A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Other Middle East War in 1914: The Bergmann Offensive in the Caucasus

In my recent preview of coming attractions for my centennial seties on the First World War in the Middle East, I noted that the front between the Ottoman and Russian Empires in the Caucasus was little known in the West. Yet some of the hardest fighting the Ottoman Army endured in that war was against the Russian Army in the Transcaucasus. If this Turkish Eastern Front has any resonance among Western readers it is almost exclusively due to the fate of the Armenians (which I have no intention of avoiding as we discuss the centennial of the Great War). But this part of Turkey's war lasted longer than the others, due to the upheavals in the Transcaucasus after the Russian Revolution. Now, as it happens, I read neither Turkish nor Russian. And while the British Official Histories often provide extensive translation of Turkish.. Before Turkey's entry into the war, Russia had been stripping the Caucasus front of troops to reinforce the Eastern Front with Germany, where things had gone badly since the Battle of Tannenberg in August.

As a result, Russian forces in the theater were outnumbered by their Ottoman counterparts. This did not dissuade Russia from taking the offensive since, like Turkey's enemies (and even its ally Germany) they had a low esteem for Turkey's military abilities. They would learn, as the British would at Kut and Gallipoli, that whatever the weaknesses of Ottoman leadership, the soldiers were another matter. Russia did not even wait for its own November 2 declaration of war, but crossed the border on November 1, 1914.

Let me note that the borders were not those of today. Russia had taken the Armenian areas around Yerevan (now part of Armenia) from Persia in the early 19th century and the area around Kars (now part of Turkey) after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Georgy Eduardovich Bergmann
The initial Russian operations were commanded by the First Caucasian Army Commander, General Georgy Eduardovich Bergmann. (Also Bergman and, since the Cyrillic spelling is Берхман, it even occasionally appears as Berhman.) He has no English Wikipedia page but does have a Russian one. In Western histories the first Russian thrust tends to be known as the Bergmann  Offensive. His main base was Kars. He had little experience of field command.

Hasan Izzat Pasha
Opposing him, and commanding the Ottoman Third Army, was Hasan Izzat Pasha (modern Turkish, Hasan İzzet Paşa, later Hasan İzzet Arolat), a veteran of the Balkan Wars, based in Erzerum.

Wikipedia's article on the Bergmann Offensive has a decent map of the operation, though why a map on a campaign between Russia and Turkey is captioned in Spanish is a bit of a puzzle.Ofensiva Bergman.png
At dawn on November 2 the main Russian forces crossed the border. Bergmann was in command in the center, leading off from Sarakamish in the direction of Köprüköy, while a brigade under General Istomin moved on his right toward Id, and a Cossack force under Gen. Nikolai Baratov moved on his left. toward the Aras River.

After pushing through light resistance from Turkish border troops, the Russian advance reached a point 17 miles inside Turkish territory. But on November 5, Bergmann decided to push on towards Köprüköy.

As it happened, the Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha had ordered Hasan Izzat to take the offensive, and he counterattacked with elements of the Third Army's IXth and XIth Corps. They met the Russians on November 6. The next day the Russians took Köprüköy and the bridge over the Aras, but then encountered trouble. They were outnumbered and the Turks held the heights around the town in strength.On November 11 Izzat attacked with four infantry divisions and a cavalry division along both banks of the Aras, turned Bergmann's flank and recaptured the town.Bergmann retreated to the line he had reached on the 4th.

But after this the tables turned. The Russians reinforced and counterattacked, and the local Turkish commander decided he was outnumbered and decided yo retreat. The Turkish armies lacked telephone communications and neither side grasped the situation.  The Russians did not detect the Turkish retreat and did not capitalize on it.

The next major engagement would come at Sarakamish in December. By then the winter snows had arrived.

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