The Russian Campaign in Turkey

By James B. Macdonald

[The New York Times/Current History, September 1916]

All the Russian movements, whether into Turkey or into Persia, started from Transcaucasia, whose northern boundary, the Caucasus Mountains, marks the dividing line between Europe and Asia. These mountains resemble the Pyrenees in Spain, and stretch from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. The main railway of the province runs parallel with them from Baku to Batum. Another railway runs south from Tiflis, on the main system, to Alexandropol, whence it branches off one section, via Kars, to the Turkish border, and the other, via Erivan, to Julfa, on the Persian frontier.

Baku is connected with the railways of Southern Russia by a line running north along the western shore of the Caspian Sea, and by steamer with the railways of Siberia at Krasnovodsk, on the opposite shore. It is apparent, therefore, that Russia has ample facilities for sending to the front in Turkey and in Persia whatever troops may be necessary for her military purpose.

The southern part of the province is taken up by a portion of the highlands of Armenia, the remainder extending beyond the frontier and covering most of Turkish Armenia and a little of Northwest Persia. It is here that the main armies of Russia and Turkey have been contending with each other.


The present political boundary between Turkey and Russia is purely conventional, and for our present purpose may be disregarded. The same kind of country—the highlands of Armenia—is met with on both sides of the border. It is characterized by an exalted prolongation of the Persian plateau, sometimes flat and sometimes undulating, with rich pastures at an elevation of 5,000 to 6,000 feet. From this rise numerous bare mountain ranges, with an average elevation of 8,500 to 10,000 feet, while an occasional peak attains the line of perpetual snow like Mount Ararat, (16,930 feet). The annual rainfall is less than twelve inches, and the climate presents extremes of heat and cold in Summer and Winter. On the southeastern and southern sides the highlands descend through a series of terraces to the plateau of Persia and the plains of Mesopotamia, while on their western side they break down in gradation to the plateau of Anatolia, (Asia Minor). The head waters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers rise in these mountains, but, as they pass through deep mountain gorges, they are of little benefit to army transportation, although the natives use rafts when coming down stream.


Turkey opened the war of conquest she had sought by dispatching the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Army Corps, under General Liman von Sanders of the German Army, to drive the Russians beyond the Caucasus Mountains. The time was well chosen. The Russians had met with their early reverse in East Prussia and might be expected to be too preoccupied on their western front to meet an attack in their rear.

The plan of campaign was skillfully conceived, but its operation was badly timed, with the result that the Ninth Corps was overwhelmed at Sari Kamish, the Eleventh Corps driven back on Erzerum, and the Tenth Corps left in the air at Ardahan in an attempt to isolate the fortress city of Kars. In due course, the Tenth Corps was defeated and, in its retreat up the valley of the Chorakh, cut to pieces by the pursuing Cossacks.

The Twelfth Army Corps, from its base at Mosul, invaded Persia in January, 1915, by following the caravan road to Urmia, and hence to Tabriz, but was driven back later.

The Russians did not follow up their victory, but remained on the defensive throughout the year 1915. Their efforts were mainly directed to holding their own frontier, to guarding the caravan route into Northern Persia, and to setting free as many troops as possible for their campaign in Europe.

In the Fall of the year Grand Duke Nicholas appeared on the scene and took hold of affairs. Nothing further was heard of him until the approach of the Russian new year about a fortnight after ours when the whole front began to agitate. On Jan. 10, 1916, the Russian right wing drove in the Turkish outposts and occupied Arkhava, on the Black Sea.

The Russian centre, which held the line from Lake Tortum to Alasgerd, was ordered to attack the opposing Turks, and after a three days' battle they were decisively beaten and retired on Erzerum, Kopri-Koi, and Hassankala fell in succession, and at the last-mentioned place 1,500 prisoners were taken, with much booty. The Russian Army was now within striking distance of Deve Boyun, the famous ridge, 6,860 feet high, which lies across the main road leading into Erzerum. It stands some 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the plateau, and was guarded by eleven forts.

On Feb. 12 the bombardment began. While one Russian army was engaged in a frontal attack, another swept down from the north and cut off part of the Tenth Turkish Army Corps, and yet another army turned the southern defenses of Erzerum through a mountain region where the Turks deemed it impossible for them to advance, and had neglected its defense.

The main assault lasted five days, and on Feb. 16 Grand Duke Nicholas reported to the Czar that Erzerum, the eastern gate of Asia Minor, had fallen to the valor of his Siberian troops.

This feat will rank high in military history, and may be compared with Napoleon's crossing of the Alps.

Meanwhile, the Russian right and left wings attacked simultaneously with their centre. The former drove the Turks, in the Lake Tortum district, back in disorganized flight to Erzerum, while the latter outfought its opponents and occupied Khryskale, and later Mush. On leaving Erzerum, the Turkish Army broke up into three separate and unconnected bodies, one taking the road to Trebizond, on the Black Sea, another taking the main road due west to Erzingan, and the third retiring south along the road to Mush.

