The Tragedy of the Caucasus

By Thomas Dann Heald

[Scribner's Magazine, November 1918]

Until the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the two Caucasian fronts, that of Persia and that of Erzeroom, in the December of last year, the Caucasian problem had nothing in it to distinguish it from the general problem of Greater Russia in relation to the war. Throughout the period when the temporary Russian government under Kerenski was endeavoring to secure a stiffening of the Russian efforts against Germany, the Caucasian fronts remained strong and unbroken, and even at their weakest moment in the late autumn of 1917, when Bolshivikism was making its inroads among the troops, the military power which the armies on these fronts represented was sufficient to warn off any ambitious attempts of the Turks. It was when Bolshivikism had gained control in the center of Russia itself, and the influence of Kerenski had vanished, that the Russian troops, gathering up all that they could bear away with them, strode back to Russia and left the Caucasus with its few included nations to take care of itself. Till that time the Caucasus had been Russia; but from the moment of that desertion the Caucasus became an entity by itself with a problem of its own, and a danger of its own.

In the Great War, however, no European peoples can be entirely isolated. The fact that the Caucasus had in itself a particular value, for both the Allied Powers and Germany brought its own problem into the general problem which belonged to both sides in the world struggle.

The individual problem of the Caucasus was racial. Within the mountainous area of the country live the three jarring races of Armenians and Georgians, both Christian, and the Tartar Mohammedans. Religious differences here immediately laid open a certainty of internal division, given the absence of any external force to regulate affairs; while the political jealousies between the two Christian peoples added a more petty, though very definite, likelihood of a lack of unity between Armenian and Georgian in face of the Tartar opposition to both. For all three races, at the time when the Russian troops withdrew themselves from the Persian and Turkish fronts, there arose a certainty of internal war to be complicated as certainly by the coming of the Turkish armies across the undefended fronts.

Now the pointing of this state of affairs was very clear to each of the peoples. While the Turks would come as a natural ally of their co-religionists and blood-relatives, the Tartars, the Armenians and Georgians would have to fall back upon their own resources. Left to themselves, therefore, the two Christian races would have been in such a position of difficulty that it is more than probable that the peace which the Russian Bolshiviki had made with the Turks on behalf of the Caucasus, in which the Turks received the Fortress town of Kars and the Black Sea port of Batum, would have been accepted by them as the only possible guarantee for their own safety as Christian peoples.

But unhappily, for their undoing, this problem with which they were faced linked itself up at once with the larger aspect of things which belonged to the Great War. Possession of the Caucasus in the hands of a sympathetic Christian people meant everything to the Allies, especially Great Britain, for through the way of the Caucasian valleys lay an open road to Persia and India, which, once in the hands of the Turks, would give all the access needed by Germany for threatening the flank of the British operations in Mesopotamia and gaining opportunity to interfere with affairs in India. Moreover, the natural resources of Caucasia were in themselves of vast value to either side in the war. For the Allies therefore, to have left the Caucasus to take care of itself was impossible from the first signs of the retreat of the Russian armies. In whatever could happen, following upon that retreat, without some sort of definite Allied interference, the country would fall into the hands of the Germans. It was quite certain that the Germans would have little care for the terms of their Russian compact of peace, and that with the Turks in possession of the treaty-given places of Kars and Batuni, the Germans would utilize the country and its resources for their own particular benefit.

In this way the problem of the Armenians and Georgians, faced with their difficulty of opposing a combination of Turks and Tartars, became a problem as well for the Allies: The interest of the Allies necessitated an arming of the Armenians and the Georgians for a successful defense of the Caucasus, without and within, against any eventualities which could give the Germans access to the country. For the Armenians and Georgians any help which could strengthen them to meet the narrower problem of themselves against Tartars and Turks would be acceptable.

In the month of December, 1917, then, during the first beginnings of the Russian retreat from the Persian and Turkish fronts, representatives of the Allied nations were busy in Tiflis, the capital of the Caucasus, encouraging the Armenians and Georgians to arm for the purpose of taking the places of the retreating Russians on the two deserted fronts. Everything seemed at that time to be favoring a success to the movement. The vast stores of military materials which the Russians had collected in the Caucasian bases—ammunition, guns, clothing, food, horses, trains, everything, indeed, essential to such preparations—fell into the hands of the Armenians through their possession of the main town centres. Behind them stood the representatives of the Allies with advice and promises, so that there seemed to be no doubt at all that within the necessary time, of some two months, there would be both an army of these two Caucasian peoples ready, and money and leadership, which the Allies had given them the assurance of immediately sending, there at hand to consolidate a substantial opposition to any hopes the Turks might have of being able to advance and make the Caucasus their own.

