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I plan to collect historical documents and articles by various authors in this blog, usually without comments. Opinions expressed within the articles belong to the authors and do not always coincide with those of mine.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Armenian Retreat

The worst Armenian massacres of Muslims and destruction of Muslim villages took place in two periods at the beginning and end of the First World War. The first period began with the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war and the beginnings of organized Armenian rebellion against the Ottomans. It ended with the Russian conquest of eastern Anatolia in 1916. The second period began as the Russian army dissolved or retreated from eastern Anatolia and ended with the defeat of the Armenian armed forces who had taken the Russians' place in the field.

For the middle period of the war, the years of Russian occupation of eastern Anatolia, from the middle of 1916 to the middle of 1917, there is very little evidence of any kind. No Ottoman investigation committees such as the ones that investigated the early atrocities were present to record the events of the Russian occupation. Scattered reports indicate that major massacres of Muslims took place, particularly in Van and Bitlis vilâyets [75]. From the large number of Muslim refugees, it is obvious that conditions were awful, but not as bad as they would become after the Russian army collapsed in 1917.

The Russian Revolution brought with it the wholesale desertion of Russian soldiers on the Anatolian front. Enlisted men and some officers simply left their units and walked home, stealing their sustenance (and anything else that was available) from villages as they passed. Russian authority in eastern Anatolia was replaced by the authority of Armenian soldiers and Armenian bands, at first nominally under the control of the Transcaucasian Federation, then as troops of the Armenian Republic. The area they ruled in Anatolia stretched from Erzincan in the east to the Persian border and north to Trabzon and the border of Russian Armenia.

Muslim villagers suffered from the depredations of the deserting Russian soldiers, but they suffered far worse from the Armenians who were left in charge. After the Russians departed, nothing held the Armenians in check. The events of the first period of the short Armenian rule were of a type seen all too often in that time -- murder of unarmed Muslim villagers, kidnapping of villagers, who were never seen again, destruction of Muslim markets, neighborhoods, and villages, and ubiquitous plundering and rape.

Armenian atrocities in the region between Erzincan and Kars went on for a relatively short time. Using units that had been held in reserve for such a purpose, the Ottoman government followed the Russian collapse with an attack on the occupied territories. Although they were relatively well-equipped with Russian supplies And weapons, the Armenians were outnumbered by the seasoned Ottoman troops. With the moral justification of the outrages being committed against Muslim villagers and townspeople, the Ottomans attacked. The Armenian forces fell back in disarray. It was obvious to them that their cause was at least temporarily lost and that Turks would reoccupy what the Armenians had claimed as Anatolian Armenia. They set about to ensure that the Ottomans would find little when they arrived. Only the rapid advance of the Ottoman army saved many of the Muslims. Those who could not be reached in time all too often perished.

The Ottomans and later the Turkish Nationalists and, in particular, Ottoman and Turkish Nationalist generals on the eastern front lodged complaints about the way Muslims were treated by the Armenians. The Turks had difficulty in finding who was in charge of Armenian troops and guerrillas. Complaints and lists of atrocities were usually sent first to the Russian commanders who were nominally in charge, later to the generals who theoretically commanded the forces of the Transcaucasian Federation. In fact, these were not the masters of the Armenians who were murdering Muslims. Understating the case, the general commanding the Ottoman Third Army in northeastern Anatolia, Vehib Pașa, wrote, "I have regularly informed the Russian Command of these atrocities and cruelties and I have gained the impression that the above authority seems to be failing in restoring order." Insofar as Armenian guerrillas in Anatolia answered to any master it was to the Armenian Republic, which was neither sympathetic toward Muslims nor had any intention to accede to Ottoman wishes.

Vehib Pașa received the reports of advance units that entered cities evacuated by Armenians, and he saw the evidence of Armenian atrocities with his own eyes.

In his report to his superiors in Istanbul he described the sad situation:

"All people old enough to use weapons were rounded up, taken to the Sarikamiş direction for road-building and were slaughtered. The remaining people were subject to cruelties and murder by Armenians following the withdrawal of the Russians and were partly annihilated, the corpses thrown into wells, burnt in houses, mutilated by bayonets, their abdomens ripped open in slaughterhouses, their lungs and livers torn out, girls and women hung up by their hair, after all kinds of devilish acts. The few people who were able to survive these cruelties, worse than those of the Spanish Inquisition, are in poverty, more dead than alive, horrified, some driven insane, about 1500 in Erzincan and 30,000 in Erzurum. The people are hungry and in poverty, for whatever they had has been taken away from them, their lands left uncultivated. The people have just been able to exist with some provisions found in stores left over from the Russians. The villages round Erzincan and Erzurum are in the worst condition. Some villages on the road have been levelled to the ground, leaving no stone on stone, the people completely massacred."

