The Mystic Vengeance of the Slav
The Meaning Of The Move On Erzerum

The Far-Seeing And Widely Misconstrued Reasons For The Transfer Of The Grand Duke Nicholas To The Caucasus Last September—Halting The German "Drift To The East" At Erzerum—Abdul Hamid's Prophecy Coming True

By W. Morton Fullerton

[The World's Work, June 1916]

The Persian question is twenty-five centuries old. Cyrus and Tissaphernes have been dead twenty-three hundred years, but theirs is a modern case. For last ten years foresighted statesmen knew that Persia would become an essential vortex in the gigantic whirlpool of any planetary war. During the movement that I have called "The Checkmate of Salonika" their previsions were confirmed by certain startling events. The sense of these events is the subject of the present article. The old road out of the Babylonian lowlands was, in 401 B. C., when the famous Ten Thousand, of Xenophon retreated after the battle of Cunaxa, what it is to-day; what the Russians found it in 1915 and are finding it at this hour; and what it might have ceased to be two years, before the Great War, if only Sir Edward Grey had met with less parliamentary opposition from certain groups, fearful less the Russian project of the Trans-Iranian railroad might bring the Cossack to the gates of India.

They were few in England in 1912 who divined that the solider the cooperation of Russia and England in Persia the better it would be for the peace of the world. After the martyrdom of Belgium and of Serbia, any greater crime against humanity had seemed unthinkable. Yet, with the collusion, if not at the instigation, of Berlin, the Young Turks devised an even grander infamy. In March, 1915, the Ottoman Government began to carry out a systematic plan for the extermination of the Armenian race, triumphant rival of the German commercial traveler, and within six months nearly a million Armenians had been massacred. Even the Pope, Benedict XV, who had maintained throughout the war a surprising Olympian detachment, greatly resembling that classical impartiality of Pontius Pilate so stubbornly persisted in by the Washington Government, uttered in an encyclical a reflex cry of horror. But on February 16, 1916, Nemesis appeared. The Grand Duke Nicholas flung to the breeze on the ancient battlements of Erzerum the Cross of St. Andrew. The capture of Erzerum was not only the most decisive military event of the Great War, after the battle of the Marne and before the battle at Verdun; it was also one of the greatest victories over barbarism of which history has record. It is reported that when the Young Turks declared war against Russia in 1914, they asked the aged Abdul-Hamid his opinion of the situation. His reply was curt: "You are playing your last card. You run the risk of losing either Constantinople or Bagdad; but the loss of either means the total ruin of Turkey.'

One may think what one likes of the Sultan Abdul-Hamid. He is now watching from the slits of his mushrabiyeh the crumbling of Turkey, and his thoughts must be long, long thoughts. But no verdict will weaken the conviction of those who know that he was a great Ottoman, and that he was a great Ottoman statesman. Abdul-Hamid knew Europe. In face of the one Power, Russia, that threatened to wrest from him Constantinople, he perfectly understood that, whatever the audacities of Ottoman policy, prudence forbade the Caliphate to alienate, the Powers, a cardinal article of whose creed was the "maintenance of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire."

In the early part of 1914, a few months before the Great War, and just after the Turco-Italian, the Turco-Balkan, and the Inter-Balkan Wars, I wrote as follows:


The destruction of Turkey, the disintegration of Islamism, is the downfall of a moss-grown but singularly venerable and solid portion of the rampart of world-peace. For England and for France it seemed to be the disappearance of a necessary barrier to the expansion of the rival Powers, first Austria, then Germany, into the rich regions of the Middle East. During centuries the "integrity of the Ottoman Empire" was, for the old time diplomacy, one of the cardinal points of its compass, a categorical imperative, as it were, of diplomatic dogma. It was held that the prestige and the security of France and England demanded the maintenance of an intact Islamism. The liquidation of Islamism, begun by the French in Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco, pursued by the British in Egypt, and now by the Italians in Tripoli, is rapidly being consummated, since the burst of Slav nationalism in the two Balkan wars, by the financial and industrial expropriation of the Ottoman Empire in Asia. Over the giant blocks of the fallen rampart the Pan-German, the Pan-Slav, the Anglo-Saxon, and the Latin tide is now streaming in a relentless flood. The only resource of France and England—as partners of the one dread and mysterious Power that has always desired the destruction of Turkey—is to favor the consolidation of the Slav States of the Balkans, and to further, against Pan-Germanism, the steady development of Russia* An impregnable Pan-Slav world alone can now act as a counterpoise to the growing might of the German Empire in regions remote from the zones of attraction of England and France. An impregnable Pan-Slav world alone can, in the Middle East, by its very existence and by its potential moment urn, permit the two Powers of Western Europe to work out their common as well as their individual destiny in peace.

