From Erzurum to Sardarapat – 1915-1918

From Erzurum to Sardarapat – 1915-1918

In 1915-1916, as a result of the victories of the tsarist army and the efforts of the Armenian military and volunteers, a significant part of Western Armenia was liberated from the Turkish yoke. After that, the Armenian refugees, who were shy of death and had miraculously escaped from the massacres, began to return to their native lands.

In a short time, about 300 thousand people returned to their homeland. In turn, hundreds of thousands of Turks and Kurds, fearing revenge, left the Armenian lands, following the example of the retreating Turkish army.

After the overthrow of the monarchical system in Russia on February 27, 1917, Armenians received a real opportunity to repopulate their native lands and revive them.

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Russian army was withdrawn from Western Armenia and the Transcaucasia, which left the defense of the front exclusively to the newly created Armenian army.

It should be noted that at that time, the Armenian army consisted of more than 40 thousand soldiers and officers, whereas the total number of the joint forces of the Ottoman army and the various rabble who cooperated with it was only 30 thousand. It should be also noted that about 40 thousand Armenian soldiers were concentrated in Baku.

In these days, the Turkish troops failed on all fronts, thereby bringing closer the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Under these conditions, the Lenin revolution and the subsequent retreat of the Russian troops from Western Armenia became a miracle for the Turks, allowing them to reach unprecedented success.

The entire responsibility for the defense of Western Armenia fell on the shoulders of Armenians who tried their best to draw the attention of their neighbors, Georgians and Tatars, to the need for joint defense in the event of a possible Turkish attack.

In the conditions of the political crisis that had begun in Russia, the Transcaucasian Commissariat was established on November 15, 1917, in Tiflis. As a governing body in the region, the Commissariat, to put it mildly, was indifferent to the problems of Armenians.

In the area called “politics”, we were like a ship lost in the ocean, whose captains were mostly inexperienced and illiterate, and a significant part of the sailors was either indecisive or thought about leaving the ship in this anarchy.

Of course, there were individuals able of leading the nation, but thanks to some evil, they were pushed back into secondary roles and were unable to unite the Armenians in this condition of chaos.

During the spontaneous retreat in 1917, the Russian army left in Western Armenia about three thousand guns, three thousand machine guns, about a million shells, one billion rounds, 100 thousand rifles (Mosin and carbines), winter and summer uniform for 100 thousand people, and a two-year reserve of provisions for 100 thousand soldiers. In addition, about 17 thousand horses, a large number of carts, trucks, and passenger vehicles were left.

We were unable to organize ourselves and could not become the masters of this huge inheritance left behind by the tsarist army. All this, with rare exceptions, fell into the hands of the hungry and weakened Turks who went on their first offensives with caution, being weaker than the Armenians both in number and in arms but showing will and stubbornness.

On February 10, 1918, the enemy occupied Trabzon with almost no resistance. On the same day, Andranik Ozanyan arrived in Erzurum (Karin). The front’s shrinking and the grouping of Armenian forces around Erzurum was a sign of panic, but the main difficulty was the chaos prevailing in the city fortress. Andranik sent a message about this to Tiflis.

“There is chaos, in the full sense of the word, both in breadth and length. Otishelidze (general front commander, son-in-law of Vehib Pasha) is giving orders, the National Council is giving orders, authorized representative of the city alliance Aghamalyan (who, as it turned out, had been selling weapons and food to the Turks from the fortress warehouses) is ordering that those who wake up earlier are the ones who give orders.

Everyone is giving orders, so I cannot command. There are 4,000 regular soldiers in the fortress and as many irregular, and 500 regular cavalrymen and as many irregular. There are dozens of guns in good condition. The Turks now do not have enough troops, officers, and specialists. The arsenal of Turkish weapons is limited, the supply of food is zero. But the Turks have what we don’t have – discipline.”

