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Russians Capture Trabzon

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 232nd installment in the series. 

APRIL 15, 1916: RUSSIANS CAPTURE TRABZON

While Russia’s main spring offensive on the Eastern Front failed at the Battle of Lake Naroch from March 18-30, 1916, Russian arms won great victories further afield in the opening months of 1916, most notably on the Caucasian Front. After a breakthrough at Köprüköy in January, Russian troops captured the ancient and strategically sited city of Erzurum in February, and then continued to advance west into the Turkish heartland of central Anatolia.

On April 15, 1916 the Russians delivered another discouraging setback to the Ottoman Empire with the occupation of Trabzon, another ancient city with both symbolic and strategic importance, abandoned without a fight by the outnumbered Turks. Originally founded in 756 BCE by Greek colonists from the nearby port of Sinope, Trapezous was known to the Romans as Trebizond and during the decline of the Byzantine Empire became the seat of its own empire from the 13th-15th centuries.

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In the context of the First World War, its location on the north coast of Anatolia would allow the Russians to begin delivering supplies to the Caucasian Army partly by sea, avoiding the circuitous and time-consuming journey over the incredibly primitive terrain of the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia, with few roads and these mostly unfinished. It also boosted Allied morale and cemented Russian claims to territory in Asia Minor ahead of the long-expected breakup of the Ottoman Empire (now being negotiated by Allied diplomats in what would become the Sykes-Picot Agreement). 

As in other recently conquered territories in Anatolia, the advancing Russians were shocked to find the region’s once-thriving Armenian Christian population had been more or less wiped out. Trabzon had been home to roughly 30,000 Armenians before the war, all of whom were massacred or deported during the ongoing Armenian genocide, including thousands herded out into the water or dumped from boats and drowned in the Black Sea at Trabzon.

The anonymous author of “The Russian Diary of an Englishman in Petrograd,” believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Stopford, noted reports that the Turks were targeting many other minorities besides Armenians, including Christian Greeks and Assyrians: “When the Russians got to Erzrum there was not one Christian alive save six girls in the American Consulate. The guide of the Tiflis Hotel was a Christian Turk, not Armenian and his town was a little to the south of Erzrum. There all the Christians were also massacred – 840, including his old grandmother.” 

Meanwhile diplomatic documents from the Ottoman Empire’s own ally, Imperial Germany, confirmed that the genocide was still in full swing in the spring of 1916 and left little doubt that it was officially sanctioned. The German ambassador to Constantinople, Wolff-Metternich, wrote to the Imperial chancellor Bethmann Hollweg on March 27, 1916: “Despite all the assurances to the contrary, the Porte is apparently beginning to decimate the remainder of the deported and, if possible, to exterminate those who have escaped the misery and the disaster before peace is made.” 


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On April 1, 1916, Ernst Jacob Christoffel, the head of a German charity for the blind in Malatya, left an even more detailed report of his personal observations in a letter to the German embassy in Constantinople: 

Not a single Armenian sound is to be heard anywhere. Thousands were killed in Gemerek. In the area surrounding Yozgad, the population from 6 Armenian villages was massacred, all of them, even the infants… There were 500 men in a village near Sivas with which I have good relations; 30 of them are still alive. A family of 18 lost 14 of its members through sickness and murder. Out of other large families, one or 2 members are still alive. There are not isolated cases, but rather the rule. The number of those killed may be inferred from this. 

Armenians who managed to survive the death marches then had to endure conditions in “concentration camps” that were in fact death camps, left to die in the desert with no food, no medicine, and no shelter. Often the process was hurried along by raids by itinerant neighbors looking to steal any remaining possessions or kidnap and rape Armenian women. April 6, 1916, Ernst Rössler, the German consul in Aleppo, wrote in a letter to the embassy in Constantinople: “During the past few days, the Armenian concentration camp in Ras-ul-Ain was attacked by the Circassians and other similar people living nearby. The largest part of the unarmed 14,000 inmates was massacred. There are no further details at this point; I will be informed of them later.”

On April 27 Rössler noted independent reports from Muslim Arabs serving in a labor corps, shocked at their first encounters with the genocide:

As the building of two bridges proved to be necessary… the 4th Army delivered a Syrian Muslim pioneer battalion for this purpose about 15 April. These people, who were transported in two days from Damascus to Ras-ul-Ain and who did not know anything about the plight of the deported Armenians and, as it can be presumed, were not influenced along the way, were quite horrified upon their arrival. They were of the opinion that the Armenians had been massacred by soldiers. This again demonstrates the common belief that the act had been done under orders. In any case, this was the opinion generally widespread in the area. 