In the month of January of this year the situation which, if it had been left alone by the Allies, might have been turning to the advantage of the Tartars and Turks, had thus taken a turn so much in the opposite direction that the Tartars' position was already becoming the one of difficulty and danger. For the Tartars within the Caucasus the rise of the Armenians to power meant a real national danger, for a natural hatred between these two peoples had been vastly enhanced during the recent years by the presence within the Caucasus of the remnants of the Turkey Armenians who, as refugees, were living evidence of the cruelties of the Mohammedans toward the Christians under them. No Tartar could miss the effect wrought by this wretched moiety of the Turkey Armenians upon their own neighbors,, the Caucasian Armenians, and the possibility that the Caucasian Armenians would visit upon the Tartars a cruel revenge for the Turkish massacres was ever before their eyes. Not only so, but this rise of the Armenians, backed by the Allies, was too strikingly an attempt to cut off the Turks and Germans from a prize which they had calculated upon as falling easily into their own hands. It was something which both from the point of view of the Tartars and the wider point of view of the Central Powers must be immediately counteracted.

To meet, then, these wonderful—for wonderful in their rapidity and exhibition of patriotic zeal, on the part of the Armenians especially, they were—preparations of the Christian peoples under the guidance of the Allies, which seemed to promise a certain control of the situation, the Tartar leaders sought the readily given help of the Turkish and German agents who were already at hand and busy among the Tartar population. Money and arms were smuggled into the Caucasus throughout the months of January and February, and very soon the Tartars were ready for more open activity. That they were determined and able to make themselves a real power in opposition to the Armenian movement they proved suddenly in a most dramatic way. Seizing the railways along which the Russian soldiers were gradually making their exit from the Caucasus, they, toward the end of January, gained the upper hand in the conflicts which followed, and in a short time won possession of vast stores of military materials which these Russians were bearing back with them to Russia. The stroke was a master-stroke, for it not only gave them all they required of war equipment to meet the Armenian armings, but soon by their vigorous action they came to be possessed of the highways of communication which alone could give the Armenians connection with the outside world and access to the Persian front.

Toward the end of February there had thus grown to be in the Caucasus two considerable camps determinedly hostile to each other, and each in varying degree dependent upon the help of external Powers. To the Christian nations had fallen the larger town centres in which lay the stores of the old Russian supplies, and in these they had created considerable armies of their own peoples under the direct encouragement of the military representatives of the Allies. To the Tartars in their turn had come, through their own bold action and assistance from the Turks and Germans, other vast sources of supplies and some considerable control over the highways upon which any successful defense of the Caucasus must inevitably depend. It will be seen thus that for the development of this situation in face of the now almost empty nature of the two fronts, and the certain approach of the Turkish forces toward the Caucasus, the deciding factor for the success of either party must rest with the external Powers which stood behind each of them. Should the Turks find no other opposition to their approach than the Armenians and Georgians congregated in the towns, with the Tartar forces harassing these Armenians and Georgians in the surrounding country and holding their lines of communication, then their successful progress would be assured. Should, however, the Allied Powers throw into the balance some substantial reinforcements, or even officer the dashing Armenian soldiery against the Turkish coming and against the Tartars, then almost as certainly the Turkish chance of gaining their Caucasian goal would be small indeed. Furthermore, any real success accomplished by the Allies with the Armenian and Georgian forces would not only put back the Turkish advance, but would almost certainly, by cutting off communication between the Turks and Tartars, result eventually in the driving back of the Turks and a flank support being given to the British on the road from Bagdad to Mosul.

The crisis in this situation came toward the end of the month of February. And this crisis led almost immediately to tragedy. The Allied nations failed in the support they had promised to the Armenians and Georgians. The promises of money and leadership given in December, and upon which all the preparations of the two Christian nations had been built up and from which had grown such hopes and inspiration for these two peoples, never arrived. January went by, with all the local preparations rushing vigorously ahead; February came and went, with the continuation of these preparations in the face of rising difficulties. But throughout these two months not a coin came and not an officer appeared!

