- from the book The Childrens Story of the War vol 5
- 'The Advance on Erzerum'
- by Sir Edward Parrott, M.A. L.L.D.
The Great Episodes of the War
Russian artillery in the mountains of the Trans-Caucasus
The Advance on Erzerum
It is a far cry from Kamerun to Armeniafrom the fetid breath of mangrove swamps and the clammy heat of tropical forests to the deep snow and piercing blizzards of sterile uplands, "where winter lingering chills the lap of May." In Chapter XXXII of our third volume I described the fierce fighting which took place on the borders of this region during November and December 1914 and January 1915. You will remember that the Turks then invaded Transcaucasia, and made a desperate attempt in the depth of winter to reach the Russian fortress of Kars. Our ally dealt with the Turkish columns one by one, and flung them from the country with great slaughter. Transcaucasia was entirely cleared of the enemy, and the remnants sought refuge in the fortress of Erzerum, the central city of the Armenian plateau.
A year later, again in the depth of winter, this region became the scene of a struggle which ended in a great Russian success. Russian and Turk had now changed parts: the defenders of 1915 were the attackers of 1916. The Russians swept across the frontier, and, as you will learn, wrested from the enemy not only Erzerum, his most important stronghold in Asia Minor, but Trebizond, the sea-gate of that fortress, and pushed south to within two hundred and fifty miles of the British forces on the Tigris.
Erzerum stands 6,000 feet above sea level, in a sort of flat pocket of ground amidst lofty hills which hem it in on the north, north-east, and south. All travellers must enter the city by one or other of five roads. One of these roads, running to the north-east, pierces the mountains by means of a deep gorge, and leads past Olty to the Black Sea port of Batum.
the Russian advance on Erzerum
Another road strikes north-west, and after crossing three passes, one of them 8,000 feet in height, comes to an end in the Turkish port of Trebizond. It was at Trebizond that Xenophon and the Ten Thousand joyfully saw the sea after the terrible trials of their retreat across the snowy ranges of Armenia. The distance from Trebizond to Erzerum is 200 miles, and a week of fine weather is necessary for the journey. The third of the roads running northwards from Erzerum crosses a pass called the "Camel's Neck," and runs to the Russian railhead of Sarikamish, some seventy miles away. This road is by far the best of all the roads which lead to Erzerum. The "Camel's Neck," which lies a few miles to the east of the city, is only a few hundred feet higher than the pocket in which Erzerum stands. Southwards from Erzerum runs a road which forks into twothe more easterly leading to Mush, on the Eastern Euphrates; the other to Diarbekr, which is only fifty miles from the Baghdad railway.
Now that you know something of the situation of Erzerum, you can easily understand that in ancient times it was a most important trading centre and the avenue through which western Asia Minor communicated not only with Persia and Mesopotamia, but with Transcaucasia. The Transcaucasian railway on the north and the Baghdad railway on the south have robbed it of much of its trade; but it is still an important centre, and before the war was considered to be the strongest fortress in the Turkish Empire. At the beginning of the year 1916 three gaps in the hills on the eastern side of the citythe gorge through which passes the road to Olty; the "Camel's Neck," over which runs the road to Sarikamish; and the break in the line of high crests through which the road to Mush proceeds southwardswere all commanded by strong forts. The Turks declared that they had 1,030 heavy guns and 200 lighter pieces in position round Erzerum. It is doubtful, however, whether they had any of the largest Krupp or Skoda guns.
The great weakness of Erzerum as a fortress lies in its long and broken communications with its main base at Constantinople. A convoy of munitions or supplies starting from the shores of the Bosphorus must travel for two days by rail to the nearest railhead at Angora. Then it must proceed by road for 440 miles. It would thus take at the very least three weeks to reach Erzerum. The usual route was by sea to Trebizond, and then by road to the city; but as the Russians were now in command of the Black Sea, the Turks dared not send munitions and supplies by ship. Up to the end of February 1916 the Russian light cruisers and torpedo boats had sunk some 4,000 Turkish vessels in the Black Sea. The sea route was therefore impossible, and the land route alone was available. As the Turks were short of rolling stock, and the roads were deep with the snows of midwinter, they had the greatest difficulty in providing Erzerum with the ammunition and other supplies necessary for it to sustain a siege. The Russians were in a much more favourable position. By means of the Trans-caucasian railway they could bring troops, guns, and munitions from their bases to within seventy miles of the fortress which they were now about to attack.
