Russia viewed the Caucasus Front as secondary to the Eastern Front and the Eastern Front enjoyed the major share of Russian resources. Russia had taken the fortress of Kars from the Turks during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877, when it was incorporated into the militarily administered Kars Oblast, and it now feared a Caucasus Campaign aimed at retaking Kars and the port of Batum. A Caucasus Campaign would have a distracting effect on Russian forces. The plan found sympathy with German advisors in that a success in this region would mean a diversion of Russian forces to this front from the Polish and Galician fronts. Germany supplied resources and the Ottoman Third Army was used in the battle. The immediate strategic goal of the Caucasus Campaign was to retake Artvin, Ardahan, Kars, and the port of Batum. As a longer term goal, head of the Ottoman war ministry İsmail Enver hoped a success would facilitate opening the route to Tbilisi and beyond, initiating a revolt of Caucasian Muslims. Another Turkish—or rather German—strategic goal was to cut Russian access to its hydrocarbon resources around the Caspian Sea.
The headquarters of the Ottoman 3rd Army was in Erzurum, under the command of Hasan Izzet. On 30 October 1914, the 3rd Army headquarters was informed by High Command in Constantinople about the Ottoman navy's bombardment of the Russian ports of Novorossiysk, Odessa and Sevastopol in the Black Sea. High Command expected the Russian Army to cross the Ottoman border at any time. The Bergmann Offensive (November 2, 1914 – November 16, 1914) ended with the defeat of Russian troops under Bergmann. The Russian success was along the southern shoulders of the line. Hasan İzzet stabilized the front by letting the Russians 25 kilometres (16 mi) inside the Ottoman Empire along the Erzurum-Sarikamish axis.
The Third Army was a relatively ragtag force when it was assigned to the offensive. The most combat-hardened and well-equipped units in the empire such as the III Corps were selected to defend the strategically significant Gallipoli peninsula. Facing the Russians in Caucasia, of the Third Army's nine infantry divisions, three were being rebuilt from scratch and four were new divisions deployed there from Thrace that year. Additionally, many of its approximately 118,000 soldiers were actually gendarmerie rather than regular army troops. Erickson describes the Third Army as "hastily assembled and clobbled-together army, hurled against the Russians with predictably disastrous results."
The war minister, Ismail Enver, devised an operation plan while he was at the Department of War in Istanbul. His strategy was based on German principles copied from Napoleon. Enver's plan involved a single envelopment using three Corps. On the right flank, XI Corps would fix the Russians in place and conduct feint attacks. In the center, IX Corps would fight in the direction of Sarikamish Pass. Assistant Chief of Staff Colonel Hafız Hakkı’s X Corps, which was to be on the left flank, would drive to Oltu, cross the Allahuekber Mountains, cut the Kars road, and drive the Russians to the Aras Valley, where the Russian forces would be destroyed by all three Corps attacking in concert. Meanwhile, a detachment unit under Stange Bey would conduct highly visible operations to distract and pin Russian units. Success depended on all troops arriving at their specified objectives at the correct moment. The first part of the plan was fulfilled when the Russians concentrated their forces at Sarikamish and Köprüköy after the Bergmann Offensive.
Hasan İzzet was not in favor of an offensive action in the harsh winter conditions. He was planning to remain in a defensive posture by pulling the Russians to Erzurum Fortress and launching a counterattack. Hafız Hakkı was sent to replace the commander of X Corps to energize the 3rd Army. Enver released Hasan İzzet from command on December 14. İzzet told Enver:
We have to consider 8 or 9 days for a large scaled encircling manoeuvre. However, during this time the XI Corps, which will remain at the front, might be jeopardized. Even if we execute the manoeuvre with two corps, they will probably face difficulties against the enemy.
Enver wanted his plan executed through a winter offensive, and decided to take charge. He left Istanbul with General Fritz Bronsart von Schellendorf and the head of the Operations Office Lieutenant Colonel Otto von Feldmann. They arrived in Erzurum on December 21. Senior Turkish commanders opposed the forced resignation of Hasan İzzet due to his rejection of the plan.
