The Tsar’s Last War on the Ottomans

MEV-10289679 - © - Mary Evans / John Massey Stewart Collection
A British cartoon satirising the role of Russia during the First World War: The steam roller is truly Russian and Crushin’. Tsar Nicholas II drives th…

A few years ago I obtained a copy of Sean McMeekin’s book ‘The Russian origins of the First World War’. It is certainly a very interesting read, particularly because it looks at something that Western histories neglect about the Great War – the role of Czarist Russia. Czarist Russia, of course, collapsed in its waging of this war. Because it does not fit the narrative constructed by the Anglo-French accounts of the war its role has been handily forgotten. But Russia was the lynch-pin of the Triple Entente’s war on Germany and the position which the Ottoman Empire found itself in during the latter part of 1914 is incomprehensible without taking account of Russia.

Tsar Nicholas II offered his country and its population up to Britain in its Great War of 1914 to destroy Germany and break up the Ottoman Empire. He did so as an autocrat within an autocratic system in which the mass of the population only demanded stability in which to live their lives, from the “Little Father”. In waging that War, in which Russia was bled to collapse in return for substantial British finance to continue fighting to the bitter end, the Tsar sealed the fate of himself, his dynasty and his State. The Tsar had been warned for a long time before about the dangerous road he was taking by his most able and impressive minister, Count Witte, who Nicholas dismissed in 1903. He received one final warning of great substance from Pyotr Durnovo, Count Witte’s old Interior Minister, who had effectively suppressed the 1905 Revolution for the Tsar. But Tsar Nicholas persisted and he took Russia to the abyss.

Of course, when autocratic Russia collapsed her place in the Great War was taken by democratic America and the Imperialist war on Germany became something else, for both the remaining parties to the Entente and their historians.  A democratic gloss could be put on the subsequent war with the Czar out of the way – although on the downside restrictions were imposed in the carving up of the spoils amongst the remaining Imperialists (Britain, France, etc.) by the great democracy (the U.S.).

Germans Guilty, Russia more Guilty!

Sean McMeekin wrote another book, a few years before his Russia book, called ‘The Berlin-Baghdad Express’. In this previous book the author put forward the view that the Great War represented an attempt by the Germans and Turks at world domination. ‘The Berlin to Baghdad Express’ represented a modern manifestation of John Buchan’s Wellington House propaganda popularised in his novel ‘Greenmantle’ (the sequel to ‘The 39 Steps’).

McMeekin certainly deserves credit for identifying the Berlin-Baghdad Railway as a major cause of the Great War. If one reads British publications of the time that impression is inescapable – although it has escaped the grasp of most academics.

However, when writing a review of the ‘The Berlin to Baghdad Express’ for Athol Books’ Church and State magazine it became apparent to me that his account of the importance of the Railway was precisely the opposite of mine. McMeekin saw the Railway as the chief instrument of the German/Islamic bid for world power that made it necessary for Britain to make war in 1914. I saw it as the thing that connected the German commercial rise to the Ottoman Empire that marked both states out for destruction in the British Imperial mind.

To hold McMeekin’s position one must accept the Anglophile view of the world – that it is perfectly natural to cut competitors down to size because they represent potential challengers to England’s world supremacy. And of course this was Britain’s view in 1914 expressed in a thousand publications by its thinking class.

However, if one sees this as an unnatural state of affairs the world then looks to be a different place entirely.

Sean McMeekin, however, has changed his view in his newer book. Having delved into the Russian State archives he makes the bold statement: “I contend in this book that the current consensus about the First World War cannot survive serious scrutiny. The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.” (p.5)

Presumably if the war was not Germany’s it certainly was not Turkey’s either.

McMeekin states that “the current consensus about the First World War” still blames it on the Germans. And having previously gone along with the “current consensus” McMeekin has now decided that it can no longer stand in the light of what he has discovered.

McMeekin blames the “current consensus” on Fritz Fischer who “taught several generations of historians to pay serious attention only to German war aims.” (p.3) Fischer’s book, ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht,’ was published in Germany in 1961. It was issued in Britain under the title Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1967. Fischer argued that Germany had a set of annexationist war aims similar to those of Hitler and a policy of deliberately provoking war in July 1914.

But surely there is a similar narrative older than that of Fischer’s – the guilty German. Isn’t Fischer merely a product of the ideas and world that John Buchan et al helped create and which the German succumbed to when being pulverized by force in two world wars? (I should say that East Germany succumbed to a different narrative in 1945, with a great deal of enthusiasm, but that narrative is now dead and need not be considered).

Russian War Aims

Having broken free of Fischer’s influence, McMeekin comes across some important facts in his book. One of them is the following: “Russia’s war was fought not for Serbia, but to achieve control of Constantinople and the Straits… control of the Straits was Russia’s first strategic priority.” (p.239)

A few years ago when I was writing ‘Britain’s Great War on Turkey’ it occurred to me to ask the question: why Russia was fighting in the Great War at all. That is a question that is not asked very often in the West. McMeekin notes: “As for what Russia’s leaders hoped to accomplish by going to war in 1914, most histories of the conflict have little to say, beyond vague mutterings about Serbia and Slavic honor, treaty obligations to France, and concern for Russia’s status as a great power.” (p.2)

It is indeed taken for granted that Russia should want to fight Germany because it was part of an alliance that did its duty against her. But that explains very little.

It might be pretended that Russia had territorial desires in Eastern Europe in relation to the Austro-Hungarian State. However, McMeekin correctly points out: “Austrian Galicia clearly mattered to Russia’s leaders but nowhere near as much as the Straits. For Russia, the war of 1914 was always, ultimately, about Turkey.” (p.101)

Galicia mattered because the salient that was Russian Poland felt exposed by having East Prussia to the North and Austrian Western Galicia (Cracow etc.) to the South. It was one of those extensions of Empire that often felt vulnerable in the Imperial view unless territory around it was added to protect it. But then more territory had to be added to protect the new territorial acquisition and so on, in infinitum. That was how Empires had almost a mind of their own in their growth.

McMeekin correctly points out that although Anglo-French efforts to carve up Ottoman territory dominate accounts of the demise of the Ottoman State the role of Russia is almost forgotten – due to the collapse of the Czarist State in 1917 before a sharing out of the spoils amongst the victors could be accomplished.

He also usefully notes that the Great War is seen in very different terms in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Egypt than it is in the West:

“From the perspective of present-day residents of these places, the First World War appears not as a kind of senseless civil war between European nations which have now long since learned to live in peace but more like a deliberate plot to disrupt and dismantle the last great Islamic power on earth, Ottoman Turkey. What were the Italian and Balkan wars fought by the Turks in 1911-1913, after all, but a kind of opening act for the world war of 1914, in which great powers threw in with the smaller ones already fighting to dismember the Ottoman Empire?” (p.4)

There is certainly a case for arguing that what began in Libya in 1911 and continued into the Balkans in 1912 had great implications for what subsequently happened from 1914 on, when the direct participation of Britain produced a qualitative escalation in throwing the region into the melting-pot of history – a melting-pot from which it still struggles to emerge.

Russia’s Strategic Imperatives

McMeekin’s chapter ‘The strategic imperative in 1914’ describes Russia’s intentions towards the Ottoman Empire.

The Balkan Wars had the effect of convincing Russia that the dismembering of Ottoman Turkey was a realistic possibility not only because of the defeats suffered by the Ottoman army at the hands of the Bulgarians, Greeks and Serbs but also because of the reluctance of Austria to intervene in the conflict. McMeekin argues that the Russians realised that the only power standing between their dream of occupying Constantinople and turning it into ‘Czargrad’ was Germany.

