At the beginning of the twentieth century, Baku was, after Tiflis, the second Armenian city of the Caucasus. By the end of the same century, the Armenian population of the city had been practically wiped out.
One of the chapters of that ethnic cleansing was the massacre of September 1918. While the Third Ottoman Army Corps was stopped in its advance in the battles of May 1918 that allowed Armenia to become an independent state, the Second Army Corps continued its advance through the line Gharakilise-Dilijan-Ghazakh (Ijevan)-Elizavetpol (Gandzak, Ganja) towards Baku.
Azerbaijan had proclaimed its independence on May 27, 1918 with Elizavetpol as its capital. Baku, the richest city in the country with its oil fields, had been governed since April 1918 by a Soviet (council) led by Bolshevik Stepan Shahumian. The Baku Soviet collaborated with the local branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to establish control over the city and its environs. While the Bolsheviks had the revolution in mind, the Armenians were primarily concerned with physical survival. However, by the beginning of summer, the Soviet found itself under increased threat by the Ottoman army, which had been enthusiastically received by the newly created Azerbaijani government, presided by M. Fatali Khan-Khoyski. Both sides clashed in June and July, but the joint Ottoman-Azerbaijani offensive could not be stopped by the forces loyal to the Baku Soviet, which, with no promise of material support from Moscow, was forced to turn to a British expeditionary force stationed in Persia under the command of Major-General Lionel C. Dunsterville. Although Shahumian had been ordered by Moscow to deny entry to the British, he was overruled by his peers in the Soviet, which formally requested help in late July. On July 31 Shahumian and the other Bolshevik members resigned from their posts and the Centro-Caspian Dictatorship assumed control of the city.
The size of the British force, however, proved to be too small to make much of an impact. In August, the Ottoman military, led by the so-called Army of Islam headed by Nuri Pasha (Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha’s half-brother), launched a new assault against the frontline positions, which were primarily manned by Armenians, who were forced to retreat despite some initial victories. In the first week of September, a joint Ottoman-Azerbaijani force composed of 15,000 men advanced without much resistance toward Baku and reached the suburbs by September 13. Meanwhile, the Muslim population of Baku prepared to welcome the entry of the Ottoman army. The Armenian troops were too ill-prepared to halt the advance and Dunsterville refused to retain his force, which evacuated from Baku on September 14 and sailed to Enzeli, in Persia, leaving the city virtually defenseless.
A terrible panic ensued once the invaders entered Baku. The Armenians crowded the harbor in a frantic effort to escape the fate that they knew very well. Regular Ottoman troops were not allowed to enter the city for two days, so that the local irregulars (bashibozuks) would conduct the usual looting and pillaging. Despite this order, regular Ottoman troops participated alongside the irregulars and the Azeris of Baku in the plundering, and then turned their fury against the Armenian population. Calls by German officers attached to the Ottoman command staff to treat the local population with leniency were ignored.
|Armenians fleeing the massacre through the Azerbaijani countryside.|
On September 16, the Ottoman divisions formally entered the city in a victory parade reviewed by the Ottoman High Command. Baku would subsequently be proclaimed as the capital of the newly established Azerbaijani Republic.
According to a special commission formed by the Armenian National Council of Baku, a total of 8,988 Armenians were massacred, among which were 5,248 Armenian inhabitants, 1,500 Armenian refugees from other areas of the Caucasus, and 2,240 Armenians whose corpses were found in the streets but remained unidentified. Other estimates range up to 30,000 people.