Russians Advance on Erzurum

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 220th installment in the series.

January 17, 1916: Russians Advance on Erzurum

As fighting in other theatres died down during the winter months, a long period of stasis on the Caucasian front suddenly ended with a surprise attack by the Russian Caucasian Army, which sprang into action against the understrength Ottoman Third Army in Eastern Anatolia and scored a major victory at the Battle of Köprüköy from January 11-19, 1916. This set the stage for an advance on the ancient city of Erzurum (above), occupying a key strategic position at the gateway to central Anatolia, the Turkish heartland.

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Following its disastrous defeat at Sarikamish, the Ottoman Third Army had withdrawn down the Aras River valley to strong defensive positions around the small village of Köprüköy, nestled between the imposing ridges of the eastern Pontic Mountains. However the Ottoman high command was unable to send reinforcements to the badly depleted Third Army, as all available manpower was needed to fight off the Allied attack at Gallipoli; thus the Third Army lacked the defensive reserves needed to plug the gaps in case of an enemy breakthrough.

With the approval of theatre commander Grand Duke Nicholas, who had been relieved as commander in chief of all the Russian armies and sent to the Caucasus in August 1915, the Russian commander General Yudenich staged a flurry of diversionary attacks on January 11 before unleashing the main assault on a weak spot in the Turkish line near the Cakir-Baba ridge on January 14. The diversionary attacks succeeded in distracting the Turks, who moved their only reserve away from the intended area for the main attack; the Russians rebuffed a counterattack by these forces on January 13.

Beginning before dawn on January 14, the Russian soldiers waded through snow higher than their waists along the southern slope of Cakir-Baba, regrouped, and seized the strategic Kozincan heights by the following day, leaving almost nothing between them and the village of Köprüköy on the Aras River. With a breakthrough tantalizingly close, Yudenich threw his Cossack reserve into the fight in hopes they could slog through the snow and surround the enemy – but the Turks withdrew just in time, retreating to the fortifications of Erzurum by January 17.

Overall the Ottoman Third Army suffered 20,000 casualties out of a total 65,000 men, while the Russian Caucasian Army lost just 12,000 out of 75,000. More importantly, the first great prize of the campaign in East Anatolia, Erzurum, was within reach.

A British war correspondent, Philips Price, recorded the aftermath of the battle and the Turks’ hasty retreat to Erzurum: “We saw many signs of the Turkish retreat, as we continued our way. Through the snow on the roadside protruded a number of objects, camels’ humps, horses’ legs, buffaloes’ horns, and men’s faces, with fezzes and little black beards, smiling at us the smile of death, their countenances frozen as hard as the snow around them.”

Meanwhile both sides had to continue enduring harsh winter conditions in the incredibly primitive environment of the eastern Anatolian mountains, which the Russian Cossacks were especially well suited for, according to Price:

Snug little zemliankas, dug into the earth and covered with grass, dotted the plateau and the sheltered hillsides. From the holes, that served as doorways, hairy Cossack faces looked out on wintry scenes of snow and rock. Here the reserves were waiting to be ordered up to the front. Mankind in this country becomes a troglodyte in winter… so they build themselves huts, half buried in the ground and covered with straw, where they can keep warm and rest for a few days… A deathly silence reigns over the white expanse of snow; and only the wolfish bark of a miserable pariah dog tells one there is any life at all.

Suffering Behind the Lines

The Russian advance in Anatolia could only serve to heighten the Ottoman government’s paranoia about Armenian subversion behind the lines, reinforcing their commitment to carrying out their genocidal policy of massacres and death marches against the Armenian civilian population.

The Armenian Genocide was no secret, openly discussed by the Ottoman Empire’s own allies. For example on January 11, 1916 Karl Liebknecht, a socialist member of the German Reichstag, asked a question addressed to the government:

Is the Imperial Chancellor aware of the fact that during the present war hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the allied Turkish empire have been expelled and massacred? What steps has the Imperial Chancellor taken with the allied Turkish government to bring about the necessary atonement, to create a humane situation for the rest of the Armenian population in Turkey, and to prevent similar atrocities from happening again?

Baron von Stumm, head of the German foreign office’s political department, responded to Liebknecht’s question with an answer that can only be described as a tour de force in euphemism:

The Imperial Chancellor is aware that some time ago the Sublime Porte, compelled by the rebellious machinations of our enemies, evacuated the Armenian population in certain parts of the Turkish empire and allocated new residential areas to them. Due to certain repercussions of these measures, an exchange of ideas is taking place between the German and the Turkish governments. Further details cannot be disclosed.

