The Battle of Sardarabad (Armenian: Սարդարապատի ճակատամարտ, Sardarapati č̣akatamart; Turkish: Serdarabad Muharebesi) was a battle of the Caucasus Campaign of World War I that took place near Sardarabad (modern-day Armavir), Armenia from May 21–29, 1918. Sardarabad was only 40 kilometers west of the city of Yerevan. The battle is currently seen as not only stopping the Ottoman advance into the rest of Armenia but also preventing the complete destruction of the Armenian nation. In the words of Christopher J. Walker, had the Armenians lost this battle, "it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term."
In January 1918, two months after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, the Sovnarkom, the highest government authority under the Bolshevik system, issued a decree which called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasus Front. This move threw the Armenian leadership in the Transcaucasia into a panic, since it removed from the region the only force capable of protecting the Armenian people from the Ottoman Empire, which had effectively exterminated its Armenian population through systematic massacres and deportations. The Armenians refused to recognize the authority of the Bolsheviks and attempted to form military units to defend the front as the Ottoman armies prepared to expand eastward.
The Armenians attempted to stall the Ottoman advance as they created a small Armenian army to take up the positions the Russians had abandoned. General Tovmas Nazarbekian was selected as its commanding officer and Drastamat Kanayan was appointed as civilian commissar. But in May 1918, just two months after the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty was concluded with the Russian SFSR, elements of the Ottoman Third Army crossed into Eastern Armenia and attacked Alexandropol (modern-day Gyumri). The Ottoman Army intended to crush Armenia and seize Russian Transcaucasia and the oil wells of Baku. The German government, the Ottoman Empire's ally, objected to this attack and refused to help the Ottoman Army in the operation.
At this time, only a small area of historical Armenian territory which used to be a part of the Russian Empire remained unconquered by the Ottoman Empire, and into that area hundreds of thousands of Armenian refugees had fled after the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman Forces began a three-pronged attack in an attempt to finally overwhelm and conquer the rest of Armenia. When Alexandropol fell, the Ottoman Army moved into the former territory of the Yerevan guberniia – the heart of Armenia.
The Ottoman offensive was viewed by Armenians with foreboding. With nowhere else left to retreat, they decided to make their stand and prepare for the upcoming battle: Catholicos Gevorg V ordered that church bells peal for six days as Armenians from all walks of life – peasants, poets, blacksmiths, and even the clergymen – rallied to form organized military units. Civilians, including children, aided in the effort as well, as "Carts drawn by oxen, water buffalo, and cows jammed the roads bringing food, provisions, ammunition, and volunteers from the vicinity" of Yerevan.
Acting under Minister of War Enver Pasha's request, Miralay (Colonel) Kâzım Karabekir Bey's I Caucasian Corps and Mirliva Yakub Shevki Pasha's II Caucasian Corps put into action in the direction of Karakilisa (modern-day Vanadzor), Sardarabad, Tiflis (modern-day Tbilisi) and Yerevan on 20 May. While Karakilisa was selected as their main target, Tiflis and Yerevan were to be kept under pressure. The operations of the southern flank were given to the I Caucasian Corps and the task of capturing Karakilisa was given to the II Caucasian Corps.
The Ottoman force reached Karakilisa on May 20 without resistance. Only a single combat action took place near the village of Karzakh. The detachment commanded by Zihni Bey, that advanced forward in Sardarabad area, reached the station of Alagöz (modern-day Aragats) and line of Mahtaka. On May 21, the detachment of Zihni Bey defeated an Armenian unit composed of 600 infantry and 250 cavalry, and then took Sardarabad. From there, their forces started advancing toward Yeghegnut.
Armenian general Movses Silikyan ordered elements of the 5th Armenian Regiment under Poghos Bek-Pirumyan, a reserve guerrilla unit, and a special cavalry regiment to check the advance of the Ottoman army. An offensive was launched on May 22 and the Armenian forces were successful in halting the Ottomans in their tracks and forcing Yakub Shevki Pasha's forces into a general rout (retreating nearly 15-20 kilometers in a westerly direction). The Ottoman command, however, was able to recuperate from its losses and reorganized its forces near the mountain heights on the north-west bank of the Araks river. Repeated attempts to cross the river were met with fierce resistance by the 5th Armenian Regiment.
On May 24, several more skirmishes took place between the Armenian and Ottoman forces. However, attempts to dislodge the Ottomans from their well-entrenched positions the following day by Poghos Bek-Pirumyan's and other commanders' forces were met with failure. On May 27, an Armenian force commanded by Colonel Karapet Hasan-Pashayan performed a flanking maneuver and struck the Ottoman positions from the rear while the rest of the Armenian forces pounded the main Ottoman positions. An Ottoman force based in Talin was sent to alleviate it by attacking the Armenian rear, but was unable to change the outcome of the battle. Suffering heavy losses, Ottoman commanders ordered a general retreat as the surviving elements of the Ottoman army were put to flight.