Torgom Turikyan, one of the defenders of the front under the command of Colonel Mihran, in his memoirs tells about the state of affairs in Erzurum:

“It was dark when I entered the city. And what I saw, my God… The streets of Karin were full of young people in military uniform. It was difficult to discern whether these people were a mob without a leader and without a rudder or Armenian deserters.

In fact, enemy guns rumbled nearby, and only a few people could repel the rounds with their chest. There were no powers in Karin that could bring order among these deserters and send them to the front…”

The author of the book “Andranik” Avetis Terzipashian, referring to the same events, writes:

“The soldiers shouted that this is not our country, that we must return to our country and let the Turkish Armenians defend their borders themselves.

Andranik somewhat tried to raise the morale of the Armenian soldiers with his own example. Once, with a saber in his hand, he tried to lead the soldiers, but no one followed him. And when he bashed one of them, he was met with a gun barrel. On another occasion, a deserter even shot in the direction of Andranik but fortunately missed.

On the day before the fall of Erzurum, Andranik launched an attack in accordance with a well-thought-out plan. But shortly after the attack was launched, the news came that the experienced Armenian colonel Bezhanbekov had fled, not warning anyone and without making a single shot.

Andranik was able to bring back those retreating, opening fire at them. ‘If you don’t fight here, you won’t fight in other places either,’ he shouted. Those who did not want to fight under the walls of Erzurum were the soldiers of the first and fourth regiments who again deserted a few hours later and were killed on their way home by Turkish fire in the canyon…

‘Tell the descendants that I am alone, and I remain alone under the walls of Karin,’ groaned the 53-year-old hero.”

The news of the fall of Karin was overwhelming. All Armenians were shocked. Everyone was looking for causes and perpetrators. And everyone remained in the role of critics.

The reasons for Karin’s fall indicated by Avetis Terzipashian are instructive and meaningful.

“The Russians who, after Brest-Litovsk, were to leave Erzurum to the Turks, and who did not care who got Erzurum, the Turks or the Armenians.

The Georgians, who ceded the Armenian lands to the Turks in the most effective way of saving their borders.

The Tatars who were waiting for the arrival of the Turks with open arms.

Armenians, Russian Armenians and Turkish Armenians, Armenian nationalists, and internationalists who were against Andranik and with Andranik, Armenians on whom the age-old slavery could not have left no traces.

Andranik did not despair even in this chaos. He went into battle with a small detachment, but he could save nothing more than Armenian military honor.”

Telling about the fall of Karin, Simon Vratsian wrote:

“On February 27, 1918, Erzurum fell in the most shameful way… These days, a type of people appeared in Tiflis defending the front with a cup of tea. All sorts of committees, councils, unions, groups, and companies, constantly calling for something. These days in Tiflis, there were more of them than military units on the very front from Van to Yerznka.”

“Under these conditions, even if Napoleon Bonaparte himself stood at the command of the Armenian army, in all likelihood, he would not be able to become a savior or protect the Armenian fortress city, neither Erzurum nor Kars,” Mikael Varandian later said.

After the fall of the Erzurum fortress, Andranik and his loyal comrades, defending the rear and flanks of thousands of refugees, headed towards Sarygamysh. On April 10, the enemy occupied Sarygamysh and two days later Kars, which had been considered impregnable and whose warehouses doubled the military legacy inherited by the Turks.

When Andranik spoke of the need to transfer weapons and food supplies to Lori’s warehouses and other safe places, he was objected that no one was thinking about retreat.

In fact, in just two months (February 10 – April 10, 1918), without any serious resistance, the Turks seized Western Armenia. Refugee caravans, suffering hardship and heavy losses, fled to Tiflis and Yerevan.

Continuing their military campaign, parts of the Turkish army reached the outskirts of Karakilisa, Bash-Aparan, and Sardarapat. The question was “to be or not to be Armenians cringing on the last piece of Armenia.” All roads of escape were blocked. In preparation for the terrible battle, many said with pain and regret that “our Sardarapat” should have been under the walls of Erzurum.

Arshaluis Zurabyan

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