Liebknecht then returned to the attack but according to the official transcript was dismissed on grounds of parliamentary procedure: “‘Is the Imperial Chancellor aware of the fact that Professor Lepsius virtually spoke of an extermination of the Turkish Armenians…’ (The President rings his bell. – Speaker attempts to continue speaking. – Calls: Silence! Silence!) President: ‘That is a new question that I cannot permit.’” Indeed, the German government was determined to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by their ally.

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However the record of these events survived in the testimony of the few who managed to endure the death marches, only to be dumped in a string of smaller concentration camps in the Syrian desert, where they awaited final deportation to the main concentration camps (often described as “death camps”) at Deir-ez-Zor and Rasalyn. One young Armenian girl, Dirouhi Kouymjian Highgas, later described one of the smaller camps:

As far as the eye could see were acres and acres of tents. They all looked alike. Most of the tents consisted only of two sticks pounded into the ground, with dirty, ragged blankets thrown over them. The condition of the refugees was indescribable. They were half-clothed human skeletons, either squatting in a stupor in front of their tents, or lying on the ground with their mouths open, gasping for air, or shuffling aimlessly around, staring blankly into the distance. They did not acknowledge our arrival in any way.

Here she would have the frightening experience of seeing her own father breaking in despair:

In the evenings, we sat in our tent… We tried to sleep through moans and screams of the sick and dying. We were using any available place for toilets. The human smells, the stench of rotting flesh and other undefinable odors that hung in the air were unbearable. One night, I was awakened by the sound of my father crying. He was sobbing just like a child. I reached out to him and wiped his tears away with my fingers, and curled up on my mat, to sleep… It was almost too much sadness for a little nine-year-old girl to bear. But I didn’t move. I told myself I had to be brave. I must not allow myself to break down, adding yet another problem to my already overburdened family…

While the Armenians were subjected to state-sanctioned mass murder (along with Greeks and Assyrian Christians in some places), it’s worth noting that other Anatolian populations, including Turks and Kurds, also suffered widespread starvation and disease due to the disruptions caused by the war. Henry H. Riggs, an American missionary, painted a chilling picture of the conditions for Kurdish refugees fleeing the Russian advance in eastern Anatolia:

Many of these people had actually been driven out of their village homes by the advance of the Russians, and some had fled from places where the Russians had not yet arrived rather than await the coming of the foe… The sufferings of these Kurdish exiles, however, were hardly less pitiable than those of the Armenians… The mortality among them was terrible, and those who reached the region of Harpoot were – many of them – utterly broken and hopeless… Epidemic soon took hold among them, and one of the women who had gone down to help came back one day with the report that the Kurds were dying like flies…

Similarly Ephraim Jernazian, an Armenian pastor who was protected because of his connection to foreign missionaries, later recalled the universal suffering in Urfa, in what is now southeastern Turkey:

From 1916 through 1918 Urfa was plagued with famine. Many of the local poor and refugees died of starvation. In the evening at every doorstep could be seen people looking almost like skeletons, whimpering weakly, in Turkish, “Ahj um… Ahj um…” or in Arabic, “Zhu’an… Zhu’an…” or in Armenian, “Anoti yem… Anoti yem… [I am hungry… I am hungry.]” It was unbearable. As the night wore on, silence prevailed. Early in the morning when we opened our doors, in front of every house we would see dead from starvation a Turk here, a Kurd there, an Armenian here, an Arab there.

Like Riggs, Jernazian observed that food shortages were always followed by outbreaks of epidemic disease, spreading quickly among people made even more vulnerable by starvation. Ironically this presented a respite of sorts for persecuted Armenians, as their neighbors were too sick to torment them:

During the years of famine, the deplorable conditions became worse as various diseases began to spread. The typhus epidemic especially did its destructive work. Every day, in addition to the refugees, from fifty to one hundred townspeople died of typhus alone. Urfa presented a pitiful picture. When famine and typhus began to snatch victims from all classes, it seemed that for a while harassment of the few Armenians here and there was forgotten. Starving Armenians and Turks were begging side by side in front of the same market and together were gathering grass from the fields.

See the previous installment or all entries.


10 Facts About DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story For Its 15th Anniversary

Vince Vaughn stars in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).
Vince Vaughn stars in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).
Twentieth Century Fox

June 18, 2004 saw the release of two wildly different films in American cinemas: Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal and a goofy, cameo-filled, wrench-chucking sports comedy called DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story. Guess which one came out on top at the box office? The sleeper hit both saluted and skewered the sports movie genre. It also gave Chuck Norris the chance to enjoy a free helicopter ride.

1. Dodgeball's creator was inspired by the book Fast Food Nation.

DodgeBall writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber considered DodgeBall an homage to some of his favorite flicks, including Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Rocky (1976), and Bull Durham (1988). Another source of inspiration was Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the nonfiction bestseller about the modern obsession with greasy, ready-made cuisine. Published in 2001, Fast Food Nation sold more than 1.4 million copies within five years. It also left plenty of fingerprints on Thurber’s script.

