Armenian Rebellion and The Relocation in 1915
The beginning of World War I and the Ottoman entry into the war on November 1, 1914 on the side of Germany and Austria – Hungary against the Entente powers was considered as a great opportunity by the Armenian nationalists. Louise Nalbandian relates that “The Armenian revolutionary committees considered that the most opportune time to begin a general uprising to achieve their goals was when the Ottoman Empire was in a state of war”,17 and thus less able to resist an internal attack.
Even before the war began, in August 1914, the Ottoman leaders met with the Dashnaks at Erzurum in the hope of getting them to support the Ottoman war effort when it came. The Dashnaks promised that if the Ottomans entered the war, they would do their duty as loyal countrymen in the Ottoman armies. However they failed to live up to this promise, since even before this meeting took place, a secret Dashnak Congress held at Erzurum in June 1914 had already decided to use the oncoming war to undertake a general attack against the Ottoman state.18 The Russian Armenians joined the Russian army in preparing an attack on the Ottomans as soon as war was declared. The Catholicos of Echmiadzin assured the Russian General Governor of the Caucasus, Vranzof-Dashkof, that “in return for Russia’s forcing the Ottomans to make reforms for the Armenians, all the Russian Armenians would support the Russian war effort without conditions. “.19 The Catholicos subsequently was received at Tiflis by the Czar, whom he told that “The liberation of the Armenians in Anatolia would lead to the establishment of an autonomous Armenia separated from Turkish suzerainty and that this Armenia could be made possible with the protection of Russia.“20 Of course the Russians really intended to use the Armenians to annex Eastern Anatolia, but the Catholicos was told nothing about that.
As soon as Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, the Dashnak Society’s official organ Horizon declared:
“The Armenians have taken their place on the side of the Entente states without showing any hesitation whatsoever; they have placed all their forces at the disposition of Russia; and they also are forming volunteer battalions. “21
The Dashnak Committee also ordered its cells that had been preparing to revolt within the Ottoman Empire:
“As soon as the Russians have crossed the borders and the Ottoman armies have started to retreat, you should revolt everywhere. The Ottoman armies thus will be placed between two fires: of the Ottoman armies advance against the Russians, on the other hand, their Armenian soldiers should leave their units with their weapons, form bandit forces, and unite with the Russians.”22
The Hunchak Committee instructions to its organizations in the Ottoman territory were:
“The Hunchak Committee will use all means to assist the Entente states, devoting all its forces to the struggle to assure victory in Armenia, Cilicia, the Caucasus and Azerbaijan as the ally of the Entente states, and in particular of Russia.”‘23
And even the Armenian representative in the Ottoman Parliament for Van, Papazyan, soon turned out to be a leading guerilla fighter against the Ottomans, publishing a proclamation that:
“The volunteer Armenian regiments in the Caucasus should prepare themselves for battle, serve as advance units for the Russian armies to help them capture the key positions in the districts where the Armenians live, and advance into Anatolia, joining the Armenian units already there.”24
As the Russian forces advanced into Ottoman territory in eastern Anatolia, they were led by advance units composed of volunteer Ottoman and Russian Armenians, who were joined by the Armenians who deserted the Ottoman armies and went over to the Russians. Many of these also formed bandit forces with weapons and ammunition which they had for years been stocking in Armenian and missionary churches and schools, going on to raid Ottoman supply depots both to increase their own arms and to deny them to the Ottoman army as it moved to meet this massive Russian invasion. Within a few months after the war began, these Armenian guerilla forces, operating in close coordination with the Russians, were savagely attacking Turkish cities, towns and villages in the East; massacring their inhabitants without mercy, while at the same time working to sabotage the Ottoman army’s war effort by destroying roads and bridges, raiding caravans, and doing whatever else they could to ease the Russian occupation. The atrocities committed by the Armenian volunteer forces accompanying the Russian army were so severe that the Russian commanders themselves felt compelled to withdraw them from the fighting fronts and send them to rear guard duties. The memoirs of all too many Russian officers who served in the East at this time are filled with accounts of the revolting atrocities committed by these Armenian guerillas, who were savage even by the relatively primitive standards of war then observed in such areas.25
Nor did these Armenian atrocities affect only Turks and other Muslims. The Armenian guerillas had never been happy with the failure of the Greeks and Jews to fully support their revolutionary programs. As a result in Trabzon and vicinity they massacred thousands of Greeks, while in the area of Hakkari it was the Jews who were rounded up and massacred by the Armenian guerillas.26 Basically the aim of these atrocities was to leave only Armenians in the territories being claimed for the new Armenian state; all others therefore were massacred or forced to flee for their lives so as to secure the desired Armenian majority of the population in preparation for the peace settlement.
