Primary Documents - British Military Report on the Russian Capture of Erzerum, 16 February 1916
Reproduced below is the text of the British military report, written by the British observer with Russian forces Morgan Price, detailing the Russian success in seizing control of Erzerum from Turkish control on 16 February 1916.
The Russian Capture of Erzerum, 16 February 1916, by Morgan Price, British Military Observer with the Russian Army
This success had been due to errors by the Turks, who did not feel insecure in Armenia, and would take risks to save Baghdad.
They must have been ill-informed as to the nature of the Russian reinforcements, for in December they gave leave of absence to a number of officers in the Erzerum garrison, while they made no haste to send back to Erzerum the heavy artillery from the Dardanelles.
Instead, they concentrated all their efforts on Mesopotamia, where they succeeded in surrounding General Townsend in Kut, and in threatening the whole British expedition with breakdown. Thus it was clear that a Russian offensive on the Caucasus front would not only relieve the situation in Mesopotamia, but would stand a good chance of driving the Turks back on their last line of defence round the fortress of Erzerum, and possibly even of taking it.
The Russians were now superior by about 50,000 men along the whole of the Asiatic front from the Black Sea to Persia. This enabled them to undertake flanking movements, which always count for so much in Asiatic warfare.
In Asia, with its wide expanses, the chances of an enemy digging himself into positions which cannot be outflanked are very much less than in Europe. Everything, therefore, favoured an offensive in the direction of Erzerum, and a series of manoeuvres and flanking movements in the mountains and valleys at the headwaters of the Araxes and the Euphrates.
The eastern approach to Erzerum lies along the Passan plain. Its outer chain of forts lies on the Deve-Boyun, a range of rolling hills from 7,000 to 8,000 feet high, dividing the head-waters of the Araxes from those of the western Euphrates.
Bounding the Passan and upper Euphrates plain on the south is the great range of the Palan-teken, rising to 10,000 feet, and running east and west like most of the ridges of Armenia outside the volcanic zone.
To the north of the plain lies a confused area, where volcanic effusions have overlaid the original plateau ranges. To the east, not far from the Russo-Turkish frontier, lie the masses of the Djelli-Gel and Kodjut-Dag, which to the west merge into the great uplift of the Kargar-bazar.
Further west still rise the Giaur and Dumlu Dags, between which and the Kargar-bazar is the only gap in the whole length of the mountain wall that shields Erzerum on the north. This gap is the defile of Gurji-Bogaz, and the road through it, at the height of 7,000 feet, is the only approach to Erzerum from this side.
Coming up from the south and passing through this defile, one enters the valley of the Tortum River and descends into the relative depression of Olti Chai and the middle Chorokh. The problem for the Turks was to hold the approaches to Erzerum along the Passan plain on the east (this was effected by the 9th and part of the 10th Army Corps), and to block tile narrow gap in the mountains on the northeast (this was done by the 11th Army Corps, which had entrenched itself some months previously on the mountain mass of the Gey Dag, just southwest of Olti).
To the south of Erzerum, across the Palan-teken, lay a part of the 10th Army Corps, protecting the road leading into the Van basin and on to Mesopotamia.
The Russian plan, worked out by General Yudenich, the Grand Duke Nicholas's commander in the field, was to attack the Turkish positions in three columns.
The 2nd Turkestan Army Corps at Olti in the Chorokh depression was to attack the Turks guarding the Gurji-Bogaz defiles in the positions on the Gey Dag, and by this demonstration to draw off their strength from the Passan plain, where the main blow was to be struck by the 1st Army Corps, which was to make a frontal attack on the Azap Keui positions between Hassan Kaleh and the old Russo-Turkish frontier.
These positions had been carefully prepared for some months, and had all the signs of permanent field-fortifications. To make them untenable, a third force, the 4th Rifle Division, was to be sent into the mountain country of the Djelli-Gel, to hold the line between the 1st Army Corps and the Turkestans, and to threaten the flanks of the Turks at Azap Keui and on the Gey Dag.
It is interesting to note that this was the same sort of plan as that which Enver Pasha adopted, when he attacked the Russians just twelve months before. He, however, demonstrated on the Passan plain, and made his main attack on the Olti and Chorokh basins.
His plan ultimately failed, because he could not guarantee supplies to his advanced forces in the country that they had occupied. But the Russians were brilliantly successful, because they had given the necessary attention to roads and transport for their main advance along the Passan plain.
