The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 184th installment in the series.
May 26-30, 1915: Young Turks Issue Deportation Decree
In the months following the Ottoman Empire’s declaration of war against Russia in November 1914, tens of thousands of Armenian nationalists began preparing an armed uprising to help the advancing Russian Caucasian Army in eastern Anatolia, in part by disrupting Turkish lines of supply and communication behind the front. Although the exact numbers aren’t known, around 50,000 Armenian rebels may have been involved in the rebellion.
These groups represented just a few percent of the total Armenian population of two million, but the ruling Committee of Union and Progress, also known as the “Young Turks,” decided on an extreme solution: the wholesale “deportation” of all Armenians to the Syrian desert, which in reality meant mass murder. Controversy continues to this day over whether the “Young Turks” planned from the beginning to commit genocide; however considering the conditions under which the deportations were carried out – across rugged terrain in extreme heat, often with no food or water – there can have been little doubt in their minds as to the result.
Click to enlarge
The Deportation Order
The deportations began with scattered removals in February 1915 and gathered speed in March, after the Young Turks dismissed the Ottoman Parliament, silencing a possible source of opposition to their plans. Armenian communities were uprooted on a vast scale beginning in late May with the “Tehcir Law,” or “Deportation Law,” issued as a temporary emergency decree by the Young Turks. The law was agreed on May 26, published in the press on May 27, approved by the Grand Vizier (a figurehead prime minister) on May 29, and officially enacted by the cabinet on May 30. The law was published in the government newspaper and posted in public areas (below).
The law gave the government authority to deport the entire populations of towns, villages, and rural areas where inhabitants were suspected of engaging in espionage or sedition, if necessary by force. The task of carrying out the order was given to members of the Turkish police, called gendarmes, many of whom had been recruited especially for the job by the “Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa” or “Special Organization,” the secret police force responsible for organizing the deportations. According to contemporary accounts some of these gendarmes were hardened criminals who had been released from prison for this very reason. The secret order to murder Armenians was conveyed to provincial officials in person by “responsible secretaries,” who delivered it verbally in order to avoid leaving a paper trail.
In many places the gendarmes began by murdering young and middle-aged Armenian men who might have tried to resist. In some cases they led the men to the outskirts of towns and killed them by shooting them or stabbing them with swords or bayonets, while in other cases they left the work to groups of Kurdish bandits. The U.S. consul in Harput, Leslie H. Davis, wrote to Ambassador Morgenthau in Constantinople: “The system that is being followed seems to be to have bands of Kurds awaiting them on the road to kill the men especially and incidentally some of the others. The entire movement seems to be the most thoroughly organized and effective massacre this country has ever seen.”
In some places the men were separated out from the marching columns of deportees and executed in front of their female relatives. One female survivor from Konya in central Anatolia recounted witnessing her father’s execution:
They asked all the men and boys to separate from the women… As soon as they separated the men, a group of armed men came from the other side of a hill and killed all the men right in front of our eyes. They killed them with bayonets at the end of their rifles, sticking them in their stomachs. Many of the women could not take it, and they threw themselves in the River Euphrates, and they, too, died. I saw my father being killed.
After the loss of their male protectors, women and girls were easy prey to physical abuse including rape and murder. An American missionary in Urfa, F.H. Leslie, wrote to the U.S. consul in Aleppo, J.B. Jackson, relating stories heard from deportees as well as his own eyewitness testimony:
All tell the same story and bear the same scars: their men were all killed on the first days of the march from their cities, after which the women and girls were constantly robbed of their money, bedding, clothing, and beaten, criminally abused and abducted along the way. Their guards forced them to pay even for drinking from the springs along the way… We not only were told these things but the same things occurred right here in our own city before our very eyes and openly on the streets.