The war zone was nearly 1,250–1,500 kilometers (776–932 miles) wide from the Black Sea to Lake Van, which made military concentration difficult. The operation was executed at a plateau averaging 1,500–2,000 meters (5,000–6,500 feet) above sea level. The main difficulty with the region was the roads, with the transportation infrastructure on the Ottoman side far from adequate. Russia's main advantage was the Kars Gyumri Akhalkalaki railway line and a terminal at Sarikamish. The railway was 24 kilometres (15 mi) from the border. The only way for an army to get through the Caucasian heights was the high mountain passes in which lay the cities Kars and Sarikamish. Beyond, the upper valleys of the Aras River and Euphrates extended westward. Everywhere else the roads were mere tracks which were impenetrable to artillery. The forces were concentrated about 80 kilometres (50 mi) on each side of the border at the fortresses of Kars on the Russian side and Erzurum on the Ottoman side.
The 3rd Army, under the command of Enver, was composed of the IX, X and XI Corps. 3rd Army's headquarters and the IX Corps were located in Erzurum. The X Corps was stationed in Sivas, and the XI Corps was in Elazığ (Mamuretülaziz). A detachment unit under the command of the German Lieutenant Colonel Stange was established from the 3rd Infantry Division, originally stationed in Thrace, to reinforce the offense and pin down the Russians. This detachment unit, known as Stanke Bey, consisted of two battalions of the 8th Infantry Regiment and two artillery batteries. The fighting power of 83,000 regular troops, reserves, and personnel from the Erzurum Fortress totalled 118,000. The total manpower including transportation units, depot regiments, and military police was 150,000. There were 73 machine guns and 218 artillery pieces. Ottoman forces were inadequately prepared for the campaign. Two divisions of the IX Corps began a long trek with no winter clothing and only dry bread and olives for rations.
The Russian Caucasus Army was a well-equipped 100,000 troops. However, the Russians redeployed almost half of the Caucasus Army to the Prussian front due to the defeats at the Battle of Tannenberg (August 23 – September 2, 1914) and the Masurian Lakes (September 9–14, 1914), leaving behind 60,000-65,000 troops. To remedy these troop movements Count Illarion Ivanovich Vorontsov-Dashkov consulted with the Mayor of Tbilisi Alexandre Khatsian, the primate of Tbilisi Bishop Mesrop, and the prominent civic leader Dr. Hakob Zavriev about the creation of Armenian volunteer detachments. The Russian Armenian reservists had already been drafted into the regular armed forces and sent to the European theatre. The volunteer units consisted of Armenians, who were not citizens of the empire or obligated to serve. However, many other, non-Russian communities were also represented in the Russian Caucasus Army as volunteers, conscripts, and regular soldiers and officers. These particularly included men who belonged to Christian Orthodox communities settled in the surrounding Kars Oblast since 1878, such as Georgians and Caucasus Greeks, who generally saw service in the Russian imperial army as a means of achieving their own communities' ambitions to recapture Greek Orthodox territory from the Muslim Ottomans on the back of the Russian imperial enterprise.
Originally, there were four volunteer battalions created. Along the Kars Oblast, the 3rd battalion commanded by Hamazasp (Hamazasp Srvandztyan) and 4th battalion by Keri (Arshak Gavafian) operated on the front facing Erzurum between Sarikamish and Oltu. The Commander-in-Chief of the Caucasian Military District (Caucasian Army) was Illarion Ivanovich Vorontsov-Dashkov. Effective command was in the hands of Infantry General Aleksandr Zakharevich Myshlayevsky, who was originally a military historian graduated from the Imperial General Staff Academy. General Nikolai Yudenich was his Chief of Staff.
Hafız Hakki was at the left flank. His order was to move the IX and X Corps to Sarikamish and Kars. He contemplated a two step plan: a sudden initial attack and a second step with both Corps proceeding at full speed towards Oltu. He expected the assault at Narman to be concluded by the afternoon of December 22. Then the Corps would march 30 kilometers a day and arrive in the Kars-Sarikamish line by December 25. Two divisions of the Stange regiment had been sent by sea from Constantinople to Trabzon.
