Military operations on the Caucasus Front from July 1914 to April 26, 1916.
Copy-book 10: from February 4 to March 14, 1916.

Ruben O. Sahakyan

The 10th notebook of Th. Nazarbekyan’s memoirs present the military operations that took place from February 4, 1916 to March 14, the most important of them was the night attack of Bitlis (Baghesh) on February 18-19 (March 2-3).

After the liberation of Mush, the detachment led by General D. Abatsiev, which included General T. Nazarbekyan’s military unit, was instructed to capture Bitlis. On the night of February 17-18, 1916, the first attack on Bitlis failed. The Russian troops and the Armenian 1st Druzhina suffered significant losses. T. Nazarbekyan stated that at the beginning of the attack D. Abatsiev had made a mistake by not capturing the heights dominating the city, which was used by the enemy. And only after receiving the replenishment did General D. Abatsiev suddenly take over Bitlis on the night of February 18-19, 1916.

In his memoirs, T. Nazarbekyan refers to the cases of robbery and violence committed by the army after the capture of Bitlis. He notes with surprise that the Armenian volunteers were mainly blamed for this, when the Cossacks and the shooters entered the city first, and finally the volunteers. To be impartial, the commander cites a June 29, 1916 letter from military priest Ruben Bekgulyants. Bringing several examples, the friar categorically denied the rumors about the “illegalities” of the Armenians. In his turn, the general tried to prevent any clashes between the Armenian and Turkish residents of the city.

By the estimation of General N. Korsun, the capture of the city of Bitlis gave an opportunity to control the mountain pass leading to Mesopotamia. The operations in Erzrum and Bitlis significantly eased the situation of the British, who were fighting hard in the Suez Canal.

Russian units were constantly attacked by Kurds. The brigands of the infamous tribal chief Musa Bey were especially prominent. Prince B. Shakhovsky, who had great diplomatic experience, was sent to negotiate with them, even promising to grant autonomy to the Kurds. The Mush detachment under the command of T. Nazarbekyan and the Armenian refugees found themselves in a catastrophic situation, there was no supply, especially bread. The supply was almost stopped. At that difficult moment, Rostom (Stepan Zoryan), who had moved to Western Armenia as the plenipotentiary of the Caucasus branch of the Union of All-Russian Cities, offered his help to the general. He asked T. Nazarbekyan for a guard to find the wheat stored in abandoned Armenian villages. They agreed to share the found supply equally. Thanks to Rostom, the refugees and troops were provided with enough bread.

On March 8, 1916, the secret order of the commander of the 4th Caucasian Army Corps, General V. de Witt, was received, after the reading and analysis of which T. Nazarbekyan concluded that their situation was not that stable, as heavy fighting was expected, whereas his corps was occupying about 100 km front with little force. The Allies had stopped the Gallipoli operation and it was expected that the Turks would start moving regular military units toughened in battles to the Russian-Turkish front.

The preparations of the Ottoman command were evidenced by the intelligence information and the testimonies of the Armenian refugees: Turkish military units and Kurdish bandits were advancing in the direction of Bitlis. Analyzing the received order and information, T. Nazarbekyan concluded that the enemy was preparing to attack Bitlis, therefore on March 13 he sent additional forces to Bitlis.