[75] A postwar British source stated that Armenians "massacred between three and four hundred thousand Kurdish people in the Van and Bitlis Districts," mostly the work of Armenians in the Russian Army ("Interview of Col. Wooley of the British Army, 12 September 1919," in U.S. 184.021/265). On atrocities against Muslims in the Erzurum Vilayeti during the Russian occupation, see Vehip to Acting Supreme Commander, 21 March 1916, Belgeler III, no. 169.

Source: Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, The Darwin Press, 2nd Printing, 1996, pp. 196-198.


Villages naturally did not escape the Armenians. Captain Refik in Erzincan commented, "All the villages from Trabzon up to Erzincan are piles of debris." Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but it is indicative of the state of Muslim villages once the Armenian forces had passed. Christian villages had generally not been touched, which corresponds with evidence from American sources.

The worst destruction was among the villages on the Armenian line of retreat from Erzincan to Erzurum and from Trabzon to Erzurum; in the latter area, Greek guerrilla bands were also responsible for some of these events. According to Ottoman military reports, in the Erzincan region, Armenian guerrillas burnt 20 houses before they fled Yenilköy and murdered 35 people at Askale. Armenians escaping on the road from Hinis to Köprüköy killed any Muslims they encountered in the villages along the road. Food supplies were destroyed and four hundred Muslims were reported dead in the town and the surrounding villages of Mamahatun (Tercan). On their retreat, Armenian gangs swept quickly into Muslim villages they passed and killed whomever they could find. For example, the village of Tazegül was burned, by one gang and 30 villagers killed; the same thing occurred at Öreni in the same district. The Ottoman Interior Ministry also reported 36 Muslims murdered in Yusufeli, 150 in Ispir, and 85 in Köprüköy. In Badicivan, 200 were killed and 385 wounded.

The situation in the villages to the north of Erzincan was much the same as that in the east. These villages had suffered greatly from Armenian bands during the Russian occupation and suffered even more during the Armenian retreat. Not only were villages destroyed and villagers killed, but the livelihood of the survivors was destroyed as well. Their fruit trees, which would have taken many years to mature, were cut down.

In the regions through which the Armenian soldiers and guerrillas passed, very few Muslim villages survived intact. The villagers either escaped to the mountains or were slain. A reporter for Austrian newspapers who was on the scene, Dr. Stephan Eshnanie, reported that "All the villages from Trabzon to Erzincan and from Erzincan to Erzurum are destroyed. Corpses of Turks brutally and cruelly slain are everywhere. I am now in Erzurum, and what I see is terrible. Almost the whole city is destroyed. The smell of the corpses still fills the air. . . ."

Muslim refugees choked the roads on which they were often attacked and killed, the women abducted and goods seized. A list of Muslim villages destroyed by Armenians in the last months of World War I would be long, as would be the list of the massacred. Whole regions, especially areas along the lines of march of retreating Armenian soldiers, were destroyed. Villages were burnt and dynamited, their populations slaughtered. The methods of extermination differed. For example, Armenians killed 50 Muslims of the Erkinis village north of Erzurum. The rural town of Hasankale was burned to the ground, and those who could not flee were killed. In villages such as Sarlipazar, Akkilise, and İnesil, near Erzincan, Armenians slowly murdered the population over a long period. In others, such as Kukurtlu, where 300 were reportedly massacred, Armenians rode into town and massacred the Muslim inhabitants in one day.

As the Ottoman soldiers recaptured eastern Anatolia from the Armenians they encountered fearsome sights. They reported what they saw in detailed reports. For example: "The Armenians took approximately 50 Muslims from the Erkinis village north of Erzurum and killed them. . . . In the villages of Hasankale and vicinity the Muslims were murdered with bullets, axes, and knives. Maidens were abominably used, some taken away by the Armenians. . . ." After the Armenian retreat, much of eastern Anatolia was a graveyard.

Source: Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, The Darwin Press, 2nd Printing, 1996, pp. 201-202.

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