Thirst, starvation, exhaustion, and exposure to the elements further reduced the number of women and children who remained, so that typically only a small fraction of the deported population actually made it to the concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Jackson later recorded in his official report for the State Department:
One of the most terrible sights ever seen in Aleppo was the arrival in August, 1915, of some 5,000 terribly emaciated, ragged and sick women and children, 3,000 on one day and 2,000 the following day. These people were the only survivors of the thrifty and well to do Armenian population of Sivas, carefully estimated to have originally been over 300,000 souls!
It’s worth noting that a number of Germans left similar accounts of the actions of Germany’s ally. A German schoolteacher in Aleppo, Martin Niepage, recounted the testimony of German engineers working on the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railroad for the Ottoman administration:
One of them, Herr Greif, of Aleppo, recorded corpses of violated women lying about naked in heaps on the railway embankment at Tell-Abiad and Ras-el-Ain. Another, Herr Spiecker, of Aleppo, had seen the Turks tie Armenian men together, fire several volleys of small shot with fowling pieces into the human mass, and go off laughing while their victims slowly perished in frightful convulsions… The German Consul from Mosul related, in my presence, at the German club in Aleppo that, in many places on the road from Mosul to Aleppo, he had seen children’s hands lying hacked off in such numbers that one could have paved the road with them.
However it should also be remembered that many ordinary Turks opposed the measures taken against the Armenians, even if there was little they could do to stop it; some children who survived owed their lives to Turkish neighbors who sheltered or adopted them. One male survivor fondly recalled a wealthy Turkish landowner who raised him as part of his family for two years:
The bey followed Islamic law to the letter and was a devout believer. He prayed five times a day and fasted one month out of the year… He was a principled and just man. He felt genuine sorrow for the Armenian massacre and considered it a sin to bring any confiscated Armenian possessions into his home. He used to condemn the Turkish government, saying, “The Armenians are a hardy, intelligent, and industrious people. If there are any guilty among them, the government can arrest and punish them instead of slaughtering a helpless and innocent people.”
A number of Turkish provincial officials also tried to stop the deportations and murders, only to be removed from office or even murdered. The governor of Kastamonu, Valisi Reşit Paşa, refused point blank to allow the murder of Armenians, stating simply, “I will not stain my hands with blood,” and was relieved of duty soon thereafter. Another official, Hüseyin Nesimi, refused to act unless he received the order in writing and was subsequently murdered, probably by the Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa. Nesimi’s son later named at least three other Turkish officials and a journalist who were also murdered for their opposition.
Truce at Gallipoli
Meanwhile the Allied campaign to seize the Turkish straits was looking less and less like a masterstroke, and more and more like a massive mistake. The amphibious landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula had secured toeholds at Cape Hellas, the tip of the peninsula, and further north at ANZAC cove – but a month of fighting had failed to advance Allied positions appreciably, while the Turks rushed tens of thousands of troops to bolster their defenses.
During the night of May 18-19, 1915, against the advice of his subordinate Mustafa Kemal the German commander of the Turkish Fifth Army, Liman von Sanders, ordered a huge nighttime assault against the ANZAC position with 40,000 troops. Repeated attacks failed in the face of massed rifle fire from the ANZAC trenches, as one Turkish soldier, Memish Bayraktir, later remembered: “Countless dead, countless! It was impossible to count. Blood was flowing like water. At night we drank water from a creek and then in the morning realised that it was all blood.” Another Turkish soldier, Recep Trudal, recalled: “My God, you should have seen it! You couldn’t step on the ground, it was all bodies.”
On May 24 the two sides agreed to a temporary ceasefire to allow them to bury the dead carpeting no-man’s-land. Under a white flag of truce soldiers buried their fallen comrades and foes, while their supervising British and Turkish officers accompanied each other everywhere to make sure neither side was conducting reconnaissance. An Australian soldier, Joseph Beeston, recalled the scene:
Midway between the trenches a line of Turkish sentries were posted. Each was in a natty blue uniform with gold braid, and top boots, and all were done “up to the nines.” Each stood by a white flag on a pole stuck in the ground. We buried all the dead on our side of this line and they performed a similar office for those on their side. Stretchers were used to carry the bodies, which were all placed in large trenches. The stench was awful, and many of our men wore handkerchiefs over their mouths in their endeavour to escape it. I counted two thousand dead Turks… The ground was absolutely covered with rifles and equipment of all kinds, shell-cases and caps, and ammunition clips… Some of the Turks were lying right on our trenches, almost in some of them. The Turkish sentries were peaceable-looking men, stolid in type and of the peasant class mostly. We fraternised with them and gave them cigarettes and tobacco.