ESCADRILLE LAFAYETTE FORMED 

Over two thousand miles to the west, on April 16, 1916 France celebrated one of the biggest symbolic demonstrations of unofficial American support yet, with the formation of the Escadrille Lafayette or “Lafayette Squadron,” an all-volunteer force of American pilots who joined this independent unit to help roll back German air superiority on the Western Front. 

Originally known as the Escadrille Américaine (the name was changed in December 1916 under diplomatic pressure from Germany), the Escadrille Lafayette was actually one of two American volunteer squadrons that served in France, later augmented by the Lafayette Flying Corps (below, American pilots in the Escadrille). Both were composed mostly of young, upper-class American college men with the means to travel to France and support themselves during a long leave of absence from schools like Harvard and Princeton.

Wikimedia Commons// Public Domain 

The Escadrille Lafayette was founded by a handful of colorful characters, as reflected in their decision to adopt a lion cub called “Whiskey” as the Escadrille’s mascot, who traveled with them wherever they served (or went on leave). One of the early volunteer flyers, James McConnell, remembered some of the difficulties associated with transporting Whiskey during leave in Paris: 

The little chap had been born on a boat crossing from Africa and was advertised for sale in France. Some of the American pilots chipped in and bought him. He was a cute, bright-eyed baby lion who tried to roar in a most threatening manner but who was blissfully content the moment one gave him one's finger to suck… Lions, it developed, were not allowed in passenger coaches. The conductor was assured that “Whiskey” was quite harmless and was going to overlook the rules when the cub began to roar and tried to get at the railwayman's finger. That settled it, so two of the men had to stay behind in order to crate up "Whiskey" and take him along the next day. 

The Escadrille Lafayette went into action almost immediately at Verdun, taking to the air for the first time as a combat unit on April 20, followed by its first kill on April 24. With their birds’ eye view of the action, its pilots also played an important role observing and reporting enemy troop movements and artillery positions. They also gained a rare aerial perspective on the incredible destruction wrought by modern warfare. On May 23, 1916, volunteer pilot Victor David Chapman described the scene at Verdun from the air: 

The landscape – one wasted surface of brown powdered earth, where hills, valleys, forest and villages all merged in phantoms – was boiling with puffs of dark smoke. Even above my engine’s roar I could catch reports now and then. To the rear, on either side, tine sparks like flashed of a mirror, hither and yon, in the woods and dales, denoted the heavy guns which were raising such a dust… Even from above, one had the sense of great activity and force in the country to the rear. From every wood and hedge peeped out “parcs” of autos, wagons, tents and shelters, – while all the roadsides showed white and dusty with the ceaseless travel.

McConnell left a similar description of Verdun seen from the air: 

Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. It seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears where stone walls have tumbled together. The great forts of Douaumont and Vaux are outlined faintly, like the tracings of a finger in wet sand. One cannot distinguish any one shell crater, as one can on the pockmarked fields on either side. On the brown band the indentations are so closely interlocked that they blend into a confused mass of troubled earth. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible. 

Pilots also had a front-row seat for artillery bombardments, as many claimed they could actually see the shells hurtling through the air. McConnell described the strange, alarming feeling of flying through a fusillade: 

Columns of muddy smoke spurt up continually as high explosives tear deeper into this ulcered area. During heavy bombardment and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain… A smoky pall covers the sector under fire, rising so high that at a height of 1,000 feet one is enveloped in its mist-like fumes. Now and then monster projectiles hurtling through the air close by leave one’s plane rocking violently in their wake. Airplanes have been cut in two by them. 

See the previous installment or all entries

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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Scarface is Returning to Theaters for Its 35th Anniversary
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures

Pop culture history was forever altered on December 9, 1983, when Scarface arrived in movie theaters across America. A loose remake of Howard Hawks's classic 1932 gangster film, Brian De Palma's F-bomb-laden story of a Cuban immigrant who becomes the king of Miami's drug scene by murdering anyone in his path is still being endlessly dissected, and quoted, today. To celebrate the film's place in cinema history, the Tribeca Film Festival is teaming up with Screenvision Media and Universal Pictures to bring the film back into theaters next month.

Just last month, Scarface screened at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival as part of a 35th anniversary celebration. The film's main cast and crew—including De Palma and stars Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer—were on hand to discuss the making of the film and why it has endured as a contemporary classic. (Yes, that's the same conversation that left the panel momentarily speechless when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much she weighed during filming.) That post-screening Q&A will be part of the upcoming screenings.

"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years. We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary," Darryl Schaffer, executive vice president of operations and exhibitor relations at Screenvision Media, said in a press statement. "The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."

Scarface will screen at select theaters nationwide on June 10, June 11, and June 13, 2018. Visit Scarface35.com to find out if Tony Montana and his little friend will be coming back to a cinema near you.

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