McMeekin comments that the two major fears of Russia at this time were the worry of a “Crimean coalition” emerging against them or another ‘Congress of Berlin’ being organised to cheat them of the spoils they might win on the battlefield, to deprive them of Constantinople when they had won it.

McMeekin, however, fails to mention the pertinent fact of the all-important 1907 agreement between the Russians and Britain. This altered everything. Firstly, it meant that there would be no “Crimean coalition” organised against Russia to frustrate their intentions in the Black Sea toward Constantinople because both the French and British were now the allies of the Czar. Also, the logic of this agreement implied Russian help against Germany in return for an ending of the Anglo-French block on a Russian move down to Istanbul.

McMeekin notes that during the First Balkans War a discussion took place in Russia about whether to wait for a general European war to take place in order to seize Constantinople or to seize an opportunity presented by the Ottoman collapse in the Balkans. Sazanov, the Czar’s Foreign Minister, argued in a memorandum, for a Russian intervention to seize Constantinople, before the Bulgarians got there. Conquering Constantinople would, he argued, give Russia a “global position which is the natural crown of her efforts and sacrifices over two centuries of our history.” He was opposed, however, by Yuri Danilov, the chief architect of Russia’s war plan 19, who suggested that “the shortest and safest operational route to Constantinople runs through Vienna… and Berlin.” (p. 26)

McMeekin explains that the Russian desire to come down to Constantinople was not just a romantic dream about worshipping again in St Sophia it also had a strong economic impulse:

“Because of the centuries-old Russian interest in ‘Tsargrad’ as the ‘Second Rome’ of Orthodox Christian dreams, the Straits obsession of Russian policymakers like Sazanov in the early 20th century has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be romantic. In fact, Russia’s designs on the Straits, unlike her shadowy pan Slavic pretensions in the Balkans, were a matter of cold, hard national interest… In economic terms, the importance of the Straits of Russia was stark and true. Although calculations differed on the exact figure, something approaching half of Russia’s burgeoning export trade was, by 1914, routed via the Black Sea, Bosphorus, and Dardanelles to world markets. When, in summer 1912, the Porte had briefly closed the straits to shipping during the Italian Turkish war, Russia’s vulnerability had been painfully exposed: the volume of Black Sea exports dropped by one third for the calendar year 1912, and revenue likewise dipped 30%, from £77 million Sterling to 57 million. Heavy industry in the Ukraine, dependent on supplies imported directly through the Straits near the Black Sea, had nearly ground to a halt… To understand the overriding importance of the Straits question for Petersburg, however, we must go beyond numbers. Russia’s principal Black Sea export was grain. Over 20,000,000 tonnes were shipped in both 1911 and 1912, of which nearly 90% was exported through the Bosphorus to world markets: the health of her entire agricultural economy now depended on unfettered Straits access. Stimulating grain production was, moreover, the key to Stolypin’s social reforms, which envisaged the creation of a stable class of successful peasant producers who would serve as a bulwark against anarchic social revolution… “ (pp.29-30)

The Russian Predicament

Sean McMeekin makes an interesting point about the pressure that suddenly appeared on Russia in late 1913 with regard to their objective of capturing Constantinople. After the Balkans Wars the Ottomans began to strengthen the Straits defences by appointing Liman von Sanders and other German officers as advisers as well as purchasing coastal defence guns from Italy. However, most worrying of all was the naval alliance Turkey had with Britain and the two dreadnoughts that were being built by the Royal Navy, which would immediately make obsolete Russia’s entire Black Sea Fleet. This was because by the terms of the Berlin Treaty of 1878 Russia was not allowed to send warships through the Straits, even in peacetime, which meant she could not import dreadnoughts into the Black Sea. This stipulation was largely a British insistence because England did not want Russia to be able to send its fleet into the Mediterranean. However, what it meant in 1914 was that as the Turks improved their defences in the Black Sea and around Constantinople in the light of the Russian and Slavic threat the window of opportunity for  a Russian amphibious attack on the Ottoman capital was rapidly closing.

When the Russians complained to the British government that they were helping to strengthen the defences of a potential enemy against their ally, Edward Grey and Winston Churchill washed their hands of the problem claiming they were laissez-faire liberals and the British government could not legally interfere with private business contracts.

Interestingly, as McMeekin notes, when in 1908 Izvolski demanded that Britain relax its insistence against Russian naval access to the Mediterranean Edward Grey made a counter offer to Russia that the Straits be open to warships of all countries. Grey knew that this proposal was even more repugnant to the Russians than maintenance of the status quo as it would open Russia’s southern coastline to attack from any rival naval power, particularly Britain. And so the Russians declined and settled for the status quo.

The main immediate cause of the Great War (along with the French desire to have Alsace/Lorraine) was the Russian desire for the Straits. Yet, the only person blocking this was Sir Edward Grey (aside from the Ottomans). The blocking, therefore, of Grey, and its unblocking, contingent on services rendered by the Czar in relation to England’s Germany problem, was actually the pivotal factor in the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey.

McMeekin reveals that things came to a head at a meeting of the Russian Council of Ministers in January 1914. Sazanov had, a week earlier, proposed to the Czar that the time was now right to provoke a European war in alliance with England and France so that Constantinople could be stormed. The idea was to use the Liman von Sanders appointment as a cause for war. McMeekin reveals that there was almost unanimous enthusiasm for provoking a European war over the Liman affair. However, whilst there was near certainty amongst the Ministers that Russia would be joined by England and France in such a war there were lingering doubts about whether London would stay out of the conflict if it was provoked at that point on such an issue. The Russian naval command warned that a unilateral amphibious assault would also be beyond them at that moment. It was determined, therefore, to resort to war only if “the active participation of both France and England in joint measures were assured.” (p.32)

The following month a joint army/navy meeting was convened that aimed to make a unilateral attack on Constantinople a possibility and a large subsidy was allocated to fund a Russian offensive against the Ottoman capital. However, there was general acceptance that such an operation could only be guaranteed success in conjunction with France and England in the context of a European war.

Although McMeekin has come across a significant fact here he does not choose to develop it.  The leverage that England had cultivated over Russia through the Entente is evident in the predicament Russia found herself in, in relation to Britain, and her heart’s desire at Constantinople.

McMeekin passes by Grey’s and Churchill’s laissez-faire dismissal of Russia’s complaints about British private companies contributing to the defence of the Straits without noting that the Royal Navy – the senior agency of the British State – was the primary contributor to the Ottoman defences.

A British double game

The obvious question – which McMeekin does not ask – is why Britain was contributing to the defences of the Straits when it understood for centuries that Constantinople was the heart’s desire of its new ally?

The reason is connected to the fact that Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been traditionally opposed to military conscription. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. It needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was described in the English press as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.

The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had no real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something substantial had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople.

But at the same time leverage had to be maintained and the hand had to be kept in at the Ottoman capital. The Young Turks had entered into a naval agreement with Britain in which British dockyards took orders for Turkish battleships, under the supervision of Winston Churchill and the Admiralty, and a British naval mission was established at Constantinople. By 1914 the size of this naval mission was as large as the German military mission there, and they were looked on as a counter-balance to each other by the Turks. If it was said that Turkey had a military alliance with Germany in 1914 it could be equally said that she had a naval alliance with England.

The Turkish Government gave both England and France extraordinary positions of influence in its capital – positions that no other country with concern for its sovereignty would offer. They entrusted to Britain the most vital components of the defence of Constantinople – the re-organisation of their navy under Rear-Admiral Gamble and Admiral Limpus and an English Naval Mission, and the modernisation of the arsenal at the Golden Horn (Turkey’s centre of munitions) by Armstrong and Vickers. Admiral Limpus offered advice to the Turkish Admiralty on such matters as the location of mine fields in the Straits and mine laying techniques as well as torpedo lines.

