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Following its disastrous defeat at Sarikamish, the Ottoman Third Army had withdrawn down the Aras River valley to strong defensive positions around the small village of Köprüköy, nestled between the imposing ridges of the eastern Pontic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


Flight of the Conchords's Bret McKenzie Is Rebooting Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

Emmet Otter may not be Jim Henson's most iconic character, but he holds a special place in the hearts of fans who grew up watching his holiday special in the 1970s and '80s. Soon, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas will be charming a new generation of viewers. As Variety reports, a reboot of the made-for-TV film is in development, with Flight of the Conchords's Bret McKenzie attached to write the script and the songs.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas premiered on ABC in 1977. Based on the children's book of the same name, it follows a young otter named Emmet and his mother as they enter a Christmas talent competition hoping to win the cash prize. It's one of only a handful of Jim Henson-directed movies that doesn't star the Muppets.

Following the success of Emmet Otter's theatrical re-release last year, a reboot of the story is in the works. It will be a collaboration between the Jim Henson Company, the Pacific Electric Picture Company, and Snoot Entertainment. In addition to his roles as screenwriter and song composer, McKenzie also has the option to direct. Whether he'll take that job hasn't been announced.

Bret McKenzie is best known for making up one half of the New Zealand musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, but he also has experience writing songs for puppets. He served as the music supervisor for 2011's The Muppets and received an Oscar for the song "Man or Muppet" the following year.

[h/t Variety]

12 Wild Facts About Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
20th Century Fox

Lovable outlaws, buddy comedies, and Westerns have always been a part of the cinematic landscape. But it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that first combined those elements into a box office smash, setting the tone for the dozens (hundreds?) of action comedies that have followed. It also put Robert Redford on the A-list (Paul Newman was already there), and introduced audiences to the bizarrely anachronistic pop song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Here are a dirty dozen facts about one of our favorite movies about bad guys, which was released 40 years ago.

1. “Most of what follows is true” isn’t true.

That disclaimer at the beginning of the film, a variation of the familiar “based on a true story,” is tongue-in-cheek. The reality is that much of the lore surrounding Butch and Sundance was difficult or impossible to confirm or debunk, so screenwriter William Goldman (who’d primarily been a novelist before this) just went with it. In fact, that’s why he wrote a movie instead of a book: he was interested in the story, but he didn’t want to do the laborious research into day-to-day turn-of-the-century frontier life that a novel would require.

2. Paul Newman was in from the beginning, but finding his co-star took some work.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
20th Century Fox

When he wrote it, Goldman had in mind Newman—then perhaps the biggest movie star in the world—and Jack Lemmon, who’d done a 1958 Western called Cowboy and seemed like a good fit. Lemmon turned out not to be interested, and numerous other candidates were approached, including Steve McQueen (see below), Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando. Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, suggested Robert Redford—then a stage actor who’d been in a few films but was considered something of a lightweight. Woodward, Newman, and director George Roy Hill all pestered the reluctant 20th Century Fox bosses until they conceded to casting Redford.

3. The president of 20th Century Fox could have lost his job for buying the screenplay.

Not because he bought it, but because he paid $400,000 for it. Richard Zanuck, son of Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, was authorized to spend $200,000, and later had to justify to the board of directors his decision to spend twice that much, especially since $400,000 was more than anyone had ever paid for a screenplay before. (That’s about $2.8 million in 2019 dollars, a figure that has been paid plenty of times.) The price turned out to be worth it, as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the top-grossing film of 1969. But despite that and a few other hits, Fox was hemorrhaging money due to expensive flops like Dr. Dolittle, and Zanuck was fired in 1970.

4. Steve Mcqueen dropped out over billing.

If Newman was the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Steve McQueen was right up there with him. The idea of casting not one but two mega-stars as Butch and Sundance made perfect sense, but there was a problem: whose name would go first in the credits? Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck later said that he proposed an unusual arrangement where half the prints of the film would list Newman first, the other half McQueen, but McQueen (or his representatives) wouldn’t accept anything other than top billing across the board. And that was that.

5. It was titled “The Sundance Kid And Butch Cassidy” until the casting was settled.

Once they’d settled on Redford as Newman’s costar, a new (minor) issue arose. Newman thought he was playing Sundance in what had heretofore been known as The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. It turned out Hill, the director, actually wanted him to play Butch, and Redford to play Sundance. No problem; Newman was fine with the switch. But now they had a situation where the character being played by the less-famous actor came first in the title. The obvious Hollywood solution: reverse the title. “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy” sounds weird to us now (as does the notion of Redford being significantly less famous than Newman), but there you go.