On early December 22, Hafız Hakkı ordered his troops to move forward. They engaged in a brief skirmish against a Russian brigade commanded by General Istomin near Kaleboğazı, west of Oltu. The skirmishes at Kaleboğazı ended the next day with the Ottomans capturing four artillery guns, four machine guns, and 1,000 Russian troops.
On December 23, Istomin abandoned his position and moved towards Ardahan. Hafız Hakkı sent two divisions to pursue Istomin. At the extreme left wing, the Stange Regiment, which had landed at Trabzon, was to move up the Çoruh valley towards Ardahan and through a pass at 2,438 metres (7,999 ft) altitude.
On December 23, the 92nd Regiment of the Turkish 31st Division, believing the unit in front of them to be Russians, opened fire on the flank of the 32nd Division. The ensuing four-hour friendly fire battle in the fog killed 2,000 Turkish soldiers, and wounded many more.
On December 24, Hafız Hakkı was well beyond Oltu after having marched 75 kilometres (47 mi) in just over three days. However, they were not at the Kars-Sarikamish line as planned.
On December 25, Ottoman troops had been marching for 14 hours under heavy snow. The soldiers were exhausted and hungry; the fear of frostbite and Russian machine guns was slowly being replaced by absolute indifference.
In the early hours of December 26, at the 18th hour of the march, the 91st Regiment of X Corps came under enemy fire. The Russians left the scene after nearly two hours of fighting. The regiment resumed its march, and soon a snow storm began. Under these conditions the 91st Regiment managed to reach Kosor from Penek (a distance of just 8 km) in 21 hours. Other units reached their destinations at a similar rate. While Enver was ordering a night attack, elements of the X Corps were spending the night in the villages of Kosor, Arsenik, and Patsik, which were 40, 35 and 30 kilometers from Sarikamish respectively. The Allahüekber Mountains were still to be crossed. Thousands of Turkish soldiers died of hypothermia in the snow.
The X Corps suffered a delay of 24 hours in the Barduz Pass, and 4th battalion of the Armenian volunteers lost 600 troops in a battle there.
When commander Malyshevsky arrived at army headquarters in the Russian front lines, he gave the order for a general retreat. The process of withdrawing was to start on December 25 and 26. The Russians evacuated Sarikamish, leaving two cavalry squadrons and 1,000 railwaymen to defend it. Not all Russian commanders were in a state of panic. The Russian army headquarters maintained a solid grip on the situation, with the effective command and control never lost. General Yudenich, taking command of the II Turkestan Corps, decided to put up resistance.
On December 28, the Russians held by the XI Corps at Horasan. The IX Corps were at Sarikamish. The X Corps were threatening to pierce the Russian front along the Kars railway to the east. The Stange regiment was descending upon Ardahan 60 miles to the northeast. Enver's operational plan was looking successful on paper.
However, the Ottoman forces were worn out, half starved, and short of guns and ammunition. They had no hope of reaching their objective on time. Enver thought that the Russians were retreating to Kars. It was actually an encircling movement.
On December 29, the assault took place. The IX and XI Corps, totaling 12,000 men, began to attack Sarikamish. During bayonet fighting, only 300 men succeeded in breaking into the city. They were driven off, losing 6,000 troops. Enver received information that Russians were preparing to encircle his forces with a force of five regiments.
On December 31, the IX Corps was bogged down in the woods outside Sarikamish and had been reduced to some 2,500 men and 14 artillery guns and machine guns. On the same night news arrived to headquarters from Bardız: The 32nd Division had abandoned its positions to the Russians. This meant that the Barduz and Kızılkilise roads were now in Russian hands. The Ottoman forces were inside a semicircle. Enver refused to lose momentum, and ordered his units to continue with the plan.
On January 1, the commander of the XI Corps pressed a frontal attack on Sarikamish that lasted for the next four days; after that the fighting began to lose momentum. Snow hindered advancing forces which were supposed to bring relief. The IX Corps melted away on the way to Sarikamish. One of the divisions lost 40% of its strength in a snowstorm. The X Corps never came to the rescue. 90% of X Corps was left on the slopes of the Allahüekber Mountains. The XI Corps was fighting in the Aras region. A regiment entered Çerkezköy, only to be taken prisoner. While the Stange regiment entered Ardahan on schedule, the troops were exhausted. The Russians were poised to encircle the remaining forces.