When the Tsar placed himself at the head of the Russian armies in September 1915, he appointed the Grand Duke Nicholas, the former commander-in-chief, Viceroy of the Caucasus. Nicholas reinforced the Russian army on the Turkish border, and brought it up to a strength of about 180,000 men. The Turks at this time could not muster more than 150,000. Since the beginning of winter the Grand Duke had been making preparations for an advance, but it is probable that he did not intend to move until spring. He struck, however, before his time, and for the following reason. Early in January, you will remember, the Allies finally left the Gallipoli peninsula, and by so doing released five Turkish corps for service elsewhere. It was thought probable that the greater number of these troops would be sent to the Caucasus, but they could not arrive for at least six weeks. The Grand Duke therefore resolved to strike before the enemy's forces could be strengthened.
It was a bold resolve, for winter campaigning on the lofty uplands of Armenia is a terrible trial of endurance. The thermometer is always far below freezing-point, the roads are blocked with snow, avalanches are frequent on the mountains, and the blizzards are perhaps more to be feared than artillery fire. The people of the country still shelter themselves from the winter storms and biting cold by living in deep pits, just as they did in the days of Xenophon. There was only one advantage to be gained by a winter attack: the enemy might be taken by surprise. On the other hand, the forces of nature alone might bring about a Russian defeat.
The Russians began their movement on the nth of January. They advanced on a broad front on both sides of the road from the railhead at Sarikamish to Erzerum, and the Turks were obliged to fall back to avoid being enveloped. The movement was greatly impeded by snowstorms, which formed drifts up to the height of a man's waist. On the 16th the centre reached the village (marked X on the map, page 112) which commands the bridge crossing the river Araxes. Then began a fierce battle, which lasted two days. The Turks held the village and the bridgehead with machine guns, and the Russians were checked; but on the evening of the 18th, in the midst of a blinding snowstorm, they carried the position. The village was captured in the early hours of the morning, and three Turkish divisions were driven in utter rout towards Erzerum, only thirty-three miles away. The Turks fled pell-mell over the snowy mountains, throwing away their arms and equipment, and leaving behind them large quantities of stores. Erzerum was lost at the battle of the Araxes crossing.
Turkish standards captured at Erzerum
The Fall of Erzerum and the Capture of Trebizond
While the Turks were fleeing from the Araxes to the shelter of Erzerum the Russians won another success. Their cruisers in the Black Sea sank 163 Turkish sailing ships, 73 of which were laden with provisions. On 22nd January they sent 40 more vessels to the bottom. Thus Erzerum was deprived of munitions and supplies at the very moment when the Russians were closing in upon it.
The plight of the retreating Turks was awful. The pursuing Cossacks followed them up relentlessly. Often they passed on the road hundreds of broken and weary men huddled together and sleeping in the snow. When engaged in rounding up the fugitives they frequently found dozens of them frozen to death. It was a mob of dazed, numbed, and half-starved men, rather than an army, that gathered behind the Camel's Neck for a last stand.
By the 20th January the Russians were at the gates of the fortress, and were preparing to assault the Camel's Neck. The speed of their advance was amazing. Three days after the collapse of the Turks at the Araxes, Russian guns were battering at the outer forts of the city. The policy of General Yudenitch, who commanded the army, was to give the enemy no time to rally or to take up new defensive positions. Turkish reinforcements were on the way, but he hoped to capture the city long before they could arrive.
From 26th January to 12th February the Russians waited for their heavy guns and the necessary ammunition to arrive. Meanwhile their field guns were busy bombarding the forts. On the 10th, when the thermometer was fifty degrees below zero, a Russian column pushed through the deep snow and reached the fort of Kara Gubek, the extreme north-eastern point of the Erzerum defences. Mr. Seppings-Wright (journalist) says:
"This fort is the key to the whole system of the outer defences of the city of Erzerum. There are fifteen other forts, but none of such supreme importance as Kara Gubek. The assault was carried out by Caucasian and Siberian troops, all hardened by the winters of the North. Few other troops in the world could have faced such conditions, and their success deserves to rank as one of the greatest feats of the war. . . . Steadily and surely the Russian army forged their waystorming the plateaus, chasing the enemy over glaciers until the final rush was made. Up the last barrier they climbed knee-deep in snowdrifts, the icy wind burning and blistering their faces like the blast from a furnace. The cries of men and the sighs of the tired animals, mingling with the sharp clap of shrapnel, made the strangest chorus ever heard. It was repeated a thousand times among the tremendous precipices of that weird land.
