|Public Execution of Armenians|
The position of those who argue that punitive measures against its Armenian population by the Turkish government were (at least in part) justified is based on something of a one-sided interpretation of two historical events: the actions of Armenian citizens and expatriates who assisted and fought alongside Russian forces that invaded the nation between 1914 and 1917, and the taking advantage of the civil disorder caused by the war by Armenian independence groups to stage rebellions against the state. How much of this actually occurred? Such treasonous assistance to the enemy would have taken place on the little-known Caucasus Front, where Russian advanced units were deployed to engage opposing Ottoman units.
The Russian Caucasus Army crossed the frontier on 1 November in the Bergmann Offensive, capturing Koprukoy. Initially numbering 100,000 men, the army was reduced to 60,000 troops after almost half of the force was transferred to the Eastern Front following Russian defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. Four volunteer units consisting of Russian Armenians, as well as detachments of Georgians and Caucasus Greeks, fought alongside the Russians. Shortly after, Turkish Commander Enver Pasha was able to outflank the Russians at Koprukoy and force them to abandon the city. This made him, however, disastrously over-confident.
On 2 January 1915, the Russians launched a counterattack at Sarikamis that cost the lives of 90,000 Turkish soldiers, including 53,000 who froze to death, and thousands more who died from typhus. Russian losses were placed at around 16,000 killed and wounded. Thoroughly outmaneuvered by his Russian rivals, Enver blamed the defeat on Armenian assistance to the Russians and desertions by his own Armenian soldiers. He quickly turned this into a pretext for the systematic cleansing of Turkey's Armenian population.
|Deportation Column in the Desert|
Armed resistance by Armenians had pre-dated the Great War. At least back to the 19th century, there were armed Armenian civilians who voluntarily left their families to form self-defense units and irregular armed bands in reaction to the mass murder of Armenians and the pillage of Armenian villages by criminals, Kurdish gangs, and Turkish forces. While the defeat at Sarikamis is almost fully attributable to Enver's incompetence, the military assistance lent to the Russian cause–in the name of liberation or vengeance for past crimes–by the Armenian populations of both Russia and Turkey was substantial. Boghos Nubar, the president of the Armenian National Delegation in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 later wrote:
In the Caucasus, where, without mentioning the 150,000 Armenians in the Imperial Russian Army, more than 40,000 of their volunteers helped to liberate part of the Armenian vilayets, and where, under the command of their leaders, Antranik and Nazerbekoff, they, alone among the peoples of the Caucasus, offered resistance to the Turkish armies.
Beginning in April 1915, the Ottoman authorities rounded up tens of thousands of Armenian men and had them shot. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian women and children were deported. Many Turkish historians have contended that these actions were a justified, or at least explicable, response to a serious threat to national security. They cite in particular the Armenian "revolt" that began in the heavily-Armenian city of Van in mountainous Anatolia on 20 April 1915. In fact, the "revolt" was a desperate response to the persecution already under way. By 19 April, 50,000 Armenians had already been killed in Van province, and tens of thousands were being deported from neighboring Erzerum, another largely Armenian Community.
|Talaat Pasha, Main Architect of the Policy|
The regional governor, Djevdet Bey, triggered the resistance in Van when he demanded the city provide 4,000 men for forced labor in military battalions and deployed troops to surround the city and execute some of the local Armenian leadership. Irregular units of Van's Armenian population, some with military experience, were organized as news spread of the massacres in the area and the mass murder of Armenian men who had been conscripted into the Ottoman Army. Secret appeals were sent to the Russian Army for relief. On 20 April they captured the Fortress of Van and held the city until Russian troops, accompanied by Russian-Armenian volunteers arrived on 18 May. Thousands of the defenders died from shelling, hand-to-hand fighting, and disease in the month of fighting.
The CUP declared the resistance at Van an uprising and it became an additional pretext for deportation. The defenders of Van desperately hoped that with Russian help they could take the offensive and save some of their countrymen in the neighboring regions. It was not to be. On 31 July, the Russians announced that they were leaving, and they ordered all Armenians in the Ottoman territories they had occupied to retreat to the Russian side of the border. The Armenians of Van were forced to abandon forever the homes they had fought so hard to defend and joined 270,000 other exiles in a month-long exodus across hostile territory to the Yerevan Plain. The city would change hands at least three times during the war. When the Turkish Army regained control of Van in 1918, all the Armenians who had returned after temporarily evacuating the city were slaughtered. Today Van remains within the borders of Turkey, with no discernible Armenian population.
Sources: The Near East Relief Historical Society; History.net; International Encyclopedia of the First World War; British National Archives