The alignment of the Ottoman Empire with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and its declaration of war against Russia brought inevitably a winter campaign in the Caucasus. Russia had taken Kars during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 and feared a campaign aimed at retaking Kars and the port of Batum in Georgia.
An initial Russian offensive in the first half of November was stopped 25 kilometers inside Turkish territory along the Erzerum-Sarikamish axis. War Minister Enver Pasha devised an operation plan and decided to take personal charge and execute his plan through a winter offense. The Turkish Third Army included 83,000 regular troops, reserves, and personnel of the Erzerum fortress added to 118,000. The Russian Caucasus Army was a well-equipped 100,000 troops. It included two battalions of Armenian volunteers, commanded by Hamazasp (Servantzdian) and Keri.
The Turkish plan was two-step: a sudden initial attack and a second step with two corps (Ninth and Tenth) of the army proceeding at full speed. After a very hard march under heavy snow in the mountainous territory, and various delays, the Turkish army started its attack on Sarikamish on December 29, instead of December 25 as planned. The troops were worn out, half-starved, and short of guns and ammunition. Enver thought that the Russians, who had initially evacuated Sarikamish, were retreating to Kars, when they were actually executing an encircling movement.
The IX and X Turkish Corps, totaling 12,000 men, began to attack Sarikamish. At the end of the day, they were driven off, losing 6,000 troops. Enver's positive mood was replaced with disappointment when he received information that the Russians were preparing to encircle his forces with a force of five regiments. On January 1, the commander of the XI Corps pressed a frontal attack on Sarikamish lasting for the next 4 days; after that the heavy fighting began to lose momentum. Snow hindered advancing forces which were supposed to bring the relief.
On January 2, Russian artillery fire caused severe casualties. Enver Pasha received two reports; both were saying that they did not have any capacity to launch another attack. The Russians were advancing now and the circle was getting narrower. On January 4, Turkish Brigadier General Hafız Hakkı Pasha toured the front line and saw that the fight was over.
Afterwards, Turkish divisions started to surrender. Hafız Hakkı ordered a total retreat on January 7. The Ottoman Third Army started with 118,000 fighting power and was reduced to 42,000 effectives in January 1915. Russian losses were 16,000 killed in action and 12,000 who died of sickness, mostly due to frostbite.
Enver was the strategist of the operation and the failure was blamed on him. Beyond his faulty estimate on how the encircled Russians would react, his failure was on not keeping operational reserves that matched the needs of the conditions. He did not have enough field service to factor the hardships faced by the soldiers and analyzed the operational necessities theoretically rather than contextually. Carrying out a military plan in the winter was not the major failure of the operation, but the level of its execution.
The Armenian detachment units are credited no small measure of the success which attended by the Russian forces, as they were natives of the region, adjusted to the climatic conditions, familiar with every road and mountain path, and had real incentive to fierce and resolute combat.
On his return to Constantinople, Enver Pasha blamed his failure on the actions of the local Armenians, initiating the repressive measures against the empire's Armenian population that were an early stage of the Armenian Genocide.