With the Ottoman forces in a full rout, General Silikyan wished to press on his advantage with the hope of dislodging the Ottomans from Alexandropol and Kars. But, almost immediately, he was informed of the ongoing negotiations between the Ottoman leadership and the Armenian National Council in Tiflis and was told by Corps Commander Tovmas Nazarbekian to cease military operations in the region. Though members of the National Council were widely criticized for issuing this order at the time, this decision was carried out because the ammunition stores had been all but been depleted and Ottoman commanders had received fresh reinforcements.
The Ottoman defeats at Sardarabad, Bash Abaran, and Karakilisa staved off the annihilation of the Armenian nation, and the victories here were instrumental in allowing the Armenian National Council to declare the independence of the First Republic of Armenia on May 30 (retroactive to May 28). Though the terms that Armenia agreed to in the Treaty of Batum (June 4, 1918) were excessively harsh, the little republic was able to hold out until the Ottomans were forced to withdraw from the region with the end of World War I in late 1918.
Legacy and memory
The battle of Sardarabad holds a special place in Armenian historical memory and is often compared to the 451 A.D. battle of Avarayr. Leaders of the First Republic frequently invoked the name of the battle, exhorting their people to aspire to the example of those who had fought and participated in it. The battle was seldom mentioned or given little significance in Soviet historiography until after the death of Joseph Stalin. In the mid-1960s, a number of Soviet historians began to highlight its importance, as well as that of Bash Abaran and Karakilisa. The Soviet military historian Evgenii F. Ludshuvet, for example, emphasized that these battles, fought by the "Armenian Dashnak forces", helped slow down the Turkish advance on Baku and helped relieve some pressure against that city. Notable Soviet Armenian literary figures such as Hovhannes Shiraz and Paruyr Sevak, whose work "Sardarapat" was turned into a popular song, composed songs and wrote poems that lionized the Armenian fighters. Ivan Bagramyan, a Marshal of the Soviet Union and himself a participant of the battle, described its importance in the following manner:
The significance of the battle of Sardarapat is great... If they [the Armenian forces] did not defeat the Ottomans there, they would have proceeded to Echmiadzin and Yerevan—nothing would have remained of Armenia, nothing would have been saved... The Armenians won and, thanks to them, our people preserved their physical existence within the current borders of Armenia.
After the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide's fiftieth anniversary in 1965, Soviet authorities agreed to the construction of a monument and park dedicated to the Armenian victory near the site of the battle. Architect Rafayel Israyelian was commissioned to design the monument, which was completed in 1968.
The battles of Sardarabad, Bash Abaran and Karakilisa are collectively known as the "Heroic battles of May" in Armenian historiography (Մայիսյան հերոսամարտեր Mayisyan herosamarter).
Each year, the President of the Republic of Armenia, visits the memorial on 28 May. During that day, many cultural and military events and parades take place.
- These are the figures provided by Simon Vratsian, the then member of the Armenian National Council. The composition of the forces was as follows: 4th Battalion (1,500 men); 5th Battalion (800); 1st Battalion (700; 1st Partisan (1,200); Erzinjan Battalion (700); Maku (300); 2nd Cavalry Battalion (700); Partisan Cavalry (800); Special Cavalry (500); and the 1st and 2nd Van Regiments (2,500): see Stephen G. Svajian, A Trip Through Historic Armenia. New York: GreenHill Publishing, 1977, p. 558.
- The composition of the Ottoman I Caucasian Corps was as follows: 5th Caucasian Division; 9th Caucasian Division; 11th Caucasian Division; 36th Caucasian Division; 1,500-3,000 Kurdish Cavalry
- Krikorian, Robert; Masih, Joseph (2013). Armenia: At the Crossroads. Routledge. p. 21. ISBN 9781134412181.
...Armenian victories at the battles of Sardarabad, Karakilise and Bash Abara, which stopped a Turkish invasion of Eastern Armenia and secured the creation of the first independent Republic of Armenia in May 1918.
- T.C. Genelkurmay Harp Tarihi Başkanlığı Yayınları, Türk İstiklâl Harbine Katılan Tümen ve Daha Üst Kademlerdeki Komutanların Biyografileri, Genkurmay Başkanlığı Basımevi, Ankara, 1972, pp. 161-162. (in Turkish)
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- Hovannisian. Armenia on the Road to Independence, p. 114.
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- Hovannisian. Armenia on the Road to Independence, p. 193.
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- Allen, William E.D. and Paul Muratoff. Caucasian Battlefields. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953.
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