No roads helped the advance. From the summit of a high ridge Erzerum, the goal, was seen, and was greeted with loud shouts. As the armies assembled on the crest, the order was given to charge down. Then occurred the most extraordinary spectaclean army sliding down the smooth slopes until the mountain side was lined as though with innumerable toboggan runs. Crowning the summit of a mountain opposite stood the great fortress of Kara Gubek, the ramparts lined with Turks. Banners with the Crescent and Star streamed in the wind, but the defenders were about to meet their doom. Small parties of Russian engineers had been at work digging zigzags in the snow. These were instantly filled with swarms of Russians. . . .
Around the crumpling ramparts of the forts the Turks had prepared positions with wire, and an entirely new devicenamely, frozen snow; the snow had been constantly sprayed with water, and had frozen into a barrier of ice. The assault commenced at seven in the morning; by noon the Russian flag flew proudly over the fort. Erzerum was won!"
Kara Gubek fell on 12th February, and next day Fort Tafta, overlooking the Camel's Neck, was carried, after a Russian shell had exploded its magazine. The Russians were now in the rear of the main defences of the city, and during the next two days the forts surrendered one by one. On the evening of the 15th only the old rampart of the inner redoubts stood between the attackers and the city. The Turks knew that their last hope had gone, and almost immediately began to abandon the place. They streamed in disorderly crowds along the roads to Trebizond, Erzingan, and Diarbekr; and at eight o'clock on the morning of the 16th the Cossacks of the central column rode into the city, where they were soon joined by mounted men of the other columns. Erzerum was in Russian hands.
Without delay the Cossacks went in pursuit of the retreating Turks, and soon were busy rounding up prisoners and capturing guns. Some 12,753 unwounded Turks, 323 guns, nine standards, and vast quantities of ammunition and stores were taken. Between the nth of January and the 17th of February the Turks cannot have lost less than 60,000 men. Five divisions are said to have been wiped out as fighting units.
The capture of Erzerum must be accounted one of the most brilliant victories of the war. Three columns had marched upon the city by different routes, and all had come together at the right moment. The central column had brilliantly carried the bridge at the crossing of the Araxes; the left column had moved with amazing speed through the wild tangle of pathless hills, had dragged 8-inch guns over rocky crests sheathed in ice or deep in snow, and had assaulted the key-fort of the city by glissading down a mountain side. Only soldiers of the greatest endurance and the most dogged determination could have performed such a feat.
The man who was mainly responsible for the capture of Erzerum was General Yudenitch, the chief of the Caucasian army. He it was who defeated the Turks at Sarikamish in the winter of 1914, and planned the campaign which had just been crowned with success. He had spent his whole life in the Caucasus, and had specially trained his men for winter warfare amidst the snow-clad and blizzard-swept mountains. So constantly were his troops sent on route marches that he was nicknamed "The General on the Go." It is said that his Caucasian troops were ready in full marching order twenty-four hours after the Tsar gave the order for mobilization. When Erzerum was captured he was a man of fifty years of age, remarkable for his great modesty, his strong will, and his fixed belief in the truth of the old proverb, "Look before you leap." His favourite saying was, "Measure seven times before you cut anything." He believed in training his men and officers to think and act for themselves. "One who obeys without thinking," he said, "is worth much; but a chief who educates his subordinates in the idea that every order must be blindly obeyed commits high treason."
Some idea of the difficulties which the Russians had to encounter in their advance on Erzerum may be gathered from the following account written by a Russian officer. He tells us how his men descended from the mountains to attack the bridge over the Araxes.
"We held a position on the summit of a mountain rising 11,000 feet above sea level. Every morning there was a strong wind, which drove before it masses of snow and drifted up our positions to a depth of from 10 to 15 feet. Our shelters, huts, and kitchens were all buried in the snow. The wind was so fierce that most of our huts were almost blown to pieces, though they were held together with wire. No one so much as thought of warm food during those days. Not only were our kitchens buried in the snow, but we had no other means of heating water.