It is not surprising that the British took on this constructive work, even though their longer term ambition was to destroy the Ottoman Empire. From the British interest it countered German influence at Constantinople, gave the English a unique, inside knowledge of the defences of the Turkish capital and controlling influence over the Turkish Navy – and made sure that the Russians, French and Germans did not possess such influence or information themselves. And when the English naval mission left those in charge of it were the first to suggest to Winston Churchill that Constantinople should be attacked, and how it should be, with all the inside information they had obtained.

But the naval mission also had a vital role to play in relation to England’s ally, Russia by keeping the Czar out of Constantinople until his steamroller was started, pointed westward and heading toward Berlin.

Enver Vindicated?

 The war against Germany got underway in August 1914 but unfortunately for Russia Turkey remained neutral.

The opportunity of finding a cause of war against Turkey developed after the Royal Navy forced two German ships (Goeben and Breslau) trapped in the Mediterranean into neutral Constantinople in early August. The German crews faced with the prospect of destruction if they re-entered the Aegean handed the ships over to the Turks. The Turks accepted them in place of the two battleships owed to them by Britain that Churchill had seized before war had even been declared on Germany.

Churchill proceeded to lay a blockade on the Dardanelles to prevent the ships coming out. This in itself was an act of war against Turkey. Then he organised a series of meetings in the first days of September to discuss a pre-emptive strike on Constantinople – to “Copenhagen” the city, as Nelson had done in destroying the Danish fleet in its port in neutral Denmark in 1801 before declaration of war. But the British Cabinet decided that diplomatic niceties had to be persevered with, particularly as things went badly in France and another enemy, at this juncture, would be better put off for the present.

McMeekin, although he doesn’t probably intend to, vindicates Enver’s policy when he sees things from the point of view of Russian aggression toward the Ottoman capital:

“Paradoxically, the arrival of the two German warships in Constantinople – at least after they had been transformed into ‘Turkish’ ships by Said Halim’s fictitious sale – likely delayed the onset of hostilities between Turkey and Russia for months. The reason should not be difficult to grasp… This made offensive operations supremely difficult, and rendered any kind of amphibious operation in the Bosphorous… well-nigh impossible. Had the Goeben not made it through the Allied Mediterranean screen against heavy odds the Russians might themselves have forced the issue.” (p.106)

This is a very good argument for what the Turks actually did in relation to the German battleships. If the Turks had refused entry to the battleships they would have been destroyed by the Royal Navy outside the Straits and this would have put an end to any hope of German protection in the event of a British war Russian attack on Istanbul. Whilst the German battleships were anchored in the Straits the Turks realised that they were open to attack by the Royal Navy. It was only through their conversion into ships of the Turkish Navy (replacing the two battleships which Churchill had earlier seized) that two birds were killed with one stone.

Firstly, the delicate problem of neutrality was solved. Secondly, the defence of Constantinople against Russian attack was secured. The combination of these two factors meant the preservation of Turkish neutrality in the Great War – at least in the short-term. This was an important achievement because in August 1914 it was not clear how long the war would last or whether the attention of the major combatants would just move elsewhere according to the passage of events in Europe. It therefore held out the possibility that the Ottoman Empire might survive the war that was meant to bring about its demise.

McMeekin argues that whilst “publicly, Girs (the Russian Ambassador at Istanbul), along with his British and French counterparts Louis Mallet and Morris Bompard, made a great show of desiring Ottoman neutrality… there is little chance the Russian diplomat was ever sincere about this.” (p.106) And McMeekin quotes a memorandum of Girs to his Foreign Office that states; “We need a strong boss ruling over Constantinople, and since we cannot let any other power assume this role, we must take her for ourselves. For us to accomplish this without waging war on Turkey would, of course, be impossible.” (p.98)

McMeekin does not say this was also the British position – through the implication that England was allied with Russia. It is unlikely that it will be found in any British archives.

But if England needed Russia against Germany and Russia had Constantinople as her price for assistance how can it be any other way than Britain required a war with Turkey. (There are other reasons why England wanted war on the Ottomans. Two of them were Mesopotamia and Palestine)

The Ottoman Cabinet, in order to preserve the Empire in the face of the war that was threatening its existence, did much ducking and diving and playing for time between September and October 1914.

On 5 August 1914 Enver made an offer to the Russians of demobilising the Turkish army in eastern Anatolia and dismissing the German military mission in Istanbul so that the Russians could reinforce their fronts against Germany and Austria. McMeekin comments,

“Here we have a precious glimpse into Russia’s real war aims. Given even the hypothetical chance of a rapprochement with Turkey, which would free up troops from the Caucasus to reinforce the European fronts, the architect of Russia’s mobilisation on those very fronts said no, absolutely not, because these fronts were no more important than the Caucasian one, even if the latter was still inactive. Sooner or later, Russia and Turkey would be at war, and the last thing Stavka (Russian command centre) wanted to do was deprive Tiflis command (Caucasus) of the troops it needed to fight.” (p.108)

The occasion for the Russian and British declarations of war was an obscure incident in the Black Sea where the two formerly German ships engaged Russian ships that were attempting to lay mines on the approaches to Constantinople to complete a blockade which the British had instituted at the other end of the Straits. The ships then engaged Russian ships at the port of Odessa where operations were taking place to prevent the Turks from being able to reinforce their Eastern provinces via the Black Sea – something that was indispensable to Ottoman forces due to the lack of a road network toward Eastern Anatolia.

The Czar’s declaration of war on Turkey explicitly mentioned the Russian objective with regard to Constantinople. The war would provide the opportunity to “open up Russia’s path towards the realisation of the historic task of her ancestors along the shores of Black Sea.” It was to be a holy war too waged for “the Christian faith” against the “Turkish hordes”. (p.114)

 Origins of the Gallipoli Assault

The problem for the Russians in relation to seizing Constantinople after the war had been declared on Turkey was that they did not have sufficient resources to accomplish this by themselves. The dreadnought-class Goeben had cancelled out any previous advantage Russia had in the Black Sea and made an amphibious assault on Istanbul very difficult. Also, Russian forces were only holding their own against the Germans and Austrians on the eastern front (Russia’s western front) and this made the diversion of Russian forces very difficult to accomplish.

The Russians, therefore, found themselves reliant on the British to realise their dream because it was only Britain which had the naval forces and sufficient military reserves to attack the Ottoman capital from the Aegean (French forces were also bottled up defending their homeland against the Germans).

When Grey met a Russian delegation in November 1914, a few days after the declarations of war on Turkey, his main fear was that Russia might divert troops into Persia. Before the war the British and Russians had divided up spheres of influence in Persia and England did not want the war to spread into the country as British troops moved into conquer Mesopotamia. Grey told the Russians that they should concentrate their efforts on the eastern front and that the question of Constantinople and that they need not worry – the Straits would be settled “in accordance with their interests”. On the same day the British Prime Minister, Asquith, made a public speech in which he stated that Turkey’s entry into the war had spelt “the death knell” for the Ottoman Empire. Less than a week later King George V told Benckendorff, the Russian Ambassador in London, that “as concerns Constantinople, it is clear that must be yours.” (p.123)

These were the first formal indications to the Russians that the British had ended their century’s long opposition to the Czar having Constantinople.

