Monday, January 5, 2015

The 1915 Centennial: Battle of Sarikamish

Cossacks near Sarikamish, Kars Oblast line up to meet their Tsar
Ottoman empire formally entered the WWI in early November 1914. But even before this the Ottoman/German fleet bombarded the Black Sea ports of Odessa, Sevastopol, Feodosia and Novorossiisk and ground forces crossed the border near Batum. 

In December a large force personally led by War Minister Enver Pasha crossed the Russian border in the direction of Sarikamish-Kars. The offensive was intended to incite a Muslim rebellion in the Caucasus and divert Russian forces from the main theater of war in the Baltics and Poland. 

On January 4, after three weeks of fighting in snowy cold weather, Ottomans began a retreat, having reportedly lost more than half of their 90,000-man army. See Wikipedia for more.

The Sarikamish defeat is often presented as one of the key precursors to the Armenian genocide. This narrative tends to inflate the role of Armenian volunteer brigades that fought together with the Russian forces and also claims that Ottoman Armenian soldiers surrendered in large numbers. What is little known is that Ottoman Armenians imprisoned by the Russians were interned to Siberia as prisoners of war together with Muslim Ottoman prisoners. They remained there until June 1916 when the Armenian Catholicos interceded on their behalf. For more see Raymond Kevorkian's The Armenian Genocide.

The Cossacks in the picture came from the 2nd Infantry (Пластунская) brigade of Kuban Cossacks. Many of them subsequently fought against the Bolsheviks and after the Whites lost the Civil War they evacuated to Allied-controlled Gallipoli near Istanbul, then partly returned to Russia. Their commander Nikolay Bukretov, who earned St. George's Cross for Sarikamish, died in New York and is buried at the Woodlawn cemetery in Bronx.

From the diary of Nicholas I, dated December 1, 1914, describing some of the Cossack infantry pictured: 

"Самый знаменательный для меня день из всей поездки по Кавказу. В 9 час. прибыл в Сарыкамыш. Радость большая увидеть мою роту Кабардинского полка в поч. кар. Сел в мотор с Бенкендорфом, Воейк[овым] и Саблин[ым] (деж.) и поехал в церковь, а затем через два перевала на границу в с. Меджийгерт. Тут были построены наиболее отличившиеся ниж. чины всей армии в числе 1200 чел. Обходил их, разговаривал и раздавал им георгиевские кресты и медали. Самое сильное впечатление своим боевым видом произвели пластуны! Совсем старые рисунки кавказской войны Хоршельта. Вернулся в Сарыкамыш в 4 ч. и посетил три лазарета. Простился с ген. Мышлаевским, нач. штаба ген. Юденичем, другими лицами и с моей чудной Кабардинской ротой, в которой роздал 10 георг. крестов; и в 4½ часа уехал обратно на Каре. Поезд шел плавно и тихо. В Александрополе была недолгая остановка. Вечером кости."

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