Unique Aerial Photographs of the Armenian Highlands - The Air War in the Eastern Provinces - 1916-1917
Author: Peter Dye 20/10/21 (Last modified 20/10/21)
This article is the result of a chance purchase of the prints of a dozen aerial photographs taken in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces during the First World War. 
These photographs reveal new details of the fighting between the Ottoman and Russian armies rarely mentioned in popular histories of the First World War. They are also evidence of the tragedy that befell the Armenian communities in the eastern Ottoman provinces. Many of the images show abandoned villages full of roofless homes, the residents either dead or deported. The scale of the destruction is sobering, as is the rugged beauty of the landscape, dominated by high mountain ranges, steep-sided valleys, and swift-flowing streams. Winter comes early to the Armenian Highlands and lasts deep into the spring months. There are few roads or large towns, but numerous small settlements are scattered across the valleys and high plains. The terrain is dominated by the Euphrates River and its tributaries that flow west from the mountains, north of the Tauruses, before turning southward towards Syria and Iraq. It is difficult to believe that a war was fought here, or that these photographs represent the very first aerial views of this remote and inaccessible region, providing a unique record of a landscape and a way of life that disappeared with the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Most of the prints are uncaptioned, and none are dated. Modern satellite imagery has allowed us to identify a few locations, but many remain “unknown.” The region has changed greatly over the last hundred years as rapid economic development (and, sadly, natural disasters) have transformed the land. Still, it is hoped that someone reading this article may be able to identify the remaining locations. A further complication is that most settlements have changed names over the last century. To make matters more difficult, many villages in the Armenian Highlands were known by several names in several different languages. Where possible, both “original” and contemporary place names have been provided.
By early 1916, the war was not going well for the Ottoman Empire. Admittedly, the Allies had been forced to give up their bridgehead in Gallipoli, evacuating their forces in the face of an aggressive Ottoman defence. In Mesopotamia, the British were surrounded at Kut, south of Baghdad, and would soon surrender. However, the initial Ottoman offensives against the Russians in the Caucasus and the British in Egypt had been costly failures. Although the Ottoman forces had been bolstered by the loan of German staff officers, they lacked modern aircraft. To fill this gap, Germany sent increasing numbers of aircraft and aviation personnel to support the small Ottoman Air Service. Starting in March 1916, Germany began sending entire flying units. These “Pascha” squadrons proved invaluable, although they were handicapped by the long supply lines to Germany.
The Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli allowed the Ottoman High Command to reinforce its positions in the eastern provinces. The experienced Ottoman 2nd Army, transferred from the Dardanelles, took over the southern section of the front, while the Ottoman 3rd Army attempted to halt further Russian advances in the north. It was hoped that the 2nd Army would threaten the flank of any future Russian attacks. However, most of its units were not in position when the Russians launched a major offensive between Trabzon and Lake Van, inflicting severe casualties on the Ottoman 3rd Army. Erzerum (present-day Erzurum) was captured on 1 March 1916, followed by Trabzon on 15 April and Erzindjan/Yerznga (present-day Erzincan) on 25 July. There was now the danger that further Russian advances would see them link up with the British in Mesopotamia.
Although the Ottoman 3rd Army had been able to call on the 7nci Tayyare Böluk (7th Aircraft Detachment) for air reconnaissance, the 2nd Army lacked any air support. A new unit, the 10ncu Tayyare Böluk (10th Aircraft Detachment), was formed in Istanbul for service in the eastern provinces. It left for the front on 1 September 1916, equipped with five Albatros C.III aircraft, but took nearly two months to arrive in Diyarbekir (present-day Diyarbakır) via Ras El-Ain and Mardin. The unit comprised just seven aircrew: three German pilots (Lt Westfal and Sgts Jakop and Frankl) and four Ottoman observers (Lts Ahmet Muzaffer, Nuri, Mazlum, and Bahattin). They eventually reached the headquarters of 2nd Army in Harput (Kharpert) on 9 November 1916, setting up a landing ground in the village of Sursuru (present-day Olgunlar), close to the town of Mezre/Mamuret-ul-Aziz (present-day Elazığ), in the valley below Harput. The unit soon performed its first reconnaissance flights, even though it had few aircraft (only four after a landing accident on 16 November) and faced a serious shortage of spare parts, including propellers and tyres.