Leading the first Armenian units who crossed the Ottoman border in the company of the Russian invaders was the former Ottoman Parliamentary representative for Erzurum, Karekin Pastirmaciyan, who now assumed the revolutionary name Armen Garo. Another former Ottoman parliamentarian, Hamparsum Boyaciyan, led the Armenian guerilla forces who ravaged Turkish villages behind the lines under the nickname “Murad“, specifically ordering that “Turkish children also should be killed as they form a danger to the Armenian nation.” Another former Member of Parliament, Papazyan, led the Armenian guerilla forces that ravaged the areas of Van, Bitlis and Mush.
In March 1915 the Russian forces began to move toward Van. Immediately, on April 11, 1915 the Armenians of Van began a general revolt, massacring all the Turks in the vicinity so as to make possible its quick and easy conquest by the Russians. Little wonder that Czar Nicholas II sent a telegram of thanks to the Armenian Revolutionary Committee of Van on April 21, 1915, “thanking it for its services to Russia.” The Armenian newspaper Gochnak, published in the United States, also proudly reported on May 24, 1915 that “only, 1,500 Turks remain in Van“, the rest having been slaughtered.
The Dashnak representative told the Armenian National Congress assembled at Tiflis in February 1915 that “Russia provided 242,000 rubles before the war even began to arm and prepare the Ottoman Armenians to undertake revolts“, giving some idea of how the Russian-Armenian alliance had long prepared to undermine the Ottoman war effort.27 Under these circumstances, with the Russians advancing along a wide front in the East, with the Armenian guerillas spreading death and destruction while at the same time attacking the Ottoman armies from the rear, with the Allies also attacking the Empire along a wide front from Galicia to Iraq, from the Dardanelles to Caucasus, the Ottoman decision to relocate Armenians from the war areas was a moderate and entirely legitimate measure of self defense.
Even after the revolt and massacres committed against Muslims at Van, the Ottoman government made one final effort to secure general Armenian support for the war effort, summoning the Patriarch, some Armenian Members of Parliament, and other delegates to a meeting where they were warned that drastic measures would be taken unless Armenians stopped slaughtering Muslims and working to undermine the war effort. When there was no evident lessening of the Armenian attacks, the government finally acted. On April 24, 1915 the Armenian revolutionary committees were closed and 235 of their leaders were arrested for activities against the state. It is the date of these arrests that in recent years has been annually commemorated by Armenian nationalist groups throughout the world in commemoration of the “massacre” that they claim took place at this time. No such massacre, however, took place, at this or any other time during the war: In the face of the great dangers which the Empire faced at that time, great care was taken to make certain that the Armenians were treated carefully and compassionately as they were relocated to the southern territories of the Empire, generally to Syria and Palestine when they came from southern Anatolia, and to Iraq if they came from the north. The Ottoman Council of Ministers thus ordered:
“When those of the Armenians resident in the aforementioned towns and villages who have to be moved are transferred to their places of settlement and are on the road, their comfort must be assured and their lives and property protected; after their arrival their food should be paid for out of Refugees’ Appropriations until they are definitively settled in their new homes. Property and land should be distributed to them in accordance with their previous financial situation as well as their current needs; and for those among them needing further help, the government should build houses, provide cultivators and artisans with seed, tools, and equipment.”28
And it went on to specify:
“This order is entirely intended against the extension of the Armenian Revolutionary Committees; therefore do not execute it in such a manner that might cause the mutual massacre of Muslims and Armenians.”
“Make arrangements for special officials to accompany the groups of Armenians who are being relocated, and make sure they are provided with food and other needed things, paying the cost out of the allotments set aside for emigrants. “29
“The food needed by the emigrants while traveling until they reach their destinations must be provided … for poor emigrants by credit for the installation of the emigrants. The camps provided for transported persons should be kept under regular supervision; necessary steps for their well being should be taken, and order and security assured. Make certain that indigent emigrants are given enough food and that their health is assured by daily visits by a doctor… Sick people, poor people, women and children should be sent by rail, and others on mules, in carts or on foot according to their power of endurance. Each convoy should be accompanied by a detachment of guards, and the food supply for each convoy should be guarded until the destination is reached… In cases where the emigrants are attacked, either in the camps or during the journeys, all efforts should be taken to repel the attacks immediately…”30
Out of the some 700,000 Armenians who were resettled in this way until early 1916, certainly some lives were lost, as the result both of large scale military and bandit activities then going on in the areas through which they passed, as well as the general insecurity and blood feuds which some tribal forces sought to carry out as the caravans passed through their territories. In addition, the relocation and settlement of the transferred Armenians took place at a time when the Empire was suffering from severe shortages of fuel, food, medicine and other supplies as well as large-scale plague and famine. It should not be forgotten that, at the same time, an entire Ottoman army of 90,000 men was lost in the East as a result of severe shortages, or that through the remainder of the war as many as three to four million Ottoman subjects of all religions died as a result of the same conditions that afflicted the relocated Armenians. How tragic and unfeeling it is, therefore, for Armenian nationalists to blame the undoubted suffering of the Armenians during the war to something more than the same anarchical conditions which afflicted all the Sultan’s subjects. This is the truth behind the false claims distorting historical facts by ill-devised mottoes such as the “first genocide of the Twentieth Century“.