6. They had to change the name of Butch and Sundance’s gang to steer clear of Sam Peckinpah.

In real life, Butch and Sundance’s crew of bandits were collectively known as the Wild Bunch, and were so named in Goldman’s script. But as the film was going into production, Fox execs became aware of a Warner Bros. property called The Wild Bunch, written and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It wasn’t about the same guys, but it was a Western, and the story bore some coincidental similarities. What’s more, WB was rushing to get it into theaters before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So calling anybody “the Wild Bunch” in the Butch and Sundance movie was out of the question. Fox’s solution was to rename them the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, after a place in Wyoming that Butch (and other bad guys) sometimes used as home base.

7. Newman did his own bicycling stunts—because the stuntman couldn’t.

The studio sent a guy who practiced Butch’s showing-off moments for days ahead of time, but when it came time to shoot it, he couldn’t stay upright. Newman ended up doing most of it himself, which looked better on camera anyway. (The one shot he didn’t perform—the one at the end where the bike crashes through a fence—was done by cinematographer Conrad Hall.) Director Hill was duly annoyed by the waste of money on the bike stuntman.

8. Newman got mad at Redford for doing his own stunts.

To be fair, Redford’s stunts were a lot more dangerous. It was the scene where Sundance leaps onto the top of a moving train and runs stealthily across the cars. It wasn’t that Newman was jealous of Redford’s derring-do—he was concerned for his safety. “I don’t want to lose a costar” is what Redford recalls Newman saying. Chastened (and touched), Redford agreed it was a selfish move on his part, and he refrained from risking his life after that.

9. Katharine Ross was banned from the set for being too helpful.

Katharine Ross and Paul Newman in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (2019)
20th Century Fox

The 29-year-old actress, an Oscar nominee for playing Elaine Robinson in The Graduate, played Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place. In real life, she was dating (and would soon marry) cinematographer Conrad Hall, and that’s how she got into trouble. Ross was interested in photography, and while observing a scene that she wasn’t in, she asked Hall if she could operate one of the cameras. There were several cameras in use for this particular scene, so it didn’t matter (to Hall, anyway) if one of the less important ones was operated by an amateur, just for fun. Many crew members felt otherwise, and director Hill was furious when he found out. He sent word to Ross back at her hotel that she was no longer allowed on the set except when she was working. “It became a very difficult shoot for me,” she later said. “In fact, it took me a long time before I even wanted to see the film.”

Ross and Hall were married in 1969, the same years as the film's release, and divorced in 1974. Ten years later, Ross married fellow actor Sam Elliott; the couple is celebrating their 35th anniversary this year.

10. The film had to endure additional editing because it was too funny.

One of the complaints some critics had about the movie was that the glib, humorous tone felt anachronistic. They should have seen the earlier cut, which was even more uproarious. Zanuck later recalled that test-screening audiences found it too funny, funnier than the studio had in mind. They wanted it to be an amusing Western, but not an all-out comedy Western (a genre that tended to do poorly). The film was sent back for re-editing to take a few laughs out and make the whole thing feel a little more respectable.

11. There was a super-posse in real life, but with a very different outcome.

The film depicts several of the best lawmen teaming up to hunt Butch and Sundance as a group (which could actually make for a very interesting movie on its own). For a 30-minute chunk of the film, our heroes are on the run, barely staying a step ahead, ultimately escaping by leaping into a river and then moving to Bolivia. That’s all an embellishment of the truth. There was a super-posse, but they didn’t engage Butch and Sundance in much of a chase: as soon as Butch and Sundance heard who was in the group, they fled, knowing they’d never be able to beat them. The hunt was over before it started.

12. They wanted to shoot some of it on the set of Hello, Dolly!

The script called for a sequence where Butch, Sundance, and Etta go to New York before heading for South America. Recreating turn-of-the-century New York would be prohibitively expensive—but as it happened, 20th Century Fox had another movie in production for which just such a set had been built: Hello, Dolly!, the movie version of the hit Broadway musical. Maybe the Butch Cassidy team could borrow it for a few days? But Fox’s Zanuck nixed it for general cost-cutting reasons (and possibly because the Hello, Dolly! team objected). Instead, Hill created a montage of period photographs with the actors pasted in.

Additional Sources: DVD interviews and features Paul Newman: A Life, by Shawn Levy American Film Institute

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