Order to Exterminate all Armenian Males, Twelve Years and Over; German Gas Stockpile Growing

Special to The Great War Project

(17-20 April) The slaughter of the Armenians in Turkey continues unabated. On April 19th a century ago the killing is especially merciless in the town of Van in eastern Turkey.

“By April 19th,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “more than 50,000 Armenians had been murdered in  Van province.”

The killing of Armenians in Turkey, date uncertain, 1915.

The killing of Armenians in Turkey, date uncertain, 1915.

Turkish forces take up positions surrounding Van. Inside the city are some 1,300 armed men defending 30,000 Armenians, according to Gilbert. Their resistance is stiff, and Turkish forces are unable to break into the city.

The hopes of the Armenians inside Van rest on their plea for help from the Russian army, which is less than 100 miles to the north.

“The mood on both sides is swinging between hope and despair, between terror and confidence,” writes historian Peter Englund. “The Christian Armenians have no choice. They know they must hold out until the Russian corps arrives.”

Equally determined are the Turkish troops besieging the town. They seek to strike a decisive blow against the Armenians before the Russians arrive.

Observes historian Englund, “This is what accounts for some of the extraordinary brutality of the fighting…

“Neither side takes prisoners.”

On these days a century ago, an Ottoman officer – a volunteer from Venezuela named Rafael de Nogales – comes across a scene of horror. An area near Van “strewn with mutilated Armenian corpses.” The following day he witnesses Turkish troops break into homes and shops, “systematically robbing and killing all the men.”

In de Nogales’s recounting of the incident, he approaches an official on the scene and demands that the killing stop.

Writes historian Eugene Rogan, de Nogales “was astounded when the man replied that he was doing nothing more than carrying out an unequivocal  order emanating from the Governor General of the province….

…to exterminate all Armenian males twelve years of age and over.”

The massacre continues for another ninety minutes, according to de Nogales.

The Armenians appeal directly to the German ambassador in Constantinople “for formal German protection,” reports Martin Gilbert. “This was rejected by Berlin on the grounds that it would offend the Turkish Government,” a crucial ally.

Despite the efforts of the Ottomans to maintain secrecy around the slaughter of the Armenians, news of the massacres is spreading to Europe and the United States.

Elsewhere, on the Western Front, the Germans continue to stockpile poison gas shells, thousands of them. The British receive good intelligence about the German actions, but the British generals do nothing about it. They dismiss the reports that the Germans are also stockpiling gas masks.

German poison gas shells in Belgium, date and place uncertain.

German poison gas shells in Belgium, date and place uncertain.

The British are concentrating on the build-up of their forces in the Aegean Sea near Turkey’s northwestern coast. Their focus appears to be the Gallipoli Peninsula, the western shore of the Dardanelle Straits.

British commanders do not tell the troops what their assignment will be. One British soldier writes home, “Rumor has it that we are to form part of a huge army – French, Russian, Balkanese and British — with the role first of subjugating Turkey and then marching on to Austria.”

“It is about time something happened,” writes historian Peter Englund. “The months of inactivity, if exercises can be called inactivity, have had a corrosive effect on fighting spirit and above all on discipline.”

It looks like the Ottomans are about to face sharp fighting in both the east and the west of Turkey.