On January 13th the Russian advance began. The 2nd Turkestan Army Corps attacked the Turkish 11th Army Corps, which was strongly entrenched on the Gey Dag west of Olti. The Russian losses were heavy, and they did not succeed in dislodging the Turks; but the real object of the attack was obtained by causing the Turks to draw off forces for the defence of the northeast (Gurji-Bogaz) gateway to Erzerum, and by masking the main blow, which was delivered on the Passan plain.
Information brought by airmen, who flew over Erzerum during these days, showed that Abdulla Kerim Pasha, the Turkish commander, had withdrawn one regiment to the north to protect his left flank in the defiles.
This gave the necessary opportunity for the Russian 1st Army Corps to carry the main Turkish position, and on January 13th the Azap Keui line was attacked.
In spite of the withdrawal of a regiment, the Turks made a very stubborn resistance, and for three days there was severe fighting With great losses on both sides. But on January 15th the 4th Composite Division, which had been given the task of connecting the 2nd Turkestans with the 1st Army Corps, crossed the high rugged country of the Djelli Gel at a level of 9,000 feet, and joined up with the Turkestans in the valleys of the upper Olti Chai.
The Turkish 11th Army Corps on the Gey Dag, and the 9th and 10th in the Passan plain, were thus in danger of being outflanked. Moreover, the Russians had so severely pounded the Azap Keui positions that they were now practically untenable.
So on January 16th Abdulla Kerim Pasha ordered a general retreat to the last line of defence on the Erzerum forts.
Then followed what is frequently met with in Turkish retreats, and is very characteristic of that race. The Turk has all the stubbornness and endurance of a highlander and an agriculturist. He does not see at once when he is outmastered: but when he does, then the untrained Oriental comes out strong in him; he throws everything away and bolts in a general sauve qui peut.
In this case he just ran till he reached Erzerum. The Russians reached Kupri Keui on the 18th, and the next day were in Hassan Kaleh, thus getting into their hands the whole of the east Passan plain and the basin of the Araxes right up to the outer forts of Erzerum.
On January 19th the last Turkish column was seen disappearing behind the rolling banks of the Deve-Boyun. The Cossacks pursued right up to the outer chain of forts tinder cover of darkness, and cut off 1,000 prisoners.
Next day field artillery shelled the outer forts, and so after thirty-nine years Erzerum saw a Russian shell again within its precincts.
Up to this time it was not really part of the Russian plan to attack Erzerum. The original plan was to break the Turkish line on the Passan plain, and to put such pressure on the Turks along the whole line from the Chorokh to Bitlis that the pressure on the English at Baghdad would be relieved.
The extraordinary success of the advance in the second week of January took no one more by surprise than the Russians themselves. The Grand Duke Nicholas would not believe the news when he heard that Hassan Kaleh and Kupri Keui had fallen.
Indeed, it was not until January 23rd that General Yudenich informed him that he thought it possible to take Erzerum, and asked for permission to work out a plan. This was done in the next few days.
Meanwhile, information which strengthened this decision came to hand in the shape of a wireless telegram, intercepted between Abdulla Kerim Pasha and Enver Pasha, in which it was stated that "the condition of the 3rd Army is serious; reinforcements must be sent at once, or else Erzerum cannot be held."
On January 31st a demonstration was made from Hassan Kaleh by the Russians against the outer forts of the Deve-Boyun to test the strength of the Turks. The bombardment continued all day, and by evening it was seen that the Turks had poured water down the slopes in front of the forts, which on freezing covered the mountain sides with icy sheets.
According to accounts given me by some officers, as the sun was setting that evening the sign of a cross appeared in the clouds of white smoke that accompanied the bombardment and lay over the forts.
During the first week of February heavy artillery was brought up, and the Russian dispositions were made and developed with extraordinary skill. General Paskevitch, when he captured Erzerum in 1828, confined his attentions solely to the approach from the Passan plain. Meeting with slight Turkish resistance and with primitive forts, he had no great difficulty in breaking through the Deve-Boyun.
He had not to trouble about the defiles and the northern approaches to Erzerum, nor had he to force a passage across immense mountainous tracts of snowy wastes in order to keep his line of advance intact. But in these days the methods of modern warfare have to some degree overcome nature.
The Gurji-Bogaz defiles were now passable for artillery, and moreover the Turks had built two forts there. On their extreme left wing a whole Turkish Army Corps held positions far away in the isolated valleys of the upper Chorokh Su, where it had before been impossible to keep and feed a battalion.