If the Triple Entente Powers had meditated such verities as these, and acted on them, the Serbian people would not have been swept from their soil and homes and left to be garnered by the Allies on the shores of the bitter Adriatic. But this is not for the moment the point that matters. I have recalled this passage because it, formulates a conception of the interplay of European and Asiatic political elements, in which Germany and Russia would certainly have acquiesced at the time, but to the truth of which, if it had not been for the shock of the explosion of August, 1914, England and France would hardly have opened even yet their eyes. However, a growing suspicion of the reality of these verities was, indeed, becoming articulate both in Downing Street and at the Quai d'Orsay, during the last years that preceded the Great War.

Anglo-Russian enmity had long balked all efforts for the solution of the problem of the Middle East. When the Russian Army camped in 1877 in sight of the minarets of Stamboul, it found the ironclads of England anchored in the offing. The Slav peril was for a century—from the time of Napoleon—the bugaboo of British statesmen. The fanatical resolution to preserve at all costs, the "integrity of the Ottoman Empire" was immensely enhanced thereby; But England and France were long in realizing that this was a situation by which only Germany could profit. The two secular aims of the Wilhelmstrasse are: Germanization of the Slavs, Prussianization of the Ottomans. These processes could advance almost untrammeled so long as Russia and England gazed at each other askance in the Dardanelles, on the borders of Afghanistan, and over the passes of the Himalayas. And it was one of the rare statesmanlike perspicacities of the British Foreign Office under Sir Edward Grey when it perceived, two or three years before the Great War, that since the time seemed to have come to liquidate great arrears of misunderstanding with Russia, England and Russia would do well to cooperate fearlessly in the construction of a dike against the rising tide of Pan-Germanism.


When the Young Turks, abandoning the safe, traditional policy of an AbduI-Hamid, threw in their lot with the Germans, even the most suspicious and imperialistic of England's Indian statesmen began to understand the real interests of England. It was seen that the fate of Turkey was interesting—no less interesting, Heaven knew, than it had always been—but that it was interesting not in and for itself, not in consequence of the authority of a now dead dogma as to "integrity," but only as part of the vaster strategic problem of the fate of the world. But when the Great War broke; Russia alone saw clearly from the outset the place of the Turkish problem in the whole complex network of problems; the value of Constantinople; the fact that Constantinople was, indeed, the strategic limit of a necessarily planetary war; and it was not Russia, but England, who, drunk with the new revelation, fancied the problem of the Ottoman Empire could be solved by the methods of "a legitimate war gamble," like the Gallipoli and Dardanelles expeditions of Mr. Churchill and M. Augagneur.


Thus, while England and France were "gambling" in the Balkans with the sardonic Time-Spirit, incarnate in the Tsar of the Bulgars,, and organizing at the same time holocausts of Australian, New Zealand, and Algerian troops on the heights of Anzac and the Gallipoli Peninsula, Russia had not forgotten that Germany was intriguing with the Turks a thousand miles away, Persia was now the mark that was being aimed at. Russia alone, with her keener sense for Eastern affairs, seemed to be alive to the danger—although mysterious Anglo-Indian forces were vaguely known to be advancing from Koweyt up the Mesopotamian valleys toward Bagdad. The Turco-German menace was, indeed, particularly disquieting for the masters of India and the Persian Gulf. The Pan- Germanic dreams had long been methodically developed in the Middle East.

When, on September 5th, the Grand Duke Nicholas was appointed to the Caucasus, it was evident that Russia, at all events, perceived that the plateau of Iran, which had long been chosen as one of the glacis of the World Empire of the Hohenzollerns, was now a critical danger point, and that there was no time to be lost, if she meant to conserve her position, not only in Persia proper but in the regions between the Caspian and the Black seas.