Sir Edward Grey then gave a pledge from the British Foreign Office that a settlement of the Constantinople issue “would be reached after defeat of Germany irrespective of whether Turkish rule is actually overthrown in the course of the hostilities now being conducted.” (p.124) McMeekin comments: “In effect, Britain’s Foreign Secretary had promised Russia Constantinople and the Straits, whether or not she contributed in any way to a military campaign that might conquer them.” (p.124)

McMeekin states:

We should pause for a moment here to consider the enormity of diplomatic revolution wrought by the end of November 1914. In the Crimean War, British troops had bled and died to prevent Russia from dismembering the Ottoman Empire. Following the Russo Ottoman war of 1877-78, Disraeli’s government had dispatched the British Mediterranean Fleet to deny Constantinople to the Russians… the maintenance of some kind of Ottoman buffer against the Russian threat had endured as a cardinal aim of British foreign policy right up to 1914, as illustrated by British fears of Russian incursions into Persia ostensibly justified by the Turkish threat there. And yet here were British statesmen openly advocating the total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire so that Russia might have naval access to the Mediterranean – the urgent prevention of which had been a full-on British cassus belli as recently as 36 years ago.” (pp.124-5)

That is the background to the French and British assault on the Straits in March 1915 and the subsequent landings at Gallipoli later on. It struck me in writing ‘Britain‘s Great War on Turkey’ that there was more to it than that and McMeekin comes up with exactly the same understanding that I reached. The British and French, in attempting to capture Constantinople, were actually intending to hold it as a kind of hostage to prevent the Russians from ever making peace with Germany or Turkey. The Russian steamroller could be guaranteed against Germany by holding the Czar’s greatest prize in readiness for him in return for the continued commitment of his armies on the eastern front:

“The Dardanelles campaign represented the logical culmination of this pattern. With both Paris and London on perennial alert that Petrograd might cut a separate peace with Berlin, a Straits campaign had a compelling strategic logic for the Western allies, even if Petrograd stood to reap the principle reward. Certainly, the thinking went, the Russians would not waver in their commitment to the war while her alliance partners were endeavouring to win her Constantinople. At a minimum, such an amphibious campaign, launched to aid Russia, would improve Russian fighting morale. If it succeeded, it would open Russia’s year-round warm-water Black Sea ports for Western arms (and maybe also food) shipments.” (p.128)

Dividing the Ottoman spoils

 In March 1915 the Czar decided that the time had come to get his French and British allies to formally agree to the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Sazanov coupled the Czar’s demands for Constantinople with a threat to the allies that if they did not agree he would resign and bring Sergei Witte (who was regarded as sympathetic to the Germans) into the government in order to cut a separate peace with Germany.

Grey used Sazanov’s threat to convince the British Cabinet to cut a deal with the Russians on Constantinople and finally give concrete form to the reversal of British foreign policy of a century. On 12 March 1915 the British Cabinet adopted the position of endorsing Russia’s Imperial claim to Constantinople and the Straits.

(For some reason or other McMeekin does not discuss or detail the secret Constantinople agreement of March 1915 that then took place between the Triple Entente. I have included this as an Appendix)

In early 1916 flesh was put on the bones of the Constantinople agreement through the Sykes-Picot agreement for the dividing up of the Ottoman spoils after the war. And McMeekin suggests that the real inspiration to this agreement from the British side was Kitchener’s fear that Russia would re-emerge as Britain’s primary antagonist after the world war was over. The idea, therefore, was to create a French buffer zone in between the old Great Game antagonists. Britain agreed to give France Syria, Lebanon, and Cilicia in exchange for French recognition of British primacy in Mesopotamia up as far as Mosul and the ports of Acre and Haifa as well as the whole of Arabia.

The final agreement that emerged gave Russia direct control over Constantinople and the area around the Straits. The Czar also received ‘Turkish Armenia,’ ‘Kurdistan’ and ‘Persian Azerbaijan’. France obtained Cilicia as far East as the Taurus Mountains and South to Beirut. The French also obtained an area of indirect control in compassing modern-day Syria and Northern Iraq. Most of the areas south of this, including the bulk of Mesopotamia became areas of direct and indirect British control.

Russia and the Armenians

McMeekin describes the relationship between the Russian State and the Armenian inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire from the time of the Armenian risings of 1894-6:

“Most commentators concede that Armenian Revolutionary groups deliberately aimed to enlist outside powers in their cause by staging provocations… and that outside powers did indeed take the Armenian side in 1895-6, even if none intervened in any effective way… the essential truth about Russian imperial foreign policy should not be surprising, considering the evidence of the Russo Ottoman war of 1877-78 and the First World War. However, the same policy was consistently followed in peacetime years in between these conflicts, with predictable – and revealing – upswings in the intensity of military planning during each successive Armenian crisis. It was precisely in order to piggyback on the Armenian uprisings of 1895-6 that Russia first began serious logistical research into the possibility of staging an amphibious operation at the Bosphorus… in the wake of internal Ottoman turmoil with unruly Christian minorities, Russian operational planning for seizing Constantinople was accelerated. These plans expressly specified that ‘agents from the Christian population’ would cut off rail lines to Constantinople… whereupon native Christians would ‘burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul’. A more explicit blueprint for using Armenians (and other Ottoman Christians) as a fifth column for an invading Russian army could scarcely be imagined.” (pp.145-6)

The quotations McMeekin uses are from a Russian General Staff memorandum produced just after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. The Russians saw the democratising of the Ottoman State as a sign of weakness and as an opportunity to be exploited. McMeekin discusses this earlier in his book:

“The fall of the last true Ottoman Sultan produced a kind of manic glee in the Russian General Staff, where wargaming for the occupation of Constantinople – which had largely ceased following the sinking of the Russian Baltic and Pacific fleets in the Russo Japanese war – now resumed with a vengeance. The mood at the time was well captured in a General Staff memorandum of October 1910 that outlines plans for seizing Constantinople: first the rail and telegraph lines to Adrianople and Ankara would be cut by ‘agents from the Christian population’, whereupon Russia-friendly Christians in the city would burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul – which predominantly Muslim district was, conveniently for Russian purposes, blanketed ‘almost without interruption with wooden houses’… The Christians of Pera would then rise, in coordination with a Russian amphibious landing. Once Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had secured the Straits, it would herald the annihilation of Turkish Dominion on the Balkan Peninsula.” (p.17)

 That was a very inflammatory programme considering the vast ethnic cleansing of Moslems that was to take place in the Balkans during the following years. And one way or another it was going to result in tragedy for the communities of the Ottoman Empire when it was attempted. (The subsequent Balkan Wars of 1912-13 did not fully realise the Russian programme of inter-ethnic mayhem in the Ottoman capital because the Bulgarians were halted short of Constantinople. However, similar events as those hoped for were to occur in Eastern Anatolia from 1915.)

McMeekin describes the complicated situation that existed in eastern Anatolia in the period just prior to the Great War:

“In a real sense, the whole disputed area of eastern Anatolia… where the Ottoman and Russian empires intersected with Persia, was on a permanent war footing long before 1914. Most Kurdish tribal chiefs were exceedingly well armed and virtually sovereign in the areas they roamed. Like nearly everyone else, they bought primarily Russian weapons. Christian townsmen, too, bought arms from the Russians… the great Kurdish tribal chiefs… generally had the rule of the roost, unless they were directly confronted by Ottoman or Russian troops, in which case they would simply flee to friendlier marauding pastures. The story of eastern Anatolia in this tense and dangerous time, then, was about far more than Turks and Armenians. One could claim that Kurdish nomads were consistently hostile to the Christian population, but for other generalisations about which groups were on which ‘side’ are hazardous… At times, armed Armenian groups inside the Ottoman Empire might even join forces with Turkish troops to pursue Kurdish chieftains who would wrong their people… Complicating the regional picture immeasurably were the opportunistic Russians, willing to work with anyone who might extend their influence. In the classic divide and conquer style Chorister’s Bridge (St Petersburg) cultivated close relations with Kurdish tribal chiefs and their Christian victims alike. Both groups were often at loggerheads with the Ottoman government, Russia’s primary antagonist… By thus promoting general mayhem, Kurdish nomads were the ideal Imperial tool. And the Russians were not loath to use them, sending arms, money, and even trade missions to Ottoman and Persian Kurds. So serious was Russia’s commitment that Kurdish language institutes were founded in Petersburg… Russian diplomats had to be careful with the Kurds. Periodic tribal skirmishes with Ottoman troops were one thing: summoning armies of 50,000 men was something else entirely, not least because their first target after routing Ottoman troops would almost certainly be Armenians and other Russia friendly Christians… The ideal scenario was simply to promote enough regional chaos to give Russia a pretext for intervening, with no single ethnic or religious group emerging to dominate the others.” (pp.147-9)

 This was the complex milieu that Russian and Anglo-French invasion and blockade imposed itself upon in 1915. It was something that could be easily set ablaze but not so easily controlled or extinguished.

