Orders to Kill Men, Deport Women and Children

Turks Blame Armenians for Losses

Special to The Great War Project

(8-10 April) The beginning of an enormous tragedy strikes the Armenian community living in Turkey.

“The Turks,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “bitter at their losses of men and land, blamed the local Armenian population for cooperating with the Russian invaders.”

Armenian women and children expelled from their homes in Turkey, 1915.

Armenian women and children expelled from their homes in Turkey, 1915.

The Turkish leaders of the Empire “claimed that the Armenians were openly supporting Russia,” writes historian David Fromkin, “and had taken to mob violence. In reprisal they ordered the deportation of the entire Armenian population from the northeastern provinces.”

Starting on April 8th a century ago, reports historian Gilbert….

…’tens of thousands of Armenian men were rounded up and shot. Hundreds of thousands of women, old men, and children were deported southward” toward the deserts of Syria.

“Rape and beating were commonplace,” reports Fromkin.

Planning for these deportations begins several months earlier. The Ottoman Minister of War, Enver Pasha, is especially convinced the Armenians are planning an uprising and the establishment of an independent Armenian state on Turkish territory.

Enver is smarting from the defeat of his army in the Caucasus during the previous winter. Enver was the commander of the Ottoman army in what became a disaster for Ottoman troops. He is looking for others to take the blame.

Earlier the Turkish leaders come into possession of what they believe to be evidence of a planned revolt centered in the Armenian community in Zeytun in eastern Turkey.

“Ottoman soldiers were dispatched to Zeytun to conduct mass arrests,” writes historian Eugene Rogan, “Many young men fled their homes for the countryside, where they joined growing bands of Armenian rebels and army deserters preparing for a confrontation with their government.”

Armenian victims of Turkish deportations and  violence, 1915.

Armenian victims of Turkish deportations and violence, 1915.

On these days a century ago, the deportation of Zeytun’s Armenian population begins.

“Stripped of their possessions and given little or no food or protection along the way,” reports Rogan, “over 7000 Armenians were left homeless….Some 1,500 of the Zeytun Armenians died from starvation and disease.”

After the deportations from Zeytun, the Turks next turn their attention to the town of Van in southeastern Turkey. Van along with nearby Armenian villages is the home of a sizable Armenian community, now very much at risk.

In Van, some local Armenians organize an uprising against the Ottoman authorities. “Armenian partisans succeeded in expelling government forces and throwing up barricades around Van,” writes historian Sean McMeekin. “That they were well armed seems indisputable.”

The Armenians also make contact with Russian forces. They seek arms and military support from the Russians. The Russians decline.

As the fight around Van unfolds, the circumstances of the civilian Armenian population in the town and surrounding villages become increasingly desperate. Reports McMeekin, “In retaliation for atrocities they were told Armenians had committed against Muslims inside the city, Ottoman infantrymen and Kurdish militiamen had reportedly acted under orders to kill all Armenian males twelve years and older in the area.”

Armed Armenian groups retaliate violently. “There is no denying,” reports McMeekin, “that terrible atrocities were committed by both sides.”

But there is also no denying that the Ottoman forces are the stronger and hold the upper hand.

It appears that the conflict between the Ottoman authorities and the Armenian community of Turkey will not subside anytime soon.