Stalemate in the Trenches; Enormous Ottoman Losses.

A Prototype of the Tank.

Special to The Great War Project

(5-6-7) January) “The year 1915 opened with blood being poured out without respite.”

That’s the way historian Martin Gilbert assessed the situation in the war at the start of the New Year.

Typhus strikes both Austrian and Serbian troops locked in battle in Serbia. At sea, Britain faces a naval disaster, “the sinking of the battleship Formidable by a German submarine; 547 sailors were drowned.”

Trench warfare on the Western Front “saw vast armies unable to move forward more than a few hundred yards without heavy loss.”

Perhaps the worst situation at this moment a century ago is the epic battle between the Turks and the Russians in the Caucasus.

Russian troops in the Caucasus, date uncertain.

Russian troops in the Caucasus, date uncertain.

The Ottoman-Russian war in the Caucasus – specifically the battle for Sarikamish  — is proving disastrous for the Turks, despite their superior number of troops they throw into the fight.

The Turks bring 150,000 troops to the Russian 100,000. But the terrible temperatures and snows are a factor neither side can defeat.

The Turkish army “proceeded ponderously,” writes war historian John Keegan, slowed by the 271 artillery pieces it is dragging slowly through the snowbound mountain passes.

The snow causes “much suffering and death,” Keegan reports. “One [Turkish] division lost 4,000 of its 8,000 men to frostbite in four days of advance.”

It is a disastrous campaign for the Turks, and the whole Turkish corp surrenders in the early days of January, a hundred years ago. By this time…

“no more than 18,000 of the 95.000 Turks who had fought the campaign survived.”

The Russian triumph brings unexpected and eventually tragic consequences.

“Among the troops the Russians had employed,” reports Keegan, “was a division of Christian Armenians, many of them disaffected Ottoman subjects. who took the opportunity offered by Russian sponsorship to commit massacre inside Turkish territory.”

These acts are to have dreadful consequences a few months in the future.

An early tank in the war, not very mobile.

An early tank in the war, not very mobile.

There are other significant developments at this moment. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, writes a letter to British Prime Minister Asquith, describing a notion for a rudimentary tank.

“It would be quite easy in a short time,” he writes, “to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armored shelters, in which men and machine guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof….The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily and the weight of the machine would destroy all barbed-wire entanglements.”

And both sides are actively looking for more allies. The three Entente powers – France, Russia, and Britain – are wooing Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy.

Germany and Austria-Hungary are looking for ways to improve their fight with the Russians. They settle surprisingly on the Russian Bolsheviks.

“Policy-makers in both Berlin and Vienna,” reports Gilbert, “were eager to support the spread of Bolshevism in the hope, not all that far-fetched, that the Bolsheviks would undermine stable government in Russia and destroy the war-making powers of the Tsar.”

At the time, one wealthy Russian Bolshevik approaches the German ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, saying “the interests of the German government are identical with those of the Russian revolutionaries.” The aim of the Bolsheviks, he declares according to historian Gilbert, is the total destruction of Tsarism and the division of Russia into smaller states.

To defeat Russia in battle is not possible, he tells the German ambassador, not without a major revolution inside Russia.

The Bolsheviks are prepared to make that revolution.