By Justin McCarthy

(Excerpts from Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922)

From Chapter Six: The Final War in the East

“The conflict between Muslims and Armenians of the Ottoman East, which had been developing for a hundred years, came to a climax during World War I. Two wars were fought at the same time in the east — a war between Ottoman and Russian armies and an intercommunal war between Armenians and Muslims of eastern Anatolia and the southern Caucasus. In terms of civilian and military losses, the wars fought in the east between 1914 and 1920 were among the worst in human history. The result of Ottoman weakness, Russian imperialism, European meddling, and Armenian revolutionary nationalism was widespread devastation. After the wars, cities such as Van, Bitlis, Bayazit, and Erzincan were largely rubble. Thousands of villages were destroyed. Millions on both sides had died. The Armenians, who revolted to gain a nation, were left with a Soviet republic in which they were not their own masters. The Turks, who ultimately won the wars, were left with a country in ruins.”

Armenian revolutionaries seized the city of Van from the Ottoman government on 13 and 14 April 1915 and held it against besieging Ottoman troops who had been quickly brought up from Bitlis and the Russian front. The Russians took advantage of the revolt. Against the lightly held Ottoman frontier, they sent a force made up of Armenian volunteer units (approximately 4,000 Armenians, mainly from the Caucasus), Armenian guerilla units (from the Caucasus and Anatolia), and a brigade of Red Cossacks. By the middle of May, these forces had reached Van and were threatening Bitlis. When the Ottoman forces besieging Van withdrew to concentrate on the defense of Bitlis, the Russian units entered Van (31 May 1915). They were deliriously welcomed by the local Armenian population…

“… During the first year of the war, the Ottomans were occupied with Armenian revolts all over eastern Anatolia. Only the revolt in Van was successful, but the other revolts caused great loss of life and significantly harmed the Ottoman war effort. The Armenians of Zeytun, always restive under Ottoman control, rebelled in August of 1914, before the war began, primarily as a protest against conscription. Their initial revolt was suppressed, but broke out again in December with attacks on Ottoman gendarmes. From then until deportations of Armenians finally ended the revolt, the Armenians of Zeytun waged guerilla war against the Ottomans. In June 1915, the Kara Hisar-I Sarki was seized by Armenian revolutionaries. They were quickly driven out of most of the town, but held citadel against Ottoman troops. Because of the speedy Armenian defeat, few Muslims were killed. However, Armenian bands in the countryside near kara Hisar attacked and killed Muslim villagers. Armenian bands and local Armenian revolutionaries rebelled in Urfa and 29 September 1915. The Armenian quarters of the city were taken and held against local gendarmerie forces, Muslim houses were burned and Muslim civilians killed. In the Urfa rebellion, it was necessary to divert Ottoman troops to the city to defeat the rebels, who were armed with machine guns. After the defeat, 2,000 Armenians were sent from Urfa to Mosul under heavy guard.

The revolts in the eastern cities were reflected in the countryside of the Ottoman East. Armenian revolutionaries attacked Muslim villages, and Armenian villages were in turn attacked, primarily by Kurds…”

The Armenian Revolution

Not coincidentally, the Armenian revolt in the eastern Anatolia began as soon as the Russians realized that the Ottoman Empire would go to war. Before Russia declared war on 2 November 1914, Armenian guerillas had already begun to organize into guerilla bands. In preparation for revolt, Armenian revolutionaries had stored vast stockpiles of weapons, largely provided or paid for by the Russian government. These were kept primarily in Armenian villages and were obviously well-hidden from Ottoman authorities, an indication of the lack of Ottoman control in the region before the war… With weapons stored for the expected revolution, Ottoman citizen Armenians began to arm themselves and organize on both sides of the border. Bands were formed in the Kars-Ardahan-Artvin border regions (which had been taken from the Ottomans in 1878) and in Van, Erzurum, and Bitlis vilayets.

When war was declared, the Armenian revolutionaries mobilized. Anatolian Armenians who had previously gone to Russia reentered the Ottoman Empire and led guerilla groups. One band of more than a thousand was organized by a former Armenian deputy to the Ottoman Parliament, Garo Pasdirmajian (Armen Garo). Famous guerilla leaders such as Andranik, who had led the 1895 Armenian revolt, organized the Anatolian revolutionaries and enrolled thousands of new recruits, including Armenians from Iran. In the Russian Caucasus, the Dashnak Party recruited members for guerilla bands that would enter the Ottoman Empire. The bands included both “Russian” and “Turkish” Armenians, although to the guerillas themselves such a distinction would have been all but meaningless.

