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Following its disastrous defeat at Sarikamish, the Ottoman Third Army had withdrawn down the Aras River valley to strong defensive positions around the small village of Köprüköy, nestled between the imposing ridges of the eastern Pontic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.


11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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