After the World War I, the Armenian allegations were investigated between 1919 and 1922 as part of a legal process against the Ottoman officials. The Peace Treaty of Sevres, which was imposed upon the defeated Ottoman Empire, required the Ottoman government to hand over to the Allied Powers those persons who were accused of “massacres”. Subsequently, 144 high Ottoman officials were arrested and deported for trial by Britain to the island of Malta. The information which led to the arrests was mainly given by local Armenians and the Armenian Patriarchate. So while the deportees were interned on Malta the British occupation forces in Istanbul which had absolute power and authority in Ottoman capital, looked frantically everywhere to find evidence in order to incriminate the deportees.
An Armenian scholar, Haig Kahzarlan, appointed by the British, conducted thorough examination of documentary evidence in the Ottoman and British archives. However, Khazarian could not find any evidence demonstrating that the Ottoman government and the Ottoman officials deported to Malta either sanctioned or encouraged the killings of the Armenians.
Thereupon, the British Foreign Office thought that the American government would doubtlessly be in possession of a large amount of documentary evidence compiled at the time of the “massacres”. Indeed, if alleged massacres took place in 1915-1917, the Americans must have been in possession of a mass of material, since at that time American diplomatic and consular officials were freely performing their duties in Turkey. Furthermore, the American Near East Relief Society, ubiquitous institution of missionaries, was allowed by the Ottoman government to fulfill its relief work in Anatolia during the relocation of the Armenians. Therefore, they should have witnessed crimes and gathered a lot of evidence against the Ottoman officials.
So, in desperation the British Foreign Office turned to the American archives in Washington. On March 31, 1921, Lord Curzon telegraphed to Sir A.Geddes, the British Ambassador in Washington the following.
“The are in the hands of His Majesty’s Government a Malta a number of Turks arrested for alleged complicity in the Armenian massacres. There are considerable difficulties in establishing the proofs of guilt… Please ascertain if the United States are in possession of any evidence that would be of value for purposes of prosecution.”
On July 13, 1921, the British Embassy in Washington returned the following reply:
“I have the honour to inform Your Lordship that a member of my staff visited the… State Department… He was permitted to see a selection of reports from United States Consuls on the subject of the atrocities… I regret to inform Your Lordship that there was nothing therein which could be used as evidence against the Turks…”
At the conclusion of the investigation, no evidence was found that could corroborate the Armenian claims. After two years and four months of detention in Malta, all Ottoman deportees were set free without trial. No compensation was ever paid to the detainees.
17 NALBANDIAN, Louise, op. cit., p. 111.
18 Aspirations et Agissements Revolutionnaires des Comités Arméniens avant et après la Proclamation de la Constitution Ottomane, Istanbul, 1917, pp.144 -146.
19 TCHALKOUCHIAN, Gr., he Livre Rouge, Paris, 1919, p. 12.
20 TCHALKOUCHIAN, Gr., op. cit.
21 URAS, Esat, op. cit., p. 594.
22 HOCAOGLU, Mehmed, Tarihte Ermeni Mezalimi ve Ermeniler, Istanbul, 1976, pp. 570-571.
23 Aspirations et Agissements revolutionnaires des Comités Armeniéns, pp.151-153.
24 URAS, Esat, op. cit., pp. 5% – 600.
25 Journal de Guerre du Deuxième Regiment d’Artillerie de Forteresse Russe d’Erzéroum, 1919.
26 SCHEMSI, Kara, op. cit., p. 41 ancfp. 49.
27 URAS, Esat, op. cit, p. 604.
28 Council of Ministers Decrees, Prime Ministry’s Archives, Istanbul, Volume 198, Decree 1331/163, May 1915.
29 British Foreign Office Archives, Public Record Office, 371/9158/E 5523.
30 British Foreign Office Archives, 371/9158/E 5523.