The Caucasus Front of World War I: Implications for Georgia
June 29, 2021
Video presentation for the international conference “The Caucasian Gates” which took place in Tbilisi (Georgia) on June 25-27, 2021
As of today, it is not exactly the common knowledge that semi-forgotten Caucasus theater of the Great War of 1914-1918 played a crucial role in the formation of the three modern nations of the South Caucasus and, specifically, in the restoration of Georgian statehood. Accordingly, in view of the above, the major goal of this paper is to familiarize fellow historians and political scientists with the influence of both military and political events of World War I on the process of major re-drawing of the political map of the region that happened in the 20th century.
In 1914-1918 the South Caucasus became part of the Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War. Although the most decisive battles were fought in Europe, the South Caucasus campaign was quite important for Turkey, Russia and Great Britain. Several years prior to the outburst of the war, a few powers had conflicting ambitions in the area.
Young Turk leadership of Turkey strongly influenced by Pan-Turk and Pan-Islamic ideas of Ittihadism, were planning to expand their political influence to the East and North-East of their borders. Their goal was the creation of a greater empire that would unite all the Turkish-speaking peoples together with a number of non-Turkish ones. The projected empire was to include Russia-controlled Caucasus, Crimea, Central Asia and the Tatar-inhabited Volga-Urals area, as well as Iran, Afghanistan and the Muslim-inhabited areas of British East India and Western China.
Russia, in turn, was interested in gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea by annexing the Straits (Bosporus and the Dardanelles) together with Constantinople, or by gaining a wide land bridge from the Caucasus to Cilician coast under the pretext of protecting the Christian Armenians of Turkish Armenia and Eastern Anatolia.
Being concerned about growing Russian ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the British government was at the same time interested in disintegration of the Turkish Empire that was falling more and more under German control. However, the destruction of Turkey was hardly possible without Russian support which could only be gained in return for some concessions. In fact, Great Britain would rather see the Russian flag flying over Constantinople than German naval bases in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On August 9, 1914, Ottoman Turkey launched an attack on Russia. After a series of skirmishes, Russia declared war on Turkey on November 2, 1914, and the Caucasus became a battleground.
Within the twenty-month period between the spring of 1915 and the fall of 1916, the Russian armies advanced into Turkish Armenia, Lazistan and Northern Iran, conquering vast territories. At the same time, British and French forces were slowly taking over the Ottoman Arab possessions in Mesopotamia and Palestine. At the end of 1916, the Russian General Staff went so far as to prepare several plans for the conquest of Constantinople. This included landing in the Bosphorus in coordination with possible attack of the British Royal Navy on the Dardanelles.
In the light of Russian military triumph in Eastern Turkey in February-March of 1916, the negotiations between Britain, France and Russia regarding the future partition of the Ottoman Empire that had started as early as in mid-April 1915, ended up with the signing of a secret convention on May 16, 1916.
That convention known nowadays as the Sykes-Picot Agreement (sometimes referred to as the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot Agreement), after being modified as a result of a series of Russian-British talks
between March 31 and September 1, 1916, confirmed Russia’s claims for the Black Sea Straits and assigned to her not only the vilayets of Erzurum, Bitlis and Van but also half of the vilayet of Trebizond and parts of Ul-Aziz and Diyarbekir. France was to gain half of the vilayet of Sivas, the remaining parts of Ul-Aziz and Diyarbekir, as well as the whole of Cilicia and Lebanon. France was also to obtain a considerable sphere of influence in Syria and northern Mesopotamia. During the diplomatic exchanges preceding the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, both British and Russian officials discussed various forms of Armenian autonomy in the region. The issue of any potential Georgian autonomy was not addressed at all. As a result, in the spring of 1917 it seemed quite realistic that the majority of Armenian core lands as well as the historical Georgian lands that were still under Ottoman control, would be united under the Russian imperial crown.