The absence and continuing absence of this external aid upon which all the hopes of the Armenians and Georgians had depended, while the Tartar preparations, obviously backed by the Turks and Germans, came more prominently into evidence as a considerable opposing force, led very soon to a breakdown of the consolidation of the Georgian and Armenian peoples. The jealousies which might have remained buried found their way to the top, and a fear of the greater power which naturally came to the larger population of Armenians, led the Georgians to look to the Tartars for some support. In this the German agents had their part, promising to the Georgians political rights as a nation should the Germans gain control of the Caucasus and the Turks become rulers of those portions which included the Tartars and Armenians. But almost certainly, even without this division in their ranks, the Armenians and Georgians alone would have found the opposition against them too great for their solitary powers. The rise of the Tartar strength and control of the internal communications within the Caucasus became more rapid so soon as it was evident that the Allies had failed to make use of the opportunity while it still remained to them to enter tie Caucasus in support of their friends. Throughout the month of January the way via the Persian railway line, or through the northwest of Persia over the Caspian Sea to Baku, had remained clear for an approach of assistance. But when once the Tartars had armed themselves at the expense of the retreating Russians, and had come to a position of strength by which they were able to take control of the railways, these entrances were closed; and the later rising of the Azerbaijan of northwest Persia in sympathy with this Tartar success finally made any access to the Caucasus from without utterly impossible. When in the early days of March the belated hoped-for help attempted to get through from the Persian direction to join the Armenians in their city strongholds, these forces in Persia, with the Tartars' help, successfully drove them back. From that moment the fate of the Armenians and Georgians in their local danger was sealed and the chance of the Caucasus being held for the Allies made quite impossible.

The days of the month of March saw a rapid rushing on of the destined tragedy. Freed from any restraint by the knowledge that the Armenians were now deserted, the Tartars threw themselves with elated confidence upon the rear of all the Armenian forces within the Caucasus. They attacked the railways, swept across the plains destroying Armenian villages, ambushed parties of relief, disorganized all traffic, and in a few weeks had totally demoralized the Armenian forces from any possibility of making a strong defense against the approach of the Turkish army toward Erzeroom. By the third week in March Erzeroom had fallen. Within a few days the Turks drove the weakened Armenian soldiers from Sirekameech, the old frontier town between Russia and Turkey, along the line from Erzeroom to Kars and Alexandropol, and before the month was out had captured Kars. Meanwhile the Germans and Turks were descending upon Batum from the Black Sea, and soon carried all before them, after a mere rustle of opposition, so that in the month of April Tiflis, the capital of the Caucasus, was doomed. Only at one point in the Caucasus did events favor the Armenian cause. At Baku on the Caspian Sea, owing to a local alliance between the Armenians and the Russian Bolshiviki, a three days' battle in the first days of April saw the complete discomfiture of the Tartar forces in that city. It was the successful retention of this port by the Armenians and Russians which eventually made possible in the month of August the entry of the few British troops into the Caucasus at this point, and the partial control over the railway line running from the city toward Tiflis. But in so far as the immediate Caucasian situation was concerned, this April victory could have little effect upon the progress of the Germans toward Tiflis and the Turks toward Alexandropol, for the Tartars still held control of all communications into the interior of the Caucasus.

Tiflis fell to the Germans in the month of May. Nothing was left to the Armenian Council in the city but to surrender. Rigorous conditions were given them. They were to evacuate the capital, and retire to the southern Caucasus, where the recognized Armenian religious and political centre of Etchmiadzin and the district round about was allowed them with a certain "independence." These terms, however, and even the idea of surrender and peace found no support amongst the other Armenian army facing the Turks at Alexandropol. This Alexandropol army was composed of different materials from that of Tiflis. While the Tiflis Armenians were true Caucasians, and thus still nominally Russian subjects, those at Alexandropol were, on the other hand, almost entirely remnants of the Turkey Armenians, who as refugees from the Turkish massacres of two years before, had rallied to the call of their beloved leader, Aintranic, sworn to no alternatives but victory or death against their old masters, the Turks. Peace to these men meant but subjection once again to the devilish massacring Turks. When, however, the pressure of the Turks upon Alexandropol made any further defense of that city impossible, this Aintranic, taking full advantage of the Tiflis compact, moved with his army down to Etchmiadzin, and there continued to defy the Turkish arms.

Hence, as the year has moved on, this strange tragedy of the Caucasus has continued its course. At Baku, the gateway to the northern Caucasus, a few British troops have arrived to strengthen the Armenians and Russians still defending the city against the German-led Tartars. At Etchmiadzin, in the southern Caucasus, are the Caucasian Armenians, nominally at peace with the Germans and Turks, exercising some petty show of independence within a small and insufficient district. Beside these latter, and even amongst them, are their brothers, the Armenians of Turkey. These, however, have recognized no peace, are yet under arms fighting both Turks and Tartars; and believing still in the coming of the long-promised support from the Allied Powers, have gradually been pushing down the railway eastward toward the Persian frontier, where are situated the largest food-supplies of the Caucasus in Tartar hands, and where any movements of relief through the way of western Persia will the more easily be able to reach them.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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