Russia’s great Armenian Reform Campaign of 1913 was ironically conducted, according to McMeekin, as Ottoman troops and Dashnaks (Armenian revolutionary bands) combined to see off Kurdish raiders who were attacking Armenian villages. The Reform Campaign which made some unrealistic demands on the Ottomans in relation to imposing law and order without shedding blood culminated in the threat of Russian intervention in Ottoman territory if another ‘Armenian massacre’ occurred.

In late 1913/early 1914 a Kurdish rising occurred in Bitlis led by Mullah Selim. Tens of thousands of Kurds took to the field with the object of imposing Sharia Law in the area (to ‘put it up to’ the ‘impious’ C.U.P/Young Turks). When Ottoman troops were sent to disperse the Kurds Mullah Selim was given refuge by the Russian Consulate (where he remained until Russia declared war on the Turks in November 1914).

Perhaps in recognition of the Ottomans efforts at maintaining some measure of security, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation vowed support for the Ottoman Government against the Russians at their conference in August 1914 at Erzurum and the Dashnaks even sent a delegation to discourage Armenians from enrolling in the Czarist armies. But Russia was determined to make the Armenians into their fifth column.

Despite the Dashnak proclamation of loyalty to the Ottoman State, tens of thousands of Armenians deserted the Ottoman army and went over to the Russians even before war was declared on Turkey. In August 1914 (more than two months before war was declared on Turkey) the Russian Caucasian army asked for an extra 25,000 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to arm the Armenian bands being organised along the Ottoman frontier and began to smuggle arms into Ottoman territories so that Armenians could fight behind Ottoman lines when the time was right:

“The Russian army, then, actively sought to arm Ottoman Armenians even before Turkey entered the war, with the full co-operation of the Dashnaks, General Andranik, and Armenian leaders in Tiflis. So, too, was the Russian Foreign Office involved, and at the very highest level… Russia’s Foreign Minister recommended that Tiflis command begin arming Ottoman ‘Armenians and Assyrian Christians’ so that they could strike a blow for Russia as soon as Turkey entered the war. Crucially, Sazanov stipulated that the Armenians were ‘not to undertake anything without our instructions’, because ‘if they launched an uprising that was not supported by us, this would inflict an irreparable blow to our prestige’. (p.156)

McMeekin also reveals that whilst the Russian army command favoured an arming of the Kurds, Sazanov saw things in religious terms and insisted that Russia act simply as a Christian power against the Moslems. McMeekin comments:

“The Armenians were to be encouraged to achieve an essential foreign policy goal for Petrograd: the overthrow of Ottoman rule in eastern Anatolia. The Russians would offer all assistance to the Armenians in this endeavour… but they would do so only so long as they… acted in full obeisance to Russia’s instructions, so that Russia could reap the strategic benefit. Considering the human consequences… Sazanov’s carelessness about ends and means is almost breathtaking.”  (p.156)

The question of ‘genocide’

McMeekin’s argument is that the Russians were always incapable of following through on their promises and this was the main reason for the disaster that befell the Armenians:

 “The root of the Armenian catastrophe is not so much in the fact of treachery and collaboration, which was rampant among other groups on both sides, but rather in the gap between Russia’s enormous Imperial ambitions and her limited means for achieving them. The reform campaign of 1913-14 had left little doubt at the Porte that Russia aimed to annex Turkey’s six eastern provinces over which she had essentially declared proprietary interest, if not yet a formal protectorate. Likewise, the Dardanelles campaign and the diplomacy surrounding it – if not also the previous 500 years of history – made perfectly clear that Russia aimed to conquer Constantinople and the Straits. Any group inside Turkey rumoured to be aiding and abetting the Russians near either of these fronts would not simply be suspected of disloyalty, but likely relocated for reasons of urgent military necessity, as were the Ottoman Greeks from the Gallipoli peninsular in April to May 1915. That Armenians were eventually targeted in the same way is not the least bit surprising, considering how much the Ottomans stood to lose from defeat to the Russians.” (p.158)

Two events precipitated and provoked the Armenian relocations: the Gallipoli landings and what happened at Van. (Earlier in his book McMeekin blames the Russians for failing to aid the British at Gallipoli and therefore contributing to the disaster there.) McMeekin describes the events at Van to illustrate how Russian ambitions and their failure to realise them in time provoked the disaster that befell Armenian and Moslem alike:

“The rebellion at Van provides a perfect illustration of the Armenian tragedy… violent clashes between the Dashnaks and government forces in Van were reported as early as September 1914. On 24 September 1914, the Ottoman Third Army reported evidence that the Russians were smuggling weapons and ammunition across the border… all winter, the frontier areas passed with activity, as Armenian deserters, fleeing Van, crossed over to the Russians… February-March 1915 saw the first reports of significant rebel activity in Van, Bitlis, and Erzurum, including the cutting of telegraph wires, the detonation of bombs, attacks on Turkish army and police barracks, and… the ‘pillaging and destroying of Moslem villages’… On or about 13th to 14th of April 1915, the Turk’s worst nightmare came to pass, when partisans expelled government forces from Van erecting barricades around the city… the fighting was merciless, with Armenians despatching Moslems caught inside the town even while the Turks and Kurds were massacring Armenian civilians outside its walls… The first advance guard of Cossacks rode into town on 18 May 1915 – almost 5 weeks after the rebellion began. By this time, the city was in ruins, with it’s Armenian quarter bombed out by Ottoman artillery and the Moslem neighbourhoods raised to the ground by Armenian partisans. Tens of thousands of Armenians, Kurds and Turks alike had perished, the vast majority of them civilians… scarcely had the town’s reconstruction under Russian occupation begun before it was retaken by the Ottoman army in August 1915… the short lived and ultimately futile Armenian rebellion at Van had set in motion that whole terrible series of events about which historians still argue today.” (pp. 169-70)

Sean McMeekin concludes:

“By 18th of May 1915, when the first advance Cossack regiments of the Caucasian army finally made it as far as Van, Ottoman Armenians had already begun dying in droves for Russia’s hollow promises – as they would in even greater numbers after her half-hearted invasion of eastern Turkey swung into reverse that summer. One can hardly blame the Dashnaks and Hunchaks for arming themselves in self defence. Their error lay in expecting the Russian cavalry to arrive in time to protect them once the inevitably brutal counter-attack against their rebellion commenced. These revolutionaries, and the Ottoman Armenian civilians they claimed to represent, fell victim to Russia’s peculiar mixture of imperial greed and impotence, as the would-be liberatees of an army unable – or rather willing – to liberate them.” (p.174)

It is certainly the case that the Czarist State proved incapable of realising its dream and collapsed in pursuing it. And it is certainly the case that in instigating the Armenians to rebellion in order to provoke the collapse of the Ottoman State Russia led them on to disaster. The Armenians were used by England in a propagandist manner and by Russia as cannon-fodder as a means of destabilizing the Ottoman Empire and disrupting Turkish resistance behind the lines. There were, obviously, Armenian revolutionaries who are willing to participate in this process but its main effect was to make the ordinary Armenians’ position impossible within the Ottoman Empire. It was made impossible for them to remain a loyal community and a functional part of the Empire, which they had been for centuries.