"At last we got orders to leave our burrows above the clouds and descend into the valley. We began the incredibly difficult task of finding our way down precipices coated thickly with snow. The men followed one another in single file, in endless chains, forcing their way through the deep snow with their chests. From time to time rifle shots were fired to guide those behind. Only after a whole day of wandering did we manage to assemble again. The hurricane hurled upon us dense clouds of snow. The men clung together in groups, so as not to lose sight of one another. Frozen snow penetrated our clothes and turned the cloth into a hard sheeting of ice. Masks of ice covered the soldiers' faces. One of the horses slipped and disappeared over a precipice.
"By desperate exertions we somehow managed to get our guns down into the valley. Here we were received by the detachment stationed there, who helped us with the final work of lowering the guns with straps. We had done well. Despite the awful difficulties of the path and mountain steeps, not a man had perished; not one had been left behind or lost. At the close of our march we were well rewarded for all we had gone through: our unexpected appearance caused a panic in the Turkish trenches."
Though most of the Turks in Erzerum retreated hastily when the main defences fell, there were some who preferred to die rather than yield. In one .place a Russian company broke into a small fortified position which was held by a handful of Turks. The Russian officer invited them to surrender; but they replied with a volley, and fought on until not a single man remained alive.
In the second week of March the Tsar received in his palace at Tsarskoe Selo Captain Konieff, the first officer to enter Amasia, as one of the four cities in the Turkish Empire most favoured by nature. Trebizond has mountains behind it more lofty than those of its rivals, and it has the great advantage of being in a verdant region. It surpasses Smyrna and Amasia in the number and beauty of its ancient buildings. When the Ten Thousand reached it it was a prosperous city. In later times it became the capital of a Roman province, and was afterwards subject to the emperors who had their capital at Byzantium, which we now call Constantinople. Still later it became the seat of the emperors of Trebizond, and maintained its independence for wellnigh two hundred and fifty years. In 1461 it fell to the conquering Turks, and remained in their hands until the events which I am about to relate.
The old portion of the city stands on a small plateau which falls in steep cliffs to deep ravines on either side and in front slopes to the sea. Behind the city the plateau rises to higher ground. All along its edge are old walls with towers and castles, which form part of the fortifications. Spanning the gorges are great stone bridges which connect the old town with the surrounding suburbs. The streets of the city proper are narrow and dirty, but here and there we find mosques which were Greek churches in the Middle Ages. "Seen from the sea, you get a jumble of picturesque old creeper- grown walls and towers, irregular red roofs, and much foliage; above these lower features rise many minarets and domes, and behind and above them all are wooded hills and then mountains. The suburbs of Trebizond have now spread along the coast, for the city has grown to 50,000 or 60,000 inhabitants, and the old walled portion is only a small part of the whole."
Trebizond has no harbour and no railway communication, and therefore has great drawbacks as a port. Nevertheless it is the sea-gate of Erzerum, with which it is connected, as you know, by a good metalled road nearly two hundred miles long. Should the Russians make a base of Erzerum, they must take Trebizond, so as to prevent the Turks from landing forces on their flank. Only when Trebizond fell would it be possible for the Russians to push southwards and threaten the Baghdad railway, the main Turkish route of communication with Mesopotamia.
The Russians proposed to capture Trebizond by means of a combined land and sea movement. Transports carried the troops to Atina, some sixty miles east of Trebizond. There they were landed on 4th March, under cover of a heavy fire from the warships, and began their march along the coast. Difficult as this route was, it was far easier than that which lay through the terrible tangle of mountains in the interior. Further, if the weather remained good the troops could receive supplies and succour from the sea. The warships patrolled the coast, and easily drove off the Breslau when it attempted to interfere with their movements.
The march along the coast road was slow but sure. On 8th March the Russians were within thirty-five miles of Trebizond, but in the next nineteen days they only advanced five miles. On 6th April they reached the Kara Dere, a torrent flowing through a deep gorge and flanked by high mountains. Under German guidance the Turks had constructed strong defences along the left bank of the river. On 14th April a fierce battle was fought along the line of this river, and the Turks were thrust back and driven from position after position. On the 17th the Russians were within seven miles of Trebizond, and on the 18th they entered the place without serious opposition. Thus the most important of all the fortified towns on the coast of the Black Sea was lost to Turkey.