The devices of the engineer and transport services had made all this possible. The Russians therefore were threatened with the danger that, if they should make a frontal attack on the Deve-Boyun forts and carry them, the Turks in the upper Chorokh might suddenly make a great counter-move, break into the Olti depression, reach the Kars plateau, and so get into the rear of the whole Russian army, as they did in December, 1914.
This in fact is exactly what Abdulla Kerim Pasha tried to do. He ordered Halid Bey (the exceedingly brave, if somewhat rash, commander of the frontier regiment which had retreated from before Artvin through Southern Lazistan when the Azap Keui positions were captured) to call up reinforcements from Baiburt, break through the narrow Tortum valley and cut off the 2nd Turkestan Army Corps at Olti.
During the first ten days of February severe fighting took place on the passes of the Kabak-tepe east of Igdir, and on more than one occasion Halid Bey seemed on the point of outflanking General Prejvalsky.
By February 10th, however, the Russian Turkestans had succeeded in repulsing hint and were secure in the Tortum valley, and it was safe for General Yudenich to begin his advance on Erzerum.
The plan was to form the whole of the Russian forces in this part of Armenia into a great semicircular line stretching from the Upper Chorokh Su across the great volcanic chains of the Dumlu and Giaur Dags and the Kargar-bazar, across the Passan plain, and the heights of the Palan-teken to the valley of Khunus.
The line was some 130 miles long, and it had to be covered by two Army Corps and some detached forces. All the different sections of the line had to keep in touch with each other, and to advance over snowbound plateau or icy mountain skree, whichever fell to their lot, thus gradually converging upon the great fortress, and threatening to surround it.
The object of General Yudenich, in this most ably conceived and brilliantly executed plan, was to force Abdulla Kerim Pasha either to evacuate Erzerum, or else to be locked up in it with no hope of relief.
It is safe to say that the struggle was much greater in this operation with the natural enemies, cold and hunger, than it was with the Turks. The Russian troops had to cross mountain ranges with deep snow-drifts at 10,000 feet, and to go for at least three days cut off from supplies of food, with nothing but the few crusts of bread they could carry with them.
No other race of human beings, except those accustomed to the cold of sub-arctic climates like that of Russia, could have performed this feat. The Anatolian Turk is in no degree inferior to the Russian in physical endurance, but he lacks the habit of husbanding his resources.
The Russian, whenever he gets the smallest chance, sets himself down in some little hollow, and somehow or other makes himself a cup of tea by burning bits of grass or moss. But the Turkish soldier literally goes without anything for two or three days, and then eats a whole sheep or a perfect mountain of "pilaff," so that he cannot move for hours.
Moreover, the Turkish army has in it Arabs and Syrians, who can ill endure a winter campaign in Armenia.
On February 11th the order for the general Russian advance was given. The Elizabetopol and Baku regiments attacked Forts Chaban-dede and Dolan-gyoz respectively.
The latter fort is situated on a little knoll which juts out into the Passan plain, and is, as it were, the advanced guard of the outer chain. By 5 a.m. on the 12th Dolan-gyoz was surrounded, but the battalion of Turks holding the fort managed to retreat to the Uzun Ahmet fort, a powerful redoubt which rests upon a trapeze-like rocky mass with cliffs on three sides.
At the same time the 2nd Turkestans, advancing through the defiles of the Gurji-Bogaz, surrounded the advanced fort of Kara-gyubek. Two outposts were already in the hands of the Russians; but the main struggle was yet to come.
On the Kargar-bazar heights to the north all through the day and night of the 10th and 11th of February the 4th Composite Division attacked the Turks across snow-fields and skrees of rock. The summit of the range was in the hands of the Russians, but the Turks held stubbornly on to the snow-fields to the west of the summit which connected Forts Chaban-dede and Tufta.
Here they had made snow-trenches, which were invisible to the naked eye at a distance of more than a hundred yards. On the night of the 12th the right wing of the 39th Division was ordered to attack Fort Chaban-dede, which, with Tufta, was the key to Erzerum.
The Baku regiment, which had taken Dolan-gyoz, now joined the Elizabetopols, and together they advanced from the village of Buyuk Tuy on the Passan plain up the rocky valley of the Tuy towards the towering cliffs, on which Fort Chaban-dede rested.