A British officer, Aubrey Herbert, recorded some of his conversations with Turkish officers as they surveyed the battlefield:
The Turkish Captain with me said: “At this spectacle even the most gentle must feel savage, and the most savage must weep.” The dead fill acres of ground, mostly killed in the one big attack, but some recently. They fill the myrtle-grown gullies. One saw the result of machine-gun fire very clearly; entire companies annihilated – not wounded, but killed, their heads doubled under them with the impetus of their rush and both hands clasping their bayonets… I talked to the Turks, one of whom pointed to the graves. “That’s politics,” he said. Then he pointed to the dead bodies and said: “That’s diplomacy. God pity all of us poor soldiers.”
By the end of May William Ewing, a chaplain with the British forces, estimated that the British expeditionary force had already suffered 38,636 casualties, including dead, wounded, missing in action and prisoners of war. The number was about to go up: Sir Ian Hamilton, the British commander, was planning a massive Allied attack for June 4, 1915.
HMS Triumph, Majestic Sunk
The British counted on the Royal Navy to support the Gallipoli operation with naval firepower – but in late May this too was called into question with the sinking of two battleships by a German U-boat, U-21. On May 25, 1915 U-21 sent HMS Triumph to the bottom, followed two days later by the Majestic. A total of 78 men went down with the Triumph, as hundreds more were rescued, but the impact on British morale was considerable. Herbert recalled the reaction of men on shore: “There was fury, panic, and rage on the beach and on the hill… Men were crying and cursing.”
On May 27 Ewing witnessed the sinking of the Majestic off Cape Hellas (image below) including the actions of an oddly composed survivor:
On the morning of the 27th about 6.30 I looked out of our tent door, and heard a loud report. Next moment there was a great explosion at the side of the battleship farthest from me. A column of water rose as high as her turrets, and I knew that a torpedo from a submarine had got her… Soon the water round her was full of struggling men… One fellow afforded a remarkable example of coolness in the midst of appalling circumstances. As the vessel heeled over he crawled up on her side. Steadying himself with difficulty, he calmly undressed and plunged into the sea as if for his morning swim.
Fortunately just 49 men were lost in the sinking of the Majestic. However the sinkings forced Admiral de Robeck to withdraw his flotilla to the British base at the nearby island of Lemnos, meaning the ships wouldn’t be able to help the land forces with naval bombardments, at least for the time being.
Zeppelin Raid on London
As 1915 wore on German zeppelin raids became a more frequent occurrence in Britain. At first the raids avoided London, supposedly because of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s concern about the possibility his relatives in the royal family might be affected, but on May 31, 1915 the Germans mounted their first zeppelin raid against the British capital. As night fell the airship LZ-38, the first in the enormous “P” class – 650 feet long, containing around million cubic feet of hydrogen gas – attacked the docks of the lower Thames in London’s Southend with 3,000 pounds of high explosives and incendiary bombs. A number of neighborhoods were hit include Whitechapel, leaving seven dead and 35 wounded (below, a damaged house).
The attack intensified calls for an effective defense against the zeppelins, but in the near term there was little the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, the two divisions of Britain’s fledgling air force, could do to stop them. During this period even the most powerful airplanes could take 45 minutes to reach the same altitude as the zeppelins – and even if they managed to catch up, machine guns firing conventional bullets made little impact on the hulking vessels. This would remain the case until 1916, when the invention of effective tracer bullets filled with burning magnesium provided a means for igniting the hydrogen inside the zeppelin gasbag.