After their defeat at Kara Dere on the 14th the Turks decided to abandon Trebizond. It really was of no use to them now that the Russians were in command of the Black Sea. Any attempt to defend it would have meant that the garrison would be locked up inside the forts surrounding the town, and would finally be obliged to surrender. Before retreating, the Turks carried off or destroyed the guns and the stores, so that little booty fell into Russian hands. They marched in orderly fashion to Baiburt, about fifty miles north-west of Erzerum, where they joined up with their main forces, and formed the left wing of the armies facing the Russians.
The Turks had lost nothing by abandoning Trebizond, but the Russians had won a sea-gate that was bound to be of great use to them for supply purposes. All the credit of this fine achievement must not go to the Russian troops which entered the port. The fleet had played an important part by convoying the soldiers, by bombarding the town, and by landing seamen and marines. The Russian armies further south had also helped in the capture. When the Turks saw that Trebizond was in danger they hurried up reinforcements from Gallipoli, and made a great effort to drive the Russians back. They suddenly attacked the right flank of the Russians, in the hope that they would weaken their centre to aid the threatened wing. Then they hurled their main forces at the centre, which lay west of Erzerum. Had they succeeded in breaking through, they would have compelled the Russians along the coast to retreat in order to avoid being surrounded and cut off from their communications. The Russians, however, were able to beat back these assaults, and the enemy's plan completely failed. Nevertheless the road from Trebizond to Erzerum was not yet open; the Turks still clung to the passes along the road, and for many weeks the Russians failed to dislodge them.
After the capture of Erzerum on 16th February General Yudenitch followed up the Turks with great energy as they retreated towards Erzingan and Baiburt. By the 19th of February his advanced guards had seized Mush, eighty miles south of Erzerum, and on the 25th they were in possession of Akhlat, on Lake Van. By 23rd March they had stormed Bitlis, and their cavalry were pushing on towards Diarbekr, on the edge of the Mesopotamian plain, and towards Mosul on the Tigris. But about the middle of April large Turkish reinforcements arrived on the line Diarbekr-Erzingan-Baiburt, and were able to check the advance of the Russians both westwards and southwards.
While, however, the Russians were prevented from pushing towards the Baghdad railway from Bitlis, a force, which for two months had been fighting the Kurds west of Lake Urmia, crossed the Turkish border and seized a town about eighty miles east of Mosul. Thirteen days after the fall of Kut the Russians were holding the front shown upon the map on the next page. It was not a continuous line of entrenchments, such as the Allies held in the West, but was broken by lofty mountains, amongst which troops could not operate. You will notice that its southern end was only about two hundred and fifty miles, as the aeroplane flies, from the British forces on the Tigris.
Now let us return for a few moments to the British, who were still striving to carry the Turkish positions below Kut. On 22nd May came the surprising news that two squadrons of Cossacks had ridden into General Gorringe's camp. Whence had they come? A Russian army under General Baratoff had been operating in Persia for many months past. Early in February it had reached Hamadan, which you will see on the road leading to Baghdad, and by 12th March it had pushed on to Kerind, more than a hundred miles farther west. Here General Baratoff had called a halt of two months, in order that he might secure his flanks and make the road from Hamadan fit for the passage of artillery. From Kermanshah, which you will see fifty miles to the south-east of Kerind, a good road runs southwards for fifty miles to the hills. When these are crossed, a desert ride of forty miles brings the traveller to the banks of the Tigris. A bold dash of 200 miles through a country inhabited by wild Kurdish tribes would enable Russians and British to join hands. General Baratoff gave two of his cavalry leaders permission to make the attempt, and after a most adventurous ride they and their troopers galloped into the British lines. Some weeks later the dashing horsemen were paraded before Sir Percy Lake, who had been appointed to the command of the British forces in Mesopotamia in January, and by order of the King he decorated them with the Military Cross.
Already, in the West, Russians were fighting on French fields. One month before General Baratoff's troopers reined up in the British camp on the Tigris, a detachment of Russian infantry had safely landed at Marseilles, after a long voyage from the Pacific coast of Siberia. They had travelled halfway round the world to fight side by side with their gallant allies the French, who were now in the midst of the longest, fiercest, and most deadly battle known to the history of the world.
Back to Index