By Stanford J. Shaw

Stanford J. Shaw is a Professor of History at the University of California, and Ezel Kural Shaw is an Associate Professor of History at the California State University. The excerpt below is taken from their book, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. II (pp. 314-7)

During 1914-1916: “Knowing their numbers would never justify their territorial ambitions, Armenians looked to Russia and Europe for the fulfillment of their aims. Armenian treachery in this regard culminated at the begining of the First World War with the decision of the revolutionary organizations to refuse to serve their state, the Ottoman Empire, and to assist instead other invading Russian armies. Their hope was their participation in the Russian success would be rewarded with an independent Armenian state carved out of Ottoman territories. Armenian political leaders, army officers, and common soldiers began deserting in droves.

“With the Russian invasion of eastern Anatolia in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, the degree of Armenian collaboration with the Ottoman’s enemy increased drastically. Ottoman supply lines were cut by guerilla attacks, Armenian revolutionaries armed Armenian civilian populations, who in turn massacred the Muslim population of the province of Van in anticipation of expected arrival of the invading Russian armies.

Ottoman response was to order the relocation of its Armenian subjects from the path of the invading Russians and other areas where they might undermine the Ottoman war effort. The Ottomans could no longer determine which of the Armenians would remain loyal and which would follow the appeal of their leaders.

The Northeastern Front 1914-1916: “German strategy prevailed at the outset, so that Enver had to concentrate first on his ambitions in the east. Almost as soon as he became minister of war he began to strengthen the Third Army, based at Erzurum, which covered the entire area of northeastern Anatolia from Lake Van to the Black Sea, thus it was ready to attack almost as soon as war was declared. Enver made a last effort to secure the support of the sultan’s Armenian subjects, but a meeting at Erzurum with Armenian leaders from Russia as well as the Ottoman Empire was unsuccessful. Russia already had promised the Armenians an autonomous state including not only the areas under Russian rule in the Caucasus but also substantial parts of eastern Anatolia with, presumably, Russian help in finishing the job begun in 1877 of driving out or eliminating the Muslims who still comprised the vast majority of their populations. The Armenian leaders told Enver only that they wanted to remain neutral, but their sympathy for the Russians were evident and in fact soon after the meeting “several prominent Ottoman Armenians, including a former member of parliament, slipped away to Caucasus to collaborate with Russian military officials,” making it clear that the Armenians would do everything they could to frustrate Ottoman military action.

“Still Enver decided that the Ottoman security forces were strong enough to prevent any Armenian sabotage, and preparations were made for a winter assault. Meanwhile, Czar Nicholas II himself came to the Caucasus to make final plans for cooperation with the Armeniaans against the Ottomans, with the president of the Armenian National Bureau in Tiflis declaring in response:

“From all countries Armenians are hurrying to enter the ranks of the glorious Russian Army, with their blood to serve the victory of Russian arms…Let the Russian flag wave freely over the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. Let, with Your will, great Majesty, the peoples remaining under the Turkish yoke receive freedom. Let the Armenian people of Turkey who have suffered for the faith of Christ receive resurrection for a new free life under the protection of Russia.”

“Armenians again flooded into the czarist armies. Preparations were made to strike the Ottomans from the rear, and the czar returned to St. Petersburg confident that the day finally had come for him to reach Istanbul.

“Hostilities were opened by the Russians, who pushed across the border on November 1, 1914, though the Ottomans stopped them and pushed them back a few days later. On December 21 Enver personally led the Third Army in a counterattack. He aimed to cut the Russian lines of communications from the Caucasus to their main base at Kars and to reoccupy it along with Ardahan and Batum as the first step toward an invasion of the Caucasus. Key to the envelopment operation was the border town of Sarikamis, which lay astride the main route from Kars to the north. The Ottomans managed to occupy the town on December 26, but the Russians then retook it. A subsequent Russian counteroffensive in January caused the Ottoman Army to scatter, with over three-fourths of the men lost as they attempted to find their way back to safety. Ottoman morale and military position in the east were seriously hurt, and the way was prepared for a new Russian push into eastern Anatolia, to be accompanied by an open Armenian revolt against the Sultan.

“In the initial stages of the Caucasus campaign the Russians had demonstrated the best means of organizing a campaign by evacuating the Armenians from their side of the border to clear the area for battle, with the Armenians going quite willingly in the expectation that a Russian victory would soon enable them not merely return to their homes but also to occupy those of the Turks across the border. Enver followed this example to prepare the Ottoman side and to resist the expected Russian invasion. Armenian leaders in any case now declared their open support for the enemy, and there seemed no other alternative. It would be impossible to determine which of the Armenians would remain loyal and which would follow the appeals of their leaders.