While providing a brief coverage of major military operations at the Caucasus front and political intrigues around it, it would be important to mention that the public opinion regarding the war in ethnically fractured regions of the South Caucasus happened to be quite diverse.
Unlike the Armenians of the South Caucasus who were mobilized by the fear of the Ottoman invasion, and also by the possibility of emancipation of their West-Armenian brethren as well as the unification of all historic Armenian lands under the Russian Crown and unlike the Azeri Turks (also known there as the Caucasian Tatars), most of them were sympathetic with the Ottoman Empire and Ittihadist ideas of Young Turks, the Georgians' attitude towards the war was mixed and fractured.
A considerable part of Georgian gentry served in Russian Imperial army and civil administration. Most of those people were loyal and conscious “servants of the throne” . Another group of gentry together with slowly growing Russian- and Polish-educated middle-class was strongly influenced by Marxism. Accordingly, when the world war broke out, some of those Georgians clearly expressed anti-imperialist sentiments (the Bolsheviks) while others kept their national loyalties (the Mensheviks). It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Georgian educated classes of various political views agreed in their belief that World War I was not a Georgian war and that Georgian people could gain very little from victory by either side. At the same time, most Georgian peasants, as Christians, formally backed the Allies and supported the Russian Empire in their fight against Muslim Ottoman Turkey. On the other hand, there were two relatively small groups of Georgians who demonstrated open disloyalty to the Russian Empire and sided with her foes. The first group included Muslim Ajaris who inhabited the territory of Batum. Following the call to Jihad forwarded to them by Ottoman emissaries, the Ajaris of Southern communities of Batum territory launched a pro-Turkish uprising at the very beginning of the war and assisted the Ottoman army in her invasion of the South Caucasus. Another group of Georgians disloyal to the Russian crown consisted of some extreme nationalists most of them educated in Germany and Austria-Hungary, who backed the German Empire as an advanced European nation in contrast to less developed Russia.
The situation in the region changed drastically in early 1917 which saw major upheaval in the disintegrating Russian Empire. In March, 1917, the empire collapsed, the monarchy was abolished and the country proclaimed itself a republic. At that moment the Caucasus front entered a stage of stagnation. At the same time, the period between March 1917 and February 1918, was marked by the rapid spread of chaos all over the former Russian possession including the Caucasus and Russian-occupied territories in Eastern Turkey and Northern Persia In November 1917, the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd signalled another major political upheaval in the region, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Bolsheviks and Central Powers hit the final and terminal blow to the Caucasus front.
On February 2, 1918 the Ottoman Turkish forces launched massive offensive at the disintegrated Caucasus front that had been abandoned by the Russian armies. Having defeated scattered and poorly organized Georgian and Armenian units, the Ottoman armies quickly recovered all the territory previously
lost to Imperial Russia in 1915-1917 and invaded the former Russian possessions in the Caucasus conquering historical Armenian and Georgian lands.
The Ottoman invasion of the South Caucasus of 1918, caused the disintegration of Russian possessions in the Caucasus and the secession of the Region from Russia. The end of April 1918 saw the proclamation of independent Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic which, in turn, fell apart on May 26, 1918, when Georgia declared independence, followed by Azerbaijan and Armenia who also declared their independence within the next two days.
The declaration of Georgian independence was followed by the signing of the Agreement of Poti with Germany (May 28, 1918) and the Treaty of Batum with the Ottoman Turkey (June 4, 1918). Although both the above-mentioned international treaties confirmed the loss of some historical territories by Georgia and did not completely stop the hostilities, they, nevertheless, laid foundation for the restoration of independent Georgian statehood and signalled the recognition of Georgia at least by the Central Powers.
The Armistice of Mudros signed on October 30, 1918, ended World War I in the East Mediterranean and opened the 26 months long period of the buildup of restored Georgian state, which culminated with the de-jure recognition of Georgia by the Allied Powers on January 26, 1921 at the Paris Peace Conference.