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The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge

Photo Source The Soviet Armenian Encyclopedia | CC BY 2.0

Governments at war make dangerous promises. And the First World War was a time of promises and lies. The promises came first: in 1916, the British told the Arabs they could have independence; in 1917, they told the Jews they could have a homeland; and the French told the survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide that they could return to liberate their homelands in eastern Turkey.

Then came the betrayals.

Superpowers like legions, the Roman variety, preferably when they are composed of foreigners. So the British created an Arab Legion to fight against the Ottoman Turks for independence and a Jewish Legion to fight against the Ottoman Turks for Palestine. And the French created an Armenian Legion – an offshoot of the French Foreign Legion, needless to say – to fight against the Ottoman Turks for Cilicia.

The Arabs lost Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, the Jews did not get all of Palestine, and the soldiers of the Armenian Legion – having helped to liberate Palestine – were abandoned amid the ashes of their own burnt cities.

Among the indigenous peoples of the Middle East, they were the most traduced of all, since they recovered not a square inch of their land. To be a loser doesn’t get you much purchase in the history books. To be a loser twice over turns you into a curio. Thus the story of the Armenian Legion has until now been largely untold and unremembered.

And Armenian Legionnaires: Sacrifice and Betrayal in World War I, Susan Paul Pattie’s first and original account of the fury, heartbreak and suffering of its soldiers – women as well as men in that most misogynistic of 20th century wars – is not for the faint-hearted. There are Armenian troops, armed and in uniform, desperately searching the Constantinople-bound Turkish refugee trains for Armenian girls who had been raped and kidnapped by the Ottomans who had butchered their families. “Too late,” young women told their would-be rescuers. They preferred to stay with their new Turkish husbands, or at least refused to be separated from their half-Armenian and half-Turkish children.

One Armenian woman, travelling by rail with a Turkish family, was discovered by soldiers of the Armenian Legion, her chest “adorned with gold”, and refused to be separated from her companions. She was taken from the carriage at the next station and “married to the legionnaire who had rescued her”. Sarkis Najarian “saw a rich Turkish family travelling [on the train between Adana and Mersin] with a pretty girl whom he thought must be Armenian”. He managed to separate her from the family and sent her to an orphanage. There had been many forced conversions of Armenian women although we rarely hear the women’s account of these “rescues”.

Najarian’s own sister Yeghsabet, when he discovered her, was already engaged and refused to leave her fiance, fearing for her life and offering Najarian money to go away. When he found her later, “she was married to a rich [Arab] Bedouin, tattooed – and happy”. There is a photograph of a young and beautiful Yeghsabet in a veil. “I have Armenian blood,” she would later tell her brother, “but I was raised a Muslim. When I hear the call to prayer, I have to do my prayers until the end of my life.”

Many of the men in the original legion had been signed up by the French in Egypt where they had settled with their families after a French warship rescued them in 1915 from the famous 40-day siege by the Turks at Musa Dagh. Others came from Europe, even from America, men who spoke French and American English as well as Armenian, anxious to fight for their still nonexistent nation after the horror and humiliation of the Turkish genocide of a million-and-a-half of their own Armenian people. By July 1918, the French had registered 58 Armenian officers, 4,360 soldiers – including 288 French Armenians – and two artillery gun crews with 37mm artillery. But while Susan Pattie, a scholar of Armenian history at University College, clearly sympathises with her heroes, there is an ugly undertow of revenge in their desire to fight for the Allies.

Fighting in Palestine at the 1918 Battle of Megiddo – the original Armageddon, which the Armenians call Arara – they received an official commendation for gallantry from General Edmund Allenby. But Hovannes Garabedian was to recall how he and his Armenian comrades found the Turkish trenches filled with their dead and dying enemies. “The ones who were not totally dead proved to be the most unfortunate,” he said. “The memory of yesterday’s genocide … was so fresh in our minds, the thirst for revenge was so profound in the hearts of the Armenian legionnaires, the wounded Turks found no mercy. They were finished in their trenches.”

Again and again, in Pattie’s story, there are references to this most pitiful, comprehensible and terrible of emotions among a persecuted people: the need for vengeance and reprisals.

As the Armenian soldiers advanced with French and British troops back into the Cilician/Armenian fields and mountains from which they and their families had been driven by the Turkish genociders three years earlier, there was violence and murder. And with the rise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist uprising against the Allies, the French found their Armenian Legion an embarrassment rather than a trusted auxiliary. Surviving Armenian families who had trekked back in hope to their cremated homes in Marash found themselves dispossessed of their lands again, massacred once more in their thousands, joining retreating Armenian soldiers in the French withdrawal, many dying, frozen and starving, in their second exodus from Turkish Armenia in five years.

Hovannes Garabedian wrote of how, in hospital, he heard with joy the news of the Allied powers’ recognition of an “Independent Republic of Armenia” and then, three days later, learned that the Turks were again slaughtering and deporting the Armenians of Marash. “Suddenly, the days of excitement and happiness were replaced by long days and years of sorrow and mourning.” The victorious western powers wanted no more of their colonising war in Cilicia – not far away, the British were at the same time facing an Arab uprising in Iraq – and, in some cases, French officers virtually abandoned their Armenian legionnaires who were officially still part of the French army. They were to do the same to their faithful “Harkis” in Algeria just over four decades later.

The Armenians, in their pride and revenge, could not, perhaps, be expected to understand how soon their road to Golgotha would have to be retrodden. Did they not recognise their grim future when the Armenians were refused participation at the Versailles peace conference in 1919? Should they not have been included as joint Allied victors over the German-Austro-Hungarian-Ottoman alliance in the First World War? Attacked by bandits, demobilised Turkish soldiers, hunger and thirst, the retreating soldiers of “liberation” found themselves asking another question of all those who suffer refugeedom. How come some Armenian families had remained in their villages during the genocide? What deals had they struck with their Turkish oppressors? Why were Armenian girl refugees found with Bedouin tattoos on their faces, marks which were surgically removed by their “rescuers”.

Shame, like defeat, was a feeling rarely uttered but much felt. There are, remarkably, documentary photographs of the Adana battle, of men digging trenches and Armenian soldiers slogging across the hillsides of Marash. With the subtlety of all great powers, the Allies spoke not of betrayal. They called it “the Marash Affair”.

The rump nation Armenia which emerged to the east – quickly engorged by the Soviets and today a brave but often corrupt state – was of little interest to the men of the disbanded Armenian legion. The survivors returned to refugee families in Lebanon – at least one became a Beirut policeman – or to homes in France or in America where they often flourished and sometimes met for picnics, holding old flags and remembering false promises from powerful nations and creating little Armenias in their countries of exile. Lieutenant John Shishmanian even received a personal post-war letter from General Allenby.

“I am sorry, if the gallant conduct of the Armenians was not sufficiently recognised,” the great man – now high commissioner in Egypt – wrote from Cairo just after Christmas in 1919. “I know they fought nobly, and I am proud to have had them under my command.” The Battle of Arara – Megiddo or Armageddon to us – left its 23 Armenian dead in the desert, their bones later gathered and transshipped to the Armenian St James church in Jerusalem. The ashes of Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe were buried in Westminster Abbey.

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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