A Militarised People


In the last article, Pasdermadjian and the War in the Caucasus, I noted;

“The Azerbaijani Turks were the most unmilitarised element in the whole region, excluded from the Tsar’s army before the Great War and refused enlistment in it during conscription. On the other hand there were hundreds of thousands of Armenians under arms in both regular and irregular forces with a long tradition of guerrilla warfare behind them. They were trained by the Tsar in his army, reconstituted by Kerensky in a new army, employed by the Bolsheviks in the absence of a Red Army and then funded by the British to make up a new line in the Caucasus against the Ottomans.

So, in which people did the military art and experience lie in the Caucasus in 1918 and how was that likely to determine who was aggressor and who was victim?

The only thing that the Azerbaijanis had in their favour was that they constituted the majority of humanity in the area. But that was something that was of little concern to the Armenian Dashnaks in establishing their Greater Armenia. And in the one area where the Armenians had the advantage – their military forces – they could always reduce that majority if given the chance.”

Now we have confirmation of this from another Armenian source from the time.

A.P. Hacobian wrote Armenia and the War in early 1917. It contains a Preface by James Bryce, of Blue Book fame. Within this pamphlet, which is basically a plea to Britain to reward Armenia well when its Great War is won, is a section detailing the Armenian contribution to the Allied War effort.

Hacobian steers a careful path. He must present the facts of Armenia’s fighting contribution against the Ottoman Empire while arguing that it came about as a kind of natural reflex against Turkish oppression. At the same time Hacobian stresses that the Armenians have always been struggling against the Ottomans, for centuries, despite being peaceful and reluctant combatants in 1914.

He suggests that the Armenians were a law-abiding, loyal people until the Ottomans suffered defeat and then they willingly stabbed them in the back.

It is full of contradictions like that.

However, the interesting thing about it is how it shows what a militarised people the Armenians were in 1917 with their large numbers in the Tsar’s regular armies, along with the many bands operating with extensive experience of behind the lines, irregular warfare.

Pasdermadjian in his similar pamphlet, Why Armenia should be Free, written a year later suggested that the Armenians were outnumbered in the Caucasus by the millions of Tartars (Azerbaijani Turks) and yet the Dashnaks were prevailing.

Hacobian’s pamphlet lets the cat out of the bag. It is very likely that a minority will prevail over a majority if the minority is highly militarised, heavily armed, extensively trained in warfare and battle-hardened, whilst the majority lives contented and peaceful lives without bothering too much about such matters.

When the Russian lines in the Caucasus began to collapse in late 1917 they were filled by the militarised Armenians. And because the Allies relied on the Armenians to now hold the front they facilitated their organisation in the Southern Caucasus/Eastern Anatolia and armed them without asking many questions about what they would do with the weapons supplied to them by the dissolving Tsarist armies, paid for by Britain.

On the other side the Azerbaijani Turks who had been excluded by the Tsar’s military conscription and who had got on with their normal lives, as best they could, whilst the Great War raged to the West, were expected to be the passive objects of history.

As Hacobian explained:

“The political effect of the strong and enthusiastic support of the Russian cause by Armenians has been to keep in check the discontented and fanatical section of the Tartars and other Moslems of the Caucasus, who would have been disposed to make common cause with the Turks whenever a favourable opportunity should present itself to do so without much risk to themselves. The Tartars and other Moslem elements of the Caucasus are as a whole genuinely loyal to Russia, but the existence of a minority who would welcome the success of the Turkish invasion cannot be denied.”

So the Azerbaijani Turks, who had, unlike the Armenians, remained loyal to the state they formed part of, were kept down by the Armenians so that they would not be troubled by history. They were kept as passive observers of events whilst the Armenians carved out their great state. They were a sea of non-people, so to speak, among a special people destined to be a nation. That was the Armenian nationalist view and it was propagandised by the Liberal Anglosphere.

As Lord Bryce wrote in his Preface:

“… those who know something of Asiatic Turkey will recognize with him (Hacobian) that the Armenians are, by their intelligence and their irrepressible energy, the race best fitted to restore prosperity to regions desolated by Turkish oppression. The educated Armenians, notwithstanding all they have suffered, are abreast of the modem world of civilization. Among them are many men of science and learning, as well as artists and poets. They are scattered in many lands. I have visited large Armenian colonies as far west as California, and there are others as far east as Rangoon. Many of the exiles would return to their ancient home if they could but be guaranteed that security and peace which they have never had, and can never have, under the rule of the Turk. May we not confidently hope that the Allied Powers will find means for giving it to them at the end of this war, for extending to them that security which they have long desired and are capable of using well?”

However, the Azerbaijanis were not content to be passive victims of what the West saw as ‘progress’ in the region. And they responded to Armenian nationalism by building a nation of their own. It is what Hacobian describes below, which confronted them in late 1917-early 1918, that made that a necessity of survival:


I have spoken earlier in these pages of the services of the Armenians to the Allied cause in the war. What are these services?

