Dreams of an Empire Lost in Snow: Armenians the Scape Goat

Most North Americans view the rise of nationalism as a good thing. After all, without the spirit of nationalism growing in the thirteen English colonies along the eastern coast of North America, there would have been no United States of America.

The spirit of nationalism that grew in Ottoman Turkey, however, took a twisted turn for the worse at the beginning of World War I. As was mentioned in the previous post, the Turkish government gathered, trained, and armed militias formed from released convicts, Rumelian refugees from Thrace, and the Kurds of the Anatolian Plains in the autumn of 1914. In December of 1914, the Ottoman government joined the war in Europe on the side of Germany.

That same autumn, the Ottoman government conscripted Greeks and Armenians. Men from the ages of 20 to 45 went into the Turkish army. Boys from the ages of 15 to 20 and men from the ages of 45 to 60 were assigned to be porters for the army or labor battalions for road construction. Armenian colleges were stripped of their male students.

The Armenian men and boys, who served as porters to carry the supplies of the army, were driven with whips like pack animals. A group of three hundred were driven from Moush to the Russian frontier in the Caucasus Mountain. During the three-week journey thirty or forty porters died before they even got to their destination (2006, A Shameful Act:  The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility).

Enver Pasha, the Young Turks’ Minister of War, left Constantinople on December 6, 1914, to take command of the Third Army. The Ottoman government’s propagandist Zia Gokalp promoted  a Turkic empire that stretched from Anatolia through the Transcaucasia to central Asia (Black Dog of Fate:  A Memoir). Minister Enver and his army corps were bent on accomplishing just that.

Enver’s decision to attack Russia as soon as the Ottoman government entered the world war proved to be a horrible miscalculation. The battle front was six hundred miles from the nearest railhead; bridges were in disrepair; the journey took six weeks; and early snowstorms blocked mountain passes. To make matters worse troops and porters in summer uniforms were bivouacked without tents in -30 degree F weather. Food ran out. An epidemic of typhus hit troops and porters hard. The artillery had to be abandoned because of the deep snow; sections of the Turkish army lost contact with each other; and units got lost in the mountain passes.

Even then, Enver ordered a surprise attack on Sarikamish (a Russian base). The Russians destroyed the Turkish army. Out of approximately one hundred thousand men, eighty-six percent were lost (1989, A Peace to End All Peace). The few who survived straggled back home in January of 1915.

Ripples from this disaster extended for months to come. With few Armenian men to harvest the 1914 crops and many horses or donkeys drafted from across Anatolia for the attack on the Russians, cereal acreage was cut 50%, prices rose eventually to one thousand six hundred seventy-five percent, and famine stalked the land (A Peace to End All Peace).

In early January of 1915, a rumor spread from Constantinople that accused the Armenians of causing the Turkish army to lose the battle at Sarikamish. The Ottoman government encouraged the Kurdish militias, the Hamidiye, to attack Armenian villages. The Kurds destroyed fifty-two of them the winter of 1914 – 1915 (p. 139, A Peace to End All Peace). On February 25, 1915, a firman (edit) signed by Minister of War Enver ordered that all Armenians be disarmed. This order included those serving in the army and those serving as gendarmes, the local police units of towns.

The Armenians’ service to their country counted for nothing. Their loss as soldiers in battle or as porters from overwork, starvation, inclement weather, or disease made the next move that much easier for the Young Turks who had control of the Ottoman government.  

In 1915, Minister of the Interior Talaat stepped forward with his own twist on nationalism. Although the Ottoman Empire had included many people groups, languages, and religions for centuries and the Young Turks had promised equal rights for all, they actually had a totally different agenda. What they really wanted and planned for was a Turkey only for Turks. No one else (A Peace to End All Peace). Armenians and Greeks were to be eliminated. Kurds were to be forcibly assimilated (p. 105, 1996, A Modern History of the Kurds).

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