The Imperial Russian Air Service also operated over the Armenian Highlands, employing up to twice as many aircraft, including single-seat fighters. Both sides focused on reconnaissance tasks, but they also occasionally conducted bombing raids against military camps and depots. Air combat was rare, and generally ended inconclusively. Only one aircraft was lost during these aerial engagements, an Albatros C.III belonging to the 7th Aircraft Detachment. It was shot down over Erzincan on 8 October 1917. The victory was credited to Kapitan Mikhail Machavariani, flying a Nieuport XXI. The Ottoman crew, MSgt Vehici Hurkus and Lt Bahattin (who had recently transferred from the 10th Aircraft Detachment), were both captured, although they managed to burn their aircraft upon landing.
It is difficult to exaggerate the challenges faced by pilots flying in such a rugged and mountainous region. The weather was often poor and always unpredictable. The crews had to climb to a considerable altitude to cross the mountain ranges, enduring severe cold and lack of oxygen. The limited supply of spare parts caused constant maintenance problems, including unreliable engines, but there were few places where a safe emergency landing could be made in case of need. Poor maps and the threat of airborne attacks, as well as the experience of being regularly fired upon from the ground, further increased the strain on the aviators of both armies.
The first operational flight from Mezre/Mamuret-ul-Aziz took off on 20 November 1916, when Sgt Jakop and Lt Muzaffer were tasked with a reconnaissance mission in support of the 2nd Army’s planned offensive. However, this flight ended with a forced landing shortly after take-off. Sgt Jakop and Lt Mehmet Nuri were more successful on 28 November, reaching Göynük (Ognut). Further flights took off on 30 November and 8 December. The onset of winter and the lack of spare parts meant that no more flying was possible for some time, and the aircraft were stored in an abandoned church.
As a result of the heavy losses sustained during the previous year, the 2nd and 3rd Ottoman armies were combined in early 1917 to form the “Eastern Armies Group,” under the command of Ahmet İzzet Paşa, who began preparing for a spring offensive against the Russians. However, poor weather, attrition (including the death of Lt Nuri in a flying accident), and the lack of spare parts meant that by March 1917, there were no serviceable aircraft on the front. Replacement aircraft were despatched from Istanbul in May, with the 10th Aircraft Detachment receiving four new Albatros C.III in June. These were flown to Mezre/Mamuret-ul-Aziz via Marash (present-day Kahramanmaraş) and Malatya, rather than being shipped overland. Further reinforcements included three pilots and three observers. All the aerial images accompanying this article were taken during this period and can be dated between May and November 1917.
Because the detachment had to cover some 400 kilometres of the front, from Erzincan to Lake Van, advanced landing grounds were set up in Sekerat (Yasibasi) and later in Garip. The difficulty of supplying these sites meant that Mezre/Mamuret-ul-Aziz remained the 10th Aircraft Detachment’s main base of operations for the remainder of the year. Flying operations soon resumed, including a reconnaissance flight over Göynük by Sgt Kleinehayk and Lt Siege on 5 May 1917. They reported that the enemy could not be seen on the roads leading east from Varto to the Moush (present-day Muş) Valley, although they spotted Russian troops around the village of Göynük. Unfortunately, the aircraft crashed on the return flight because of an oil leak, leaving the crew injured.
Place names mentioned on this webpage: Schwarzes Meer/Black Sea; Trapezunt/Trabzon; Batum/Batumi; Kars; Erzingjan/Erzincan/Yerzenga; Mamachatoun/Mamahatun; Erzerum/Erzurum; Malatia/Malatya; Mezre/Mamuretul Aziz/Elazığ; Kharput/Harput; Sekerat/Sakrat; Garip; Tchabaktchour/Bingöl; Goynuk; Goumgoum/Varto; Euphrat/Euphrates River; Musch/Moush; Khinis/Hınıs; Akhlat/Ahlat; Bitlis; Wan See/Lake Van; Melezguerd/Malazgirt; Wan/Van; Bachkale/Başkale; Diarbekir/Diyarbekir; Sert/Siirt; Mardin; Ras el-Ain.