On January 2, Russian artillery fire caused severe casualties. Enver received two reports; one was from the chief of staff of the IX Corps, Lieutenant Colonel Şerif, and the other from Colonel Hafız Hakkı. Both reports said that they were too weak to launch another attack. Enver responded to the units: "The offensive is to go on at full strength." Later Enver focused on securing routes for the retreat instead of insisting on new attacks to take Sarikamish. He combined the two corps and renamed it the "Left Wing Army." He promoted Colonel Hafız Hakkı to Brigadier General and gave him command of the Left wing Army.
On January 3, IX Corps were driven out to the same direction, in which the remnants of the X Corps were also retreating. Hafız Hakkı was hoping for reinforcements. He did not order his units to retreat as he believed it could be still possible to take Sarikamish. Meanwhile, around 40 km south, the XI Corps led by Galip was renewing attacks on Russian lines in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the IX and X Corps positioned in front of Sarikamish. The Russians were advancing and the circle was getting narrower.
On January 4, Hafız Hakkı toured the front line. He told İhsan that the battle was over unless some of the troops on the Allahüekber Mountains were still alive.
On January 6, the 3rd Army headquarters found itself under fire. The Russians captured the entire 28th Division. The 17th and 29th Divisions were taken prisoner. Eight senior officers including İhsan surrendered to the Russians. Among the captives, 108 officers and 80 soldiers transferred to Sarikamish. Hafız Hakkı managed to safely reach the headquarters of X Corps. He was told that IX Corps had fallen into the hands of Russians and ordered a total retreat. On January 7, the remaining forces began their march towards Erzurum.
On January 11, after four days of travel, Enver and the German officers reached Erzurum. They had stipulated in their original plan that the same route could be taken by the advancing 3rd Army in two days. The transports dispatched from Constantinople which attempted to land troops and provisions at Trabzon were sunk by a Russian Black Sea squadron and warships. The escorts SMS Goeben and TCG Hamidieh were chased back to the Bosporus.
On January 17, the remnants of the Ottoman forces in the woods outside Sarikamish were collected, which signaled the end of fighting on this front. The Russian right wing cleared the Choruk Valley. Enver's project ended in failure after three weeks of struggle amid high mountains and deep snowdrifts. For a time, at least, Russia was secure from attack in the Caucasus. Hafız Hakkı expected that the Russians would use this success to capture the Erzurum Fortress. The 3rd Army immediately tried to take measures, but this proved to be nearly impossible as all the local reserves were depleted.
On February 12, Hafız Hakkı died of typhus at the age of 36. Otto Liman von Sanders, who had been asked before, rejected the position again. Mahmut Kamil took the command of the Army. War minister Enver never commanded troops in battle again. A German officer attached to the army wrote later, the Ottoman 3rd army had "suffered a disaster which for rapidity and completeness is without parallel in military history."
The Ottoman 3rd Army started with 118,000 fighting men. It was reduced to 42,000 effective soldiers in January 1915, with an additional 12,000 in the Erzurum fortress garrison. 25,000 Turkish troops had become casualties even before the battle started, 30,000 frozen bodies were found by the Russians after the battle, and the entire Third Army was reduced to no more than 12,500 men. There are conflicting figures for Ottoman casualties, though it is clear that the Ottoman casualties were definitely huge, and the military hospitals of the Erzurum area were overflowed with wounded and sick. Sources do not agree on what should be included in the final sum. The Turkish official history and medical records states 23,000 KIA, 10,000 died in hospitals, 7,000 prisoners, 10,000 seriously wounded, for some 50,000 total irrecoverable casualties. Another estimate given by the German Commandant Larcher is 90,000 dead and 40,000–50,000 captured, which is often repeated in modern recountings of the battle. However, such figures are considered unreliable, both because they exceed the total strength of the entire Third Army and because the actual Chief of Staff of the Third Army (also a German), Lieutenant Colonel Guse, gave casualties as 37,000 dead and 7,000 missing based on operational returns. Artillery loses were 12 field artillery pieces and 50 mountain artillery.