"I really took a cue from that—there's an absolute love/fear relationship thing in our culture," Thurber told Film Freak Central in 2014. "We're so weight conscious, so image conscious, so youth-oriented—and wrapped up with all that psychosis are these ad images of it being so cool and all-American and sexy to eat McDonald's and drink pop and all that. It pulls people in all sorts of different directions, so I wanted [Ben Stiller’s character] White Goodman to be sitting there with a doughnut and the car battery attached to his nipples … That situation with food, with sports, with so much of our culture. [It’s] already almost too surreal to satirize."

2. The movie's actors went through some rigorous training.

To ready themselves for the movie, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and the rest of the actors ran indoor dodgeball drills at what many of them have since described as a “boot camp.” According to Stiller, this basically consisted of “us at a gym a few times a week playing dodgeball.” While that may not sound too intense, the physicality of these sessions took its toll on the performers. “It’s a game for the young,” Stiller said. “It’s one thing when you’re eight, but when you’re 38, it gets really exhausting. After three or four minutes, you’re fried.” Practicing at his side was Stiller’s wife, Christine Taylor, who plays Kate Veatch of the Average Joe’s squad in DodgeBall.

3. Ben Stiller took Christine Taylor down with a dodgeball ... twice.

As a general rule, it’s never a good idea to hit one’s spouse in the face with a rubber ball while playing any sport, but that’s exactly what Stiller did to Christine Taylor—twice. Blow number one came during the boot camp; the second strike occurred while filming the epic Globo Gym/Average Joe’s showdown. The latter ball was intended to strike Vaughn, who reflexively flinched to get out of the way. In any event, Stiller admits that those two incidents put a temporary damper on the couple’s marital harmony “for like a week, because there’s no way to not get upset with somebody after you’ve done that. It just sent us both back to eighth grade." (Though the couple announced that they were divorcing in 2017, the split has never been made official, and the couple is still regularly seen together—sparking rumors of a reconciliation.)

4. Stiller borrowed much of his character's personality from 1995's Heavyweights.

The fact that Stiller borrowed some of White Goodman’s traits from Tony Perkis, the fanatical fat camp owner he played in 1995’s Heavyweights, won’t surprise anyone who has seen both films. DodgeBall’s White Goodman (as played by Stiller) is a bombastic, egomaniacal fitness guru with some inherited wealth and major insecurities. The same description also applies to Perkis. A lighthearted family comedy, Heavyweights didn’t fare well at the box office, grossing a meager $17.6 million. As such, when Stiller copied a few of Perkis’s mannerisms in DodgeBall, he figured that no one would notice.

"I always thought, ‘Well, nobody ever saw Heavyweights, so I can do this,” Stiller recalled. “But a lot of people saw Heavyweights … Apparently, it shows on the Disney Channel a lot or something.” Regarding the two characters, Stiller has said that Perkis is “definitely a first or second cousin” to Goodman.

5. Justin Long suffered a minor concussion on the set.

Justin Long, who plays Justin in the film, took some hard knocks while making this movie. For starters, a prop wrench made with hard rubber left a nasty cut on his eyebrow when Rip Torn, as Patches O’Houlihan, threw it at his face in one scene. Then, while filming another section of DodgeBall’s training montage, the actor was pelted with enough high-speed balls to render him "slightly concussed."

"They didn’t want me to drive home at the end of the day because I was a little off," Long told Today in 2017. “So next time you’re watching that and laughing, know that you’re laughing at my pain.” Still, the experience wasn’t all bad. According to New York Magazine, Long can often be seen riding a scooter adorned with the words “Average Joe’s,” a gift from Stiller.

6. Hank Azaria and Rip Torn didn't even try to synchronize their Patches O'Houlihan voices.

Early in the film, we get to watch an instructional video about dodgeball (and social Darwinism) hosted by a young Patches O’Houlihan, who is played by Hank Azaria. For the remainder of the film, however, it’s Rip Torn who portrays the seven-time ADAA all-star. You may have noticed that the two actors use very different accents in their respective scenes: Azaria, who joined the cast at Stiller’s invitation, called his performance “essentially a bad Clark Gable impression.” At the time, Torn’s sequences hadn’t been shot yet, leading someone in the crew to pipe up and say “You know, it’d be funny if Rip tries to emulate that voice!” “I was like, ‘Yeah, good luck walking up to Rip Torn and suggesting that he change his vocal quality in any way. Let me know how that goes for you,’” Azaria replied.