During an aerial reconnaissance mission over the area of Varto and Hinis/Hınıs (Khnous) on 16 June 1917, a Russian division was spotted in Varto. The airmen also discovered a corps-sized tented encampment in the vicinity of Hınıs, together with an aircraft hangar and a large tent that could accommodate four aircraft. During this mission, an air battle was fought against two Russian aircraft, but the results were inconclusive. Another mission in the direction of Manzikert (Malazgirt) discovered many tents, two aircraft hangars, and about three regiments stationed around Bulanik (Kop). On 28 June 1917, an aircraft took off from the advanced landing ground in Garip to reconnoiter the area around Göynük and Moush. The next day, separate flights reached the Russian bases in Mamahatun (Tercan) and Erzurum.
Although aerial reconnaissance flights continued through the remainder of 1917, the fighting on the ground lost its intensity due to the uncertainty created by the Russian Revolution. The 10th Aircraft Detachment continued to carry out missions, including flights over Malazgirt and Bulanik on 10 July and, a week later, over Mamahatun. The 2nd Army remained keenly interested in the enemy positions in the Göynük Valley, as this area offered a direct route to Erzurum. On 13 August, targets around Erzincan were attacked from the air, including fortifications, artillery positions, ammunition depots, and the aerodrome (north of the city). Four parked aircraft and associated facilities were bombed, and an inconclusive air duel was fought against a Russian fighter. Although the raid was deemed a success, a contemporary Russian account states that the “bombs” were 20-kilogram anti-personnel fragmentation grenades that mostly missed their targets and caused little damage. On 31 August 1917, during a reconnaissance flight over Göynük, a regiment-sized encampment was spotted close to the Göynük Stream.
On 1 September 1917, the unit was tasked with reconnoitering the enemy positions along the Euphrates and all the way to Erzincan. In the subsequent reconnaissance sorties, flown from the forward landing ground in Garip, the airmen spotted three Russian companies near the river; two aircraft hangars and two aircraft near the school in the north of the city; and a battalion-sized camp near the city barracks. An attack by a Russian fighter was repulsed before the crew returned safely. During the remainder of September, multiple aerial reconnaissance missions were carried out around Erzincan, Moush, Bitlis, Malazgirt, and Bashkale. These flights continued in October and November, ranging as far as Lake Van.
Any further Russian operations in the eastern provinces were halted with the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution. Russian troops were soon withdrawn, to be replaced by irregular Armenian units. The 10th Aircraft Detachment was heavily involved in monitoring the Russian retreat, undertaking long flights as far as Bitlis, Malazgirt, Moush, Siirt, and Van. Little flying was done in November due to the poor weather, although the opportunity was taken to drop propaganda leaflets over Russian positions. No more missions were flown after 29 November, when the unit was ordered to Silvan via Diyarbekir. As its aircraft were in a terrible state of disrepair, the detachment could no longer operate. In the absence of replacement aircraft, the 10th Aircraft Detachment was effectively disbanded. Following the peace treaty signed with the new Russian Revolutionary Government on 3 March 1918, the Ottoman 3rd Army reoccupied Trabzon, Erzurum, Kars, Van, and Batumi.
The following article, titled “Ein Aufklärungsflug im Kaukasus,” was published in the German aviation magazine Flugsport on 31 January 1917. It appears to have been written by Lt Westfal, who commanded the 10th Aircraft Detachment in 1916.