On September 5, 1915, then, the Grand Duke Nicholas, who had been for an entire year in chief command on the Russo-German front, was transferred to the Caucasus. Since June a terrific German offensive from Lemberg to Warsaw and from Warsaw to the Baltic, had carried Von Hindenburg's and Von Mackensen's armies hurtling over fortress after fortress almost into the heart of Russia. City after city had fallen, until the world wondered whether Petrograd itself were not in danger, and if the fate of the Moscow of a century ago were not in store for it. Thereupon, apparent climax to these disasters, the Grand Duke Nicholas was transferred to the Caucasus. Had he, then, been relieved of his command, and was he being relegated in disgrace to an unimportant theatre of the war—or rather into one of the wings? For the great world-public, whose vision had never swept so far afield, no other interpretation seemed so plausible.

On their western front the Germans held solidly three or four million men of the enemy virtually immobile in their trenches. From Flanders to the Vosges the line had hardly wavered since the Battle of the Marne. Russia appeared to be half crushed, paralyzed for all offensive action for many months. Lest her army utterly despair, the "Little' Father" had come down into the trenches from faraway Tsarskoi-Selo and was rallying his badly punished troops. But the great leader, the Grand Duke of the once firm, gigantic stride, whom the world had counted on to take Berlin by a Cossack drive, had vanished into the misty East.


At the same time, Russia was displaying the most singular indifference as to the Balkans. Why did she not act more energetically in Bessarabia and nudge Rumania out of her so exasperating inertia? Why the interview of her Foreign Minister, spread broadcast just at the most critical moments of the negotiations for the reconstruction of the Balkan League, to the effect that the Balkans were, after all, "only of secondary interest" and that the fate of Germany would be decided elsewhere? Why, when Serbia, the pet ward of Russia, was now at last exposed to the most piteous and tragic fate, why this calm and callous comment? Why this cool, platonic approbation only of a Saloniki expedition? Why this unruffled demeanor of Petrograd, when it beheld the British Dominion armies reembarking from the Peninsula of Gallipoli, which had so long seemed to be the open road to Constantinople—a Constantinople which England appeared likely to preempt before the Tsar’s troops, fulfilling the Russian dream, could attend Mass at St. Sophia?


Why, if it was not because Russia was bent on solving, if possible, the problem of Constantinople and the Middle East in her own way? Why, if it was not because she had conceived a larger strategic synthesis than her allies, and jealously longed to carry her plan successfully through for the glory of Slavdom, unassisted, if that might be, by either Britisher or Frenchman? No one had foreseen so clearly as she the special reasons, not only for seizing the event of the Great War to solve the Asiatic problems of the Powers, but for enlarging the military front, at whatever peril of prolonging the vicissitudes of the war.

There were, no doubt, special recent reasons why Russia should be particularly alive to the dangers of the Middle East. She could not but be conscious that it was she herself who was largely responsible for what was now taking place there. She might easily ask herself, at last, if she were not reaping the first fatal consequences of the famous “Pact of Potsdam” of 1910. Just as in 1909, after the premonitory friction between Germany and France in Morocco, Paris and Berlin had signed an arrangement which, if it had been applied during only a few years, would have shattered the Triple Entente, so in 1910, at Potsdam, after the tension between Russia and Germany caused by the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tsar and Emperor had come to an understanding relative to Middle Eastern questions, which appeared to imply the speedy disintegration of the same Triple Entente. Shortly afterward King Edward died, Berlin might easily flatter itself that the rupture of the Pact between the Western Powers would speedily be accomplished and that Prussian hegemony was about to become coterminous with the boundaries of the Eastern Hemisphere.

What Berlin thought and hoped London and Paris dreaded. And, indeed, it required, at the time, a very considerable sang-froid not to jump quickly to the conclusion that a severe blow had been dealt at the Triple Entente. No inscrutable mystery surrounded this famous Pact of Potsdam; and yet, few international arrangements during the last ten years have been less clearly understood. What had taken place at Potsdam was generally declared to be ominous. The official German version was as follows: "Russia agrees not to oppose the project of the Bagdad Railway. She even undertakes to link up the line in question with the Russo-Persian lines, and she acknowledges Germany’s equal commercial rights in Persia. On the other hand Germany acknowledges Russia’s special interests in Northern Persia, as regards the construction of railroad routes and telegraph lines." In other words, as has been remarked by M. Demorgny, a professor of international law at Teheran, one of the most competent observers of Middle Eastern questions: "The Kaiser said to the Tsar, ‘Help me to prolong the Bagdad Railway, and I will give you a free hand in Northern Persia.'"