The Armenian name has been so long and so often associated with massacre that it has given rise to the general but utterly unfounded belief by those who have not gone deeper into the matter, that Armenians are devoid of physical courage and allow themselves to be butchered like sheep. Where this belief is not based upon ignorance of the facts and circumstances, it is, I am bound to say, a particularly dastardly piece of calumny upon a people who have groaned for centuries under a brutal tyrant’s heel, with an indomitable spirit that has ever been and is even to-day the Turk’s despair. The struggle that has gone on for five or six centuries between Armenian and Turk symbolizes, perhaps better than any event in history, the invincibility of the spirit of Christianity and liberty and the ideal of nationality against overwhelming odds of ruthless tyranny, the savagery of the Dark Ages and the unscrupulous and mendacious exploitation of religious passion.

That struggle has been as unequal as can well be imagined, but we have not permitted the forces of darkness to triumph over the spirit of Light and Liberty, though the price paid has come very near that of our annihilation. Nevertheless, we have been able, in this world-wide struggle, not dissimilar to our own long struggle in the moral issues involved, to render services to the cause of the Allies, which is the cause of Right and Justice, and therefore our cause also, quite out of proportion, in their effect, to our numbers as a race or our contribution of fighting men as compared with the vast armies engaged, although that contribution has been by no means negligible.

On the eve of Turkey’s entry into the war the Young Turks employed every conceivable means–persuasion, cajolery, intimidation, the promise of a large autonomous Armenia, etc.–to induce the Armenian party leaders to prevail upon the Russian Armenians to join themselves in a mass rally to the Turkish flag against Russia. They sent a number of emissaries to Russian Armenia with the same object. The Turk must have a peculiar understanding of human nature, and not much sense of humour, to have the naïveté to make such overtures to Armenians after having persecuted and harried and massacred them for centuries. All the Armenian leaders promised was a correct attitude as Ottoman subjects.

They would do neither more nor less than what they were bound to do by the laws of the country. They could not interfere with the freedom of action of their compatriots in the Caucasus who owed allegiance to Russia. They kept their promise scrupulously in the first months of the war. Armenian conscripts went to the depots without enthusiasm. How could it be otherwise? What claim had the Turks upon the sympathy and support of their Armenian subjects? Is sympathy won by tyranny, or loyalty bred by massacre? They (the Armenians) were placed in a most difficult position. They were naturally reluctant to fight against the Russians, and the position was aggravated by the fact that the Russian Caucasian army was largely composed of Russian Armenians. But in spite of these sentimental difficulties, mobilization was completed without any serious trouble.

Soon, however, Armenians began to desert in large numbers; the Young Turks had joined the war against their wish and advice; they had not their heart in the business, and, last, but not least, they were harried, ill-treated and insulted by their Turkish officers and comrades at every turn… Then came the defeat of the Turks at Sarikamysh and the ejection of Djevdet Bey and his force from Azerbaijan. On his return to Van, Djevdet Bey told his friends: “It is the Armenians much more than the Russians who are fighting us.”

The massacres and deportations began soon after the collapse of the Turkish invasion of the Caucasus and Northern Persia, and it is only after it was seen clearly that the Turks were determined to deport or destroy them all that the Armenians in many places took up arms in self-defence. There was no armed resistance before that, and the Turkish and German allegations of an Armenian revolt are a barefaced invention to justify a crime, a tithe of which not one but a hundred revolts cannot justify or palliate. This is proved beyond all question by Mr. Toynbee’s concise and illuminating historical summary at the end of the Blue-book on the Treatment of Armenians by the Turks during the war.

There was no revolt. But when the Armenians were driven to self-defence under the menace of extermination, they fought with what arms they could scrape together, with the courage of desperation. In Shahin-Karahissar they held out for three months and were only reduced by artillery brought from Erzerum. In Van and Jebel-Mousa they defended themselves against heavy odds until relieved by the Russians and the Armenian volunteers in the first case, and rescued by French and British cruisers in the second. The Turkish force sent against the insurgents of Jebel-Mousa was detached from the army intended for the attack on the Suez Canal.

Of course ill-armed, poorly equipped bands without artillery, wanting in almost all necessaries of modern warfare, brave as they may be, cannot possibly maintain a prolonged resistance against superior forces of regulars well supplied with artillery, machine-guns and all that is needed in war. Nevertheless, some of these bands seem to have succeeded in holding out for many months, and it is believed in the Caucasus that there are groups of armed Armenians still holding out in some parts of the higher mountains behind the Turkish lines. It will be remembered that some weeks ago–I do not recall the date–a Constantinople telegram reprinted in The Times from German papers stated that there were 30,000 armed Armenian rebels in the vilayet of Sivas. This is an obvious exaggeration, and it may simply mean that a considerable number of Armenians were still defending themselves against the menace of massacre. When the Russian army entered Trebizond a band of some 400 armed Armenians came down from the mountains and surrendered themselves to the Russians. Quite recently a band of seventy men cut through the Turkish lines and gained the Russian lines in the neighbourhood of Erzinjian.

