Turkish Debacle at Sarikamish

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 162nd installment in the series.

January 6, 1915: Turkish Debacle at Sarikamish

When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in November 1914, it was a marriage of convenience, with both sides getting something they wanted out of the alliance. The Young Turk triumvirate led by War Minister Enver Pasha secured formal protection from Germany, which they viewed as the decrepit empire’s best chance of long-term survival; meanwhile the Germans were able to close the Turkish straits, cutting off Russia’s maritime supply route through the Black Sea, and also forced the Allies to fight on a number of new fronts including Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus.

Now engaged in the two-front war they had hoped desperately to avoid, the Germans urged Enver to take the offensive against Russia immediately in hopes of taking some of the pressure off overstretched German and Austrian forces in the east. Enver, who never lacked confidence in his own military genius, eagerly accepted the mission and immediately began planning an ambitious offensive by the Ottoman Third Army against the Russian Caucasus Army, which he would direct personally (from a safe distance, of course). The result was a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Sarikamish, which took place in Russia’s Kars Province from December 22, 1914 to January 17, 1915.


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In some ways this plan made sense. The province, centered on the chief city and capital of the same name, had been part of the Ottoman Empire from 1534 to 1878, when the Russians annexed it following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, so it was a matter of Turkish national pride to attempt to get it back. The failure of Russia’s opening Bergmann Offensive from November 2 to 16, 1914, when the Caucasian Army under General Georgy Bergmann invaded northeastern Anatolia only to be repulsed with heavy losses, boosted the morale of Turkish troops as well as Enver’s faith in their ability to carry out complicated maneuvers.

But the Turks faced even more formidable obstacles, beginning with the terrain itself: the Ottoman Third Army would have to attack the Russian Caucasus Army across the Allahüekber Mountains, towering over 9,000 feet, which meant traversing high-altitude valleys cut by steep gorges over primitive roads in winter conditions. To make matters even more difficult, Enver was planning a complex battle of encirclement, with three Turkish army corps approaching the Russians simultaneously from different directions, calling for carefully coordinated movements despite almost nonexistent communications.

In fact, considering all these challenges the Turkish attack went remarkably well at first. On December 22, 1914 elements of the Turkish Third Army, numbering 150,000 men altogether, began advancing against the Russian Caucasian Army numbering 65,000 men (some Turkish troops remained behind in defensive and support positions). As planned, the right wing consisting of the Ottoman XI Corps attacked the Russians frontally, pinning them down while on the left the IX and X Corps advanced behind the enemy force in order to attack from the rear. By December 25 the IX and X Corps had advanced well north of the Russians, having marched almost 50 miles in three days amid icy conditions, and were beginning to pivot south to cut off the Russian line of retreat and complete the encirclement.

But now the plan began to fall apart. After some initial success keeping the Russians pinned down in front, the commanders of the Turkish XI Corps gave their exhausted troops a break, and the Russian commanders immediately seize the opportunity to extricate their troops and withdraw to new defensive positions near Sarikamish (above, Russian trenches) while Russian reinforcements began arriving by rail via Kars, blocking the advance of the Ottoman X Corps on the left wing. As the New Year dawned Turkish casualties were mounting, including thousands of cases of frostbite, and it was becoming clear that Enver’s plan of encirclement had failed—and things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Bolstered by fresh reinforcements, on January 2, 1915, the Russians launched a counterattack against the left wing, and suddenly the encircling Turkish units were themselves encircled. Over the next few days the Ottoman IX Corps fought a brave rearguard action but was completely destroyed, while the X Corps barely managed to escape, also suffering heavy casualties as ragtag bands of starving, demoralized troops fled through heavy snow back to Ottoman territory.

By January 6-7 Enver’s dreams of glory had ended in complete debacle, although “mopping-up” continued until January 17. The cost was staggering: according to some estimates the Ottoman losses came to 90,000 dead, including 53,000 who froze to death, and thousands more who perished from disease—especially typhus, the great nonhuman killer of the First World War. However if Enver was upset by these losses, he concealed it well; Lewis Einstein, an American diplomat in Constantinople, later recalled, “Even when he returned from the Caucasus, where an entire army had been lost by his fault, he seemed perfectly happy, and went the same evening to a concert.” On the other side the Russians probably lost around 16,000 dead, although some estimates put the figure at double that.

Beyond ending Enver’s dream of raising a revolt among the Turkic peoples of south Russia and Central Asia (at least temporarily), the Battle of Sarikamish would have a far-reaching, and tragic, impact on subsequent events. First, despite the outcome the mere fact that the Turks had taken the offensive at all alarmed Russia and its Western Allies, helping persuade Britain and France to attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by forcing the Turkish straits and capturing Constantinople—setting the stage for Gallipoli.

For their part Sarikamish, where Armenian volunteer troops fought alongside the Russians, only served to stoke the Ottoman government’s preexisting paranoia about the disloyalty of their own Armenian population. With the Christian Armenians aiding the Russians, the Young Turks feared the possibility of guerrilla warfare and uprisings behind the lines throughout eastern Anatolia, further complicating their already daunting war effort against Russia. Within a matter of months the Turks would decide on a simple, unspeakably brutal solution: genocide.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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