But this was comparatively nothing. In the halcyon air that preceded the Great War such arrangements were as abundant as golden motes. What was really interesting was that Berlin and St. Petersburg exchanged at Potsdam reciprocal promises not to join any combination which might be hostile to either Power. As an event showing where the wind was blowing in Europe, the interview of Potsdam and the arrangement signed at Potsdam, following so close on the German agreement of 1909 with France, were of grave significance.

For what had become of the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907? What, indeed? To be sure, nothing in the strict letter of the Potsdam Pact could be cited as being in positive opposition to the Anglo-Russian Treaty. Yet nobody in Europe who had any exact acquaintance with German methods—nobody, above all, in Paris and in London, where "Casablanca" and "Tangier" and "Agadir" were still haunting names—could doubt for a moment that Germany meant to use this new Pact with Russia as a device for ousting England from Persian territory, and for extending her sway in Syria, across Anatolia and Mesopotamia, and into the Nile Valley.


As a matter of fact, what item of the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 could serve to hamper this Pan-German plan? All that that Agreement had proposed to accomplish was to delimit certain economic and political spheres of influence in Persia. Russia was to be confined, roughly speaking, in the north, and England in the south. An uncertain neutral zone was recognized by both as being beyond the region of either’s protectorate. The two Powers did, indeed, undertake to preserve the integrity and independence of Persia, and they recognized the principle of the “Open Door.” But the important fact seemed to be that Russia, notwithstanding this arrangement, had agreed with Germany to withdraw all opposition to the extension of the Pan-German projects in Mesopotamia; that, indeed, she had agreed to further those projects, and was thereby apparently leaving in the lurch the Power, Great Britain, who was chiefly interested in thwarting the steady advance of Germany toward the Persian Gulf, toward Egypt,-and toward India. The Power, in fact, whose special interests in the Persian Gulf-Russia had explicitly acknowledged during the negotiations—as is specified in a letter of Sir Edward Grey annexed to the convention of 1907—was thus abandoned to her own devices, hung up in mid-air, like Mahomet’s coffin, somewhere above Bagdad, It only remained for England to fall into line, with her pacifically accommodating neighbor, France, in the procession of nations that were following blindly behind the Pan-German imperial car. After the Pact of Potsdam, pessimism evidently seemed to be a not irrational state of mind in London and in Paris. But in Paris, as in London, statesmen and publicists were too prone, as always, to look at the events in question through their own magnifying glasses; whereas, in diplomacy, the beginning of wisdom is to learn how to adjust one’s vision to the eye-glass of one’s neighbors, whether they be friends or rivals. It required, therefore, I repeat, a certain sang-froid to venture to remark, in 1914 (“Problems of Power”), with regard to the Potsdam agreement:

The French public did not know that Russian initiative at Potsdam was ultimately, indeed, to have the happiest consequences for the Triple Entente. How could they divine that at Potsdam Russia, with her keen sense and liking for Oriental problems, had assumed responsibility for the beginnings of that rapid liquidation of Middle Eastern questions which the secret negotiations of 1913-1914 between Turkey and the Powers were shortly to achieve, and that, although, to the scandal of certain observers, this liquidation was to do away for all time with the great principle of the "integrity of the Ottoman Empire," the range of the action of the Triple Entente was to be enlarged, and the common interests of its members were to be consolidated.


The sense of the Pact of Potsdam, therefore, in the perspective of world history, was that it was the beginning of a rapid liquidation of Middle Eastern questions which was carried out secretly on a vast scale just before the Great War. This liquidation left the Ottoman Empire virtually shattered, in the form, as it were, of the uncemented blocks of a jig-saw puzzle, and any attempt henceforth to treat it as a coherent mass could only result in its falling in pieces, in a great number of disparate parts, to which a half dozen Powers were already laying claim. William II, master of the still subsisting sources of power at Constantinople, was curiously and industriously striving to stop the fissures by his Pan-German cement, and to make an organic whole of the disarticulated rotten mass. The means employed were rapid development of the Bagdad Railway with its feelers leading into the Persian highlands; reorganization of the Turkish army—when General Liman von Sanders arrived in Constantinople the Great War was already in being; steady commercial infiltration. Persia, for the Turco-German conspirators was only a geographical hinterland of the Ottoman Empire. The history of German intrigues in Persia against the two Powers that had sworn to protect Persian integrity, and of German machinations against all stable government in Persia, is one of the essential chapters of the history of the Great War, and should be read in detail in such an admirable book as that of M. Demorgny, to which allusion has already been made. The evocation of anarchy was, indeed, the chief concern of Germany on the plateau of Iran, and the admirable idealism of the American Government unwittingly contributed, in a famous episode, to the success of this policy. In a word, it is no exaggeration to say, with M. Sazonoff (see his speech to the Duma on February 22, 1916):

