Europe, and the Caucasian Front was geographically constricted in a manner not unlike the Anglo-French Western Front. Yet, as in the Alps and Balkans, the associated problems were magnified by the defensive advantages provided by the rugged, broken terrain. Bitter winters with heavy snows and freezing temperatures had a similar impact. So did the miserable communications (which Yudenich worked manfully to improve) that plagued soldiers at all levels in this narrow and constricted, mountainous theater. As for "Johnny Turk," he was easily as tenacious, skillful and courageous as his "Hun" counterpart, as the British learned to their cost at Kut and Gallipoli. Apart from the visionary Enver Pasha, the same is true of many Turkish officers who, in many cases, were seconded by experienced German advisors.

Russian Troops Operating in the Mountains of Armenia

There was evidence of war-weariness in all armies by January 1917, but in the end it was the Ottoman Caucasian armies that seemed on the verge of disintegration. Despite its "sideshow" status and the limits this imposed on its activities, Yudenich's Caucasian Army had achieved much more than had been expected of it. In the end, however, the effects of the February Revolution saved Turkey in 1917 from its final humiliation at the Russians' hands and deprived the latter of all the gains won at such costs by Yudenich and his Caucasian Army. Yudenich himself now is largely remembered as the White leader who failed to capture Red Petrograd in 1919, and he subsequently died in exile in an obscurity that has left both his and his army's earlier accomplishments largely forgotten. Nonetheless, any true assessment of the Imperial Army's effectiveness during 1914–1917 can only be completed through resurrecting this lost chapter of Russian military glory.

David R. Jones, 2001 Paper, Great War Society Conference

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Good point about comparing Russian to British and French damage to the Ottomans.

    And we could go still further, talking about the way Russian forces plunged into Persia, or shattered the Ottomans in the great battle John Buchan describes in _Greenmantle_. There's a good reason McMeekin wants us to think of Sykes-Picot as Sykes-Picot-Sazanov.

    Is there good recent scholarship on the Russian-Turkish front in WWI? Recent work on the Russians focuses on the European theater.