The Russian soldiers were clad in white coats, so that in the darkness and against the snow they were invisible. Silently creeping up the rocky slopes to the fort, they got to within 250 yards of it before the Turkish searchlights discovered them.
At once from the Uzun Ahmet and Chaban-dede forts a murderous cross-fire was poured upon them, which in two hours caused them to lose one-third of their number. However, one battalion of the Elizabetopols pushed right up, till they got underneath the cliffs of Fort Chaban-dede.
Here the guns from the fort could not fire at them, the angle being too high: but the guns from Uzun Ahmet could still rake their lines. At this moment also the 108th regiment of the 11th Turkish Army Corps on the Olugli heights at the head of the Tuy defile began a flanking movement.
The right wing of the Elizabetopol regiment was exposed, and as there was no sign of the 4th Division, whose appearance alone could fill the gap, the position was critical.
The 4th Division was in fact at this moment struggling under almost more terrible conditions at the height of 10,000 feet on the Kargar-bazar. The men were engaged not with the Turks but with the frost and snow.
During the nights of the 12th and 13th they lost 2,000 of their number from frost-bite alone. In addition to their sufferings from cold, they had the Herculean task of carrying their artillery across the snow and rocks which alone was enough to account for their delay.
Accordingly, there was nothing for the Elizabetopol and Bakintsi regiments to do but to retreat to the bottom of the Tuy valley, where respite could be obtained, and this they did on the morning of the 13th. All that day they waited in vain for the 4th Division; but when evening came and no one appeared, it was seen to be useless to wait any longer, for time only aided the Turks, whose reinforcements were being hurried up from Erzerum.
So it was decided that the Derbent regiment, which had hitherto been held in reserve, should come up on the right wing and try to turn the flank of the 108th Turkish regiment, which was now occupying the heights of the Sergy-kaya, a desolate knoll on the rocky mass of Olugli.
At 7 p.m. the advance began. The Derbent regiment left its position in the rear, and crossing in the darkness the head of the Tuy valley, ascended a defile and reached the snow-fields round the Olugli mass. Immense difficulty was experienced in the advance. The snow lay in drifts often five to six feet deep, and in places the soldiers in order to move had to take off their coats and walk on them in the snow, throwing them forward every three feet to avoid sinking in up to their necks.
In this way they advanced painfully all night. The Turks, suspecting nothing, were lying in their snow trenches, their attention chiefly concentrated on how to prevent themselves from freezing to death. At last daylight began to break upon this arctic scene, and through scuds of snow broken by the icy wind, the Turks saw a chain of dark forms slowly closing in on them.
They could hardly believe their eyes, for it seemed to them impossible that a human army with rifles and ammunition could cross the country that lay in front of them.
By 5.30 a.m. the Turks saw that their trenches on the Sergy-kaya were being surrounded from the northeast and east, and only a narrow neck of snow-field to the south connected them with the fort of Chaban-dede. So they hastily left their trenches and retreated as fast as the drifts would allow them across the Olugli snow-field till they reached the fort.
Chaban-dede was now surrounded on the northeast, but the retreat of the Turkish garrison was not cut off on the south and west, and the Turks with characteristic stubbornness and bravery continued their deadly cross-fire from Forts Uztin Ahmet and Chaban-dede, as if nothing had happened.
Thus the Derbent regiment had by this manoeuvre gained important ground; but the Russians had not yet broken the Turkish cordon that united the forts, nor did the three regiments of the 39th Division dare to advance farther for fear of becoming separated from the Russians to the right and left of them, and so giving the Turks a chance to break through in a counter-attack.
But what had happened meanwhile to the 4th Composite Division and the and Turkestans? They alone could save the situation by piercing the plateau between Forts Chaban-dede and Tufta, and so joining up with the Derbent regiment on the heights of Olugli. The critical question was whether they had been equal to their stupendous task of penetrating the 50 miles of rugged snow-bound ridges and plateau. The morning of February 14th showed that they had accomplished this task, and so sealed the fate of Erzerum.
During the previous day the 4th Composite Division had been finishing the transport of their artillery to the summit of the Kargar-bazar ridge. The guns had again been dismembered, and carried to positions whence they could drop shells on the Turks defending the right flank of Fort Tufta.
The Turkestans had also prepared their artillery to sweep the fort from the north. On the morning of February the 14th the infantry of the 4th Division descended the northwestern slopes of the Kargar-bazar, sliding down the snow on their coats to the open plateau, out of which the Tuy River rises.
