Deportations Designed to Kill; Thousands on Death March

Special to The Great War Project.

(11-13 April) The circumstances of the Armenian population living in Ottoman Turkey continual to deteriorate.

The murderous treatment of the Armenians in Turkey is not new. It has been going on for years. But now it is turning more and more brutal.

Deported Armenian children, date uncertain, 1915.

Deported Armenian children, date uncertain, 1915.

“Over the previous two decades,” writes historian Alexander Watson, “the Muslim state had sanctioned  bloody pogroms against this Christian minority, which numbered around 1.3 million people” at the start of the war in 1914.

But now, a century ago, not only is there widespread deportation of Armenian women and children, and old men, and the murder of young men. Now not even Armenian soldiers serving in the Ottoman army are safe.

In early 1915, writes historian Watson, “Armenian units in the Ottoman army are disarmed….The official excuse later given was that this was a security measure.”

In April 1915, the Ottoman authorities force more and more Armenians to leave their homes under dire circumstances. “The deportations were designed to kill,” reports Watson. “Some Armenians, after being forced to leave most of their possessions, traveled in crammed and sealed cattle wagons on the Ottomans’ German-guilt railway.

“Most however were sent walking on a circuitous route to nowhere.”

These death marches went on hundreds of miles into the Syrian desert in the southern lands of the Ottoman Empire.” The deported are deprived of water and food.

Writes Watson, “Often their guards shot or hacked them to death after a few days, stealing what belongings the wretched people had taken with them.”

Some Armenians attempt to mount a resistance. On April 13th a century ago, writes historian Sean McMeekin, “Armenian partisans succeed in expelling government forces and throwing up barricades around Van.” Van is a market town and province of eastern Turkey with a large Armenian population, living in largely Armenian neighborhoods. The Muslims also have their own neighborhoods in Van.

Armenian partisans in uprising, Van, April 1915.

Armenian partisans in uprising, Van, April 1915.

“The Armenian community in Van and the surrounding villages was large and politically active,” writes historian Eugene Rogan. “Given its strategic location near both the Persian and Russian frontiers, it was inevitable that Van would prove a flash point between the Ottoman state and its Armenian citizens.”

In these days a century ago, the local Turkish governor in Van orders the police to search Armenian villages and neighborhoods for illegal weapons. Widespread arrests ensue. As do violent pogroms. Many Armenians are killed.

The Ottoman authorities claim the Armenians are appealing to the Russians for help. They base their explanation for this widespread violence on Armenian disloyalty. But at this moment in the war, the Russians can do very little for the Armenian cause.

The Armenians “had every possible reason to arm themselves for protection,”

…writes Watson, “and to seek Russian aid and arms. But in doing so they inevitably invited the very repression they feared.”

Some Armenians appeal to the British as well to supply arms and land troops in Turkey in support of the Armenian resistance. The British decline.

The Armenian uprising remains small and isolated.

The savagery of the attacks on the Armenian community in Turkey is proving highly embarrassing for the Ottoman allies.

At first Germany and Austria-Hungary dismiss the reports of widespread massacres in eastern Turkey.

“At the German and Austrian embassies [in Constantinople],” writes historian David Fromkin, “the first reports of the deportations were ignored. Officials clearly believed that massacres were about to take place, but did not want to know about them.”