The casualties of the conflict escalated beyond the end of the active warfare period as the most immediate problem confronting the 3rd Army became the typhus epidemic. TAF presents a figure of 60,000 casualties throughout the period of the operation. The Russians took 7,000 POWs including 200 officers. These prisoners were kept under confinement for the next three years in the small town of Varnavino east of Moscow on the Vetluga River. After the final days of the Russian Empire, these soldiers had a chance to return to the ailing Ottoman Empire.
Russian losses were up to 30,000: 16,000 killed and wounded and 12,000 sick/injured, mostly due to frostbite.
Enver was the strategist of the operation. Hassan Izzet was the tactician who implemented the plan and remedied the shortcomings. The failure was blamed on Enver. Beyond his faulty estimate on how the enveloped Russians would react, his failure was on not keeping adequate operational reserves. He did not have enough field services to alleviate the hardships faced by the soldiers; he analyzed operational necessities theoretically rather than contextually.
Carrying out a military plan in winter was not the major failure of the operation. A valid question is whether or not the plan could have been executed better. It would be hard to exceed the performance of the Turkish soldiers. The IX and X Corps marched with maximum effectiveness given the conditions. The majority of the units managed to move to the correct positions. In respect to the inflicted Russian casualties, they should be credited.
The communication and cooperation between the Ottoman units failed; forces functioned as separate units rather than in mutually supporting engagements as originally planned. There was not a sufficient operational reserve established for the size of engagement. The conditions for the Ottoman forces could have been better, if Enver paused the operations on December 24, and had not moved beyond the Oltu line with the artillery pieces. The decision to take the heavy artillery rather than short-range smaller caliber guns beyond the Oltu line was a failure, as the forces faced detachment units with better mobility. The plan had a faulty estimate of the size of the Russian forces. The commanders of the X and IX Corps were replaced with men of little or no experience at the operational level. The chief of staff of IX Corps Köprülülü Şerif Bey said, "..troops fought on the top of tall mountains under snowstorm against the artillery of an enemy of centuries and they were completely annihilated, but not a single Turkish soldier has ever turned his back to his nation... In Sarikamish, there was no panic.”
During the battle, light infantry was used by both sides. The detachment of Armenian volunteer units on the Russian side, and the detachment I Corps unit under the control of Stange, provided a skirmishing screen ahead of the main body of infantry, harassing and delaying of the enemy advance or preventing them escaping.
The Armenian detachment units were credited in no small measure for the success of the Russian forces, as they were natives of the region, adjusted to the climatic conditions, familiar with every road and mountain path, and were fierce and resolute in combat. The Armenian units were small, mobile, and well adapted to the semi-guerrilla warfare. They did good work as scouts and took part in many severe engagements. Armenian detachment battalions challenged the Ottoman operations during critical times: "the delay enabled the Russian Caucasus Army to concentrate sufficient force around Sarikamish".
The relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its Armenian population had already started to deteriorate after numerous Armenians were massacred throughout the empire during the 1890s. During July 1914 there were negotiations between the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and Armenian intelligentsia at the Armenian congress at Erzurum. The public conclusion of this congress was "ostensibly conducted to peaceful advance Armenian demands by legitimate means". The CUP regarded the congress as the seedbed for establishing insurrection. Historian Edward J. Erickson concluded that after this meeting the CUP was convinced to pursue strong Armenian—Russian links with detailed plans to detach the region from the Ottoman Empire.
On his return to Istanbul, Enver blamed his failure on the actions of the region's local Armenians.
Repressive measures taken against the empire's Armenian population were an early stage of the Armenian Genocide. This policy towards the Armenians was paralleled on a smaller scale in Ottoman policy that led to the Greek Genocide against the Pontic Greeks and Caucasus Greeks of Kars Oblast, also on the pretext that like the Armenians they too had fought in or collaborated with the Russian Caucasus Army at Sarikamish and elsewhere on the Caucasus Campaign.