Justin McCarthy’s book ‘Death and Exile – the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922’ describes the internal situation in eastern Anatolia as the Great War began.

The last decades of the Ottoman Empire had seen a significant extension of Ottoman power in Eastern Anatolia. Law and order had been established through renewed Ottoman military power in the region. However, when the Great War began these military forces withdrew and civil order began to end. Ottoman troops were withdrawn from garrisons in eastern and central Anatolia and sent to fight the Russians on the Caucasian border. Only a minimum of the gendarmerie remained to control the Kurdish tribes in the area remained. In theory, Kurdish tribesmen should have been conscripted into the Ottoman army but the Ottomans find this was more trouble than it was worth. The Ottomans would have had to employ considerable men and military forces to subdue the tribes in the middle of a war situation. The Kurdish tribesmen were not loyal or compliant citizens and they began to attack and pillage local villages, Christian and Moslem alike, when this Ottoman state apparatus was absent.

In the same areas in preparation for war Armenian revolutionaries had stored vast stockpiles of weapons, largely provided or paid for by the Russian army. When the war was declared, the Armenian revolutionaries mobilised and were joined by substantial numbers of Armenian deserters from the Ottoman army. Great internal migrations began to take place with Armenians and Moslems who lived in mixed villages migrating to purely Armenian or purely Moslem villagers and populations even began to cross Russian and Ottoman lines for safety.

Armenian revolts and attacks on Ottoman forces in various districts of the East were in full swing by May 1915. There were three sides in the battles and massacres. On one side were the settled Moslems (Turks Kurds and others) and the Ottoman military forces. On the other side were Armenians (and other native Christians) and the Russian army. On the third side were tribal Kurds, an essentially neutral force that pursued its own agenda, both attacking and cooperating with the Russian and Ottoman forces as the need arose. From the first, the war was distinguished by attacks on civilian populations from all sides. The innocent and peaceful on all sides were forced to fight in order to survive.

McCarthy details the extensive attacks that took place by Armenian bands on Moslem villagers and reproduces accounts of the killing, pillaging and rape that occurred before the relocations. He acknowledges that similar things happened to the Armenians. He stresses that the most dangerous situation for all communities occurred when state forces of either side, Ottoman or Russian, withdrew from an area and security began to break down. The Russian army tended to have a controlling influence on local Armenians but when they withdrew from an area the local Moslems became very vulnerable to massacre.

McCarthy says the following about the relocations:

The decision to force the Armenians to leave was sound in purely military terms, but it caused hardship and great mortality among them, and these were deplorable. Nevertheless, it did have the desired effect: Armenian Revolutionary attacks dwindled in areas still occupied by the Ottoman government… In the end, the Armenian deportations did reveal the Ottoman state as a failure in its ability to protect its own citizens – the most important aspect of any state. It was the weakness of the Ottoman state that forced it to choose between two groups of its citizens. The blame for the deaths of Armenians in the convoys must be shared by the Ottomans – shared with the Armenian revolutionaries and their supporters and with the Russians.” (pp.195-6)

Prof. McCarthy notes that the Ottoman relocations were the standard military response to guerrilla warfare behind the lines at the time. The British had used similar measures only a decade previously in South Africa to deal with Boer resistance. Tens of thousands of relocated civilians had died in British concentration camps. The difference between what the British did in South Africa and what the Ottomans attempted to do in eastern Anatolia in 1915 was that the Ottomans were confronted by a much stronger enemy and assault on their state. The Armenian relocations were conducted in a situation of external invasion, blockade, starvation, inter-community killing and general lawlessness of a collapsing state apparatus.

Prof. McCarthy produces figures (p.229) to show that the Moslem population of Eastern Anatolia declined by about one million people during the decade to 1922. He states that the exact number of deaths can never be accurately known (on all sides). But there is strong reason to believe that the number of Moslems (Turks and Kurds) and Armenian Christians who perished were comparable in the general mayhem that occurred.

The use of the word ‘genocide’ with regard to what happened to the Armenians during the Great War is an attempt to connect Turkey with Nazi Germany. However, a much better analogy would be that which happened on the Eastern Front during the Second World War when different groups of people became destabilized by the Nazi invasion of Russia. This is much closer to the events which McMeekin describes than what happened to the Jews between 1943 and 1945.

In the hinterland of war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia terrible things were done as state authority began to collapse, society began to return to its raw elemental condition and ordinary people struggled to survive in the circumstances. In 1915 the Russian and British invasions of the Ottoman Empire had a similar effect on the patchwork that was Eastern Anatolia. The Russians and British raised some people’s expectations so that they were willing to exact retribution on people they had grievances against and in turn those people exacted revenge on them. No one quite knew under whose authority they would exist when the war was over and as a consequence all restraint was removed on behaviour. It was under these circumstances and in this context that the relocation of the Armenians took place.

Essentially the responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed happily and peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy this multinational Empire. It was not in the Turkish interest that the Armenians should rebel and resort to war but it was very much in the Russian and British interests that they should do so. That both powers were ultimately unable to complete the task they set themselves left the Armenians in a situation not unlike that of the unfortunate East Prussians in 1945 (although it is not politic to show any sympathy for them).

Whose ‘genocide’?

Michael Reynolds’s book, Shattering Empires – The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, makes some interesting points in relation to the context of the Armenian relocations:

“At the same time as the Van rebellion was unfolding, the Russians were entering from the East, the British pushing on Baghdad from the South, and, most ominously, the British and French were storming ashore at Gallipoli. The simultaneous attacks stretched the wobbling Ottoman army to breaking point. As the Unionists debated how to handle the Van uprising, an Ottoman colonel pointed to Russia’s expulsion of Moslems into Ottoman territory and urged a reciprocal expulsion of the rebels and their families either into Russian territory or into the interior of Anatolia… Small scale deportations of Armenians had begun in February, but it was the combination of the Van uprising and the landings at Gallipoli that triggered the decision to deport the Armenians en masse…

The decision to define whole populations as suspect and to uproot, expel, and relocate them was not particular to the Ottomans or Unionists. The manipulation of borderland populations was hoary imperial practice. In the 19th century, however, two things changed. The first was that, beginning in Europe, state institutions began to employ sciences such as statistics, sociology, and ethnography to vastly increase their capacity to identify, classify, and control population groups. The second was that these institutions, including armies, came to imagine ethnicity to be a key predictor of political behaviour. Armies anxiously trained ethnographers to advise on how to manage and exploit the ethnic identities of friendly or hostile populations alike. By the beginning of the 20th century, forced population exchange was emerging as an almost routine practice, one that many regarded as logical and even salutary… During World War I, Russia forcibly relocated not just Moslems from the border region in the Caucasus but also Germans and Jews by the hundreds of thousands on its Western front… Ottoman military officers referenced the Russian precedent in the Caucasus during the debate on how to respond to the uprising at Van…

 The destruction of the Armenians… must be understood as part of a nascent programme of ethnic homogenisation that involved the resettlement of a multitude of other population groups, including Moslem Kurds, Albanians, Circassians, and others in small, dispersed numbers so as to break up clan and tribal ties and facilitate assimilation… These measures were aimed at the long-term Turkification of Anatolia. This larger programme, in turn, was a direct response to the global order’s adoption of the national idea. If the legitimacy, and security, of state borders was dependent on the degree of correspondence to ethnographic lines, the Unionists would ensure that the latter conform to the former. They would reshape the square peg of Anatolia to fit the round hole the global order favoured…

 It is no coincidence that nearly half of the Unionist leadership came from the Balkan and Aegean borderlands, i.e. those territories that had witnessed repeated violent expulsions and massacres of Moslems and the establishment of nation states. Significantly, these men fostered no fantasies of irredentist in the Balkans. They nurtured no illusions about the relative power of the Ottoman state. Difficult though it must have been for them, they recognised that their homelands had been lost for good… Experience had taught them that the global community of states accorded no legitimacy to pluralistic and weak empires. As long as Anatolia remained ethnically pluralistic it would be vulnerable to subversion and partition. The homogenisation of Anatolia was the surest solution to the dilemma they faced.” (pp. 147-9)

The logical implication of this is that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is to be described as ‘genocide’ we must look much wider for those responsible than just the C.U.P. and Ottoman authorities directly responsible for relocating the Armenians. Firstly, there was the responsibility of the Anglo-French and Russian invasion forces whose arrival in May 1915 signaled that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a distinct probability. Secondly, there was the exportation from Europe of Social Darwinist ideas of race homogeneity as the ideal type for societies that undermined the old heterogeneous Ottoman attitude toward race that had promoted ‘live and let live’ in the Empire. Thirdly, there was the promotion of nationalism from Europe in order to destabilize the Ottoman State and make multi-ethnic units impossible.