The Turks have repeatedly declared that the “Armenian revolt” threatened to place their army between two fires. The particle of truth that there is in this assertion is, as may be judged by the facts so far known as cited above, that the Armenian resistance to massacre and deportation proved to be more serious than they had anticipated, and that they had to detach large numbers of troops and in some cases artillery and machine-guns to keep these “rebels” in check. It is consequently undeniable that Armenian armed resistance to deportation and massacre has been a considerable hindrance to the full development of Turkish military power during the war and has, in that way, been of material, though, indirect assistance to the Allied forces operating against the Turks….

Such in general outline have been the services of the Turkish Armenians to the Allied cause. It is not my purpose here to endeavour to appraise the possibly ill-concealed, but not by any means ostentatious or provocative, sympathy of the Armenians for the Allies, upon the sinister designs of the Young Turks…

The following extract from a dead Turkish officer’s notebook, reproduced in the Russkaia Viedomosti  (No. 205), throws some light on the Turkish estimate of the value of Armenian support in the war. “If our Armenians had been with us,” wrote this Turkish officer, “we would have defeated the Russians long ago.”

The services of the Russian Armenians to the Allied cause, but principally, of course to the Russian cause during the war, have been of a more direct and positive character and of far-reaching importance. They may be divided into two distinct parts, namely, military and political; and in order the better to explain the full meaning of the Armenian “strong support of the Russian cause” (in the words of The Times), I will deal with each of the two parts separately.

The Armenian population of Russian Armenia and the Caucasus numbers, roughly, 1,750,000 souls, and there are probably another 100,000 to 200,000 Armenians scattered over the other parts of the empire. They are liable to military service as Russian subjects, and it is estimated that they have given to the Russian army some 160,000 men. Apart from this not negligible number of men called to the colours in the ordinary course of mobilization, the Armenians, as a result of an understanding with the authorities, organized and equipped at their own expense a separate auxiliary volunteer force under tried and experienced guerrilla leaders, such as Andranik, Keri and others, to co-operate with the Caucasian army. This force contained a number of Turkish Armenians, mostly refugees from previous massacres. Some twenty thousand men responded to the call for volunteers, though I believe not more than about ten thousand could be armed and sent to the front. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed. Armenian students at the Universities of Moscow and Petrograd and educational institutions in the Caucasus vied with each other in their eagerness to take part in the fight for the liberation of their kinsmen from bondage. Several young lady students offered to enlist, but I believe all but two or three were dissuaded from taking part in actual fighting. Boys of fourteen and fifteen years ran away from home and tramped long distances to join the volunteer battalions. It is recorded that an Armenian widow at Kars, on hearing that her only son had been killed in battle, exclaimed, “Curse me that I did not give birth to ten more sons to fight and die for the freedom of our country.”

The volunteer force was not large, but it was a mobile force well adapted to the semi-guerilla kind of warfare carried on in Armenia, and the men knew the country. They seem to have done good work as scouts in particular, though they took part in many severe engagements and were mentioned once or twice in Russian communiques as “our Armenian detachments.” Generous appreciation of the services and gallantry of the volunteers as well as of Armenians in the army has been expressed by Russian military commanders, the Press, and public men. High military honours were conferred upon the volunteer leaders, and His Imperial Majesty the Czar honoured the Armenian nation by his visit to the Armenian Cathedral in Tiflis, demonstrating his satisfaction with the part played by Armenians in the war.

There are, of course, many Armenian high officers in the Russian army, including several generals, but so far they have not had the opportunity of producing in this war outstanding military leaders of the calibre of Loris Melikoff and Terkhougasoff. General Samsonoff, “the Russian Kitchener,” was killed early in the war in East Prussia in his gallant and successful attempt to relieve the pressure on Paris.

The political effect of the strong and enthusiastic support of the Russian cause by Armenians has been to keep in check the discontented and fanatical section of the Tartars and other Moslems of the Caucasus, who would have been disposed to make common cause with the Turks whenever a favourable opportunity should present itself to do so without much risk to themselves. The Tartars and other Moslem elements of the Caucasus are as a whole genuinely loyal to Russia, but the existence of a minority who would welcome the success of the Turkish invasion cannot be denied. Some of the Ajars did, in fact, join the Turks during their invasion of Ardahan.

All things considered, therefore, those who have any knowledge of the racial and political conditions in the Caucasus will not, I think, regard it as in any sense an exaggeration to assert that the whole-hearted support of the Armenians–and I may also add, though in a lesser degree, the Georgians–has contributed very materially to the success of Russian arms in the Caucasian theatre of the war. The absence of that support, or even mere formal or lukewarm support, would not only most probably have had serious consequences for the Caucasus, it would have left the whole of Persia at the mercy of the Turks; and who can say what the consequences of such a catastrophe would have been on Arabia, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan and even the northern frontiers of India itself?…

Propaganda in neutral countries has played an important part during the war. The just cause of the Allies has had no stauncher supporters or better propagandists than the hundred and twenty-five thousand or more Armenians in the United States, while the Great Tragedy of Armenia has incidentally added to the armoury of the Allies a melancholy but formidable moral weapon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.