From here they moved on to the northwest and reached the foot of the Grobovoye heights, which form the eastern side of the Gurji-Bogaz defile. This is the north-eastern "gateway" to Erzerum through which the and Turkestans were to advance, and which the Turkish 10th Army Corps was defending from Forts Kara-gyubek and Tufta.
The plan was that the Turkish positions on the Grobovoye heights, connecting Forts Kara-gyubek and Tufta, should be attacked simultaneously by the Turkestans coming through the northern defiles, and by the 4th Division coming down from the Kargar-bazar on the south.
The critical moment for the Russians had arrived.
Would these forces unite and press their attack together, or had one of them failed and been overwhelmed in the snowfields or defiles? About midday the artillery of the 4th Division began to drop shells on the Turkish snow-trenches on the Grobovoye heights. The bombardment went on for half an hour and then stopped, the commanders waiting in suspense to hear whether there was any reply from their comrades, the Turkestans, who should by this time be attacking from the north.
Hope was beginning to wane, and they were faced by the prospect either of a single-handed encounter with a greatly superior enemy or of a disastrous retreat. But about one o'clock a faint rumble was heard, and a few minutes later shells were seen dropping on the Grobovoye heights. They were Russian shells, yet not fired by the 4th Division. T he situation was saved, for the Turkestans had forced their way through the Gurji-Bogaz defile, capturing Fort Kara-gyubek, and pressing on to the Grobovoye heights and towards Fort Tufta.
The Turks now on the Grobovoye heights were in danger of being surrounded from the north, south and east. They could see that Kara-gyubek was already in Russian hands. The left wing of the 4th Division, moreover, was pressing on to the heights of Kuni-tepe, a mass lying north of the Olugli and commanding Fort Tufta from the south.
This they occupied at three o'clock, and the Turks on the Grobovoye heights retired at once on Fort Tufta. In another half-hour the Turkestans appeared upon the sky-line; and here, on this desolate Grobovoye height, at this historic moment, they greeted their brothers of the 4th Division.
The gap in the Russian line was now filled; the mountains and the snowfields had been overcome, and it was now only a question of a few hours before the Turks would be overcome too.
Just as this memorable meeting was taking place, the Russian artillery observation posts at Ketchk noticed a great stir in the Turkish lines surrounding Fort Tufta. The Staff of the 10th Army Corps knew that the game was up, and, to escape being surrounded, at once began the evacuation of Fort Tufta.
That night also Abdulla Kerim Pasha ordered the evacuation of all the forts of the Deve-Boyun. The reserves of the 11th Army Corps were the first to leave, followed by those of the 9th. Then explosions in Forts Kaburgar, Ortayuk, Uzun Ahmet and Sivishli were observed from the Russian lines.
The evacuation of Fort Chaban-dede was begun at 2 p.m., and by four o'clock the Russians were in possession of all the forts of the Deve-Boyun, while the 4th Composite Division and the Turkestans were pouring into the Erzerum plain, in the hope of cutting off the Turkish retreat. But here they met with less success.
The 4th Division, with orders to advance south, were ten miles ahead of the Turkestans, who had orders to advance west. The confusion caused by columns crossing on the march gave a good start to the Turks, who had speedily evacuated the forts, as soon as danger was imminent. Yet one of their divisions, the 34th, was captured at Ilidja, and a large part of their artillery was lost.
It is curious that the Russians lost much less in the operations before Erzerum than they did in the fighting before the Azap Keui positions in the previous month, when they lost not less than 30,000 killed and wounded in four days' fighting.
But in the five days' fighting along the whole length of the Erzerum forts from the Deve-Boyun to the Gurji-Bogaz defiles their losses were not more than 12,000, a large part of which were deaths or injuries due to exposure.
The capture of the great fortress, hitherto considered impregnable, sent a thrill through the whole continent. Every bazaar from Shiraz to Samarkand, from Konia to Kuldja, began talking of the great Urus, who had taken Erzerum from the Osmanli.
Russian military prestige in the East had fallen very low since the Sarikamish battle and Enver Pasha's advance into the Caucasus in December, 1914. But the Dardanelles expedition had given the Turks something else to think of than conquering the Caucasus, and had thus afforded the Russians the necessary respite to prepare for their' attack on Erzerum which in its turn saved the British from being driven completely out of Mesopotamia.
The capture of Erzerum was the first great success that came to the Allies in Asia. It might be regarded as the turning point of the war in the East.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
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