I have not seen any evidence that the Ottoman State actively pursued a policy of religious homogeneity in 1915. Events from then to 1923 certainly resulted in the heterogeneous Ottoman State giving way to the largely homogeneous Turkish Republic.

In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was collapsing under the weight of problems that came to it from Europe and the C.U.P. looked for solutions to its predicament in that direction too. It had been a multi-ethnic state based on a healthy disregard for any notions of racial hierarchy. But what was being imposed upon it from the West, in the name of ‘progress’, was the requirement that society should be based on the nation state rather than a multi-ethnic/religious combination, with as much racial homogeneity as possible.

What happened to the Armenians in 1915 was qualitatively different from what had ever happened to that community before. And that can only be seen as being so because the Ottoman Empire was being assailed from without and within and being dissolved in the name of Western ‘progress’.

Sean McMeekin has an interesting section on Russian plans for the government of the Armenians. He relates that, despite the assistance given by Armenian revolutionaries to the Czarist forces, the Russians began to have doubts about how far they should trust the Armenians with any measure of autonomy:

“Armenian partisans, despite playing a certain useful role for the Russians at Van and Bitlis in 1915, had long since worn out their welcome at Tiflis’s command, which kept hearing about the atrocities they were committing against Moslems. ‘The Armenians,’ General Pechkov wrote on 29 June 1916, ‘have shown themselves to be a very cruel people. It appears they have massacred the Kurds without pity.’ The report spoke of rampant ‘lawlessness and looting’ by Armenian volunteer units, which were now disbanded by direct order of Grand Duke Nicholas himself. Another decree from Tiflis’s command imposed ‘strict censorship on Armenian publications’… In a letter dispatched from Tiflis on 27th of June 1916, Sazanov reminded Grand Duke Nicholas that Russia had pushed for greater Armenian autonomy – under Ottoman rule – during the reform campaign of 1913-14. But now the Armenians were under Russians suzerainty, things looked different… Sazanov noted that ‘the Armenians nowhere constitute a majority’ in the area he called Greater Armenia – particularly after the deportations of 1915. Armenians now comprised, even in the areas of their greatest concentration, at most 25% of the population. In view of this fact, for Russia to grant Armenian autonomy ‘would mean unjustly enslaving the majority to the minority.’ Tensions between Christians and Moslems would explode yet again, this time in Russia’s face instead of Turkey’s. An enduring peace would only be possible, Sazanov argued, if the Czarist government could rule ‘ on the basis of its own laws, its own system of justice, and with complete impartiality towards all national elements in the land’…  The only concession Russia’s Foreign Minister was willing to grant Armenians was to allow them to use their own language and to run their own churches and schools… Grand Duke Nicholas agreed to all of these stipulations.” (pp. 211-2)

I think this confirms the view that it was the attempted destruction of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire with its delicate balance of order between the patchwork of peoples that inhabited it that led to disaster for Balkan Moslems and Jews, Anatolian Greeks and Armenians and many more besides. It was possible that a Russian victory and the reincorporation of these peoples in another multi-ethnic state might have preserved the balance in a new form leading to some kind of stability. But that is the stuff of counterfactual conjecture. The Russian Revolution saved the Ottomans in the East and closed off this possibility for good.

Sean McMeekin has now written two books attributing blame for the Great War. The first argued for the guilt of the Germans and Ottomans. The second blames the Russians. Perhaps another would make him ‘third time lucky’ but it is also unlikely.


Appendix: Correspondence between the partners of the Triple Entente for the secret Constantinople Agreement of March 1915 (as later revealed by the Bolsheviks):

Aide-mémoire from Russian Foreign Minister to British and French ambassadors at Petrograd, 19 February / 4 March 1915

“The course of recent events leads His Majesty Emperor Nicholas to think that the question of Constantinople and of the Straits must be definitely solved, according to the time-honoured aspirations of Russia.

“Every solution will be inadequate and precarious if the city of Constantinople, the western bank of the Bosphorus, of the Sea of Marmara and of the Dardanelles, as well as southern Thrace to the Enez-Midye line, should henceforth not be incorporated into the Russian Empire.

“Similarly, and by strategic necessity, that part of the Asiatic shore that lies between the Bosphorus, the Sakarya River and a point to be determined on the Gulf of Izmit, and the islands of the Sea of Marmara, the Imbros Islands and the Tenedos Islands must be incorporated into the (Russian) Empire

“The special interests of France and Great Britain in the above region will be scrupulously respected.

“The Imperial Government entertains the hope that the above consideration will be sympathetically received by the two Allied Governments. The said Allied Governments are assured similar understandings on the part of the Imperial Government for the realization of plans which they may frame with reference to other regions of the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere.”

British aide-mémoire to the Russian Government, 27 February / 12 March 1915

“Subject to the war being carried on and brought to a successful conclusion, and to desiderata of Great Britain and France in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere being realised, as indicated in the Russian communication herein referred to, His Majesty’s Government will agree to the Russian Government’s aide-mémoire relative to Constantinople and the Straits, the text of which was communicated to His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador by his Excellency M. Sazonof on February 19 / March 4 instant.”

British Memorandum to the Russian Government, 27 February / 12 March 1915

“His Majesty’s Ambassador has been instructed to make the following observations with reference to the aide-mémoire which this Embassy had the honour of addressing to the Imperial Government on February 27 / March 12, 1915.

“The claim made by the Imperial Government in their aide-mémoire of February 19 / March 4, 1915, considerably exceeds the desiderata which were foreshadowed by M. Sazonof as probable a few weeks ago. Before His Majesty’s Government have had time to take into consideration what their own desiderata elsewhere would be in the final terms of peace, Russia is asking for a definite promise that her wishes shall be satisfied with regard to what is in fact the richest prize of the entire war. Sir Edward Grey accordingly hopes that M. Sazonov will realise that it is not in the power of His Majesty’s Government to give a greater proof of friendship than that which is afforded by the terms of the above-mentioned aide-mémoire.

“That document involves a complete reversal of the traditional policy of His Majesty’s Government, and is in direct opposition to the opinions and sentiments at one time universally held in England and which have still by no means died out. Sir Edward Grey therefore trusts that the recent general assurances given to M. Sazanov have been most loyally and amply fulfilled. In presenting the aide-mémoire now, His Majesty’s Government believe and hope that a lasting friendship between Russia and Great Britain will be assured as soon as the proposed settlement is realised.

“From the British aide-mémoire it follows that the desiderata of His Majesty’s Government, however important they may be to British interests in other parts of the world, will contain no condition which could impair Russia’s control over the territories described in the Russian aide-mémoire of February 19 / March 4, 1915.