“As soon as spring came, then, in mid-May 1915 orders were issued to evacuate the entire Armenian population from the provinces of Van, Bitlis and Erzurum, to get them away from all areas where they might undermine the Ottoman campaigns against Russia or against the British in Egypt, with arrangements made to settle them in towns and camps in the Mosul area of northern Iraq. In addition, Armenians residing in the countryside (but not in the cities) of the Cilician districts as well as those of north Syria were to be sent to central Syria for the same reason. Specific instructions were issued for the army to protect the Armenians against nomadic attacks and to provide them with sufficient food and other supplies to meet their needs during the march and after they were settled. Warnings were sent to the Ottoman military commanders to make certain that neither the Kurds nor any other Muslims used the situation to gain vengeance for the long years of Armenian terrorism. The Armenians were to be protected and cared for until they returned to their homes after the war.

“A supplementary law established a special commission to record the properties of some deportees and to sell them at auction at fair prices, with the revenues being held in trust until their return. Muslims wishing to occupy abandoned buildings could do so only as renters, with the revenues paid to the trust funds, and with the understanding that they would have to leave when the original owners returned. The deportees and their possessions were to be guarded by the army while in transit as well as in Iraq and Syria, and the government would provide for their return once the crisis was over.

“The Entente propaganda mills and Armenian nationalists claimed that over a million Armenians were massacred during the war. But this was based on the assumption that the prewar Armenian population numbered about 2.5 million. The total number of Armenians in the empire before the war in fact came to at most 1,300,000 according to the Ottoman census. About half of these were resident in the affected areas, but, with the city dwellers allowed to remain, the number actually transported came to no more than 400,000, including some terrorists and agitators from the cities rounded up soon after the war began. In addition, approximately one-half million Armenians subsequently fled into the Caucasus and elsewhere during the remainder of the war. Since about 100,000 Armenians lived in the empire afterward, and about 150,000 to 200,000 immigrated to western Europe and the United States, one can assume that about 200,000 perished as a result not only of the transportation but also of the same conditions of famine, disease, and war action that carried away some 2 million Muslims at the same time. Careful examination of the secret records of the Ottoman cabinet at the time reveals no evidence that any of the CUP leaders, or anyone else in the central government, ordered massacres. To the contrary, orders were to the provincial forces to prevent all kinds of raids and communal disturbances that might cause loss of life.

“April 1915, even before the deportation orders were issued, Dashnaks from Russian Armenia organized a revolt in the city of Van, whose 33,789 Armenians comprised 42.3 percent of the population, closest to an Armenian majority of any city in the empire. While the local Armenian leaders tried to restrain their followers, knowing they would suffer in any prolonged communal conflict with the Muslim majority, they were overwhelmed by the agitators from the north, who promised Russian military assistance if only they showed their loyalty to the czar by helping to drive the Muslims out. The Russian Army of the Caucasus also began an offensive toward Van with the help of a large force of Armenian volunteers recruited from among refugees from Anatolia as well as local Caucasus residents. Leaving Erivan on April 28, 1915, only a day after the deportation orders had been issued in Istanbul and long before new of them could have reached the east, they reached Van on May 14 and organized and carried out a general slaughter of the local Muslim population during the next two days while the small Ottoman garrison had to retreat to the southern side of the lake.

“An Armenian state was organized at Van under Russian protection, and it appeared that with the Muslim natives dead or driven away, it might be able to maintain itself at one of the oldest centers of ancient Armenian civilization. An Armenian legion was organized “to expel the Turks from the entire southern shore of the lake in preparation for a concerted Russian drive into the Bitlis vilayet.” Thousands of Armenians from Mus and other major centers in the east began to flood into the new Armenian state, including many who broke away from the deportation columns as they passed the vicinity on their way to Mosul. By mid-July there were as many as 250,000 Armenians crowded into the Van area, which before the crisis had housed and fed no more than 50,000 people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Early in July, however, Ottoman reinforcements pushed the Russo-Armenian army back. It was accompanied by thousands of Armenians who feared punishment for the killings that had made possible the short-lived state. “The panic was indescribable. After the month-long resistance to Cevdet Bey, after the city’s liberation, after the establishment of an Armenian governorship, all was blighted.

“Fleeing behind the retreating Russian forces, nearly two hundred thousand refugees, losing most of their possessions in repeated Kurdish ambushes, swarmed into Transcaucasia, with as many as 40,000 Armenians perishing during the flight. The number of refugees cited encompassed essentially all those Armenians of the eastern provinces who had not been subjected to the deportations. Those who died thus did so mainly while accompanying the retreating Russian army into the Caucasus, not as a result of direct Ottoman efforts to kill them.