From Rais-ul-ein (Ras al-Ayn), “Head of the Sweet Water,” the terminus of the Baghdad Railway, the path leads through the foothills of the great Syrian desert, past Tel Ermen, a formerly large Armenian city and now a single pile of rocks, and up into the foothills of the Armenian Tauruses, where the city of Mardin lies. We had given surfaces and aircraft accessories to a column of vehicles who maintained the connection between Rais-ul-ein and Mardin, and we ourselves proceeded ahead with the aircraft, which were towed by our two-horsepower [pulled by two oxen] transport wagons. The rain had made the road soft and partly impassable. So, it was time to dismount and help push. But that is also part of a trip. We could have taken the aircraft to our destination by air, but the aviation inspectorate did not give permission for this. The poetry and humour of life can celebrate the greatest triumphs in the most fatal situations. Overturned wagons, boxes and boxes lying around, broken wheels, lame oxen, and petrol barrels rolling down the slope, and which could only be brought back up with the greatest difficulty. All of this gave us a thousand times more amusement than if everything had gone according to plan. We finally reached Mardin, but the machines were much worse for wear. An Austrian column drove from Mardin to Diarbecks [Diyarbekir] and towed us there. Diarbecks, the city with the black dogs, black walls, and black hearts, as an old Arab proverb says. With its black basalt walls, gates, and towers. As it stands today, it dates from the Byzantine era, and was built in the sixth century, when it was still Raia-Amid or Amida. After its conquest from the Persians, it became the main border fortress of the empire against the east. Here, in the outskirts of the Armenian Highlands, German pilots astonished the local population with their apparatuses. We pitched our tents near the north gate, or the so-called Charput [Harput] gate, next to a large cemetery. Within a few days, we were able to perform our first test flights. I am not exaggerating when I say that the locals, who had never seen a flying machine in their lives and had never heard of the art of human flight, hurried to the square in droves when they heard the roar of the 160-horsepower Mercedes engines. Old and young, men, women, and children, anyone who could move, ran out to see the German aviators. A swarm of colors that only the Orient can produce. Thickly veiled women and girls in red, yellow, green, and black headscarves; men in long robes and white burnous. A wall of color surrounded the airfield. With the stoic calm inherent in the Orientals, they sat from morning to noon to see the big birds. Shortly before noon, I flew for the first time and circled above the old venerable city, on whose flat roofs the locals swarmed like ants. The dirty, yellow water of the Tigris flowed lazily past, and the city seemed to be brooding in the heat. In the north rose the great, snow-capped summits of the Armenian and Anti-Taurus mountains. In the distance glistened the smooth surface of Lake Göldjik [Lake Golu], nestled in the mountains. What would the ancient Persians say if they could see this strange bird flying in the sky? I circled three more times to really push the engine, which had suffered from the long journey, and was dusty and dirty. Every time we landed, there was a hoot and applause from the audience, which vividly reminded me of days gone by, back when we would barely get a few metres off the ground with the old wire machines, but audiences would respond with frenetic jubilation. The next morning, I set out for our base, “M” [Mezre], on the other side of the Taurus Mountains. I crossed the mountains at 4,000 metres. It was freezing cold. Above the peaks, the machine became very restless at times, which was probably due to the contrary winds. Lake Göldjik, at an altitude of almost 2,000 metres, was already covered at the edges with a thick layer of ice. After a flight of an hour and a half, I returned via Charput, flew a few more spirals above “M,” and landed not far from the city in a small village with shimmering tents. Izzet Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman 2nd Army, was just passing through to headquarters and was personally present with his staff at the landing. Even among the officers, there were some who had never seen an airplane, and so we had to give them the boring lecture on the basics of flight. Then, I had to do perform some additional flights to demonstrate the safety of flying to these gentlemen. I was cold and hungry as a bear, but soon this test of patience came to an end. Strong handshakes. Most of the officers spoke fluent German - goodbye at headquarters and good luck – our arrival in “M” had reached its climax. On the following day, and the day after, my comrades followed. There were four pilots total, three Germans and one Turkish. I never saw the Turkish pilot again after my departure from Diarbecks. He had flown his Albatros into the rushes right at the start and was already on his way back to Constantinople [Lt Sadettin]. Over the next few days, we were able to carry out some successful flights before the start of winter. Upon our return, which included a landing at headquarters, we were rewarded with Iron Crescent medals. I will soon send a more detailed account of our flights over the Musch [Moush] Valley.