“In a view of the fact that the Constantinople will always remain a trade entrepot for South-Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, His Majesty’s Government will ask that Russia shall, when she comes into possession of it, arrange for a free port for goods in transit to and from non-Russian territory. His Majesty’s Government will also ask that there shall be commercial freedom for merchant-ships passing through the Straits, as M. Sazanov has already promised.

“Except in so far as the naval and military operations on which His Majesty’s Government are now engaged in the Dardanelles may contribute to the common cause of the Allies, it is now clear that these operations, however successful, cannot be of any advantage to His Majesty’s Government in the final terms of peace. Russia alone will, if the war is successful, gather the direct fruits of these operations. Russia should therefore, in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government, not now put difficulties in the way of any Power which may, on reasonable terms, offer to co-operate with the Allies. The only Power likely to participate in the operations in the Straits is Greece. Admiral Carden has asked the Admiralty to send him more destroyers but they have none to spare. The assistance of a Greek flotilla, if it could have been secured, would thus have been of inestimable value to His Majesty’s Government.

“To induce the neutral Balkan States to join the Allies was one of the main objects which His Majesty’s Government had in view when they undertook the operations in the Dardanelles. His Majesty’s Government hope that Russia will spare no pains to calm apprehensions of Bulgaria and Roumania as to Russia’s possession of the Straits and Constantinople being to their disadvantage. His Majesty’s Government also hope that Russia will do everything in her power to render the co-operation of these two States an attractive prospect to them.

“Sir E. Grey points out that it will obviously be necessary to take into consideration the whole question of the future interests of France and Great Britain in what is now Asiatic Turkey; and, in formulating the desiderata of His Majesty’s Government with regard to the Ottoman Empire, he must consult the French as well as the Russian Government. As soon¸ however, as it becomes known that Russia is to have Constantinople at the conclusion of the war, Sir E. Grey will wish to state that throughout the negotiations, His Majesty’s Government have stipulated that the Mussulman Holy Places and Arabia shall under all circumstances remain under independent Mussulman dominion.

“Sir E. Grey is as yet unable to make any definite proposal on any point of the British desiderata; but one of the points of the latter will be the revision of the Persian portion of the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 so as to recognize the present neutral sphere as a British sphere.

“Until the Allies are in a position to give to the Balkan States, and especially to Bulgaria and Roumania, some satisfactory assurance as to their prospects and general position with regard to the territories contiguous to their frontiers to the possession of which they are known to aspire; and until a more advanced stage of the agreement as to the French and British desiderata in the final peace terms is reached, Sir E. Grey points out that it is most desirable that the understanding now arrived at between the Russian, French, and British Governments should remain secret.”

French Ambassador in Petrograd to Russian Foreign Minister, 1/14 March 1915

“I should be grateful to Your Excellency for informing His Imperial Majesty that the Government of the French Republic, having studied the conditions of the peace to be imposed on Turkey, would like to annex Syria together with the region of the Gulf of Alexandretta and Cilicia up to the Taurus (mountain) range. I should be happy to inform my government, without delay¸ of the Imperial Government’s consent.”

Russian Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs to Russian Foreign Minister, 2/15 March 1915

“The French Ambassador has told me that it is his impression that Syria “includes Palestine”. I deemed it useful to remind him that there is in Jerusalem an independent governor.”

Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in Paris, 3/16 March 1915

“After arrival at General Headquarters, the French Ambassador informed me of the contents of Declassee’s telegram which asks for consent by Russia to the annexation of Syria and Cilicia by France. Paleologue explains that in his opinion the French Government refers also to Palestine when speaking of Syria. However, since in this telegram there is no question of Palestine, it would be desirable to elucidate whether the explanation of the Ambassador really corresponds to the view of the French Government. This question appears important to us; for, if the Imperial Government should be prepared largely to satisfy France’s desires concerning Syria and Cilicia proper, it is indispensible to study the question with closer attention, if the Holy Places are involved.”

Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in Paris, 5/18 March 1915

“On 23 February, the Ambassador of France declared to me, in the name of his Government, that France was prepared to consider in the most benevolent manner the realization of our desires relative to Constantinople and the Straits, which I explained to you in my telegram No. 937 and for which I charged you to express my gratitude to M. Delcasse. In these earlier conversations with you Delcasse had assured us several times that we could count on the sympathy of France and had simply pleaded the necessity of elucidating the attitudes of England, from whom he feared objections, before he could himself give more formal assurances in the sense already indicated.

“Now, today, the British Government has expressed to us in writing its full accord in the matter of the annexation by Russia of the Straits and Constantinople within the boundaries fixed by us; it has simply formulated one reservation concerning the safeguard of its economic interests and an equally benevolent attitude on our part toward the political aspirations of England in other areas.

“Insofar as it concerns me personally, the assurance received from Delcasse is amply sufficient, because of the complete confidence that he inspires in me; but the Imperial Government would desire the French Government to issue more precise declarations like [those of the] British Government regarding its assent to the complete realization of our desires.”

Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in London, 7/20 March 1915

“Referring to the memorandum of the British Embassy here of 12 March¸ will you please express to Grey the profound gratitude of the Imperial Government for the complete and definitive approval of Great Britain to a solution of the question of the Straits and Constantinople that satisfies Russia’s desires. The Imperial Government appreciates fully the sentiments of the British Government and is convinced that the sincere recognition of their respective interests will guarantee in perpetuity firm friendship between Russia and Great Britain. Having already given assurances respecting the commercial regime in the Straits and Constantinople, the Imperial Government sees no objection to confirming its assent to the establishment (1) of free transit through Constantinople for all goods not deriving from or destined for Russia and (2) free passage through the Straits for merchant vessels.

“With a view to facilitating the capture of the Dardanelles undertaken by the Allies, the Imperial Government will endeavour to obtain the intervention on reasonable terms of those states whose help is considered useful by Great Britain and France.

“The Imperial Government completely shares the view of the British Government on the maintenance of the Muslim Holy Places under an independent Muslim government. It is necessary to elucidate at once whether [those places] will remain under the suzerainty of Turkey, the Sultan retaining the title of Caliph, or it is contemplated to create new independent states, in order to permit the Imperial Government to formulate its views in full knowledge of the case. For its parts the Imperial Government desires that the Caliphate should be separated from Turkey. In any case, the freedom of pilgrimage must be completely secured.

“The Imperial Government confirms its assent to the inclusion of the neutral zone of Persia in the English sphere of influence. At the same time, however, [the Imperial Government] regards it as equitable to stipulate that the districts adjoining the cities of Isfahan and Yazd, forming with them an inseparable whole, should be reserved for Russia in view of the interests that Russia possesses there; a part of the neutral zone which now forms a wedge between the Russian and Afghan frontiers and touches Russia’s frontier at Zulfiqar, must also be included in the Russian sphere of influence.

“Railway construction in the neutral zone constitutes for the Imperial Government a question of capital significance that will require further amicable discussion.

“The Imperial Government expects that in the future its full liberty of action will be recognized in the sphere of influence thus delimited and that in particular it will enjoy the right preferentially [to develop] its financial and economic policy.

“Finally, the Imperial Government considers it desirable simultaneously to solve the question of northern Afghanistan adjoining Russian in conformity with the wishes expressed on the subject by the Imperial Government in the course of negotiations last year.”

Note verbale from French Ambassador at Petrograd to Russian Foreign Minister, 28 March / 10 April 1915

“The Government of the Republic will give its agreement to the Russian aide-mémoire addressed by M. Isvolsky to M. Delcasse on 6 March last relating to Constantinople and the Straits, on condition that war shall be prosecuted until victory and that France and Great Britain realise their plans in the Orient as elsewhere, as it is stated in the Russian aide-mémoire.”









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