Monday, April 20, 2015

April 20th, 1915

- Prime Minister Asquith gives a speech today to armaments workers in Newcastle, attempting to calm public and press concerns over a shortage of artillery shells by suggesting that the supply of munitions is adequate in present circumstances.  Asquith bases his speech on advice from Lord Kitchener, who has assured the Prime Minister that worries over a 'shells crisis' are vastly overblown.  The reality being otherwise, Asquith will come to regret his comments.

- Preceded by heavy artillery bombardments, the Germans have launched repeated attacks against the British position on Hill 60 for three days.  After bitter fighting the Germans have reestablished themselves on the slopes of the hill, with the British defenders left clinging to the large craters the detonation of their mines on the 17th created.

- From the outbreak of the war, when it declined to side with Austria-Hungary and Germany in fulfillment of its obligations under the Triple Alliance, Italy has remained on the sidelines.  This neutrality, however, has never meant indifference; indeed, the Italian government has keenly followed the fortunes of both sides, for it has always intended to leverage its neutrality to secure territorial concessions.  There is a powerful sentiment among many of the ruling class that Italian unification is not yet complete, as long as Italians live outside of Italy.  This has inevitably drawn attention to Austria-Hungary; not only to secure the city of Trieste and the region of Trentino, but also to achieve a dominant position in the Adriatic and influence in the Balkans.  Italy has already taken advantage of the war to occupy the Albanian port of Valona, and negotiations have been ongoing with Austria-Hungary over territorial concessions.  However, even despite the intransigence of Conrad, Franz Joseph, and others in the Austro-Hungarian government, it was always improbable that Austria-Hungary would ever willing cede all the territory desired by the Italian government.

This has inevitably drawn the Italian government towards the Entente, as the British and French are more than happy to promise whatever Italy desires to secure its entry into the war on their side.  Since March 3rd, secret negotiations have been underway to find the size of the bribe necessary for Italy to join the Entente.  The only significant stumbling block has been Russia - whereas Britain and France have no problem handing over whatever portion of the Balkans Italy desires, Russia has been more reticent, as it desires both to maintain its own influence in the Balkans and secure territorial acquisitions for its Serbian ally.  The lands desired by both Serbia and Italy are not mutually compatible, and much of the focus of the negotiations has been on the fate of the Dalmatian coast and the islands just offshore.  Generally, it has been the Russians who have compromised, for they have been promised post-war control over Constantinople and the Dardanelles by the British and French, and are not willing to endanger that pledge for the sake of their Serbian ally.  The last stumbling block has been the date on which Italy will actually enter the war.  The Italian government, on the advice of the army, has requested a delay until mid-May; the Russians, meanwhile, want Italian intervention as quickly as possible, in order to force Austria-Hungary to divert forces from the Carpathians.  After personal messages from President Poincaré and King George V, this evening the tsar agrees to the delay, clearing the path for a final agreement.

- When the Ottoman Empire entered the war in November 1914, its Young Turk leadership had sought to utilize the conflict to achieve their ambition of transforming the state into a revitalized pan-Turkic empire, seizing lands in central Asia from Russia inhabited by Turkic peoples.  The crushing defeat at Sarikamish in January 1915 had destroyed these hopes, and in the aftermath the Young Turks had sought to assign blame to minorities within the Ottoman Empire, seeing non-Turkic peoples as inherently disloyal.  The focus for such accusations had rapidly become the Armenian people, whose Christian religion had also told against them.  Armenians had long been a scapegoat in Ottoman history, with widespread ethnic massacres occurring in the two decades prior to 1914.  Further, though 2 million Armenians lived on the Ottoman side of the frontier in the Caucasus, another 1.5 million lived on the Russian side, which made it easy for the Ottoman government to portray the Armenians as sympathetic to the enemy.

Over the past several months, increasingly harsh measures have been taken against Armenians.  Those who served in the Ottoman army had been removed from combat formations and reassigned to labour battalions, preemptively disarming them lest they cause any trouble.  In the countryside of the western Caucasus, and in particular the region around Lake Van, Ottoman police and soldiers have taken ever-harsher measures against the Armenian population, and by April massacres of civilians are increasingly commonplace.  These atrocities have occurred with the knowledge and complicity of governor Cevdet Bey, brother-in-law to Enver Pasha - indeed, Cevdet's appointment to Van in February aimed to ensure that anti-Armenian measures adopted by the national leadership would be enthusiastically enforced at the local level.

Yesterday Cevdet yesterday had ordered Ottoman police and army detachments into the Armenian-dominated city of Van.  After several attacks on Armenian civilians, the Armenian population rises in rebellion today, and this uprising will provide the Young Turk leadership with the excuse to implement the policy they desired to implement anyway: genocide.

The Ottoman Empire, showing the location of the city of Van in the Caucasus.

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