It has been a few weeks since we arrived at our base on the other side of the Armenian Taurus Mountains, which we crossed in an hour and forty minutes with our Albatros aircraft. The high command of the Ottoman 2nd Army had been waiting for our arrival for some time, and the commander of the army congratulated us upon landing. Tents had been set up much earlier by a commando unit sent ahead, and we began flying over the front lines within a few days. I would like to start by saying that these flights were very difficult, because there was no suitable landing site anywhere within 150 kilometres, as the landscape consists of mountains upon mountains. On the morning of … December, I was outside of my tent, ready to start out. I had given my Turkish observer, a close friend, the necessary instructions beforehand. We flew using Turkish maps, but I had no clue. Although I had already learned the language to some extent, I could not decipher the writing. Light fog and frost, which heralded the late arrival of winter, covered the valley. The fully fuelled machine slowly rose into its element. Once I had reached 2,500 metres, I headed east over the ridges enclosing the valley. The sun had not yet risen over the snow-capped peaks of the giant mountains. There lay peaceful Göldjik Lake, the edges of which were already glistening with frost, nestled in the mountains. The Euphrates with its strangely green, shimmering waters emerged directly behind the mountain ranges that enclosed Mezre in the east. Following the river’s course, we reached Palu in around sixty minutes. The city is located at a mighty rock gate. Here, the Euphrates enters a partially unexplored area, a single great ravine branching eastward into innumerable valleys, meandering past the rocky banks before flowing into the Chabakehur [Bingöl] Valley. Gradually, we climbed to 4,000 metres. The mountains around Palu reach an altitude of 2,800 to 3,000 metres. After another three-quarters of an hour, we had crossed this barren mountain range and were floating above the Chabakehur Valley. As far as the eye could see, nothing but mountains, death, and impassable terrain; and soft, white clouds of mist that glided away like ships, traveling from the east, from the great Moush Valley. They floated above the mountains, on both sides. Above them, the peaks and crests ringed the 4,000-metre-high Mount Sipan [Süphan], which was sharply outlined against the bright sky. The sun rose over the mountains, and the frost in the air glittered like a thousand and one diamonds. A wonderful scene unfolded before our eyes. A dazzling fire, as if all the gold on Earth had been poured into a huge cauldron, flooded the world. From Chabakehur [Bingöl], we headed northeast, flying up the Gunek-Fluss [Göynük Creek], which flows down from the Gunek Valley, cuts through Chabakehur, then joins the Euphrates at the southern tip of the valley. The slowly rising fog, silvery and pale at the same time, was now illuminated by the all-conquering sun, which hovered majestically above the towers of rocks. No tree, no bush adorned the ground. The snow-clad peaks stood over the terrain like radiant roofs. Slowly, the nebulae dissolved into nothingness and the sky flamed into a spotless, deep blue. Gradually, we drew closer to the front. A gentle nudge roused me from my contemplations and reminded me of the presence of my hitherto mute observer. The thermos bottle came out, and the hot tea warmed my body. We came closer and closer to the front. Ophunc [Ognot], the first position on the Russian side, lay beneath us. We saw puffs of smoke on the ground on either side of the aircraft, far below us, indicating that they were shooting at us. But we were flying too high for them. We didn't pay it much attention and went on our way to Gunek-Kala [Hinis]. At this point, fortune smiled on us. The shape of the two tents we spotted indicated that they could only be housing aircraft. We had discovered the aerodrome from which the French planes in Russian service had taken off and bombed Pola, without any success. A look at the fuel gauge! The dial warned us to return, and so we turned back and arrived safely at our starting point after five-and-a-half hours of flight.
 I am especially grateful to George Aghjayan and Vahé Tachjian for their support and assistance in the preparation of this article. I have drawn on a variety of German, Russian, and Turkish sources for the history of the air war in the eastern provinces, including: “Ein Aufklärungsflug im Kaukasus,” Flugsport, 31 January 1917, pp. 56-58; W. Allen & P. Muratoff, Caucasian Battlefields - A History of the Wars on the Turco-Caucasian Border 1828-1921 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953); M. Machavariani, Eyes to the South (Tbilisi: State Publishing House, 1969); T. Darcey, A. Durkota , & V. Kulikov, The Imperial Russian Air Service (Mountain View: Flying Machine Press, 1995); E. Erickson, Ordered To Die, A History of the Ottoman Army in the First World War (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001); A. Blume, The Russian Military Air Fleet in World War I, Volumes 1 & 2 (Atglen: Schiffer, 2010); O. Nikolajsen & B. Yilmazer, Ottoman Aviation 1909-1919 (Cahors: Nikolajsen, 2012); S. Averchenko & V. Kushnerev, “Russian Aviation on the Caucasian Front 1914-1918,” Military History Journal, 2014, No 8, pp. 10-18 & 2014, No 9, pp. 11-21.