The plans for the domination of Germany over the Turkish Empire comprised the formation of an enormous German-Mussulman Empire, extending from the Scheldt to the Persian Gulf. Such an empire, which appears in the dreams of Pan-Germans as a new Caliphate, to which by historic analogy the name “Caliphate of Berlin” would be adapted, is, according to them, to strike a mortal blow at the historic existence of Russia and Great Britain. It is a terrifying dream, but God is merciful! Berlin politicians forget that, if this empire could be forged under the German hammer, it would not last a single day, because it would lack the indispensable to support its existence—supremacy of the sea. Now, fortunately, this supremacy is in the strong hands of our glorious Ally, Great Britain, As long as it is, the Caliphate of Berlin will not menace our existence.


It was with the grim resolve to shatter the already colossal scaffolding of this Caliphate of Berlin that the Grand Duke Nicholas set out for the Caucasus on September 5, 1915, in the circumstances that I have analyzed. Russia had waited for a century in order to solve the question of the Straits. One single Power still lay athwart her dream of escaping from the prison of her ice-bound sea. That Power Was Germany, who had already announced her project of linking Hamburg to Bagdad. Whatever else the German Empire could rightfully claim, said Herr H. Delbrück, in his book on "The Legacies, of Bismarck" she would at all events insist, in any Peace Congress, on securing a counterpart of England’s India. The coveted “counterpart” was Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. The German Thor dreamed of driving an indefinitely expanding wedge through the European-Asiatic continent. The starting point was to be Vienna, and the continent was to be sundered by an ever-widening cleavage, the great Slav world to be thrust back toward the frozen North and the Yellow Sea, Great Britain, in Egypt, to be left isolated in the South for subsequent treatment at a more favorable moment. Meanwhile, all the Balkan peoples were to be obliterated. It was the recreation of the Empire of Alexander.

Russia had decided that this should not be. Unruffled, she beheld the armies of William II cut their-way through the first great obstacle to the Pan-German scheme, the Serbian nation. She quietly watched them open an unobstructed highway to Constantinople. What was the secret of this prodigious calm?

By a gigantic, mysterious turning movement, Russia, too, was drawing toward Stamboul. The Turks at Byzantium! That, during long generations, was an “object that poisoned sight.” Russia knew that even more was doomed than the Pan-German mirage of the Caliphate of Berlin. Doomed as well, and doomed for all time, was the temporal power of the Ottomans at Byzantium!

The Grand Duke Nicholas knows the difference between a defeat that is a victory, and a victory that is a defeat. That, moreover, is a form of perspicacity that tends to be a Russian trait. The mystic vengeance of a gentle Slav, when he learns that he has been a dupe, is one of the direst chastisements of Heaven.


The decision to occupy Saloniki was an intelligent stroke in diplomatic tactics, because it was the first indication vouchsafed to the sovereigns and peoples of the Balkan Peninsula that, instead of pulling apart, the Allies were acting together. It was the first tangible proof offered Athens and Bukharest and Sofia that France and England were not to be trifled with; that they were cooperating in an intelligible plan; that their resources were, if not inexhaustible, yet unexpectedly elastic; that they had no intention of abandoning the Balkans to the domination of Germany.

The decision to occupy Saloniki was an imperative development of the Allies’ military strategy in the East, because William II had counted on the extension thither of his lines in order to impose his Pax Germanica upon the world. A Pax Germanica—they "make a solitude and call it peace"—was to be the logical consequence of the success of Pan-Germanism. His plan was to set the East on fire.

But the decision to occupy Saloniki would have been fraught with peril if it had not been supported—protected, as it were—by the vast enveloping movement of the Caucasus campaign of the Russians. Several weeks after the capture of Erzerum the Russians entered Ispahan, the city of roses. Northeastern Anatolia and the whole of northern and western Persia were in the hands of the Slav. Thus, at last, for the crimes of the accomplices of the assassins of the Armenians, the Time-Spirit had summoned out of the monotheistic Steppe a great Avenger.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury