Panic in Constantinople; Turks Seek Scapegoat in Armenia

(Special to The Great War Project)

(4-6 April) In the spring of 1915 a century ago, the situation confronting the Ottoman Empire is desperate.

“The Ottomans faced invasion on three fronts,” writes historian Eugene Rogan.

One is in Mesopotamia. The British hold the Basra region of southern Iraq, and the numbers of British and Indian troops there, Rogan reports, “posed a grave threat at the southern gates of the Ottoman Empire.”

Turkish infantry in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, date uncertain.

Turkish infantry in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, date uncertain.

The second threat comes from the east where the Ottoman army is in total disarray after the Russians rout the Turks in the Caucasus.

And in the west, British forces are building up their invasion force, concentrating on the Gallipoli peninsula after the British naval force fails to break through the Dardanelle Straits.

“The empire’s collapse appeared imminent,” writes Rogan. “There were good grounds for the panic that swept the imperial capital,” Constantinople. By these days precisely a century ago,“the empire confronted the gravest combination of challenges in its history.”

Turkish leaders set about preparing their population for total war, Rogan writes. That includes increasing conscription among civilians and increased police action to insure those who are already soldiers fulfill their duties.

In recent weeks, tensions are growing between the Ottoman government and the Armenian populations that live in Turkey – especially in the east and in the Caucasus.

Turkish officials develop a growing anger toward the Armenians,…

Rogan writes, focusing on them “as scapegoats for Turkish wartime suffering.”

The Armenians are regularly accused of disloyalty and “of crossing lines to join with the Russians and of providing the enemy with information on Ottoman positions.”

The Turks are bitter at their string of losses and defeats at the hands of the Russians in the Caucasus, writes historian Martin Gilbert. Turkish military and civilian leaders “blamed the local Armenian population for cooperating with the Russian invaders.”

Meanwhile, the Turks are planning large-scale extreme measures to deal with their “Armenian problem.”

They view the Armenian population and its national aspirations, Rogan reports, as a threat to Ottoman territory.

“Ottoman documents and contemporary memoirs suggest…three Young Turk officials made key decisions initiating the annihilation of the Armenian community of Turkey between February and March 1915.”

Some limited deportations of Armenians are already taking place. “No provision was made for the welfare of the dispossessed Armenians,” writes Rogan. Fear sweeps the Armenian communities in eastern Turkey.

Armenian refugees being deported, date uncertain

Armenian refugees being deported, date uncertain

Small numbers of Armenians seek guns and military support from the Russian army. But Rogan reports, “the Russians were in no position to deliver arms, let along to send troops” to assist the Armenians.

Nevertheless Armenian bands carry out some armed attacks on Turkish soldiers, notably near the town of Zeytun, not far from Yerevan, capital of today’s Armenia.

“The attack served as a pretext for the total deportation of Zeytun’s Armenian community,” writes Rogan.

In some Armenian communities in Turkey, police are ordered to “search Armenian villages for hidden weapons and to arrest anyone suspected of bearing arms against the Empire.”

Just how extensive the operations against the Armenians will be is not yet clear in these days one hundred years ago. But the signs are not encouraging.