The Russian armies conformed to these directions and followed in pursuit. On Feb. 18, Ispir, on the Chorakh River, was captured; and on March 2 the important town of Bitlis was carried by assault during a snowstorm. Here 2,000 prisoners and twenty guns were taken. The defeated right wing retired on Sert, covering the partially built railway line from Aleppo to Mosul, the passage of the Tigris River, and the road to Diarbekr the security of which is essential to the safety of the Turkish Army in Mesopotamia.

The Russian right wing, however, was held up by the Turks strongly posted among the razor-backed mountains and gorges in the vicinity of Baiburt, who were defending the road to Trebizond. The scene now shifts to the coastal region.


All the way along the southern shore of the Black Sea from the Russian frontier to the Bosporus, a range of high, rugged mountains runs parallel with the coast. In places it reaches down to the seashore, and nowhere are the lowlands wider than fifty miles. Generally they are very much less. The climate on the sea front is mild. Russia has marked this region out as one of her spoils from this war, and intends that it shall be to her people what the south of France is to Western Europe.

These favored lands were, in olden times, developed as Greek colonies. The coast range, then as now, shut off communication with the interior of the mainland except by a road from Trebizond to Erzerum and another from Samsun to Angora. Intercommunication between the coastal towns was maintained by a rough road along the shore, or by vessel oversea.

The Russians, finding their right wing hung up in its advance on Trebizond by the Turks strongly posted in the hills covering the crossing of the Chorakh River at Baiburt, had recourse to their effective command of the Black Sea. An independent force, dispatched either from Batum or Sebastopol, was landed on March 4, under cover of the guns of the fleet, some seventy-five miles to the east of Trebizond. Its progress was fiercely but ineffectively contested by the Turks at the crossing of Kara Dere, (Black River.)

The Turks withdrew to Trebizond, which the Russian warships were now bombarding, while their transports were landing more troops to the west of the town. This caused the Turks to evacuate Trebizond, and the Russians entered the city on April 17. The road to Baiburt is still open to the Turks, but should they instead retire along the coast, they run the risk of being cut off by another Russian debarkation in the line of their retreat before they can reach Samsun the next point where there is a reasonable prospect of offering effective resistance.


In the meanwhile, the Turkish army at Erzingan, having been reinforced, attempted to drive back the Russian centre upon Erzerum, but was repulsed. The latter resumed its advance on Erzingan, the capture of which on July 26 forced the Turks to retire from Baiburt and cleared the road from Trebizond to Erzerum, as well as the branch road to Erzingan, and enabled the Russian army on the coast to progress rapidly toward Samsun.

The capture of Erzerum, Trebizond, and Erzingan has already practically given the Grand Duke command of all the mountain region to the south. His left army was lately beyond Mush and Bitlis, fighting its way down the terraces toward Diarbekr and Sert; but on Aug. 8 it was compelled by a strong Turkish offensive to evacuate both Mush and Bitlis. The plan of the Russians was to debouch on to the plains of Upper Mesopotamia and cut the Turkish communications between Aleppo and Mosul. This would leave the Turkish army beyond Bagdad in the air, although it probably would, in these circumstances, attempt to retreat up the Euphrates to Aleppo.


The northwest corner of Persia may be considered as part of the Armenian highlands, with its mountain ranges and elevated plateaus. The country to the north of Tabriz and Lake Urmia consists of parallel ranges, deep ravines, and here and there fertile valleys. To the west and southwest live the Kurds an important factor in the military situation. They dwell in the mountains along the Turko-Persian border, from north of Lake Urmia to the town of Kermanshah, and take no heed of the political boundary, which was settled over their heads by Britain, Russia, Turkey, and Persia; neither do they acknowledge Shah or Sultan as their overlord.

By religion the Kurds are orthodox Mohammedans, like the Turks, while the Turks of Persia are, almost without exception, unorthodox. The interest of the Kurds in foreign affairs is limited to questioning strangers as to what Russia is doing in Transcaucasia and what Britain is doing in India. In the previous year some of their tribes joined the incursion of Turks into Persia.

Grand Duke Nicholas deemed it prudent early in the year to detach a strong flying column to visit the Kurds and insure their neutrality, or at least their passive resistance. Nothing was heard of this column for some time beyond the fact that it was somewhere in the Lake Urmia district, when it suddenly provided the surprise of the campaign.

Passing through the unbeaten tracts of the Kurd country, probably by a detour from the caravan road between Urmia and Mosul, it emerged in the western foothills and surprised the Turkish garrison of Rowandiz.

The Turks hastily armed all the local Kurds and Arabs they could bring together and dispatched them, along with their own reserves, to oppose the Russian advance across the plain to Mosul.