7. The Average Joe's team colors are an homage to Hoosiers.

Thurber, a fan of David Anspaugh’s Oscar-nominated Hoosiers (1986), tipped his hat to the Hickory Huskers’ red and yellow uniforms by giving the Average Joe’s squad—led by Vince Vaughn’s Pete LaFleur—an almost identical color scheme. 

8. Chuck Norris was reluctant to make a cameo.

The action star’s only scene was shot in Long Beach, California. Geographically speaking, this was problematic for Norris. “I was in L.A. when they asked me to do the cameo,” Norris told Empire Magazine. “I said no at first because it was a three-hour drive to Long Beach.” Hearing this, Stiller called Norris and begged him to reconsider. “He goes, ‘Chuck, please, you’ve got to do this for me!’” Norris recalled, “My wife said he should send a helicopter for me and that's what happened. I didn't read the screenplay, just did my bit where I stick my thumb up.”

After post-production on DodgeBall wrapped and Norris got around to seeing the finished product, he found himself enjoying most of it. However, there was one little moment in the final credits that really caught him off-guard. “In the end, when Ben’s a big fatty and watching TV, the last line of the whole movie is, 'F***ing Chuck Norris!' My mouth fell open ... I said, 'Holy mackerel!' That was a shock, Ben didn't tell me about that!"

9. One villain was originally supposed to be a robot.

By far the most mysterious player in the Purple Cobras lineup is Fran Stalinovskovichdavidovitchsky, an Eastern European all-star whom Goodman calls “The deadliest woman on earth with a dodgeball.” What’s the secret to her success? Well, in an early version of the screenplay, it’s revealed that Fran is actually a robot in disguise. Thurber ended up dropping the gag, which he considered too ridiculous—even by DodgeBall’s standards. However, when Missi Pyle was cast as Fran, the big twist hadn’t yet been cut.

“Initially, in the first script I read, she was a robot, like a sexy-bodied robot” Pyle explained. The original plan was to slowly pan the camera up over a partly-exposed Robo-Fran—with her metallic face and fake breasts on full display—at some point in the climax.

10. Alan Tudyk weighed in on a fan theory about Steve the Pirate.

In 2012, Redditor Maized made the case Steve the Pirate, Alan Tudyk’s swashbuckling oddball, is actually an “ex-Navy sailor who suffers from PTSD.” As evidence, Maized cited Steve’s tattoos, which bear a striking resemblance to those frequently worn by U.S. Naval recruits. In theory, the Average Joe’s patron uses his pirate persona to cope with his condition.

During a 2016 interview with Screen Crush, Tudyk was asked to offer his thoughts on the theory. With a chuckle, Tudyk replied that it “doesn’t seem like it’s impossible.” Emphasizing that he didn’t wish to “insult Navy sailors who have PTSD,” the actor said he’d consider taking the Redditor’s idea into account if a DodgeBall sequel is ever made.

Game of Thrones Director Said He Wanted to 'Kill Everyone' During the Battle of Winterfell

Iain Glen and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones.
Iain Glen and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones.
Helen Sloan, HBO

Now that Game of Thrones is over, it’s time to talk about the nitty-gritty of the episodes, particularly “The Long Night.” While the Battle of Winterfell may have been nerve-wracking to watch, there ended up being surprisingly fewer deaths than fans expected, considering the living were fighting the entire army of the dead.

Miguel Sapochnik, who directed the episode, was no beginner with battle scenes before taking on “The Long Night,” as he was also responsible season 6's iconic “The Battle of the Bastards” as well as the memorable season 5 episode “Hardhome.” While his list of Game of Thrones accomplishments is long, it turns out that Sapochnik's choices haven't always been in line with what showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss want.

According to IndieWire, Sapochnik’s aesthetic choices, such as the decision to shoot shoot Cersei and Tommen shadowed by prison-like bars to represent Tommen’s imprisonment in season 5, were not favored by the showrunners. “[Benioff and Weiss] said [it was] ‘so self-conscious and we hate it basically,'” Sapochnik revealed at the time. Because of disagreements like this, the pair “visually policed” the director.

There was a difference of opinion between the director and the creators again for “The Long Night,” Sapochnik revealed on IndieWire's Filmmaker's Toolkit podcast. “I wanted to kill everyone,” the director said, as reported by Esquire. “I wanted to kill Jorah in the horse charge at the beginning. I wanted it to be ruthless, so in the first 10 minutes you could say all bets are off, anyone could die. But David and Dan didn’t want to. There was a lot of back-and-forth on that."

Ultimately, Sapochnik gave in to Benioff and Weiss’s plan for the episode, and the Battle of Winterfell had far fewer casualties than most of the series's other battle scenes.

[h/t Esquire]

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