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Belligerents and Participants
Armenia’s status had shifted many times during its long history between being an independent kingdom to a province of a foreign empire. The Ottoman Turks ruled over this region since the 16th century, until they lost it through a war with Russia in 1828. The Russians eventually returned part of this territory in a peace deal; and so when World War One erupted, Armenians found themselves living in both the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Though Ottoman rule theoretically provided equal rights for all its people their was a long history of ethnic clashes. Their Armenian population had long been suspect, which led to great violence back in the -1890Ős. Thee problems were enhanced when the Young Turks came to power with their notions of racial purity.
Once Ottoman warships attacked Russian Black Sea ports, the Russians immediately launched the Bergmann Offensive into the Caucasus on November 1, 1914. This was met by an Ottoman offensive aimed at Kars, but they were defeated by the Russians at the Battle of Sarikamish and forced to retreat to the fortified city of Erzerum. Though the Ottomans had not been prepared to fight a winter campaign, they began looking for a scapegoat. While most Armenians were loyal subjects, they took the blame for Turkish defeats. Armenians serving as soldiers in the Ottoman army were then dismissed and placed into labor battalions in early 1915.
By March 1915 Turkey had begun a campaign to purge itself of what it saw as internal enemies. Armenian newspapers were shut down and their leaders arrested and murdered, which was followed by mass deportations. While claims were made that deportation would protect them from bad Russian influence, the move helped consolidate the power of the Turkish leadership by providing a popular a scapegoat for years of troubles. Deportees were sent on death marches where they were not provided with food and those who lagged behind were shot. This is often cited as the beginning of the Armenian genocide in which the Turks tried to systematically exterminate the Armenians and other ethnic groups that they suspected might turn against them. While Turkey has adopted a stance of official denial, some have suggested that the Allies were slow to recognize the documentation of war crimes because of their own reluctance to provide aid to the survivors.
In response to Turkish oppression, an Armenian rebellion broke out in which they seized the fortress of Van. The Russians in the Caucasus then resumed their offensive at Sarikamish forcing the Turks to retreat but they could not take the heavily fortified city of Erzurum. Another Russian offensive was also launched in the southern Caucasus reaching Van in May, but after a number of seesaw battles they were forced to withdraw in August. Upon their returned to Van the Turks began slaughtering the Armenian population. In January 1916 the Russians commanded by General Yudenich launched a winter offensive in the Caucasus defeating the Turks at Koprukoy. The Turks then retreated to their fortified positions at Erzerum but the Russians quickly followed and unexpectedly took the city in February. They continued to advance taking Rize and Trebizond in April. The Turks had already expelled the Armenians from the area, and now the Russians took revenge on the Muslim population.
Though the Russians had been very successful on the Caucasus front, bad weather subdued further fighting. When conditions for campaigning improved in the spring of 1917, the Russian army was disintegrating due to the February Revolution. The Turks who desperately needed to send reinforcements to other fronts could not take advantage of this situation, and there was no fighting in this sector this year. On December 16th the Armistice of Erzincan was signed and the Russians began withdrawing their remaining troops. As the Russian Army retreated from the Caucasus, the British encouraged the Armenians to hold the line against the Turks.
By February the Transcaucasian Democratic Republic was formed consisting of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians who combined their military resources in resistance. In March 1918 the Russians signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that ended their War with the Ottomans, and they were forced to concede the Transcaucasus back to the Turks. When negotiations over the future of Transcaucasus went nowhere, the Turks resumed their offensive in Armenia, recapturing Erzerun, Van, Kars and Trabzon. The Germans promised the Russians they would stop this advance in exchange for the oil at Baku, but they had lost their influence over the Turks who were now embarked on a holy war. Their leader, Enver Pasha had established the jihadist Army of Islam with grand visions of creating a Pan-Turkish empire.
This new offensive in the Caucasus marked the beginning of the Armenian-Azerbaijani War. The Turks then demanded the breakup of the Transcaucasian Republic, and the Republic of Armenia declared its independence on May 28, 1918. The Turks made their own peace with Armenia in June, but later in the year when they took control over Azerbaijan, they massacred the Armenians there in retaliation for their massacre of Muslims during the March days. Despite efforts to negotiate borders, the desire of both parties to seize more territory led the Armenian-Azerbaijani War continued until they were forced to stop fighting in August. This conflict would reignite again in 1920.
(See the Wars of Ideology section of this Guide for further post-WWI information concerning ongoing fighting with the Turks)