“Armenian guerilla units went through Armenian villages, recruiting men and assisting or forcing (depending on which version one ascribes to) Armenians to migrate to areas of Russian control… Around 6,000 to 8,000 Armenian guerillas, primarily from Mus, Van, and Bitlis, gathered in the area of Kagizman and were organized and trained by Russians. Another group of approximately 6,000 Anatolian Armenians was trained and organized in Igdir and formed into guerilla bands. The Ottoman army estimated that 30,000 armed men from Sivas Vilayeti alone joined the Armenian forces, probably an exaggerated number, but indicative of a great and long-planned rebellion…”
At first, Ottoman military units, mail deliveries, gendarmerie posts, and recruiting units were attacked in Mus, Sitak, Susehri, Zeytun, Aleppo, Dortyol, and many other areas… Between five hundred and six hundred Armenian rebels occupied the Tekye Monastery and fought a bloody, day-long pitched battle with Ottoman troops and gendarmes, escaping from Ottoman troops at night… In Diyarbaki Vilayeti, a combination of Armenian villagers and Armenian deserters formed bands and attacked Muslim villages and Ottoman troops. Unprotected Muslim villages were assaulted and Muslims massacred, although the murders could not compare to what was later to befall the Muslims of the east.

“Armenian plans to take eastern cities were brought into force once the war began. For the sake of understanding the chronology of massacre and countermassacre in the region, it should be understood that these and other revolutionary activities took place well before any orders for deportation of Armenians were given.”

The Ottoman Response

The Ottoman response to the Armenian Revolution was approximately the same as that taken by other twentieth-century governments faced with guerilla war: isolate the guerillas from local support by removing local supporters. The Ottomans knew that Armenian rebels were freely supported by Armenian villagers as well as by Armenians in the eastern cities that were home to leaders of their revolution. They, therefore, decided on a radical action: forced migration of the Armenian population in actual or potential war zones. The first orders to that effect went out on 26 May 1915…

The intentions of Istanbul were clear – to move and resettle Armenians peacefully. The only verifiable Ottoman documents on the subject indicate at least a formal concern for the Armenian migrants. Elaborate procedures were written in Istanbul and forwarded to the provinces. These covered the sale of refugee goods, the settling of refugees in economic positions similar to those they had left, instructions on health and sanitation, and the like. In short, all looked fine on paper. Articles 1 and 3 of the Resettlement Regulations show where problems arose:

  • Article 1. Arrangements for transportation of those to be transferred is the responsibility of local administrations.

  • Article 3. Protection of lives and properties of Armenians to be transferred en route to their new settlements, their board and lodging and their rest is the responsibility of local administrations en route. Civil servants in all echelons are responsible for any negligence in this regard.…

“Lack of proper security opened the way for subsequent events: Some Ottoman officials were venal and stole from those in their charge. Some officials, particularly those who were from Caucasian Muslim groups that had themselves recently suffered the same deprivations, undoubtedly saw the Armenian situation as a chance to even old scores. Local citizens amassed large sums dealing in the property, and misery, of Armenian migrants. These included Muslims and Greek Christians, of whom the latter bought up Armenian lands and property in Black Sea provinces. The greatest threat and cause to mortality to Armenians came from the nomadic tribes who raided Armenian convoys. The few gendarmes detailed to the convoys, for example, could not protect them from armed attacks by Kurds. While the tribes did not usually engage in mass slaughter of Armenian migrants, they did kill large numbers of them and abducted their women. They probably caused the greatest mortality by stealing what the Armenians needed to subsist. Despite the regulations, little food was provided to the migrants, who were expected to feed themselves. But the tribes took their sustenance, and starvation was the result.

Some Ottoman officials themselves took part in the robbery of Armenians, sometimes even the killing of Armenians. The Ottoman government recognized this and tried many Turks for actions against Armenians. Kamuran Gurun has found documents listing convictions of 1,397 persons for crimes against Armenians. Some were executed for their crimes….