The latest cables would indicate that the Kurds in the south, as well as those in the north, are disaffected. This will impede, but not stay, the advance of the Russian flying wings. It is none the less a serious matter, because the Kurds in Persia alone number about 1,000,000 people who may now be assumed to be hostile to the enemies of Turkey. It may, therefore, be necessary at a later and more convenient period to disarm the Kurd tribes completely, a proceeding which their neighbors would view with satisfaction.


At the outbreak of war Persia became the centre of German activities to embarrass Britain and Russia in the East. The propaganda was directed from the German Legation at Teheran and their Consulates throughout the country, and sought in the first instance to bring about a mutiny in the Indian Army and to inflame the Mussulmans of Afghanistan and India to a holy war.

Afghanistan is practically a vassal State of the Indian Empire like the independent principalities in India and a word from the British Commissioner was sufficient to have the. German and Turkish emissaries there interned until the end of the war.

Certain Swedish officers in the Persian gendarmerie were won over by the Germans, although they owed their appointment to the British and Russian Governments. The Kurds and other tribes were armed, British and Russian Consulates attacked, and Persian tribes invaded British Beluchistan some 300 miles beyond the Indian frontier.

The Ministers of the Central Powers had almost influenced the Shah to intrust himself to their protection when the Russian commander at Kasbin, who had considerable forces engaged in policing the Russian sphere of influence, warned the Shah in the name of Britain and Russia that he would forcibly intervene and marched on Teheran. The other party fled to Ispahan, where the Russians followed and arrested many of them.

Meanwhile the British landed troops at Bushire and looked after the southern rebellion. Bushire has been the seat of British power and influence in the Persian Gulf since the old East India Company transferred its headquarters from Bender Abbas. They occupied Kerman, the principal town in Southern Persia, on June 12.

The Russian commander at Kasbin, having secured his communications with the seaport of Resht, on the Caspian Sea, whence he could receive reinforcements and supplies, advanced on Hamadan and drove the rebels before him to Kermanshah. He occupied the latter town after some severe fighting with Turks and Kurds under German officers, who had come as reinforcements and sought to prevent a junction between the Russian and British forces. He lost it in June and regained it in July.

It is this Russian army which, advancing along the main caravan road toward Bagdad, is now held up on the frontier near Khanikin by a strongly intrenched Turkish force.

These Russians were within eighty miles of Bagdad sufficiently near for a detachment of Cossacks to make a detour and join hands with the British at Kut-el-Amara but the British, after suffering a long siege at Kut-el-Amara, and being unable to receive reinforcements or supplies, surrendered to the Turks, whereupon the Russians fell back.

While these events were happening, the Twelfth Turkish Army Corps from Mosul advanced in January, 1915, along the fairly good road through the Kurd country into Persia, occupied Urmia, and, skirting the southern shore of the lake, seized Tabriz, the capital of Northwestern Persia, and the most important commercial city in the whole country. This not only threatened the Russian left wing in the Armenian highlands, but also the great oil fields of Baku and the Russian main communications.

Russia was not slow in driving the invaders back the way they came, and her advance guard, by making a detour, as previously stated, surprised the Turkish garrison at Rowandiz and threatened Mosul itself.

The Russian engineers have since carried their railhead from Julfa, on the border, to Tabriz, which they were entitled to do under a railway concession granted by Persia previous to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. This enables them to open up a new bass at Tabriz for the Russian army advancing on Mosul, and to open new and direct communication with their army advancing on Bagdad.


It is apparent that the British and Russian armies in Turkey are marking time for the moment; and that the late Lord Kitchener was on his way to concert joint action with the Russian high command in regard to this theatre, irrespective of whatever other business he may also have had on hand.

The revolt of the Arabs in Arabia and their seizure of the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina appears to have been engineered by the British as an effective and crushing reply to Turkey's proclamation of a holy war.

The Turks for some time have been apprehensive that the British may employ their large excess army in Egypt to effect a landing in the Gulf of Alexandretta, or elsewhere on the Levantine coast, with a view to seizing the unfinished tunnels through the Taurus and Amanus Mountains and the City of Aleppo. That route is the only remaining means of communication left to the Turkish armies in Mesopotamia and Syria, and, as it runs within twenty miles of the coast, their apprehension appears to be well founded.

Since the capture of Erzingan the Russians have steadily advanced in that region, but very slowly. Their left wing has met with stubborn resistance, and has met with reverses in the Mush-Bitlis-Urmia district. Bagdad seemed still secure in Turkish possession at the close of the second year of the war. Flying detachments of Russians have sought to cut the Bagdad Railway in the vicinity of Aleppo, but no substantial force had gained a footing in that district up to the middle of August.

But when the Allies again get to business in this theatre of war we may look for dramatic happenings, and the early elimination of Turkey from the war need not surprise us.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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